The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley - Excerpt
The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

by Alan Bradley

EXCERPT

THEIR DROWNED FACES ARE NOT SO WHITE and fishy as you might expect. Floating barely beneath the surface in the blood-red light, they are, in fact, rather the colour of rotted roses.

She still smiles in spite of all that has happened. He wears a shockingly boyish expression upon his face.

Beneath them, coiled like tangled tentacles of seaweed, black ribbons dangle down into the liquid depths.

I touch the surface—write their initials in the water with my forefinger:

HDL

So closely are this man and this woman linked, that the same three letters stand for them both: Harriet de Luce and Haviland de Luce.

My mother and my father.

It was odd, really, how I had happened upon these images.

The attics at Buckshaw are a vast aerial underworld, containing all the clutter, the cast-offs, the debris, the dumpings, the sad dusty residue of all those who have lived and breathed in this house for centuries past.

Piled on top of the mouldering prayer-chair, for instance, upon which the terrible-tempered Georgina de Luce had once perched piously in her powdered perriwig to hear the whispered confessions of her terrified children, was the crumpled wreckage of the home-built glider in which her ill-fated grandson, Leopold, had launched himself from the parapets of the east wing scant seconds before coming to grief on the steel-hard frozen ground of the Visto, bringing to an abrupt end that particular branch of the family. If you looked carefully, you could still see the stains of his oxidized blood on its frail linen-covered wings.

In another corner, stacked in a stiff spinal curve, a pile of china chamberpots still gave off their faint but unmistakeable pong in the tired, stuffy air.

Tables, chairs and chimney pieces were squeezed in cheek-by-jowl with ormolu clocks, glazed Greek vases of startling orange and black, unwanted umbrella stands and the sad-eyed head of an indifferently-stuffed gazelle.

It was to this shadowy graveyard of unwanted bric-a-brac that I had fled instinctively last week after Father’s shocking announcement.

To the attics I had flown and there, to keep from thinking, I had crumpled into a corner, reciting mindlessly one of those shreds of childhood nonsense which we fall back on in times of great stress when we can’t think what else to do:

‘A was an archer who shot at a frog;

‘B was a butcher who had a black dog.

‘C was a crier—’

I wasn’t going to bloody well cry! No, I bloody well wasn’t!

Instead of archers and criers I would distract my mind by rehearsing the poisons:

‘A is for arsenic hid in a spud,

‘B is for bromate that buggers the blood.

I was up to ‘C is for cyanide’ when a slight movement caught my eye: a sudden scurrying that vanished quickly behind a crested French armoire.

Was it a mouse? Perhaps a rat?

I shouldn’t be at all surprised. The attics of Buckshaw are, as I have said, an abandoned dumping-ground where a rat would be as much at home as I was.

I got slowly to my feet and peeked carefully behind the armoire, but whatever it had been was gone.

I opened one of the dark doors of the monstrosity and there they were: the smart black carrying cases—two of them—shoved into the back corners of the armoire, almost as if someone hadn’t wanted them to be found.

I reached in and dragged the matching containers out of the shadows and into the half-light of the attic.

They were covered in pebbled leather with shiny silver-plated snaps, each case with its own key which hung, fortunately, from the carrying handles by a bit of ordinary butcher’s string.

I popped open the first box and swung back the lid.

I knew at once by its metallic crackle finish, and the way in which its mechanical octopus arms were folded into their fitted plush compartments, that the machine I was looking at was a ciné projector.

Mr Mitchell, proprietor of Bishop's Lacey’s photographic studio, owned a similar, but larger device with which he occasionally exhibited the same few tired old films at St Tancred’s parish hall.

His machine was larger, of course, and was equipped with a loudspeaker for the sound.

Once, during a particularly dreary repeat showing of The Paper Wasp and its Vespiaries, I had whiled away the time by inventing riddles, one of which I thought rather clever:

‘Why is the House of Commons like a ciné sound projector?’

‘Because they both have a Speaker!’

I could hardly wait to tell it at the breakfast table.

But that had been in happier times.

I fingered the snap and opened the second box.

This one contained a matching device, smaller, with a chromium clockwork crank on its side and several lenses mounted in a rotating turret on its snout.

A ciné camera.

I lifted the thing to my face and peered through the viewfinder, moving the camera slowly from right to left as if I were filming.

‘Buckshaw,’ I intoned. ‘Ancestral home of the family de Luce since time immemorial…a house divided … a house apart.’

I put the camera down rather abruptly, and rather roughly, I’m afraid. I did not feel like going on with this.

It was then that I noticed for the first time the little gauge on its body. The indicator needle was calibrated from zero to fifty feet, and it stood nearly—but not quite—at the end of its range.

There was still film in the camera—even after all these years.

And if I were any judge, about forty-five feet of it had been exposed.

Exposed but never developed!

My heart lunged suddenly into my throat, trying to escape.

I nearly choked on it.

If my suspicions were correct, this film, this camera, might well contain hidden images of my dead mother, Harriet.

 

 

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