Authors: Marian Babson
“That's right, my love,” Lord Soddemall said. “Take our friends upstairs. I'll join you as soon as I've given this woman her tea.”
“No!” Miss Petunia tried to push away the hand bearing the cup to her lips. “Not the tea!”
The cup crashed against her clenched teeth, the liquid spilled into her mouth and cascaded down her chin. She fought in vain against swallowing as the tide of tannin swept down her throat.
“Help!” Miss Petunia gurgled feebly. “Help!”
“My instincts are as fine as any of yours!” Jasmyn insisted as they filed from the dungeon. “I have even refused a man who dared offer me only mere wealth. âMarry you, a
?' I told him. âI may only be the daughter of a Life Peer, but I have
“Oh, well said!” Baroness Silvergate applauded. “We may make something of you yet. A suitable marriage ... A younger son, of course ...”
“Help ...” Miss Petunia could barely whisper now.
“Oh, thanks awfully,” Jasmyn said gratefully. She was the last to follow the others up the stairs, as befitted her lowly rank.
“Help...” The cry was barely audible, but there was only Lord Soddemall to hear her. Miss Petunia felt herself being lowered to the floor. The voices in the distance faded. There was no help from that quarter ... if, indeed, there ever had been.
This was ...
Â Â Â Â E
Â Â Â Â Â n
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â d
” Lorinda said to the figments of her imagination, rolling the page out of her typewriter. Then, nervously, almost superstitiously, she hesitated and looked upwards. Just in case a thunderbolt was on its way.
She was getting to be a bundle of nerves. Not as bad as Macho, perhaps, as witness his performance the other night. Since then, he had been incommunicado, shutting himself away in his house, refusing to answer the doorbell or telephone. Even Roscoe hadn't been out and around.
For that matter, they had all pretty much kept themselves to themselves over the past few days. It was as though the party had drained away all the holiday spirit they might have had. Not a great deal, in any case.
Perhaps Dorian had had the right idea: escape to some foreign, warmer clime and leave the rest of the world behind. An airline limo had collected him shortly before the break of dawn this morning and he would be flown to some Caribbean port to connect with a cruise ship and spend the next fourteen days lazing in the sun.
On second thoughts, she was not so sure she would like it. While Dorian might escape the festivities ashore, he would be a captive audience for all the enforced holiday caperings aboard ship. The Christmas tree and crackers, paper hats and turkey dinner, games and merrymaking with strangers. In fact, it was most unlike Dorian to let himself in for such a series of events. He would have done better to shut himself away, like Macho, and let the holidays roll by without him. There also had to be the dark suspicion that, having gathered his friends and colleagues around him, Dorian was finding anything preferable to their company.
Tap-tap ... tap-tap
... A light clatter downstairs caught her attention. Not the catflap, a sharper more definite sound.
What on earth?
She rose to her feet and went downstairs.
The noise was coming from the other side of the front door. Not exactly someone knocking but ...
tap-tap ... tap-tap
... something was going on. She turned the knob and swung open the door.
“Oh, sorry. Didn't mean to disturb you.” Gordie stood there, a hammer upraised in his hand. “It's supposed to be a surprise. Season's Greetings to you and the Pettifogg Sisters from Dorian and Field Marshal Sir Oliver Aldershot.”
An enormous Christmas wreath swung crookedly on the door. Pine branches twisted into a circle, dotted with silver-painted pine cones, red holly berries, plaited with red and silver ribbons, deliciously fragrant, but ...
“How ... kind of them,” Lorinda said coldly. She had not planned to have a wreath this year â or any year. She had learned her lesson about wreaths. The cats considered a wreath a cross between a personal challenge and a mini-gymnasium. They leaped for it, swung on it, dragged it to the ground and tore it apart, trying to eat the berries and playing knock-them-down-the-steps-and-chase-them with the pine cones.
“Dorian wanted everybody to feel that he was here with them in spirit,” Gordie said. Behind him, a wheelbarrow was heaped high with wreaths. She was evidently the first stop on his rounds.
“Yes, well ...”
tap-tap... tap-tap ...
“I'll just finish up here and be on my way. Unless there's anything else you'd like me to do,” he added politely.
Lorinda watched in silence, shivering in the cold, as he finished securing the wreath to the front door. It was a good effort, but her money was on the cats.
“There!” He stepped back, admiring his handiwork since she obviously wasn't going to. Her silence seemed to unnerve him, as his expectant attitude always unnerved her. He seemed always to be waiting for pearls of wisdom to drop from her mouth, giving him the secret of being a successful writer. He did it with the others, too, she knew. It left them all feeling rather inadequate and unwilling to socialize with him as much as they might have otherwise.
“Well.” He gave a disappointed sigh. No secrets this time. “I'll get on to the next place then. It will look really nice when they're all up. Like a Christmas-card village.”
“Yes,” Lorinda said. “I can't wait to see what Dorian is going to do with us in the summer. Presumably, he intends to enter us in the Prettiest Village in England Competition.”
“Er, I wouldn't know about that.” Gordie slipped his hammer into a loop in his belt and returned to his wheelbarrow, tilted it up and trundled it off the premises.
Lorinda gazed at the wreath thoughtfully, but decided to let Nature red in tooth and claw take its course. What a shame Dorian wouldn't be here to see what happened to his wreath. Perhaps Jack could take a picture of it.
She closed the door, chilled to the bone and not in a very good mood. She went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. Where
the cats? It was nearly lunch time and they were usually underfoot and nagging by this hour. She opened the refrigerator door, a sound guaranteed to bring them running if they were within earshot. Nothing happened.
She took a carton of fish chowder out of the freezer; that would do for all of them, and flipped on the radio for the midday news report. It was reassuring to discover that nothing of any great importance was happening anywhere in the world.
Flip-flop ... flip-flop
... Those were the sounds she had been waiting for. She turned to see Had-I and But-Known advance into the kitchen and head straight for her with little mewls of greeting.
“Just in time,” she said. “Soup's on.”
Had-I lifted her nose, inhaled deeply and expressed loud approval. But-Known's response was equally enthusiastic, but muffled, her mouth was already full.
“Oh, no! What have you got there?” Lorinda crouched down to investigate. “Come on, let me see.”
But-Known backed away skittishly, ready for a game, but too proud of her prize to keep it up for long. She advanced again and allowed herself to be captured.
“Clever girl, let me see.” Lorinda reached for it without fear. In hunting matters, But-Known was a conscientious objector. Had-I was the one you had to watch. In any case, the worst was over; they had bagged Clarice's white rat. What further terrors could their scavenging hold?
“Macho's hair ribbon!” Whoops, how he would hate to hear it described like that. She wondered absently just what he called it. But the narrow black ribbon he tied back his ponytail with was definitely a hair ribbon.
It was also cold and soaking wet. How long had they been playing with it before they brought it home? Lorinda examined it suspiciously for teethmarks. No, no telltale little pinpoint holes, no ravelled threads. She could drape it over a chairback to dry and return it to Macho without too many apologies.
“Where did you get this?” she asked in mock reproof. “Did Macho lose it?” That would mean he had left his self-imposed imprisonment and was moving about the village again.
“Or ...” Another thought occurred to her. “Have you been in visiting Roscoe and decided to do a bit of pilfering while you were there?” That was quite possible. They had been missing Roscoe lately, he usually came over to play with them every day. It was quite typical of them to go out to find him. Macho, of course, would have had no objection to opening the door to them, whatever he was feeling about his human acquaintances these days.
But-Known purred and rubbed against her ankles. Had-I made a sharp remark and looked pointedly at the saucepan simmering on the electric coil and sending out delicious aromas.
“Quite right. I'm hungry, too. We can sort this out later.” Cheered on by the cats, she dished out the fish chowder.
They were just finishing it when there was a clatter at the back door. Macho slithered into the room just as Lorinda called out, “Come in.” He clutched Roscoe in his arms and nudged the door closed with his foot, looking over his shoulder.
“You should never leave a door unlocked like that,” he said ungratefully. “It isn't safe.”
“It's perfectly safe.” She didn't want to admit that she hadn't noticed the door was unlocked. Macho was nervous enough. “What's the matter with you?”
“Matter? I'll tell you what's the matter! Someone's hung a wreath on my door! I'm not dead yet.” Roscoe gave a protesting yowl as the arms around him tightened uncomfortably. “He hasn't got me yet!”
“Macho, it's a Christmas wreath. We've all got them. A little present from Dorian.” The import of his words hit her belatedly. “
hasn't got you yet?”
...” Roscoe had had enough; he twisted from Macho's grip and dropped to the floor, immediately heading for the corner where Had-I and But-Known were hunched over their bowls. He made the mistake of trying to thrust his nose into Had-I's bowl and got a sharp clip across the ear. But-Known growled a warning and a brisk skirmish ensued. They didn't mind sharing the dry cat food with him, but luscious creamy fish chowder was something else again.
Macho recaptured Roscoe and murmured soothingly to him. They both sniffed the air wistfully.
“Have you had lunch?” Lorinda asked. Or even breakfast, she wondered. Macho was looking more haggard and unhappy than when she had last seen him.
“Er, no,” he admitted. “I was going to, but I was distracted by the knocking at the front door. By the time I got there, I found the wreath hanging there and no one in sight. I got Roscoe and came over here to ... to ...” He seemed to have forgotten just why he had come.
“Sit down,” Lorinda said. “I'll heat some more chowder, there's plenty in the freezer.” And, after Macho had eaten and was more relaxed, perhaps he might be willing to tell her why he was so upset.
Roscoe stretched forward to sniff at the bowl Lorinda placed before Macho and drew back with an injured look at discovering that it was empty.
“Don't worry,” she told him. “It will be ready soon.” She placed an empty bowl for him on the floor. Had-I and But-Known promptly roamed over to check it. “You can have some more, too, if you like,” she told them. “There's plenty for everybody.”
The cats protested as she served Macho first, then settled down impatiently over their bowls waiting for the chowder to cool enough to eat. They probably envied Macho's ability to blow on each spoonful before ingesting it.
“By the way ...” Lorinda lifted the black ribbon from the back of Macho's chair and laid it beside his bowl. “I'm afraid But-Known owes you an apology.”
“Little devil's been at it again, has she?” Macho said indulgently, his mood improving with every spoonful. He picked up the ribbon, then frowned.
“No apology due,” he said. “That's not one of mine. I don't have any with silver threads running through them. Bit too excessive.”
“Then where â ? Oh, no!” She turned to But-Known in dismay. “You
nick it from Plantagenet Sutton!”
“There goes a good review on your next book.” Macho was positively cheerful now.
“On the next five books,” Lorinda said dolefully.
“He doesn't like cats, anyway. Or dogs. Or children â although he may have a point where Clarice is concerned.” Macho brooded for a moment. “Maybe he hasn't noticed it's missing. For God's sake, never admit the cat took it. If you take it back to Coffers Court and drop it just inside the door, he may think it fell off.”
“It must have fallen off,” Lorinda said uneasily. “Otherwise, how would But-Known have got it?”
They looked at the cats, who had finished their chowder and were slumped together in a contented heap, replete and purring. Roscoe, eyes closed and with an expression of bliss, was being groomed by Had-I, with But-Known nestled under one forearm, already asleep.
“I'm sure he thinks your girls are his personal harem.” Macho was bemused and perhaps a trifle envious. “And sometimes they act as though they think so, too.”
“He's certainly sweet-natured. He doesn't even mind when they bully and tease him.” Lorinda suddenly noticed that they had slipped into a variation on the theme of how well the cats got along together, the argument Macho had put to her when asking her to take over Roscoe â if anything happened to him. Had this anything to do with the way Macho kept looking over his shoulder, and the curious remark, “He hasn't got me ... yet,” he made as he came through the door?