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The Corpse In Oozak's Pond
A Peter Shandy Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
"'Oh, fell the deed and foul the play When he whose eye so fond
Had erst beheld the gladsome day Turned up in Oozak's Pond.'"
PETER SHANDY, PROFESSOR OF agronomy at Balaclava Agricultural College and aficionado of verse trying to pass itself off as poetry, rolled out the lines with unctuous fervor. Helen Shandy, curator of the Buggins Collection, sneezed as she opened yet another bundle of the Corydon Buggins Archive. "Peter, darling, must you?"
"What do you mean, must I? Can't you appreciate the ineluctable god-awfulness of it? Listen:
"'Tho' bravely did he struggle till
The waters closed him o'er,
Old Oozak soon his lungs did fill.
Gus sank to th' oozy floor.'
"Since when was any Buggins ever named Gus?"
"Augustus Caesar Buggins, 1856-1904," Helen replied, sneezing again. "Oozak's Pond is nonsense, of course. There's no such place and never was."
"Fine words, forsooth! Here you are enjoying its benefits as you deny its very existence. Oozak's Pond, my love, is that oversize puddle up above the methane plant whence cometh the water that turns the wheel that drives the shaft that squashes the ordure that releases the gas that lights the lamps at our august seat of learning, not to mention that lamp you're sneezing at right now."
The lamp was a nice old brass one. Helen gave its green glass shade a little pat of apology. "So that's a pond? I thought it was some kind of man-made reservoir. Ponds don't usually come with concrete rims, do they?"
"Oozak's didn't have one back when Balaclava Buggins's first freshman class led the college kine to slurp from its mossy banks."
"I thought they slurped from that other pond over by the animal husbandry department."
"Nay, my fair. That's where they slurp nowadays, when the mood is upon them and the pond isn't frozen over. That, however, is not the primal slurping ground. In fact, it's where our founder's wife used to do the students' wash."
"Aha," cried Helen. "Hence the name Wash Pond."
"Precisely. Mrs. Buggins's name was Nausicaa. Pronounced, no doubt, Nawsicker. The old cowsheds were where the methane plant is now. There used to be a conduit made from hollow logs running down from the pond to fill the drinking troughs for those cows who didn't care to make the climb to the pond. Legend has it that while cleaning out the trough one day, young Dalbert Buggins conceived the notion of harnessing the water power from Oozak's Pond to run a gristmill. At one time, Oozak's Pond ground all the college flour. As time went on and technology became more complex, the mill became the power plant, but Oozak's Pond still burbles on in the same old way."
"Dalbert." Helen studied her still incomplete genealogy chart. "I have him. He was Balaclava's nephew—not his son as is popularly supposed. Balaclava's only son, Huxford, was killed in the Civil War."
"Yes, and Huxford's cousin Corydon almost brast a gut trying to think up a rhyme for Chickamauga so he could pen the memorial ode. Speaking of the Buggins bard and his odes, where was I?"
"Somewhere odious, no doubt. Shouldn't we just be resting quietly so we'll be fresh for the Groundhog Day ceremony tomorrow morning? I hope the little beast will have the decency not to see his shadow this time. Last year he gave us an extra six weeks of winter."
Helen sneezed again with scholarly resignation. After all, she'd brought this dust upon herself. Six months ago, she'd presented a paper on Corydon Buggins's brother Belial at a symposium in Arizona. The stir she'd created in academic circles had spurred President Thorkjeld Svenson to demand from her a definitive history of Balaclava and all the attendant Bugginses.
They'd been a family of writers and savers. She had plenty of material to work with; her trouble came in getting down to it. As a member of the college library staff, she was still subject to constant interruption from Librarian Philip Porble and his minions. Helen had quit trying to work in the Buggins Room and begun lugging armloads of ana back to the small brick house on the Crescent below the campus that she shared with Shandy and their cat, Jane Austen.
This had necessitated turning the upstairs guest room into a sort of den-cum-office. The downstairs cubbyhole Shandy had been using for grading papers and suchlike ever since his bachelor days was really too small for one, let alone two; although neither of the Shandys was a large person. They'd talked of building on an additional room, but February was no time, to begin tearing down walls. February wasn't a propitious time for much of anything in Balaclava County, Massachusetts. That was why Groundhog Day, February 2, had grown to loom so large on the college calendar.
Naturally, President Svenson wasn't going to accept any secondhand prognostication from Punxsatawney Pete or Cochituate Chuck. Balaclava Beauregard was already snoozing in the wings, or, more properly, in a hole up on the bank of what Helen now knew to be Oozak's Pond. On the dot of half past six the next morning, the grumpy woodchuck would be hauled out of his snug den and set on a platform of snow that had been stamped down hard for his meteorological convenience.
Truth to tell, Beauregard probably wouldn't see his shadow no matter what the weather because he wouldn't bother to open his eyes, woodchucks being among the most determined hibernators of all Mammalia. That didn't amount to a hill of beans. The entire student body, most of the faculty, their families, and a goodly number of townsfolk would be on hand to help him look for it.
Once the Official Groundhog Shadow Viewer had examined the evidence and pronounced the prognostication, Beauregard would go back to bed. A bonfire would be lighted; hot cocoa and crullers would be dispensed to the cheering multitudes from a big sled drawn by four magnificent Balaclava Blacks. The horses, well blanketed against the chill, would be stamping and snorting, jingling their harness bells, and having a bait of oats so they wouldn't feel left out and no misguided freshman would start feeding them crullers in defiance of the strict dietary rules for college livestock set down by Professor Daniel Stott of the animal husbandry department.
As for the students, of course, they'd eat everything in sight and thrive on it. They'd sing college songs and stage snowball fights, then they'd roll up great masses of snow to build an effigy of Old Man Winter. Finally, they'd topple the snowman into the bonfire, the fire would go out, and the fun would be over. The horses would pull the sled back to the barn; the students would run after to boost it over the ruts, then they'd scatter to classes and another day's work.
A silly business, no doubt, but Shandy wouldn't have missed it for anything. Nor would Helen. She'd been promised a place of honor on the sled, helping her dear friend Iduna Stott pass out the crullers. She smiled over at her husband, who was still gloating over Corydon's ineffably ghastly versification.
"Read me some more, darling. You might as well toughen me up. There's reams of the stuff, and I suppose I'll have to plow through it all sooner or later."
Shandy was happy to oblige:
"'Long did they seek our Gussie
dear O'er fields and stones and stocks—
Who knew he lay 'neath Oozak's ooze
With his pockets full of rocks?
Long time he lay until at last
Augustus 'gan to bloat,
Yet still his corse was holden fast—
By the rocks within his coat.
Now comes release. The cloth gives way
That caused him to sink;
Chewed by an otter, some folk say,
Though perchance it was a mink.'"
"Perchance we need a drink." Helen pushed aside her papers. "Scotch or sherry, dear?"
"Scotch, since you're kind enough to suggest it. Unless you'd like me to do the honors?"
"No, sit still. My nose needs a rest from all that dust. Why don't you finish the poem and give me a brief synopsis when I come back?"
"I thought you wanted to get toughened up."
"How tough do you want me to be, for goodness' sake? Corydon does tend to go on, you know."
He did, and Shandy relished every staggering metric foot, especially when he got to the stanzas in which Corydon proved beyond question that Augustus had not hurled himself into Oozak's Pond in a fit of depression brought on by reading the collected works of Felicia D. Hemans, as had been conjectured. He had, in fact, been stabbed in the back with a butcher knife and weighted down with two stone balls off the ornamental gateposts in front of a house until recently occupied by a mysterious stranger calling himself Henry J. Doe. Mr. Doe and Mr. Buggins had had a falling-out over the sale of a horse. It was considered significant that Mr. Doe and the horse had both vanished during that same direful night when Augustus failed for the first time in many years of happy wedlock to return to the waiting arms of his justly fearful wife. Corydon wound up with a pious postlude:
"'May retribution follow soon
Upon Doe's wicked heels,
For preyful man should gain no boon
From e'er a horse he steals.
And may Repentance, clad in white,
Touch heartless Henry Doe
And may he rue both day and night
That Gus he laid so low.'"
"Corydon really struggled over that line," said Helen returning with the drinks to hear Shandy still reading aloud. "In my opinion, he lost. Is that all, I hope?"
"We're galloping down the homestretch," Shandy reassured her. "Just listen to this:
"'For Gus is mourned by friend and brother
And also by his aged mother.
Tho' waterlogged in death, may he
Enjoy a dry eternity,
While still we dwell with mem'ry fond
Upon the corpse in Oozak's pond.'"
"Catchy," said Helen, "winding up with a couple of couplets. I must make a note. Do you suppose Augustus's ghost ever went sloshing around the pond afterward?"
"Oh, no question about it. I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts Corydon wrote another poem about the squelching specter. "
Helen sighed. "I'm afraid you may be right. Well, let's hope Augustus doesn't take a notion to show up tomorrow. You know what a stickler Sieglinde Svenson is for the proprieties. Our dear president's wife wouldn't consider a shade who'd got his mortal coil shuffled off in a fight over a horse trade an edifying influence on the future farmers of Balaclava County."CHAPTER 2
THE SHANDYS WERE USED to early rising; nevertheless, it took a certain amount of fortitude to haul themselves out of bed at half past five the next morning. The room was still almost dark when Shandy pulled the curtains aside.
"Flurrying a little," he reported. "That's good. Too overcast for Beauregard to see his shadow and not stormy enough to spoil the fun."
"Provided the snow doesn't make the crullers soggy." Helen was fishing her thermal underwear out of a dresser drawer. "I get to ride on the sled, you know. The bottom's going to be filled with straw for insulation, thank goodness. Iduna, Mrs. Mouzouka, and I are being picked up at the college dining room, along with the urns and baskets, so I'm afraid you'll have to find yourself another woman."
"I don't know which rite of spring you think we're expected to perform on this expedition, madam, but I assure you I shan't need any serendipitous female to perform it with," Shandy replied austerely. "I shall eat my cruller in solitary decorum, though not on an empty stomach. Mightn't it be prudent to leave here with something hot under our belts?"
"Such as what? Would a cup of tea and a piece of toast sustain you?"
"It might, if there happened to be a poached egg on top of the toast. Shall I go down and put the kettle on?"
"Do." Helen reached for a fleecy blue sweater that matched her eyes and dragged it over her short blond curls. "Drop an egg for me, while you're about it. The poacher's in the top left-hand drawer. And be sure to butter the toast."
"Save your nagging till it's needed, woman. I was buttering toast for my oldest nephew while you were yet a babe in arms. Speaking of which—"
"Darling, not now." Somewhat reluctantly, Helen wriggled out of Peter's embrace. "Duty calls, and we must obey, or Beauregard may get huffy and refuse to cooperate. Who gets to pull him out this year, by the way?"
"John Enderble's still head man in charge of groundhog rousting. "
Professor Emeritus Enderble, expert on local fauna and author of that much-lauded best- seller How to Live with the Burrowing Mammals, was certainly the man for the job. As the Shandys left their house, they could see John and his wife, Mary, both of them bundled up against the cold, already climbing the path that led to the campus and ultimately to the top of the hill where Oozak's Pond lay open to the flake-filled sky. Shandy dropped Helen on at the faculty dining room, then hurried to catch up with the Enderbles in case the elderly pair might need an unobtrusive helping hand up the hill.
No, they wouldn't. A group of students were swooping down, dragging a couple of handsleds bravely decked out with sheepskins, pillows, and Balaclava banners. Mary Enderble was gallantly assisted onto one and John, after a bit of coaxing, onto the other. As many young people as could get a handhold tagged on to the two ropes, while the rest swarmed around the sleds yelling "Mush! Mush!"
"We're supposed to be hollering 'Make way for the groundhog king and queen,'" one musher explained to Professor Shandy, "but that sounds kind of sappy, so we decided to stick with 'Mush! Mush!'"
"I'm sure Professor and Mrs. Enderble would rather have it this way," Shandy assured him.
What mattered wasn't the racket they were making but the thought behind it. He might have known the students would think of a way to spare them the cold climb. Balaclava lads and lasses were a remarkably decent lot, on the whole, and anybody who wasn't, damned soon got a little decency pounded into him by his classmates.
Shandy and the mush brigade were halfway up the hill when the great sled passed them: Odin, Thor, Hoenir, and Heimdallr in the shafts and the president himself holding the reins. Mrs. Svenson was right up there with him, naturally. Sieglinde knew better than to trust Thorkjeld Svenson out of her sight at a time like this.
Helen looked like a snowflake fairy between the statuesque Mrs. Svenson and the billowing Iduna Stott. Even Mrs. Mouzouka, head of the cookery department and no puny figure herself, was dwarfed by these two Valkyries. Iduna was blowing kisses to the cheering multitudes. Helen and Mrs. Mouzouka were smiling and waving. Sieglinde Svenson, serene and beautiful even in a blue nylon ski jacket and pants, kept raising her hand with the palm-outward gesture favored by royalty everywhere. That she happened to be wearing a fuzzy red mitten instead of a sleek white glove in no way diminished the dignity of the gesture.
Faculty folk were out in force. Shandy spied his next-door neighbors the Jackmans, with their four children, all six of them togged out in identical cross-country ski suits. Dickie was washing Wendy's face with snow. Wendy was howling. Now Wendy was kicking Dickie in the shins and Dickie was howling. Shandy steered away from the Jackmans.
A good many townspeople were swelling the throng. Fred Ottermole, Balaclava Junction's police chief and almost its entire force, was there with his pretty wife, Edna Mae, and their four sons. The Ottermole kids were less dashingly garbed than the Jackman quartet but a lot better behaved. Shandy also recognized Mrs. Betsy Lomax, who cleaned for him and Helen twice a week. She was with Mrs. Purvis Mink, wife of a college security guard. Mrs. Mink had at last got her gallstones out and appeared to be in fine fettle. So did Cronkite Swope, demon reporter for the Balaclava County Weekly Fane and Pennon. He was already poising his new camera to record the moment of truth for his vast reading public.
The urns were broached, the cocoa flowed. The crullers were passed around from huge flat baskets woven by students in Pam Waggoner's native arts class. Then John Enderble took his post in front of Beauregard's den, and the countdown began.
"Five, four, three, two, one—Groundhog!"
This was it. Professor Enderble reached into the hole, hauled out a fat bundle of gray- brown fur, and held it up for Cronkite Swope to photograph. One might have thought the roar of the crowd would already have wakened Beauregard, but it hadn't. Only after Enderble had addressed the wood-chuck kindly but firmly, reminding him that the time had come to perform that once-a-year stint for which he was so well fed and housed by the college, did Beauregard consent to rouse himself.
Excerpted from The Corpse In Oozak's Pond by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1987 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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I don't think many people do. He hates just about everyone.
Still don't like him.
Another fabulous entry into the Peter Shandy series. This one is probably my second favorite. Though the killer I found to be fairly obvious, the accomplices I was slightly taken aback by. This one was almost exclusively Peter and Helen, I do wish Thorkjeld would make a bigger contribution, but young Swope was pretty prominent again. The poetry of Corydon is rather pedestrian in my opinion. The hardcover was formatted well with no obvious errors.
I can’t express how much I enjoy Charlotte MacLeod’s stories. She creates characters that invite you into their quiet life while they hunt for who did it. Her style makes me think of Georgette Heyer’s mysteries and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries.
Great characters and surprised by ending.