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       Horton Halfpott; Or, the Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; Or, the Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset, p.1

           Tom Angleberger
 
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Horton Halfpott; Or, the Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; Or, the Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset


  PUBLISHER’S NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Angleberger, Tom.

  Horton Halfpott, or, The fiendish mystery of Smugwick Manor, or, The loosening of

  M’Lady Luggertuck’s corset / Tom Angleberger.

  p. cm.

  ISBN 978-0-8109-9715-8 (alk. paper)

  [1. Household employees—Fiction. 2. Social classes—Fiction. 3. Conduct of life—Fiction. 4.

  Eccentrics and eccentricities—Fiction. 5. Great Britain—History—Victoria, 1837–1901—

  Fiction. 6. Mystery and detective stories.] I. Title. II. Title: Fiendish mystery of Smugwick

  Manor. III. Title: Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s corset.

  PZ7.A585Hor 2011

  [Fic]—dc22

  2010038096

  Text and interior illustrations © 2011 Tom Angleberger

  Book design by Melissa Arnst

  Published in 2011 by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the publisher. Amulet Books and Amulet Paperbacks are registered trademarks of Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

  Amulet Books are available at special discounts when purchased in quantity for premiums

  and promotions as well as fundraising or educational use. Special editions can also be created

  to specification. For details, contact [email protected] or the address below.

  www.abramsbooks.com

  In Which the Corset Is Loosened . . .

  There are so many exciting things in this book—a Stolen Diamond, snooping stable boys, a famous detective, the disappearance of a Valuable Wig, love, pickle éclairs, unbridled Evil, and the Black Deeds of the Shipless Pirates—that it really does seem a shame to begin with ladies’ underwear.

  But the underwear, you see, is the reason that all those Unprecedented Marvels happened—with the possible exception of the pickle éclairs. The underwear in question was a painful item called a corset. A corset, you see, is a sort of undershirt made of straps and sticks and strings and whalebones. In the days of horse-drawn carriages and powdered wigs, some women—and some men—would strap themselves into a corset and it would squeeze them and pinch them so much that they would look skinny.

  Imagine being pinched like that day after day, year after year. It could make a nice lady into a mean one. So imagine what it would do to a lady like M’Lady Luggertuck, who was a nasty beast to start.

  Our story begins one morning, long after the corset had turned M’Lady Luggertuck into one of the worst people in the world. For some reason, which no one knows, M’Lady Luggertuck decided not to be pinched and squeezed that morning.

  “Not quite so tight today, Crotty,” said M’Lady Luggertuck as Old Crotty, her lady’s maid, pulled at her corset strings.

  Old Crotty gasped. And she was not the sort who gasps very often. In fact, it had been seventeen years since she had expressed surprise of any kind.

  But in Old Crotty’s long memory there had never been a day when M’Lady Luggertuck had not wanted her corset as tight as Crotty could get it. Crotty was a tiny old thing, but she could pull those corset strings tighter than a hangman’s noose. But not this day. A disappointed Crotty gave the strings not the usual mighty yank, but only a halfhearted tug.

  “Ah, that feels much better, Crotty,” said M’Lady Luggertuck.

  What with the rest of the dressing and a trip to the westernmost linen closet, a full twenty minutes elapsed before Old Crotty arrived in the kitchen to supervise the twisting of the customary Luggertuck Breakfast Fruitbraid.

  And yet, in those twenty minutes, did it not seem that the news of the Unprecedented Marvel of the Loosened Corset had already spread throughout Smugwick Manor? Did it not seem to have already disturbed the stagnant air of the place from root cellar to turret?

  There was a feeling amongst the servants that they might get away with, say, wiping their noses on their sleeves—an offense that would normally cost them their job. Footmen felt they might slouch a little. Maids felt they might scrub less thoroughly.

  And in the kitchen . . . the iron rule of law was felt to be just a little rusty.

  When Crotty finally reached the kitchen, she found no cook preparing to braid the Luggertuck Breakfast Fruitbraid. Another shock to the old maid.

  The reason for the cook’s absence was Horton Halfpott, the lowest, most pathetic kitchen boy in the whole place. The cook, Miss Neversly, had found it necessary to beat him—yet again.

  Horton had dropped a stack of firewood somewhat carelessly next to the stove. That sort of thing was not done! The firewood was to be placed by the stove one piece at a time, very carefully and very quietly. When the pulpy clank of the dropped wood rang out, the cook had abandoned the Fruitbraid in favor of cracking young Halfpott on the head with a wooden spoon, repeatedly.

  “Lazy, lazy, lazy boy!” roared Miss Neversly, a middle-aged woman with two hundred years’ worth of meanness in her. Her wild black hair whipped across her furious face as she swung her spoon at the kitchen boy. “Wretched wart-covered ape!”

  Beware, Reader; do not form an opinion of Horton based on Miss Neversly’s cruel words. True, he had just been a trifle careless in the matter of firewood fetching. However, he is to be the hero of our story and it is only fair to point out that he was ill-paid and ill-treated for his services, which mostly involved the washing of dishes and were normally done quite carefully.

  Also, please don’t judge him by his appearance. His clothes were grubby because he only had one set and he worked in a messy kitchen. His brown hair was messy because he didn’t have a comb or a brush. His head was a little wobbly, his nose was kind of funny, and his lips were a little too lippy because that’s just the way they were.

  He was a smart boy and a pretty friendly one, too, but those qualities rarely shine when you’re stuck in a hot, smoky, greasy kitchen day after day after day.

  “Please stop hitting me with your spoon, Miss Neversly,” Horton said. See, Reader? He was polite and mannerly, even in those circumstances, even while being beaten about the head with a wooden spoon.

  “How many times have I told you not to drop the firewood?” demanded Neversly.

  “Why, never, Miss Neversly. You’ve never had occasion to tell me, because this is the first time I’ve ever done it.”

  This was quite true. He had of course wanted to drop the firewood, as any kitchen boy would. Kitchen boys do not see the merits of bending down and gently placing firewood on the floor. And rightly so—it’s bad for the back.

  Nonetheless, Horton Halfpott had never dropped the firewood before. Here, in Smugwick Manor, the ancestral home of the Luggertucks, there had always been a sense that such behavior simply wasn’t proper.

  But today things were different. There had been a Loosening. Horton felt it, and so did everyone else. And may God have mercy on their souls!

  In Which Evil Wakes Earlier Than Usual . . .

  The Loosening was felt from manor to lodge, arbor to alcove, garden to gable.

  The s
trict rules that had long governed Smugwick Manor, the rules that kept servants obedient and M’Lady Luggertuck omnipotent, had been relaxed. Not done away with, mind you, but relaxed just a tiny little bit, which is more than they’d ever been relaxed before.

  The servants weren’t the only ones to feel it.

  Deep in the bowels of the manor, an Ancient Evil stirred to life.

  Actually, it wasn’t all that ancient—only about sixteen years old. But it was Evil, all right. And its name was . . . Luther Luggertuck.

  Luther, the offspring of M’Lady and Sir Whimperton Luggertuck and the heir to Smugwick Manor, normally slept late. But that morning the Loosening tugged him from his wicked, wicked dreams.

  He felt the change, and it frightened him. He liked things Tight, not Loose. He liked being able to boss people around and treat them like dirt. It was his birthright.

  He slithered from his room and went to see what was going on.

  Peering around a corner, he saw Old Crotty whispering with Footman Jennings, who was also old but didn’t like being called Old Jennings. They appeared to be flirting! Disgusting! Servants aren’t supposed to enjoy themselves.

  Putting his ear to a door, he eavesdropped upon Colonel Osgood Sitwell, a permanent houseguest at Smugwick Manor. Luther was shocked to hear the Colonel say thank you to Milly, the new maid. Disgraceful! Gentlemen didn’t thank servants, they ordered them about!

  While hiding behind a bush, Luther saw his father taking a stroll in the garden with a slight smile upon his face. Unbelievable! He didn’t even know his father could do such a thing with his lips.

  Sneaking in a back door, he came across Horton Halfpott carrying a tray piled with freshly washed silverware. The filthy boy was humming! No one hums in Smugwick Manor!

  Luther tripped Horton and the silverware went flying. Normally Horton would have been prepared to dodge Luther’s kicks and shoves, but he hadn’t expected him to be up so early.

  “Very sorry, Master Luggertuck,” said Horton, because that is how a servant is expected to respond to the Heir of Smugwick’s mistreatment.

  “Pick it all up and rewash it!” ordered Luther. “I’ll be checking it at lunchtime! If I find a speck of dirt, I’ll have you whipped.”

  “Of course, Master Luggertuck,” said Horton, already thinking of Miss Neversly’s reaction to his returning to the kitchen with dirty silverware. And he’d be in even worse trouble if he tried to blame Luther.

  Long before Horton had picked up the last of the spilled spoons, Luther had wound his way to the other side of the castle where lay M’Lady’s Chambers.

  Moving aside a painting, Two Dogs Eating a Dead Gopher, Luther put his eye to a secret peephole and spied on M’Lady herself. This was a thing he rarely dared to do. For one thing, he didn’t want to see M’Lady in her underwear and, for another, M’Lady was the one mortal who frightened him. She was a Considerably Larger and Somewhat More Ancient Evil.

  But all of the Unprecedented Marvels he had just seen had Luther rattled. He didn’t know about the corset, of course, but he was certain his mother must have something to do with the Loosening, since, after all, she was the one who normally kept things Tight.

  Ah, Luther, you scoundrel, if only you knew—the Loosening was just the beginning.

  Another preternatural force had been unleashed, and it was at that moment a’hurtling down upon Smugwick Manor like a summer thunderstorm. A force stronger than any other, with the power to fell a man in an instant.

  Love—yes, Love—was about to buffet the weathered stone of the manor, whose musty corridors had gone many fine years without it.

  It is the collision of these forces that interests us, Reader. For without the Loosening, Love would have found no foothold among the Luggertucks and would have winged its way onward.

  But Love, which had taken the earthly form of a letter to M’Lady Luggertuck, did find a place to land that day. And that letter also opened the way for robbery, rudeness, treachery, and Shipless Piracy. (It is my opinion that the Pickle Éclair Disaster would have happened either way.)

  Luckily for Luther—and the plot of this story—M’Lady read the letter aloud as she sat in her Letter-Writing Nook.

  Dearest sister, [“HA!” M’Lady said with a snort.]

  I ask, for young Montgomery’s sake, that you put the unfortunate incident of last Christmas behind you. [“HARRUMPH!” barked M’Lady as she recalled the terrible events that readers will remember from “M’Lady Luggertuck and the Yule Log.”]

  Whatever feelings you hold toward me need not, I hope, prevent you from bestowing your well-known and frequently commented-upon generosity of spirit on my son, your nephew, Montgomery.

  Montgomery informs us that he is in love. The object being a Miss Celia Sylvan-Smythe.

  Miss Sylvan-Smythe is spending the summer with your neighbors, the Shortleys.

  Might not Montgomery stay with you for a few weeks to increase his proximity to the young girl and thus also his chances of seeing the sweet blossoms of romance bloom? And perhaps most important, might you not throw a ball that the young girl be invited to? [“HMMMMM,” murmured M’Lady.]

  Signed,

  Your beloved sister,

  Duchess Carolyn Crimcramper

  Now, M’Lady Luggertuck had often been asked to give balls before, for this or that niece, nephew, or illegitimate stepson. But as readers of “M’Lady Luggertuck Tries a Waltz” well know, such requests were usually crumpled up and stomped on.

  But this letter was not. This letter was met with a “hmmmmm.”

  Why? The Loosened Corset, of course.

  Normally, when M’Lady sat in her cramped Writing Nook, her corset pinched painfully, making her grumpy and rude when she wrote her responses. But today there was no pinch and her response was nearly cheerful.

  “Yes,” she replied—as Luther looked on in surprise—“yes, send the boy down, he shall have his ball, and the young lady, Miss Sylvan-Smythe, shall be the guest of honor.”

  And thus she sealed their doom.

  In Which the Purple Bell Rings . . .

  Before doom descends on Smugwick Manor, let us take a moment to look around the place.

  ’Twas topped with glittering spires and turrets, true. But ’twas bottomed with dank, moldy basements, cellars, vaults, crypts, plant-pressing rooms, and tunnels.

  The areas in between the top turrets and bottom basements were old and worn and well-polished by servants.

  Life at Smugwick Manor was very, very, very nice. Nice, that is, if one was a Luggertuck; otherwise it was very, very, very not nice.

  Since there were only a few Luggertucks, but scores of footmen, maids, kitchen hands, stable boys, gardeners, polishers, and other attendants, most of the people at Smugwick Manor were living the not-nice part. (Alas, Milly, the new maid, was still blissfully unaware of just how not nice things normally were.)

  A few of the older servants remembered what it was like before Sir Luggertuck married M’Lady. His father, kindly Old Lord Emberly Luggertuck, had been generous with his money and stingy only with complaints.

  M’Lady Luggertuck was just the opposite.

  When she finally drove Old Lord Emberly out of the manor and into the rundown assistant gamekeeper’s cottage in the woods, she took over the running of the household. She cut the pay of every servant in half. Then, a year later, in half again. And so on.

  Whilst shopping for wigs or frilled garments, M’Lady Luggertuck demanded the best. (See “M’Lady Lugger-tuck and the Unlucky Cobbler.”) But when she doled out the money for the servants’ food each month, Reader, she demanded the least!

  “Which gruel is the cheapest?” she asked the cook, Miss Neversly. “Are you certain you’re adding enough water?”

  Once, she learned that each garden boy received bread crusts and water.

  “Really, does a garden boy need bread crusts, plural?” she said with a sniff. “Shouldn’t bread crust, singular, do just as well?”

  And
Woe—yes, Woe—to any servant caught pinching a bit of food from the kitchen.

  Even scraps left over from the Luggertucks’ feasts were off-limits. These were the sole property of Sir Luggertuck’s Foxhounds and certainly not for any kitchen boy to go a’grabbing.

  Miss Neversly had trained her ears to catch the slightest sound of food felony. The chewing of a raisin she could hear. The swallowing of a bit of gristle sounded to her like an alarm bell. The licking of a finger rang in her ears from two rooms away.

  Punishment for any of these offenses, and many others, included a sound beating with her wooden spoon and the loss of a week’s wages.

  Thus it was that servants, hungry and generally angry, waited every week for the ringing of the purple bell.

  You see, the lives of servants are not lived by clocks, but by the ringing of their masters’ bells.

  Throughout Smugwick Manor hung little silver ropes with golden tassels. If a Luggertuck wanted anything at all at any time at all, they had but to tug on the nearest little silver rope. Down in the kitchen one of many color-coded bells would ring, and the servants would know in which room a Luggertuck was waiting impatiently.

  Old Crotty and Miss Neversly knew by heart the sound of every bell.

  Except one.

  They’d never in their lives heard the purple bell. They would not have known what it meant even if they heard it. They didn’t even know which room held the little silver rope that made it ring.

  And I personally hope they never find out.

  You see, each week Old Crotty and Miss Neversly would go into town to buy the succulent foodstuffs that the Luggertucks feasted upon, as well as the single bag of stale gruel that the servants ate. Off they would go in a little donkey cart—the crazed raven-haired cook with the shopping list and the timid gray-haired maid with the money purse.

  On this day, the day of the Loosening, the stable boys lined up to watch them go with even more excitement than usual.

  As soon as they were out of sight, Bump, the smallest stable boy, ran into the third horse stall on the right, removed a board from the wall, reached into the wall behind it, and tugged with all his might on the little silver cord that was hidden there.

 
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