Investigations continue into the strange deaths at Dropwort Hall…
Inspired by the common skullcap (Scutellaria galericulata), a plant that skulks near the waterline.
‘Tell me,’ Mr Sallow asked Master Buttons, ‘at what time of year did the late master die?’
The boy thought a moment. He wasn’t the brightest of sparks, Mr Sallow thought, but he would surely know the answer to this.
‘In the summertime, sir.’
Mr Sallow nodded. ‘And the master before him?’
The boy was defeated. ‘ ’Fore I was born,’ he said. ‘You should ask Old Skullcap, sir.’
‘And who is he?’
‘Don’t ye know?’ said the boy scornfully. Surely everyone knew Old Skullcap! ‘He’s a very ancient object what lives by the river. Downstream. And he knows all the histories of hereabouts.’
It seemed that Old Skullcap came from a long line of Skullcaps down the ages, and that he knew everything worth knowing, if Mr Sallow could only get to him before he expired from sheer weight of knowledge. For the first time ever there was no Young Skullcap to carry on the family tradition, and when the current incumbent was gone all that history would likely be gone with him. And given the fellow was so very old, Mr Sallow had better get himself down there smartish before it was too late.
So Mr Sallow and Crowfoot set off on a quest for information, following the riverbank down to Old Skullcap’s unsavoury hovel. The grubby old man who came out took one look at the ape and declared that no such filthy animal would be permitted indoors. This was a little rich coming from someone of such questionable personal hygiene, but nonetheless Crowfoot was left on the doorstep, fuming at the injustice of it.
‘Perhaps you can help us,’ said Mr Sallow settling himself in the murky interior. Old Skullcap scowled and grunted in a peculiarly animal way. And to think he wouldn’t let poor Crowfoot in, thought Mr Sallow. I suppose he wants paying. He produced a couple of coins.
The old man inspected them closely, and then said, ‘What is it you want to know?’
‘I want to know about the masters of Dropwort Hall, if you please. I have learned that the late master died in the summertime. Can you tell me at what time of year the previous masters died?’
‘I can,’ said Old Skullcap. ‘Time out of mind, while I live. What business is it of yours, then?’
‘I’m employed at the hall. And in the light of recent deaths there, it’s my job to make enquiries.’
Old Skullcap sniggered. ‘Won’t do you no good,’ he said. ‘Place is cursed. Everyone knows.’
‘Nonetheless…’ said Mr Sallow, starting to put the coins back in his pocket.
‘Let’s not be hasty.’ Old Skullcap shuffled forward and took the coins. ‘Well then. For what it’s worth, every last one of ’em died in the summertime, just like this last ’un. But people do, don’t they? Plagues and agues – dangerous season. Summer agues it was took the lot of ’em, time out of mind.’
Mr Sallow nodded seriously. ‘Is that your true opinion then – disease, not curse?’
‘You is a intelligent and knowing gent, sir, I perceive. Between you, me and the doorpost, I reckon the curse is a invention, sir. A excuse for a unhealthy house. N’more than that. No magical curses nor none o’ that nonsense. They keeps up that little fiction cos it makes ’em feel special up at the Hall.’ Old Skullcap sniffed and sneered. ‘Also, it stops people asking too many questions when the people dies, y’see. Oh, they says, that’ll be the curse, won’t it, and has a bit of a shudder, and they leave it be. You, sir, is a rare bird, to be asking about this. And it’s ’bout time the truth were told.’
Despite the obvious good logic of this, Mr Sallow was not easily convinced. There are more things in heaven and earth…
‘The question is,’ he said, as he and the ape made their way back, ‘whether these summertime demises were natural, as the old man says, or whether there is indeed a curse on the house.’
Crowfoot, appeased by the brevity of the visit to Old Skullcap, raised an intelligent eyebrow.
‘And furthermore,’ Mr Sallow went on, more to himself than to the ape, ‘furthermore, is there anything we can do about a curse if there truly is one? And how do these distressing recent deaths fit in, eh? The curse is on the master of the house, not on the servants. It is all very perplexing.’
Crowfoot frowned, clearly wondering if this rather elastic curse might stretch as far as himself. Mr Sallow read his thoughts. ‘I truly don’t know if you and I are safe, old friend,’ he said candidly. The ape climbed up onto his back and clung on resolutely. ‘Don’t worry, Crowfoot, I have a few theories to explore yet.’
Crowfoot looked as if he’d prefer to forget the whole thing and move on to somewhere safer. But Mr Sallow dashed his hopes. ‘There is a presence at Dropwort Hall – animal, vegetable or mineral – I know not which, but I mean to find out what it is and how it works.’
The ape clamped a despairing hand over his eyes, apparently thinking that Mr Sallow’s inquisitiveness could be the death of the pair of them.
A Drop of Water
Inspired by the greater spearwort also called tongue-leaved spearwort (Ranunculus lingua).
The wine cellar was the lowest point in the house, but it wasn’t fully underground. It was quite well-lit, too, by a couple of little windows. Mr Sallow had ordered the door chained and locked after Crowfoot’s indisposition. He had no idea who or what was responsible for this chain of events, of whether they might be deliberately achieved or mere accident, but they all had the cellar in common so it seemed wise to keep people out, and Crowfoot in particular. Nevertheless, he let himself in to look around and consider the possibilities. If this room only had the power of speech! A few words of whatever tongue it might speak would explain so much, but the room had nothing to say. Mr Sallow sighed and engaged his brain instead. Was it really something to do with the wine, he wondered, however affronted the widow might be at the suggestion? The butler had been found in a puddle of it, the cook had a ladleful in her hand, the cat reeked of it and Crowfoot had been helping himself.
Mr Sallow chose a bottle at random, opened it, sniffed it and drank a careful mouthful. Better to experiment on myself than on anyone else, he thought. After a few breathless and fretful minutes he concluded that it was very good wine indeed. Fruity, full-flavoured and quite unadulterated. Mr Sallow trusted his own palate in these matters. And what’s more he was showing no signs whatsoever of dropping dead. There was nothing at all wrong with this superb wine, and he could only admire the late master’s good taste.
While he was considering all this Mr Sallow became aware of a noise. A distinctly out-of-place noise. Faint. Distant. But regular. It sounded like water trickling. He listened intently. Now where was that coming from? He couldn’t make it out at all. Was it significant? He didn’t know.
The only person that might was that fount of knowledge on all things Dropwort Hall, Old Skullcap.
So Mr Sallow collected Crowfoot – nonsense, the fresh air will do you good, my dear – and set off downstream for Old Skullcap’s hovel once again.
Mr Sallow got straight to the point: ‘Why can I hear water running in the wine cellar?’
Old Skullcap looked at him in silence, waiting, until a coin was placed in his grubby hand. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘that’ll be the old well. It were a fancy scheme. Long time ago now. Drained water from the marshes through a pipe.’
‘They don’t use it now?’ asked Mr Sallow. Crowfoot had refused to come in and was waiting outside the door making huffing noises, with tightly folded arms and a martyred expression.
‘No,’ said Old Skullcap, glancing at the ape in the doorway and grunting with intense disapproval. ‘No. Too unreliable. Leaky pipe. Too much trouble for ’em to upkeep it. They dug a deeper well outside the kitchen door instead. I ’spect the water still trickles through the old pipe now and then, though. No great mystery to that, at all.’ He sniffed.
Mr Sallow and Crowfoot, still griping, headed back. Could an unused well have any bearing on the case? Or was it simply another distraction, like the wine? But Mr Sallow liked to be thorough, and he and Crowfoot returned to the wine cellar, the ape keeping a safe distance between himself and the wine bottles. ‘There’s nothing wrong with it, Crowfoot. I tried it myself. It’s your own fault for over-indulging.’ Crowfoot looked sheepish.
It took a while to uncover the lost well. An oak lid set into the flagstones was finally found hidden under an empty barrel. The rusted iron ring at its centre, once prised free, offered a way in. Mr Sallow leaned over and peered down. No doubt about it, this was the source of the noise. A very ripe, green, very unappetising smell rose up with the trickling sounds. Crowfoot put his hand over his eyes and hooted.
‘This is too much for a delicate stomach, Crowfoot,’ said Mr Sallow. ‘Go and lie down.’ The ape was out of the cellar in a heartbeat.
Dangling from the well-head was a rope and leather bucket. Both were perfectly serviceable. ‘Someone,’ said Mr Sallow to himself, ‘has seen fit to furnish a new set, and not so long ago, either. Now why would anyone bother to do that, I wonder?’ Mr Sallow lowered the bucket.
It had been a wet summer, Mr Sallow thought, as he hauled up the bucket, and that probably explained the steady trickle of water into the bottom of the well. It was ingenious, this idea of indoor running water – a thought he put aside for further consideration later – but for now he needed to concentrate. The bucket came up wet and gleaming, but contained only a small quantity of water. It was an idea that needed refinement, then. The water was deep mossy green, not at all wholesome. Mr Sallow could see why the well had been abandoned. It certainly didn’t produce anything drinkable. He poured a little into a jug so he could take it outside and examine it in daylight, but on the whole, he felt this line of enquiry was a blind alley. The water might be tainted – but no-one would choose to drink it. Even the kitchen cat would have had the sense to turn up its nose. So not a very likely murder weapon, really.
For more about Mr Sallow and Crowfoot the Ape look out for the fourth part of Dropwort Hall next week.
The first two illustrated magical stories in this series, The Herbarium and The Chesil Apothecary are now available in paperback through Waterstones or direct from veneficiapublications.com