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Christianna Brand (1907–1988) was one of the most popular authors of the Golden Age of British mystery writing. Born in Malaya and raised in India, Brand used her experience as a salesgirl as inspiration for her first novel, Death in High Heels (1941), which she based on a fantasy of murdering an irritating coworker. The same year, she debuted her most famous character, Inspector Cockrill, whose adventures she followed until 1957. The film version of the second Cockrill mystery, Green for Danger, is considered one of the best-ever screen adaptations of a classic English mystery. Brand also found success writing children’s fiction. Her Nurse Matilda series, about a grotesque nanny who tames ill-behaved children, was adapted for the screen in 2005 as Nanny McPhee. Brand received Edgar Award nominations for the short stories “Twist for Twist” and “Poison in the Cup,” as well as a nomination for her nonfiction work Heaven Knows Who.
HOW VERY STRAIGHT SHE stands, thought the young man, and how very strange she seems! How strange it all is, bringing me out here in this—odd—way. She doesn't like it, he thought, she's angry with Christina for bringing me. And Christina's parents are not to be told. Why not? It's only a path on the hillside, looking across a stream to the opposite hill ... ('I'm taking you somewhere—secret,' Christina had said.)
The woman stood very straight, very alien in the springtime woodland, in her brown stuff dress with the bustle making a stiffly rounded prominence patched on to her erect, spare figure. She said: 'There is no need to take the pony from the shafts, Mr Hargrove. We shall not stay long enough.'
'It's no trouble. And he's trotted us here a good many miles and has to trot us back again.' He led the pony away to where he could hitch the reins to a tree. Christina said, sotto voce: 'Don't fuss, Tetty darling!' A scatter of small white dogs leapt about her, muddying her white dress with scrabbling little paws. 'Take this family for a long walk along the path and give us just a little while alone together.'
'That would not be proper, Christina.'
'But I must! I must tell him, you know it's right that I should.'
'Your mama and papa—'
'It's too painful for them. But if we're hoping to become betrothed, he ought to be told all the truth.'
'You don't know all the truth. You wouldn't understand it.'
'Only a born Hilbourne, of Aberdar, could understand it. I have the blood and I can understand it; I can sort of—feel it. No one else—except for my mother; and you, because you brought them up, my mother and my Aunt Christine, and you're a part of it all. Everyone just believes my poor aunt was insane.'
She unbent a little, spoke less grimly: 'Would it not be simpler, child, to just leave it at that?'
'And marry with the threat of family madness hanging over me? That, at least, I must explain to him, you know I must—and show him the house.'
'There is no house now,' said the woman and, using her severe brown parasol as a stick, with her accompaniment of little dancing dogs, walked swiftly away.
'There was once,' said the girl. She tugged her lover's hand to bring him to sit down with heron the old dried bracken, looking across the valley and the little stream.
'There was a house there, down below us, across the stream. It was here that my father sat on that other day, long ago, when he was a little boy, looking over towards it. There was a house then ...'
Without promise—in all the exquisite burgeoning of that long-ago springtime, only the house had seemed without promise, lying like a dead bird in the hollow of the hill. About it, the trees were a-shimmer in their filament of new green, but the timbers that had gone to the building of the house had been dead three hundred years; its mullioned windows stared back blindly into the eye of the sun. To the boy watching from the wooded slopes of the valley, it had seemed that the very doorway was a mouth, gaping open, jaw-dropped, in the rigidity of death.
And yet there was life of a sort in the house; for from the mouth came tiny figures, black clad and yet all bright with the flowers they held in their hands; and up the curving drive pranced small, jetty horses, lifting delicate hooves, drawing a carriage fantastically shaped and carved. The boy moved closer, curiously; and, on an impulse, hitched his pony to a tree and began to plunge down the slope through the tossing daffodils and so made his way to the back of the old house and through the cold stone passages and up the narrow servants' stairs. In the nursery he found, as he had expected, two little girls hanging out of the window so their pantalets showed up, white cambric with lace and embroidery at the ankles, beneath their stiff black skirts.
They looked back over their shoulders. 'Oh, Lawrence, do come and look! It's our mother's funeral!' They made way for him.
'My father said I was not to come over for a few days,' said the boy. 'But I didn't care. I just came.'
They stared at him solemnly. Daring Lawrence: brave Lawrence!
He jostled himself in between them. 'Why did your mother die?'
'We don't know. She just died. We went to her room to see her when she was dead; she was lying on the big bed and there were four big candles at the corners. We thought she was asleep, but Tante Louise said she was dead.'
'And we saw her before that too,' said the other little girl. 'She smiled and said, "Tell me you think they are pretty, my little ones?" So Lyneth said "Yes" because there was nobody else to tell her. Didn't you, Lyn?'
'She was talking to herself,' said Lyneth. 'It was funny. Do you think we're pretty, Lawrence?'
'Of course you're pretty, everyone knows that, everybody says how pretty you are. And alike as two peas,' he added, teasing them.
'Dr Horder told Papa we should grow up to be the belles of the county. "Lyneth and Christine," he said, "the Belles of Aberdar."'
'But Papa didn't like it, he turned away and his face went pale and he said, "It might be better otherwise." What did he mean by that?'
'I expect he meant that there are better things than having blue eyes and silly pale gold hair. It's nothing for girls to be pretty. They all ought to be.'
'He didn't mean us to hear it. He'd forgotten we were there.'
'What did your mother say?'
'She wasn't there. She was in her room, she always was; we hardly ever saw her. Some people see their mothers every day. You do, Lawrence, don't you?'
Lyneth hung perilously out of the window. 'Look, they're bringing out a great big box, a long box like the flowers have been coming in, only much bigger! What's in the box? Do you think there are flowers in the box, Lawrence?'
The boy was a little scared, very much embarrassed. He said at last, gruffly: 'Yes.'
'I don't think it's flowers,' said Christine. 'I think it's our mother. I think she's in the box.'
'She doesn't mind,' said Lawrence quickly. 'She's asleep, she doesn't mind being in the box.'
'The other people mind her being there. Look, Lyn, Papa is crying. So there, grown-ups can cry!'
'Tante Louise isn't crying,' said Lyneth.
'She's afraid that her face will go smudgy if she does and black stuff will come off on her eyes. That's because she's foreign. The other lady isn't crying but the beautiful tall young gentleman, he looks frightened and sad. Why should he look frightened?'
'I can't see any gentleman,' said Lawrence, tipping further forward out of the window to gaze down upon the bare heads and black beribboned bonnets below. 'Only Dr Meredith and old Johnson from the lawyer's, and Hil, of course, and the servants. And there isn't any lady except your Tante Louise.'
'Christine means the pretty lady standing beside the box.'
'I can't see any lady,' said Lawrence again.
The horses recognised a familiar jerk and creak of the springs as the coffin was hoisted up into the hearse. Long-faced men, top-hatted and faintly smelling of the fortifying draughts at the village inn, clambered up after it and, deft from long practice, arranged the spring flowers among the ebony and silver furnishings. The groom restrained the scuffing hooves of the horses with a respectful muffled 'Whoa! Whoa!' Four men descended from the hearse and took up their positions, two on either side; mourning ribbons hung down from the backs of their shining tall hats. 'They look like black candles: like the big candles by our mother's bed when she was dead,' said Christine.
The widower glanced up at the window as the cortège started to move at foot pace down the drive. Two small hands waved at him, and he gave back a gentle, rather helpless smile. Tante Louise, frowning, told herself that it was her duty now to remain in this cold grey England, and take over the charge of these little ones, so distressingly mal-élevées. Her hooped skirt and huge leg-o'-mutton sleeves were surmounted by a white cashmere shawl; her high bonnet shrouded in crape veiling. She mounted into the family carriage; the widower, moving like an automaton, stepped up after her. The doctor, lawyer and handful of servants, climbed up into two following carriages and drove slowly away. But of the pretty lady and the beautiful young man who had looked sad and frightened, there was now no sign; and when, that evening, the little girls asked their father what had become of them, his pale face grew ashen and he pitched forward in a dead faint across the arm of his chair. The wine glass on the covered tray at his hand fell with a tinkling crash and left a red stain upon the snow white cloth.
Did he sleep? Did he dream? The widower, returned but an hour from the funeral of his young wife, deathly weary, deathly sad. In a room unchanged almost from the time of its first creating—was it in a dark dream that he saw them as once indeed they had gathered there? Lenora, darkly beautiful, with the lovely rounded figure which seemed to have no angle even in the bent arm or knee—the wide ruff, wire-stiffened, the jewelled slipper peeping out from beneath the jewel-spattered satin petticoat, below the great hooped velvet skirt of midnight blue. And Richard, her brother, with the red-gold hair of the Hilbournes, tall, splendid, in all the elegance of a gentleman of Elizabeth's court, come a- wooing (a second coach would have lumbered and rumbled up the hills after their own, carrying all this magnificence)—skirted doublet of emerald green, sleeves slashed to show the crimson silk beneath, over gartered hose, a hiked dagger at his thigh: red bows upon red-heeled shoes, a single earring, one huge, swinging pearl. The short jacket, designed to hang with its empty sleeve over the left shoulder, was of Moroccan leather as soft as silk and muskily scented. Indeed, they were both richly scented, the perfume seemed to pervade all the room. And Sir Edward Hilbourne, the Squire, bowing a welcome. 'I trust you are rested after your long journey?'
'Pretty well, cousin,' said Lenora, shrugging, 'though it was tedious enough, the coach rocked severely by your vile mountainous roads; the last part of the way, my brother, impatient as ever, stretched his long legs, getting out and walking with the horses.'
'It is not often that Aberdar is privileged to entertain guests from the court. If it is to occur more frequently, I perceive that we must repair the approaches which, so far, have done well enough for us country folk; it was but yesterday, however, that we had notice of your coming. Meanwhile, you are rested? A collation was sent up to you? Will you take a glass of wine?'
Did he sleep? Did he dream—that they sat there before him, so beautiful, almost— magnificently—beautiful, both of them, so stiff and formal with the strangely accented English that sounded more like the West Country dialect of nowadays. And the news of home? Of the court ...?
'Well enough, sir, well enough.' The young man was impatient, like a fretting horse urgent to get on. His sister threw him a glance of warning and he subsided, curiously acquiescent; it was as though she reproached a sweet-tempered child. The Squire pursued his smooth civilities but he was watching them covertly. 'And the Queen? She grows old.'
'But is in good health; and gracious enough, cousin, to wish my brother well upon his errand.'
And through the outward warmth, the striking of the first chill. 'Her majesty has the advantage over me. I have not so far been made aware—except at second hand—of exactly what my cousin's errand can be.'
Richard, sick with eagerness, leaping to his feet, blurting it out. 'Oh, sir—Isabella has told you? You know that she and I—' His sister over-riding him. 'We come, Sir Edward, that Richard may formally beg the hand of your daughter, Isabella, in marriage.'
'In marriage? Then it is true. It remains only for me to ask,' said the Squire in a voice of ice, 'if you are both in full possession of your senses.'
Richard startled, incredulous. Lenora, dark eyes flashing: 'What could be wrong with such a union?'
'They are close cousins. There can be no marrying between them.'
'Sir, I have seen Isabella—'
'That is nothing to me, boy. My daughter has a suitable alliance arranged for her elsewhere.'
'Arranged? Not arranged by herself!'
'Arranged by her father, sir. That need be enough for you.'
The fine handkerchief of Holland lawn, gripped tight in a hand, very strong, for all it was so white and much be-ringed. 'Sir, she loves me as I love her, we are promised. For God's sake, you would not part us? She could never be happy—'
'An infatuation soon forgotten, romantic nonsense from a fairy tale. Marriage is a serious affair.'
Lenora in rising indignation: 'Cousin Edward, there is nothing lightly romantic about my brother's love for Isabella, nor hers for him. They have made vows, exchanged tokens—'
He interrupted. 'I pay no attention, Madam, to the nonsense practised at your fine court: all this talk of romantic devotion, revolving around your shrivelled old virgin queen. I regret that my sister, despite my objections, however briefly carried my daughter there. Isabella is long promised—to a fine young man, John Lloyd, my neighbour, whose estate, marching with mine—'
'Sir, my brother will inherit a fortune ten times more than a few acres of mudland!'
'That is not the question. There has been too much intermarrying. I adhere to the theory that it may lead to instability of the mind.'
'I remind you, cousin, that my father himself was a son of first cousins.'
'Very well—and what is your brother's reputation at court? Dare-devil Dick do they call him, or some such name—?'
'He lacks patience, sir, he is without fear. But there is no wrong in him, none. The Queen herself has said it: "My pretty, sweet Diccon is sound as a hazel-nut."'
'Very well: and has added, has she not? that nevertheless it's as well he has his devoted sister to continue as his—guardian.'
Richard put his hand in automatic gesture to the hilt of his dagger. 'Sir, my sister is my friend—not my keeper.'
'I suggest no serious flaw,' said the Squire, less roughly. 'But the seeds are there, they are sown in your ancestry. You are a dangerous young man. You are not for my daughter.'
He looked not very dangerous now: his hand had fallen from the dagger hilt and he stood staring, all the bright hope drained from his face, pale as the great pearl swinging at his cheek. He stammered: 'But we are promised. How can we forget—?' And now a wild look did come into his eye. 'I will see her myself, I shall ask her—'
'Diccon!' cried Lenora, catching him by the empty sleeve of his jacket.
'—I shall not leave this place until I have seen her ...'
The Squire rose and pulled on a bell-rope. 'Very well. I had hoped to spare you this. But I see that only the full truth will do.' To the servant at the door he said, 'Ask her ladyship to come and to bring my daughter here.'
The mother came to the door, urging forward the girl, white-faced, head hung: very young, very lovely, blue-eyed and with soft, palely golden curling hair; frightened and yet with a faint air of sulky defiance. 'Oh, Richard! I am sorry, but ... Cousin Lenora, don't look at me like that! I was foolish, Richard cozened me—'
Brother and sister, side by side, stock still, gazed back in utter incredulity. Lenora cried out at last, and now her hand crept to her brother's wrist in a restraining grasp: 'You have broken faith with him?'
'He has coerced her,' cried Richard. 'Bullied her!'
'Better tell the truth, girl,' said her father. As she remained silent, cowering, he spoke for her. 'Already there was a firm understanding when she went to the court. There her head was turned by your fashionable nonsense. She came home, moped two days, confessed all to her mother. She is now formally betrothed. But for this sudden descent upon us, you would have been informed and the matter ended.'
They seemed hardly to hear him. Lenora cried out, 'You have betrayed him!' and Richard, 'Isabella, speak to me, tell me in your own words, I'll believe no other. You repent? It is ended? It was all a—nothingness?' As she remained silent, his sister burst out again, and with unlovely oaths. Isabella said sullenly, 'Don't dare to call me such names!'
'Names! I'll call down worse than names upon you! Liar, false betrayer, I'll call down my curse upon you, I'll see you shrivel and die—'
Excerpted from The Brides of Aberdar by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 1982 Christianna Brand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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