Next morning i was busy among the flasks and flagons of my chemical laboratory on the top floor of the east wing when Ophelia barged in without so much as a la-di-dah.
"Where's my pearl necklace?"
I shrugged. "I'm not the keeper of your trinkets."
"I know you took it. The Mint Imperials that were in my lingerie drawer are gone too, and I've observed that missing mints in this household seem always to wind up in the same grubby little mouth."
I adjusted the flame on a spirit lamp that was heating a beaker of red liquid. "If you're insinuating that my personal hygiene is not up to the same high standard as yours you can go suck my galoshes."
"Well, you can. I'm sick and tired of being blamed for everything, Feely."
But my righteous indignation was cut short as Ophelia peered shortsightedly into the ruby flask, which was just coming to the boil.
"What's that sticky mass in the bottom?" Her long manicured fingernail tapped at the glass.
"It's an experiment. Careful, Feely, it's acid!"
Ophelia's face went white. "Those are my pearls! They belonged to Mummy!"
Ophelia was the only one of Harriet's daughters who referred to her as "Mummy": the only one of us old enough to have any real memories of the flesh-and-blood woman who had carried us in her body, a fact of which Ophelia never tired of reminding us. Harriet had been killed in a mountaineering accident when I was just a year old, and she was not often spoken of at Buckshaw.
Was I jealous of Ophelia's memories? Did I resent them? I don't believe I did; it ran far deeper than that. In rather an odd way, I despised Ophelia's memories of our mother.
I looked up slowly from my work so that the round lenses of my spectacles would flash blank white semaphores of light at her. I knew that whenever I did this, Ophelia had the horrid impression that she was in the presence of some mad black-and-white German scientist in a film at the Gaumont.
"Hag!" I retorted. But not until Ophelia had spun round on her heelquite neatly, I thoughtand stormed out the door.
Retribution was not long in coming, but then with Ophelia, it never was. Ophelia was not, as I was, a long-range planner who believed in letting the soup of revenge simmer to perfection.
Quite suddenly after dinner, with Father safely retired to his study to gloat over his collection of paper heads, Ophelia had too quietly put down the silver butter knife in which, like a budgerigar, she had been regarding her own reflection for the last quarter of an hour. Without preamble she said, "I'm not really your sister, you know . . . nor is Daphne. That's why we're so unlike you. I don't suppose it's ever even occurred to you that you're adopted."
I dropped my spoon with a clatter. "That's not true. I'm the spitting image of Harriet. Everybody says so."
"She picked you out at the Home for Unwed Mothers because of the striking resemblance," Ophelia said, making a distasteful face.
"How could there be a resemblance when she was an adult and I was a baby?" I was nothing if not quick on the uptake.
"Because you reminded her of her own baby pictures. Good Lord, she even dragged them along and held them up beside you for comparison."
I appealed to Daphne, whose nose was firmly stuck in a leather-bound copy of The Castle of Otranto. "That's not true, is it, Daffy?"
" 'Fraid so," Daphne said, idly turning an onionskin page. "Father always said it would come as a bit of a shock to you. He made both of us swear never to tell. Or at least until you were eleven. He made us take an oath."
"A green Gladstone bag," Ophelia said. "I saw it with my own eyes. I watched Mummy stuffing her own baby pictures into a green Gladstone bag to drag off to the home. Although I was only six at the timealmost sevenI'll never forget her white hands . . . her fingers on the brass clasp."
Excerpted from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley Copyright © 2009 by Alan Bradley. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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