Authors: Nancy Atherton
A PENGUIN MYSTERY
AUNT DIMITY’S DEATH
Nancy Atherton is the author of
Aunt Dimity: Snowbound
and seven other Aunt Dimity novels, all available from Penguin. She lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin,
a division of Penguin Books USA Inc. 1992
Published in Penguin Books 1993
30 29 28
Copyright © Nancy T. Atherton, 1992
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS HAS CATALOGUED THE HARDCOVER AS FOLLOWS:
Aunt Dimity’s death/Nancy Atherton.
ISBN 0-670-84449-7 (hc.)
ISBN 978-0-14-017840-1 (pbk.)
Printed in the United States of America
Set in Sabon
Designed by Virginia Norey
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For the Handsome Prince
Table of Contents
When I learned of Aunt Dimity’s death, I was stunned. Not because she was dead, but because I had never known she’d been alive.
Maybe I should explain.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell me stories. She would tuck me in, sit Reginald in her lap, and spin tale after tale until my eyelids drooped and I nodded off to sleep. She would then tuck Reginald in beside me, so that his would be the first face I saw when I opened my eyes again come morning.
Reginald was my stuffed rabbit. He had once had two button eyes and a powder-pink flannel hide, but he had gone blind and gray in my service, with a touch of purple near his hand-stitched whiskers, a souvenir of the time I’d had him try my grape juice. (He spit it out.) He stood nine inches tall and as far as I knew, he had appeared on earth the same day I had, because he had been at my side forever. Reginald was my confidant and my companion in adventure—he was the main reason I never felt like an only child.
My mother found Reginald useful, too. She taught third and fourth grade at an elementary school on the northwest side of Chicago, where we lived, and she knew the value of props. When the world’s greatest trampoline expert—me—refused to settle down at bedtime, she would turn Reginald around on her lap and address him directly. “Weil, if Lori
doesn’t want to listen, I’ll tell the story to you, Reginald.” It worked like a charm every time.
My mother was well aware that there was nothing I loved more than stories. She read the usual ones aloud:
How the Elephant Got Its Trunk, Green Eggs and Ham, The Bluebird of Happiness
, and all the others that came from books. But my favorite stories (and Reginald’s, too) were the ones she didn’t read, the ones that came from her own voice and hands and eyes.
These were the Aunt Dimity stories. They were the best, my mom’s special treat, reserved for nights when even back-scratching failed to soothe me into slumber. I must have been an impossibly restless child, because the Aunt Dimity stories were endless:
Aunt Dimity’s Cottage, Aunt Dimity in the Garden, Aunt Dimity Buys a Torch
, and on and on. My eyes widened with excitement at that last title—I was thrilled by the thought of Aunt Dimity preparing to set out for darkest Africa—until my mom reduced my excitement (and the size of my eyes) by explaining that, in Aunt Dimity’s world, a “torch” was a flashlight.
I should have guessed. Aunt Dimity’s adventures were never grand or exotic, though they took place in some unnamed, magical land, where a flashlight was a torch, a truck was a lorry (which made Reginald laugh, since that was my name, too), and tea was the sovereign remedy for all ills. The adventures themselves, however, were strictly down-to-earth. Aunt Dimity was the most mundane heroine I had ever encountered, and her adventures were extraordinarily ordinary. Nonetheless, I could never get enough of them.
One of my great favorites, told over and over again, until I could have told it myself had I wanted to (which I didn’t, of course, because my mother’s telling was part of the tale), was
Aunt Dimity Goes to the Zoo.
It began on “a beautiful spring day when Aunt Dimity decided to go to the zoo. The daffodils bobbed in the breeze, the sun danced on every windowpane, and the sky was as blue as cornflowers. And when Aunt Dimity got to the zoo, she found out why: All the rain in the world was waiting for her there, gathered in one enormous black cloud which hovered over the zoo and dared her to set foot inside the gate.”
But did that stop Aunt Dimity? Never! She opened her trusty brolly (“umbrella,” explained my mother), charged into the most drenching downpour in the history of downpours—and had a marvelous time. She had the whole zoo to herself and she got to see how all the animals behaved in the rain, how some of them hid in their shelters while others bathed and splashed and shook showers of droplets from their fur. “When she’d seen all she wanted to see,” my mother concluded, “Aunt Dimity
went home to warm herself before the fire and feast on buttered brown bread and a pot of tea, smiling quietly as she remembered her lovely day at the zoo.”
I suppose what captivated me about Aunt Dimity was her ability to spit in life’s eye. Take
Aunt Dimity Buys a Torch:
Aunt Dimity goes to “Harrod’s, of all places” to buy a flashlight. She makes the mistake of going on the weekend before Christmas, when the store is jam-packed with shoppers and the clerks are all seasonal help who couldn’t tell her where the flashlights were even if they had the time, which they don’t because of the mad crush, and she winds up never buying the flashlight. For anyone else it would have been a tiresome mistake. For Aunt Dimity, it was just another adventure, one which became more hilarious floor by floor. And in the end she goes home to warm herself before the fire, feast on buttered brown bread and a pot of tea, and chuckle to herself as she remembers her day at Harrod’s. Of all places.
Aunt Dimity was indomitable, in a thoroughly ordinary way. Nothing stopped her from enjoying what there was to enjoy. Nothing kept her from pursuing what she came to pursue. Nothing dampened her spirits because it was
an adventure. I was entranced.
It wasn’t until I was in my early teens that I noticed a resemblance between Aunt Dimity and my mother. Like Aunt Dimity, my mother took great delight in the small things in life. Like her, too, she was blessed with an uncommon amount of common sense. Such gifts would be useful to anyone, but to my mother, they must have proved invaluable. My father had died shortly after I was born, and a lapsed insurance policy had left her in fairly straitened circumstances.
My mother was forced to sell our house and most of its contents, and to return to teaching much sooner than she’d planned. It must have been a wrench to move into a modest apartment, even more of a wrench to leave me with the downstairs neighbor while she went off to work, but she never let it show. She was a single mother before single mothers hit the headlines, and she managed the job very well, if I do say so myself. I never wanted for anything, and when I decided to leave Chicago for college in Boston, she somehow managed to send me, without a moment’s hesitation. Around me, she was always cheerful, energetic, and competent. Just like Aunt Dimity.