âWeâve never been to London,â said Ruth. âBut weâve heard that itâs . . .â
â. . . rather large and terribly exciting,â Louise commented. âOur small community must seem . . .â
â. . . distressingly dull by comparison,â Ruth concluded.
âNot at all,â said Nicholas. âFinch is a charming village.â
âAnd itâs had its share of excitement lately,â I put in. âI canât tell you how surprised I was to hear about what happened to Mrs. Hooper.â
A chill seemed to pass through the room as the Pymsâ lips primmed into identical thin lines of disapproval. Nicholas, whoâd been contentedly gorging himself on the sistersâ feather-light Ã©clairs, suddenly became as still as stone.
âThatâs because you didnât know her, dear,â said Ruth. âShe was a most . . .â
â. . . objectionable woman.â Louise sipped her tea before adding, âHer wake was an almost silent affair. Since no one wished to speak ill of the dead . . .â
â. . . no one spoke,â said Ruth. âApart from the vicar, of course, and Mrs. Hooperâs son. It reminded us of the hermitâs wake . . .â
â. . . though he hadnât a son to speak for him,â Louise informed us, âand people were silent then not because they disliked the poor fellow but because so little was known about him.â
âNo one seems to know anything about Mrs. Hooperâs death, either,â I prompted hopefully, but Ruth went on as if I hadnât spoken.
âThe hermit was antisocial in his way,â she observed, âjust as Mrs. Hooper . . .â
â. . . was antisocial in hers,â said Louise. âThe difference being that the hermitâs ways harmed no one, whereas . . .â
â. . . Mrs. Hooperâs did a great deal of harm.â Ruth offered me a slice of seedcake. âThe truly regrettable thing is that she continues . . .â
â. . . to do so much harm after her death.â Louise refilled Nicholasâs cup.
âDid she harm you?â Nicholas asked.
âShe was a serpent in the bosom of our village,â Louise declared. âMy sister and I know how to deal with serpents.â
The seedcake, of which I was very fond, seemed to turn to chalk in my mouth. Iâd never heard the Pyms speak so bluntly about anyone.
âOne avoids them,â said Ruth.
âAs we avoided Mrs. Hooper,â added Louise. âOthers did not and were stung . . .â
â. . . rather severely.â Ruth brushed a crumb from the tablecloth. âAnd now they sting each other. Thatâs the trouble, you see. Questions . . .â
â. . . so many unanswered questions.â Louise tilted her head to one side. âAnd gingerbread, of course.â
I glanced uncertainly at Nicholas, but his eyes were fixed on Louiseâs.
âDid you say . . . gingerbread?â I ventured.
âGilded gingerbread.â Louise nodded. âWe make it every year . . .â
â. . . to give as gifts at Eastertide.â Ruthâs nod mirrored her sisterâs. âOur motor isnât functioning properly, however, and since Mr. Barlow is away from homeââ
âHe is?â I interrupted. Iâd been counting on a conversation with the prophetic mechanic.
âHeâs visiting family, we believe,â said Ruth. âSomewhere up north. Naturally, we wouldnât trust our motor to anyone but Mr. Barlow, so we were rather hoping . . .â
â. . . that you would do us a great favor,â said Louise, âand deliver the gingerbread for us. Thereâs no hurry. It will keep for several days. Weâve written the names of the recipients . . .â
â. . . atop each box,â Ruth concluded.
Nicholas deposited his empty plate on the table and stood. âLadies,â he announced,