The Sibyl in Her Grave
Sarah Caudwell

Sarah Caudwell

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The Sibyl in Her Grave


detective fiction

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The Sibyl in Her Grave

Copyright © 2000 by Sarah Caudwell

Midsummer 1

“Booze,” he said, “I can understand. Expensive restaurants I can understand. Fast women and slow horses, God knows I can understand. But throwing your money away on bankers—that’s what I call sheer senseless waste.”


“Basil takes the view,” said Ragwort, “that modernisation goes hand in hand with reform, and we all know what that leads to.”



“So we’ve had a rather exhausting few months, drawing up specifications and getting permission from the Inn and inviting tenders and so on. But we’ve finally got it all sorted out, and the builders are starting work at the end of next month.”

“My dear Selena,” I said, “you sound as if you thought that once the builders arrive your troubles will be over. That is not the universal experience.”

“Well, there’ll obviously be a certain amount of noise and mess while they’re actually there. But they’ve promised to finish by the end of the Long Vacation, so it shouldn’t be too disruptive.”

She leant back and drank her wine, with the serene contentment of a young woman who has agreed on a satisfactory estimate and a convenient timetable, and who has never had builders in before.


He had been born, as one could tell from his accent, in Lancashire, and his parents had not been the sort of people that one expected to have heard of.

“Which of course,” said Miss Tavistock with sudden asperity, “may reflect rather well on them, because the things one hears of people for aren’t always things to be proud of, are they?”

Long Vacation 7 She isn’t the kind of girl, you see, who asks for one’s advice and then either takes it or doesn’t and leaves one to get on with something else. She’s the kind who asks for one’s advice and looks as if she’s listening to it and comes back next morning to ask for it all over again.



“But the Bishop’s very down on witchcraft, almost as down as he is on ordaining women, and you know how he feels about that.”




It was, as I have mentioned, the second week of August: that season of the year when the warm days of summer draw luxuriantly towards their fruitful and abundant climax and there is an almost universal impulse to give thanks in some way for the richness and generosity of the earth; that is to say, in the case of an upper-class Englishman, to go out and kill something.




“Some people have all the luck,” said Cantrip. “None of my clients ever ask me to spy on anyone.”

“Cantrip means,” said Ragwort, “that we all understand what an invidious and embarrassing position you were placed in.”



Christmas 11

“I should prefer you,” said Selena, “not to mention Benjamin Dobble in my presence. I regard him as the direct cause of all our troubles.”

“That,” said Ragwort, “is surely not quite fair.”

“Fair?” said Selena, in a tone of astonishment. “What makes you think that I have any desire to be fair? What I want is someone to blame and I have chosen Benjamin.”

“One step on the road to hell leads almost inevitably to the next, or so people seem to think.”

“I was under the impression,” I said, “that the Church nowadays no longer believed in hell.”

“We no longer believe in it as a geographical place, like Paris or Los Angeles. Not, of course, that one ever thought that it would be anything like Paris. But I think we still believe in it as a condition of the soul—something that follows from what I suppose one calls sin. Not a punishment, just an inevitable consequence, like darkness when you put the light out.”



Would it be possible to persuade him that insider dealing, having been a criminal offense only since 1980, cannot in fact be a sin?




Dear Julia,

Painful as it is to be obliged to say such a thing, particularly to a dear and valued friend, I can see nothing at all to censure in your behaviour [...]

Spring 17

“Character is a myth invented by novelists for the sake of adding interest to the narrative. Human beings are not so different one from another as the authors of fiction would have us believe. Some people do kind things and are described as kind, but they are not incapable of acts of cruelty. People who shrink from danger are described as cowardly, but they may be capable of acts of heroism. In real life almost anyone might do almost anything.”

“Do you mean that perfectly ordinary people whom one meets every day are capable of murder?”

“Why not? We know that in wartime most people are quite capable of killing other human beings.”

“Is there no common factor?”

“I think it’s a question of knowing what they most care about. It is always a dangerous thing to come between anyone and the thing they most desire.”




“But Hilary, most of your theories about those matters have turned out to be entirely wrong.”

“My dear Selena,” I said, “to be always right is the claim of the charlatan, not of the Scholar. The mark of true Scholarship is a fearless and unflinching readiness to modify one’s theories in the light of new evidence.”



“In order to deceive others, it is necessary also to deceive oneself. The actor playing Hamlet must believe that he is indeed the Prince of Denmark, though when he leaves the stage he will usually remember who he really is. On the other hand, when someone’s entire life is based on pretence, they will seldom if ever return to reality. That is the secret of successful politicians, evangelists and confidence tricksters—they believe they are telling the truth, even when they know that they have faked the evidence. Sincerity, my dear Julia, is a quality not to be trusted.”



text checked (see note) Jul 2005

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