I am on my deathbed.
Although I have done everything in my power to survive, it has not been enough. A human being can only bear so much.
I turn my face to the wall in bitter remembrance.
Father had died suddenly at Christmas, leaving a colossal vacuum which we quickly realized would never—could never—be filled. In some strange way, he had been the secret glue which held us all together, and with his passing my sisters and I, never friends at the best of times, had now—and quite inexplicably—become the most deadly of mortal enemies. Each of us, wanting desperately to be in charge—to gain some control over her shattered life—found herself at odds with the others at every turn. Words and crockery were thrown with equal carelessness. It didn’t seem to matter much who was hit.
With our family on the verge of breaking up, Aunt Felicity had come down from London to sort us out.
Or so she claimed.
In case we had forgotten it, we were quickly reminded of the fact that our dear auntie was—as the Book of Common Prayer so charitably puts it—a woman who followed the devices and desires of her own heart.
In short, she was at best a stubborn old woman and at worst a bully and a tyrant.
Buckshaw was to be sold at once, Aunt Felicity insisted, even though in law it was mine to do with as I pleased. Feely was to be married off to her fiancé, Dieter Schrantz, with all haste—or at least as quickly as possible—as soon as a respectable period of mourning had been observed.
Daffy would be sent up to Oxford to read English.
“Who knows but that, given time, you might even become a gifted teacher,” Aunt Felicity had said, upon which Daffy had thrown her teacup and saucer into the fireplace and stormed out of the room.
Tantrums were useless, Aunt Felicity had told us icily. Tantrums solve no problems, but only create new ones.
As for me, I was to be taken up to London, along with my cousin Undine, to live with Aunt Felicity until she could decide what to do with us. In my case, I knew that meant sending me somewhere to continue those studies which had been interrupted when I was chucked out of Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, in Canada.
But what of Dogger and Mrs. Mullet? What would become of them?
“They shall be paid off and each given a small pension in proportion to their years of service,” Aunt Felicity had decreed. “And I’m sure they will both be very grateful.”
Dogger fobbed off with a pension? It was unthinkable. Dogger had given us almost his entire life: first to my father, then to my mother, and later to my sisters and myself.
I pictured him sitting on a quaint wooden bench by a river somewhere, dressed in a rough-spun pensioner’s jacket, forced to beg bread from the passing tourists, who took occasional snapshots of him to send home to their cretinous relatives.
Dogger deserved better than that.
And Mrs. Mullet?
Left to cook for total strangers, she would languish and die, and we would be responsible.
Our lives were looking exceedingly grim.
Then, at the beginning of February, to make matters worse, King George had died: King George VI, that lovely man who once sat and chatted so happily with me in our drawing room as if I were his own daughter; and with his passing, the entire nation—indeed all of the Commonwealth countries, perhaps even the whole world—joined in the shock and sadness of our own recent bereavement.
And what of me? What of Flavia de Luce?
I would perish, I decided.
Rather than submit to a lifetime locked in some dismal pigeon-infested London square with an aunt who valued the Union Jack more than her own blood, I would simply do away with myself.
And as an authority on poisons, I knew precisely how to accomplish it.
No cyanide for me, thank you!
I knew the symptoms all too well: the vertigo, the dizziness, the burning in the throat and stomach and, as the vagus nerve becomes paralyzed, the difficulty in breathing, the cold sweat, the feeble pulse, the muscular paralysis, the crushing heaviness of the heart, the slobbering . . .
I think it was the slobbering, more than anything, that put me off the cyanide. What self-respecting young woman would want to be found dead in her bedroom drowned in her own drool?
There were easier ways of joining the Heavenly Choir.
And so, here I am on my deathbed, all warm and cozy, my half-closed eyes moving slowly for the last time across that ghastly red-clotted mustard-yellow wallpaper.
I shall simply fall asleep and they will never find so much as a trace of what it was that did me in. How clever of me to have hit upon it!
They’ll be sorry, I thought. They’ll all be sorry.
But no! I mustn’t let it end like that. Mustn’t let it end with such a commonplace expression. That was the kind of platitude milkmaids died with—or match girls.
The death of Flavia de Luce demanded something greater: some great and noble words to hold in my mind as I stepped across the threshold of the universe.
But what were they to be?
Religion had been done to death.
Perhaps I could conjure up some great insight into the peculiar electron bonding of diborane (B2H6), for instance, or the as yet unsolved atomic valences of Zeise’s salt.
Yes, that was it!
Paradise would welcome me. “Well done, de Luce,” the vast crystal angels would say, flickering with frozen fire as I set foot upon their doorstep.
I hugged myself, cuddling in my own warmth.
How comfortable death was when properly done.
“Miss Flavia,” Dogger said, breaking in upon my pleasant thoughts. He had stopped rowing the skiff for a few moments and was pointing.
I snapped out of my reverie in a split second. If it had been anyone but Dogger, I’d have taken my sweet time about it.
“That’s Volesthorpe over there,” he said, pointing. “St. Mildred’s is just to the left of the tallest elm.”
He knew I wouldn’t want to miss it: St.-Mildred’s-in-the-Marsh, where Canon Whitbread, the notorious “Poisoning Parson,” had just two years ago dispatched several of his female parishioners by lacing their Communion wine with cyanide.
It had been done for love, of course. Poison and Passion, I have discovered, are as closely connected as Laurel and Hardy.
“Looks a harmless enough place,” I said. “Like something from the pages of Picturesque England.”
“Yes,” Dogger said. “Such places often do. Horrific crimes can sometimes bleed a location of all feeling.”
He fell into silence as he gazed across the water and I knew he was thinking of the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in which he and Father had been so badly abused.
As I have said, Father’s death, six months ago, was the reason we were now adrift on the river: my sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, and, of course, me, Flavia.
Undine, as originally planned, had already gone up to London with Aunt Felicity.
In the bow, her face damp with mosquito repellent, Feely lay languishing on a couple of striped pillows, staring down at her own reflection in the still water just ahead of our punt. She had not spoken since we set out this morning. The fingers of her right hand hammered out a tune on the gunwales—one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words: I recognized it by the rhythm—but her face was a perfect blank.
On the raised wicker seat, Daffy sat hunched over a book—Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy—oblivious to the glorious English landscape sliding slowly by on either side.
Father’s sudden and unexpected death had knocked our family into a kind of coma, brought on, I believe, by the fact that we de Luces are constitutionally incapable of expressing our grief.
Only Dogger had broken down, howling like a dog in the night, then silent and impassive in the long and tortured days that followed.
It was pitiful.
The funeral had been a shambles. Denwyn Richardson, the vicar and one of Father’s oldest and dearest friends, had been seized at the outset by uncontrollable sobbing, unable to continue, and the service had to be halted until a stopgap clergyman could be found. In the end, poor old Canon Walpole was located in the next village, dragged from his sickbed, and rushed to St. Tancred’s, where he finished what his colleague had begun, barking from a rattling chest cold at the graveside like a hundred hounds.
It was a nightmare.
Bent on taking charge, Aunt Felicity had (as I have said) swooped down from London, the death of her only—and younger—brother having driven her into a frenzy, during which she treated us all like particularly dim-witted galley slaves, slinging orders about like a grill cook:
“Straighten those magazines, Flavia. Put them in alphabetical and then in chronological order, right side up, in the cupboard. This is a drawing room, not a jackdaw’s nest. Ophelia, fetch a mop and pull down those spider’s webs. The place is like a tomb.”
Copyright © 2018 by Alan Bradley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.