Mistletoe and murder, p.11
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       Mistletoe and Murder, p.11

           Robin Stevens
 
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  Amanda glared. ‘They pay,’ she said. ‘I need the money. And I can do it all – I’ve managed so far, haven’t I?’

  ‘Have you?’ I asked. I looked at her, and thought that she did not look as though she was managing in the slightest.

  ‘I’m the cleverest in my year,’ said Amanda. ‘Not that the dons acknowledge it. D’you know that the last essay I did for Chummy got ten marks more than mine? I wrote both of them, but he’s a man, so his must be better.’

  ‘You didn’t write any essays for Bertie, did you?’ Daisy asked.

  Amanda turned red. ‘Not for money,’ she said. ‘He’s my friend.’

  I suddenly understood at least part of the exchange we had seen between Bertie and Chummy – they were both in on the essay-writing trick. I also saw what I ought to have realized all along: that Amanda’s feelings for Bertie were not just a pash. She lit up for him in a way that I recognized.

  ‘Oh, bother Bertie!’ cried Daisy. ‘Getting himself mixed up in something else illegal! He really has acted dreadfully this term. I can’t think what’s got into him! But, listen, you mustn’t write any more essays. Not for him, not for anyone. You’ll be sent down for it, and so will they!’

  ‘I may be sent down anyway,’ said Amanda. ‘Bertie told me at the beginning of the hols that someone at Maudlin’s worked out that the boys have been buying essays and notes from me. Chummy went into his rooms after dinner one night and there were papers and books missing – lots of the things I’d done for him. He was sure that someone had found out what was going on, but he didn’t know who. That’s why I’ve been steering clear of the college recently. Bertie thought it was for the best, until Chummy had dealt with it. Anyway, I know I ought to stop, but I’ve got to keep going now I’ve started. Bertie needs me to!’

  I was terribly worried. I wanted to help Amanda, but I did not know how to. She was so angry, and so in pain. It made me hurt just to be near her.

  Then Daisy nudged me. She was looking at Amanda’s coat. I stared at it, confused. It did not look very extraordinary. I could see rust and bits of paint from the Horse, ink stains on the cuffs and pockets – she really had been working hard on her essays – mud on the hem, and specks of red dust on the front.

  ‘Can’t you go away?’ asked Amanda. ‘Really, it’s too much! And if you dare tell anyone what you know, I’ll tell Miss Mountfitchet that you’ve been going around Cambridge on your own, all right?’ She glared at us.

  ‘All right!’ said Daisy. ‘We’ll leave you alone. But, look – I’m going to have it out with Bertie. This can’t go on. I don’t care what you say: you’ve got to stop. He’s got to learn to stand on his own two feet. Come on, Hazel! Let’s go.’

  ‘What did you notice?’ I asked, as soon as we were out of the tea room.

  ‘The mud and the dust,’ said Daisy, leading me back down the street in a rush. ‘The mud was very fresh, barely flaking, and it was only on the hem. And the dust – I’m sure it was brick dust.’

  ‘So?’ I said. ‘There are brick buildings all over Cambridge. St Lucy’s is made of brick. Amanda might have leaned against it anywhere.’

  ‘Yes, but, Hazel, you know as well as I do (or you would, if you paid attention) that new brick doesn’t flake like that. No, it must have been from an old brick building. And, more importantly—’

  6

  But she never finished her sentence. We came down a passageway to a wide-open market space, full of stalls. Some were billowing with the most lovely food smells, while others were piled high with jewel-like jams and hats and balls of yarn. There was a great heap of Christmas trees in one corner of the square, and standing in front of them, a rather puzzled look on his face, was Bertie.

  Daisy let out a hiss of rage, and went storming towards him. I followed behind her as quickly as I could.

  ‘I say,’ Bertie was asking the stallholder as we arrived, ‘do you have a sort of – small-room-sized one? These are all awfully large. And do you sell baubles and tinsel? You know – things to, er, dress it? My sister, she needs—’ He broke off as he saw us, and his cheeks went rather red. ‘Squashy!’ he said. ‘Hazel! What are you doing here? You’ve spoiled the surprise! I was looking for a Christmas tree. Funny, you never think about where they come from, do you? Chapman always organized it. But I thought that as it was just, well, us this year . . . we ought to have a tree.’

  ‘I can cut this one down to the right size,’ said the stallholder, his breath misting out white, ‘but you’ll have to buy baubles elsewhere. They sell ’em in Woolworths, sir, quite cheaply.’

  ‘Oh!’ said Bertie.

  ‘Bertie,’ snapped Daisy. ‘I want words with you.’

  ‘Goodness me, be careful, sir!’ laughed the Christmas-tree seller – and then he faltered and stopped as he took in Daisy’s face properly.

  ‘Come over here,’ said Bertie, and he guided us away to the centre of the square. ‘What’s up?’

  ‘You lied to us!’ hissed Daisy. ‘You didn’t tell us that you were out of your rooms last night climbing buildings with Harold and George and Alexander! You didn’t take us with you!’

  ‘Of course I couldn’t take you with me! Girls don’t climb!’ snapped Bertie. I backed away as quietly as I could. This was one conversation that I did not want to be part of.

  ‘I am not a girl!’ cried Daisy. ‘I am your sister! And you are an idiot. How long have you been getting all your lecture notes from Amanda? Did she write essays for you too?’

  Bertie went white. ‘I’ll have you know that Manda offered to do it,’ he said.

  ‘But you knew it was wrong of her! You must have! Bertie, what’s happened to you this term? You’re . . . not doing credit to Fallingford. You’ve got to start looking after yourself properly!’

  ‘Don’t talk to me about Fallingford!’ cried Bertie. ‘What happened there – well, everything changed. It’s just the two of us now, and I’m trying to make a proper Christmas for you. And now my friend’s died. I think we’re cursed. I think I’m cursed, Squashy.’ His face crumpled. ‘I came back some time after two this morning. I thought I’d been caught: all the lights were on, and there were people running up and down the staircase. I came out of my rooms, hands up – and found that Chummy was dead. I don’t think anyone even noticed I’d been gone.’

  ‘Oh, Squinty, you fool,’ said Daisy. ‘Here, come on—’ And she reached up and pulled him into a hug. It made me see how much they cared for each other, despite everything. Their family had shrunk, and shrunk again, and these days, I knew, it really was just the two of them. I realized too how achingly glad I was that Bertie had nothing to do with the murder. Daisy’s family have rather become mine, in England, and what matters to her now matters to me, as though we are two halves of the same person.

  ‘We’ll still have Christmas, you ass,’ said Daisy to Bertie, muffled in his coat. ‘Come on, pay for that tree of yours, and we’ll take it to Maudlin and help set it up.’

  ‘Hazel, this is perfect!’ she whispered to me, as Bertie made his way back to the Christmas-tree stall. ‘Bother the Master’s ban. We have a way back into Maudlin after all!’

  1

  The stallholder helped Bertie strap the Christmas tree to his bicycle, and together we wheeled it through the streets of Cambridge, stopping at Woolworths for tinsel and baubles. The sky was gloomier than ever, and as we passed King’s College Chapel something tickled my nose. I looked up to see that little dark specks were falling from the clouds, turning feathery and white as they drifted past the tops of the buildings.

  ‘It’s snowing!’ I said in delight. Real, proper snow is still so alien to me. The first time I saw it I felt that I really had stepped into a storybook, and I never can quite get rid of that burst of wonder in my chest.

  ‘What a bother!’ said Bertie, panting rather, the bicycle wobbling dangerously as it turned a corner. ‘Golly, isn’t this tree spiky? I never knew.’

  As we approached Maudlin, I felt butterflies in m
y stomach. Would we really be allowed back in? What if the Master stopped us? But Bertie strode up to the porter’s lodge door and pushed it open, shouting, ‘Hoy! Any fellows about to give a hand?’

  ‘Us!’ cried someone I knew very well, and out of the lodge doors came George and Alexander.

  ‘Hello!’ said Alexander in delight. ‘Daisy! Hazel! We’ve got—’ He paused and stared at Bertie.

  ‘– things to say later,’ said George, coming up behind him and winking at us.

  They picked up one end of the tree, and with Bertie went staggering through the door into the Maudlin porter’s lodge like a six-legged beetle. Daisy and I followed along. Bertie and George both had very definite ideas about how best to carry the tree, and they both shouted orders at Alexander, who laughed good-naturedly and did most of the lifting.

  As we all passed the porter’s cubby, Mr Perkins said, ‘Hey! You shouldn’t be here!’

  ‘Let them, Perkins!’ cried Bertie. ‘Please. I know what the Master said, but it’s Christmas Eve!’

  He looked so tragic that Perkins tutted, and his moustache trembled. ‘Oh, very well,’ he said. ‘But mind, don’t let them out of your sight!’ We were allowed past his post. My heart was beating.

  Left we went, along the length of the quad. Snowflakes settled on the dark green spikes of the tree, and on the shoulders and heads of the boys. They were not shouting any more. The subdued atmosphere of Maudlin had settled on us all along with the snow. This was a place where a murder had taken place, and I felt it.

  ‘Staircase nine!’ gasped Bertie. ‘Come on, up the stairs!’

  As we passed Michael Butler’s door at the bottom of the staircase, I tensed. I knew that if he came out, he would stop us. Then the door opened and Daisy and I ducked behind the tree.

  ‘Excellent idea, Wells,’ said Michael’s voice. ‘Managing?’

  ‘The boys are helping,’ said Bertie.

  ‘Let me know if you need anything,’ said Michael, and then he retreated back into his rooms, and the door closed. I breathed out. The Pinkertons had done what we asked – with Bertie’s help, they had got us into Maudlin.

  The boys panted upstairs, sprays of pine needles bouncing down to scatter against my coat and burrow their way down past my scarf to the neck of my jumper.

  Daisy rushed ahead and pushed open the door, and we all surged in. The boys leaned the tree against the far right-hand wall, and Bertie clicked on the electric light. I looked around his sitting room. It was just like Chummy’s: a fireplace in front of me, a desk to its right, a window that looked out onto the quad we had just come from, and another to the left of the fireplace that looked out over the dons’ garden. A sofa and a chair were ranged around the fireplace, with a table under the window, and far to the left was another door, slightly ajar – I could see a bed and a basin, and clothes draped across the floor. The whole place was untidy: there were scarves and socks and cravats scattered everywhere, just like Chummy’s rooms.

  ‘You’re untidier than ever!’ exclaimed Daisy. ‘Bertie!’

  ‘Oh, quiet!’ said Bertie. ‘All right, now what do we do about the tree? Why is it leaning like that?’

  ‘I expect it needs a pot,’ said Daisy, rolling her eyes.

  ‘So it does! We need to get a pot. A big one, I suppose?’

  Bertie stared at us all doubtfully, and I got the distinct sense that he was feeling the way I had in the tea shop – as though he was playing at being a grown-up, and was about to be found out.

  ‘Go and ask Moss for one,’ said Daisy. ‘We’ll be quite all right here.’

  ‘All right,’ said Bertie. ‘But don’t get yourself in trouble, Squashy!’

  And he left the room.

  2

  He had scarcely closed the door when Daisy whirled on the boys. ‘Quick!’ she cried. ‘What have you discovered so far? We know which shop the fishing line came from, and that a Chinese man went in and bought some. We also met Amanda, and discovered that she has been writing essays for Chummy, Donald and Bertie, as well as lecture notes – and that someone at Maudlin knew. That’s why Amanda hasn’t come into the college. Bertie told her to stay away until Chummy had discovered who it was!’

  ‘Who do you think it was?’ asked Alexander. ‘One of our suspects?’

  ‘It can’t be Donald, obviously, or Bertie,’ said Daisy. ‘If it is one of our suspects, it could have been Moss, Michael, Perkins or Alfred – and whichever of them it was, it would strengthen their motive against Chummy.’

  ‘Wait, it can’t have been Perkins!’ said George. ‘We’ve ruled him out!’

  ‘We’ve been listening in to interviews,’ agreed Alexander. ‘Just like we did on the Orient Express. We followed PC Cross about, and got everyone’s alibis for yesterday evening. I’ve written them down, here.’ He took out his notebook, and I peered at it. Alexander is the one who taught me shorthand, earlier this year, and so I can read it. Daisy craned over at it as well, but I knew that to her, it was just scribbles. I felt a moment’s pride at that – here was something that only Alexander and I shared.

  ‘Perkins knows that the staircase nine lot are troublemakers – he was quite rude about them, though he clearly has a soft spot for Bertie – and he said that no one apart from Maudlin dons and students came into the college last night,’ George went on. ‘He’s quite sure of that. Then he said the important thing. He went to bed just after twelve – he lives above the lodge with his wife. But his wife stayed up. There’s an ill second-year student, Walter Cookridge, from staircase four, and Perkins’s wife is looking after him: she’s got him set up on a little bed down in their living room. There isn’t any way that Perkins could have crept out without disturbing them both – so, you see, he’s ruled out! And he gave some other useful information. Because of the ill student, it took Perkins an age to drift off. He looked at the clock at quarter to one, and he remembers hearing something outside his window then. He thinks someone was climbing on the lodge tower.’

  ‘Bertie?’ asked Daisy sharply.

  ‘It can’t be!’ said Alexander. ‘He was already with us by then. And anyway, he went out down the drainpipe into the dons’ garden, and over that wall. He wasn’t anywhere near the lodge tower. So it was someone else. Everyone from staircase nine says they were in their rooms, but someone wasn’t telling the truth.’

  He sounded affronted. Alexander dislikes lying more than anyone else I know.

  ‘Michael locked up the staircase at eleven, and then he says he was in his rooms, working,’ said George. ‘Chummy and Donald were messing about on the top landing just after half past twelve, shouting at each other and bothering Moss, so Michael went upstairs to tell them off. After that he went back to his rooms and went straight to sleep. He wasn’t woken by anything until the crash.

  ‘Donald mentioned the same incident. He argued with Chummy – I think it was over that jacket, the one you saw. He says he shouted at him, Michael came up to shut them up, they went back to their rooms, and that was it. He went to bed, and stayed there until Chummy fell.’

  ‘Didn’t he mention Moss?’ I asked.

  ‘Exactly,’ said George. ‘That’s missing – and that’s not the only thing. But go on, Alex. Tell them about Alfred.’

  ‘According to what Alfred told PC Cross, he was in his rooms the whole evening. Reading until he went to sleep, and he was woken by the fall.’

  ‘Dull,’ said Daisy. ‘And possibly untrue. Alfred is becoming an excellent suspect. What about Moss? And what did Perkins tell you?’

  ‘Moss was behaving oddly,’ said Alexander. ‘He’s definitely hiding something. At first he said that he finished his tasks on the staircase just before twelve thirty and went to bed. His rooms are up next to Chummy and Donald’s. Cross asked about Chummy and Donald’s argument, and Moss hesitated – said he’d forgotten, that it wasn’t anything, that he only went out and saw it for a moment before he went back to his rooms.’

  ‘He says he was woken up by the fall,
said George. ‘Same story.’

  ‘Any clues, apart from all of that?’ asked Daisy. ‘Did you manage to get into anyone’s rooms?’

  Alexander shook his head. ‘We did try!’ he said. ‘Only everyone was in them, waiting to be questioned by PC Cross.’

  ‘But now that you’re here—’ said George.

  Bertie came back in, hauling the most enormous terracotta pot, piled high with Christmas decorations.

  ‘Moss found it for me!’ said Bertie triumphantly. ‘Isn’t it fine? And he threw in all these as well. He says we can decorate the staircase.’

  The four of us flashed each other a look. This was the perfect opportunity to look at the staircase, and perhaps investigate some of the rooms.

  ‘Excellent!’ said Daisy. ‘Oh, come on, then, put the tree up so we can decorate it first!’

  3

  The next hour or so was a whirl of Christmas. The boys put the tree in the pot, realized they had nothing to hold it up and ended up piling in Bertie’s wellingtons and several textbooks that he swore he did not need until next term. We pulled the baubles out of their bags – they were lovely and bright red and green and gold – and strung them up over ropes of crackling tinsel. Then we fixed candles onto the end of each branch (they listed rather dangerously, I thought, and I was worried about what would happen when they were lit) and stood back to admire the effect. It was haphazard, but lovely, and I felt proud. I had never actually decorated a tree before – it was always something the servants had done – and I could see from Bertie and Daisy’s faces that it was the same for them.

  ‘Not bad!’ said Bertie triumphantly. ‘There, d’you see, Squashy, we don’t need any help!’

  ‘Of course we don’t,’ said Daisy. ‘Just us. And Hazel.’

 
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