Memory three: De Lingue mystery
The sun blazes on the pages as I’m sitting at the marble garden table.
My wrists stay cool against the stone as my pens zip over the little notebook.
‘If Jaques was in the library then he couldn’t have known Suzette was in the garden because the library faces the street-side of the house. So either he’s lying about seeing Suzette in the garden, or he wasn’t in the library at all.
I flip the page and keep on reading.
I mumble to myself, pen pressed against my lip “But now Madame Cheri is claiming she saw Suzette in the garden too so unless they’re working together-”
“How about a cup of tea my darling?” mother announces herself as she follows the butler around. “Oh, the weather is absolutely wonderful today.”
She sits down next to me and makes space for the tea tray by pushing my things aside. “Why do you need three jars of ink?” she asks confused by my setup.
“Red for lies, green for facts and black for speculation. It makes it easier to keep track of what everyone’s saying.”
“And what if a fact turns out a lie?” She asks with intrigue in her voice.
“Then I underline it with the proper colour.”
“I see. Well, you can continue your little guessing game in a bit. but first some tea and good company.” She takes the book from me.
“Wait, don’t forget a page marker!” I exclaim searching the table for it.
Mother pulls up her eyebrow but waits patiently nonetheless.
“Oh wait I think it’s in the front of the book,” I explain sheepishly.
She chuckles, pulls the marker from the book and inserts it back on the right page. “Well then, tea! Thank you, Garson.”
The butler bows stiffly and then returns back into the house.
Mother pours the tea and the smell is just divine “You bought a new blend didn’t you?”
“Not quite, but close, the gardener has just brought in a bunch of lavender and drinking lavender in your tea is all the rage right now. The magazines all say it has a calming effect but I’ve yet to see that for myself.
“Take a sip and it’s odd but quite nice.”
“Now how has your day been?”
I shrug “I have been sitting here reading most of the time, how about you?”
“Oh now you see…” she starts rattling off her day, ‘ran into x’ ‘gossipped about y’ “I won’t go into the details but I will say this…”
I take another sip of tea and just nod along, trying my best to register all those names and find it’s more complicated to follow along with real life than with an Antoinette Delarouge novel.
“Now what I don’t understand is why Francis would tell Jacques, that his wife went behind his back, it’s not like Jacques will thank her for it.”
“No but it does drive Mariette, and Jacques apart which can be advantageous if Francis is interested in Jacques.” the words leave me before I register them.
Mother gasps, shocked at my assumption, then a glint forms in her eye. “Of course! Francis has been spending an awful lot of time with Jacques under the guise of business.” She gets up and wipes her skirt down. “I have the most marvellous idea. Mariette invited me to a bash after dinner and I was about to decline because it’ll be your last night here before Julien comes to pick you up again. But now I see I can just take you along with me.”
“Oh…I don’t mind if you go without me mother, I have enough books to read.” These parties tend to just be grown-ups talking about stuff I don’t understand and staring at the clock anyway.
“Nonsense it’ll be fun, like having my own personal spy. No one pays attention to kids during these kinds of things. I just have to know what happened.”
“Because it’s exciting! It’s like your books but it’s better because it’s real.”
“I guess?” I’m not sure what else to make of that logic. A lot of murders happen in my books as well but I wouldn’t exactly want those happening in real life.
She claps her hands excitedly “It’s decided, after you’ve finished your tea you’ll clean all this up and we’ll spend the afternoon getting ready.”
“Great,” I tell her trying my best to feign excitement.
Well, there goes my peaceful afternoon.
Still, I guess it’s fun doing things together with mother.
I get to have all her attention now.
“I’m thinking red or blue what do you like best?
I think both dresses look very pretty and very non-me.
But I think the blue one would at least be a bit less flashy.
And so an hour later I find myself staring down the guest room mirror wearing a pale blue dress made from shell-shaped crochet and every other scallop there’s a pearl sewn giving the gown a special shimmer.
It looks a tad ridiculous to me.
That’s not intended in a mean-spirited manner, of course, the craftsmanship and style are excellent. The nautical theme is a classic that will never die but it just looks weird on a nine-year-old.
“Now hold still as I put the tiara in dear and then the outfit is complete.”
As she slides the jewel past my head my hair is captured so close to my scalp the silver teeth catch occasionally pulling at the strands. My hands ache to tug at it, and give my hair some room but doing so would ruin the look so I ball my fists instead.
“There we have it, a young woman who’s ready to take on the world.” She tells me hands resting on my shoulders.
I mean I guess?…but where am I supposed to keep my book wearing this outfit?
“Does this outfit come with a bag?” I ask carefully.
“Well, normally when you go out dressed like this your plus-one would have enough room in his pockets to carry your things for you.”
“But I don’t have a plus one.”
“Well, what do you want to take with you then?”
“You’re not taking the book with you, you’d be a terrible spy if you’d just spend the evening reading. Besides don’t you have the entire journey back to Jaobai to read?”
I don’t think I have it in me to tell her I think tonight will be very boring and that’s why I want the book.
So I tell her “I guess.” And drop the issue.
The carriage is waiting at the door in its gold and velvet lustre.
“Come on Lizzy darling it’s time to go.”
“Is it a long drive?” I ask naively.
Mother laughs heartily at this “No, no it’s just three streets down.”
“Then can’t we just walk?”
“Poor people walk Elizabeth, we ride our carriage ridiculously short distances because we can afford to.”
“Oh, okay…” That sounds silly to me. But it also sounds like a topic not worth going into an argument over so I follow mother into the carriage only to step out again ten minutes later.
The house must have been built in the ceriy-era judging from the pinnacles on the roof, and the shape of the windows, but they did modernise it quite a bit setting the windows with stained glass and redoing all the drapery.
“Come on Elizabeth, we can’t keep these people waiting.” Mother pulls me by the hand as I try to figure out if the slate stone is the original building material or just cladding
I accept it will remain a mystery “Yes mother.”
A bald man with a sharp suit opens the door for us.
“Nyeeees?” He asks.
“Mariette invited me for tea, name’s Nora.”
“Ah yes, come on in, may I take your coat.”
“Only if you give it back again when I leave.” Mother laughs but it seems she’s the only one amused by that joke.
“I give off my coat in silence, then follow the man as he leads mother and I to a sitting room in a glass extension at the back of the house. The glass is mostly clear but has streaks of pink and pale blue poured into it, reminding me of soap bubbles.
A woman with neatly tucked-back grey hair walks up to us “welcome Nora.” She then looks at me with a start “And who’s this little lady?”
“Mariette meet my daughter Elizabeth, Elizabeth this is Mariette”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I bow respectfully then get a prod in the side and remember to curtsy instead.
“Elizabeth spends most of her time in Jaobai with her father.” Mother explains.
“Oh right! Julien, when is he finally coming back? I imagine those savages are tamed by now?”
Mother shrugs “Who knows? He writes home sometimes but that’s about it. I believe he has quite the fun up there without me.”
“Well, I’m afraid our conversations will be frightfully dull to such a young child.” The woman muses.
“Nonsense, she’s a clever girl, she can keep up.”
The woman ignores mother’s protest and addresses a butler standing by the door “Tell young lady Isobel she’s having a guest tonight. Then escort the young lady to the playroom.”
The butler bows “Yes ma’am”s and swiftly turns on his heel striding out the door.
“Uhm, I-” mother stammers, I look up at her expectantly “How-how kind Mariette.” She chuckles awkwardly then shrugs in my direction as if to say ‘I have no idea either.’
Well then, I guess my last evening in Cygne is spent away from my mother and accompanied by a lady Isobel instead…
Whoever that may be.
“If the lady would kindly follow me.” The butler requests, having somehow materialised right next to me.
My shoulders jump but I nod and get led up steps and hallways, deeper and deeper into the house.
It’s a shame I have to leave the bubble room, but being away from mother also feels kind of…freeing?
I don’t know if I’m supposed to feel bad about that or not but with every step I take I can feel her grip on me weaken.
The butler stops at the final door high up in the house and possibly the furthest I could have gone in this. “He knocks.”
“Yes?” The voice on the other side of the door is young like mine.
“Lady Isobel de Lingue, I present to you Lady Elizabeth Chattoway.” The butler announces as he opens the final door.
The playroom has flowers painted along the walls and rows and rows of dolls watching silently down from chestnut shelves. On a glass chaise sits a girl who can’t be much older than me. Her hair is curled and pinned back in such a way the curls get to escape from every angle. She wears a pink dress that makes her fit in with the dolls perfectly, layered and poofy and pretty and her face is round and kind-looking.
“Hello Elizabeth, how do you do?” she asks with practised perfection as she rises from the chaise, curtsies and makes her way over to me.
My curtsy feels clunky in return “I’m…good…thank you.”
“Would you like to play a game of sleuth?” she asks gesturing to a game board set out on the table.
I look at the game, trying to intuit some sense from it, and fail “I’m afraid I’ve never heard of that game.”
“You want me to explain it to you?”
We sit down together and I look upon the floorplan of a house that must be at least a hundred years old judging from the floorings alone.
Isobel picks up a set of cards and starts dividing them into piles “There are five suspects but only one killer and you have to pick up clues from the deck to figure out who that is.”
“We get to solve a murder?”
“If that sounds like fun to you, I have other games if you-”
“I love solving murders.” I smile.
She smiles back.
Her smile is so perfect it makes me feel warm inside.
She gives me a set of cards and starts explaining the rules in simple steps I can easily follow.
The game isn’t all that difficult, and we solve the first three cases on only a handful of clues.
“You’re very good at this.” Isobel remarks sounding ever so slightly impressed.
I smile widely at this “Thank you, I read a lot of detective novels.”
The moment I mention the detective novels her eyes pick up a special sparkle “What kind of detective novels?”
“I get a new Antoinette Delarouge every year for my birthday.”
“Really?” Her eyes grow big with intrigue “Mother never lets me read those, she thinks they’re too violent.”
“They are! I mean, uhh. They’re not ‘too’ violent but some of the deaths are quite unpleasant.”
Her perfectly practised smile turns mischievous at that, “Will you tell me about them?”
I chuckle conspiratorially “Will you tell your mother I told you about them?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
I scoot closer towards her, making sure no one can hear us, not even if they were listening at the door.
This is our secret now.
“Okay, so there’s this one with where a man was found dead in the woods with his arms and legs chopped off and strange symbols carved into his chest and there are three suspects the wife, the son and the woodsman and-”
“Is it the woodsman?”
I blink at her “Why would it be woodsman?”
“An axe is something a woodsman would use right?”
“Yes, but these books aren’t like this game, they always have a misdirection, so my first thought was that the woodman was out because that would be much too obvious…” I ramble on about murders and suspects and as we talk we devise a new game of our own.
One where I give her the clues to Delarouge books until she can find out who the murderer is and it’s exciting.
The veneer of ‘good breeding’ and ‘decor’ fades away and we get to talk about poison and blood.
My heart is racing with joy.
“There’s no way she’d feed then to the husband-” Isobel says with wide eyes but I nod and her small hands fly to her mouth in response “Oh my word that’s so gross!” she exclaims.
We shiver and giggle and then she quickly asks me to tell another one.
“Maybe you can bring the books next time?”
“I’d love that but…I’m going back to Jaobai tomorrow.” And as I think about tomorrow the room feels colder, as if the magic got sucked out of it all at once.
I think about mother, the reason why she brought me here in the first place, things feel wrong.
“Jaobai? You live in Jaobai!” she exclaims with excitement.
“Yes, with my father.”
“That’s so cool what’s it-”
“Isobel I need to tell you something.”
“Huh?” The girl looks flabbergasted at my sudden severity.
“Mother wanted me to come along so I could help figure out whether your mother is seeing someone besides your father. I had no idea I’d get to spend the evening with you instead, although I am very grateful for that. That doesn’t take away from the fact my motives were corrupt.”
The girl blinks at me, then starts laughing a perfect genuine laugh.
“I’m sorry, for a second I thought you were going to confess to a murder there.” She chuckles “That’s okay, mom had me play with you so you wouldn’t snoop into her business. But I’m glad for it too, you’re really cool Elizabeth.”
“Thank you, you’re really sweet Isobel.” I pause, I really shouldn’t but “So… does your mother really cheats on your father?”
She squints at me as if weighing whether all the things I told her up until now are enough to buy this big secret “Well, I can explain the situation but will you tell your mother then?”
“In that case, no she’s not cheating on father. But she did have a lover before she got married. I won’t tell you his name even though I know it but he wasn’t rich enough to marry her and when she got pregnant she panicked and proposed to my father.”
“She was pregnant already?”
“Uhu. Father doesn’t know, at least not as far as I know, so no telling him either okay?”
“Huh, thank you for telling me that.”
She smiles “Now never mind that, tell me everything about Jaobai, is it true they all look the same?”
“No!?” I scoff “Where did you learn that?”
There’s a knock on the door we both yelp in unison but Isobel is the quickest to recover “Come in.”
“Lady Nora Chattoway is ready to go home.”
“Already?” I flip open my watch and find to my shock it’s already ten in the evening. “Oh.”
“Will you come back again? You’ll visit more often right?”
“I will, I don’t know when but next time I come here I’ll visit you again Isobel.”
She hugs me, my heart beats rapidly like a bird’s.
Then the magic breaks as her arms pull away.
The butler takes me back down stairways and corridors, the strings pulling me to my parents tightening around my ankles and wrists as I walk.
“Hello, darling. Did you have a fun time?” Mother asks me as she stands by the door already wearing her coat.
“Yes mother, Isobel is nice. Next time I would like to visit her again.”
“How nice, now put on your coat, the carriage is waiting.”
I do as I’m told, then wish the butler a good night before walking out into the night.
The air is cool but not cold, it makes the world feel fresh.
I sigh, what I would give to just enjoy this weather and walk home by myself, just me and my thoughts.
But that’s not how this story ends.
I get into the carriage and the moment the door closes mother starts rattling off the usual gossip. ‘X said this, y did that.’
I stare out the window feeling satisfied knowing that there’s a girl out there who shares my interest.
A girl I really like.
“So did you find something out?” she asks me as we exit the carriage again, more as an afterthought than anything else.
I look at her and smile
“No, nothing, it didn’t come up at all.”