Goodbye, Ms. Chips An Ellie Haskell Mystery

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  • Copyright: 2009-03-03
  • Publisher: Minotaur Books
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"The headmistress wants to see you." Words to strike terror in the heart of any inmate of St. Roberta's boarding school. Fortunately for Ellie, she is no longer a pudgy, wayward pupil but a happily married mother and interior designer with a beautiful home by the sea. Still, thanks to her success as an amateur local sleuth, Ellie has been summoned.St. Roberta's needs Ellie's help now that the former games mistress, Ms. Chips, has retired. Could Ellie please come back on campus and find out who has stolen the Loverly sports trophyand is seeking to bring embarrassment to the school? Her less than rosy memories of being a student notwithstanding, Ellie cannot refuse headmistress Mrs. Battle's entreaties. Soon she finds herself in the thick of boarding school life, where an apparent schoolgirl prank gives way to murder.

Author Biography

DOROTHY CANNELL, a mother of four, grandmother of ten, and owner of a King Charles Spaniel, was born in England and moved to the United States when she was twenty. After living for years in Peoria, Illinois, she and her husband moved to Maine. On a lark twenty years ago, she took a writing class. The product of that class, her first Ellie Haskell novel, The Thin Woman, was selected as one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Twentieth Century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. The thirteenth mystery featuring Ellie, whom Booklist describes as “part Miss Marple, part modern British mum,” is She Shoots to Conquer—now available, in hardcover, from Minotaur Books.

Table of Contents

"Ellie, the headmistress wants to see you."
Words to strike terror in the heart of any inmate of St. Roberta's boarding school for girls who has failed to turn in her Latin prep, left out London when drawing a map of England, or--worse yet--prowled the ruins of the medieval convent at dead of night. Naturally I shuddered, even though I was now a grown woman and the speaker was my dear friend Dorcas Critchley, who had arrived unexpectedly a half hour before.
The school I had attended as a pupil was now her place of employment. Upon the retirement of Ms. Chips at the end of the previous school year, Dorcas had assumed the post of games mistress and now had the dubious pleasure of chivying a bunch of girls in bottle-green shorts and mustard-yellow shirts to victory on the playing field. My being a St. Roberta's old girl was a coincidence, and Dorcas had very sensibly not asked me for a personal reference. Ms. Chips, who undoubtedly still had the headmistress's ear, could not be expected to remember me with enthusiasm, given that the only ball I had ever managed to lob in lacrosse had whacked her squarely on the nose--breaking it, so Matron had informed me icily, in at least three places.
Haunted by this memory and its outcome, I now sought solace from my surroundings. It was a sunny Saturdayafternoon early in June, and Dorcas and I sat in white wicker chairs on the back lawn of my home, Merlin's Court. Its fantastical castle turrets poked cheerfully into the pure blue sky, daring a dark cloud to show a malignant face. The miniature moat collected only sanguine shadows. The garden's gently sloping lawns were shaded by beech trees and interspersed with flower beds bursting with riotous color. The air was perfumed with roses. Indoors were my wonderful husband, Ben, and our three adorable children. Given this heaping helping of life's bounty, only an ingrate would not respond to Dorcas's astonishing announcement with an interested smile.
"Why on earth would Mrs. Battle want to see me?" I endeavored to sound cheerfully intrigued. "Surely it can't be to find out why I never joined the Old Girls' Association."
"Nothing to fear in that regard, Ellie," Dorcas reassured me.
"Oh, goodie!"
"Am here as her emissary. Something nasty occurred at old Roberta's. Shocking business! Threatens blight on our outstanding reputation. Ghastly for Mrs. Battle! Blasted all to pieces, as you might expect! Hands trembled the other day when mounting the dais to take assembly."
"To everything there is a season." The words hopped out of my mouth. Dorcas raised an inquiring eyebrow, and I looked at the table between our chairs, but no pot of tea and plate of biscuits had magically appeared to put me in a better frame of mind. "Sorry," I said. "I was remembering how I quivered and quaked when the Battle-ax caught me wearing my uniform cardigan back to front, for a change."
"Frightfully sorry to put you in a spot. Should have remembered your saying you don't have fond memories ofschool." Dorcas's gaze faltered. Some people might consider her plain, with her thin face, sharp features, and short ginger hair clipped back from her brow. But I wouldn't have changed a thing about her, from the serviceable tweed jacket and slacks to the argyle socks. My mind went back ten years to our first meeting, shortly after Ben and I had inherited Merlin's Court from an elderly relative of mine. Our good fortune had not gone down well with members of the family who had hoped to find themselves on easy street when the old man finally pegged it. Sadly, we were forced to the lamentable conclusion that one of them wanted us out of the house--and into the graveyard. But Dorcas had been there for us every step of the way until the villain was unmasked and the danger removed. Over the course of the following years she had been a frequent much-loved visitor, always spending Christmas and Easter with us. Knowing a warm welcome awaited her, she also enjoyed making impromptu visits such as this one. I was horrified at the thought of hurting her feelings.
"I'm the one who should be sorry. I've been behaving like an insensitive wretch." I leaned toward her. "This business, whatever it is, has you seriously upset. I thought you weren't your usual chirpy self when you arrived, and now I can see shadows under your eyes. You haven't been sleeping properly."
"Perfectly fit, never better. Can still skim the high bar and land upright."
"Forget the brave front." I wagged a finger at her. "What evil stalks the hallowed halls of St. Roberta's?"
"Don't know how to break it to you." My friend reached into her trouser pocket for a handkerchief the size of a small tablecloth.
"Just say it, Dorcas, dear."
"A sports cup has been stolen from the trophy case in the assembly hall."
"Is that all? I was afraid a bunch of first formers, fed up with shepherd's pie, had murdered the cook."
"Ellie, it was the Loverly Cup!"
I thought she was stammering. "The lovely ... ?"
"Loverly. Awarded annually by Lady Loverly of the Hall at Upper Swan-Upping to the winner of the area schools' lacrosse championship match. For the past nine years, St. Roberta's has won it handily. Sadly, not in the cards this time. Disappointing season." Dorcas sucked in a breath and blew tremulously into the handkerchief. "Blame myself. Failed to rouse the old fighting school spirit. Offered to resign."
Preferable, I thought fondly, to donning a kimono and falling on her lacrosse stick. What she needed at this moment was a strong cup of tea, but alas, the wrought-iron table remained bare. I decided against nipping into the house and brewing a pot in favor of offering immediate comfort.
"Dorcas, it sounds like a schoolgirl prank to me."
"That's what Mrs. Battle is hoping. But worried stiff the matter could turn out to be more serious."
"Such as?"
"Evil plot to ruin St. Roberta's stainless reputation."
Masterminded, I supposed, by a shadowy figure with an eye patch and a hollow cough who would prove to be the recently dismissed French mistress. "When was the cup taken?"
"This past Monday."
A vital question loomed. "How long before it must be handed over to the new lacrosse champions?"
"End of the month. Last week of term."
"I gather the Battle-ax is against involving the authorities?"
"Can't say I blame her. Police cars screeching down the drive, sirens wailing?" Dorcas paled visibly. "No keepingthat hullabaloo from the Board of Governors and the parents. Could be the end of good old Roberta's."
Although this seemed to me to be going overboard, I made soothing noises in the manner of a brook attempting to calm the troubled sea. Had she been a different sort, Dorcas would have whacked me or at least told me to stuff the platitudes.
"Hard enough these days to keep any school going without a scandal. Mrs. Battle brightened when I reported your great success as private investigator."
An unpleasant apprehension seized me. "You said she wanted to meet with me, but this sounds as though more than a nip in and out of her office will be entailed. To unmask the Cup Culprit, I'd have to stay at or near school for days on end--possibly weeks!" My mind shut down at the horror of it.
"Asking a lot of you, I know."
I reminded myself sternly that I was supposedly a grown-up--wife, mother, part-time interior designer. I remembered my parents had sold their souls to their bank manager, unhappily named Mr. Shark, in return for an overdraft the size of the national debt in order to pay my school fees. My courage still failed me. "Dorcas, I don't think I'm up to this."
She misunderstood me. "Know you think yourself an amateur. Modest, always have been; one of the things I admire most. But if anyone can solve the mystery, it's you."
Ignobly I sought an out. "Thank you, Dorcas, but I don't handle cases on my own. I usually work in tandem with Mrs. Malloy."
Even as I spoke these words, a woman with jet-black hair highlighted by two inches of white roots crossed the courtyard at last, carrying a tea tray. Here was my trusty household helper and partner in the sleuthing business. Itmust be added that she made an imposing figure. Her generous contours were presently displayed to full advantage in a forest-green taffeta dress. Glittering brooches planted here and there suggested she was descended from the czars of Russia. Hopefully she'd never be forced to flee a revolution, her high heels being unsuited to successful escape down a dark alley. I worried about the tea tray; one misstep and there would go a perfectly good teapot and assorted crockery, to say nothing of the cucumber sandwiches and jam tarts.
Dorcas likewise perceived the possibility of imminent disaster. Leaping to her feet as if in response to a starting pistol, she had the tray on a table before I could blink.
"Well, that was good of you, Miss Critchley!" Mrs. Malloy landed in a chair. Her rouged face cracked as she produced a purple-lipsticked smile. "For a minute I thought I was back to me old rugby days, about to be tackled to the ground by sixteen stone of solid muscle."
Bless the woman! Being a romantic she is given to these flights of fancy, and doubtless the scene continued to play out in her mind. The team captain would announce between gasping breaths that he was in actual fact the deposed king of Ruritania; if she didn't think him too bold, he would sweep her off to his flat after the match and deflower her at his leisure.
Dorcas took the cup of tea I passed her and apologized to Mrs. Malloy for startling her. "Sorry! Not thinking clearly. Lot on my mind, I'm afraid." My heart ached, she looked so despondent. She gave much and asked little in return. Would it really kill me to help her out in her hour of need? Biting into a sandwich, I attempted to garner strength.
"It's me that is sorry, Miss C," protested Mrs. Malloy magnanimously. "I could see the moment you arrived this afternoon as you was down in the dumps. It worried mesufficient that I couldn't concentrate on me dusting or work up the enthusiasm to sort out the toy cupboard. What that good woman needs, I said to Mr. Haskell, is a decent cup of tea. And with himself playing Monopoly with the children like he does most Saturday afternoons, I got the kettle going and nipped to it."
"Good of you, Mrs. Malloy. Can't say how much I appreciate ... ." Out came the handkerchief, with noisy results.
I wasn't equally impressed with Mrs. M's slavish devotion to duty. When last I'd seen her, she'd been on the drawing room sofa with her feet up, reading The Lamentable Affair at Latchings while the dust and toy cupboard went unlamented. This, however, was not the moment to play the heavy-handed employer. Much good it would have done me anyway. From the start of our relationship, it has been unclear whether Mrs. Malloy or I rule the roost in domestic matters. Not that it matters. She is above all things a staunch ally when the chips are down.
"Dorcas is here on her headmistress's behalf," I explained. "The Battle-ax wants to see me."
"Forget to finish the fourth form, Mrs. H?"
I smiled dutifully at this quip. "Mrs. Battle was indeed at the helm when I was at St. Roberta's, though I doubt she would remember me without some nudging. No, a sports cup has been stolen. The hope is that I ... we," I added quickly, "can recover it before its loss has to be made public." I went on to explain that it was soon to be handed on to another school. Meanwhile, Dorcas sat in sad contemplation of her argyle socks.
"Is it very valuable, this cup?" The thrilled expression on Mrs. Malloy's face suggested she was indulging her imagination again. Did she picture a goblet studded with jewels sufficient to ransom Richard the Lionhearted from the bunch of miffed Turks or whoever had locked him upin a moldering stronghold? A just fate, I had always thought, for a man who had gone jaunting off to the Crusades, leaving his brother John to tick off the barons and make life difficult for Robin Hood. "Gold?" breathed Mrs. Malloy.
"Silver cup," replied Dorcas, "but bound to be valuable. Work of Hester Bateman."
"The queen of eighteenth-century silversmiths. A friend of mine paid a hundred pounds for one teaspoon with her hallmark." Having demolished more than my share of sandwiches in a desperate attempt at building up my defenses, I was feeling a smidge more cheerful. "Lady Loverly doesn't stint with her trophy giving."
"Lady who?" Mrs. Malloy held out her teacup for a refill.
"Loverly. A woman, if I remember correctly, who wore horrific hats and seemed to have twice the usual number of teeth. Middle-aged, which would make her elderly now, after nearly twenty years. Goodness! It's amazing to think it's been that long. I left St. Roberta's when I was fifteen. None of its girls could have been happier to go home and burn that hideous uniform than I!"
"What then, Mrs. H? Parents get you a governess?"
"Art school."
Dorcas continued to study her argyle socks. I could tell from her hunched posture that, sympathetic as she generally was to my feelings, she was shocked by my lack of loyalty to St. Roberta's. It came to me then, with an anguished pang, that I could not bring myself to tell her why I was so averse to returning there. A woman of her unfaltering integrity could not but condemn my failure to have spoken out and saved a fellow schoolgirl from unjust disciplinary action when I knew her to be innocent of the charge against her.
It seemed to me that the bright-blue sky paled as I turned my gaze away from Dorcas and Mrs. Malloy. Pretty, immensely popular, thoroughly nice Philippa Boswell had been stripped of the captainship of the lacrosse team and told that she would not be named head girl at the start of the new school year as had been anticipated. The entire school was stunned, the pupils disbelieving. But the accusation--of absenting herself from the school building without leave to conduct an assignation beyond the grounds with a member of the male species--had stood. The Board of Governors, with the bulldoggish Mr. Bumbleton at the helm, congratulated themselves that an example had been made; my heart had broken for Philippa--but in silence.
She left St. Roberta's at the end of that summer term, announcing that she had decided not to return for the sixth form. One class behind her, I exited when she did, having persuaded my parents to let me attend a local art school. I'd kept my dark secret ever since, even from Ben. Not because he would have recoiled in horror and taken to sleeping in the guest bedroom, but because the thought of my confessional words making ugly contact with the air made my heart hammer and beads of sweat form on my brow. It was no consolation that Philippa could not have known I might have spoken up to spare her the shame and disappointment she had endured.
I now drew a ragged breath and listened to Mrs. Malloy.
"Does this Lady Loverly know the cup is missing?" she was asking Dorcas.
"Bound to. Got a goddaughter in the fourth form: Carolyn Fisher-Jones. Wouldn't be cricket to expect the girl to keep mum. Sensible fourteen-year-old. Good deal of poise for her age. Would look at home on a decent horse. Classmate and close chums this term with Matron'sgreat-niece, Gillian Parker. Matie's been in a real tizz about this business. Worried about how it will go down with Ms. Chips." Dorcas re-produced the handkerchief. "Fast friends since their own schooldays at Billbury Academy in Devon."
"Chips?" Mrs. Malloy refilled our teacups. "Is that a nickname? Tip of the hat to the beloved schoolmaster in--?"
"In the tenderly tearful Goodbye, Mr. Chips?" I had loved both the book and the movie. "It's her own name. Not even an abbreviation. Dorcas"--I turned to her--"what has been her reaction to the cup's disappearance?"
"Haven't heard, but bound to have taken it on the chin. That sort of woman."
Mrs. Malloy reached for the last cucumber sandwich. "I thought she'd retired and you'd taken her place, Miss Critchley."
"Right enough," responded Dorcas, "but still around. Does dorm duty if needed. Bought a house nearby in Upper Swan-Upping."
"Blimey! Is that where the school is?" Mrs. M raised a painted eyebrow.
"Mile or so distant. St. Roberta's is on the far edge of Lower Swan-Upping before open country takes over. Bridle paths, lovers' lanes, woodlands, fields. Not surprising Ms. Chips chose to stay in the area. Keen hiker. Matron worries she overdoes it. Not the outdoorsy type herself. Bad experience. Got lost on the moors as a girl."
"Always best to get right away when making a new start," opined Mrs. Malloy. "Like I just said to Mr. Haskell when he had to sell off a bunch of hotels to pay Tam for landing on Park Place, it don't do to cling to the past. Shake the dice and move on. So he did and collected two hundred pounds for passing Go."
"Wonderful!" I said. "Just so long as he doesn't haveto sell Merlin's Court when he lands on Mayfair. Which he will do, there being a dreadful inevitability when one is losing at Monopoly. Our children can be pretty ruthless. Miss Chips is fortunate not to be at their mercy. I can't see her being content if forced to move very far from St. Roberta's. It's a good thing that property in country areas tends to be more reasonably priced than in the cities."
"Not the case with Lower and Upper Swan-Upping." Dorcas shook her head, causing a noncompliant strand of hair to escape onto her brow. "Even Cygnet's Way, once a strip of laborers'cottages, has gone up-market, so I've been told."
"It's the fault of them bloody commuters!" Mrs. Malloy's sympathetic outrage refracted off the faux emeralds and rubies on her storefront bosom.
I nodded agreement. "Someone, preferably the government, should put a spoke in their wheels. The cheek of people thinking they can have it both ways! Working in London or Birmingham and going home to a picture-postcard cottage enlivened by children named Buttercup and Daisy after the congenial cows in the adjoining pasture." Turning to Dorcas, I said I remembered Cygnet's Way as a dismal little street.
"Wouldn't know it now, Ellie. Bumbleton and Sons, the builders, bought the houses, did them up, and then sold the lot for a huge profit. Blow for Matron! Had been hoping to buy the one she'd leased over the years to live in during the hols."
"Is that where Ms. Chips bought?" I asked.
"No. Purchased a house on the green. Tudor. Named The Laurels or Fir Trees--something of the sort. Didn't need to worry about price. Came into a handsome legacy last year. Being a thundering good sport, she also financed a new gymnasium for St. Roberta's. Bumbleton's got thatjob too. Old chap's on the Board of Governors." Dorcas was again compelled to reach for the handkerchief. "Better woman than Marilyn Chips never invoked the old sporting spirit."
I was stunned that Ms. Chips had a first name. Who would have thought! "That must have been some legacy." My attempt to brighten the mood succeeded with Mrs. Malloy. It was her frequently voiced opinion that there is nothing in life more romantic than coming into bundles of money, especially if doing so means cutting out others hoping to scoop the lot after years of buttering up the doddering old benefactor. Something I can say I didn't do with Uncle Merlin. Not that Mrs. M would have held it against me. For Mrs. M, true life should always merge with fiction. Noting the gleam in her eyes, I could tell she was increasingly enthusiastic about the prospect of a sojourn at St. Roberta's. In her mind it would be a storybook school complete with illustrations. A place where the girls were not as bothered with getting an education as in the formation of secret societies, with all the attendant excitement of midnight feasts, whispered passwords, and the thrilling discovery that the fourth-form mistress is the ringleader of an international smuggling ring. To her credit Mrs. Malloy contained her emotions, merely asking if Ms. Chips's legacy had been unexpected.
"Bolt from the blue. According to Matey, had planned to live off her pension." Dorcas emerged from her handkerchief. "Makes this cup business especially sad, bang up against Chippie's shining moment. Gala evening planned to celebrate the new gymnasium: fruit punch, sausages on sticks, that sort of thing. All arrangements made. Cards sent out. Board of Governors, parents, old girls, local notables invited."
"This event takes place when?" I asked.
"Twenty-eighth of June. Same day the Loverly Cup passes on." Dorcas spoke with a brave attempt at calm.
"No time then to be lost in recovering it." Mrs. Malloy glittered with energy. "When does the headmistress want to see Mrs. H?"
"Tomorrow morning if possible." Dorcas blinked an apologetic look my way.
"I'd drive back with you?" My hand searched for a jam tart.
"Know it puts you in a spot, working out arrangements for the children and setting aside current work."
"That's manageable," I replied, in hollow accents. No escape hatch here. Ben, who owns a French bistro named Abigail's in the village, could delegate as necessary to my cousin Freddy, who works for him, and so be home with Tam, Abbey, and Rose when they weren't in school. Being the husband he is, he wouldn't make a moan about not being able to crack on with the cookery book he is writing. As for myself, I had no interior design commissions on the verge of completion. A check of my calendar, which might lead to few phone calls, would be the only requirement in freeing me up for the next couple of weeks. "Where would I stay?"
Dorcas explained about a house on the grounds that fifty years ago had been occupied by the school chaplain and his family. After that, it had been left to the invasion of mold and decay until Miss Chips came into her legacy. In addition to her beneficence with the gymnasium, she had fulfilled a longtime aspiration of refurbishing the house as a retreat for old girls, ones who needed a temporary escape from the pressures of their lives: divorce, loss of a job ... . I'd have to come up with a cover to explain my arrival. Dorcas made a couple of suggestions that floated past me.
Some dickey birds had settled in the minstrel's galleryof the closest beech tree and were singing their little hearts out, as befitted their brown choir robes. I'm not much of a judge--in fact, Mr. Middleton, who had taught music at St. Roberta's, had informed me I had a tin ear--nevertheless, I doubted there was a nightingale in that feathery lineup. The performance struck me as sadly mediocre. I was pretty sure that at least two sparrows were off-key, and the bigger one hit a seriously sour note seconds before the sun slunk behind a sudden cloud. My heart went out to the loyal little band of family and friends gathered in the audience with their hearts in their throats and bright little smiles on their beaks, hoping against ardent hope that Percy would get through "O Sole Mio" without being bitten to death by the bird to his left. A portentous little bully if ever I saw one.
I had been horribly bullied my first year at St. Roberta's by a girl in my class named Rosemary Martin, who had a singing voice that drowned out the chirpers and a Roman nose that, in all fairness, she couldn't help. Mr. Middleton had assigned solo parts to her either because she really was good or because otherwise she would have had him fed to the lions.
Now, in a determined effort at more positive thinking, I focused on my father's words of consolation when I'd told him what Mr. Middleton had said about me. "Better a tin ear," quoth Daddy, with a customary flourish, "than a tin cup." Words of wisdom to cling to in my present situation. Dorcas hadn't asked me to sit on a pavement and beg for change from impervious pedestrians. From the sound of the renovated Chaplain's House, its accommodations would more than pass muster. I might even find myself enjoying the company of other old girls who might be staying there.
A sideways glance at Mrs. Malloy showed she was looking as glum as all get out.
"What's wrong?" I asked her.
"Tomorrow's no good for me. Like I've been telling you all week, me sister Melody's coming to stay for a few days, bringing her new husband to show him off. I can't just bunk off and leave them to it, can I?"
"Probably not," I said. "And you've been dying to see the wedding photos."
"She's me only sister. It wouldn't do not to take an interest."
"It was a delightful wedding," I informed Dorcas.
"Jolly ho!" she enthused kindly.
It had been lovely. Unfortunately, Melody could never have been a Grecian urn and at age sixty was ever less likely to be rhapsodized by poets, but she had radiated a joy that made her frizzy hair and dumpy figure enviable, while the bridegroom had beamed with love and pride.
"That cherry suit I helped her pick out was just right," said Mrs. Malloy. "Left to herself, she might have decided to wear white, and that would have been a terrible mistake for a woman of her age. She would have looked like the spook bride in The Sexton's Secret, Mrs. H!"
I remembered vividly that particular scene in the book: a ghoulish figure drifting down the aisle ... gown yellowed and spotted with age, reeking of mildew and death ... a garland of crumbling rosebuds ... the organist who displayed a flair for the mournful ... effigies on the wall that turned a paler shade of marble as their eye sockets searched the gloom for shadows that had life in them. When reading those lines I had recalled the legend of the Gray Nun, whose wraith was said to haunt the ruined convent at the edge of St. Roberta's grounds. My one midnight excursion into the crypt with a couple of my classmates had produced no sight of her, but that might have been because she didn't consider a bunch of giggling fourteen-year-olds a worthy audience for fleshless hand wringing and pitiful moans.
"Of course I want to do right by Melody."
Mrs. Malloy still sounded seriously put out. In addition to her disappointment at not being able to accompany Dorcas and me to Lower Swan-Upping, she might have been remembering that as Melody's bridesmaid she had not looked her best in dusty pink, a color she despised.
"I had intended on giving her and the new hubby me own room with the comfy double bed." Sticking her nose in the air, she risked having it pecked off by Percy, the musical sparrow, or another passing dickey bird. "But on second thought, if I was to put them in the box room that has the single with the thin mattress, they could get to thinking as how they was imposing by staying as long as they planned, and take themselves off." Catching Dorcas's eye, she looked momentarily abashed; then her purple mouth set in a mulish line, indicating that her heart had hardened. "If you ask me, Miss C, it's not natural for a newly married couple to stay with relations. You'd think with both of them waiting so long to tie the knot they'd want to focus on taking the instruction booklet to bed with them every night to see if they couldn't get top marks. What if they're not getting the hang of things because Melody's too shy? Or she thinks Bill should try them pills some men need to take and I'm roped in to listening to their bedroom problems?"
"Difficult." Dorcas's complexion rivaled her red hair.
"Like Mrs. H will tell you, it's not in me nature to enjoy mixing in other people's business." Mrs. Malloy laid out this whopper without the hint of a blush. "Besides, I wouldn't want little Ariel Hopkins thinking I wasn't bothered about seeing her."
The mention of this name gave me a jolt. My horror at the thought of returning to St. Roberta's and being forced to confront the episode involving Philippa Boswell had made me forget that Ariel had for the past year been a studentat the school. Her father was Ben's cousin Tom Hopkins, and the family lived in Milton Moor, making them acquaintances of Melody. The opportunity to spend a few days with the Hopkinses had been a bonus for me in driving Mrs. Malloy to her sister's wedding. Ariel, who had been home for half term, was fourteen.
"Bright girl," said Dorcas. "Plenty of spirit."
But had Ariel wholeheartedly embraced life at St. Roberta's? I wondered. She was a prickly little person, apt to scorn popularity for the sake of it or because she preferred to bury her nose in a book featuring life at its more exciting. One could never tell which way she would jump next, although I doubted it would be into my arms on seeing me. She liked me, and would endeavor to ferret out the reason for my taking up temporary residence at the Chaplain's House, but displays of affection violated the offhand manner she took pains to present.
"I wish you could come," I told Mrs. Malloy with a pang, "but even it weren't too late to put the newlyweds off for another time, doing so would not be kind."
"I suppose not. Although"--her eyes brightened--"what if I was to borrow Tobias Mousecatchky and take him down to my house and pretend he was a stray I'd taken in? Melody was saying just yesterday on the phone as how Bill has a proper aversion to cats and can't be around them without screaming. And of course," she continued, with a self-righteous puffing of the chest, "that wouldn't be fair to the neighbors. Old Mrs. Flagg next door has high blood pressure and don't always remember to take her medicine. A nasty shock like that could kill her. I can't see a nice man like Bill taking the risk."
"Sorry," I said. "Tobias is getting up in years and doesn't adjust well to change. He prefers being home with his pipe and slippers--or communing with familiar surroundings," I was forced to add, spying my beloved felinewending his way across the lawn in dreamy contemplation of a butterfly that, being all beauty and no wit, had settled within easy paw-dabbing distance on a hydrangea bush.
Luckily, Tobias was distracted by the nosy eruption of the children through the kitchen door. Tam and Rose both dark like Ben, Abbey with her elfin fair curls, they came hurtling toward us, laughter spilling around them, one of those ordinary moments that will later be pulled out of the treasure box of memories many times over. It wasn't any trick of sunlight that turned the garden into an enchanted glade. It was the love I saw on Dorcas's face when she looked at my children.
"We'll leave for St. Roberta's early tomorrow morning," I told her with a real smile. Mrs. Malloy's pout was equally genuine, but she would recover from her disappointment when her sister and brother-in-law arrived.
The butterfly turned into a gauzy winged fairy and flitted away as Tobias joined the rest of us in going into the house. No further danger in the garden and none for me in responding to the headmistress's summons. The mystery of the missing Loverly Cup did not amount to evil on a grand scale. No diabolical force was at work in the old school, merely some childish silliness. This thought almost cheered me into facing the prospect of an excursion into my past with less foreboding than might have been anticipated.
What I failed to remember was that one of my reasons for being hopeless at lacrosse was that I had always failed to see the ball when it was coming full at me.
Copyright © 2008 by Dorothy Cannell.

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