Bury Her Deep
said Vashti. ‘He was extremely fast across the ground and he was in shadow most of the time, but my overall impression was one of  . . . Oh Niccy, I do wish you had seen him too. I can’t think how to describe it. He was  . . .’
    I could not help myself.
    ‘Snaky?’
    Lorna flinched and Nicolette and Vashti turned round eyes upon me.
    ‘Now why on earth would you say that?’ Vashti said.
    I was thinking furiously. I could not claim that Mrs Hemingborough both denied his existence and described his appearance, and I could not in all conscience tell tales on Jessie Holland to this pair. I did not doubt for a moment that Mrs Hemingborough would put the young family out of their cottage if it got back to her ears and the Howie ladies were quite clearly gossips of the first order.
    ‘I was at my window,’ I said. ‘Upstairs in the manse.’
    ‘You saw him?’ said Vashti, looking thunderstruck. ‘You actually saw him?’
    I was aware of Lorna’s troubled look at my side; she knew very well that I had been downstairs in the library when the knock came at the door.
    ‘Why shouldn’t Dandy see him too?’ said Nicolette.
    ‘And he struck you as snaky?’ said Vashti, looking highly diverted. She repeated the word again softly to herself. ‘Yes, you’re right,’ she said at last. ‘That’s exactly what he was. That’s exactly the word I was looking for.’
    ‘You must think me quite appalling,’ I said to Lorna as we made our way back to the manse a little later. ‘Cheerfully telling whopping fibs like that. Only I didn’t want to drop poor Jessie Holland in it.’ Lorna still looked far from happy. ‘I know the Howies are friends of yours,’ I went on, ‘and so you might be sure that they wouldn’t breathe a word, but I promised Jessie and there was no other way to explain how I hit on just the right way to describe him.’
    ‘ Jessie said he was snaky?’ Lorna asked.
    ‘She did.’
    Lorna shuddered briefly. Then with a smile she squeezed my arm.
    ‘Please don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I’m sure you did the right thing. After all, a promise is a promise and I’m not entirely blinded by affection. I do see that Nicolette and Vashti are  . . .’ She stopped; I waited and then we burst into peals of laughter.
    ‘Oh, I shouldn’t,’ said Lorna eventually. ‘They’re so kind to me and such fun. And they’ve as much right to be at the Rural as anyone, even though Miss Lindsay and Miss McCallum would love to find a way to amend the constitution and keep them out. Miss McCallum has been in a terrible sulk since they started coming.’
    ‘I rather wondered at that,’ I said. ‘They are hardly at home there.’
    ‘They were drawn in by our American Night,’ said Lorna. Seeing my look, she hastened to explain. ‘It was Independence Day, you know, and we happened to have a clergyman from Wisconsin staying at the manse with his wife. It seemed like such a good idea  . . .’ She trailed off rather mournfully.
    ‘What happened?’ I asked her.
    ‘Nothing!’ declared Lorna. ‘Absolutely nothing. And besides,’ she added, rather detracting from the vehemence of her denial, ‘Vashti and Nicolette are my dear friends. They’re even giving a birthday party for me next month. Did my father tell you? Isn’t that kind?’
    ‘It is indeed,’ I said. ‘I can see why you’re fond of them. They are very  . . . open.’
    In fact, of course, I was grateful to their openness since it had given me an interesting question to ponder: why in heaven’s name should the neighbourhood split down the middle, as Vashti Howie had suggested, on the question of whether the stranger was real?
    ‘I must say,’ I ventured at last, ‘it’s a monstrous piece of good fortune for this scoundrel, whoever he is, to pick out a playground for himself where so many people seem so peculiarly willing to turn a blind eye. You believe in him, don’t you?’
    Lorna hesitated.
    ‘I don’t quite know,’ she

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