Inside the ballroom, the prizes were being announced. Silver-plated trophies were being handed out. Mr Ohri, the State Bank’s manager, received one for the bank’s cactus collection – although he personally hated cacti. Mrs Bakshi picked up a prize for her giant African marigolds. Dr Reinhardt was rewarded for the pansies he had grown in his window boxes. The Kapurthala chrysanthemums were suitably recognised, in spite of the display on Miss Gamlah’s hat. The Company garden and Dahlia Bank picked up numerous awards. Miss Gamlah goggled as the Rajpipla begonias received a special prize. “Impostors!” she exclaimed. “They came from Simla!” And then, to her further aggravation, Mrs Basu’s carnations were singled out for the first prize.
“Mrs Basu!” announced Nandu, acting as master of ceremonies. “First prize for your splendid creations!”
But Mrs Basu was nowhere to be seen.
“Mrs Basu!” repeated Nandu. “Where is Mrs Basu?”
“Probably off with a new boyfriend,” muttered Miss Gamlah under her breath.
“She went outside about ten minutes ago,” said Colonel Bakshi. “Might be listening to Mr Lobo on the piano. I’ll just take a look.”
He stepped outside and in his absence the prize-giving was concluded with a short speech from Nandu thanking all those who had participated in the show. It would stay open to the public the following day, and then the exhibits could be collected by their respective owners. He had barely finished speaking when Colonel Bakshi returned, looking very agitated.
“Something’s happened to Mrs Basu,” he said. “She’s lying outside in a flower bed. I think she’s dead.”
A hush stole over the ballroom, followed by exclamations of horror and disbelief.
Nandu, Dr Reinhardt, and one or two of the hotel staff made for the door. The others, like trees in a petrified forest, remained where they were.
The men found Mrs Basu lying crumpled in a bed of nasturtiums. A strand of ivy had been twisted around her neck. It had bitten deep into her flesh. Her eyes protruded, her tongue lolled out.
“She’s been strangled,” said Nandu, stating the obvious.
“Most unfair,” he continued. “I am having enough difficulty filling this hotel without people committing their murders here.”
Mr Lobo, unaware of what was happening, continued to play his piano in the lounge.
Miss Ripley-Bean was certain something terrible had happened, but she wasn’t the sort of person who went looking for trouble, and instinct kept her from joining the others on the steps of the ballroom. Many years of living alone had taught her that the best way to survive in the world was to mind one’s own business. Be on hand when wanted; but don’t push yourself forward.
She stepped into the hotel lounge where Mr Lobo was playing Viennese waltzes. He looked up, saw the agitation on Miss Ripley-Bean’s face, and stopped playing.
“What’s wrong, Aunty May?” He always called her Aunty, as she reminded him of his old aunt Jemima in Goa.
“I think something terrible has happened outside the ballroom. I’m afraid to go and see.”
“Wait here, then. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
He ran off towards the porch, and Miss Ripley-Bean sat down on a sofa and tried to compose herself.
Mr Lobo returned in a few minutes.
“It’s Mrs Basu,” he said briefly. “She’s dead. It seems she was attacked by someone.”
Miss Ripley-Bean recalled the shadows on the wall, and then someone looking in her direction.
“Poor Mrs Basu...why would anyone want to kill her?” she said. “I think I’ll go to my room and lie down. I feel a bit woozy.”
“I’ll come with you, Aunty.” He stooped and took her by the arm – she was a tiny thing, always reminding him of a sparrow – and led her around the tennis court to her room. They were greeted by frantic barking from within. As Miss Ripley-Bean unlocked and opened the door, a small Tibetan terrier rushed out, leaping all over her, and including Mr Lobo in its welcoming antics.
“Down, Fluff, down!” exclaimed Miss Ripley-Bean. “Do let us in, for heaven’s sake.”
When Fluff had subsided, Miss Ripley-Bean invited Mr Lobo to sit down and try some chocolate cake; but he said he’d better go back to see what was happening in the ballroom – Nandu would need his help and support.
So Fluff was given some chocolate cake, while his mistress tottered over to a small cabinet, from which she extracted a large bottle containing a green liqueur. She was badly in need of a drink, and the only drink at hand was the bottle of crème de menthe.
Miss Ripley-Bean was proud of her crème de menthe, and rightly so, for she had made it herself.
The recipe was simple. A cup of sugar went into a large glass jar. Over that you poured a full bottle of your favourite gin. Add two tablespoons of peppermint oil (obtainable from the local chemist) and a similar amount of that green colouring matter that goes into cakes and other poisonous confectionery, and voila! you had a carafe of delicious crème de menthe `a la May Ripley-Bean.
Miss Ripley-Bean poured herself a small wine glass full of the oily stuff, licked her lips, and sank into her armchair. It was her own armchair, not the hotel’s. Her grandmother had died in it circa 1880, the year of the third – or was it the fourth – Afghan War – and Miss Ripley-Bean was sentimental about her few family heirlooms.
But at the moment her mind was very much in the present. Perhaps she should have stayed up there at the ballroom and spoken about what she had seen, although it hadn’t been anything really tangible, just shadows on a wall. But the person who had stood there later for a moment, looking across the courtyard at her, recognising her…It was better perhaps to feign ignorance, to stay quiet at least for the present.
She made herself a light supper – a vegetable soup and two pieces of toast – and went to bed early, switching on the bedside radio which was her companion whenever sleep proved elusive. She liked listening to the BBC’s comedy shows – Round the Horne, or The Men from the Ministry – and then the late-night shows from All India Radio, delivered in Melville DeMellow’s mellow voice.
The radio was still on when she fell asleep. Fluff was sleeping at the foot of her bed.
An hour or two later, a low growl from Fluff woke Miss Ripley-Bean. She switched off the radio and switched on the bedside lamp. Fluff had his head raised, looking towards one of the windows. Both her rooms had windows, and this one looked out upon the magnificent old deodar tree that fronted the hotel.
Of course it was dark outside and Miss Ripley-Bean could see nothing. But presently there was a scratching sound on one of the windowpanes, as though someone was trying to prise it loose. Fluff gave a short bark, and the scratching stopped.
Then there were footsteps. Someone was walking up and down the gravel path, just outside the window.
Miss Ripley-Bean slipped out of bed and went to the nearest window. No one there. She went to the little sitting room, followed by Fluff, who was making all sorts of threatening noises. She peered out of this window too. Someone stepped away from it quickly, knocking over a flowerpot.
Fluff set up a furious barking, and the prowler hurried away.
Miss Ripley-Bean put on all her lights and sat up into the early hours, reading Sense and Sensibility. Then she fell asleep in her armchair.
Excerpted with permission from Death under the Deodars: The Adventures of Miss Ripley-Bean, Ruskin Bond, Penguin Random House India.