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The Poisoned Punchbowl, or the Revenge of the Nepalese Rhododendron

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Several days later a tiny porcelain thimble, painted with birds, hearts and flowers, was found smashed in a crack on the sidewalk near the apothecary. When upended, a tiny shamrock was visible in the interior, along with the words NORSE GARDENS and the letters H.U.C., the last which stood for ‘Hurry Up, Charlotte’.   

Mrs. Walthina Thropshire (nee Blivens) the well-known prohibitionist, hummed the overture to Vermkast’s Seventh (the ‘Prophetic’) Symphony as she picked her way across the west lawn of her home, Badgers Corner, near Wunksieville.

Last night’s frolic had begun on the badminton court, and Walthina surveyed the damage, toeing a cummerbund (Had that belonged to Clayton Muckweight?) and kicking a shuttlecock out of her path.   This morning, more than ever, she regretted cancelling her usual autumnal series of temperance protests. More immediately, she was searching for the greenhouse key, fallen from her kimono at some point during the previous night. How was she to know Gustav would become so belligerent over the rhododendrons?

“Emily,” she called to her houseguest. “Any luck?

“Yes.” Miss Emily Lipsleigh of Kneedeep Junction was only half-visible, and her voice echoed because she was currently inspecting the interior of an ornamental urn. “I found Zillah’s present,” she said, holding up a pink box in one hand and a blue bottle in the other. “And more of that bootleg gin.” She turned the bottle upside down. “Or a few drops, at any rate.”

“I should have realized the punch had been tampered with by the time Lady Celia started her fan dance,” Mrs. Thropshire said. “But you…” She looked meaningfully at Emily, who had enjoyed last night’s refreshments even more than her hostess.

“I thought it was the grenadine,” Emily insisted. “Even the vicar didn’t know.”

Mrs. Thropshire put the back of her hand to her forehead. “I should never have cancelled the St. Efflam’s Day Rally. It seemed the right thing to do, after that terrible business with the Gloridia, but now I wonder.”

 “Three hundred thirty-one souls at the bottom of the Atlantic.” Emily Lipsleigh sighed. “That ship went up like a torch.”

“If only someone besides Zillah had survived to tell the tale.”

“That was months ago. And look what’s happened in the meantime.” Emily climbed out of the urn and over Sir Edmond’s artificial leg. How did he get home without it? She clucked her tongue. “Bootleg gin at Badgers Corner. It’s a disgrace! Not to mention a terrible example for poor Zillah.”

Mrs. Thropshire cleared her throat. “Little eyes upon you, watching night and day,” she said, in her most stentorian tones. “Little eyes and little ears, do not lead them astray.”

“Not just the little ones. It only takes one camera obscura.”

“Aha!” Mrs. Thropshire cried, halfway up the steps to the gazebo. “There it is!” Her key had fallen in the pot with the rhododendrons, and she blamed Gustav for evicting them from the greenhouse in the first place. Professional jealousy aside, the Nepalese rhododendron had been Dominic’s last ornamental cultivar before the asylum, so of course she was emotionally attached. Less so to her kimono, which was fortuitous, as thanks to certain high spirits it was now minus one pocket. Gardeners were so passionate, she thought, fanning her face distractedly.

“I’ve heard,” said Emily, who had not stopped talking the entire time they made their way to the house, “that they’ve found these same gin bottles as far away as Sludgewater. Over one hundred and seventy-three confiscated in Weedhaven alone.”

“Why, that’s more than the number of orphans who’ve been sold to textile mills this year!”

“Child-labor reform is all well and good,” said Emily, whose family owned a factory in Gristleburg. “Except when the orders don’t get finished on time. I’ve got shops that can’t keep smoking jackets in stock.”

“Not in sizes large enough for Gustav,” agreed Mrs. Thropshire, who had been trying to find one to match her kimono. “Something must be done!”

“I’m recruiting orphans as fast as I can, Walthina.”

“I meant about the bootlegging.” Mrs. Thropshire ushered her into the parlor. “Zillah, dear,” she cried toward the stairs. “Do come down for elevenses. And help your auntie pick out a nice axe.”

“I brought you a surprise!” Emily added, something clinking inside the box. “I must’ve put it down near the sundial.”

“Well, you were otherwise occupied.”

“Sir Edmond can do the most entertaining little tricks with that artificial leg.” Emily’s gaze went a bit dreamy and she started to say something else, but was distracted by Mrs. Thropshire’s niece, skipping toward her with an unsettling sort of determined grimness and a yellow-haired doll. “Gracious!” Emily said when the girl joined her on the fainting couch. “Is that still the doll they found her with?”

“It buoyed her like a life raft while she drifted to shore.”

“Too bad the rest of the family didn’t have dolls, then,” Emily pointed out helpfully. And it was, as Zillah’s father, mother and sister Prudence had all perished in the maritime disaster.

“They say the initial blast threw Zillah over fifty feet. She hasn’t let that thing out of her sight since.”

Emily patted Zillah’s arm and scooted away from the doll, which was only badly scorched on the left-side, where it was also missing half its head. “I suppose a memento’s a memento. I brought you a souvenir from my own last trip.” She handed over the child’s tea set from Niagara Falls.

“Thank you,” said little Zillah, with a peculiar haunted expression that Emily found decidedly off-putting. “But I don’t like tea.”

“Everyone likes tea, dear.”

“They were having tea when the ship went down,” said Mrs. Thropshire.

“I see,” said Emily. “Use it for something else then, Zillah.”

“Now which axe?” said Mrs. Thropshire, opening her battle chest and selecting two of her nicest weapons. “Nothing as satisfying as the sound of smashing barrels.” She handed the double bit felling axe to Emily, who also helped herself to a banner. “Zillah, we’re going to stop a naughty bootlegger and then we’ll be back in a few hours,” said Mrs. Thropshire. “Do be a good girl. Remember what I said?”

The girl, who had heard quite a bit since coming to live with her aunt, dutifully answered. “Tis here we pledge perpetual hate to all who would intoxicate.”

Con brio, Zillah. Try the one Nettie Blankensop wrote for the Eastern Chapter.”

Self-control and moderation lead my soul to pure elation.”

“That’s better.” Mrs. Thropshire patted her niece’s head. “Ready, Emily?”

Emily nodded, hefting her axe.

“Prepare for judgment, Chutney Falls! Zillah, we’ll be home for dinner.”

By early afternoon, Mrs. Thropshire and Emily had collected the third member of their usual protest group, Lionel “Longarms” Thumbleclaw.  As an unknown bootlegger at an unknown location would hardly generate the kind of hullabaloo they sought, the trio began to motor to their usual protest location, the saloon in Chutney Falls. “The Avuncular Condor it is!” Lionel said, and they were off to a promising start.

The excursion took a downward turn when the engine overheated halfway to Chutney Falls, but fortunately Gustav’s brother Harold, a surprisingly well-made man from the village, passed by on his way to making a delivery. Less fortunately, on the other hand, Lionel and Emily were obliged to ride in the cargo area of the truck, as Harold, Mrs. Thropshire and Harold’s particularly boisterous sheepdog Snodgrass took up the entirety of the interior seating.

At Puddington Downs, the truck stopped, to Emily and Lionel’s confusion. The rear of the vehicle was not accessed, and the two of them, being locked in the back in the dark, became restless with the wait. “Light a match,” said Lionel, “and let’s see what we’ve got here.”

The largest part of their confinement was taken up with a large barrel, upon which was painted a charred and half-obliterated word, which, with the help of a dozen matches, they finally succeeded in deciphering as Gloridia. “Well,” said Emily. “This is a coincidence.”

Remembering their axes, she and Lionel proceeded to break open the barrel, which turned out to have been filled with gin. Furthermore, they eventually proceeded to also open the rear of the delivery truck. This development surprised both Harold and Mrs. Thropshire, who presently joined them, announcing themselves flushed from chasing Snodgrass for the last forty minutes. This neither completely explained the barking and giggles that had been coming from the shrubbery nor the lady’s stocking caught in the dog’s collar but Mrs. Thropshire was adamant. “It’s time to get going,” she said, rather abruptly. “After all, I’ve got an example to set.”

Pulling into the alley behind The Avuncular Condor, Harold opened the back of the truck to discover only one occupant. “We must’ve left Emily in Puddington Downs,” Lionel said. “I shall have to fetch her post haste.” Nevertheless, he joined Mrs. Thropshire in a rousing speech on the steps to the saloon. Eventually feeling unappreciated by a poor crowd, Mrs. Thropshire suggested they carry their message indoors to actual drinking patrons, and Lionel acquiesced, handing her the extra axe.

It had been far too long since their last good rally and both Lionel and Mrs. Thropshire were in such fine form that after smashing all visible bottles and the mirror behind the bar, the protest only continued to gain momentum.  They had just attacked the whisky casks when Harold wheeled in the barrel from the truck, causing both the bartender and patrons to send up a cheer. However, when the actual contents of the barrel prove to be Emily Lipsleigh, brandishing a banner reading ‘Temperance Forever’, the cheers turned decidedly less appreciative.

Fighting broke out in earnest, and blows were exchanged. Lionel’s collarbone snapped, Emily suffered a mild concussion and Mrs. Thropshire, who had handcuffed herself to the beer tap and unfortunately misplaced the key, encouraged everyone to move along. “We’ve ruined all the liquor here!” she finally shouted, in an attempt to disperse the rioters and also because she needed to get home to her niece, for whom she was trying to provide a proper, though energetic, role model.  “Take it to the streets!”

Coincidentally, at that very moment, Zillah’s sister, who was not dead after all, heard her aunt’s voice on the other side of the barroom door. Having survived a shipwreck, two orphanages and three textile mills, she had just missed Mrs. Thropshire at Puddington Downs earlier that day. “Aunt Walthina, is that you?” she said through the closed saloon door, but the only answer was the sound of pounding feet, getting closer and closer.

Meanwhile, back at Badgers Corner, Zillah retrieved another one of the pretty blue bottles from the makeshift still Gustav had set up in the greenhouse. It wasn’t as nice as her parent’s distillery had been, but his operation was smaller anyway, and would remain so until he got the rest of the greenhouse cleared. Zillah filled the bottle from the bathtub full of gin and took it to the parlor. It was just the thing to enjoy in her new tea set.

P is for Prudence, trampled flat in a brawl; Z is for Zillah, drinking gin with her doll.