Best known for his Dalziel and Pascoe novels, which were adapted into a hit BBC series, Reginald Hill proves himself to be a “master of . . . cerebral puzzle mysteries” in his stand-alone novels as well—now available as ebooks (The New York Times).
Have Yourself a Dickensian Christmas! That’s what the Dingley Dell, a secluded hotel in the English countryside, promises. Arabella Allen is eager to partake in the dancing, skating, and spiked punch—especially with Boswell, Dickens scholar and charming host. But when a blizzard leaves the guests snowbound, the cozy trappings feel more like an icy trap. Finding a frozen corpse can do that. Now Arabella is questioning the real motive behind drawing this assortment of strangers to the middle of nowhere. With all communication to the outside word cut off, the only one she can ask is Boswell. But as the temperatures drop and the body count rises, Arabella doubts she can trust even him on this increasingly deadly silent night.
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This way — this way — capital fun — lots of beer — hogsheads; rounds of beef — bullocks; mustard — cartloads; glorious day — down with you — make yourself at home — glad to see you — very.
MR. ALFRED JINGLE
There was a movement in the copse and a cock pheasant came out, fast and low. The taller of the two gamekeepers instinctively tracked it with his gun barrel, an easy, rhythmic movement that advertised a first-rate shot.
His companion, however, kept his eyes fixed intently on the copse. Only the haze of his breath in the frosty air belied his complete stillness.
'Fox?' said the taller man. 'Or probably nothing. God, these leggings are killing me.'
The other relaxed and shrugged.
'Probably. You shouldn't lace them so tight.'
'Wardle likes us to look smart. Here, fancy a drop?' He produced a gun-metal flask out of the capacious pocket of his tweed jacket.
'Wardle wouldn't like that either.'
'Then the fat bastard can lump it.'
He took a long draught, replaced the flask and glanced at his watch.
'Nearly twelve. Time to get down to the road and make like the loyal peasantry. Anyone interesting on today's guest-list? Aren't the Froggies coming?'
The other man did not reply, but with one final long look towards the copse, he began to make his way down the frost-sprinkled slope on which they stood towards the line of hawthorn hedge below which marked the road.
Behind him, his gun now broken as a concession to the treacherous surface on which they walked, the tall man followed, still talking.
'Hope there's a pretty face among this lot. Have you seen that German cow? A right case of udder-shudder there. Hang on a sec, I'll have to loosen these leggings. I'm sure that smooth bastard Boswell's got it all wrong. I've never seen anyone on a Christmas card looking like us.'
The smaller man stopped and turned.
'You talk too much,' he said equably.
'I'm sorry if it bothers you.'
'No. It doesn't bother me.'
There was a slight stress on the last word.
In silence, they resumed their progress down the hill.
The man in the copse smiled as he watched them go. He had been smiling as he watched them approach also. There had been a time when the heady pleasure this kind of situation sent bubbling along his bloodstream had caused him some concern. But now he accepted it, even looked forward to it.
In the old canvas bag by his side were two fat rabbits and a pheasant, still warm. Not a bad half-hour's work. It was surprising what enjoyment there was to be got out of this poaching. Swiftly he separated the short barrel of his shotgun from the stock and slid them into the specially prepared pockets in the lining of his old combat-jacket. Below, the two gamekeepers were mere matchstick men against the white of the frosted grass.
The poacher began making his way uphill, keeping the copse between himself and the descending men. He moved with easy efficiency. At the brow of the slope he paused, glancing down again, his keen eye following the line of hawthorn which marked the road. From his pocket he produced a small telescope, a child's toy in appearance. But he was quite happy with its performance. Quickly he focussed on a curve where the hedge was broken and the metalled surface of the road was visible from this elevation.
For a minute or two there was nothing. Then his face broke into the lively attractive smile which it wore so often. Ridiculous, artificial, corny, it might be. But the sight below gladdened his heart.
Into his view trotted four fine bay horses pulling behind them, glorious in reds, yellows and browns, a tall nineteenth-century mail-coach.
As he watched, he saw the guard, in anticipation of their approaching encounter with the gamekeepers, raise his shining key-bugle to his lips and a few seconds later the lively, harbingering notes vibrated to him through the keen, cold air. Then the coach disappeared behind the tall hedgerow once more, its passage marked only by the coachman's cocked hat and the highest peaks of the luggage strapped on to the roof.
A fine, fine sight. Who was in it? he wondered. What strangers with hearts eager for what kind of joys, seasonal or unseasonal, were being carried along to their destination? A romantic thought!
But as long as they were strangers to him he could wish them all well. As indeed he did to all men, even the gamekeepers.
For today was, after all, Christmas Eve.
Unaware of the seasonal greetings that were being offered them from above, the four passengers in the coach were reacting to their journey in different ways.
They had introduced themselves five miles earlier at the railway station (or, more properly, railway halt) when it was established that they were all intending coach passengers. Intending was perhaps too strong.
A dark, thin-faced, ascetic-looking man had spoken in rapid French to the vivacious brunette with him when they saw the coach and then asked the coachman in slightly over-perfect English, 'Is it not possible to be driven by taxi?'
'No no, please, Jules!' cried the brunette before the coachman could reply. 'The coach, she is lovely. We must go in her to be or-then-tique, n'est-ce pas? It is necessary.'
To Miss Arabella Allen, possessed of all the knowing cynicism of a twenty-three-year-old English virgin, it seemed that Madame Suzie Leclerc's English was slightly over-Frenchified, its quaint charm being aimed at the ear of the fourth passenger, a young man of almost feminine beauty. Arabella felt her own strong jaw-line assume the proportions of a Bob Hope alongside the delicacy of this youth's bone structure.
His name it appeared was Stephen Swinburne and his nervous smile in reply to Suzie's plea for support was taken as positive agreement. This, and the fact that, apart from the rapidly disappearing train, the coach was the only vehicle in sight, finally persuaded Monsieur Leclerc to climb aboard.
The presence inside of a small oil-heater and a lot of travelling rugs cheered him up to some small extent. The coachman and guard fitted the luggage on top and very quickly, with a rousing fanfare from the guard and a cracking of his whip from the driver, they were on their way.
'Have you been to Dingley Dell before?' Arabella asked the beautiful youth.
'No,' he said in a low-pitched upper-class voice. 'The place hasn't been going very long, has it? Anyway, I usually spend Christmas with friends, but this year I was talked into a spot of family togetherness. And this is where Mummy and Daddy decided to come. They've been down since yesterday. I can't say I'd been looking forward to it much. Till now.'
Not so shy, decided Arabella. The man is not the mannerism.
'What about you, Miss Allen, did you say?' 'That's it. No. I had noticed the adverts, Have Yourself A Dickensian Christmas, and when my other plans fell through at the last minute, I decided to book here.'
'You were lucky. I believe they get very fully booked very quickly.'
'Perhaps there's not much call for singles. At Christmas.'
Suzie decided that it was time she made her presence felt in the conversation, though the expensive aroma which emanated from her ensured she would not be ignored.
'We come for a real English Christmas, you understand?
Jules, he works in London for many years. But every Christmas, home we fly to Paris for two, three, days. Then back again. This year I say, Jules let us for once spend Christmas over there, in England. No, better, let us pass it in the old- fashioned England, like on the Christmas cards. Some of my friends they tell me of this place, Dell. So here we are!'
'Dingley Dell,' said her husband.
'That's what I say. Dinkley Dell. Like in your Dickens'
Pickwick Papers. I have read. See!'
Triumphantly she produced a paperback edition of The Pickwick Papers out of the large and very expensive-looking fur muff she wore.
If the book-match folder sticking out of the volume marked her place, she hadn't got very far, thought Arabella.
She turned her attention to the countryside they were passing through. They had very rapidly turned off the secondary road which passed by the railway halt on to an even narrower road, scarcely more than a lane, though the surface was metalled. The landscape, made breathtakingly beautful (in every sense) by the gleaming sprinkling of frost, was pleasantly varied without being dramatic.
Small hills, woods, folds of land, ploughed fields like frozen seascapes, some sheep, cows, a black horse running down to the hedge to greet its passing fellows, the occasional sheepfold or distant farmhouse — there was very little here to disturb the illusion that this journey was indeed being made in the first half of the nineteenth century. And at Dingley Dell itself, so the brochure had assured her, even the telephone wires had (at huge expense) been laid underground for greater verisimilitude.
It would probably be vile. All kinds of pseudo-jollities. Still, whatever it was like, it would be a change from last Christmas with the temperature at eighty degrees in the shade. A welcome change, it was to be hoped.
Two men suddenly came into view, standing in a field by the roadside. There was something odd about them. They had guns under their arms and their features were nipped red by the cold. They smiled up at the coach as it passed and tugged their forelocks in salute.
It was their clothes that were odd! Not odd, just archaic. They were obviously part of the Dingley Dell scenery. Journey's end must be near.
Not many minutes later this was confirmed when the coach turned off the metalled surface into a real country lane, rutted and hollowed by the passage of vehicles in wet conditions. Now the ruts were frozen hard and the passengers in the coach got a real taste of the problems of travel a century and a half earlier as they were tossed and bounced against each other. Suzie seemed to enjoy it and even Leclerc smiled thinly as he returned Arabella to her own seat. It was, Arabella decided, merely an extra touch of the or-then-tique to impress people like Suzie.
They were probably very close to Dingley Dell now. She had caught a glimpse over to the left of a small cottage, now half ruined, but which might once have been a gatekeeper's house. Her theory was confirmed when very rapidly the lane's surface became perfectly level and the lane itself turned into a gravelled drive, curving round an island of shrubs at the centre of which was a magnificent holly tree, superbly jewelled with crimson berries. As the drive straightened out again, the guard's bugle sent another rousing fanfare to announce their coming and Arabella leaned out of the window to see where the drive was leading them.
Dead ahead at a distance of under a quarter of a mile stood a house, clearly visible in this clear air. It was a long spawling building, probably originally built according to the special needs of some eighteenth-century farming family rather than the architectural dogma of any age. Several long chimneys smoked welcomingly into the noontide air.
'We're arriving,' she said, returning her head to the inside of the coach.
'Let me see! Let me see!' cried Suzie, thrusting her expensively coiffured head out into the open air. 'Magnifique! Magnifique!'
It was difficult to tell whether she was commenting on the house or on the figure who stepped forward from the ivywreathed porchway to greet them. A man of late middle age, portly but nimble, good will and welcome printed in every line of his broad, open face, he was an impressive enough figure in himself. But clothed in a blue coat, with bright buttons, corduroy breeches and top-boots, he was indeed magnificent.
'Step you down, step you down!' he cried. 'Be welcome to Dingley Dell! Wardle's my name and cheerful's my nature. Where's the steps? Joe! Joe! Wake that boy up, someone! There you are, Joe. Come on, boy, let down the steps.'
Out of the door behind him walked, or rather rolled, the tardy Joe. Arabella had rarely seen such a fat youth. His dimensions bordered on the grotesque even to his round red face under which the weight of his three chins served to keep his mouth perpetually agape. Arabella shuddered. If this was authenticity they could keep it. She had never liked the character of the fat boy much in Dickens' story, but his present incarnation was far worse than any mental image.
Joe let down the steps with a bad grace and was pushed aside by Wardle who offered a readily accepted hand to aid Suzie in her descent. Stephen Swinburne jumped down next and helped Arabella after him. Leclerc's slight insignificant figure came last.
'Ladies, gentlemen. You are welcome. Come into the house, we have a tall fire and a bowl of hot punch waiting to chase away the chill of your journey. Then straight to the table for dinner. We keep country hours here, dinner at noon, on the stroke. But we follow country pastimes too, so never fear for your appetites!'
Will he keep this up all the time? wondered Arabella.
She paused at the old oak doorway and glanced back at the coach down from which the coachman was passing the luggage to the unenthusiastic Joe. It really was beautiful. As she turned back to the house, a brief flash of light caught her eyes, as though up in the low wooded ridge which lay in a crescent to the east of the house a piece of glass had caught the heatless rays of the frosty-red sun.
Wardle had noticed too, of that she was sure, though there was no break in his welcoming flow. But once they were in the house, seated before the promised fire with a pretty red-cheeked maid (someone's part-casting was very good) helping them to a steaming spiced punch, Wardle begged their pardon and stepped outside again, ostensibly to oversee the unloading of their luggage. Arabella rose and strolled over to the low deep window. Outside she could see their host talking earnestly and rapidly to a small dark man wearing a groom's costume.
'Is it not wonderful, Miss Allen!' exclaimed Suzie, who had come up behind her. 'Just as I imagine it, yes?'
Arabella smiled at her and replied, 'Just.'
When she glanced out of the window again the groom had disappeared and a moment later Wardle re-entered the room.
'Your luggage is safely stowed and awaits you in your chambers,' he cried. 'Finish your punch, drink it all down, then we'll give you a few moments to get yourselves ready for dinner!'
'I do not think I shall dine so early,' murmured Leclerc with a hint of distaste. 'The journey has fatigued me. I should like to rest.'
'Rest! What is this rest?' demanded Suzie. 'You may rest, but I shall eat!'
'And what about you, Miss Allen?' enquired Stephen Swinburne.
'Oh, I shall eat. I was brought up never to miss a meal,' said Arabella.
Authenticity, she was glad to discover, did not extend to the plumbing and the decorators and designers had wisely made no attempt to retain the period atmosphere in her bathroom. She took Wardle at his word and had time for a quick shower only. Even then the great iron gong she had noticed at the foot of the stairs sounded before she was half dressed.
'There you are, Miss Allen!' said Wardle from the hall as she descended. 'I thought you might have got lost. It's an old house, more complicated than it looks from outside.'
'I'm sure it is. It's certainly very beautiful.'
'Yes, it is. This way!'
He led her from the entrance hall down a long stone passage lit by small, square windows at intervals of three or four yards.
She paused at one of these which had a broken pane and looked out. Dark against the cold blue sky she could see the further horn of the crescent ridge she had noticed on her arrival. On this side of the house it looked closer, more menacing.
'You wouldn't think we were not much more than fifty miles from London,' said Wardle behind her.
'No,' she answered.
Distantly there sounded a dull noise like a paper bag not very strenuously burst, or rather two paper bags burst so closely together as to be almost inseparable. A surge of rooks rose from the trees on the ridge, cawing in protest.
'What was that?' she asked.
'Someone having a bit of sport with the rooks or perhaps one of my keepers bagging a brace of pheasant for supper,' said Wardle with a laugh. 'Come along, my dear. There's been a side of beef roasting in the kitchen all morning, but with Dingley Dell appetites, it could be all gone by the time you sit for dinner!'
The circling rooks were already returning to their perches as she turned away from the window. The intrusive and unexpected only caused the most momentary of diversions in their lives.
As Arabella entered the dining room and smiled at the circle of curious faces which turned to watch her, she wished it was a quality of living she could share.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Red Christmas"
Copyright © 1972 Estate of Reginald Hill.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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