The Baskerville Tales (Short Stories) (2 page)

“Do I need to?” Evelina drew herself up, ignoring the escalating mutters coming from the other girls. “Or did I miss the lesson in household management that says you get to use a riding crop on servants?”

Violet snapped the long hem of her habit away from the reeking bundle. “I know my place in Society. I expect others to remember theirs. That includes you,
Cooper
. You belong in the laboratory with your clockwork and your chemistry set, not in the daylight with your betters.”

For all her venom, Violet’s insults weren’t particularly clever. Still, Evelina’s palms were
already damp with sweat, fingers twitching with the urge to give Violet a thrashing. She swallowed hard. Grandmamma Holmes had sent Evelina to Wollaston to become a proper lady, and she had tried her hardest, her
very
hardest.
Patience. Remember, wrestling in a corset is impractical
.

Evelina clenched her jaw, letting her gaze rake Violet’s dainty, even features. Violet returned the look at first, but slowly her lids drifted down and she glanced away.

“Please, miss,” Mary broke in. “I need to see Mrs. Roberts!”

Violet’s head snapped up, the hand with the crop rising.

Evelina couldn’t stand it another moment. Stepping into the movement, she lunged forward and snatched the crop away. Violet tried to grip the silver-tipped handle, but that only threw her off balance. She tripped over the skirt of her long riding habit and stumbled into the bundle Mary had dropped. The loose string binding gave way, and the bundle rolled, unfurling in a long tail of stained linen tablecloth. When the contents emerged with a squelch, Violet skittered away with a shriek of disgust.

“Miss Henderson! Miss Cooper! You are making a racket.” The headmistress’s voice snapped from the doorway. She stood square and imposing in sensible black, a stark contrast to the festive garland of pine and red ribbons that graced the entrance. “Is that an example of our Wollaston manners?”

For once—for perhaps the only time in the career of the formidable Morwenna Roberts—no one paid her the slightest heed. They were all gawping at the bundle the rector had sent to the headmistress.

Evelina’s world grew dark around the edges, and her head felt oddly light, as if it were filled with helium. She took an awkward, shuffling step back. She’d never fainted or lost her
breakfast in public, but this was a close-run thing.

Perhaps Dr. Larch was an addled old fool fit for the public stocks, or maybe even a dangerous madman, for the cloth had hidden the mangled remnants of a rotting human arm.

An hour later

The moment throbbed with potential. Evelina Cooper calculated the distance from the balcony where she now stood to the courtyard below. If she selected one of the heavier flowerpots and dropped it at just the right moment, her school term would end on an unexpected high note.

In fact, if she balanced on the edge of the balcony—an easy enough trick for a girl who’d spent her early years with her father’s people at Ploughman’s Paramount Circus—she could drop the pot right on Violet’s russet head. With just a light push of magic, the maximum pot-to-head impact would be guaranteed, and she’d finally determine whether or not the miserable vixen had a brain.

Too bad her Grandmamma Holmes, who had rescued her from the circus and sent her to a proper school, would be sorely vexed. She’d told Evelina in no uncertain terms to keep her history with Ploughman’s a secret. Maybe she should drop the pot from where she stood and forget the acrobatics.

“I would have thought you’d had enough of the schoolroom,” said a voice from behind her.

Evelina turned, reluctantly letting her fantasy go. The speaker was Imogen Roth, the eldest daughter of Lord Bancroft and her closest friend. She was tall but very slight, her almost frail figure the legacy of a long illness. With long, pale hair and gray eyes, Imogen was beautiful,
but never seemed to notice.

Imogen sat on one of the schoolroom’s long tables, kicking her heels like a child. “There are plenty of other gruesome things to occupy one’s interest without revisiting this chamber of horrors.” She’d hated every minute of school except her lessons on the pianoforte.

“I needed a change from all the fainting and retching downstairs.” Evelina stepped from the balcony back into the room. “So I was thinking about murdering Violet.”

Imogen shrugged. “I hear Newgate is lovely this time of year, but you’d miss the graduation ball.”

“I could still pour punch down the front of her dress.”

“Frankly, I think she’d mind that more. A good hairstyle could hide a crushed skull. There’s nothing one can do with stained satin.” Imogen narrowed her eyes. “I applaud what you did. Violet beats her horse, you know. I’d like to smack her with that little silver-handled crop until I’ve matched every blow she’s given the poor beast.”

“With our luck, she’d be the type who likes it.”

“Maybe it would sweeten her mood,” Imogen suggested. “There’s been no one to sing praises to her beauty since Tom Cannon died.”

“Sing praises to her dowry, you mean. I think he hung about the school looking for a rich bride, and she’s the prettiest prize of the bunch.”

It wasn’t unusual to cross paths with the local swains. Though Mrs. Roberts kept the girls at the academy under close watch, chaperoned events did occur. And so did clandestine escapades, some featuring Tom and one or the other of the school’s more foolish beauties.

“He
was
handsome,” Imogen said wistfully.

“Indeed.” Evelina pulled out the tiny pocket watch she’d rebuilt from two broken
specimens she’d found in the village. It was barely two o’clock. It was hard to believe the whole episode with Mary had taken less than a quarter hour. There were acres of afternoon left to drag by.

Imogen raised an eyebrow. “What did Mrs. Roberts say to you and Violet when she found you fighting?”

“Not as much as one might think. Our transgressions paled beside the novelty of a rotting limb.”

Imogen shrugged, but she looked slightly green all the same. “Do you have any idea why the rector sent a severed arm to Mrs. Roberts? Think about it. He’s a bachelor and she’s a widow. I could understand flowers, or even a steak-and-kidney pie, but this is highly singular.”

“He is ninety years old. Perhaps he’s losing his wits and thinks he’s back at Waterloo.”

“That still doesn’t exactly explain the arm.”

“I wonder if it was French?” Evelina mused. “I didn’t get a good look at the tailoring.”

“You’re disgusting, Evelina Cooper.”

“I’m curious. I recall Mary saying the arm was supposed to be proof.”

“Of what?”

“My question precisely.” Evelina flung herself into one of the chairs and looked up at Imogen, who was still perched on the table. “Didn’t somebody say there’d been a disturbance in the cemetery?”

“Tom Cannon’s grave was robbed. The sexton had to cover it back up.” Imogen’s face went gray. “Do you suppose that was …”

“I think the sexton missed a bit.” Somehow Tom was dominating the conversation again. Evelina had never given the rogue as much thought as he seemed to be demanding that
afternoon.

“Oh, dear. What do you think is going to happen?” Imogen asked.

“Before I came upstairs, I overheard Mrs. Roberts declare at the top of her lungs that she would write to the Earl of Hendon about the rector’s behavior.” Wollaston was part of the earldom, and Hendon wasn’t a man to put up with nonsense. “The other teachers are beside themselves. Three of the girls begged to be sent home, which will no doubt upset their parents and put a dent in the academy’s sterling reputation.”

“Silly geese.” Imogen made a face. “Did they think the arm was going to crawl across the lawn and pinch their toes?”

Evelina shuddered at the idea, which was a little too close to her imaginings.

“Dr. Larch was beside himself when the steam company began digging right by the rectory,” Imogen added. “Do you suppose all the excitement pushed him over the edge and he’s gone barmy?”

“That’s what Mrs. Roberts says,” Evelina replied. She liked the kindly old churchman, though, and didn’t want to believe it. “I’m worried that no one is going to consider alternatives.”

Imogen hopped down from the desk, putting her hands on her hips. “Do you mean to say that a dead arm might actually be proof of something?”

“I make no assumptions.” Evelina sat forward, warming to her idea. “But don’t you think somebody should go listen to his side of the story? Even if it’s just us? If Mrs. Roberts and the earl make up their minds he’s fit for Bedlam, we might be the only ones interested in the truth.”

Imogen frowned. “How? We can’t just knock on his door, can we? Ask him what he had in mind by delivering a body part to our headmistress?”

“You don’t favor a direct approach?”

“Maybe not that direct.” Imogen smiled with sweet sarcasm. “I suggest we escort Mary back to the rectory once Mrs. Roberts is through questioning her. The poor girl is going to be a complete wreck.”

“You’re right about that. Mary was terrified. I do think it odd that Dr. Larch got a serving girl mixed up in all this. It’s not like him.”

Imogen shook her head. “Well, if you listen to the first-year students downstairs, he’s about to be carried off by flying devils for his crimes. The gargoyles on the church are coming to get him the moment it gets dark.”

“Flying devils? In Wollaston?” Evelina said archly. “And here I thought your brother was still in London.”

“Are you calling my brother Beelzebub?” Her friend’s lips twitched at the mention of her dashing older sibling. “Tobias is coming to the ball, you know.”

“Is he?” Evelina’s stays suddenly felt far too tight. Tobias was smart, handsome, inventive, and witty—everything other young men of her acquaintance were not.

Imogen waved an airy hand. “My parents are in Paris, so they’re sending him to celebrate my release from the schoolroom. He’s taking me back to our country place afterward. We’ll do Christmas there before going to London for the Season. That’s all assuming, of course, he remembers to come fetch me in the first place. With him, you never know.”

“Ah. Well, surely an entire school full of pretty young ladies is an inducement.”

Her friend gave her a sharp look. “And do you know what you’re doing for Christmas? Have you had word from your grandmother yet?”

The question smarted, thorn-sharp. There was no reason to think that her grandmother would simply leave her at the school, but Evelina would have liked to hear where she was to go
once her time at Wollaston was done. London? The country? A post as governess? No one had seen fit to tell her what the future would hold, and the future was now less than a few days away. It was hard not to feel like a piece of unclaimed luggage.

Turning back to the balcony, Evelina looked at the sky. It was clouding up, no longer blue. “I think we had best take our coats.”

* * *

A quarter hour later, Evelina noticed fresh activity on the grounds. The morning’s trickle of carts and carriages was picking up just as the temperature was dropping. Vehicles plodded and jingled smartly down the drive, clouds of steam rising from the snorting horses. There was even a pair of engine-driven carts, puffing down from the rail yard with the cook’s last-minute order of London specialties brought in for the ball.

Evelina and Imogen, with Mary between them, started for town. The school was on the very edge of the village, just far enough away from the houses to feel like a country manor. Ahead lay the core of Wollaston village, its whitewashed buildings almost luminous beneath the gathering clouds. The new coal-fired heating plant looked square and out of place against the wild landscape.

The church was coming up on the right of their path, with the graveyard beyond. The closer they got, the more agitated Mary grew.

“Oh, Miss Roth, Miss Cooper, I tried to tell the headmistress. I did. Dr. Larch was ever so sure she had to believe him.” Mary gulped, looking as if she was about to burst into tears one more time.

“About what?” Evelina asked, seizing the opportunity. “What was his message?”

“Mrs. Roberts sent him a book. Something she found up at the school, buried beneath the potting bench in the greenhouse. Dr. Larch said it was the start of the evil.”

“A book at the school? I don’t understand how that fits in.” It seemed a leap between the greenhouse and the grave.

Mary shook her head quickly, looking almost frightened. They’d slowed by the gate that led into the side garden of the rectory. The holly that hung over it was thick with berries. “Oh, miss, I only know what I was told to say.” She bobbed an awkward curtsey. “Thank you ever so much for seeing me home. It’s so very kind of you.”

It was clear they weren’t getting any more out of her. “You’re welcome,” Evelina replied.

Mary lifted the latch on the gate and slid through, making another curtsey as her gaze traveled anxiously from Evelina to Imogen and back again. “I really must get back to my duties.”

“Do you think Dr. Larch would be available for a visit?” Imogen asked.

Mary’s forehead wrinkled. “I’m so sorry, but he always naps this time of day. Shall I tell him that you came to call?”

Evelina doubted he was asleep—not after wrapping up a severed limb. Nevertheless, she shook her head. Outside of climbing in a window to confront the rector, there wasn’t much they could do. “No, that’s all right, Mary.”

With some relief, Mary scampered away. The girls took the long path back to the road, looping around the church and past the lych-gate with the cemetery beyond. Evelina could just see the darker patch where Tom Cannon’s grave had been covered over for the second time. She wondered who had disturbed the dead and, more than that, who among the living would weep because of it. His family, of course, but what about the many women he had courted? Had any of
his young heiresses, inspired by the latest Gothic novel, thrown themselves on his grave in a fit of weeping?

Evelina shivered. The dismal sight of the grave suited the day. It was growing darker as rain clouds gathered, turning the afternoon to a premature dusk.

Wollaston Church itself was small, but painters had often reproduced the stone frieze above the arched doors. There, fabulous beasts roared, leered, and slavered beneath the conquering feet of a dozen stone saints. Evelina’s imagination was caught by one of the beasts—a ghoul of some kind chomping on a human hand—when Imogen interrupted.

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