Gerald Crabtree, Viscount Diddums, and now the 7th Earl of Cadblister, walked slowly up to the Hall, dabbing at his bleeding lip with a handkerchief as he went. He had much to think about.
Girls, he meant to say, were rum. Take Verity, now, just as an example selected at random. He’d given that bounder Randall the whacking he so richly deserved. Surely it was the duty as well as the pleasure of right-thinking men to swat little beetles like Randall. But did Verity see it that way? Did she fuss over her victorious champion, her warrior returned to her, triumphant but wounded, from the fray? Did she do the Desdemona and demand a blow-by-blow of the fight? She did not. What she did was continue to play the organ for five minutes or so while he tried to talk to her, and then, after banging what sounded like every single key and sound-effect at once, turn on him, eyes blazing, and accuse him of being a brute.
Well, he meant to say! Extraordinary, what? Could it, the Viscount wondered, be all of this Suffrage stuff? Could it, in fact, be driving Verity mad? Some of those anti-Suffrage birds seemed to have a lot to say about the fragility of women’s minds. Could they be right? And, if so- where did he, Viscount Diddums, get off? Should he continue to support Suffrage, and thus please Verity? Or should he tell her, in an honest, manly, straightforward fashion, that he feared that she’d got swelling of the brain from being a Suffragette, and that in his opinion she should stop talking rot and get back in that Woman’s Sphere, whatever it was? It was a real question.
But, on second thought, one had to remember that Verity was the daughter of a Vicar. She had always had extraordinary notions about Cruelty, Brutality, and so on. Why, she’d made him stop huntin’ and shootin’ – though so far, fishin’ was yet permitted him. And she’d not absolutely banned shootin’- only she made it dashed clear that every animal he brought down must be eaten. Fair enough, he supposed, but havin’ to consider the economics of the table the whole time did rather reduce the pleasure of blazin’ away at a bunch of birds. Or it had done, until Verity’d pointed out to him that excess game could be given away to the poorer members of the village. But his main point was this: that all girls were rum, and Vicar’s daughters were rummier still.
Still, he wished she’d been at least a little bit interested in the fight. Randall looked such a weed, but really he’d been quite a difficult opponent. And the blister hadn’t even heard of Queensbury rules, judging from his technique. Not that the Viscount liked to have to keep his own fisticuffs within the bounds of the mannerly Marquis, but there were things he did bar. Biting, for example. And hair-pulling. And kneeing in the-
But he had now reached the Hall. As he handed Sneakfork his topper, gloves, stick, coat, etc., he heard the sound of weeping. He tracked the noise to the drawing room, where he found his sister Belinda Giving Way To Her Emotions, and with extravagant abandon.
“What ho, Lobster!” He said, hoping that the childish pet-name would have a soothing effect. It didn’t. Belinda just sobbed harder. “I say-“
She looked up at him- and gaped. “Hello ugly,” she said, “what on earth has happened to you?”
“I went ten rounds with that murderin’ bounder Randall. Not nearly the total loss he looks as a fighter.”
“You think- you think Randall killed father?” Belinda was watching him closely.
The Viscount looked at his sister, surprised. “Why, of course. They quarreled, you know. That’s all over the village. And he’s a nasty, vengeful sort of cove, is Randall Grudge. And just the chap to lie in ambush for a man on a dark night. And he’d have no objection to stabbing his victim in the back.”
“How do you know that?”
The Viscount rolled up his sleeve and showed his sister a red and slightly bloody circle on his forearm. “He bites. Not Cricket. Therefore, I deduce that the stab in the back would equally present no difficulty to his conception of manhood. Q.E.D.”
“Oh.” And Belinda was silent again, slumped and forlorn. “I don’t believe it. Oh, I want to! I want to believe it was Randall! Or anyway, I’d rather it was Randall than- than- oh Gerald, I’m so worried!” And there she was, gushing tears once again.
“There, there,” said the Viscount, feeling futile and ineffective. What was the good, he thought angrily, of standing there saying ‘there, there’? “There, there,” he said again, this time patting his sister on the head as he said it. Not a bit of good. She just kept crying. Should he, he wondered, strike her across the face? No, he decided, remembering certain incidents of their shared nursery. He didn’t dare. Randall, yes. Belinda, no. She had a flow of rhetoric that had to be heard to be believed. And she was an even dirtier fighter than Randall. But that was girls for you.
“What’s wrong?” He asked.
Belinda sniffed. “Oh Gerald, what if it was mummy? What if it was Aunt Theo? What if it was the Colonel? What if-“
“Don’t be absurd,” said the Viscount.
“I can’t help it,” Belinda replied.
“Think of something else,” urged the Viscount.
“I can’t- or… oh, Gerald, I know the very thing!”
“I know what will take my mind right off all these beastly suspicions! And it is, after all, Christmas. Oh, let’s!”
“Let’s what?” Asked the Viscount, feeling an unaccountable sensation of dread creeping up the old spine.
“Go sledding on Hag Hill! We used to do that every Christmas, when the adults pushed us outdoors. I know where the sleds are stored, and I’m sure you still have the old skill!” Belinda was now girlishly excited. The Viscount did not relish the exercise, but he couldn’t say no.
“But I say,” he said, “I haven’t shoved a sled around for years, you know. And there are a lot of biggish trees and things growing on Hag Hill. I’d hate for you to come a cropper.”
Belinda looked at him impatiently. “I’ll be fine. I really can’t believe the old skill has deserted you. Of course, if you don’t want to-” And the tears welled up in her eyes once again.
“Oh, jolly good,” he said, resigned. “Let’s get bundled up and face the elements.”
They bundled and trudged out into the grounds of the Hall, stopping at the particular shed where Belinda knew the sleds to be stored. There they were, thought the Viscount gloomily, all as good as bally new. Perfectly seaworthy, providing not an ounce of an excuse for abandoning the outing. He put on a holiday-cheer sort of smile. “Well, well, here the old things are, what?” He said, rubbing his hands.
When they got to the hill, the afternoon was starting to stretch out shadowy fingers towards evening. This emphasized the number and size of the trees that grew here and there on the slope that Belinda would soon be whizzing down. But the Viscount, after standing perfectly still for a moment, communing, it seemed, with the slope and the trees in some sphere of pure math, backed up seven steps, took a breath, and ran towards Belinda, arms outstretched. His hands got her between the shoulder-blades, and she was off! The Viscount watched the tiny projectile hurtling down the slope, neatly missing every obstacle. He noted with satisfaction that her sled came to a halt just a few yards short of the stream. He was about to go down to help her haul her sled- when he caught sight of something in the woods, something that moved with stealthy purpose through the trees.
“Oh Gerald, that was wonderful! But why didn’t you come help me pull the sled?” Belinda called to him as, puffing, she joined him at the top of the hill.
“I say, old thing,” the Viscount said slowly, “what on earth is mother doing?” And he pointed to the figure that was, by now, but barely discernible as moving up the opposite slope. “That is mother, I guarantee it.”
Belinda squinted. Then she laughed, a trifle nervously. “She’s- well, she’s going to see old Mrs. Goodkind.”
Belinda shrugged. “She’s been visiting her a lot lately.”
There was an awkward silence.
“Oh. Right. Jolly good,” said the Viscount after a moment. “Want another go?”
Belinda shivered. “No thanks. Let’s get back.” And they trudged back to the Hall. But when they came in, All Was Not Well. Sneakfork was, in fact, rattled. The Viscount stared. Sneakfork was never rattled. And yet- well, he was now.
“Oh, I am glad to see you back, my Lord, my Lady,” Sneakfork dithered. “Of course, that Fannie is a flighty piece-that is, an unreliable young woman- but neither Cook nor I could discover that she was telling lies.” He took a deep breath. “She says that Constable Wilkins has gone and arrested Miss Meadows for the murder of his late Lordship. My Lord.” This last utterance sounded like a cry to the Almighty.