We present not these as any strange sights or spectacle unknown to your eyes, who have beheld the best of urns and the noblest variety of ashes.
Epistle Dedicatory, Urn Burial,
Sir Thomas Browne.
The shot boomed out of the mist.
Phryne slowed the Hispano-Suiza to a halt. Dot, from the back, where she was sitting with Lin Chung’s manservant Li Pen, said tremulously, ‘Someone hunting?’
‘In this weather and after dark?’ asked Phryne. ‘Does that seem likely, Dot dear? That was a shotgun.’
Then someone screamed.
It was a female voice, ragged with terror, even though the sound was blanketed by the fog which curled into the big car, chilling the heart. Li Pen leaned forward. Dot emitted a squeak of fright.
‘What do you want to do?’ asked Lin Chung. ‘It might be a private fight.’
Phryne grinned at him. ‘The last private fight I leapt into was very rewarding,’ she commented. ‘I would otherwise never have met you. Can you use a gun?’
‘Not as well as you, I suspect.’
‘All right, change places. You take the driver’s seat.’ She clambered over him, taking the passenger seat. The scream came again, closer and louder, and Phryne heard feet running. Dot whimpered. Li Pen, hoping he was doing the right thing, put a reassuring hand on her arm, which she was too frightened to shake off.
Phryne found her Beretta and loaded it methodically. Lin Chung heard the click of bullets snapped into their grooves, and the clunk of the mechanism as she closed it.
‘Turn the car until the headlights point directly behind me,’ she ordered. ‘That should blind anyone coming this way. Keep the engine running—I won’t be a tick.’
She was gone from beside him. Lin engaged the gears and very carefully and skilfully backed the Hispano-Suiza and turned it, hoping that he was not about to run Phryne’s beloved car into an unexpected ditch. The powerful fog lamps outlined Phryne’s small determined figure; the slim body clad in trousers and a jumper, her stance easy and alert, and the cameo-cut shape of her straight profile and cap of black hair. Li Pen commented in Cantonese, ‘She would make a warrior. She has the heart of a lion.’ Lin Chung agreed.
‘Oh, Miss, be careful!’ wailed Dot.
The road was rough. Three-foot high ti-tree scrub lined it, full of thorns and snakes. Phryne called into the mist, ‘Here!’ and for a moment there was complete silence. Chill as the heart of darkness, thought Lin Chung, his hands ready on the wheel. Cold as the silence at the heart of unbeing.
Scarves of fog lay tangled in the low-growing scrub. Phryne strained her eyes. She could see only about ten paces into the virgin forest and could smell only wetness and chill earth and the faint scent of water. Then she heard a crashing scramble straight ahead as someone tried to run through the ti-tree.
This, of course, could not be done. Only a bull-dozer could run through there, she reflected, holding the gun out steady in both hands. ‘Here!’ she yelled again, and was answered by a sobbing shriek, ‘Help!’
Out of the fog came a woman, completely out of her mind with pain or fear, stumbling and falling as the roots caught her feet, getting up and clawing herself forward again. She staggered, fell and got up again, orienting herself by the car’s headlights, drawn by the bright light like a moth.
Phryne swung her aim away as the girl fell panting at her feet. She was dressed in black and white, and a frilly cap was still pinned, jaunty and incongruous, on her torn hair. It was an unusual situation in which to find a parlourmaid.
Phryne listened hard, trying to block out the maid’s whimpering, trying to hear beyond the sound for any following feet. The attacker must still be out there. Phryne and the maid were perfect targets in the Hispano-Suiza’s glare. But nothing moved, no gun fired. She could discern no other person out in the chill darkness.
‘Come along,’ she said, pocketing the gun and hauling the girl to her feet. ‘Get in the car. You’re safe now. Lin, get us out of here,’ she added, shoving the maid into the back seat and Dot’s concerned arms.
The parlourmaid’s sobbing increased once she knew she was safe. Li Pen removed himself to the far side of the seat as she caught sight of his face and whispered, ‘A Chink!’
‘You’re safe,’ said Dot briskly. ‘It’s all right. What’s your name?
Where did you come from? Where can we take you?’
‘Lina,’ whispered the girl. ‘I’m Lina and I’m from Cave House.’ Dot soothed, ‘Good, that’s where we’re going.’
Lin Chung, navigating carefully through endless ti-tree, said, ‘It can’t be far, then.’
‘Oh, God, another Chink!’ exclaimed Lina as she heard his voice.
‘Lina, would you like to walk home?’ asked Phryne, her voice as chill as the fog.
Dot said, ‘Oh, Miss…’ and the parlourmaid gave a small scream. ‘No Miss, please Miss, I’m sorry…’
‘It’s Miss Phryne Fisher,’ said Dot, giving the girl a small shake. ‘We’re going to Cave House for a house party. Mr Reynolds invited us. I’m Miss Williams and that is Mr Lin and Mr Li. Pull yourself together, girl. You’ve been rescued and we’re taking you home. You were lucky that we came along. No call to be insulting your Master’s guests now, have you? Are you hurt? We heard a shot.’
‘No—no, he missed me, I’m just a bit scratched by all them thorns. I was so scared. I’m sorry, Miss Fisher, Mr Lin, I’m sorry.’ She started to cry. Phryne was unsympathetic.
Lin Chung said softly, ‘You see, Phryne, I told you this would be difficult, importing an exotic like me into your world. She’s just reacting as all the rest will.’
‘She’s shocked and she’s been reading too much Sax Rohmer,’ snapped Phryne. ‘At last—they look like the gateposts.’
‘Yes, Miss. It says ‘‘Cave House’’ on the fence,’ Dot said, sup- porting the sobbing girl on her shoulder and feeling tears trickle down her neck. Phryne got out to open the gate and the car rolled onto a gravelled drive. She snibbed the wooden stockyard shutter after the car had passed through and listened again.
No sound in the dank air, yet she shivered. Someone was watching her. There were inimical eyes on the back of her neck. She pulled up the collar of her jumper and got back into the car.
Even the fog could not disguise the monstrous oddity of Cave House.
In the closing years of the nineteenth century, a wealthy brewer had been dragged protesting on the Grand Tour by his wife, who had artistic yearnings. There was no doubt that they had visited Greece, and also delighted in a profusion of Gothic cathedrals. Cave House was both. It was an amalgam so outrageous, so amazing, that even Phryne, in possession of a distraught housemaid and a searing fit of bad temper, sat and gaped.
The Parthenon, she recalled, had nine columns with decorous Ionic capitals. Cave House had twelve and they were capped with Corinthian designs in white marble. York Cathedral had ten Gothic grotesques over the door; Cave House had twenty, all fanged and with unpleasantly lolling tongues as well.
It was too much for the end of a long drive. Lin Chung sat as though stunned, every canon of design known to him, both Chinese and Oxford, thoroughly outraged. Li Pen reflected that even the legendary Yellow Emperor on an overdose of hallucinogenic mushrooms had never conceived anything like this. Dot thought it was overdone, but interesting.
‘Miss, we ought to get Lina inside,’ she said, and Phryne pulled herself together. Artistic criticism of Cave House could wait. Now she was cold and furious and needed to suitably dispose of Lina, who was working herself into a proper fit of hysterics by the sounds from the back seat.
The main door opened and Tom Reynolds himself came out.
He was short, stout and hearty, and ordinarily Phryne liked him. At this moment she didn’t like anyone.
‘Well, what a terrible night for a drive!’ he exclaimed. ‘Come inside instantly! John will put the car away. Phryne dear, you must be chilled to the bone. I’d quite given you up!’
‘The fog slowed us down.’ Phryne got out and climbed up the steps to kiss Tom on the cheek. ‘Also, we’ve found a stray of yours, Tom.’
Dot helped the parlourmaid from the car. Reynolds identified her and goggled.
‘Lina? What have you been up to?’
The maid began to shriek again. Dot put an arm around her. ‘Have you got a housekeeper, Sir?’ she asked. ‘Pipe down, Lina, you’ll soon be inside. Sir, I think we’d better call a doctor.’ ‘Yes, of course. Take her inside, through to the kitchen. I’ll send Mrs Hinchcliff to you right away, and Doctor Franklin’s staying in the house. What a stroke of luck.’
Two housemen were unloading the luggage, and Phryne allowed them to take the car away.
‘Mr Lin, delighted to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you,’ effused Tom Reynolds, shaking his hand.
Dot and Li Pen escorted Lina into the house through the front door, ordinarily banned to domestics. Phryne saw the girl’s knees give way abruptly. Li Pen swept her up and carried her and Phryne reflected that he was a lot stronger than he looked. Then again, so was Lin Chung. Tom Reynolds was drawing them inside, past the great carved portals and into a proper cathedral entrance.
‘The maid’ll show you to your rooms, and perhaps you’d like to come down in about half an hour for a drink and some supper, eh? It’s ten o’clock and we keep early hours in the country.’ Phryne assented absently, boggling.
The inside of Cave House was as remarkable as the outside. Following a neat maid, Phryne crossed a parquet floor with
Greek key-pattern edging, climbed up a monumental staircase under some Morris windows and paced along a gallery to a large room. Lin Chung had been led in exactly the opposite direction to some distant bit of the house. Phryne scented prejudice.
But the room was very pleasant. There was a bright fire burning in the black-leaded hearth under the Art décoratif tiles and the Corinthian columns of the marble mantelpiece. Her bed was four-posted, surrounded by white mosquito netting, and had a thick feather quilt. The floor was covered with a hideous but expensive Turkish carpet in glaring red and brilliant green. Phryne took stock. Her room had two bow windows; a powder- ing closet with a small bed in it, obviously intended for Dot, a lot of exceptionally miscellaneous furniture and an engraving of Hope over her washstand. Hope, as a draped female figure, drooped over the globe of the world, obviously in irreparable, mortal despair at the pitiless nature of mankind. It was an exceptionally depressing picture.
Irritated, Phryne turned her to the wall. Then she tore off her hat, unlaced her boots, and sat down on a spindly Louis Quatorze chair at a marble washstand. Her face in the mirror was set with fury. And, she noticed, smudged. She poured some hot water into a Wedgewood bowl and washed the marks of adventure off her skin with Pear’s soap.
She was sitting by the fire and wiggling some feeling back into her frozen toes when Dot came in.
‘How’s Lina?’ asked Phryne.
‘The Doctor’s with her. He says she’s all right, just exhausted and scratched by all those thorns but he says…oh, Miss.’
‘Oh, Miss? What’s the matter, old thing? Sit down, Dot, have a tot of this.’
Dot slumped down into the Chippendale chair on the other side of the fire. Phryne produced a flask and made her companion drink down a mouthful of brandy. Some colour came back into Dot’s white face. Phryne took her hand, worried by her pallor. Finally Dot managed to say what was on her mind.
‘She’s been molested, Miss.’ ‘God, you mean raped?’
Dot winced at the word. ‘No, Miss Phryne, just molested. The Doctor says she’ll be all right. The housekeeper’s with her—her aunt, she says. Mr Li carried her in, and he’s gone to find Mr Lin. They’ve put him right out the back.’
‘Yes, as far away from me as possible. I suspect either moralism or racism, Dot, which I would not have expected from an old reprobate like Tom. God, that poor girl, and I was so angry with her. Oh well, can’t be helped.’ Phryne dismissed the thought. ‘I’ll go and see her tomorrow.’
‘She’s just saying what everyone says, Miss. And you were right. Her aunt says she’s always reading Fu Manchu.’
Phryne laughed. ‘And what do you think of Lin Chung, Dot?’ ‘I never met any Chinese people before, Miss,’ said Dot slowly, stretching out her hands to the fire, ‘so I never thought about them. Then he came along and he’s so educated, so soigné,’ (she produced the French word with pride) ‘that I never thought of him as Chinese, Miss. He’s just himself. He’s a nice man. The girls like him, he talks to them and he’s taught them that satin stitch from China. Never drunk, never loud—the butlers think he’s an ornament to the house, Miss Phryne, that’s what Mrs B said. And that Mr Li, he’s nice, too. He was real good with Lina. She woke up while he was carrying her and screamed again and he didn’t even drop her. He’s awful strong for his size.
Lina thinks the Chows are out to get her and sell her for a white slave. I don’t think she’s very bright, Miss.’
‘Bright or not, she’s had a dreadful experience. I wonder who the man with the shotgun was? They play nasty games in the country, Dot. We must decline to join in these rural frolics. There, get into a dressing gown, Dot dear, get warm. Your bones must be chilled. You can have first bath, it’s just down the hall. I’m going down for a late supper with Tom, and a little éclaircissement about Lin Chung into the bargain. Shall I get them to send a tray up for you?’
‘No, Miss, I’ll just have a warm-up and change into a dress and then go down to the kitchen. Mrs Croft’s making Mr Li and me some supper. I’m all right, Miss, really. It’s just—out in the car…’
‘Mmm?’ Phryne had pulled off her jumper and was rum- maging for another in her trunk.
‘I could feel eyes, Miss, eyes in the dark. I mean, I thought I could. I was probably just imagining it.’
Phryne, half-clad, came to lay a hand on her maid’s shoulders and look into the troubled brown eyes.
‘No, Dot dear, you weren’t imagining it, or if you were I was imagining it, too. There was someone out in the dark, watching us arrive. Probably Lina’s attacker, who is armed with a shotgun, and who didn’t like us—not one bit. I was immediately reminded of a Kenyan wait-a-bit hide, the hunter and I sat there all night once, watching the waterhole for a man-eating lion—and all the time he was behind us, glaring at my back. When I got out to close the gate I had just that sense of a predator marking me down for prey. Oh well, there is safety in numbers. You stick close to Li Pen if we come to any real danger, Dot dear, which of course, we won’t. I suspect that Li could be very useful in a crisis. And this is probably some bucolic loony whom everyone will instantly know and identify and they’ll take him right away to a nice safe jail. Don’t worry about it, Dot,’ she advised, finding and donning a red velvet evening top and slipping her feet into soft shoes. ‘Now get warm and have some supper. I won’t be long.’
# # #
Phryne descended the monumental staircase and found her host in the parlour where a nice little supper for three was laid out in front of the fire. Phryne took a Sheridan chair and accepted a glass of sherry.
She examined her host. Tom looked uncomfortable, which did not suit him. His charm had always been his raffish indolence; now concern folded his face into unfamiliar lines.
‘Well, Phryne my dear, you’re here at last.’ His voice was an echo of his usual heartiness. Phryne looked him in the eye and he shifted to avoid her gaze.
‘Yes, and I have a problem,’ she said directly. ‘Why is Lin Chung placed so far away from me? Are you developing moral scruples, Tom?’
‘Not me.’ He disclaimed morality and took a gulp of his sherry. ‘My wife felt that…’
‘Oh, yes? I haven’t met her, have I?’
‘No, she’s a wonderful woman, wonderful, but she has her…prejudices.’
‘And one of them is that she doesn’t like Chinese.’
‘Yes. But anyway, you have to think of your reputation, Phryne. You’re always skating on the edge of social ruin. This affair could…’
‘Tip me over? I don’t think so. I’m an Hon. and I’m rich—they need me a good deal more than I need them. I tell you, Tom, I object very strenuously to this attempt to censor my behaviour.’ Tom reflected that even hungry, tired and furious, the Honourable Phryne Fisher was beautiful. Her green eyes flashed in her pale face and he found himself wishing he were ten years younger and three stone lighter. That Chinese was a lucky blighter.
‘Well, well, you will do as you like, I expect. You’ll meet Evelyn at breakfast. She’s a little conservative, but I’m sure you’ll like each other.’
‘I’m sure,’ lied Phryne.
Lin Chung, who had been halted by the mention of his name outside the door, came in as Phryne said, ‘How is Lina?’
‘Doctor Franklin says she’s just bruised, chilled and shocked. He’s given her something to make her sleep. Though what would have become of her if you hadn’t happened along, Phryne, Mr Lin, I don’t know. There’s nothing around here until you come to Buchan Caves, and that’s a good couple of miles across difficult country.’ He chuckled. ‘She says she saw your headlights and ran for them, so she’s all bumped and scratched but her virtue is intact. One of these rural wooings, I expect, that went a bit far.’
‘No, Tom, it wasn’t like that,’ Phryne began.
‘Just a bit of slap and tickle in the moonlight,’ said Tom. ‘Have some soup, Mr Lin. It’s chicken.’
Phryne said flatly, ‘Tom, that girl was terrified for her life, not her virtue, and I heard a gun fired. And tonight is not a night that even the most determined and lustful rustic wooer would choose for an assignation. It’s as cold as the grave.’
‘Never deterred me,’ said Tom. ‘Not with a good compliant parlourmaid in prospect. Ah, that was a long time ago. Would you like soup, Phryne? Yes? I expect the girl heard someone out after rabbits and got a fright. Nothing to be alarmed about.’
Phryne gave it up, accepted a bowl of very good soup, and then a slice of cold roast beef on homemade bread. Lin Chung offered a few suitable words about the house, about which Phryne felt the less said, the better.
After supper, Lin Chung escorted her to the head of the staircase where she detained him with a hand on his arm.
‘Thank you for your support tonight,’ she said. ‘You drive very well.’
The bronze face inclined gravely. ‘It was my pleasure, Silver Lady.’
‘Do you know where my room is?’
‘Yes, but I shall deny myself that honour.’
‘Oh?’ Phryne could not believe her ears. ‘Why?’
‘Your reputation, Phryne. I overheard Mr Reynolds just now. An affair with a Chinese is social ruin, he said. He is probably correct. While that remains the case, I would do nothing to injure you.’
‘Hmm.’ Phryne did not have an immediate counter-argument. This needed thinking about and she was tired and worried by Tom’s refusal to take the attack on his employee seriously. ‘Very well. I’ll see you at breakfast. Sleep well.’
‘Ah, Silver Lady,’ he whispered, so that she could only hear him by standing close, ‘not as well as I would with you.’
Phryne breathed in the cool scent of his skin for a moment, then kissed him decorously on the cheek and walked to her room, without looking back.