The students of St. Etheldreda’s School for Girls face a bothersome dilemma. Their irascible headmistress, Mrs. Plackett, and her surly brother, Mr. Godding, have been most inconveniently poisoned at Sunday dinner. Now the school will almost certainly be closed and the girls sent home—unless these seven very proper young ladies can hide the murders and convince their neighbors that nothing is wrong.
Julie Berry’s The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is a smart, hilarious Victorian romp, full of outrageous plot twists, mistaken identities, and mysterious happenings. Read an excerpt below, and get your copy September 23rd from Roaring Brook Press!
Each sunday afternoon at Saint Etheldreda’s School for Young Ladies on Prickwillow Road in Ely, Cambridgeshire, the seven enrolled young ladies were invited by custom to join Headmistress Constance Plackett while she entertained her younger brother, Mr. Aldous Godding, at the dinner table. The privilege of watching the headmistress and her regular Sunday guest consume the veal that they, the young ladies themselves, had prepared, more than compensated for the lack of sufficient veal for all the table to share. The girls had learned to be content with buttered bread and hot beans, Sundays upon end. Such self-denial would serve them well in their future callings as wives. This was Mr. Aldous Godding’s firm belief, and his sister, the widow Mrs. Plackett, with years of matrimonial experience behind her, could only agree.
On one particular Sunday evening in May, midway through the meal, Mrs. Plackett sopped her plate with her bread, took a bite of it, and let the morsel fall to the floor, whilst her head lolled back upon her shoulders, and her eyes gazed blankly at the ceiling. She shuddered. She shook. She let out a choking cough, then fell silent.
“What’s the matter, Connie?” her brother demanded between mouthfuls. “Speak up, woman. It isn’t decent goggling about like that. Pass the pepper, Missy.” This he addressed to Disgraceful Mary Jane, who sat nearest to him, but he neither knew her name nor the source of her disgrace. All the young ladies were “Missy” to him.
Disgraceful Mary Jane passed the pepper. Mr. Godding used it liberally, ate a bite of veal, laid down his knife and fork, touched his beard with his napkin, and rose from his seat. He made his way around the table to where his sister sat, raised his arm to thump her back, then choked, clutched his throat, fell forward, and landed on the floor with a thud that reverberated up the legs of the chairs upon which the seven young ladies sat.
“Dead, I imagine,” Dour Elinor observed.
Smooth Kitty slipped from her chair and went softly to the headmistress’s side. She plucked the spectacles off Dull Martha’s nose, polished them on her sleeve, then held them in front of Mrs. Plackett’s limp mouth. She watched and listened closely. The other girls hung poised for the verdict, their forks frozen in mid-bite.
Smooth Kitty, satisfied that no breath had fogged the glasses, nodded and placed them back on Dull Martha’s nose. “Dead as a kipper,” she pronounced.
“Eugh,” Dull Martha sputtered. “You made a dead person breathe on my glasses!”
Pocked Louise opened her mouth to correct Dull Martha, but Smooth Kitty shook her head slightly. Pocked Louise, the youngest of the girls, was accustomed to her older schoolmates bossing her. She kept still.
Dear Roberta covered her face with her hands. “But this is awful! Hadn’t we ought to call Doctor Snelling?”
“Bit late for that,” Dour Elinor responded. “Louise. Check the other one.”
Pocked Louise, the resident scientist, approached the fallen form of Mr. Aldous Godding cautiously. As his face was mashed against the floor, it became clear to her that she must touch him in order to turn him over, a thought which wrinkled her pox-scarred nose into a fright of disgust.
“Go on,” Dour Elinor urged. “He won’t bite.”
“But he’s a man,” Pocked Louise protested. “And such a greasy one.”
“Don’t be a ninny. Of course he’s a man,” snorted Disgraceful Mary Jane. “Believe me, there are many far better.”
“Think of him as a specimen in a jar,” Smooth Kitty said, “specially killed for the purpose of examination.”
Dear Roberta dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. “Killed?” she squeaked. “Did you say killed?”
Pocked Louise by this point had managed to upturn her specimen and proclaim him dead. The gush of blood from his broken nose spread a ghastly crimson all over his already unpleasant face, and threatened to eternally stain the Persian rug. The girls gathered round in a circle, leaning over the body.
“Killed,” Dour Elinor said. “Murdered.” She savored the R’s in her pronunciation: murrrrderrrred.
“Oh. Oh my,” Dear Roberta began to gasp. “A murder. Oh dear. I think I shall faint.” She fluttered her hand before her face.
“Not now, Roberta, there’s a dear,” interjected Mary Jane. “Why bother swooning when there are no young men about to see you do it?”
“Balderdash,” Pocked Louise snorted. “If I wanted to faint, which I wouldn’t, I’d go right ahead and do it. I wouldn’t give tuppence for whether or not there were males present.”
“Sturdy stuff, Louise,” said Stout Alice. “To thine own self be true. Now, if we can return to the matter at hand…”
“At foot, you mean,” Dull Martha said, glancing at the corpse on the carpet.
“Something has killed Mrs. Plackett and Mr. Godding.” Stout Alice dabbed at the blood spot on the rug with her napkin. “But it may have been a mere piece of meat lodged in the throat. We mustn’t run away with ourselves with this talk of murder.”
“The odds of both of them accidentally choking within seconds of each other seem infinitesimally small,” sniffed Pocked Louise. “The facts suggest poison, which clearly points to murder. Someone murdered them.”
An angelic smile spread across Smooth Kitty’s pretty face. “Ah,” she said, “but the question is, who?”
Silence hung over the dining room. The glass-domed clock on the mantel ticked. Flowered chintz curtains swam in the sweet May breeze. Mrs. Constance Plackett sat forever straight and slack-jawed in her dining chair as seven young ladies each looked at the others as though seeing them for the first time.
“Surely it couldn’t have been one of us,” Dear Roberta sniff led.
“Why not?” said Disgraceful Mary Jane. “I say hurrah if it was one of us. Finally someone showed some good sense and got rid of those two.”
Dear Roberta’s eyes filled with tears. “But that would be dreadful! How could we go on living here, wondering which one of us was a poisoner?”
“Grab his feet, won’t you, dear?” Stout Alice addressed Dull Martha, and bent to lace her arms underneath Mr. Godding’s, which seemed now to be made of cement. Dull Martha complied, and the other young ladies pitched in, shifting and sharing the weight as best they could, taking special care to keep blood off their dresses. Together they hoisted their dead headmistress’s dead brother up into the air.
“Now what do we do with him?” asked Disgraceful Mary Jane. “Dump him on the sofa until the constables arrive? I suppose we’d better send someone to fetch them.” This thought seemed to please her. “Say, I’ll go. There’s a new constable up from London who’s ever so tall, with such lovely square shoulders, and the most adorable little gap between his front teeth. I’ll just get my new shawl…”
“Hold a moment,” Smooth Kitty said. “Before we run off flirting with constables and calling physicians, I say we think carefully. Dear Roberta has asked a very sensible question.”
Dear Roberta blinked. “I have?”
Stout Alice shifted Mr. Godding’s torso uncomfortably. “Do you mind if we have our little chat after we’ve put Mr. Godding down somewhere?”
“Oh, just drop him there where he is,” said Smooth Kitty. “He’s beyond help now.”
For the second time in minutes, Mr. Godding crashed to the floor.
“Bother,” Stout Alice said. “Now we’ll just have to hoist him up again.”
“As I was saying,” Smooth Kitty began, then paused. “Oh! Check his pockets, will you, Louise?”
Kitty shrugged. “If he’s got any money, we’ll have better use for it than he will.”
“Like the Achaeans in the Trojan war,” murmured Dour Elinor, with a strange light in her eyes, “stripping armor off the bodies of their fallen enemies.”
Smooth Kitty coughed. “Yes. Well. Something like that.”
“I still don’t see why I have to do all the dirty work,” grumbled Pocked Louise.
“Because you’re the youngest, and we say so,” said Disgraceful Mary Jane, earning a kick in the heel from Stout Alice.
“Because you’re so thorough, dear,” said Smooth Kitty.
Pocked Louise grimaced as she reached two fingers gingerly into each of Mr. Godding’s trouser pockets. Her search yielded a cigar, a snuffbox, a coin, a key, and a folded bit of scribbled paper.
“Is it a note?” asked Alice, peering at the scrap. “Does it mean something?”
Louise frowned. “More like an inkblot,” she said. “Perhaps a triangle. Nothing of interest here.” She dropped the items on a table.
“You don’t call a sovereign a thing of interest?” Smooth Kitty, ever one for figures and ledgers, nabbed the coin, then reported on their headmistress’s pockets. “Mrs. Plackett has a sovereign, a few shillings and pence, a handkerchief, and mint pastilles.”
“Would to heaven she’d used the pastilles more often,” said Disgraceful Mary Jane.
“Mary Jane!” Dear Roberta cried. “To speak so of the departed!”
“Well, she had foul breath, dead or alive,” Mary Jane replied. “Her odors won’t improve from here on out.”
Smooth Kitty gathered what change they’d found in both sets of pockets and slipped it into her own. Then she gathered the other small items and dropped them into a small crockery urn on the sideboard.
“As I was saying.” Kitty resumed her original query with a touch of exasperation in her voice. “What Roberta so wisely asked, several moments ago, was, ‘How shall we go on living here?’ She has a point. Once we notify constables and so forth, we’ll all be sent home.”
“Of course we’ll be sent home,” Dear Roberta said. “It’s the only logical thing.” She sighed. “I suppose I must learn to love Stepmother somehow. It was so much easier here when I didn’t have to look at her. It made it much easier to pray for her, as the vicar said we must do for all our enemies.”
“But why, Roberta dear?” Dull Martha said. “Why should you go home to your nasty stepmother? Can’t we stay here, and we’ll all just go on like we do?”
“They won’t let us,” Pocked Louise protested.
“Who’s they?” Dull Martha asked.
“Coroners,” Dour Elinor intoned. “Undertakers. Police. School overseers. All the people who’ll descend upon us like a flock of ravens once it’s known that these two are dead.”
“You sound almost glad of their coming, Elinor,” Smooth Kitty observed.
“Only the undertakers,” Elinor admitted. “I’ve always wanted to witness an embalming.”
“Bother and more bother.” Disgraceful Mary Jane f lopped back into her chair at the dinner table. “With those two nuisances gone, we might actually have had some fun. This whole place is suddenly much more interesting. And now we shall have to leave it.”
“And each other,” Pocked Louise added.
Stout Alice put an arm around Pocked Louise. Louise rested her head on Alice’s shoulder.
“I don’t want to go home, either,” Dull Martha said. “My little brothers torment me so. They pull my hair and stick it in ink, and paste my piano pages together.”
“Mother won’t let me out of her sight for a minute,” Disgraceful Mary Jane said. “She swears I’ll elope if she leaves me unguarded for half an hour. I ask you, have you ever heard such rubbish?” She grinned. “Ten minutes and a willing man are all I’d need.”
“You’ve never had a shortage of willing men,” Smooth Kitty said.
“Correct, but under Mother’s watch, there’s an absolute dearth of minutes.”
Stout Alice was uninterested in Mary Jane’s chances for hasty marriage. “If I go home, all I shall hear from Grandmamma is how fat I am compared to Cousin Isabelle,” she said. “She should talk. It takes two maids to tie Grandmamma’s corsets, but that doesn’t stop her from goading me.”
Dour Elinor stared at the black coals on the grate. “My mother will tell me all day long that a young lady should radiate sweetness and good cheer.” She spoke the words the way others might pronounce maggots and black rot.
Smooth Kitty clucked a sympathetic tongue for poor Elinor.
“I suppose they’ll find other schools for us eventually,” Pocked Louise said. “New mistresses, new nasty girls to make us miserable.”
“We have all gotten along so beautifully here.” Dear Roberta sighed. “It’s something of a miracle, really. We aren’t simply boarding-school mates. We’re like a family.”
“We’re better than family,” Disgraceful Mary Jane corrected. “Families are full of aunts and brothers and parents. We’re sisters.”
“I always wished for a sister,” Dull Martha said.
“Me, too,” said Dear Roberta.
“Not me,” Dour Elinor confessed. “But I don’t mind your company.”
Pocked Louise sat up. “None of us here has a sister at home, have we?” she said slowly. “I never realized that before. Not a single one of us.”
“That’s why I hate to leave.” Dear Roberta had begun to cry. “We have our own sisterhood.”
Elinor handed Roberta a black silk handkerchief.
“You want to know what I say?” Smooth Kitty asked no one in particular. “I say we don’t tell these… ravens and what-do-you-call-ems… coroners. Let’s not tell anyone.”
They stared at each other. Smoldering coal settled in the fireplace, sending up low sparks. Each girl was alone, for a moment, with her private amazement. Smooth Kitty counted her heartbeats as she waited for their responses.
“But the bodies will smell,” Dull Martha said at length. “Sooner or later they’re bound to.”
Disgraceful Mary Jane, whose green eyes had lit up wonderfully at Smooth Kitty’s suggestion, gave Dull Martha a little rub on the back. “No, darling, they won’t,” she said. “We’ll bury them. Right in the vegetable beds.”
“They’ll make a lovely compost,” Pocked Louise added. “Perhaps not so much this season. But next season the marrows and squashes will burst with juicy goodness.” She scratched her nose thoughtfully. “We’ll just have to be careful this fall when we go digging for potatoes.”
Smooth Kitty’s eyes darted from young lady to young lady, watching to see how well her idea had taken hold. She didn’t dare congratulate herself yet. She must be sure where they stood.
“Never mind potatoes. There’ll be a scandal,” she said. “An investigation. Each one of us could be under a cloud of suspicion for the rest of our lives.”
“A black spot,” Dour Elinor intoned. “A blemish upon our maiden purity.”
“Oh, no, surely not,” Disgraceful Mary Jane replied. “Not for such a trifling thing as neglecting to mention the death of a headmistress and her nasty brother. No one could really be upset over that. It takes much more fun to leave a blemish upon one’s maiden purity.”
“They’ll think one of us murdered them,” Pocked Louise warned.
Smooth Kitty slipped an arm through Louise’s elbow. “What I’d like to know, love, is whether or not one of us actually did.”
The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place © Julie Berry, 2014