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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.
The Hornets' Nest
'We've got hornets nesting again in that old elm,' said Mr. Caxton, gulping down his last oyster, wiping thick fingers on his table napkin. 'Interesting things, hornets.' He interrupted himself, producing a large white handkerchief and violently blowing his nose. 'Damn these colds of mine!'
'I saw you were treating them,' said Inspector Cockrill; referring, however, to the hornets. 'There's a tin of that WASP-WAS stuff on your hall table.'
Cyrus Caxton ignored him. 'Interesting things, I was saying. I've been reading up about them.' Baleful and truculent, he looked round at the guests assembled for his wedding feast. 'At certain times of the year,' he quoted, 'there are numerous males, the drones, which have very large eyes and whose only activity is to eat—' he glared round at them again, with special reference to the gentlemen present '—and to participate in the mass flight after the virgin queen.' He cast upon his bride a speculative eye. 'You are well named Elizabeth, my dear,' he said. 'Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen.' And added with ugly significance, 'I hope.'
'But only one of the hornets succeeds in the mating,' said Inspector Cockrill into the ensuing outraged silence. 'And he dies in the process.' He sat back and looked Cyrus Caxton in the face, deliberately; and twiddled his thumbs.
Cyrus Caxton was a horrid old man. He had been horrid to his first wife and now was quite evidently going to be horrid to his second—she had been the late Mrs. Caxton's nurse, quite young still and very pretty in a blue-eyed, broken-hearted sort of way. And he was horrid to his own stout son, Theo, who was only too thankful to live away from papa, playing in an amateurish way with stocks and shares, up in London; and horrid to his step-son, Bill, who, brought into the family by the now departed wife, had immediately been pushed off to relatives in the United States to be out of Mr. Caxton's way. And he was horrid to poor young Dr. Ross who, having devotedly attended the wife in her last illness, now as devotedly attended Mr. Caxton's own soaring blood-pressure and resultant apoplectic fits; and horrid to his few friends and many poor relations, all of whom he kept on tenterhooks with promises of remembrances in his will when one of the choking fits should have carried him off. He would no doubt have been horrid to Inspector Cockrill; but—Mr. Caxton being incapable of keeping peaceably to a law designed for other people as well as for himself—Cockie got in first and was horrid to him. It must have been Elizabeth, he reflected, who had promoted his invitation to the wedding.
The little nurse had stayed on to help with things after the poor wife died; had gradually drifted into indispensability and so into accepting the pudgy hand of the widower. Not without some heart-searching however; Inspector Cockrill himself had, in his off-duty moments, lent a shoulder in those days of Mr. Caxton's uninhibited courtship; and she had had a little weep there, and told him of the one great love lost to her, and how she no longer looked for that kind of happiness in marriage; but was sick of work, sick of loneliness, sick of insecurity ... 'But a trained nurse like you can get wonderful jobs,' Inspector Cockrill had protested. 'Travel all over the place, see the world.' She had seen the world, she said, and it was too big, it scared her; she wanted to stay put, she wanted a home: and a home meant a man. 'There are other men?' he had suggested; and she had burst out that there were indeed other men, too many men, all men—it was dreadful, it was frightening, to be the sort of woman that, for some unknown reason, all men looked at, all men gooped at, all men—wanted. 'With him, at least I'll be safe; no one will dare to—to drool over me like that when he's around.' Inspector Cockrill had somewhat hurriedly disengaged his shoulder. He was a younger man in those days of Mr. Caxton's second marriage and subsequent departure from this life; and taking no chances.
And so the affair had gone forward. The engagement and imminent wedding had been announced and in the same breath the household staff—faithful apparently in death as in life, to the late Mrs. Caxton—had made their own announcement: they had Seen it Coming and were now sweeping out in a body, preferring, thank you very much, not to continue in service under That Nurse. The bride, unchaperoned, had perforce modestly retired to a London hotel and from thence left most of the wedding arrangements to Son Theo and Step-son Bill—Theo running up and down from London, Bill temporarily accommodated for the occasion beneath the family roof.
Despite the difficulties of its achievement, Mr. Caxton was far from satisfied with the wedding breakfast. 'I never did like oysters, Elizabeth, as you must very well know. Why couldn't we have had smoked salmon? And I don't like cold meat, I don't like it in any form. Not in any form,' he insisted, looking once again at his virgin queen with an ugly leer. Inspector Cockrill surprised upon the faces of all the males present, drones and workers alike, a look of malevolence which really quite shocked him.
She protested, trembling. 'But, Cyrus, it's been so difficult with no servants. We got what was easiest.'
'Very well, then. Having got it, let us have it.' He gestured to the empty oyster shells, 'With all these women around—am I to sit in front of a dirty plate for ever?'
The female relations upon this broad hint rose from their places like a flock of sitting pheasants and began scurrying to and fro, clearing used crockery, passing plates of chicken and ham. 'Don't over-do it, my dears,' said Mr. Caxton, sardonically watching their endeavours. 'You're all out of the will now, you know.'
It brought them up short: the crudeness, the brutality of it—standing staring back at him, the plates in their shaking hands. Half of them, probably, cared not two pins for five, or five-and-twenty pounds in Cyrus Caxton's will, but they turned, nevertheless, upon the new heiress questioning—reproachful?—eyes. 'Oh, but Cyrus, that's not true,' she cried; above his jeering protests insisted: 'Cyrus has destroyed his old will, yes; but he's made a new one and—well, I mean, no one has been forgotten, I'm sure, who was mentioned before.'
The lunch progressed. Intent, perhaps, to show their disinterestedness, the dispossessed scuttled back and forth with the cold meats, potato mayonnaise, sliced cucumber—poured delicious barley water (for Mr. Caxton was a rabid teetotaller) into cut glass tumblers, worthy of better things. The bridegroom munched his way through even the despised cold viands in a manner that boded ill, thought Inspector Cockrill, for the wretched Elizabeth, suddenly coming alive to the horror of what she had taken upon herself. She sat silent and shrinking and made hardly any move to assist with the serving. Son Theo carved and sliced, Step-son Bill handed plates, even young Dr. Ross wandered round with the salad bowl; but the bride sat still and silent and those three, thought Cockie, could hardly drag their eyes from the small white face and the dawning terror there. The meat plates were removed, the peaches lifted one by one from their tall bottles and placed, well soused with syrup, on their flowery plates. Step-son Bill dispensed the silver dessert spoons and forks, fanned out ready on the sideboard. The guests sat civilly, spoons poised, ready to begin.
Cyrus Caxton waited for no one. He gave a last loud trumpeting blow to his nose, stuffed away his handkerchief, picked up the spoon beside his plate and somewhat ostentatiously looked to see if it was clean: plunged spoon and fork into the peach, spinning dizzily before him in its syrup, and, scooping off a large chunk, slithered it into his mouth: stiffened—stared about him with a wild surmise—gave one gurgling roar of mingled rage and pain, turned first white, then purple, then an even more terrifying dingy, dark red; and pitched forward across the table with his face in his plate. Elizabeth cried out: 'He's swallowed the peach stone!'
Dr. Ross was across the room in three strides, grasped the man by the hair and chin and laid him back in his chair. The face looked none the more lovely for being covered in syrup and he wiped it clean with one swipe of a table napkin; and stood for what seemed a long moment, hands on the arms of the chair, gazing down, intent and abstracted, at the spluttering mouth and rolling eyes. Like a terrier, Elizabeth was to say later to Inspector Cockrill, alert and suspicious, snuffing the scent. Then with another of his swift movements, he was hauling Mr. Caxton out of his chair, lowering him to the floor; calling out, 'Elizabeth!—my bag. On a chair in the hall.' But she seemed struck motionless by the sudden horror of it all and only stammered out, imploring, 'Theo?' Stout Theo, nearest the door, bestirred himself to dash out into the hall, appearing a moment later with the bag. Step-son Bill, kneeling with the doctor beside the heaving body, took it from him, opened it out. Elizabeth, shuddering, said again: 'He must have swallowed the stone.'
The doctor ignored her. He had caught up the fallen table-napkin and was using it to grasp, with his left hand, the man's half-swallowed tongue and pull it forward to free the air-passages; at the same time with his right groping blindly towards the medical bag. 'A finger-stall—it's just on top, somewhere ...' Bill found it immediately and handed it to him; he shuffled it on and thrust the middle finger of his right hand down the gagging throat. 'Nothing there,' he said, straightening up, standing looking down, absently wiping his fingers on the table-napkin, rolling off the finger-stall—all again with that odd effect of sniffing the air; galvanising into action once more, however, to fall on his knees beside the body. With the heel of his left hand he began a quick, sharp pumping at the sternum, with his right he gestured towards the medical bag. 'The hypodermic. Adrenalin ampoules in the left pocket.' Bill fumbled, unaccustomed, and he lifted his head for a moment and said sharply: 'For heaven's sake—Elizabeth?' She jumped, startled. 'Yes? Yes?' she said, staccato; and seemed to come suddenly to her senses. 'Yes, of course. I'll do it.' She dropped to her knees beside the bag, found the ampoules, filled the syringe. 'Keep it ready,' he said. 'Somebody cut away the sleeve.' He took both hands to the massage of the heart. 'While I do this—can someone give him the kiss of life?'
It was a long time since anyone, his affianced not excluded, had willingly given Mr. Caxton a kiss of any kind and it could not now be said that volunteers came eagerly forward. The doctor said again, 'Elizabeth?' but this time on a note of doubt. She looked down, faltering at the gaping mouth, dreadfully dribbling. 'Must I?'
'You're a nurse,' said Dr. Ross. 'And he's dying.'
'Yes. Yes, of course I must.' She brought out a small handkerchief, scrubbed at her own mouth as though somehow irrationally to cleanse it before a task so horrible; moved to crouch where she would not interfere with the massage of the heart. 'Now?'
Mercifully, Cyrus Caxton himself provided the answer—suddenly and unmistakably giving up the ghost. He heaved up into a last great, lunging spasm, screamed briefly and rolled up his eyes. She sat back on her heels, the handkerchief balled against her mouth, gaping. Dr. Ross abandoned the heart massage, thrust her aside, himself began a mouth- to-mouth breathing. But even he soon admitted defeat. 'It's no use,' he said, straightening up, his hands to his aching back. 'He's gone.'
Gone: and not one, perhaps, in all that big ugly ornate room but felt a sort of lightening of relief, a sort of little lifting of the heart because with the going of Cyrus Caxton so much of ugliness, crudity, cruelty also had gone. Not one, at any rate, even to pretend to grief. Only the widowed bride, still kneeling by the heavy body, lifted her head and looked across with a terrible question into the doctor's eyes; and leapt to her feet and darted out into the hall. She came back and stood in the doorway. 'The tin of cyanide,' she said. 'It's gone.'
Dr. Ross picked up the dropped table-napkin and quietly, unobtrusively yet very deliberately, laid it over the half eaten peach.
Inspector Cockrill's underlings dealt with the friends and relations, despatching them to their deep chagrin about their respective businesses, relieved of any further glorious chance of notoriety. The tin had been discovered without much difficulty, hidden in a vase of pampas grass which stood in the centre of the hall table: its lid off and a small quantity of the paste missing, scooped out, apparently, with something so smooth as to show no peculiarities of marking, at any rate to the naked eye. It had been on the table since some time on the day before the wedding. Cockie himself had seen it there, just before the lunch.
He thought it all over, deeply and quietly—for it had been a plot deeply and quietly laid. 'I'll see those four for myself,' he said to his sergeant. 'Mrs. Caxton, of course, the son and the step-son and the doctor.' These were the principals and one might as well tease them a little and see what emerged; but for the rest of course—he knew: the how and the when and the why, and therefore the who. Some details to be sorted out, naturally; but for the rest—he knew; a few words recollected, a dozen, no more—and with a little reflection, how clear it all became! Curious, thought Cockie, how two brief sentences, hardly attended to, might so twist themselves about and about as to wind themselves at last into a rope. Into a noose.
He established himself in what had been Cyrus Caxton's study and sent for Elizabeth. 'Well, Mrs. Caxton?'
White teeth dug into a trembling lower lip to bite back hysteria. 'Oh, Inspector, at least don't call me by that horrible name!'
'It is your name now; and we're engaged upon a murder investigation. There's no time for nonsense.'
'You don't really believe—'
'You know it,' said Cockie. 'You were the first to know it.'
'Dr. Ross was the first,' she said. 'You saw him yourself, Inspector, leaning over Cyrus as he was lying back in that chair; sort of—snuffing. Like a terrier on the scent. He could smell the cyanide on his breath, I'm sure he could; like bitter almonds they say it is.'
It had not needed an analyst to detect the white traces of poison on the peach and in the heavy syrup. 'Who brought the food for the luncheon, Mrs. Caxton?'
'Well, we all ... We talked it over, Theo and Bill and I. It was so difficult, you see, with no servants; and me being in London. I ordered most of the stuff to be sent down from Harrods's and Theo brought down—well, one or two things from Fortnum and Mason's ...' Her voice trailed away rather unhappily.
'Which one or two things? The peaches, you mean?'
'Well, yes, the peaches. He brought them down himself, yesterday. He was up and down from London all the time, helping Bill. But,' she cried, imploringly, 'why should Theo possibly have done this terrible thing? His own father! For that matter, why should anyone?'
'Ah, as to that!' said Cockie. Had not Cyrus Caxton spoken his own epitaph? At certain times there are numerous males, the drones, which have very large eyes and whose only activity is to eat and to participate in the mass flight after the virgin queen. He had seen them himself, stuffing down Mr. Caxton's oysters and cold chicken and ham, their eyes, dilated with devotion, fixed with an astonishing unanimity upon Mr. Caxton's bride. 'Only one of them mates, however,' he repeated to himself, 'and he dies in the process.' That also had been seen to be true. 'Elizabeth,' he said, forgetting for a moment that this was a murder investigation and there was to be no nonsense, 'from the hornet's-eye angle, I'm afraid you are indeed a virgin queen.'
And Theo, the young drone, stout and lethargic, playing with his stocks and shares in his cosy London flat ... Inspector Cockrill had known him since his boyhood. 'You needn't think, Cockie, that I wanted my father's money. I'm all right: I got my share of my mother's money when she died.'
'Oh, did you?' said Cockrill. 'And her other son, Bill?'
'She left it to my father, to pass on if he thought it was right.'
'Wasn't that a bit unfair? He wasn't Bill's own father; and it was her money.'
'I think she'd probably sort of written him off. I mean, it's easy enough to hop across from America nowadays, isn't it? But he never came to see her. Though I believe the servants let him know, when she was dying; and they did correspond. In secret; my father would never have allowed it, of course.'
'Of course!' said Cockie. He dismissed the matter of money. 'How well, Theo, did you know your father's new wife?'
'Not at all well. I saw her when I came to visit my mother during her illness, and again at the funeral after she died. But of course ...' But of course, his tone admitted, a man didn't have to know Elizabeth well, to ... There was that something ...
'You never contemplated marrying her yourself?'
Excerpted from What Dread Hand by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 1968 Christianna Brand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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