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'Mrs Tilling's Match'
A Gilverton Story


24th December 1934

It was three o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, one of my favourite moments of the year. The last of the parcels was tied up in crepe paper and bright ribbon, the last of the cards was written, stamped and off to the late post, the sun was sinking, the fire crackling, and my little household was gathered in: Bunty curled at my feet, Donald and Teddy in the billiards room renewing their endless rivalry with a quick game before tea, Hugh in his library. The fact that my sister was spending Christmas with our brother in Northamptonshire and would not be swelling the family party with her dull husband, her doughy children or her dreary self, was not of my choosing. She had been invited and had declined. Therefore, I thought, I could be grateful without guilt.

Similarly, Hugh had decreed that since Donald and Teddy were now twenty and twenty-two – far beyond tales of Father Christmas – there was no need to trouble with a tree in the drawing room. He had always considered them vulgar things. “German, Dandy,” he started saying, when German became a slur, but he had been harrumphing for years before that.

If I chose to have a tree in my own sitting room then, I told myself, and if the twinkling candles and the beloved baubles and trinkets of their childhood brought the boys there to fling themselves into my armchairs and talk piffle with me, and if their father therefore missed their company, he knew where to find us.

I smiled at the sight of it there in its little brass tub, the parcels tucked around its feet like lambs around a ewe on a chilly day, then I turned as someone opened my sitting room door.

“Something wrong, Joan?” I asked. The tweenie, usually a blur as she sped around the house, was standing shifting from foot to foot on the edge of the carpet.

“It’s Mrs. Tilling, madam,” she said. Mrs. Tilling was my cook.

“Is there a message or is this a summons?” I said, preparing to get to my feet. It was unorthodox but on today of all days – on the Eve of the primary feast in the culinary year – I would fly to her side.

“Neither, madam,” said Joan. “Mrs. Tilling didn’t send me.  I came off my own bat to ask you what to do.”

“Is she ill?” The sharp note in my voice woke Bunty. She raised her head and thumped her tail twice. Joan was the source of many little treats.

“She’s indisposed.” For a wild moment I thought she meant drunk, but she added: “She got a letter. And she’s just . . . sort of . . . stopped.”

“Stopped?” I said.

Bunty’s tail went down and her brows drew up.

“Stopped dead,” said Joan.

“Stopped . . . cooking?” I said. “On Christmas Eve?”

“Stopped plucking the goose, stopped making the pies, stopped stirring the-”

“Have you made her a cup of tea?”

Joan gave me a look of pure anguish. “I made her a pot of tea, hot and strong. Mrs. Tilling didn’t drink it.”

I stood, pointed Bunty into her basket, squared my shoulders and followed Joan out of the room. Mrs. Tilling had never, in her decades at Gilverton, failed to drink an available cup of tea. There was no cup of tea in the world too stewed, too cold, too numerously preceded by other cups of tea, that she would not drain it to the dregs and shake the pot to see if there was more.

At the corner of the hall, we passed through the green baize door into the servants’ passage and flitted along it. Inside the kitchen, the air was redolent with all the scents of Christmas I usually take care to miss. Tomorrow, on the day itself, I would gladly sniff the spice and brandy of the flaming pudding and the rich roasting of the goose and the ham. Today the suet was rendering, the ham was boiling off its brine and the goose feathers had been burning in the grate as Mrs. Tilling, sitting by the hearth in her Windsor chair, plucked the carcass and threw them in.

She was still sitting there. But, as Joan put it, she had stopped. Her feet were planted far apart, the plump goose resting in the hammock of her apron, and one fist was still wound around a clutching of white wing-feathers. She stared into the fire, her face a mask of frozen despair.

On the other side of the long table, Pallister our butler, Becky the head housemaid, and Harriet the junior housemaid stood watching. The kitchenmaid was peeping round the open scullery door.

“Here’s Mrs. Gilver to see you, Mrs. Tilling,” Pallister said, in hearty tones.

Mrs. Tilling did not so much as blink. I do not require my servants to leap to their feet like a barracks with the sergeant major come to inspect them, but I am not used to being ignored quite so thoroughly.

I frowned at Pallister. He frowned back and nodded at the table before him. Upon it, on a floured board, a ragged lump of pastry sat like a boulder, unkneaded, unrolled, unfilled, unbaked. I tried not to think about Christmas without Mrs. Tilling’s mincemeat pies, for there is more to life than pies and clearly she had experienced some dreadful aspect of it. But as a bellwether of the depth of her anguish, it was inarguable.

‘I shall take care of things from here,” I said, with a grim smile towards the rest of the servants. “I’m sure you’ve all got plenty to be-” They were gone before I could finish.

I drew out one of the high, hard chairs from under the table and set it at the other side of the fire. Then, gently, I put my hands under the goose and lifted it away from her. I shuddered a little at the way its poor broken neck lolled across my arm and at the peculiar clammy feel of the plucked portion of its back. But at least the movement roused her.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. She looked right at me, but I am not sure she saw me. “I can’t understand it and I can’t believe it. Even of him.”

Him. There was my chink in the curtain wall.

“Whom?” I asked. “Have you had bad news? Joan mentioned a letter.”

“And a present,” she said. “And – yes, right enough – some bad news.”

“Why not tell me all about it?”

Mrs. Tilling put her hands into the capacious pocket of her apron and drew out a handkerchief. She was not crying, not even sniffling, and so did not need a handkerchief to apply to any part of her face, but clutching it tight in her two hands seemed to bring her comfort or bestow some resolve.

“Mr. Tilling has died, madam,” she said.

“Your father?”

“My husband.” The existence of such an individual was news to me. I had assumed, twenty-five years before when she presented herself for interview, that her title was a courtesy to her rank and nothing had happened since to disabuse me.

“Was it sudden?” I asked, when I had gathered myself again. “Was it expected? Had he reached a good age?”

“He died from injuries, in a prison infirmary in Glasgow,” Mrs. Tilling said. “He was arrested in Falkirk on Thursday evening for breaking and entering.”

“Oh!” I said.

“He resisted arrest. He ran out into the street and got hit by a brewery lorry.”

“Oh, dear.”

“He lingered three days and died yesterday.”

“How dreadful,” I said. “No wonder you’re upset.”

“Upset?” Mrs. Tilling echoed.

“More than upset,” I said. “I didn’t mean to belittle the news. ‘Shocked’ is a better word. Distraught. I mean, even if you haven’t seen him for some years and even if his way of life must have had its inevitable risks, it’s still a wrench. Your husband, after all.”

“His way of life?” said Mrs. Tilling.

“Is that why you became estranged?” I might have spoken hopefully. If one suddenly finds out that a member of one’s household has criminal connections one does rather hope that relations are frosty.

“I’m not upset by his death,” Mrs. Tilling said. “I’m not distraught.” She saw me blink and flushed a little. “To let you understand, madam. Mr. Tilling was not a good husband. He was vain and foolish and petty and cruel. He was spoiled and demanding and capricious and mean. He was faithless and selfish and heartless and cold.”

“Rotten luck,” I murmured, rather taken aback by this outpouring.

“He insulted me,” she said. Which was a bit rich, given what she had just said about him, but he was past caring. “He put me down, any chance he got. I wasn’t cleaning the linoleum right. I wasn’t blacking the stove right. My cakes were dry and my stews were tough.”

“Oh come now,” I said. “Your cakes are like the clouds angels rest on and your stews melt on the fork.”

“I thought I was a nippy enough sweetie that it couldn’t get me down. But after years of it, madam. After years and years.”

“You must have been very unhappy.”

“I was miserable,” said Mrs. Tilling. “But what can you do?”

I wondered if the question was an impertinence, but concluded that it was merely a case of the servant-class saying “you” when it meant “one”. I brushed the unintended slight away.

“Then,” said Mrs. Tilling darkly, “came the Guild Matchbox Competition.”

“Ah,” I said.

“I won. I fitted a hundred objects in a matchbox and won a painted jug.”

“A hundred?” I said. “Is that possible? In an ordinary matchbox?” I did not question the terms of the tournament, for I have had a good deal of experience with the Church of Scotland Women’s Guild and I know they have a penchant for the miniature: a flower arrangement in an eggcup; a cake baked in a thimble; the most different vegetable morsels threaded on a hatpin.

“And won a painted Cornishware jug that I have still,” said Mrs. Tilling, nodding. “I brought it home and showed him. All proud and happy. And do you know what he did?”

I hesitated. He had not dashed the jug out of his wife’s hands; not if she had it still.

“He laughed at me,” Mrs. Tilling said. “Laughed at me for being proud and happy. He curled his lip and laughed a nasty sneering laugh that made me feel about a quarter-inch tall. And I don’t know why, madam, but it was the last straw. I went out and got the evening paper and looked at the situations and wrote off to the agency and two weeks later I was here. Baking a batch of rock buns and roasting a crown of lamb for you and Mr. Gilver, to let you taste them.”

“And twenty-five happy years we have spent together since,” I said. “There is no reason for that to change.” 

“He left me something,” Mrs. Tilling said.

“O-h!” I said. If she had inherited the ill-gotten gains of a lifelong thief, that would be rather a ticklish problem. “Was it stolen goods? You can surrender them and we shall stand by you. Mr. Gilver will vouch for you.”

“Stolen?” she said. “Why would you think that?”

“Well, if he was a housebreaker,” I said. “I mean, I take it he wasn’t caught red-handed on his very first outing, was he?”

“It wasn’t a house,” Mrs. Tilling said. “It was the Falkirk Herald premises. And he wasn’t a burglar. He was a cabinet-finisher.”

“So why did he suddenly break into a newspaper office?”

“No one has any idea. He didn’t try to crack the safe and when the policemen found him – hiding in the print shop – he wouldn’t tell anyone why he was there. He never even told the doctors and nurses.”

“How puzzling,” I said. Then after a pause, I added: “But are you feeling better now you’ve got it off your chest?”

“I’ve not got it off my chest!” she said. “I haven’t even showed you what he left me.” She plunged her hand into her apron pocket and drew it out, her fist closed around a small object.

“It’s a matchbox,” she said, opening her fingers and showing me. “And a list.” She was rummaging in the pocket again. “It’s a hundred and one things he fitted in a matchbox. That’s what he left me.”

“The rotter!”

“Will you take it away, madam? I can’t bear to look at it.”

I took the matchbox from her. It bulged but it was firmly closed. She thrust the list at me too; a sheet of rough, lined paper filled with crabbed writing in several different colours of ink and grades of nib. I glanced at some of the items on it – needle threader, gent’s collar stud, cribbage marker. “I can hardly believe it,” I said. “How could anyone be so petty? Even him!”

“That’s what I said, madam,” said Mrs. Tilling. ‘When you first came in.”

We sat awhile, in silence, considering the measure of men and the travails of life. When at last the whispering of the other servants at the door grew too loud to ignore, I finally roused myself.

“Well then, Mrs. Tilling,” I said. “Do you think you’ll be able to get back to it all?”

But she was back already. She took the goose from my lap and was rhythmically grasping and twisting, wrenching the feathers out and casting the first fistful into the flames as the weight settled into the cradle of her apron again. I trotted away before the smell could reach me and went to lounge in the stable yard door to enjoy a cigarette. I had not wanted to shock Mrs. Tilling by smoking in her kitchen.

It was pleasant enough, standing there, though rather chilly. The first few flakes of a snow shower were beginning to float down, soft and lazy, and by the time I had finished my gasper the cobbles of the yard were muffled in a white coating. I could feel a little flutter of childish excitement inside, to think of us tramping over snowy fields to the watchnight service, with the boys throwing snowballs, and to think of us tramping back for cocoa and hot mincemeat pies in my sitting room by the light of the candles on the Christmas tree.

As I made my way along the passage back to my part of the house, however, the flutter inside me began to feel more like a wriggling worm. And it was not excitement at all. Something was bothering me. I turned and retraced my steps to the kitchen. This time Mrs. Tilling stood as I entered. And the maids bobbed and Pallister inclined his head. The world was on its axis again.

“Do carry on,” I said.

Mrs. Tilling sat and pulled another handful of feathers.

“What is it, madam?” she asked.

“He died yesterday?” I said. There was a rustle of interest from the others.

“That’s right.”

“How did it get to you so quickly then? Surely the funeral hasn’t been held yet. His will – if he has a will – has surely not been read. His effects have surely not been dispersed, his affairs not settled. How did the ma- How did the item reach you?”

“He had it with him,” Mrs. Tilling said. “He asked a nurse to send it on.”

“He had it with him that night? He carried it with him always? That’s beyond remarkable, isn’t it? That’s really quite peculiar.”

The other servants were bristling with curiosity now. Even Pallister had a mildly interested look upon his usually stony face.

“Leave it with me, Mrs Tilling,” I said. “Do not think of it again.”




25th December 1934

“Not parlour games!” Teddy groaned. He was practically horizontal in his chair. “I can’t leap around at charades. I’ll be sick.”

“You shouldn’t have eaten so much,” I chided. Donald too was lying back with a glassy look upon his face. Bunty lay on her side on the hearthrug like a basking seal, full of goose giblets and roasted potatoes. Only Alec, who had joined us after church and was staying for supper, was his usual dapper self, even though he had polished off more than the rest of us put together and was still reaching out for a chocolate every few minutes, washing them down with alternating swigs of coffee and brandy.

“Of course I ate too much, Mother,” Teddy said. “It’s Christmas Day. It would be unchristian not to.”

“And ungrateful to Mrs. Tilling,” Donald agreed. “That goose was her best yet.”

“I wish I was staying overnight,” Alec said. “I’d have cold gravy on toast for breakfast.” At our disbelieving looks, he hastened to assure us. “Gravy as rich as that will set to a stiff jelly as it cools. Chopped onto crisp toast with salt and pepper, there’s nothing more delicious.”

“Have it for supper,” I suggested. “I’ll tell Pallister to bring a dish of it as well as the sandwiches.”

“And the cake,” Alec said. “You’re opening your Christmas cake for supper tonight, aren’t you?”

“Both of them,” I said. “The iced one and the plain one, served with cheese.”

Alec gave a happy sigh and Donald a small belch I affected not to notice.

“If only we were still children,” Teddy said. “We could do a nice quiet jigsaw puzzle while we’re digesting.”

“How about a game of cards?” said Donald. At my frown – for cards did not seem quite decent for Christmas day – he added: “Needn’t be poker or anything like that. Snap?”

“Here’s an idea,” I said. “It’s innocent and doesn’t require any leaping.” I reached out to the little table at my elbow and picked up Mrs. Tilling’s matchbox. “There are a hundred and one objects in here. Why don’t we have a competition to guess what they are?”

“Matches,” said Teddy.

“Fool,” I said, as Donald snorted. “One hundred and one different objects.”

“Hmph,” said Alec. “Pin. Needle. Collar stud.”

“Three points,” I said, looking at the list.

“Hang on,” said Donald, sitting up. “We haven’t started yet.”

“Yes, we have,” I told him. “And Alec has three points: ‘pin’, ‘needle’ and ‘gent’s collar stud’ are all on the list.”

“And I’ve got one,” said Teddy. “For ‘match’.”

“I don’t think there is a match,” I said, scanning the list a second time. “No. No match. Come on, boys! There are ninety-eight left and some of them are very obscure. Don’t let Alec run away with it.”

“Pea,” said Alec.

“‘Pea’ is here,” I agreed.

“Lentil, barley, corn, rye, bean, rice,” said Teddy.

“Give me a chance!” I said. “Lentil is here. And barley and bean. But not rice or rye. Apple-” I bit my tongue, but not in time.

“Apple pip!” Donald said. “Orange pip, lemon pip, grape seed.”

“Mother, you helped him!” said Teddy.

They had always been the same; ever since Teddy first pulled himself to his feet using the bars of his cot, pulled a button off his romper, and threw it further than Donald had thrown his sock.

“Apple pip and orange pip,” I said. “But not the others. There is another kind of pip . . . or seed . . .”

“Tomato!” said Teddy. I nodded.

“And now give me a hint,” said Donald. “To be fair.”

Alec, reaching for another chocolate, laughed. “I fold,” he said. “I don’t want to be part of a battle to the death. Give me the matchbox, Dan. I’ll check the contents while you check the list and we’ll get on faster.”

He took the matchbox over to the table, usually in the window but currently shoved out by the Christmas tree, and sat down with his back to us to block our view.

“Pin, needle, collar stud!” Teddy cried. “Fair game since Alec withdrew.”

“Oh, come off it!” said Donald. “Mother, that can’t be allowed.”

“Of course not,” I said. “Teddy, you can have the pin and the needle and Donald can have the stud and one more to even things up.” I looked over the list again. “I’ll give you one you’d never guess if we sat here till next Christmas. Umbrella tassel. That seems far too big to be in a matchbox.”

“There is certainly a good lot of stuff in here,” Alec called over. “What on earth is this?” he bent closer and there was a clinking noise.

“Coin!” said Donald.

“Sixpence, ha’penny, threepenny, farthing!” said Teddy.

“I’ll tell you once I unwind this length of-” said Alec.

“String, thread, wool!” said Donald.

“Black wool, white wool, brown wool, blue wool!” said Teddy.

“You missed one,” I said.

“Stop helping him, Mother! Red wool, yellow wool-”

“I meant the coins,” I said. “But there’s yellow wool.”

“No, there isn’t,” Alec said.

I bent over the list. “Sorry,” I said. “The writing is terrible.”

“Yellow tape, yellow thread, yellow . . .” said Teddy.

“Ribbon!” Donald practically yelled it. “And a fourpenny piece!” Bunty shifted in her sleep.

“Yellow ribbon,” I agreed. “And a fourpenny piece too.”

“No,” said Alec again. “There isn’t. There’s no yellow ribbon.”

“Perhaps it’s faded,” said Donald.

“There’s no ribbon at all,” Alec said. “And I tell you what else, Dandy. There’s no umbrella tassel.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, standing and going over. “It must be a very small one. Perhaps from a doll’s umbrella.” On the table, a quantity of odds and ends was spread out: scraps of cloth and sponge, twists of string, chips of cork and chalk and stone and shell.

“That spoils the game a bit,” Donald said.

“I’m winning,” Teddy pointed out.

“There’s no ivy leaf either,” I said looking from the list to the table top. “Unless it’s crumbled away.” I took the inner box and turned it up, rapping it hard. No crumbs of dead leaf fell out. “That’s a silly thing to miss out. It’s tiny. Or, if not an ivy leaf, why not some other leaf? The umbrella tassel I understand, but a leaf wouldn’t take up much space.”

“Maybe it was winter,” Alec said.

“Well then, a pine needle.”

“What’s more, there’s no orange pip,” Alec said. “And that makes no sense at all.” He poked vaguely at an oddment of medicinal lint to see if there might be an orange pip under it. Then he looked up at me. “Whose is this?” he asked. “What sort of person cheats in a matchbox-filling tournament?”

“Someone who was already rather puzzling,” I said. “But are we sure it’s cheating that’s going on?”

Alec frowned in puzzlement, then his eyes flashed as his mind cleared. “Do you think it’s a message, Dandy?”

“I think it very well might be,” I replied. “Boys,” I said, turning to tell them the game was suspended and another was afoot. But they were already on their feet.

“Let’s see what Father’s up to,” Donald said.

Teddy snorted. “Reading the European news,” he said. “What else is he ever up to these days? But – here’s a thought: have you ever played croquet billiards, big brother? You use the fat end of the cue and you don’t need to bend over.”

“Don’t scrape the felt!” I called after their departing backs, before I turned again to Alec and the matchbox. “It was filled by – I assume; at least, it was the property of – Mr. Tilling.”

“Who’s Mr. Tilling?”

“The long-estranged and recently-deceased husband of Mrs. Tilling,” I said. “My cook. He left it to her. In fact, he seems to have taken great pains to make sure she received it. So not only is it a message. It’s a deathbed message.”

“Oughtn’t we to give it to Mrs. Tilling to decipher then?” Alec said. “It’s likely to be very private indeed, isn’t it?”

“No,” I said. “It’s likely to be very nasty indeed. They had a terrible marriage, full of meanness and pettiness and an episode when Mrs. Tilling triumphed at a matchbox-filling competition seems to have been pretty much their lowest point, silly as it sounds. She made it to a hundred. This rotter has claimed a hundred and one and added a final cruel message to boot.”

“And so you think we should decode it and decide whether or not to pass it on, once we’ve seen what it is?”


“Right then,” Alec said. “We think the mismatches are significant, do we? So let’s tally the items written on the list to the items actually present and consider the discrepancies. What’s this?” He held up a piece of rough blue paper about the size of two postage stamps.

“Voucher?” I said, reading from the list.

“We need another piece of paper and a pencil. And I need my pipe.”

“Or it could be the ‘ticket’, I suppose,” I said, peering at it. “These Christmas tree candles are very pretty but they’re not very bright. Put on the electric light while you’re on your feet, will you? If we find the ticket too we can decide which is which.”

Alec clicked the switch by the door and the room sprang into the nasty yellow glare thrown off by an electric lightbulb, so practical but so comfortless. He rejoined me.

 “That’s definitely a ticket,” he said. “From a raffle or a tombola.”

“There’s absolutely nothing that could fairly be called a voucher, actually,” I said. “Although, it’s hard to say in some cases. Some things are quite adequately described: that non-existent ‘yellow ribbon’, the large-as-life ‘pink lint’ . . .”

“And some are barely described at all,” Alec said. “‘Wire’, ‘button’. . . So, jot that down, Dan. No voucher, no tassel, no ribbon and no orange pip.”

I made some scribbles then read off a few more. “‘Charm’, ‘noodle’, ‘razor blade’ – be careful with that!”

‘Present and correct,” Alec said “Let’s do the bits of cloth. They’re well-described too. ‘Emery cloth’ and ‘oil cloth’. ‘Black linen’ and . . . ‘white lace’.”

“And yet,” I said, “descriptions or no, only the black linen and the white lace are in the box. There’s no oilcloth and no emery cloth.”

I made a note of that point too.

“What’s this?” Alec asked when I put my pen down again, holding up a finger with a very small round object balanced on its tip. “Is this a pea or a lentil?”

“I would say,” I answered, screwing up my eyes and moving his hand to a better angle, “that that is a green split pea.”

“Really?” said Alec, with a swoop of unaccountable drama in his voice. “In which case, unless I’m much mistaken, there is no lentil. And – as I’m sure you’ll agree – that is even more senseless an omission than the orange pip. Is anything tinier than a lentil?” I shrugged. “Which puts the matter beyond the last shadow of a doubt, if you ask me. The lentil is deliberately omitted. We’re onto something here, Dan. This really is a code!”

“Or is this the lentil here?” I said holding up a greyish lump the size of a hatpin head. “Gone bad from unsuitable storage.”

Alec took it from me and rolled it between his fingers. “This isn’t vegetable in origin,” he said. He tapped it against his teeth. “Mineral, definitely.”

“So it’s either the tailor’s chalk, or the pencil lead, or the pebble or . . . What does this say? ‘Zinc’?”

“That’s it!” Alec said. “It’s zinc. I remember the terribly rusty water when the zinc lining started to go, on our bath in the army.” He tapped his teeth with the little nugget again. “That is zinc. And this matchbox is curiouser and curiouser. Why zinc, after all?”

“Only one reason that I can think of,” I said. “To make sure and have something starting with every letter of the alphabet.” I bent over the list again. “Apple pip, button ring, curtain tape . . .”

“What about X?” Alec said. “We would have noticed a xylophone by now. Is there an X on the list?”

“There is!” I said. “There truly is. Look. Right at the end. The last item. I thought he was crossing off the list – you know, marking it as completed – but I think it’s an ‘X’. Is there a real X in the box to match it?”

“There’s this,” Alec said, holding up his finger and thumb with a miniscule object pinched between them. “I thought it was a jack, or perhaps some part of a corset fastening I’d never come across, but it’s certainly X-shaped.” He dropped it into my palm.

“I’ve never worn an undergarment that included such an item. You are funny sometimes,” I said. Then I felt the fond smile fade from my face as a thought struck me.

“What is it?” Alec said, who reads my face effortlessly.

“I know where he got this,” I said. “He broke into the premises of the Falkirk Herald and was arrested on the printing-room floor.”

“You think he crept into a newspaper office to steal an X from their type-set?”

“Where else would you get one? Oh, Alec. He ran away from the policeman and was knocked over by a lorry and that’s what killed him. Filling this dratted matchbox with the alphabet killed him.”

“Poor sorry fool,” Alec said. “Why didn’t he just miss X out?”

“What did he miss out?” I said. “Remind me. Because the missing items must be the key, don’t you think?”

“A tassel, a leaf, a voucher, an orange pip, two bits of cloth, a ribbon, and that lentil.”

We stared at one another for a while.

“It’s not the language of flowers,” said Alec at last, with a sigh that was almost a groan.  “One leaf, one fruit pip . . .”

“The code can’t be anything to do with the nature of the objects,” I said. “It must be a cipher based on the letters they contain.”

“Tassel, leaf, voucher, lentil, pip, oilcloth, the other cloth whatever it was and ribbon,” Alec said. “First letters? Last letters? Not all the letters surely. We’ll be here till morning.”

“Emery cloth,” I said. “And it’s definitely the first letters.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Because, as we said, some of list is so definite and some of the list is so vague: ‘white lace’ and ‘pink lint’, rather than just ‘lace’ and ‘lint’.”

“What does that-?” Alec began, but I shushed him.

“I’m nearly there. Is ‘lentil’ the only thing on the list that begins with an L?” Alec paused and then whistled. “And is ‘voucher’ the only V?” Alec whistled again. Then he frowned.

“Oh but Dandy, there are lots of Ts besides ‘tassel’. ‘Thread label’, ‘thistle head’, ‘thimble’. And there’s a razor and a rubber ring besides the ribbon.”

“Yellow ribbon,” I said. “And umbrella tassel. And the other cloth is oilcloth, by the way.”

“Doesn’t that argue against your hunch? Given the orange pip? Two Os?”

“No,” I said. “It’s the exception that proves my hunch. Two Os.” I stood and made my way to the door. “I’m going to tell Mrs. Tilling,” I said. “Come, Bunty.”

“Tell her what?” said Alec.

“It’s terribly sad,” I said. “He might have spent ages putting it together. In fact, I’m sure he spent ages on it. I’ll bet he was chastened in the extreme for mocking her efforts when he tried it for himself. And then to die before he had a chance to tell her.”

“Tell her what?” Alec said again. We had passed through the hall and were crossing the dining room, where the air still sagged with the many aromas of the recent feast.

“‘Umbrella tassel, orange pip, ivy leaf, lentil, yellow ribbon, oilcloth, emery cloth, voucher’,” I said, as I reached the door to the servants’ side.

Alec smacked his head with his hand. “Of course,” he said. “But you might make it a bit easier on the poor woman, Dandy. At least say: “‘Ivy leaf, lentil, oilcloth, voucher, emery cloth, yellow ribbon, orange pip, umbrella tassel’ in order.”

“And I you,” I told him. “Merry Christmas, Alec dear.” 

                                                       The End

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