The winter rain slashes at my face like icy razor blades, but I don’t care. I dig my chin deep into the collar of my mackintosh, put my head down, and push on against the buffeting of the furious wind.
I am cycling madly towards the village of Bishop’s Lacey, fleeing hordes of Hell’s hobgoblins.
The past twenty-four hours have been a nightmare. All I can think about is getting away from Buckshaw.
Gladys’s wheels groan horribly beneath us. The biting cold has penetrated her steel bones and seized the tendons of her brake cables. She judders wickedly on the slick tarmac, threatening to skid off the road entirely and pitch me into the icy ditch.
I want to scream into the wind, but I don’t. One of us, at least, must keep her wits about her.
I try to put my thoughts in order.
In spite of having been banished to Canada and then re-banished back home from Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy—in what may or may not have been double disgrace—I have to admit that I had been looking forward to being reunited with my family: Father; my two elder sisters, Feely and Daffy; our cook and housekeeper, Mrs. Mullet; and most of all, Dogger, Father’s general factotum and all-round right-hand man.
As every traveler does on an Atlantic crossing, I had daydreamed about my return to England. Father, Feely, and Daffy would be at the docks to greet me, of course, and perhaps even Aunt Felicity would put in an appearance. Welcome Home Flavia banners would be waved, a few discreet balloons, and all that sort of thing. Discreet of course, because, like myself, none of us de Luces wear our hearts on our sleeves.
But when the ship berthed finally at Southampton, there had been only Dogger standing motionless in the rain beneath a dark umbrella.
With the strangeness that comes of separation, I had offered him my hand, rather than giving him the crushing bear hug that was in my heart. I regretted this at once, but it was too late: The moment had passed and the opportunity was wasted.
“I’m afraid I must be the bearer of rather bad news, Miss Flavia,” Dogger had said. “Colonel de Luce has been taken ill. He is in hospital with pneumonia.”
“Father? In hospital? In Hinley?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“We must go to him at once,” I said. “What time will we be there?”
We still had a long journey ahead of us, Dogger explained. The five-twenty boat train from Southampton would take us up to London and to Waterloo Station, where, just after seven in the evening, we would have to change to a taxicab for a dash across the city to another train at another station.
We would not reach Doddingsley until late in the evening, and would not arrive at Bishop’s Lacey, Hinley, and the hospital until even later. By then, visiting hours would be long over.
“Surely Dr. Darby—” I said.
But Dogger gave his head a sad shake, and it was not until that moment that I realized how grave Father’s situation must be.
Dogger was not the kind of person who would tell you that everything would be all right when he knew perfectly well that it would not. His silence said everything.
Although there had been so much to say, we had spoken little in the train. Each of us had stared out blank-faced through the rain-streaked glass at a rushing landscape that seemed in the gathering twilight to be the color of old bruises.
From time to time I glanced at Dogger, but found that I could no longer decipher his face.
Dogger had suffered horribly with Father in a Japanese prison camp during the war, and still, from time to time, experienced flashbacks of such terrifying intensity that they left him little more than a weak, whimpering child.
Once, I had asked him how he and Father had survived.
“One tries to keep a stiff upper lip, mentally,” he had said.
I had worried about Dogger almost constantly during my absence, but in writing—although missing me—he had seemed to be otherwise well enough. Dogger’s had been the only letter I’d received from home during my incarceration in Canada, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about the warmth of the de Luce family.
Oh, of course, there had been that sarcastic footnote by my newly discovered cousin, Undine, who had been dumped by Fate and her mother’s horrible death on the doorstep at Buckshaw. Undine’s place in the family remained to be seen, but I didn’t hold out much hope for her. Because she was still a child—whereas I was twelve, and much more knowledgeable about the ways of the world—I wasn’t particularly looking forward to renewing our brief acquaintance. But if I found, when I got home, that she’d been pawing my belongings while I was away in Canada, there would be mayhem at the manor house.
It had been well past dark when the train crawled at last into Doddingsley station, where Clarence Mundy’s taxicab stood waiting in the rain to take us to Buckshaw. The cold air was damp and penetrating. A yellow fog hung round the dim lights on the platform, giving them a ghastly, ghostly glow, and making me feel as if my eyes were brimming.
“Nice to see you again, miss,” Clarence whispered, tugging at the peak of his cap as I got into the car, although he otherwise remained silent, as if I were an actress—in costume and makeup—about to make my entrance at stage left, and he the stage manager, bound to respect my role by keeping a respectable professional distance.
We rode to Bishop’s Lacey and Buckshaw in silence, Dogger staring fixedly ahead and me gazing desperately out through the glass as if trying to penetrate the darkness.
Hardly the homecoming I had expected.
Mrs. Mullet met us at the door and folded me into her arms and bosom.
“I’ve made you up some sangridges,” she said in a curiously rough voice. “Beef and lettuce—your favorites. Left ’em on the dresser by your bed. You’ll be tired, I ’spect.”
“Thank you, Mrs. M,” I heard myself saying. “It’s very thoughtful of you.”
Could this be Flavia de Luce speaking? Surely not!
In my present state of mind, slices of dead cow garnished with sprigs of the local vegetation were a particular horror and abomination, but something made me hold my tongue.
“They’ve all gone up to bed,” Mrs. Mullet added, meaning Feely, Daffy, and presumably Undine. “It’s been an uncommon ’ard day.”
I nodded, reminded suddenly of my late-night arrival at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy. Dark entrances, I thought, seemed to have become a regular part of my life.
Wasn’t it odd that my own flesh and blood had not waited up for me, or was I expecting too much? I had only been gone since September, but surely, one of them . . .
I stifled the thought.
Surely there was someone to welcome me home. Even a stuck-out tongue from Undine would have been welcome. But no—it was far past her bedtime. Undine would be off in the world of whatever vile dreams fueled her waking life.
And then I thought of Esmeralda: Esmeralda!
Dear, sweet, precious Esmeralda, my pride and my joy. The fact that she was a Buff-Orpington hen made no difference whatsoever. Love is love, wherever you may find it—even when it’s covered in feathers.
“I’ll be back in a jiffy,” I said to Mrs. M. “I just want to say hello and good night to Esmeralda.”
“It’s late, dear,” Mrs. Mullet said, putting her hand on my elbow. “You’ll need to be fresh to go visit your father in the morning.”
“No,” I said, “I want to see Esmeralda,” and I turned away before she could stop me.
“Miss Flavia—” she called as I strode across the foyer. A quick glance back showed Dogger shaking his head, as if to discourage her.
The garden was in wet darkness, but I still knew my way to the greenhouse well enough.
“Esmeralda!” I called out, not wanting to startle her in her sleep. “Guess who’s home! It’s me—Flavia!”
I opened the glass door and reached inside for the electric light switch. For a moment my eyes were dazzled by the glare of the naked bulb.
In the corner, Esmeralda’s cage was empty.
At moments of great surprise, the human mind is easily derailed, sometimes causing us to act quite irrationally. Which is why I picked up the cage and looked underneath it—as if Esmeralda had somehow managed to reduce herself to the thickness of a piece of newspaper and had slid, chuckling, under the cage, as a practical joke to welcome me home.
A wisp of dust raised itself up into the air and disintegrated in the draft from the open door. It was obvious that the cage had not been touched in quite some time.
The hair stood up on the back of my neck and there was panic in my voice.
“We’re sorry, dear. We meant to tell you—”
I spun round to find Mrs. Mullet and Dogger standing in the doorway.
“What have you done with her?” I demanded, but I think I knew the answer even before the words were out of my mouth.
“You’ve eaten her, haven’t you?” I said, my words suddenly cold with fury. I looked from one of them to the other, hoping desperately for a no: for some simple, obvious, harmless explanation.
But none came. And it was just as well: I wouldn’t have believed them anyway.
Mrs. Mullet wrapped her arms around herself, partly against the cold and partly for protection.
“We meant to tell you, dear,” Mrs. M repeated.
But they didn’t need to tell me. It was all too clear. I could already picture it in my imagination: the sudden throwing open of the cage, the seizing of that warm, fat feathered body, the frenzied, terrified clucks, the ax, the chopping block, the blood, the plucking, the gutting, the stuffing, the stitching, the roasting, the carving, the serving . . . the eating—
I elbowed my way roughly past them and fled back into the house.
By choice, my bedroom was at the far corner of the unheated east wing, next door to the chemical laboratory that had been set up by his family in the days of Queen Victoria for my late great-uncle, Tarquin de Luce. Although Uncle Tar had now been dead for more than twenty years, his laboratory was still the wonder of the chemical world—at least, it would have been if they’d known about it.
Fortunately for me, the room, with all its chemical marvels, had been abandoned until I had seized it as my own and set about teaching myself the craft.
I climbed onto my bed and retrieved the key from where I’d hidden it in a baggy bulge of wallpaper that drooped from the ceiling. Plucking an ancient india rubber hot-water bottle from a drawer of an equally ancient dresser, I unlocked the laboratory and stepped inside.
I put a match to a Bunsen burner, filled a flask with water, and sat down on a stool to watch it boil.
Only then did I allow myself to burst into hot, bitter tears.
It was here, on this very spot, that Esmeralda had so often perched on a test-tube rack, watching me boil one of her eggs in a beaker for tiffin.
There are those persons, I suppose, who would criticize me for loving a chicken to distraction, but to them I can only say “Boo and sucks!” The love between animal and human is one that never fails, as it does so often among our own sorry tribe.
My mind went over again and again what Esmeralda must have felt at the end. It tore at my heart so fiercely that I had to quit thinking about her, and think about another chicken instead: a chicken I had once seen fleeing the hatchet in a farmyard, while I was cycling near Bishop’s Lacey.
I was doing this when there was a light knock at the door. I hastily dried my eyes on my skirt, blew my nose, and called out, “Who is it?”
“It’s Dogger, miss.”
“Come in,” I said, hoping there was not too much coldness in my voice.
Dogger stepped silently into the room. He spoke before it was necessary for me to do so.
“Regarding Esmeralda,” he said, waiting to judge my reaction.
I swallowed, but somehow managed to keep my lips from quivering.
“Colonel de Luce was obliged to go up to London to deal with the Inland Revenue. In the train, he came into contact with the influenza virus—there’s been a great deal of it about this year: even more, in certain locations, than in the great epidemic of 1918. The onset was remarkably rapid. The influenza progressed into bacterial pneumonia. Your father was in urgent need of a hot, nourishing broth. He was very ill and unable to keep down anything else. I take full responsibility, Miss Flavia. I made sure that Esmeralda did not suffer. She was in that blissful trance which one induced by scratching her under the chin. I’m sorry, Miss Flavia.”
I deflated like a leaking balloon as the anger went slowly out of me. How could I hate someone who had probably saved my father’s life?
I could find no words to fit the situation, and so I remained silent.
“I fear our world is changing, Miss Flavia,” Dogger said at last, “and not necessarily for the better.”
I tried to read between the words, and to reply with understanding.
“Father,” I said finally. “How is he? The truth, Dogger.”
A shadow flickered across Dogger’s brow: the ghost of an unpleasant thought. From what I had been able to tease out of him in the past, I deduced that Dogger had once been a highly qualified medical man, but the war had beaten him to a pulp. In spite of all that, and for all that it cost him, he was still unable to dodge an honest question, and I loved him all the more for it.
“He is gravely ill,” Dogger said. “By the time he returned home from the city, he already had a feverish cough with a temperature of 102. The influenza virus does that. It also kills the natural bacteria of the nose and throat, which then allows the lungs to be invaded. The result is bacterial pneumonia.”
“Thank you, Dogger,” I said. “I appreciate your honesty. Is he going to die?”
“I don’t know, Miss Flavia. Nobody knows. Dr. Darby is a good man. He’s doing everything he can.”
“Such as?” I could be remorseless when necessary.
“There is a new drug from America: aureomycin.”
“Chlortetracycline!” I said. “It’s an antibiotic!”
Its discovery and extraction from a soil sample in a field in Missouri had been mentioned in an issue of Chemical Abstracts & Transactions which—because of Uncle Tar’s lifetime subscription, and the failure of my family to notify the editors of his demise—was still being delivered to Buckshaw like chemical clockwork more than two decades after his death.
“Bless you!” I blurted, certain that Dogger had somehow taken a hand in Father’s treatment.
“It is Dr. Darby who should be the recipient of our gratitude. Not forgetting, of course, the drug’s discoverer.”
“Of course not!”
I made a mental note to send up a bedtime prayer to—Dr. Duggar, was it?—the American botanist who had extracted the stuff from a mold sample in the soil of a garden plot in Missouri.
“Why did he call it aureomycin, Dogger?”
“Because of its golden color. Aureus means ‘gold’ in Greek, and mykes means ‘fungus.’ ”
How simple it all was, when you got right down to it! Why couldn’t life itself be as straightforward as a man bending over a microscope in Missouri?
My eyes were heavy. Iron eyelids, I remember thinking. I stifled a yawn.
I hadn’t slept properly for ages. And who knew when I would have another chance?
“Good night, Dogger,” I said, filling the hot water bottle. “And thank you.”
“Good night, Miss Flavia,” he said.
Copyright © 2016 by Alan Bradley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.