Watson & The Countess Series
Copyright © 2015 by Anna Lord
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are
used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is
purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
“One should always have something sensational to read on the train,” teased Countess Volodymyrovna, noting the number of newspapers her sleuthing companion had tucked under his arm. She was paraphrasing the bon viveur of the beau monde, the soi-disant Genius otherwise known as Mr Wilde, but her words fell flat.
Averse to anything sensational, Dr Watson had chosen something safe. This included a copy of The Times, The Spectator, The Strand Magazine, Sporting Life, Tatler, The Penny Weekly and The New Good-Housekeeping Journal for Young Ladies. That ought to do it he decided as he settled grumpily into his seat, determined to avoid discussion re following in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes. And for almost fifty-five minutes he had managed to stay safely hidden behind the pages of his broadsheets but when curiosity is piqued it soon finds voice.
“I say, there’s an article in The Times about Cruddock Castle,” he ventured, clearing the rust from his throat with a raspy cough. “Isn’t that the place where Sir Henry Baskerville’s neighbour, the squire of Drogo, shot his first stag?”
Countess Volodymyrovna stirred without lifting her gaze. She didn’t know which was worse – the faded pages of A Short History of English Jurisprudence or the torpid undulations of the English countryside unrolling like a patchwork quilt cobbled a thousand years ago to make a blanket for a chalk giant.
“The estate owned by his god-mother somewhere in Scotland?”
“The Scottish Borders to be precise.”
“What of it?” she yawned.
“Well,” he continued, inflection rising now that he’d cleared his throat. “Lord Cruddock is holding a golf tournament. The tournament was intended to promote the new golf course he has recently established in the Lammermoor Hills. But the contest has been halted. There have been three unfortunate accidents resulting in death. The article implies the deaths may be attributable to supernatural -”
“Let me see that!” A surge of blood had her snatching the newspaper from his hands. She began to read out loud. “It has been suggested by the highly respected dowager, Lady Moira Cruddock, that the three unfortunate accidents are not accidents at all and that the deaths are the result of supernatural phenomena. The Lammermoor, originally known as the Lammas moor, is the site of an historic battle between Celts and Saxons in the tenth century. The moor is a graveyard for thousands of slain warriors. Moreover, near the fourteenth green lie the ruins of Lammas Abbey, built in the eleventh century and destroyed by Viking raiders in the twelfth, another graveyard for countless restless souls. Lady Cruddock, a Spiritualist of some renown, claims that the spirits of the dead have been disturbed. She fervently believes that a curse hangs over the tournament and that the golf course is doomed.”
The recent thrill of solving the Baskerville case came back to the Countess in one, breathless, vivifying rush. Prior to boarding the Devon train she had been wondering how to circumvent his vow to go their separate ways once they returned to London. In her mind, their pairing had been a tour de force which she likened to a perfect marriage and their first case had been the dream honeymoon. Her nerve-endings were still tingling from the orgiastic experience as she drew breath and continued to read at a rollicking pace.
“Three players have died since the commencement of the tournament. Chuck Fitzalan the current world champion from the United States of America, Giuseppe Sforza from Italy, and the highly regarded Australian newcomer, Peter Lancaster.”
“Can I have my paper back?” he grumbled.
“Not yet. The American was struck by a stray golf ball and died from head injuries. The Italian drowned after he slipped into a water hazard. The Australian was killed when a tree branch fell on him as he was taking a shortcut from the twelfth to the thirteenth fairway. I didn’t realize golf could be so dangerous. I believe you are an aficionado of the game, Dr Watson?”
He knew better than to ask how she knew. “Yes, I’m a member at Greenknowe. I got in early. It’s now closed to new members. There are currently sixty golf courses in England and the number is increasing by ten or twenty each year, none as yet for women players. Golf is not considered to be a dangerous game. The only death I ever heard of was when a player at Woodhurst was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm.”
“How fascinating! Not being struck by lightning, I meant that golf could be so popular. I have always considered it to be a rather dull and pointless pastime. My late husband had a golf course laid out at our country estate in the Yarra Valley and when I suggested that he make the holes a little bit bigger he reacted most regrettably. I cannot say he ever enjoyed a game, though he did persist with it to the point where his nerves suffered terribly. He encouraged me to try my hand but I suspect what he really wanted was a caddy who would not mock him behind his back. Notwithstanding such an unfortunate introduction to the game, I think I might take a trip up north before Christmas and arrange to have some private lessons with the winner of the competition. Yes, now that I look at golf with more mature eyes it seems the sort of exercise that is ideal for a lady and I have always looked good in sporting attire.”
She delivered her little speech in restrained and measured tones, having decided right from the outset to downplay her eagerness to investigate this fresh mystery. If she sounded too keen he would simply refuse to accompany her to the Scottish Borders and, like most men, once he had planted his foot it would be impossible for him to alter his stance. The notion of actually swinging a golf club was the last thing she intended, but men were such perverse creatures – bless their competitive hearts. “Do you consider golf a difficult game to master?”
“Not too difficult,” he replied circumspectly, giving up on getting his newspaper back and picking up the nearest magazine instead. “I could give you -” He stopped abruptly.
“What were you going to say?”
“Nothing.” He opened up Sporting Life and hid behind it. A few moments later he lowered it again. “There’s an article here on the same subject. It goes into more detail.”
She tried to nab it but he pre-empted her and held tight.
“Read it out loud,” she pouted.
“The Lammermoor Tournament is a contest by elimination. Twelve professional players have been invited to participate and two wild cards have been issued to two promising amateurs from South Africa inviting them to try their hand. The players play in pairs. One pair plays each day and at the end of the week the lowest scoring pair is eliminated. The following week the same thing happens, and so on until there is only one pair left. The final pair play-off as singles and the winner receives a silver chalice, one hundred pounds, and becomes a life member of the Lammermoor Golf Club.”
“Sounds like a lucrative vacation. Where have all these lucky golfers been accommodated? Is there a hotel attached to the club house?”
He perused the article further. “I say, this sounds jolly nice! The players are staying at Cruddock Castle as guests of his lordship. It is described here as the stately and baronial jewel of the Lammermoor Hills, a gothic revival masterpiece that served as a model for Abbotsford, the mansion house belonging to Sir Walter Scott. Caddies, tournament assistants, and interested spectators are being accommodated at the nearby Marmion Hydro Hotel situated on the western bank of Loch Maw which offers a picturesque vista over the golf course and the ruins of Lammas Abbey.”
“What loch did you say?”
“Loch Maw. Why? Are you familiar with it?”
“No, but Aunt Zoya owned a house in Scotland and I think it was near a loch starting with the letter M.”
He rolled his eyes. “There are hundreds of lochs in Scotland and at least a dozen of them start with M.”
She ignored the geography lesson and the patronizing tone. “My aunt kept promising we would one day make a visit but we never did. It was, I gather, a bit out of the way. All her lovers gave her a house. That was the rule. She had dozens of them all over the world.”
“Lovers or houses?”
“Both – The house had a name. I’ll think of it in a minute.” Her elegant brows pleated as she steepled elongated fingers to help centre her thoughts. “The only thing I remember is that it is perched on a tiny island at the edge of a loch near a town with the utterly stupid name of Dunce.”
“I think you might mean Duns.”
“Possibly. Probably. Anyhow, the house can only be reached by a footbridge which spans the narrowest point of the loch – sounds frightfully inconvenient. Perhaps I should check with the solicitor who handles the business pertaining to my late aunt’s numerous homes – fifteen at last count. I think there’s an old housekeeper, no electric power, of course. There might just be enough time to make that visit before winter sets in.”
He swapped Sporting Life for The Spectator. “There’s an article in here too! It details the handicaps of all twelve players. The two favourites for the play-off are Mr Larssensen a Norwegian and Mr Bancoe the current Scottish champion, although two wild cards from South Africa, a brother and sister, Mr Carter Dee and Miss Catherine Dee, appear to be serious contenders. They happen to be wards of his lordship and are thrilled that a golf course has been established near to the castle where they can hone their game on a daily basis. The article goes on to say that the gently rolling hills of the Lammas moor were the perfect setting for a golf course and the locals are excited at the prospect of the Prince Regent visiting next year in order to open the new club house that is to be built on the site of the abbey ruins.”
“I met Prince Tum-Tum once in Paris. What else does the article say?”
“Not much.” He turned the page. “Ah! Here’s a small map. It shows the layout of the eighteen holes, the sand bunkers, the water hazards, the position of Cruddock Castle, and some local landmarks. There’s a dwelling marked here at the southern end of the loch – Graymalkin.”
“May I have a look?”
“Certainly.” He handed it over.
“Mmm, the name rings a bell. Yes, I’m fairly certain that is it – Graymalkin! It’s a shame you will be busy in London otherwise you could have joined me in Scotland.”
“What makes you think I will be busy?”
“Elementary, my dear Dr Watson. Every fashionable London hostess will be rushing out invitations for the pre-Christmas social whirl of musical soirees, winter balls and après-theatre suppers. Your mantelpiece will groan under the weight of your popularity.” She hardly paused for breath. “I do believe The Royal Scot goes non-stop to Glasgow now, and then onto Edinburgh. It cannot be too far to Duns by local rail and then a short carriage ride to Loch Maw. I should be there by the end of the week.”
An air of broody sentimentality fell over his face like a melancholy shroud as he turned to gaze out of the window while he extracted a cigarette from a silver case. “I was born in Edinburgh.”
“How nice for you – such a lovely city. Light one up for me. I must send a telegram as soon as we arrive at Paddington.” She deliberately glossed over the fact he was a native Caledonian as she tapped her pearly talons on the buttoned leather seat while she waited for her cigarette. “If Aunt Zoya’s old pile is uninhabitable I shall stay at the Marmion Hydro Hotel. There’s an advertisement here and a photo. The pepperpot turrets look charming. Fifteen bedrooms, plus three deluxe suites and a royal suite with its own balcony. A grand dining room overlooking the loch. A tennis court. A sunken hydro bath in the Roman style. And a Swiss chef who specializes in fondue.”
“My wife had a niece who lived in Peebles,” he digressed, waxing nostalgic as he passed her a lighted cigarette. “She worked as nursery governess to Lord and Lady Trefoyles but the child died of Scarlet Fever. No blame was attached to her but she was dismissed nonetheless. Last I heard she had gained employment as companion to an old lady somewhere in the Borders. I have been thinking for some time that I should look her up since she has no other family. Her mother and father and sister drowned several years ago when a ferry they were travelling in capsized. Mary would have wanted me to make sure her niece was not forgotten.”
“What is the name of your wife’s niece?”
He puffed on a Bradley while a dozen names flitted through his head then exhaled while a dozen more went the same way. He used to be good with names, he could remember them at the drop of a hat, but lately he had noticed he was getting slower. He put it down to soft living and too much socializing. He was being introduced to so many people the names were all becoming a bit of a blur and the ones that mattered were starting to elude him. Adele or Aline? Ah! Yes! “Miss Adeline Lambert!”
“Well, if I should come across anyone by that name I shall be sure to give them your regards.” She trotted that out in a deliberately cavalier manner as she reached across the divide and selected The New Good-Housekeeping Journal for Young Ladies from amongst the untidy collection of newspapers, periodicals and magazines littering the seat. “Ah, just as I thought! An article about the tournament from a lady’s point of view! This is interesting. Lola O’Hara, the Irish actress, will be holidaying at Cruddock Castle for the duration of the tournament. She is engaged to be married to Lord Cruddock. The wedding will take place on the fifth of November, the same day that the tournament concludes. It will be an intimate evening wedding followed by a gala ball, commencing with some traditional highland dancing and finishing with a lively Scottish reel. The dancing will be followed by a wedding banquet and some fireworks at midnight to celebrate the success of the tournament and the happy nuptials.”
“That does not bode well,” he said grimly, flicking cigarette ash into the ashtray set into the burr walnut panelling under the window.
“Don’t you approve of fireworks?”
“I meant the allusion to The Bride of Lammermoor.”
“The novel by Sir Walter Scott? I thought you derided simpering romanticism?”
“It is not simpering romanticism.”
“Why? Because it is written by a man?”
He knew better than to let her bait him but the reputation of a fellow author and a countryman was at stake. “If anything it is a salutary lesson against simpering romanticism.”
“If it features a virginal and vulnerable heroine ill-used by men then you can put it in the same category as Mrs Radcliffe and Mr le Fanu. I might get myself a copy. I can read it on the train as it whizzes north. Oh, and it says here that the real jewel in the crown of Lammermoor is not the gothic revival, architectural masterpiece designed by Alexander MacMackie but the Lammas tiara, which the bride will wear during the wedding ceremony. There’s a publicity photo of Lola O’Hara starring in the new version of Mr Wilde’s old play – An Ideal Husband – taken in Dublin to promote the re-staging.”
“I had hoped to catch Mr Wilde’s play when it came to London but I was holidaying in Biarritz and stayed longer than I had planned due to a bout of bronchitis. Is there a photo of the tiara?”
“No, just Lola. Here, take a look.” She handed him the magazine.
“Mmm, yes, she’s a corker! All that red hair! The image of a rainbow on fire springs to mind. His lordship is a lucky man. Imagine waking up to a rainbow gracing your pillow!”
“Imagine how splendid the Lammas tiara will look gracing that rainbow! I hope I have the chance to meet her. That would be the highlight. A shame you cannot come.”
“Who says I cannot come?” he responded peevishly as he handed back the magazine and absently picked up a copy of Tatler. “You make it sound as if you don’t want me to come.” He lowered his gaze to avoid eye-contact then a moment later coughed phlegmatically and perked up. “By Jove! Here’s another article on the same subject! Listen to this! This article has the rotten cheek to suggest Lord Cruddock received a life peerage from the Queen and was named Baron Dunravin not for his philanthropy but for offering to be named as co-respondent in the divorce between the Duke and Duchess of Strathbowness saving the Prince Regent from yet another embarrassing scandal with a married woman.”
“Not surprising! His mother will insist on living forever! Tum-Tum is bored and cannot help himself! And I’m sorry you feel aggrieved but you only have yourself to blame.”
“Is that so?”
“Remember what you said? Our relationship ends when we get back to London.”
“I was referring to our sleuthing relationship. We can still see each other.”
“But not in Scotland.”
“And why ever not not Scotland?”
“Well, I’m sure the last thing you want is another mystery to embroil yourself in and let’s face it this tournament has all the hallmarks of a first class puzzle worthy of Sherlock Holmes: Three deaths, a doomed golf course, a cursed tournament, a Scottish Spiritualist, some angry spirits, and a stunning, red-haired, Irish actress.” She made sure to pause for dramatic effect and elicit a languorous sigh as she exchanged the ladies’ journal for The Strand Magazine. “What’s more, right now I am staring at a rather fierce looking chap in a turban.”
“The Rajah of Govinda. The caption under the photo says he is attending the tournament as a special guest of Lord Cruddock because he is planning to stage a similar tournament in India next year. Golf has become as popular as cricket and polo in his homeland and golf courses have started springing up from one end of the subcontinent to the other.”
“Let me see that!”
He practically tore the magazine from her hands as she sat back in her seat wearing an inscrutable smile, sending bracelets of bluish smoke into the air and silently counting to three before delivering the coup de grace.
“There’s another reason you cannot come.”
“And what is that?” he huffed as he ground his Bradley to a pulp in the ashtray.
“I cannot possibly invite you to stay in what could be very uncomfortable lodgings. For all I know Graymalkin could be nothing but draughty halls, cobweb curtains, walls dripping with damp, moss growing on the ceiling and a mad banshee haunting a crumbling tower.”
His back stiffened against the padded leather seat as he squared his shoulders. “I will have you know I served as assistant surgeon in Afghanistan. I took a Jezail bullet at the battle of Maiwand. I am accustomed to hardship, privation, and sleeping rough. What’s more, I am a native Scot. I am familiar with Scottish geography, weather, laws, customs, idioms…and I know how to dance the Scottish reel!”
The Diogenes Club was an exclusive, luxurious, lunatic asylum for seriously wealthy misanthropes. If someone had locked the club members inside their own clubhouse and thrown away the key the inmates would have rewarded their gaoler generously. It was a refuge from all that London had to offer – dinner parties, debutante balls, musical soirees, opening nights at the opera, and every other torture invented by the charming, the effusive, the garrulous, the smiling, the sparkling and the scintillating. If John Donne had been a member of the Diogenes Club he would never have penned ‘no man is an island’. The members were all self-proclaimed islands floating in a sea called Society connected to the Ocean of Others. Yes, ‘hell was other people’ and the Diogenes Club was heaven. Dr Johnson is another who would never have gained membership. His pithy maxim: ‘When a man is bored with London, he is bored with Life’ was intended to sum up the eternal vitality of the City, but to the members of the Diogenes Club it summarised exactly why they hated London and shunned men like Dr Johnson who loved the sound of their own voice. The one and only maxim of the Diogenes Club was SHUTUP. Sound of any sort was prohibited. Last year, a member had been excommunicated for six months for coughing. Another got three months for sneezing. Appeals for clemency and mercy fell on deaf ears. The club members were sometimes accused of being misogynist but this was untrue and many a periwig earned a comfortable living prosecuting such blasphemy in a court of law where the presiding judge was himself a learned member. It was tacitly understood by anyone with half a brain that the members hated everyone equally – women and men, rich and poor, clever and stupid, intellectual and illiterate, Catholic and Protestant, Tory and Whig, Jews, Blacks, Arabs, Orientals, and so forth. They even hated each other.
The Diogenes Club was a haven for the unclubbable. Here, in the pin-drop silence of unclubbableness where armchairs were arranged in groupings of one, the members could at last breathe easy. There was no false bonhomie, in fact, no bonhomie at all. There was no fear of the meet and greet, hail-fellow-well-met, slap on the back, shallow chit-chat, superficial repartee, or status conscious jockeying that confronted them daily in the outré-kingdom. A member arrived. The hall porter took his coat, scarf, gloves, cane and hat. There was no verbal exchange. The member then signed himself in and did one of two things – he proceeded up the stairs to his private chamber to have a lie-down or he proceeded to the sitting room, library, billiards or dining room. There was not a smoking room as such since smoking was permitted in all of the rooms and even on the stairs. Generally, he located a newspaper or a book, scanned for a vacant seat, and began to read. Sleeping was permitted but snoring was grounds for a black ball – three such balls and eviction was swift and merciless. However, it had been five years since a member had been black-balled for snoring as members were mindful to first go to their rooms and avail themselves of a nap. The butlers (they were never referred to as waiters) knew which member preferred what drink and words were superfluous. A raised brow, a nod, a grimace, was sufficient to convey the idea that a whiskey or brandy or coffee was required. Chess boards were positioned in alcoves to muffle the scrape or clink of figurines on the board should any member wish to play a game, more often than not the members enjoyed pitting their wits against themselves to limit excitement, likewise for billiards. The dining room was designed for minimal interaction. Small dinner tables were set for one, usually facing a wall, a marble column or a Chinese screen, minimizing the chance of eye-contact. Under no circumstance was a table to be found facing a window that might give onto the street, reminding an inmate that the world was still at large.
There was, however, one room where talking was permitted. It was a darkly panelled room, sparingly furnished, situated on the domestic side of the marble entrance hall. This was called The Stranger’s Room. A member could take a visitor into this room and talk freely, albeit in hushed tones. It was to this room that Dr Watson was ushered when he came to speak to Mr Mycroft Holmes.
Mycroft waited until the door was fully closed, waving his visitor to a leather wing chair adjacent to the fireplace where a small coal fire burned quietly in the grate. “Congratulations on solving that nasty business in Devon, old chap. Who could have foreseen such a dastardly turn of events to rear their ugly head ten years after the hound from hell was put to rest, and who was that lovely, young, foreign creature that I heard had accompanied you?”
“That’s what I came to speak to you about,” replied Dr Watson, an undercurrent of tension attaching itself to his tone as he endeavoured to fold himself as noiselessly as possible into a leather seat.
Mycroft picked up on the tense undertone and offered his visitor a cigar from the humidor on the mahogany sideboard to put him at ease. The humidor was designed as a perfect miniature of the Temple of Solomon. “How intriguing! Are you planning to tie the knot again? You don’t need my permission, old chap. You are old enough to make your own mistakes.”
Dr Watson coloured slightly at the reference to his six and forty years and was grateful for the dimness of the small chamber. A couple of reading lamps with green shades provided the only electric illumination. They imbued the room with a queer Neptunian glow.
The room was not exactly a cheery place though it had nothing to do with the actual furniture which was of gentlemanly quality, or the fire which warmed but did not cook its occupants. It was like a necromancer’s den, otherworldly, wizardly, and Mycroft was the magician, the spellbinder, who could make things happen, or not. With a wave of his wand-like pen he could start wars and end them, topple governments, exile kings, queens and consorts, finance coups, cause banks and corporations to crash, and enrich or impoverish individuals at a whim, except he never acted on a whim. He gave careful consideration to all and everything, weighed up the pros and cons and consequences, and once a course of action was decided, acted without fear or favour. He was uncompromisingly benevolent but did not act from benevolence alone. He was immensely powerful yet few had ever heard of him. He worked for everyone and no one. The Treasury, The Foreign Office, The Home Office, The Admiralty, Her Majesty – all claimed to employ him, yet none could say how to contact him, what he earned, or exactly what he did.
Sherlock had once described his elder brother in those terms, and as Dr Watson helped himself to a corona gordia from the humidor he recalled the description. Was Sherlock being deferential or critical? Reverential of unflattering? It was hard to tell with a man whose sarcasm came in a monotone devoid of humour noir.
What else did Sherlock once say about the brother who was his senior by seven years?
Some men looked at the world, saw the suffering, and turned to God. My brother, Mycroft, looked at the world, saw the suffering and knew straight off that an omniscient and omnipotent Being could not possibly exist. He was twelve years old when that truth struck him like a lightning bolt in the same way that the apple struck Newton. He had never heard of Diogenes or Zeno, but he soon made up for his ignorance. When the Sunday sermonisers assured him that heaven was reserved for the great and good and that the pagans, heretics and sinners of the world would spend eternity in hell, he immediately decided hell was the place for him. Better to burn with Hypatia and Plato, Maimonides and Ptolemy, he said, than be bored to tears with the most worshipful hypocrites, fornicators, looters and murderers of their day.
Where Sherlock enjoyed physics, chemistry and empirical treatises, Mycroft enjoyed reading theological discourse because he liked to see the clever-dicks tying themselves in knots. If man did not invent God, God would have needed to invent Himself. That was the only hook on which all theological proofs would be hung stated Mycroft, aged fifteen, precociously at the family dinner table one Good Friday with the local vicar as an honoured guest. On his headstone he wanted the following engraved: Aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari posit. The convoluted logic of that phrase appealed to his sardonic soul which possessed humour noir in droves. But where Anselm was referring to a Supreme Being, Mycroft understood that only one thing made the world go round. Everyone thought it was Mammon – that was their fatal flaw – but even Mammon genuflected before the one thing that caused history to repeat ad infinitum. Think of any story ever written, and those yet to be written, starting with the story of the first man which was in fact a story about a woman. The Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible, Shakespeare, and every myth, legend and book of wisdom since man put flint to slab tapped the same vein.
Hence, he had decided at an early age to rise above the dictate of humanity, not by denying it, repressing it, or corrupting it, but by acknowledging it and harnessing it. A man free from human entanglement could concentrate his mind wonderfully; he could rise above tawdry humanity by standing on the shoulders of all the numskulls who came before him.
And yet, as with gods and men, there existed inside him a conflicted duality. He was a Stoic and an Epicurean, a Utilitarian and a Hedonist. He was neither socialist, Marxist, communist nor capitalist, but he could be any one of them when it suited him. He enjoyed fine food and good wine, he was fleshy and bulky and larger than life, a bit like Oscar Wilde minus the attention-seeking garb, dramatic gestures and death-wish.
But as the delicious irony called Life would have it he had become the embodiment of that which he mocked: something a greater than which cannot be conceived!
Lately, his eyesight had begun to fade and he had taken to wearing a lorgnette for reading. The frameless lenses, dangling from a gold cord when not needed, seemed to magnify his limpid, grey, owlish eyes.
Sherlock once described his big brother as gross, and physically Mycroft was indeed the antithesis of his younger sibling, who had been gaunt, ascetic and athletic. But mentally – now there was the crux.
Dr Watson had lived with Sherlock for several years before he even discovered his friend had a brother, and though he considered his friend a genius of the first order, his genius suffered from an inferiority complex compared to that of his polymath brother. Where Sherlock experimented, researched, toiled and deduced, Mycroft simply knew. He was a savant but not in one field as many savants are, but across the spectrum of all knowledge.
“No need to feel abashed, old boy,” continued Mycroft, noting the doctor’s embarrassment as he proffered a box of lucifers. “I’ve heard she has impeccable connections, and is uncommonly bright for a woman, that’s a rarity worth capturing and nurturing.”
Dr Watson struck a lucifer, puffed on his cigar and watched the end glow red. “No, no, I’m not thinking of tying the knot again. It would be a betrayal of my dear Mary. I could never think of replacing her no matter how beautiful or bright the young lady to be, but, well,” he paused mid-sentence and blew out the lucifer before redundantly tossing it onto the flames.
Mycroft wasn’t used to getting things wrong and felt momentarily flustered. He almost barbecued the ends of his fingers as his lucifer burnt down. He dispatched it quickly to the pyre. “A glass of fire-water, old boy?” he said, holding up a crystal decanter of whiskey by way of invitation to join him in a nightcap, grateful that fizzy French champagne would not be called for after all. It always gave him gas. “I seem to have misinterpreted you, pray, go on.”
“Well, this young lady claims to be the daughter of Sherlock Holmes.”
“Ah! Another one!” chuckled Mycroft, handing his visitor a tumbler of golden elixir, before parking his substantial derriere on some leather padding that knew better than to protest. “That makes three this year, seven in total, but of course, you have come here tonight because you are taking this one seriously.”
“That’s just it. I don’t know whether to take her seriously or not.”
“What makes this one different?”
“For starters, she’s not a nutter. She doesn’t appear deluded or mad. Secondly, she’s not after money. She’s quite wealthy in her own right. And finally, well, she has these mannerisms that uncannily mimic Sherlock.”
“She has large hands for a woman with astonishingly elongated fingers which she steeples whenever she is cogitating.”
“You described that mannerism in your books. She could merely be play-acting according to script.”
Dr Watson grimaced thoughtfully. “Yes, I guess so, but when she speaks I hear Sherlock in every word that falls from her lips.”
“And sometimes when I aim a glance, not a studied look, mind you, I see Sherlock. It’s something in the set of her mouth or her eyes or the way she holds her head. I cannot put my finger on it but it is there all the same. It has happened more than once. The only significant difference is that she does not disdain society. She does not regard humanity as a scourge to be endured.”
“Just as well. What is condoned in men is rarely tolerated in women. Does she play the violin?”
“Not as far as I know.”
“Is she addicted to cocaine?”
“No, er, well, I don’t think so. There has not been any indication of it so far.”
“At least she is not adhering to scripture too scrupulously. How old is she?”
“That puts her birth at 1875.”
“You failed to mention her name.”
“Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna.” Dr Watson enunciated the name like a schoolboy reciting a line of alphabetic alliteration. Mycroft’s bushy brows moved north, which was something of a coup. According to Sherlock, Mycroft was not a man who was easily surprised.
“She is not a British citizen, then, but Russian.”
“That’s twice I have been wrong tonight. Russians would of course say Vladimir not Volodymyr. Who does she claim as her mater?”
Dr Watson took a sip of golden ambrosia to lubricate his voice-box, or perhaps to defer the moment and score another coup. “Irene Adler.”
Mycroft was not taken by surprise a second time. His lips formed a cynical smile as he puffed on his cigar. “Ah, another reason as to why you came to me, old boy. Let’s see now. Miss Adler was born in 1858. That would have made her 17 years of age at the time of the birth, and 16 or 17 at time of conception. And Sherlock would have been four years older. That puts him at 20 or 21. He would have completed his degree at Cambridge and found himself cast adrift, the ivory tower behind him and the mean streets of London before him, drifting aimlessly through the fog of endless boredom, dabbling in opiates, not yet settled on a vocation, not yet stumbling upon his metier. It is not improbable that in the clutches of the cocaine demon he may have conducted a hazy liaison with a young woman as he briefly trod the theatrical boards, possibly someone working as a pretty chorus girl or stage actress prior to recasting herself as a diva with the Warsaw Opera, whereby he fathered a child of which he knew nothing. And there’s no escaping the fact that Miss Adler has the singular honour of being the one and only woman who has ever rattled my little brother.”
“Yes,” concurred Dr Watson with a resolute nod of his head, “in fact, to say he may have been secretly infatuated with her would not be stretching the point. After that incident at Reichenbach Falls I was trawling through his papers and in a secret compartment of his desk I found a photo of That Woman, yet I would not have described her as the most beautiful female who ever crossed the threshold of 221B Baker Street.”
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” reminded Mycroft, flicking cigar ash onto the fire, “and let us not forget That Woman was possibly the most beguiling. It is possible Sherlock remembered her from their first encounter, either liminally or subliminally. What else do you know of her background?”
“Miss Adler or Countess Volodymyrovna?”
“She claims her mother gave her up without even naming her. She claims her mother simply gave her over to one of her lovers, Count Volodya Volodymyr. I believe he was a native of Odessa. The Count died when she was still quite young. She didn’t mention what age. She was subsequently raised by the Count’s unmarried sister, Countess Zoya Volodymyrovna.”
“Ah, Countess Zoya, now there’s a name I recognize, an adventurous woman with a penchant for attracting powerful men, immensely wealthy in her own right. The young lady in question inherited her aunt’s estate?”
“Yes, and that of her step-father too.”
“Mmm, yes, that would make the young woman extraordinarily rich.”
“She travelled extensively with her aunt and, shortly after the aunt died from a snake bite while they were in Australia, she married an Australian.”
“Jack Frost. But his real name was Darcy Droitwych. They were married for three years and lived in Melbourne. He was twenty years her senior. He became crippled following a horse-riding accident and later killed himself. She inherited his estate too. After becoming widowed, she decided to come to England to seek out her family roots. That’s the reason I came here tonight. She has expressed a desire to meet you.”
“Has she, indeed?”
“I could introduce her if you like. I know you do not permit women to darken the doorstep of the Diogenes Club but I believe your lodgings are just across the road.”
Mycroft pushed to his feet and moved his bulky frame with surprising suppleness to the large, Georgian, sash window that gave onto Pall Mall. He didn’t say anything for a moment but gave his concentration over to the window shutter, closing it against the swirling fog filling the street like smoke from a flueless fire trapped inside a darkened room.
“I have moved lodgings since we last met. I now reside permanently upstairs. I have the topmost suite under the dome. It offers a spectacular panorama of London. I must show you some time. It is reserved for the president of our modest little club and since our last titular head recently shook off his mortal coil the baton has passed to me.”
“Congratulations, Mycroft. President of the Diogenes Club sounds like a high honour. I know you were one of the six founding members, although, I hope you don’t mind my saying, I never pictured you as a committee man.”
“I’m not, and I’m not exactly a President either. But you know how these things go – the more modest the club, the more pompous the title. It is actually Grand Master or primus baro. You should think about joining. I can put your name up for consideration if you like.”
“Oh, no, the Micawber Club suits me very well. I feel quite at home there. Thank you, none the less. And getting back to the Countess – perhaps Claridges would make for a suitable rendezvous, or Brown’s Hotel which always seems more discrete and the electric lighting not quite so harsh on the retina.”
Mycroft moved back to the fire and tossed his cigar end onto the flames. “Let me do some research first. I can check into her background and confirm the details you just imparted.”
“Yes, of course,” agreed the doctor tactfully. “That would be the best way to go.”
“You trust this young woman?”
Dr Watson weighed the question carefully yet still failed to answer confidently. “Up to a point. I can’t help thinking of that saying about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. I thought it might be safer for all concerned to keep an eye on her.”
“A wise strategy. What is your personal opinion?”
“Like, dislike, that sort of thing.”
“Well, she’s not like anybody I have ever met – like and dislike are such pedestrian epithets, descriptions of lesser mortals. There’s a joie de vivre about her that is undeniably infectious. Once she gets an idea in her head there is no stopping her. And she takes sleuthing seriously. I get the impression it is not merely a game or way to pass the time or a means of allaying boredom but an innate calling. In that regard she reminds me of Sherlock most of all. She pursues loose threads with fervour and has a genuine knack for following several leads at the same time. When she learns to master the emotional side of things she will be formidable.”
“I take it that means you will soon be placing an advertisement in the Times: V & W, Consulting Detectives, 221B Baker Street, London – no case too difficult.”
Dr Watson guffawed loudly before remembering where he was and gagging on his own spit. “I wish I could say Never with conviction, but before we boarded the Devon train for our return trip to London I vowed never to become embroiled in another mystery with the Countess and by the time we reached Paddington I had already gone back on my word. I swear I don’t know if I acted of my own accord or whether she railroaded me into it.”
“So you’ve already started work on another case?”
“Not exactly. But if I am not intruding upon your time I wouldn’t mind hearing what you have to say concerning the venture we are about to embark upon.”
“Not at all, old boy. Let’s ring for a coffee and then you can tell me all about it.”
Mycroft moved to the bell pull on the other side of the fireplace and gave it two hard yanks, the number of yanks indicating that coffee was the beverage being called for. He also threw some more fuel on the fire and gave the coals a bit of a prod with the poker to save the butler the task, thus minimizing interruption. Dr Watson drained his whiskey and began to breath normally again, relieved he was not about to be shamefully booted out.
After the coffee had been delivered and dispensed he broached the second topic that had brought him halfway across London on a nippy autumn evening.
“What do you know about the Lammermoor golf tournament?” he said, leaving the question deliberately open-ended.
Mycroft’s ghost of a smile indicated that he knew quite a bit. “I know that Scotland Yard is checking into it as we speak. I also know that Lord Cruddock is putting pressure on our finest detectives to come to a swift and decisive conclusion.”
“Oh,” said the doctor feeling suddenly disappointed. “They will resolve matters fairly quickly and the tournament will continue.”
“The tournament will continue, yes, but I wouldn’t say they will resolve anything anytime soon. They will conclude the three deaths to be accidental.”
“Is that your opinion too?”
Mycroft spooned some sugar into his coffee and stirred it soundlessly before securing the gaze of his listener. “You play golf, Dr Watson. What are the chances of three players in the same tournament succumbing to fatal accidents in the space of a fortnight?”
“So you don’t believe they were accidents?”
“What was it Sherlock always said about coincidence?”
“Mmm, yes,” recalled the doctor, “but the first death puzzles me. It would be devilishly hard to hit someone on the head with a stray golf ball. I don’t consider myself a bad player but I would have to hit a million golf balls before I could hit a target like that and it is all down to pure luck – a bit like a hole in one. There would be a million easier ways to kill a person. It is a most unlikely murder.”
“No argument there, but what if you hit them on the back of the head with the end of a nine iron and then after they had slumped to the ground you rammed a golf ball into their skull in the exact same spot where the nine iron had made a dent, and the ball was covered with blood and the nine iron was nowhere to be seen?” conjectured Mycroft. “The next person to come along would quite rightly conclude the deceased had been struck by a stray ball.”
“Oh, yes, I see – if there were no witnesses, that is, but what about the caddy?”
“The caddy was not out caddying. The golfer in question, Chuck Fitzalan, had decided to go out on his own in the early hours of the morning to acquaint himself with the layout of the fairways. There were no other players out on the links at the time but some of the local lads often hunt for stray golf balls which they sell at the market, and sometimes they have a few hits on the sly at the same time. The ball in question did not appear to have an owner. And since it was the first death no one was looking for it to be murder.”
“Just a freak accident.”
“And the second accident? Was the caddy conveniently absent?”
“The Italian, Giuseppe Sforza, had his caddy with him, but the caddy noticed that the putter was not in the bag soon after they set off so he rushed back to the golf pavilion to get it before they reached the first green. In the meantime, Mr Sforza played on and must have hit his ball into or near a water hazard and somehow ended up in the water too. He was found tangled in some bull rushes. The water was only ten inches deep.”
“No signs of any contusions? No signs of a struggle?”
“Nothing of any significance apart from a large bruise to his chin conducive to suffering a severe knock after slipping on wet grass, landing face first, rolling down an embankment and ending up in a shallow pool. The caddy panicked on seeing the body floating face down and immediately cried out for help. By the time a dozen people trampled the scene there was no chance to check for footprints. Again, no one was assuming it was murder.”
“The bruise on the chin could have been from a knock-out punch to the jaw making it an easy thing to hold the head down until drowning occurred,” suggested the doctor, drawing from experience. “And the third death?”
“Peter Lancaster, the Australian, was taking a shortcut from the twelfth fairway to the thirteenth when a tree branch fell on him, killing him instantly. His death was a little more interesting than the previous two. There was thick fog so visibility was poor. The caddy had hung back to mark the scorecard while Mr Lancaster had hurried ahead and taken the shortcut through a woody bosque in order to relieve himself, so it could not have been a pre-meditated act but simply opportune and daring.”
“What sort of bosque?”
“A spinney of silver birch trees.”
“Birches are not renowned for dropping large branches – twigs, yes.”
“Quite correct, but the branch did happen to strike him on the top of the head as if it fell from on high.”
“Someone could have wielded it and brought it down to make it look that way,” the doctor volunteered.
“Yes, and since it was the third death it needed to look accidental in all respects.”
“I suppose no one checked to see if the branch had broken loose recently, I mean, that the break was fresh, not weathered by time?”
“No one checked, as you say, and the branch soon ended up as firewood, but after three unfortunate accidents the tournament was halted. The local police constable did his best but he was out of his depth and probably felt intimidated by his lordship.”
“Who called in the Yard?”
“Lady Moira Cruddock, mother of the current Lord Cruddock. He was hostile to the idea of bringing in the Yard because of the negative publicity but she went ahead and did it anyway. She lives in the gatehouse, not at the castle, and has made no secret of the fact she is vehemently opposed to her son turning the Lammas moor into a golf course.”
“Oh, yes, I remember reading that she is a Spiritualist of some renown who believes that the spirits of the dead have been disturbed.”
“A nice story to put about if one is planning to nip the golf course in the bud, not that I am suggesting she is a murderess. There is more to this mystery than meets the eye.”
“In what way?”
“You could say: in witch way.”
“Witch as in Wicca – and though I might make a pun of it the Scottish take their witchcraft seriously.”
“No need to remind me of the black stain on Scottish history and the horrible suffering inflicted on so many innocent souls, but I don’t see the connection to the three deaths.”
“Some details were officially suppressed to avoid superstitious panic.”
Dr Watson gulped the dregs of his coffee and carefully replaced his cup and saucer on the butler’s tray. “Please go on,” he said, his interest in the case rising above and beyond its connection to his Scottish roots.
“The first deceased, Chuck Fitzalan, was found with his left hand splayed out and the two middle fingers missing. At first it appeared as if they had been cut off. But there was no blood apart from the head injury. The fingers were merely bent back in the classic horned god pose.”
“Deliberate or…I was going to say coincidental but I must wean myself off that word! Who was the first person on the scene?”
“Two people – Lars Larsenssen and Bruce Bancoe. They are a player-pair and decided to also acquaint themselves with the course when they spotted the American setting off to explore the links prior to breakfast. They quickly finished their own breakfast and followed about twenty minutes after the American. Mr Fitzalan was a left-hander and they noticed straight away that his golfing hand looked odd. Try it,” invited Mycroft. “Bend your two middle fingers under.”
“I see what you mean. It doesn’t feel natural. The knuckles protrude if you try to make the whole of the fingers disappear.”
“Even more so if your hand is resting on the ground. It was discovered later that the knuckles were broken, as if someone had trod on his hand rather brutally to flatten if out.”
“So much for the notion of coincidence – an important lesson to learn before I travel to Scotland! What about death number two, the Italian?”
“Mr Sforza – found floating face down in what amounted to not much more than a large puddle – was not alone in the water. Tangled in the bull rushes was also a cat – drowned.”
Dr Watson’s eyebrows expressed incredulity. “A moggy drowning in a puddle is most unlikely. I presume it was a black cat?”
Mycroft nodded approvingly. “You are starting to get the picture.”
Encouraged, the doctor’s brain hurried ahead. “That brings us to number three.”
“A corn dolly was found dangling from the tree that had decided to drop its limb at the exact same time that Mr Lancaster had decided to relieve himself.”
“Mmm, I see,” murmured the doctor, rubbing the unshaven chin which was showing the early makings of a beard, “the picture grows clearer.”
“Or becomes more obscure,” countered Mycroft judiciously. “Are these murders about vaulting ambition – winning the tournament at all costs by eliminating the competition – or are they about shutting down the golf course by foul means not fair – pointing the finger at some harmless old women by stirring the cauldron of superstition and fear? When are you intending to leave for Scotland?”
“I have reserved a private smoker on The Royal Scot for the Countess and myself for the end of this week, plus two second class seats for her maid and manservant. She never travels without them. I have not yet decided whether they are Ukrainian Cossacks or Bolshevik provocateurs.”
Mycroft’s brows lifted, a sign that he was processing this last bit of information with heightened interest. “Where are you planning to stay?”
“The Countess owns an old peel tower at the southern end of Loch Maw. It may be a crumbling ruin. It belonged to her late aunt. She has never seen it. If it turns out to be uninhabitable we will take rooms at the Marmion Hydro Hotel.”
“Are you acquainted with Lord Cruddock?”
Dr Watson shook his head.
“I will let his lordship know you are holidaying in the area and that you enjoy a game of golf. It will serve as an introduction. He’s an Oxford man, not too high-brow, a couple of thirds, but a first class sportsman and a keen shot. The Cruddock estate is about 30,000 acres, most of it given over to deer stalking and a pheasant shoot, with some grazing of sheep and an ancient forest of Caledonian pine for timber, but there isn’t the money in such pursuits as there used to be and his lordship has lost a considerable fortune lately on the baccarat tables of London, hence the proposal to establish a golf course to supplement his income. You are aware he is engaged to be married to the Irish actress, Lola O’Hara?”
“A bit of a cliché – a lord and an actress. I realize she is a looker but I cannot help feeling cynical when I hear of such mis-matches.”
“I think he will get more out of the mis-match than she. She will bring esprit to a remote estate and put an isolated golf course on the map. He will get tons of free publicity, especially in Ireland and America. She will get a tiara that she can wear several times a year. Quite frankly, I think she has drawn the short straw.”
Dr Watson nodded weakly and pushed to his feet. He felt weighed down and wearied at the prospect of another battle with the forces of evil so soon after the last. “I won’t take up any more of your valuable time. I appreciate that you are a busy man and I thank you for seeing me at such short notice. Good evening to you, Mr Holmes.”
“Never too busy for you, Dr Watson,” said the other, employing a warm and brotherly tone as he ushered him to the door. “I will let you know what I decide about the Countess as soon as I have decided it. Until then it may be prudent to keep certain matters to ourselves while we keep a close eye on her. By the way, the invitation to join our modest club stands open should you change your mind. Take care in Scotland. There is more to this matter than meets the eye.”
Big Ben struck midnight as Dr Watson hugged the perpendicular shadows of Pall Mall, leaning into the wind that whipped through the stately avenue and flogged the dead leaves littering the gutter. Eschewing a hansom, he turned a corner, and then another, and soon found himself in a darker place, where the hissing gas lamps burned dimmer, muffled by a dirty woolly yellow fog that burned his throat and lungs. His footsteps hardly made a sound as he navigated the narrow lanes like a noctambulist, ghostwalking the city that never sleeps, running the murky gauntlet of gutter-crawlers, pimps and prostitutes, thieves and murderers, without even thinking about where he was going, before realising three things quite suddenly in quick succession with a jolt that brought him up sharp: Number 1 – he still held misgivings about the mysterious young woman who had appeared from nowhere and taken over his life. Number 2 – if not for the fact the next case took them to Scotland he would never have agreed to go with her. Number 3 – Mycroft, a man not given to repeating himself, had twice used the term: more than meets the eye.
Replete with tartan kilt, sporran and hefty bag pipes, a Highlander was piping passengers aboard The Royal Scot.
“So much cheerier than a whistle,” commented the Countess as she hurried along the platform, an image of sartorial elegance in a tailored travelling costume of moire marron replete with a fox fur stole, the long-line jacket nipped at the waist and dropping slightly at the back.
Dr Watson, wearing a mud-brown tweed suit, trailed in her fashionable wake, wheezing asthmatically. No matter how many cigarettes he smoked it didn’t seem to improve his lung capacity. In fact, if he hadn’t known better, he’d have said the opposite occurred, but who was he to question the gods of Harley Street. He was the one who had been running late, and since he had been holding onto the tickets for their journey, she had been forced to wait under the soaring canopy of the bustling Euston station. He had spotted her at a glance – conspicuously perched atop a gigantic travelling trunk, insouciantly smoking an aromatic Turkish cigarette, surrounded by an artful arrangement of expensive travel trunks, portmanteaux and hat boxes, stacked one on top of another like a collection of tiered wedding cakes and she the unblushing bride sans groom with her dainty feet resting on a smashing new set of golf clubs that were as desirable as the slender turn of her ankle.
Gasping for breath, he had apologized profusely, inventing a story about a traffic jam caused by a collision of hansoms, but the truth of it was he had been perusing the contents of a letter he had received that morning from Mr Mycroft Holmes and had lost track of time.
Porters jostled to take charge of her luggage in order to get it all on board before the doors to the carriages slammed shut. Steam billowed from the funnel, cloaking the platform in bilious white fumes that seemed to choke off the last bit of oxygen as he gasped for breath, carting his own baggage, including his trusty old golf clubs, when he broke into a fit of violent coughing and plunged his hand into his pocket for his handkerchief whilst dodging porters, passengers, dogs on leashes, children who should have been, and a veritable booby-trap of bags. Alas, it was an ill-wind that whipped his handkerchief along with the letter out of his hand. He whirled back and the inevitable happened. Luggage clattered to the ground and golf clubs spilled like matchsticks in all directions.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he blathered, scanning the platform for the precious piece of paper.
“You stupid old man!” rebuked the young woman he had crashed into. “You should not have stopped so suddenly and spun round like that!”
“Yes, yes, you are perfectly right,” he muttered apologetically, reddening and coughing at the same time. “I wasn’t thinking…my letter…oh, never mind…are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” she snapped, “no thanks to you! But my new clubs! I’ve only just purchased them and they cost a fortune! If they are damaged you will be hearing from me! In the event I need to contact you, you can give your particulars to my brother,” she directed haughtily, fixing him with a pair of eyes so preternaturally cold and blue they burned like ice as she secured her lopsided hat back into position, drawing his attention to a tight crop of platinum blonde, poodle curls which rather suited her because everything about her reminded him of the yappy pampered poodle that had almost ruined his summer vacation at the Hotel du Palais in Biarritz.
Porters rushed to retrieve the scattered clubs. A young man, foppishly dressed, standing to one side, grudgingly doled out some tips then turned to take the doctor’s particulars. The doctor also tipped the porters then extracted a card and handed it to the person he assumed to be the brother – exceedingly tall, long limbed and rakishly thin. His sun-tanned hand shook as he held it out to receive the doctor’s card which he then shoved into the pocket of his frock coat without even casting a cursory glance.
“If you should need to speak to me further,” grovelled Dr Watson, mopping his sweaty brow, “you will find me in compartment number eleven. I will be happy to recompense your sister for any damage.”
“Yes, yes,” dismissed the young man scornfully, arrogantly waving away the porters who arrived belatedly, hoping to cash in on misfortune. He had the same crinkly crop of platinum curls as his sister, and the same pale blue eyes, as cold as Arctic ice. The doctor felt their chill long after the young man directed them elsewhere.
A shrill whistle sounded above the skirr of bag pipes. Plumes of white smoke thickened, swirled and swallowed up the last of the passengers. The platinum duo clambered aboard as the guard swished his red flag like a matador goading a metallic monster to charge full speed ahead. Dr Watson was still scanning the platform for his letter when he heard the Countess’s voice above the din.
“Hurry! You will miss the train!”
Through a gap in the choking clouds he could see a porter hand a folded piece of paper through the open window to the dandified poodle in car number seven. There was no time to act – just react. He grabbed his bags, made a frantic dash for his carriage and leapt aboard just as the train jerked and the engine chugged and the heavy iron wheels began to roll.
“What on earth were you doing mooching about on the platform till the last moment?” chided the Countess as he fell back into his seat, panting. “I almost left without you!”
“I dropped something,” he returned evasively, wondering how he was going to get his letter back. He knew for certain it was his letter because the ecru paper had been folded into quarters, the same as the letter he had hurriedly stuffed into the pocket of his tweed jacket.
“Nothing valuable, I hope?”
“No, no,” he replied, though value was a purely relative term. The letter was actually extremely valuable as far as he was concerned. Would he ever get to finish reading it? And why did the young man accept it from the porter? He hoped there was nothing incriminating in it, nothing that would reflect badly on the Countess, nothing that would render Mycroft open to accusations of abusing his high office.
“You look worried,” the Countess persisted. “Are you sure it wasn’t valuable? What was it anyway?”
“Just a letter,” he dismissed, managing a smile that was as unconvincing as the dismissal. He decided to change the subject and experience told him that trite conversation about the weather or the geography of Scotland would never do. This diversion called for something meaty with a good bit of gristle attached.
“I went to see Mr Mycroft Holmes the other evening and mentioned that you expressed a desire to meet him.”
“You make it sound so business-like. I am his niece. Of course I would like to meet him. I have numerous step-cousins, step-aunts and step-uncles, but he is the closest thing to real family that I have in the world. I would like very much to meet him. I have tried to contact him several times but he is more elusive than the ghost of Sherlock Holmes. He doesn’t even appear to have a home address. I understand he is a member of the Diogenes Club but that is all I know. Is that where you met him – at his club?”
“Yes,” admitted Dr Watson before resolving to exercise caution, wincing inwardly at her choice of phrase – Sherlock’s ghost. What did he really know about the young woman who claimed to be Sherlock’s daughter and whom he had met for the first time less than a month ago? Until he finished reading that letter from Mycroft he had best heed the advice to remain prudent, not so much to safeguard himself, but to avoid endangering a ghost, not to mention exposing Mycroft Holmes, a man who clearly valued his privacy, to unforeseen happenstance. “Mycroft Holmes recently moved premises,” he added truthfully before resorting to falsehood. “He used to reside in Pall Mall but I’m not sure where he lives now. Sherlock hardly ever talked about his brother and I only met him a handful of times. His work keeps him busy.”
“What work does he do?” she quizzed with an inflected tone. “I hired a private detective to discover whatever he could, but he was clearly not in the same league as Sherlock Holmes. After three months he came back with such scant information I felt quite cheated and was tempted to quibble over his fee.”
“I’m not really sure what he does. Sherlock once described his brother as auditing government accounts, but I got the impression he was not really sure either.”
“How curious! Sherlock was an open book, right down to his cocaine addiction, yet Uncle Mycroft is a complete mystery. He could well end up like those people who die in their own bed and whose bodies are not discovered for years and years because no one misses them.”
“Mmm,” murmured the doctor, deciding not to contradict his companion, though he was of the opposite opinion. He thought that if Mycroft failed to turn up for breakfast one morning at the Diogenes Club, the Horse Guards would be sent out immediately to track him down. Heaven help him if he ever overslept!
“Well?” she prompted. “What did Uncle Mycroft say? When are we to meet?”
“As I said, he is extremely busy. He said he would get back to me as soon as he could find the time.” Her lips drooped and he tried it make it up to her. “Mycroft and I discussed the golf tournament.”
“And?” she prompted, glancing out of the window as the locomotive began to chug up Camden Hill.
“Well,” he sighed, pausing for breath, not quite knowing where to start as there seemed so many different starting points – fair play, foul play, fear and superstition, spirits, witches, and vaulting ambition. “He said there is more to the three deaths than meets the eye, for instance…” and so he recalled the conversation as best he could. He was still going when they said goodbye to London town and hello to Harrow. He finally drew breath for the first time when they entered the Watford Tunnel and pitch darkness gave pause for thought. When they emerged once again into dazzling daylight and the chalky Chilterns, both were still contemplating how they might tackle the days ahead. Stations whizzed past – Boxmoor, Berkhamstead, Tring – and then came another tunnel – the Linslade – followed by more stations – Wolverton and Castlethorpe and Blisworth. They had been travelling for more than an hour.
After Kilsby Tunnel they might have been forgiven for thinking they had crossed into a different country. There were fewer church spires poking up between clusters of trees, and more barren tracts dominated by coal mines and manufactories. The sun disappeared behind an umbrella of grey clouds that never lifted.
At midday they decided some lunch was in order but so had all the other first class passengers. A tidy queue had formed at the entrance to the dining car. A few passengers had opted to wait until the second sitting and were enjoying an aperitif in the saloon car, especially those travelling in larger groups who preferred not to be split up. A maître d’ was ushering those waiting in the queue to vacant seats. There were two double vacancies. The first was a banquette for two at a table with an American couple whose distinctive New York twangs could be heard above the quietude of the dining car. They were conversing knowledgably about a current West End play and looked as if they had just stepped out of a John Singer Sargent painting. They would have made a perfect pairing for the doctor and the Countess and the maître d’ clearly thought so too. He began ushering them along when the Countess spotted the other double vacancy at the far end of the dining car. The two people seated at this table had their backs to the door, but the Countess recognized them by their platinum curls and decided to engineer a meeting. She tapped the maître d’ on the shoulder and adopted a bothersome tone.
“Oh, dear,” she whispered fretfully, lying through her teeth. “That American is my ex-husband’s cousin and the woman with him is my ex-brother-in-law’s ex-wife. I cannot possibly be seated at the same table. It would be too, too, too ghastly – a terrible scene, and all that. If it is not too much trouble, could my companion and I be seated elsewhere?”
The maître d’ looked terrified at having to deal with anything ghastly that might lead to a terrible scene and nodded toward the saloon car. “If madame and her companion would care to take an aperitif, I will ensure that the first available table for the second sitting is reserved.”
“Oh, no,” she pouted unhappily, lifting a limp wrist to her forehead, “that would never do. I had no time for breakfast this morning and I feel quite light-headed. I’m afraid if food does not pass my lips soon I will simply faint right here on this very spot.” She looked meaningfully at the narrow passage and began to sway.
The maître d’ looked even more terrified. Beads of sweat broke out on his brow. He used the linen napkin draped over his arm to mop his face.
“What about that vacant seat at the end of the car?” supplied the Countess, looking past a sagging shoulder, drooping under the weight of responsibility and elaborate epaulets.
Rallying himself, the maître d’ stiffened his back before ushering the Countess and the doctor to the end of the car, gliding swiftly past the American couple. But Dr Watson grabbed her arm none too gently.
“What are you playing at?” he hissed under his breath. “Are you mad! Don’t you recognise the poodle hair? That is the woman I had the altercation with earlier!”
She angled her head and whispered over her shoulder. “There is method in my madness, mon ami. I do recognize her even if you do not. Follow my lead and pas de gaffe!”
The maître d’ came to an abrupt halt at the end of the dining car. “Pardon me,” he addressed cringingly to the poodle pair, “I am aware that you requested to be seated at your own table but Company policy prohibits diners being turned away if any seats remain unoccupied.”
The platinum twins were about to vent their opinion regarding Company policy when the Countess took charge.
“Enchante,” she gushed, slipping fluidly into the banquette, “I hope we are not disturbing you. But what can one do? These dining cars are so frightfully cramped, never large enough. Let me introduce myself – Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna,” she trilled with conceit, “and my travelling companion, Dr John Watson.”
Dr Watson followed her cue wearing a stiff-upper-lip smile. But all seemed forgiven. The young lady was no longer glaring daggers, though one glance from the Arctic blue eyes could still freeze the marrow in his bones. He felt an involuntary shiver as he acknowledged the two people on the opposite side of the table with a sheepish nod of his head.
“I’m Miss Catherine Dee,” responded the young woman crisply, “and this is my brother, Mr Carter Dee.”
The penny dropped clunkily! Wards of Lord Cruddock!
“I hope your clubs are all right,” muttered Dr Watson – no wonder the Countess had engineered to sit at their table! He had thought for a moment she was merely trying to exacerbate his humiliation. “I apologise unreservedly. I dropped something and…oh, never mind.”
“My clubs are fine,” dismissed Miss Dee with disdainful affability, “and your apology is accepted providing you forgive my rudeness, but, well, I was so worried about my new clubs.”
“Quite understandable,” Dr Watson said with a tepid smile that would never grow more than lukewarm under the icy stare. To avoid looking into her eyes he stared at the white shingle hair. She must have been born minus the attribute that determines pigmentation. She could have passed for albino but for the pale blue eyes, the same for her twin brother.
The dining car had all the hallmarks of an exclusive London restaurant, but the menu was not a la carte and the courses were promptly served so as not to delay the second sitting. White wine arrived just as the train chugged to the top of Whitmore Hill and the stilted conversation seemed to register the strain but lo and behold just as the engine reached the summit and began the smooth descent to the Cheshire Plain so the last vestige of awkwardness seemed to drop away and conversation began to flow freely.
“Is this what you dropped?” said Mr Dee, extracting a paper from the pocket of his frock coat as some leek and potato soup made an appearance.
Dr Watson was stunned and clearly showed it. “Yes, yes, it is,” he stammered as the young man handed over his letter, hand slightly shaky. “How ever did you know it was mine?”
“I saw something flutter from your pocket as you spun round, but, what with the mayhem that followed, I forgot all about it, but just after we boarded I spotted the porter picking something up. I pretended it was mine and he handed it through the window. There was no time to send him to carriage number eleven.”
Dr Watson gratefully pocketed his little treasure. “You must let me pay for lunch.”
“That is not necessary,” said Miss Dee, dispensing a tight smile while buttering a bread roll with a firm and steady hand.
“I insist,” argued Dr Watson. “I will not take no for an answer. I thought my letter was lost forever and now here it is. I am most grateful.”
“This letter sounds quite valuable,” laughed the brother, slapping butter onto his roll with the dexterity of a clumsy child. “What is it? State secrets? Investment tips? A formula for turning metal into gold!”
“Oh, shut up, Carter!” snapped his sister. “You can be such a fool!”
“And you can be such a bore!” he snapped back.
The sister flashed her brother a chilling reprimand before turning amiably to the Countess and turning on a much friendlier smile. “You must forgive us. We are a bit nerve-wracked at the moment. We are about to compete in an important tournament.”
“The golf tournament at Lammermoor?” confirmed the Countess.
“Yes, how ever did you guess?”
“When you introduced yourselves I recognized your names from a newspaper article I read, oh, about a week ago now, but I thought the tournament had been halted?”
“It had been halted,” supplied the brother, steadying his hand, “but we received a telegram yesterday in London telling us that it is now going ahead as planned so we are hurrying back to Scotland.”
“No wonder your nerves are on edge. It must be wretchedly thrilling to play in such an important tournament,” observed the Countess without sounding even slightly condescending, “and you both look so young for such a world class competition.”
“We have always looked young for our age,” replied the sister. “It’s the whitish hair and the pale blue eyes and babyish faces. We are actually both twenty-five.”
“You are one day older,” reminded the brother, looking meaningfully at his sibling. “You were born just before midnight and I was born just after.”
“A few hours the difference,” dismissed the sister curtly before turning to the doctor. “Do you play golf, Dr Watson?”
“Indeed I do and since we will be staying near to where the tournament is being held I am looking forward to picking up some handy pointers that may improve my game.”
“Oh,” she said in an interested monotone as the waiter came to clear the soup bowls, “Where will you be staying?”
“Countess Volodymyrovna,” he replied, indicating his travelling companion with a smile and a nod of his head, “owns an old dwelling at the southern end of Loch Maw.”
“I inherited it from my aunt,” the Countess added blithely, “it may be quite a ruin. I have never even seen it.”
“You must mean Graymalkin,” intervened the brother. “You know the old peel tower, sis, the one built on the little island at the place where the loch narrows and gushes down the beck to Duns.”
“Oh, yes!” she exclaimed, sounding delighted. “I don’t believe anyone has stayed at Graymalkin for ages and ages. Mrs Ross, the housekeeper, will be thrilled to have some company at long last.”
“Yes,” seconded the brother with an ironic inflection, “simply thrilled.”
The entrée course arrived and they all turned their attention to the curried haddock served on a bed of rice. No one spoke for several minutes. Dr Watson broke the silence.
“How long have you been playing golf?” he asked, directing his question at neither twin in particular.
“Most of our lives,” responded the sister, who seemed to do most of the talking. “Our father was a keen golfer. He instilled in us a love for the game and we started caddying for him at about the age of five. By the time we were ten we had our own clubs.”
“That was in South Africa?” pursued the doctor with genuine interest.
“Yes,” replied the sister before turning to her brother. “It was an idyllic childhood, wasn’t it Carter?”
“Yes,” he confirmed blandly. “Positively idyllic. I say, this curried haddock is delicious!”
“I was just about to say the same thing,” affirmed the Countess. “Did your mother also encourage your love affair with golf?”
“Our mother died in childbirth,” supplied the sister.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, Will your father be in Scotland to watch you play?” The Countess knew very well that the twins were wards of his lordship, but she wanted to elicit more background information.
“Our father passed away several years ago.”
“Oh, how terribly tragic. I’m sure if he could see you now, he would be very proud.”
Surprisingly, it was Miss Dee, who had seemed the less affable of the twins upon their first encounter, who suggested rounding off the meal with a coffee in the saloon car. She invited Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna to join her. The doctor feigned fatigue, and as soon as he was out of sight hurried to his compartment to peruse his letter in private. It had been burning a hole in his pocket all through lunch and he was keen to slip away without further ado. Mr Carter Dee likewise declined the invitation. He was immersing himself in Shakespeare and wanted to finish reading the Scottish play prior to: Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble…
Dr Watson locked himself into his compartment and checked the time on his pocket watch. He calculated he had about thirty minutes in which to read the letter he had received from Mycroft Holmes before the Countess returned. Best to re-read the first page he told himself, wondering if Mr Carter Dee had actually perused through the entire four pages of his private correspondence, despite the young man joking about not knowing the contents. The brother and sister put his teeth on edge. One moment arrogant and scornful, the next charming and chummy – Oh, well, at least he had his letter back. His eyes skated across the confident sweep of copperplate handwriting:
Dear Doctor Watson,
The lady in question did spend her formative years in Odessa on the estate of the Count of Odessos. The estate, about 15000 acres, lies to the west of the city of Odessa and borders the River Dnistr. The child was doted on and had a much-loved nanny who died seven years ago – a peasant woman by the name of Paraskovia.
From a young age the lady in question had an army of private tutors and proved to be a precocious student. She easily grasped the finer points of her feminine education – embroidery, drawing, painting, dancing, singing and playing a musical instrument. By the way, she plays an instrument not unlike the violin. It is called a bandura – a sixteen stringed instrument similar to a balalaika or lute.
When the lady in question was aged six her step-father drowned while crossing the Volga River. The ice cracked unexpectedly and he drowned along with his horse. His body was recovered after the spring thaw and given a traditional Orthodox burial, along with that of his beloved horse! The girl composed a poem in Cyrillic which she read at the funeral. There was apparently not a dry eye in the little church by the time she finished.
The step-aunt, who owned the adjoining estate, subsequently moved into the Odessos estate of her brother and took over the raising of the child.
By age twelve the lady in question could read, write and speak several languages. These were: Ukrainian, Russian, French and English. She then set about mastering Latin. Her Bible studies were conducted in both Latin and English.
She is proficient in archery, fencing, and is an excellent markswoman. Horse-riding – a strongpoint with Ukrainians going back centuries – is also her strongpoint. She can harness a horse blindfolded and ride bareback, steering the horse using only her knees. By the by, she also demonstrated an interest in bee-keeping and during her younger years could often be found in the apple orchard with the bee-keeper!
By age thirteen she began to travel with her step-aunt, mostly on the Continent, largely in France, staying at the various homes belonging to the step-aunt or with aristocratic friends, where she continued her studies with private tutors, concentrating on fine arts, classical poetry, medieval literature and ancient history.
At age fifteen she was sent to a Swiss finishing school near Lausanne – Le Palais au Printemps – where she refined her French accent. She also honed her sporting skills and won both the archery and fencing competition that year. Along with the usual classes in etiquette, deportment, and conversation, she studied rhetoric, and was dux of her class, winning both the Cicero and the Seneca prize.
At age sixteen she began travelling again with her aunt. They paid an extended visit to London and the surrounding counties then ventured across the Atlantic to the east coast of the United States of America. During this time she added geography to her bow with the help of various private tutors who travelled with them.
At age eighteen she made her debut in New York at the Belle Epoque Bal Blanc and had several eligible suitors in hot pursuit but the step-aunt decided to take off again. They briefly visited South America before crossing the Pacific Ocean to Australia.
Just prior to the twentieth birthday of the lady in question, the step-aunt was bitten by a tiger snake during a picnic at a place called Hanging Rock. The venom proved fatal and the step-aunt was buried in the local cemetery at Mount Macedon.
Soon after this tragedy, the lady in question met and married the man you mentioned, with the said alias, a grave-digger by trade who struck it lucky in the goldfields and became an hotelier with a string of hotels and public drinking saloons from one end of Victoria to the other. His forebear had been transported for life after being convicted of the crime of forgery. They were married for three years until such time as the husband shot himself.
The lady in question then sailed to England and began to trace her connections.
All seems above board at this stage but I await corroborating evidence. You will appreciate that further enquiries will need to be conducted discretely so as not to set off alarm bells and because the people involved value their privacy above all. Information is trickling in from near and far. I think the only continent the lady in question has not visited is Antarctica!
Dr Watson had read through the contents of the letter quickly and now sat back in his seat and began to take it all in. The first thing that struck him was that Sherlock would have been proud. The second thing was that the young lady had received an excellent education, the sort only great wealth can provide. The third thing was that Mycroft had not used the Countess’s name. He didn’t know why that detail made him feel relieved but it did. Perhaps he felt that if Carter Dee or his sister had read the letter they would not have known for certain who the subject was, and likewise who the sender was. Mycroft really was a closed-tyler compared to Sherlock.
He was about to start re-reading the letter when the door to the compartment began to rattle. Someone was trying to gain entry. Hastily he folded the paper into quarters and shoved it back into his pocket.
“Why on earth did you lock the door?” quizzed the Countess, tone tinged with chagrin, as soon as the door rolled back.
“I was going to grab forty winks,” he lied, thinking on his feet, “and I wasn’t expecting you to return quite so soon. I gather Miss Dee grated on you just as much as she grated on me.”
“Au contraire, mon ami! Nous allons bien. I am just going to freshen up in the bathroom and then I shall head straight back to the saloon car. Miss Dee and I have discovered we have much in common. It is astonishing how many likes and dislikes we share. We could be kindred spirits.”
“Really?” he said sceptically.
“Yes, we are both of us orphaned, vulnerable and alone in a foreign land.”
“You sound like Little Nell in the jungles of darkest Africa!”
She ignored the facetiousness. “Miss Dee has promised to give me some golf lessons on her free days. She agrees it is the perfect sport for a young lady, not as perspiring as tennis or badminton. She dreams of establishing a golf club exclusively for ladies. When I told her I have a few spare acres out by Hampstead Heath she became quite excited. She has lots of ideas on how a golf course should be laid out. She has a keen sense of humour and is the most charming, witty, gay, and kind person I have met for ages.”
“We cannot possibly be talking about the same Miss Dee. I’m thinking of the one who is rude, aloof, cold and brusque.”
“You were the one who knocked into her,” reminded the Countess, “and almost ruined a new set of expensive clubs which, to her, are more than just a plaything. Oh, look! The train is cutting through the middle of a Stone Age circle!”
He glanced out of the window as she disappeared into the bathroom. A few moments later, with her luxuriant brunette mane re-coifed and all the loose wisps neatly tucked back, and a fresh application of rouge highlighting her Slavic cheekbones, she reappeared, smiling the carefree smile of those born bright and beautiful.
“What was so important about that letter that caused such a fuss anyway?” she continued interrogatively as she moved to the door and stood with one hand on the brass handle and the other poised dramatically on her hip. “If I didn’t know better I’d say you were working undercover for The Foreign Office. You certainly behaved most peculiarly. Ce qui est?”
He was getting better at telling lies and barely paused for breath – a job at The Foreign Office was definitely a future possibility. “An old chum from my time in Afghanistan wrote that he would be visiting London over Christmas. I may have mentioned the name Colonel Haytor to you, anyway, he mentioned some dates we might get together. I didn’t want to make a hash of his visit by losing those dates.”
She rolled her smoky blue-grey eyes as she whirled out the door and disappeared in a perfumed haze of musk, civet and scented violets.
She certainly must have hit it off with her new best friend. They had probably designed an entire golf course on a napkin by now, including the perfect club house and the perfect wardrobe of sporting attire to go with it, in herringbone, houndstooth, Prince of Wales check and every combination of plaid dreamed-of to date. She did not return to the compartment until moments before the train pulled into Glasgow Central Station at five minutes before six.
The Royal Scot waited a mere five minutes on the platform before rolling out again. By the time it chugged into Princes Street Station in Edinburgh the train had covered 400 miles in less than eight hours. An engineering marvel! They arrived in the Scottish capital with ample time to check into their hotel and make a reservation for dinner.
The Caledonian Boar Hotel was situated on a leafy square just off Princes Street, a stone’s throw from the train station, making it a comfortable and convenient staging post for travellers who preferred not to journey-on after dark.
“Guess what?” the Countess trilled, as several porters took charge of her luggage, relieving Xenia and Fedir, her personal maid and manservant, of the task. “The Dees are staying at this hotel too!”
Dr Watson’s face fell and he couldn’t bring himself to speak.
“This will restore your good humour,” she continued cheerily, “Lady Moira is staying here too.”
They had mounted the grand sweep of stairs leading to the first floor when he paused mid-step and turned to look at her. “How do you know that?”
“Miss Dee told me. She and her brother are meeting the dowager for dinner tonight and then tomorrow they are travelling together to Cruddock Castle. His lordship’s widowed mother came to Edinburgh in order to do some Christmas shopping and to have her regular medical check-up. We have been invited to join them for dinner tonight in the hotel restaurant. I think our Scottish sleuthing holiday is starting off rather splendidly.”
He commenced climbing the stairs once more but stopped abruptly a second time, his voice fell to a concerned register. “You didn’t, I mean, you haven’t, surely you didn’t mention anything about what we talked about, I mean about the three deaths being suspicious?”
“Of course not!”
“Miss Dee-lightful didn’t manage to make you to drop your guard?” he tested.
“Pas du tout! And there’s no need for that rudeness.”
“You didn’t reveal anything about the Wicca symbolism?”
“I was discretion itself!”
Somehow he felt less than convinced and by the time he reached his room he had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. There was more than meets the eye about Catherine and Carter Dee.
The dining room of The Caledonian Boar was unapologetically Jacobite. It displayed portraits of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, and the Earl of Bothwell. It featured Jacobean furniture, tartan rugs, chandeliers fashioned from antlers, and purple heather in vases on each table. Anywhere else it would have looked like a twee parody of Scottishness, but this was Scotland, after all. Lady Moira always stayed at The Caledonian Boar whenever she visited Edinburgh and that was recommendation enough for them.
The dowager was about seventy years old but looked much older. She was the visual incarnation of the fictional jilted bride, Miss Havisham, just before she went completely bonkers. She had a pale complexion, one shade removed from death, wispy, white, bird’s nest hair, coiled and up-pinned, oodles of jewellery, white lace gloves, and a white silk dress with an overlay of white lace. If she had announced to all and sundry that she was the high priestess of geriatric vestal virgins no one would have doubted her.
“I know Graymalkin Tower quite well,” she said in a softly rasping voice that sounded like she’d swallowed cobwebs. “It has been quite a while since anyone has stayed there.”
“What concerns me,” responded the Countess, “is whether Graymalkin is habitable.”
“You will find it quite habitable,” assured the dowager confidently. “Mrs Ross, the housekeeper, would make certain of that. Graymalkin might be ancient but it is not derelict. It is a small but interesting dwelling of four parts. The tallest section, the peel tower, was built in the twelfth century, around the same time as Lammas Abbey. The sturdiest section, the keep, was built in the thirteenth century, around the time of the Viking invasions. While the two wings that link the different sections are more recent – sixteenth and seventeenth century. They boast larger windows, larger rooms and larger fireplaces. The place is reminiscent of Eilean Donan Castle, right down to the footbridge which thankfully did away with the inconvenience of crossing the causeway, especially in the dead of winter.”
There were two unoccupied seats at the table and they were waiting for these to be filled before ordering a la carte. One seat was reserved for Mr Carter Dee who had decided to take a brisk walk prior to joining them for dinner. The other was for Lady Moira’s companion-cum-lady’s maid who was finishing off some letter writing in her room.
When the latter made an appearance, Dr Watson sprang from his chair and clasped the young woman to his chest in a gesture bordering on dangerously exuberant or possibly lunatic. The pretty young thing blushed profusely and didn’t know where to look. She had wavy, upswept, auburn hair, a gorgeous creamy complexion, and a pert, little, upturned nose.
“Uncle John!” she stammered with embarrassment as he released his bear-like grip. “What, er, what are you doing here, er, I mean in this part of Scotland?”
“I’m on holiday,” he gurgled enthusiastically. “I will be staying at Graymalkin Tower with my travelling companion, Countess Volodymyrovna. Let me introduce you.” He turned to the Countess. “Miss Adeline Lambert,” he announced proudly, as if she were his long lost daughter returned to the fold after forty years in the wilderness and not merely the niece of his late wife, whose name had slipped his mind.
“Enchanté,” said the Countess as the young woman took her seat. “What a glorious coincidence! Dr Watson was just saying the other day that he was hoping to look you up while we were holidaying in this part of the world.”
“How is it that you chose to stay at Graymalkin?” asked the young woman, expressing curiosity. “No one has stayed there for years and years.”
Dr Watson jumped in with a reply. “The Countess inherited Graymalkin through her step-aunt and when she professed a desire to visit, and I heard there was a golf tournament nearby, well, nothing could keep us away. So here we are!”
“In that case, I will see quite a bit of you, Uncle John, since I live at the opposite end of the loch at Mawgate Lodge. I am companion to Lady Moira.”
“Yes,” he nodded, still beaming broadly, “Lady Moira explained as much before you joined us, but she failed to mention your name. It is a great piece of luck!”
While they were discussing what time they might all set off tomorrow, Mr Dee arrived, and the waiter followed hot on his heels brandishing menu cards.
Mr Dee appeared full of nervous energy as he sandwiched himself between the Countess and his sister. He toyed with the stem of his wine glass, unfolded and refolded his linen napkin and even sat on his hands, alas, they shook so much during the meal his cutlery took on a jittery life of its own, tapping out a discordant tune on his plate. As if to distract from this, Miss Dee talked with great animation about the vast South African veldt, and she could indeed hold court when it suited her. The golf tournament was briefly discussed but no one mentioned the three deaths until the close of evening when the bill was being settled by Dr Watson who insisted that it be put on his account. It was Lady Moira who broached the subject.
“I will be conducting a séance the night after next,” she addressed forthrightly to the Countess. “I will be holding it at Cruddock Castle. You and Dr Watson are cordially invited to join us for dinner prior to the event. I will let my son know I have invited you. He will be delighted to make your acquaintance though less happy about the séance. But the spirits of Lammas moor are restless and they must be given voice. The three recent murders have unsettled them and they wish to communicate their unhappiness to those responsible.”
“Murders!” exclaimed the Countess, feigning shock. “I read that there had been three fatal accidents. But murders, you say!”
“Now, now, Grandmama,” intervened Miss Dee in a sweetly condescending tone, “the detectives from Scotland Yard decreed them to be accidents. You cannot go about calling them murders. It will frighten and upset people.”
“Tosh!” snorted the dowager. “Frighten and upset my son, you mean, because it might disrupt his plan to have idiots trampling a sacred site as they go about whacking a ball with a stick! And I am not your Grandmama, young lady! My son might be your god-father, but that does make me your kith and kin!”
On that harsh note they parted ways and went to bed but none slept soundly. The Countess dreamed that Graymalkin had been overrun by hundreds of black cats, Dr Watson dreamed that his lovely niece had turned into a corn dolly, Lady Moira dreamed of dead spirits rising up from the grave wielding golf clubs, Mr Dee dreamed of chopping off his shaky hands, and Miss Dee dreamed of sinking the winning shot of the tournament just as a stray golf ball sailed through the air and hit her on the head, killing her instantly.
Lady Moira and Miss Lambert were still fast asleep when Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna rolled out of Edinburgh in a landau in the early hours of a frosty morning, just ahead of Fedir and Xenia in a wagonette laden with golf clubs, hat boxes, portmanteaux and travelling trunks.
Hiring a wagonette had proved an easy task but hiring a landau in good condition with a decent pair of horses had proved more difficult. The owner of the landau would not be parted from his carriage or his fine chestnut mares and insisted on being hired as the driver. In the end, when the Countess learned the carriage driver was familiar with the area around Loch Maw, she decided it might actually be beneficial to have an extra pair of male hands at Graymalkin for the duration of their sojourn and agreed to his terms.
The man’s name was Horace Horsefield. He had a long horsey face and a long silky mane of black hair which he tied back in a ponytail. They immediately christened him Horace the Horse, but not to his horsey face.
They had opted not to take a train to Duns after Lady Moira informed them it was practically the same distance to Loch Maw from Duns as it was from Edinburgh to Loch Maw. Nevertheless, the journey swallowed up the better part of the day especially as darkness fell early in this part of the world. It was already creeping up behind them when they began skirting the western edge of the loch and by the time they reached the Marmion Hydro Hotel, where they decided to stop for dinner – grey day had turned into black night.
Disappointingly, the Marmion Hydro Hotel did not live up to the glowing description in Sporting Life. It was actually a rundown hunting lodge that had seen better days and was redeemed only by the baronial style of architecture so popular in Scotland, with the mandatory pepperpot turrets that seemed to ooze eternal charm. To claim it had fifteen bedrooms seemed wildly optimistic. Half of the bedrooms could have been no bigger than broom closets. Nevertheless, its real saving grace was its position – perched on the edge of the loch and offering an uninterrupted view of the picturesque ruins of Lammas Abbey on the opposite shore, a view which was currently denied to them by a lack of moonlight.
Mrs Ardkinglas, the owner of the hotel, was at the reception desk when they arrived. She was a stern-faced woman in her fifties, dressed entirely in black, with dark hair and piercing dark eyes. Some blowsy and austere widows-weeds did not do justice to her excellent figure. She came out from behind her desk and greeted them as if she had been expecting them. When they glanced quizzical she explained that Hamish Ross, the ghillie from Cruddock Castle, had informed her that the new owner of Graymalkin would be setting forth from Edinburgh that morning in the company of the famous author, Dr John Watson, and they would be sure to stop by on their way to the old tower.
“I have kept some dinner on the stove for you,” she delivered in a thick Scottish accent that warmed the cockles of Dr Watson’s heart. “Some Mulligatawny soup and some smoked trout and buttered potatoes,” she said, leading them to a small dining room.
“I have three hungry servants who will also be requiring a hearty meal,” the Countess addressed to Mrs Ardkinglas.
“They can eat in the kitchen. I will make sure they are promptly seen to.”
“Everyone else must be in the grand dining room,” observed Dr Watson, noting the one round table set for two in the centre of the round room.
“The grand dining room is closed as we do not have many guests at present,” replied Mrs Ardkinglas. “You are the only dinner guests tonight so I have set the table in the round tower.”
“I presumed you would be fully booked,” said the Countess, somewhat surprised. “I read that the caddies and assistants are all staying here. And there must be dozens of keen golfers eager to be part of a sporting spectacle?”
“We were fully booked up until the third death,” she explained grimly. “The guests started to trickle away after that, frightened off by talk of dead spirits and curses and such, and when the tournament was halted indefinitely, and detectives arrived from Scotland Yard – that scared off the last of them. The assistants got the wind-up when a superstitious old fool swore he saw three witches in Jackdaw Wood. When he got a toothache and another fool got a sty, and another fool developed a limp, that was the end of them, they high-tailed it back to Duns as fast as they could run. And then last night two more players withdrew even though the tournament is now going ahead.”
“Which two?” asked Dr Watson.
“The two Canadians.”
“That only leaves four players,” he calculated. “Mr Larssensen, Mr Bancoe and the Dees.”
“Yes,” she confirmed unhappily before continuing. “The two Canadian caddies checked out this morning, quick to follow their masters. There are now only two caddies left and no assistants. Gardeners at Cruddock Castle have been roped in to help with the tournament so that it doesn’t fold.”
“Would you like the golf course to go ahead?” quizzed the Countess.
“Yes,” said Mrs Ardkinglas without hesitation. “It will be good for business. We don’t have many tourists venturing this way, just a few hikers and ramblers, mainly in the summer months. The serious stalkers and shooters prefer the Highlands. I had to give the Swiss chef his marching orders yesterday. If business doesn’t pick up I may have to sell the place to the Cruddocks. The old hunting lodge belonged to my husband’s family. It was my husband’s intention to turn it as a fine hotel but then,” she faltered and swallowed dry, “he died suddenly. I don’t think I can carry on much longer – not on my own.”
That brief conversation gave them food for thought while they ate their dinner.
After their meal, Dr Watson went to round up Horace, Xenia and Fedir and it was more bad news. Horace had heard the story about the three witches and nothing would induce him to travel through Jackdaw Wood after dark. They were forced to take rooms at the hotel and continue their journey come morning.
Dr Watson, clearly a favourite Scottish son, was allocated the royal suite with the balcony and the best view of the loch. The Countess, having no Scottish connections, was consigned to the bedroom at the top of the tower, optimistically referred to as the deluxe suite.
“That is the first time I have ever slept in my dressing gown and socks and in a room with no corners,” the Countess said first thing the next morning at breakfast. “I went to bed cursing Horace and his childish fear but now that I have warmed up I think it was better that we rested before completing our journey. Graymalkin is sure to look cheerier in the clear light of day.”
“It may work against us,” quipped Dr Watson, humour restored after a good night’s sleep in a large and comfortable chamber with a cheery fire, “we will be able to see all that moss on the ceiling and the walls dripping with damp!”
They were having a good chuckle when they spotted two men sporting tweeds, plus fours and golf bags, heading north towards Cruddock Castle.
“They must be the last of the caddies,” commented the Countess, pouring some tea from a chipped Spode pot into china cups and passing one to her companion.
“Mr MacDuff and Mr Brown,” supplied Dr Watson.
“How do you know their names?”
“I checked the hotel register this morning.”
“Oh, well done!” she praised. “So the tournament recommences today?”
“Not according to Mrs Ardkinglas. The weather in this part of the world has been bleak. Torrential rain has reduced huge stretches of the golf course to one giant water hazard. Hence, the players are being allowed a few days to practice teeing off and putting and so forth while the fairways absorb the excess water.”
“That should suit Miss Dee. She will have time to try out her new clubs. I hope she wins. It would be wonderful to have a woman win.”
“It would be even more wonderful,” he delivered dryly, “to have the best player win.”
The words Scottish and castle in the same sentence always conjured in the Countess’s mind’s eye an image of something proudly romantic, but Graymalkin was not that sort of Scottish castle. It was a byword for a bygone time, a time of clannish feuds and warring chieftans, of brutal Viking invasions and of bloody English insurgencies, a time of rape and pillage and slaughter, a time when Life was the enemy and Death was a friend.
Graymalkin was conceived in fear, constructed between and betwixt the killings, and was somehow still standing at the dawn of the twentieth century. It was a forbidding fortress dramatically and inhospitably perched on a lonely, windswept, isolated crag that jutted out of the frigid waters of Loch Maw. It crouched behind a curtain wall of grey stone like a deformed dwarf, squinty-eyed, crook-backed, pock-marked – watching, waiting, hulking down, bracing for the next inevitable onslaught from the hyperborean barbarian to sweep down from the north and charge across the icy black water, gathering speed and strength – an enemy that would rip out its heart and drain its blood and grind its bones.
The fortress appeared impenetrable until you spotted the one and only gap in the wall that led into a cobble-stoned courtyard. Here, could be found a set of weathered steps that hugged a windowless wall for dear life. They led to the first floor where all the main rooms could be found, apart from the kitchens, storerooms and domestic rooms which were on the ground floor, and the bedrooms which were higher up. Waiting to greet them at the top of the steps was Mrs Ross. She looked the spitting image of Mrs Ardkinglas, with her dark hair, piercing eyes, and stern features, right down to the blowsy and austere, black widows-weeds. They could have been identical twins – and indeed they were.
The fortress had not been electrified and its reliance on candlelight and wood fires recalled darker times. There were bare stone walls up to nine feet thick in some places, numerous corkscrew stairs punctuated with archways draped with heavy curtains linking different levels and rooms, designed to confound any invader who managed to make it thus far. There were also oak floors, blackened beams, stone lintels, plasterwork ceilings and leaded windows set in niches. The sitting room boasted a huge fireplace with a mantelpiece carved from a single piece of granite. Thankfully, there was not a moss-covered ceiling to be seen and the walls were not dripping with damp. Tartan featured in most of the furnishings and the walls were hung with faded Mortlake tapestries and animal portraits of dogs and deer and horses. The corridors rippled with scold’s bridles and medieval weapons of war and antlers by the score – and it was here that the north wind gained entry through every crack and keyhole, and whistled like a thousand baby banshees schooling themselves for doomsday.
Despite this, the Countess fell in love with Graymalkin the moment she stepped over the threshold, and Dr Watson felt a lump come to his throat – it was the house of his boyhood dreams. They spent the day familiarizing themselves with the layout of the castle, from the dank dungeon gouged out of the rock right up to the head-spinning ramparts then went for a short walk to admire the cascading waters of Fickle Beck. Before they knew it, it was time to dress for dinner. The occasion called for something luxe – an evening gown in black velvet and pink satin, embroidered with floral garlands and black lace. It was the night of the séance at Cruddock Castle.
Cruddock Castle sat majestically on a plateau called Maw Crag. It was a gothic revival masterpiece constructed of pink stone that glowed salubriously in the crepuscular light of a crisp autumn evening. Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna might have been forgiven for thinking they were gazing at it through rose-coloured spectacles as they caught sight of it from the window of their landau. At its noble feet unfolded a verdant paradise, Lammas moor, now a golf course dotted with small lakes, sand bunkers and spinneys of silver birch that stretched southward as far as the eye could see, and in the dreamlike distance, like a plein air sketch by a master of perspective, sat the hauntingly beautiful ruin of Lammas Abbey.
The dreamy vision did not end at the front doors of Cruddock Castle either. The dream continued inside where the entrance hall was a sea of pink and white alabaster with a dramatic colonnade of pinkish marble leading the eye to a spectacular staircase wide enough for a pair of giants, punctuated with balconies and mezzanines, and at every turning, gilded candelabras glittering pinpoints of vivacious golden light.
The dream unfolded ethereally as dreams do, leading one into a gothic fantasy of fan-vaulting and flamboyant overstatement, a drawing room so richly crammed with several hundred years of continuous acquisition the eye didn’t know where to look and could settle on nothing for any length of time before flitting to the next exquisite objet d’art as it does when encountering a treasure-trove in a museum for the first time.
Dr Watson’s and Countess Volodymyrovna’s arrival was announced with pontifical stiffness by the Scottish butler, and it was at this moment that the dream bubble burst.
Dr Watson clenched as introductions were conducted. Only gradually did he unclench, realising that tonight he would have no trouble matching names to faces and remembering who was who. This was no colourless collection of homogenous faces that blurred into boring verisimilitude, but a distinctive and distinguished group of guests amongst whom he felt honoured to be included.
First and foremost was Lola O’Hara. The waterfall of red hair made her an absolute corker and though she turned out to be somewhat older than her promotional photo had led him to believe, he would always regard her as the standout beauty of her time. Women who are endowed with voluptuous figures do not often possess the virtuosity of their more lithe sisters, but Lola was the exception that proved the rule. Every move she made was a symphony of grace and style. She held out her hand as if she expected it to be kissed, and the doctor did not dare disappoint.
Second was his lordship, a tall, dark and debonair man in his early fifties, with the trademark curling moustache that was the immaculate hallmark of war heroes, romantic poets and dashing millionaires. As a host he was savoir faire personified, attentive to his guests, affable and inclusive, putting all at ease with a deftness of touch that would have made him the envy of any man who witnessed him in action. He balanced a cigarette in one hand and a whiskey in the other as he steered himself and the two newcomers around the gilded gorgeousness on display, handling introductions with aplomb.
Third was the Rajah of Govinda. His fierce expression, his mahogany skin, his exotic accent, all contrived to make him a striking and impressive figure, once met, never forgotten. He had a lethal handshake and a deadly-looking ceremonial dagger attached to an elaborate gold belt that circled a sumptuously embroidered tunic. The collarless tunic came to mid-calf, and the neckline and cuffs were banded with semi-precious gemstones – beryl, cornelian, garnet and sardonyx, to name but a few. A pair of tight trousers covered his legs and some jewelled slippers covered his feet. But it was the turban that caught the eye and held it. It wrapped neatly around his noble head and in the forefront sat a huge ruby brooch the size of a bird’s egg which pinned into place a shortened white peacock feather that gave the disconcerting impression of a third eye.
Fourth and fifth were the platinum twins – Catherine and Carter Dee, looking as primped and pampered as two puffed-up poodles parading down the Champs Elysees on a lazy Sunday afternoon, gazing with disdain at all the interlopers befouling the pavement.
Sixth and seventh were the golfers – Bruce Bancoe and Lars Larssensen. The Scot resembled a dour, tough, wind-blown, weathered, North Sea fisherman with a grizzled grey beard and a thatch of wild grey hair to match it. He could best be described as a trawler-man in a dinner suit – an ill-fitting costume which needed constant adjustment, hence the need to tug at his cuffs, button and unbutton his jacket, and smooth down his slightly-too-short trousers. The Norwegian resembled a strong, stocky, tough Viking warrior with longish sandy hair and a lantern jaw that underscored a rugged, angular, chiselled, devastatingly masculine profile that immediately caused less endowed men to feel inferior and effeminate. His muscular physique looked as if it might burst out of its constricting formality any minute.
Eighth and ninth, were the white queen of all things weird, and her lovely lady-in-waiting, respectively, Lady Moira and Miss Adeline Lambert.
It was an eclectic gathering, not the sort to be found in the fashionable salons of Paris, the drawing rooms of Vienna, the palazzos of Rome or the summer palaces of St Petersburg – but this was the Scottish Borders. And so the scene was set, the dramatis personae were assembled and the play commenced.
“It must be Fate!” Miss O’Hara’s sonorous voice, softened by a seductive Irish lilt, sent Dr Watson into rapture as the guests paired off and filed into the grand dining room two by two, eschewing formal hierarchy. “We were short of players for our little performance and suddenly here you are!”
“Performance?” said the doctor, hanging off her every word like an adoring lap dog.
“Let me explain,” intervened Lord Cruddock, as his guests circled a large mahogany dinner table that sparkled under a lustrous Waterford chandelier that had recently been electrified. “When the golf tournament was abruptly halted by the police investigation, and the promotion of my new golf course was overshadowed by the unfortunate accidents, my brilliant fiancé dreamed up the clever idea to stage a play and invite some newspaper reporters, thus turning bad news into good publicity.”
“Un bon idée,” praised the Countess, noting how the son deftly avoided his mother’s dark looks while smiling lovingly at his future wife. “Which play?”
“Which play indeed,” exclaimed the Rajah of Govinda with a husky laugh, choosing the seat next to the Countess, “but the one and only Scottish play – Shakespeare’s best!”
“Of course!” nodded the doctor, gazing at the Irish actress like a love-struck puppy. “The nameless play!”
“Lady Macbeth is my most celebrated role,” Lola confirmed with a modest smile and an immodest flutter of long lashes taking her seat not at the opposite head of the table but to the right of her fiancé. “Out damned spot! Out I say! I have performed it so many times I could do it in my sleep.”
“I do recall,” added the dowager dryly, who occupied the seat at the high end of the table until the fifth of November, “that a Dublin critic once described your performance in exactly those terms.”
“That’s what critics are paid to write,” interceded Mr Larssensen, coming to the actress’s rescue. “If they write that the play was superb and the acting flawless no one will be interested in reading their reviews.”
“Agreed!” agreed Mr Bancoe. “Bad news sells more newspapers than good. Just look at how the public couldn’t get enough information about the sinking of that ferry in the Irish Sea. The higher the body count the more the masses clamoured for details.”
Oyster soup was served for starters. It was dinner à la russe with individual courses following one after another.
Lola O’Hara, heartened that the two golfers had leapt to her defence so chivalrously, rose above the acid tongue of her future mother-in-law and returned to her opening line.
“Providence must have brought you here tonight,” she declared, shining some benevolent limelight on Dr Watson. “You can play the role of Seyton, Macbeth’s servant. You won’t have too many lines to learn and you should be able to memorise your part by the time the curtain rises. How does that sound?”
“That sounds, er, fine, and when exactly will the curtain rise?” the doctor croaked, swallowing dry. The first time he appeared on stage was in a Nativity play at Sunday school. He was a donkey in more ways than one who neighed when he should have hee-hawed. The audience burst into fits of laughter, Mary began to cry and dropped baby Jesus. Jesus knocked over a Christmas candle and the manger went up in flames. The second time was in sixth grade. Miss Drake, the headmistress who never did things by halves, decided to turn the muddy village green into a giant stage to celebrate May Day. She had a giant maypole erected in the middle of the stage. He was skipping in time to the music when he realized his shoelace was undone. Alas! Down came the troupe of dancers tangled in ribbons and bows, and down crashed the giant maypole faster than the mast of a Spanish galleon the day the Armada was reduced to toothpicks. It missed Miss Drake by mere inches. His mother never got over the shame.
There was no third time.
“October the 31st,” supplied Lord Cruddock.
“Halloween night of course!” added the actress, flicking back her red mane with a theatrical flourish, before looking directly across the table at the person seated opposite whom Providence had dropped so opportunely into her lap. “Countess Volodymyrovna can play one of the witches,” she announced sweetly. “That means Catherine won’t have to play two roles and she won’t need a costume change. She can concentrate on playing Lady Macduff.”
“Oh, that’s such a relief!” said Miss Dee. “It is confusing learning two sets of lines.”
“Oh tosh!” snorted the dowager. “The witches hardly have any lines at all.”
“Double, double, toil and trouble!” cackled Carter Dee, to take the heat off his sister before pleading his own case. “I’d like to change my role too. I could play Macduff.”
“We’ve discussed this before,” snapped Lola haughtily. “It is better for the caddy, Mr MacDuff, to play Macduff since it is his real name. It is less confusing.”
“Less confusing than what?” argued Carter. “The audience won’t know his real name is MacDuff!”
“But we will know,” returned Lola, brooking no argument.
The conversation turned to how quickly the links were drying out while the next course was consumed – Coquilles St Jacques seasoned with Indian curry and herbed butter as a nod to their exotic Indian guest. It was Carter Dee who steered the conversation back to the Scottish play when the pan-fried calves’ liver on a bed of braised cabbage arrived.
“I don’t want to be one of the witches and that’s that. I’m a man! You cannot unsex me!”
“Steady on, young chap,” warned Lord Cruddock.
“Shakespeare always had men playing women’s roles,” explained the Rajah knowledgably. “Women were forbidden from acting on the stage in Elizabethan Times.”
“Give me strength! Make thick my blood!” muttered Carter. “That was hundreds of years ago. Besides, it’s alright for you. You’re playing Siward – the bold, brave and manly English General! You’re not being forced to play an old crone!”
“Just think of the fun you could have with it, my boy,” suggested his lordship. “Be a man and play a witch.”
“There is nothing wrong with playing a witch,” huffed the dowager.
Carter laughed harshly. “Well, if anyone should know it would be Hecate, the queen of witches!”
“Carter!” shouted Lord Cruddock, slamming his fist on the table so forcefully the crystal glasses juddered. “Apologise at once!”
“It’s alright, Duncan,” calmed the dowager, not taking offence. “There will come a time when to call a woman a witch will be a compliment. Witches were wise women, the midwives and healers of their day, skilled in herb lore. They were the forerunners to the doctors and botanists of today.”
“It is the tone of voice, not the word that I find offensive,” replied the son to his mother. “Yes, there will be a time for such a word but that time has not yet come.” He turned to his god-son. “Carter!” he said sternly.
Carter flushed red as he brought his wine glass to his lips with choppy hands. “I’m sorry, Lady Moira,” he managed with sincerity before turning whiny. “I just want even-handed justice. Everyone else is happy with their role. I feel I have been reduced to a laughing stock. Why can’t the three witches play the three witches?”
The servants arrived to clear the plates. Wine glasses were replenished. Black pudding with pears stewed in syrup arrived as a palate cleanser and conversation took a pause.
“Ah! Le boudin noir aux poires!” exclaimed the Rajah in impeccable French, lightening the tone. “My compliments to your chef francais! I may steal him from you when I leave! I have been searching for a good French chef for months”
The palate cleanser went down a treat and the empty plates were duly cleared. As soon as the servants retreated it was the Countess who returned to the earlier topic.
“Mr Dee,” she addressed down-table, “I didn’t quite understand what you meant by your last phrase – the three witches play the three witches?”
“My brother was referring to three local women,” Miss Dee explained, adopting a neutral tone to downplay the perceived offensiveness behind her brother’s words. “I believe you have met two of them – Mrs Ardkinglas and Mrs Ross.”
“Oh, yes,” the Countess confirmed, “our housekeeper and the owner of the Marmion Hydro Hotel. I presume they are identical twins.”
“There’s a third,” added Carter portentously.
“You mean to say they are triplets?” posed the Countess.
Carter nodded just as some individual cheese soufflés arrived and everyone was momentarily distracted by the fluffy fromage.
“Identical triplets are very rare,” commented the doctor. “The third child doesn’t usually survive the lengthy birthing process, or if they do they are often retarded due to the lack of oxygen to the brain – or so goes medical opinion.”
“The third sister,” asserted Miss Dee, “lends support to your medical opinion. She lives wild in a ramshackle hovel in Jackdaw Wood and is deemed to be a little mad.”
“Mad Mother MacBee!” trilled Carter in a sing-song snigger. “Mad Mother MacBee!”
“That is most unfair,” interceded Miss Lambert, employing a defensive tone sharpened by pity and chagrin. “Mother MacBee is not at all mad. I have encountered her several times and she has appeared quite sane. If she were rich she would be called eccentric, but because she is poor and chooses to live alone she is called mad.”
“Pity- like the naked new-born babe,” mocked Carter. “Bravo, Miss Lambert!”
Miss Lambert turned pink and shrank back in her seat.
“Milk for gall, young lady,” declared the dowager sternly. “And thou shalt get kings! Remember that!”
Lord Cruddock suddenly snatched up his glass of wine. “I propose a toast!” he trumpeted with gusto, lifting his crystal beaker high in the air. “Let us lift our chalices to our lips, good friends, and drink to the success of the Lammermoor tournament, the Scottish play, and Scotland!”
“The Lammermoor tournament, the Scottish play and Scotland!” they echoed in unison, dispelling the rancour driving the conversation up to this point. Insults were forgotten, all was forgiven, grievances were shelved and everyone felt relieved, the tension in the air dissipated and radiant smiles returned. It lasted until the next course – pan-roasted guinea fowl with truffles and leeks, or as the Rajah pointed out – blancs de pintade aux truffes et poiraux.
“You didn’t answer my earlier question,” broached Carter, addressing Miss O’Hara. “Why can’t the three witches play the three witches?”
“Oh for goodness sake!” expelled his lordship brusquely, slapping his hand on the table, though not as violently as before.
Lola placed her hand gently on his. “It’s alright Duncan. I don’t mind answering,” she delivered in a placating yet softly commanding tone, leaving no doubt as to who would rule the roost once she had a gold band on her finger. “They will not play the three witches because Miss Lambert, Countess Volodymyrovna and Carter Dee – that’s you! – will play the three witches. It is my play. I am directing and I what I say goes.”
“It is not your play,” countered Carter belligerently, staring blankly at his blancs. “It is William Shakespeare’s play.”
Lola sighed expressively, her ample bosom rising and falling to great effect and silent applause from the men. “Must I remind you that it was I who arranged to borrow the costumes from the Edinburgh Playhouse and that it was I who arranged to borrow some scenery from the Glasgow Repertory Company and that it was I who suggested this play in the first place to rescue the golf tournament from imminent disaster.”
Carter had the good sense to wait until the haunch of venison lavishly garnished with roasted vegetables and toasted chestnuts arrived and everyone was expressing exaggerated groans at their expanding girth.
“I could play Macbeth,” he suggested hopefully as soon as the cuisse de chevreuil had been dished out. “I have been studying day and night and know the lines by heart. Hamish Ross will never learn them in time. He will ruin your play by fudging all the important scenes.”
“I’m sorry to have to say this,” said Lola, sounding not a bit, as she put down her knife and fork to stage a dramatic pause, “but you do not have the physical presence. Macbeth is a murderous war general who exudes strength and power and masculinity.”
“If I wear shoulder pads I can look the part,” Carter persisted pathetically. “It’s all down to costume really.”
Lola stared at the effete hands clinging tightly to the silver cutlery to stop from trembling. “I don’t think so,” she delivered bluntly. “It’s about character and voice. And I am sorry to have to say this too but murderous greed and overweening ambition cannot be portrayed by a whiny voice. Macbeth needs to project a forceful and manly tone that then transforms to that of a tortured hell-bent soul otherwise the play is not believable.”
“I cannot see a common ghillie playing a tortured hell-bent soul and being believed,” observed Carter caustically.
Miss Lambert momentarily forgot herself and hoisted her elbows onto the table as she projected herself front and centre. “A common ghillie!” she spluttered hotly. “There is nothing common about being a ghillie! It is a noble profession that calls for vast knowledge and endless energy! Caring for the streams and burns that God gave us and the fish that live in them and the animals that make their homes along the riverbanks is the highest calling!”
All eyes turned to look at the young lady and her cheeks turned cherry pink. She immediately shrank back into the wings and took a gulp of red wine to cool down but it only served to stew the two cherries in their own mortified juices.
Eyes switched back to Carter Dee, everyone was starting to feel sorry for him, even his lordship felt some sympathy.
“You can have my role?” he offered generously, feeling sorry for his earlier fit of distemper, as he washed down a mouthful of venison with a mouthful of excellent grand cru. “I don’t much care for theatrics – by that I mean appearing personally on the stage,” he qualified quickly, smiling lovingly at his fiancée.
Carter shook his head dismally. “No offence, god-father, but your role is really just background. You get killed off fairly quickly. And logic dictates that Duncan should be played by Duncan otherwise there will follow all manner of confusion on the part of the audience.” He delivered this last bit tongue-in-cheek. “I guess I’m stuck with being a witch.”
At this point the conversation ran off at tangents as each dinner guest turned to speak to the person to their left or right. This continued until dessert.
“Who is playing the role of Malcolm?” posed the Countess to no one in particular, spearing a morsel of crepe a l’orange.
“That is I,” replied Mr Larssensen in a throaty timbre. “I am playing Malcolm, the son of Duncan, and I don’t really want to swap roles at this late stage. I’ve been learning my lines all week and I’m afraid I may get hopelessly muddled if I change now.”
“No one is asking you to swap,” assured Miss O’Hara, meeting the Viking’s wolken gaze and holding it for one long moment – a moment that soared above the muted volume and the intangible length.
“Who is playing Banquo?” pursued the Countess.
“I am,” mumbled the other golfer. “It goes with the name, you see! Mr Bancoe and Banquo!” he laughed heartily, spitting jus l’orange across the divide.
“What about Banquo’s son?” asked the doctor, who had spent the duration of dinner desperately trying to recall the dramatis personae from the Scottish play and praying that Seyton had the shortest number of very short lines. “What was his name?”
“Fleance,” supplied Miss Dee who seemed to have a good grasp of the details of just about everything. “Fleance is being played by Mr Brown, the man who caddies for Mr Bancoe.”
“So as not to confuse anyone,” added her brother wryly. “The two go together!”
Everyone laughed, not because his quip was funny but because dinner a la russe had come to an end and they all felt incredibly relieved. A truce could be called between the warring factions. The men could hunker down in the trenches of the billiard room and fortify themselves with port and cigars, and the ladies could retreat to the music room and pacify themselves with coffee and cocoa.
Miss Dee slipped her arm through the Countess’s as they crossed the alabaster entrance hall, a swish of silk and velvet skirts swaying in tandem. “I will give you my copy of the play before you go home tonight. I know my lines by heart and I don’t need it anymore. That way you can start learning your lines right away and familiarize yourself with the scenes. We’re not doing the whole play, just an abridged version of it according to the whim of Lola.”
“Thank you, that’s very thoughtful of you.”
“You don’t mind playing one of the witches, do you?”
“Pas du tout! It sounds like great fun!”
“That’s the spirit!” praised Miss Dee. “My brother tends to take things to heart. Minor injustices that just wash off me have a tendency to eat away at him. I hate to admit it,” she confided, leaning closer to whisper in the Countess’s ear, “and I would never say this to another human being, but, well, Lola was right. He is not a man’s man. He’s a bit of a sissy. You’ve probably noticed how his hands shake. He is such a nervous Nellie. Every little noise appals him and sometimes he even jumps at his own shadow. I fear that if I win the tournament it will shatter his confidence completely.”
“He is so fortunate to have a caring sister to look out for him.”
“I try my best,” sighed Miss Dee. “But I feel as if I am walking on eggshells the whole time. It is a fine line between making a man of him and looking after my own best interests. I don’t think he has ever gotten over the fact I was first born the natural way and he was plucked from our mother’s womb after she actually died on the birthing bed. Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“I’m an only child.”
“You don’t realize how lucky you are. I love my brother dearly, but, well, sometimes I find myself wishing I was an only child. That is such an awful thing to admit. I hope I have not horrified you. It’s just that I feel I can say things to you that I would not be able to reveal to another living soul.” She gave the Countess’s arm a tight, quick, endearing squeeze. “I feel I have known you forever. If only we could have been sisters it would have been so jolly!”
The Countess did not notice that Miss Dee had steered her toward a piano.
“Let’s play a duet,” she suggested enthusiastically.
“Oh, yes!” approved the dowager, parking herself in the seat nearest to the fire. “We could do with some music after that tedious dinner. Such talk would never have been tolerated in my day. Manners have been allowed to slip. Someone needs to take a shotgun and put that disgruntled young man out of his misery!”
“Oh, Lady Moira!” chastised Miss Lambert, pouring the dowager a cup of cocoa. “You don’t really mean that!”
“Oh, yes I do!”
Miss Dee’s flexible fingers suddenly fumbled a couple of ivories on the piano but the Countess managed to cover for her. The growing empathy between the two young women was cemented at that moment. When they ceased playing, Miss Lambert took to the piano. No one noticed that Miss O’Hara had not joined them until it was time for the séance to begin.
“Oh, come sisters!” essayed the dowager. “It is time to speak to the spirit world!”
“Shall I fetch the gentlemen from the billiard room?” asked Miss Lambert helpfully.
“Yes,” replied the dowager. “Direct them to the library. And Miss O’Hara too,” she added with a disapproving scowl. “She will most likely be ingratiating herself with the male members of the household.”
The library was a long narrow room about eighty feet in length with a coffered ceiling and an abundance of wood-panelling. Bookshelves lined one entire wall and large sash windows punctuated the other, double doors stood at either end for ease of entry and exit. Doric columns cleverly delineated what could have been nothing more than a grand corridor into intimate areas dotted with armchairs for reading, desks for letter-writing, library tables and folio cupboards. A quartet of columns also served to define the mid-point of the room which featured a bow window and a massive fireplace with an elaborately carved black marble mantel featuring caryatids, acanthus scrolls, thistles and some intertwined C’s.
It was in the front of this fireplace that a large round table stood with eleven chairs around it. The room had not been electrified for fear of the bright light ruining the antiquarian books, and the Stygian gloom was perfect for inducing dead spirits to rise from their graves.
Lady Moira occupied the throne-like chair facing toward the bow window, her back to the crackling fire. Miss Dee and the Countess sat side by side, directly opposite.
Miss Lambert soon joined them and took the chair to the left of the dowager.
Lord Cruddock and the Rajah arrived next. They chose not to take a seat just yet but chatted quietly in the alcove created by the bow window. His lordship stood with one hand shoved casually into the pocket of his dinner jacket and the other hand wrapped around a whiskey tumbler, giving the semblance of a host who is at ease among his guests but a clenched jaw belied the relaxed air. His eyes kept darting to the double door as though Beelzebub might blow in any minute.
Dr Watson arrived with Mr Bancoe. The doctor immediately chose a seat away from the Countess, which offered a different perspective of the room. If there were going to be any supernatural shenanigans at this séance he wanted to be able to spot them and call their bluff.
This was a fact little known about the good doctor but as well as being a member of the Micawber Club he was also a member of the Ghost Club. He belonged to the Ghost Club not because he believed in ghosts, but because he did not. The name of the club was chosen deliberately for its ironic value. Members were called in whenever someone was convinced their house was haunted or they themselves were the victims of supernatural forces. In every case, there was a human hand behind the paranormal happenstance – hidden wires, fuzzy photographic images, invisible chemical vapours and diabolical imaginations.
Mr Bancoe hovered behind his chair, puffing on a pipe and tugging at his cuffs as he shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, giving the impression of a man whose shoes were the same as his suit – one size too small.
“I’m, er, I’m sorry, Lady Moira,” he stammered nervously, “but I cannot be a party to supernatural soliciting. My father was a Methodist minister and he deplored all things to do with the dark arts and Lucifer and his evil minions. Once the gates of Hell are opened they cannot be closed. My conscience will not allow me to participate in this hocussing and pocussing,” he finished gruffly, spinning on his heel and rushing from the room, flushed with self-righteous embarrassment.
He was moving so swiftly he almost collided with his golfing partner.
Mr Larssensen glanced back over his shoulder as the other whooshed past him like a wayward golf ball with a mind of its own.
“Are you alright, old salt?” Mr Larssensen called with some concern. When he didn’t get an answer he shrugged his substantial Viking shoulders and joined the two men in the alcove.
“Where did you disappear to after dinner?” put his lordship somewhat bluntly as he tossed back a decent measure of whiskey. “We could have used a good snooker player. That god-son of mine is utterly hopeless. Fortunately he didn’t hang around for long.”
“I needed forty winks,” replied the Viking, adjusting his white tie which he suddenly noticed via the overmantel mirror was sitting slightly askew. “I played a shocker today, six over par. I think I need to cut out the late nights and all the rich food.”
Just then the double doors opened at the opposite end of the library and in sashayed Miss O’Hara. Irish eyes flew down the length of the room, scanning the faces of those present before settling on her beloved. “I hope I’m not late,” she offered breathlessly, as she smoothed back her voluptuous red hair.
Lord Cruddock flashed an indulgent smile. “Not at all, darling. Did you decide to have a lie down after dinner?”
“No,” interrupted Carter Dee, speaking for the actress as he followed in her glamorous wake and quietly closed the door. “She was with me. We both had the same idea about checking the costumes for the play. Seyton’s costume should fit Dr Watson without the need for any adjustment but the witch’s cloak for Countess Volodymyrovna may need the hem taking up. Isn’t that what we decided?”
“Yes,” Lola smiled agreeably. “That’s it in a nutshell.”
“Let us proceed,” interrupted the dowager impatiently. “This is not the time to discuss costume fittings. Remove the extra chair, Carter. Finish your whiskey, Duncan. Everyone else, take your seats as you please and remain silent. I sense that the spirits are restless. They wish to communicate with the living and they will not be denied. Join hands and then place them on the table so that the sceptics amongst us will have no cause to doubt that what they are about to witness is genuine and real. Whatever happens, do not speak.”
Ten pairs of hands joined up and rested on the table as instructed by Lady Moira who closed her eyes and began to hum plaintively. Gradually, the mnemonic humming turned into a tuneless chant as she began to sway from side to side. Before long she appeared to fall into a sort of self-induced hypnotic trance. Flickering firelight silhouetted her pale head and shoulders but the effect was anything but halo-like. The wispy white bird’s nest hair seemed to stand on end as if electrified.
Dr Watson remained sceptical. During the last few years many so-called spiritualists or mediums had been exposed as charlatans and fraudsters. Every form of magical trickery and clever chicanery had been employed to deceive and defraud a gullible public desperate to communicate with deceased loved ones. When his beloved Mary had died he too had toyed with the idea of visiting a medium. The chance to say the things he did not have the courage to say when she was dying was overwhelming. And then when his best friend died so unexpectedly and violently at Reichenbach Falls the overwhelming need to communicate a last goodbye became unbearable. He sought out the most famous medium in London – Madame Moghra.
He had wanted to believe and it was this wanting that transcended not only his rational sense but plain old common-sense as well. When someone cried out that the table was levitating, and those around him voiced their accord, he had believed it too even though he knew the table top was exactly level with the point of his body where it had been when he first sat down. When a phosphorescent green cat appeared at the window sill and a chorus of shocked gasps followed he thought of Stapleton’s trick with the gigantic hound, but still he wanted to believe. When a ghostly image of a child appeared in the mirror he thought about Sherlock’s old friend, Dr Savernake, and the amazing feats he could achieve with his photographic equipment. But still he wanted to believe. And so he convinced himself it was all above board. It was a full three years later that he discovered he was not only being deceived but was in fact deceiving himself. Madame Moghra had done her homework. Her accomplices had been thorough and played their parts well. The Spiritualist knew everything that anyone could know. But she did not know what she could not. In 1894 he promptly joined the Ghost Club.
He wasn’t sure what to expect with Lady Moira, but if she had an accomplice it could only be his wife’s niece, Miss Adeline Lambert. That notion both upset and distracted him. He spent much of the time watching the young lady from the corner of his eye when he should probably have been watching elsewhere. However, there did not appear to be any hidden wires for the purposes of levitation, no ghostly images were reflected in the mirror, there materialized no phantom phosphorescent cats, neither did any invisible vapours waft through the darksome air, nor did any strange smells infuse the library. There was not even any rapping – a sure-fire favourite of credulous devotees. Lady Moira appeared merely to serve as a simple conduit for the spirit world. Her humming and swaying increased in tack and pitch like a tempest-tossed yacht in a squall until she almost pitched herself out of her chair. There was a collective gasp but everyone heeded the warning not to speak and pulses were quickly calmed.
And so it started – Lady Moira channelled the spirit world:
“The Pictish Raven croaks hoarse,
Blueblood o’er runs the course,
Weep for the woad,
Reap what you sowed.”
The voice grew more strange and cobwebby.
“The Celtic Raven croaks hoarse,
Redblood o’er runs the course,
Weep for the dead,
They will warm your bed.”
The voice was now so feeble it was barely audible and almost disappeared down its own throat like a dying echo under water.
“The Sacred Raven croaks hoarse,
Holyblood o’er runs the course,
Weep for the bones,
Buried mid the stones.”
Lady Moira did a commendable job changing her voice for each spirit but there was no denying that the sentiments expressed by the spirit world were her sentiments too. She wanted the golf tournament halted and the Lammas moor turned back to how it was when she first set eyes on it as a young bride. It was widely understood that the old disliked change but change was inevitable. Time and tide and life move on whether one liked it or not.
Dr Watson hoped the séance might move on too. He suppressed a yawn as his mind drifted. He thought about Graymalkin and his bedroom at the top of the peel tower around which the wind whistled like a lonely banshee, where he had left a fire crackling in the ancient stone hearth so that the room would be toasty warm for his return. He yearned for the bed, the tower, the room, the fire and…
Something cold brushed the back of his neck. He put it down to a draught and checked to make sure the doors were still closed. Indeed they were, yet he could have sworn the room was suddenly colder, and not just by a few degrees. The library felt like an ice house. He checked the fire. It was still faintly flickering but the coals seemed to be giving off no heat.
He felt it again, a cold sensation on the back of his neck. This time it travelled down his spine like a creeping spider, no, more like a hundred spiders, yes, as if a hundred spiders had crawled inside his clothes and were scuttling down his back. Without moving his head, his eyes roved around the circle of faces. He could see everyone clearly except the two people either side of him – his lordship and the Rajah of Govinda. Each face looked pale and ghost-like, all eyes were transfixed on Lady Moira who had fallen silent and whose white head suddenly sagged forward as though she were dead, the eerie glow behind her was like the deathly hallows surrounding a corpse.
For a brief moment he wondered if perhaps she might in fact be dead when she gave a demented cry, louder than any mythical banshee, and lifted her head. Her eyelids flew open. Everyone gasped and caught their breath, including him.
Suddenly she began to speak, but not in any voice they had previously heard. This voice was portentous and deep, like the booming voice of someone stuck down a well, crying for help.
“The whitebird calls tomorrow,
The redbird smiles hollow,
The blackbird cries sorrow,
The bluebird will follow.”
Miss O’Hara suddenly clutched at her own breast and cried out as if in pain. She appeared to swoon and would surely have tumbled sideways out of her chair but for the fact the chairs were grouped so tightly together. She slumped sideways and was caught by Carter Dee. He supported her by the shoulders until her fiancé could rush around the table. Lord Cruddock then scooped her up and transported her to the nearest armchair where he continued to kneel anxiously by her side, patting her hand and murmuring soothing platitudes.
Dr Watson hurried to her side to check for a pulse but without his medical bag which housed his stethoscope and some smelling salts there was nothing more he could do. He held her other wrist and counted the faint beats.
Miss Dee, practical as ever, ran to the bell pull to summon a servant then began to light the candles.
Mr Dee threw a log on the fire then lit two cigarettes and handed one to his sister.
Mr Larssensen puffed nervily on a cigarette as he paced the bow window.
Countess Volodymyrovna and the Rajah exchanged concerned glances as they too lit up some gaspers.
Miss Lambert, who did not smoke, fanned her flushed face with her hand.
No one remembered Lady Moira until they heard a clunk.
“Oh, good heavens!” cried Miss Lambert as her mistress banged her white-coiffed head on the table. “Is she, er, is she dead, Uncle John?” she stammered when Dr Watson rushed back to the séance table.
“It’s alright,” he said in a reassuring tone, discerning a weak pulse in Lady Moira’s carotid artery. “No one is dead. The two ladies have merely fainted.” He glanced down the length of the room and realized that the icebox had turned into an oven full of acrid fumes. His sights shifted to the Norwegian pacing the bow window. “For goodness sake, man! Open a window! Fresh air and ventilation is what we need!”
By the time the butler arrived with a tray of refreshments the panic had passed. The two ladies had been revived and Dr Watson began to breathe easier. He was loath to admit it to anyone but he had believed, albeit briefly, that perhaps one or both of the ladies had indeed died.
Miss O’Hara, slightly dazed and dizzy, waved away the glass of brandy proffered by Mr Larssensen and managed with the help of her fiancé to climb the stairs to her bedroom.
Lady Moira, however, insisted on downing a large brandy before undertaking the short carriage drive to Mawgate Lodge. “Did the spirits speak?” she asked of Miss Lambert.
“Oh, yes, Lady Moira,” the young woman gushed. “They were quite magnificent!”
“What did they say?” the old lady quizzed.
“You mean you don’t know?” said Dr Watson incredulously, helping himself to a generous measure of brandy to fortify himself for the cold journey home.
“Of course I don’t know!” Lady Moira returned indignantly, rubbing her forehead. “What sort of doctor are you? I was in a catatonic state. I had hypnotized myself. How could I possibly know what was said after I went into a trance!”
“There were three spirits,” explained Miss Lambert quickly. “A Pict, a Celt and I think the last one was a monk from Lammas Abbey. They spoke in rhyming couplets. It was very poetic and exciting! They pleaded to be remembered and pitied. And then…”
“Yes?” prompted the old lady.
Miss Lambert’s auburn brows drew down in a very pretty bother. “Well, it is hard to describe what was said next. It was very cryptic. I’m not sure that I understood it.”
“Repeat it,” directed the other sternly. “Verbatim.”
“It was something about birds. Oh, dear, I cannot remember exactly. When Miss O’Hara swooned it gave me a fright and everything just flew right out of my mind.”
The Countess, who was enjoying a coffee and a quiet conversation with the Rajah of Govinda, remembered it perfectly and recited:
“The whitebird calls tomorrow,
The redbird smiles hollow,
The blackbird cries sorrow,
The bluebird will follow.”
Lady Moira nodded knowingly and smiled strangely.
“What did you make of our evening at Cruddock Castle?” Dr Watson put to his companion when they were in the landau trundling back to Graymalkin under the cover of midnight clouds that blotted out the astrological vault.
“I hardly know where to start.”
“Start with the dramatis personae, I mean, the cast of characters, I mean, the other guests. What impression did you gain?”
“Well, the Rajah of Govinda has set his sights on making me his fourth wife.”
“What! That is not even relevant! Not to mention totally absurd! How could you possibly know something like that after spending a few hours in the man’s company?”
“A woman always knows.”
“Ah, of course! Female intuition!”
“That term which you just trotted out so derisorily is more or less a way of explaining how the subconscious mind overrides the rational part of the brain, picking up signals that would otherwise pass unnoticed by the five senses which are busy keeping up with logical thought.”
He did not want to get embroiled in an argument about suffragette-ist mumbo-jumbo at this late hour. “I will yield to your definition for the time being. Let’s get back to your impression of the other guests.”
“Lola O’Hara is pregnant.”
His jaw dropped. “Did she confide in you after dinner?”
“I surmised it for myself.”
“Oh, this is too much! You are trying to rile me!”
“Pas du tout. If I wanted to rile you I would tell you that she slipped upstairs with her lover after dinner for un moment d’amour while everyone else was distracted.”
“That is scandalous! It borders on slander! What lover? And, and, even if it were true why should it rile me?”
“Because you were panting after her like a lovelorn puppy.”
“Now you are being deliberately provocative!”
“I cannot help it if you cannot accept the truth when you hear it.”
He drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Very well, tell me how you could possibly know she slipped upstairs with her lover?”
“Both she and Mr Larssensen arrived late to the library but from separate doors so as not to invite suspicion by arriving together via the same door. Both had their hair and clothes in slight disarray. The first person she looked for when she entered was the Viking and then her fiancé.”
“That is false and I can prove it,” he said with conviction. “Mr Dee arrived straight after Miss O’Hara and announced they had been checking the costumes together.”
The Countess gave a tinkly laugh of genuine amusement. “You didn’t believe that fairy story! Mark my words! Mr Dee will soon have a starring role in the play.”
“Miss O’Hara was adamant he would play a witch. And she didn’t strike me as the sort of woman who changes her mind once her mind is made up. What else did you notice?”
“Lord Cruddock is not the father of her child.”
Dr Watson slapped the side of his head and groaned. “You have not yet explained how you even know she is pregnant and now you profess to know who the father of the child is not!”
“Calm down. Your grammar is starting to slip. I know she is pregnant because she did not eat any calves’ liver. And she did not drink more than a mouthful of either the red or white wine. And she waved away the brandy that was proffered to her after fainting. And she found the smell of the black pudding overpowering and offensive because her nose wrinkled up at it and she appeared to gag. And when we first arrived and she held out her hand to you, which you salivated over like a drooling puppy, she rested the other hand on her belly, a tell-tale sign that a woman is with child. And her waist and breasts are much larger than in her photo. And her ankles are swollen.”
He needed a moment to take it all in and didn’t reply for a minute or two. “Your reasoning is nothing more than conjecture. Circumstantial evidence hardly amounts to proof. And I did not salivate!”
“You wanted an impression. I gave you one. Shall I tell you why I think Lord Cruddock is not the father of her child?”
“Oh, very well! Why not!”
“Lord Cruddock is fifty years of age or thereabouts yet he has never fathered a child though he has been linked with a string of ineligible women. Most wealthy bachelors would have sired a schoolroom of illegitimate waifs by age fifty. Recall the Duke of Chasleton, the Earl of Lomond, Viscount Devereaux and all the royal bastards throughout history. Baron Dunravin has not fathered a single one.”
“Who told you this?”
“When I befriended her in the lounge car of The Royal Scot.”
“You believe her?”
“Yes, though I admit she did not state it in exactly those terms.”
“Oh, I see! What terms did she state it in?”
“Mind your grammar,” she reminded, sounding just like his mother when he was a boy of eight and had trouble parsing. “She described how her father and his lordship grew up together on the Cruddock estate. They were inseparable friends. Mr Crawford Dee, her father, was the son of the ghillie. The ghillie hailed from an ancient and highly respected Scottish family that had fallen on hard times – Lairds of Colcquoun. Her father, rather than following in his own father’s footsteps, went to South Africa to make his fortune when such fortunes were still easy to make. He quickly became one of the richest men on the Cape but he was an inveterate gambler and a poor speculator and just as quickly lost it all and shot himself. Over the years Lord Cruddock was a regular visitor to South Africa and it was openly discussed and understood by all parties concerned that because he would never sire any children of his own he would be both god-father to and ward of his best friend’s off-spring.”
“I see,” murmured the doctor. “The implication there is that if not for his engagement to Miss O’Hara the Dee twins would have been his sole beneficiaries.”
“Miss Dee did not say so directly but I took that to be the case.”
“Do you think the Dees know that Miss O’Hara is pregnant?”
The Countess did not need to think for long. “Yes,” she said. “Catherine Dee is extremely observant and perspicacious. And I believe she would share her observations with her brother, which means he would be aware of it too, though…” she stopped mid-stream – unusual for her.
“Though?” prompted the doctor.
“Well, there is something odd about Carter Dee.”
“Odd? In what way?”
“I’m not sure. I cannot put my finger on it. It’s just a feeling I have. There is more to him than meets the eye, and, well, I would not like to have an assignation with him alone after dark.” She gave a perceptible shiver then laughed softly to make light of the unnerving sensation. “I think a ghost just walked on my grave.”
Gently, he placed his hand on top of hers where it rested on the seat. “Tread carefully,” he warned. “We cannot allow ourselves to forget there have been three murders already. And, yes, there is no doubt they were murders.”
“Oh, Dammit!” she exclaimed suddenly.
His hand shot back like a jack-in-the-box. “What is it?”
“I just remembered Miss Dee forgot to give me her copy of the play. With all that weird business in the library and the fainting spells, it must have skipped her mind. I will have to return to Cruddock Castle tomorrow and collect it. I might walk instead of taking the landau. I can check out the abbey ruins on my way. I can even start learning my lines on the way home. Oh! It will be so thrilling to be on stage with the famous Lola O’Hara. Just think of it!”
“Yes,” he muttered, feeling sick at the mere thought. “Just think of it.”
The carriage entered Jackdaw Wood and neither said anything further. The dark wood was a place of reverential hush and it had that same hushing effect on those who entered it. Even the night seemed to hold its breath. There was no whooshing sound of the wind through the trees, no hoot from an owl, no cries of a vixen. The only sound was that of the slow rolling wheels of the carriage but even that was muffled by the miry ground cushioned by centuries of leaf litter and moss.
Once they came out on the other side of the wood moonlight broke through the clouds and glanced off the inky water of Loch Maw. It limned the pock-marked stones of Graymalkin, squatting on its impregnable piece of bedrock in the shadows of the riverbank. Fedir and Xenia took the landau and the horses into the barn where Horace had chosen to sleep to protect his precious property from horse thieves while the doctor and the Countess hurried across the footbridge.
They had crossed the courtyard and had reached the flight of steps when they heard a murmur of voices. At the foot of the steps was a tiny window, not much bigger than a leper’s squint, set into the thickness of the stone. It provided a glimpse into the kitchen. The doctor, dreaming of his warm bed and his toasty fire, quickly mounted the steps but the Countess, ever curious, paused. The pane of glass was thick and grimy. It was like peering through a magnifying lens held at the wrong distance. The edges of the room were bathed in gloom but in the heart of the kitchen, in the middle of a round table, winked a pale and lonely candle set in a simple pewter holder. The moony halo of golden light cast a ghostly glow over the threesome who sat hunched around the little table studying what appeared to be a map.
Wearing a warm, winter Redingote, cut en princesse, Countess Volodymyrovna set off on foot for Cruddock Castle straight after breakfast, her mind ticking over Mrs Ross’s claim that there had been only one visitor to Graymalkin the previous evening.
“Only my sister, Mrs Ardkinglas, paid a call last night,”
The Countess initially pressed the point, for she was certain a third person had been sitting at the kitchen table, though she could not say who it was since that person was wearing a hooded cloak and had their back to the grimy glass.
“It was only my cloak hanging on the back of the chair,” dismissed Mrs Ross. “A witchy wax-light can conjure queer shadows that play tricks on the eye, especially when you steal a gledge through wonky glass,” she added with conviction. “It was past midnight and you had had a long day, madame, and a big night at the castle too, and were just imagining a third person.”
“You appeared to be studying a map,” persisted the Countess.
“My sister is thinking of travelling to Berwick-on-Tweed at Christmastime and I was showing her the shortest route on my map.”
“Oh, what a stroke of luck! I have a hopeless sense of direction,” the Countess lied. “Could I borrow your map for today?”
“I am sorry, madame. My sister took the map away with her last night.”
Gingerly, the Countess crossed at the shallowest point of Fickle Beck, lifting her Redingote above the water while leaping from stone to stone, wondering why someone who had lived in an area for years would need a map to visit a main town like Berwick. Moreover, why would an hotelier on the brink of bankruptcy close their hotel during the Christmas season?
The Countess had just crossed Widdershins Brig and reached the edge of the golf course when she met Miss Dee, who immediately handed her the copy of the play she had promised to give her the previous night, plus a second copy she had managed to secure for Dr Watson.
“How is Miss O’Hara’s health this morning?” enquired the Countess after pocketing the two plays and thanking her friend most sincerely.
“She is still in her bed. She claims to have a frightful headache but I suspect it may be something else.”
Miss Dee smiled knowingly. “Oh, it is lovely to be able to talk to someone who does not dissemble. Yes, she is with child. We probably won’t see her until rehearsal time. That is the other reason I came to see you. I offered to pass on the message that there will be a rehearsal this evening. Arrive at 5 o’clock and make sure you have something to eat first and try to study your lines this afternoon. Miss O’Hara is short-tempered with anyone who fluffs their entrance. A buffet supper will be served afterwards so it will be another late night. Mr Bancoe is grumbling into his beard and Mr Larssensen is gnashing his fangs because the tournament restarts tomorrow and they will be the first to tee-off.”
“I feel guilty that I have dragged you away from your game. I know how important the tournament is to you and you must be eager to try out your new clubs. I apologise for making you come all this way.”
“No need to apologise. I am younger than the two men and I am quite fit. This walk is nothing compared to the miles I covered on the veldt. This afternoon I shall play eighteen holes and still have energy to spare for rehearsals.”
“I’ll walk back with you as far as the abbey ruin if you like. I’d like the chance to explore it at my leisure. By the way, do you happen to have a map of the wider area?”
“A map? No. But you cannot possibly get lost. There are only four main roads. The north road leads to Edinburgh, the south to Duns, west to Peebles and east will take you to Berwick-on-Tweed. The smaller roads circle round but eventually all lead back to Loch Maw. If you are thinking of doing some rambling I wouldn’t mind joining you but I cannot set off until after the tournament. Oh, there are my two main rivals.” Miss Dee halted and pointed in a nor-easterly direction. “Can you see the four figures in the hollow? Mr Bancoe has just teed off from the tenth and his partner and the two caddies are waiting by the cluster of trees. Let’s walk briskly so that they don’t catch up to us.”
Arm in arm, they began weaving through a spinney of silver birches when the Countess recalled the death of Peter Lancaster. “Is this where the Australian player died?”
Miss Dee stopped abruptly and dropped her arm, there was something chilling in her sideways glance. “Yes, how did you know?”
“I read it in the newspaper. A tree branch fell on him – is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right. It was such bad luck. He was a player who had a lot of potential.”
“The tournament was halted after that, I believe?”
“Yes, some detectives arrived from Scotland Yard and wanted to know where everyone was at the time and that sort of thing. But it was just the hand of Fate. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time – an unfortunate accident, nothing more. It could have been any one of us.”
“Indeed.” The Countess sensed now was not the time to pursue the circumstances of the other two deaths. There had been something repellent in the pale blue orbs. “It doesn’t bear thinking about,” she muttered, walking ahead.
The romantic ruins of the abbey came into view as soon as they emerged from the spinney, and so did a lively Gordon setter. The dog came bounding around a corner where some gothic tracery that had once been a church window and had miraculously managed to withstand the ravages of several hundred Scottish winters was still intact. The dog sprinted toward them and it appeared to be a very friendly animal, not aggressive toward strangers, and beautifully cared for. Its glossy black and tan coat gleamed as it caught the cold rays of mid-morning.
“This is Thane,” said Miss Dee, giving the dog a vigorous pat. “He belongs to Hamish Ross. If Thane is here it means Hamish will be nearby. I will leave you to explore the abbey on your own. Make sure you climb the stones up to what is left of the bell tower. There is a little parapet at the top. It offers a superb view over the loch and the golf course. See you later tonight.”
The Countess watched Miss Dee take a shortcut across an ancient graveyard. She clearly knew the area well enough to stray from the given path. The young woman covered about a hundred yards then turned back to wave before disappearing behind a mass of fallen stones.
The bell tower wasn’t difficult to locate since the stack of stones that formed some makeshift steps also formed the tallest part of the abbey ruins. Thane followed her but when she began to clamber up the massive blocks he began to bark. She tried to coax him up but he began to whimper.
“Scaredy cat!” she teased when he ran off.
From the top of the parapet she began to soak up the glorious panorama of Loch Maw and the Marmion Hydro Hotel on the opposite bank when she spotted two people half-hidden in the shelter of a ruined arch, locked in an ardent embrace. Quickly she ducked down so they didn’t think she was spying on them. She assumed it might be Miss O’Hara and Mr Larssensen, but then she remembered the dog. The man had to be Hamish Ross. But who was the woman?
Slowly, she began to clamber back down the steps when the man called out angrily.
“Hey! What are you doing up there?”
His voice shattered the spiritual silence of the place, setting off an explosion of blackbirds who took to the sky in such numbers they momentarily darkened it. Birds circled around her in frenzied flight and she almost lost her balance.
“Don’t move! Stay still!”
Sprinting across the overgrown cloister, thick with weeds and thistles, hurdling blocks of fallen masonry, he clambered up the masonry before she could complete her descent. She thought he might be about to rebuke her vis-à-vis but he held out his hand as he braced his legs, balancing one foot on each of two separate stone blocks that teetered unsteadily.
“There’s nowt supporting this ledge! Take my hand!”
Thane, sensing danger, began barking ferociously.
“Take my hand!” her rescuer repeated urgently. “And don’t make any sudden moves!”
She placed her hand in his and gradually he eased her down one block at a time, carefully testing each stone with his own weight before guiding her onto it, manoeuvring himself backwards the whole time.
“Steady now. Steady as she goes,” he said with each uncertain step until she was back on terra firma – heart thrashing so fiercely she thought it might burst.
“What the hell made you climb those stones?” he rebuked, wiping the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand now that the peril has passed and Thane had ceased his frantic barking.
The Countess felt momentarily tongue-tied. She couldn’t very well blurt out that Miss Dee had recommended the view from the parapet. Though why had she? Did she know it was dangerous? Did she send her up there deliberately?
“I, er, I thought it might offer a good view of the loch,” she stuttered, heart still jammed in her throat, thrashing madly. “I, er, I didn’t realize it was unsafe.”
“Unsafe!” He took hold of her elbow and forced her around the heap of rubble to the other side where the topmost stone projected, suspended in fresh air. “It’s an accident waiting to happen!” he growled, stepping back from the stones and looking earnestly at the figure emerging sheepishly from behind a wall. “I will have some of the men dismantle this stack of stones before there is a fourth death! You can mention my intent to Lady Moira, but don’t allow her to embroil you in an argument on my account. Let me handle her objections. And don’t mention my plan to his lordship. I will speak to him personally.”
Miss Lambert nodded to show she understood before turning to the Countess. “I don’t think you have been introduced,” she said, cheeks turning cherry pink. “Countess Volodymyrovna may I present Mr Hamish Ross, the ghillie from Cruddock Castle.”
Ah! Of course! Miss Lambert’s passionate defence of ghillies suddenly made sense! She had assumed Hamish Ross to be the brother or uncle of Mrs Ross, but that was clearly not the case. Hamish Ross was about thirty years of age, strong and muscular, with a hardy handsome countenance and a mane of reddish-blond hair that is often called strawberry and goes hand in hand with a sprinkling of freckles.
“Thank you for rescuing me,” the Countess offered with terrific understatement when she could trust her voice not to stutter. “I hate to think what might have happened if you had not been present. You must be Mrs Ross’s son?”
He whistled for his dog, which came bounding instantly to his side. “I’m heading to Graymalkin now to see my mother. I’ll walk with you if you are going back that way and have no objection.”
“I was on my way to Graymalkin too,” interposed Miss Lambert, cheeks glowing, “when I bumped by chance into Mr Ross. Lady Moira sent me to invite you to afternoon tea – 4 o’clock at Mawgate Lodge – and Dr Watson too, of course,” she added with a flustered smile. “Lady Moira believes that if we fortify ourselves with sandwiches and teacake and cups of Mr Twining before going to Cruddock Castle for the rehearsal we will survive Miss O’Hara’s tongue lashing. Miss O’Hara can be a bit of martinet when it comes to rehearsals and she will not allow supper to be served until about nine or ten o’clock when we are all famished and dying of thirst and totally exasperated with our failings to please her. I’ll walk with you and say hello to Uncle John.”
“Martinet!” Mr Ross laughed harshly as they set off, Thane leading the way. “Miss O’Hara is more like a Witchfinder General pricking everyone with a sharp-tongued bodkin to make them bleed!”
Miss Lambert and Mr Ross were invited to stay to lunch, a hearty Scotch broth, but they did not linger long at table which was for the best. It gave the Countess and the doctor time to study their lines. They retreated to separate quarters and stayed put until it was time to change into evening clothes. But the Countess’s focus was not all it could have been. Her mind kept circling back to the moment they entered the kitchen and found Mrs Ross studying a piece of paper on the kitchen table. The housekeeper had scooped up the paper and shoved it into a dresser drawer but not before the Countess had caught a glimpse of it. She was certain it was the same paper as the night before because of its size, and though it had a tracery of lines all over it, it did not appear to be a map. The lines appeared to be in the shape of a large tree!
Jackdaw Wood loomed ahead of them and each time it seemed more and more like driving a carriage through an empty cathedral. The reverential hush, the pillars of trees, the lofty vaulted canopy, the feeling of being in a sacred place – all these things impressed themselves on the mind by degrees.
Emerging from the wood reinforced the sensation. They came out of the woody darkness into what seemed like a blaze of light, the same as lurching from the dimness of a church into blinding daylight. They were passing the Marmion Hydro Hotel, no intention of stopping, the horses picking up speed, when they spotted the caddy for Mr Larssensen sprinting down the drive, frantically waving his arms, signalling for them to halt. Fedir jerked on the reins.
“What is it?” called Dr Watson, poking his head out of the carriage window.
“There’s been an accident!” the caddy shouted, breathless with running. “It’s Mr Brown!”
Dr Watson immediately flung open the door and told the caddy to hop inside, instructing Fedir to detour to the hotel.
“What has happened?” the doctor pressed as the horses galloped down the drive.
“Mr Brown fell down the old well! They are dragging him up as we speak!”
“I see,” murmured the doctor gravely, wondering how such a thing was possible. Old wells usually had a cover to avoid exactly such accidents. “It is Mr MacDuff, is it not?”
“Yes,” the man confirmed, still panting.
“My name is Dr John Watson.”
“I know who you are,” replied the caddy. “I recognized your name on the hotel register when you first arrived. But it is not because you are a doctor that I decided to hail you down when I spotted your carriage. I know that you partnered the famous detective, Mr Sherlock Holmes, and I thought you might be able to shed some light on the death of Mr Brown.”
“Death?” echoed the doctor as the carriage pulled up in a flurry of dust and they all leapt out, including the Countess who had listened to the brief exchange without interrupting.
Mr Brown’s accident was the fourth fatal accident since the tournament commenced, and the Countess quickly realised it might well have been the fifth if not for the timely intervention of Mr Hamish Ross, though she did not share that realization with her friend.
They passed through a secluded gate set in a stone wall at the rear of the hotel and stopped dead. Five men were tugging on a rope, hauling up a body with a heave-ho like sailors raising anchor. The old well was set in the paving stones just outside the kitchen, and yes, to one side was a wooden cover that could not have moved itself. The body came up with one last heave and plopped onto the stones like a giant fish stuck on the end of a giant hook. In reality, the hook protruded through the man’s thigh which was oozing blood and gore, indicating the body had not been long down the well. It was covered with filth and slime. Closer examination revealed that the large hook was in fact a meat hook, the sort used for hanging carcasses in a salting room.
“Good God!” the doctor exclaimed with disgust. “Was there no other way to retrieve the body?”
“None,” replied a man with a hare-lip, speaking for all. “The well is not as deep as it used to be since the cover went on but it has always been narrow, built for one bucket at a time, and the winding mechanism was removed some years ago.”
The doctor turned to the Countess. “You may wish to go inside and join Mrs Ardkinglas. This is not a pretty sight.”
She met his gaze with defiant determination. “This is nothing compared to what we witnessed in Devon,” she reminded reproachfully.
“So be it,” he said, recognizing the futility of entering into an argument he had no chance of winning. “Who removed the cover from the well?” he asked of the hare-lip man.
“It was already removed,” said hare-lip.
“Well, it didn’t remove itself,” pointed out the doctor. “Someone must have shifted it.”
“Yes,” agreed hare-lip, setting off a snigger of smiles among the other men.
“Who discovered the body?” addressed the Countess sternly before the men got too cocky and started running rings around them.
“Me,” said a shy lad who had been hanging back by the kitchen doorway, he looked about twelve years of age. “I was taking slops out to the pigs and saw the cover pushed to one side and peered down the well and saw a pair of boots poking up with some legs attached to ‘em.”
There was another chorus of sniggers followed by: Good lad, Robbie. Brave lad. Bonny boy. You did good, young Robert. The boy coloured and smiled with embarrassment.
“Can you say how long ago this was?” pursued the Countess.
Robbie’s brow puckered and he shook his head. “I cried out right away but I cannot say how much time has passed since. There was a lot of folk coming and going to have a stare, even Mrs Ardkinglas came out and it made her ill to look on it, she cupped her mouth and ran inside, and then someone shouted for me to fetch a rope and then someone shouted to fetch a big meat hook. I was running to and fro and forgot all about the pigs.”
The Countess opened her beaded evening purse. “Come here, Robbie,” she said. “I am going to give you a shilling for being brave and acting sensibly.” When he stepped up proud as punch to collect his shilling she whispered in his ear. “I will give you another shilling if you can remember anything else about what you saw or what was said. I don’t want you to tell me now. I want you to think on it and come to me when you are ready. I am staying at Graymalkin. Do you know how to find it?”
The young boy slipped the shiny shilling into his pocket and nodded. “Yes, m’lady,” he whispered back.
“Good lad,” she smiled luminously. “And if you keep it a secret between us there will be a third shilling in it.”
Dr Watson took over the interrogation. “Did anyone witness this accident?”
His question set off a series of sniggers that culminated in several loud grunts and snorts.
“Accident!” mocked hare-lip. “It weren’t no accident! A man don’t plunge headfirst down a well in broad daylight by accident! He were pushed!”
Dr Watson scowled at his own stupidity and addressed himself to the other caddy. “When was the last time you saw Mr Brown?”
Mr MacDuff who had been observing proceedings keenly, stepped forward. He seemed to have his reply at the ready and it was rich in detail. “We caddied eighteen holes this morning and returned to the hotel for our lunch. It had just gone midday. After lunch, Mr Brown and I had a cigarette out on the east terrace because Mrs Ardkinglas does not like us to smoke in the dining room or in our bedrooms. There was no cold wind so we enjoyed a second cigarette. After that, I went upstairs to have a kip and I presumed Mr Brown did the same. I was woken by the young lad when he screamed out. That’s my room up there.” He pointed to an open window on the second floor. “I looked at my pocket watch. It was twenty minutes past three. I put on my boots and rushed down the stairs and recognized the boots down the well as those belonging to Mr Brown. I shouted the order to get a rope. Someone else shouted for a meat hook. I do not know who that was. As the rope and hook were being fetched I spotted your carriage through the open gate and ran as fast as I could to flag you down.”
“Thank you,” said Dr Watson. “May I commend you on a most thorough account of events in timely order? But I take it by your words that you do not know what caused Mr Brown to come into the kitchen courtyard?”
“No,” said Mr MacDuff with a sorry shake of his head.
“I spotted a poacher in the wood today,” volunteered one of the men.
Dr Watson spun round to look at the speaker with the large axe at his feet. “What is your name?”
“Ned, sir. I am the wood chopper,” he replied respectfully, doffing his cloth cap, noting the doctor’s eyes resting on the axe. “I saw a man in Crow Wood. He was moving furtive-like. I thought he might be a poacher but he coulda been a robber.”
Several of the men murmured and nodded their heads. They thought this villain lurking in the woods settled the matter. Though why a robber would choose to remove a wooden cover from a well and shove a complete stranger down it head first is a question they did not ask themselves. A robber might kill to avoid being apprehended but he would choose a much more straightforward method so that he could make a run for it back into the wood before being discovered. No, the explanation did nothing to clarify matters.
Dr Watson checked his pocket watch. Time was ticking away and daylight was fast fading and he was mindful of not incurring the wrath of Lady Moira by arriving any later than they already would do. And he could not make a close examination of the body without soiling his clothes and arriving at Cruddock Castle covered in fetid slime, thus upsetting Miss O’Hara’s rehearsal. He turned back to Mr MacDuff who had given the impression of being a man with common-sense, able to think on his feet.
“I cannot stay any longer discussing this matter. I have business elsewhere,” he announced in clipped tones. “I will return tomorrow to examine the body. I am entrusting you and Ned to transport the body of Mr Brown into the cellar. I want the cellar locked and I want you to hold the key until I call for it. Do not let it out of your sight. I want the cover left exactly where it is lies now. No one is to touch anything. Please inform Mrs Ardkinglas that I want Mr Brown’s bedroom door locked and I want no one to enter the room until I give the say so. Any man or woman who fails to follow my instructions will have to answer to Scotland Yard when they arrive to investigate this murder. Yes, murder,” he stressed volubly, putting the wind up the men assembled in the courtyard by invoking The Yard who most likely would not turn up at all, and the only person to look into the death would be the easily intimidated constable from Duns.
“Would you like me to hold onto the bedroom key too?” asked Mr MacDuff.
“Yes,” said Dr Watson.
“And would you like me to take the names of the men gathered here?” continued Mr MacDuff, proving his worth. “I have a notebook and a pencil in my pocket. I use them for keeping score at golf.”
“Yes, indeed!” said Dr Watson. “Scotland Yard will be interested to interview everyone and will want the names of the men who are present. Well done, Mr MacDuff. I leave matters in your capable hands. I will inform his lordship of what has transpired here this afternoon and I will inform Mr Bancoe that he no longer has a caddy. I will return first thing tomorrow.”
“Do you think that was wise?” posed the Countess when they were back in the carriage, heading north once more.
“How do you mean?” queried the doctor.
“Leaving Mr MacDuff in charge,” she clarified. “For all we know he could be the murderer. He had ample opportunity to shove Mr Brown down the well and there could be any number of motives.”
“He may be jealous of his counterpart or jealous of the other golfers because he is a golfing tragic who never quite made the mark and begrudges them their success. Or he may want to sabotage the golf tournament for reasons of personal vengeance against his lordship – a lot of crofter families were forced to leave their homes and many ended up in workhouses when sheep farming on a large scale became more profitable for the landowners – or because he is a Spiritualist who believes the Lammas moor is a sacred site that should be left undisturbed.”
“Or he may simply be a madman who enjoys killing,” gibed Dr Watson.
She bit her tongue while she digested the sardonic retort but the matter of the fourth death overrode her bruised ego. “This death is different to the others.”
“There was no Wicca connection. I scanned the courtyard several times searching for some sort of symbol but try as I might I could not spot anything to do with witchcraft.”
“Someone may have destroyed it before we arrived,” he suggested.
“It is vital that you don’t drop any hint of it when you question the men tomorrow, and don’t eliminate Mrs Ardkinglas from your inquisition, though I think it will be young Robbie who may be the most forthcoming. He won’t be on his guard like the men, he has nothing to hide, and he was first on the scene. If something symbolic of witchcraft was removed he would be the one to know it. I bribed him with an extra shilling and encouraged him to come to Graymalkin.”
“Shilling or no, he may be too frightened to walk through Jackdaw Wood. I can question him tomorrow before I speak to anyone else.”
She shook her head firmly. “No, don’t quiz him at all. I don’t want any of the men, including MacDuff, to think that the boy remembers anything other than what he has already imparted. If he doesn’t turn up at Graymalkin by the day after tomorrow I shall pay him a discrete visit.”
Mawgate Lodge was an old stone gatehouse that had recently been extended to accommodate the dowager and her retinue of servants after the old lady announced she would not deign to live under the same roof as that Irish actress. It could best be described as a stately cottage – large but not grand, homely rather than ornate – the recent addition constructed in the traditional manner by craftsmen who took pride in simplicity rather than ostentation. It was a handsome and sturdy house that sat comfortably in its rural setting and was a perfect example of the architectural principles espoused by proponents of the Arts and Crafts Society, a new style that was proving more popular in Scotland than in England.
They settled in the south parlour, furnished in an unfussy style in keeping with the clean and uncluttered lines of the house, which gave onto the loch via a bay window and on a clear day offered a good view of Graymalkin at the opposite end.
Dr Watson felt torn between not spoiling the afternoon tea by mentioning the murder or mentioning it and thereby learning something useful from the two women. The latter won.
“I must tender an apology,” he began tentatively. “The Countess and I arrived late because we were called upon to detour to the Marmion Hydro Hotel. Mr Brown was this afternoon found dead.”
“Found dead!” rasped Lady Moira. “By that I take it you mean murdered?”
“That does appear to be the case,” he affirmed with understatement.
“How awful!” muttered Miss Lambert, passing around some dainty crustless sandwiches.
“Murdered how?” pursued Lady Moira, choosing a slice of plain buttered bread.
“Drowned,” he replied, tossing up between anchovy and salmon before selecting one of each.
“In his bath?” the old lady asked.
“No – the old well,” intervened the Countess opting for the cress.
The old lady turned a whiter shade of pale and Miss Lambert appeared visibly stricken. They exchanged sidelong glances before turning their attention to their crustless sandwiches.
“Is there something untoward?” asked the Countess. “I mean about the fact that Mr Brown was found down the well.”
“Well, it is most unpleasant,” croaked the old lady, sounding as if she had just swallowed a mouthful of cobwebs.
“I don’t wish to appear impertinent,” pressed the Countess impertinently, “but it seems more than merely unpleasant. I couldn’t help noticing you looked askance at each other. It appears to be related to the fact the body was found down the well. Dr Watson will be making an examination of the body tomorrow and writing a report for the coroner,” she lied shamelessly, “is there something you are withholding that may be vital to the inquest?”
Miss Lambert turned bright pink and busied herself by topping up everyone’s teacup.
Lady Moira wiped the corners of her mouth with her napkin and coughed to clear her throat before proceeding. “Colonel Ardkinglas, the late husband of Mrs Ardkinglas, committed suicide many years ago by throwing himself down the well. Mrs Ardkinglas had the winding mechanism dismantled and a wooden cover made for the well. The well has not been used since that day.”
“I see,” murmured the Countess solemnly.
The doctor remained silent. The two incidents were hardly related apart from the connection to the well. One was suicide and the other was murder. And the two incidents were years apart. Nevertheless, he heeded Sherlock’s maxim to follow every thread. “How long ago did this happen?”
“About ten years ago, or perhaps nine, or possibly eight. Oh, dear! One does get muddled in old age. It becomes easier to remember details from youth than from last week or last year. When was it Miss Lambert?”
“Six years ago come winter, Lady Moira.”
“There you go, not as far back as I thought. You recount the details Miss Lambert. My throat feels terribly dry and I’m sure you will recall them much better than I. Serve the Victoria sponge first, if you will.”
When a generous slice of Victoria sponge with strawberry jam and clotted cream sat in front of each person Miss Lambert commenced her monologue and she was surprisingly articulate.
“Colonel Ardkinglas was in the British Army, serving in India. The East India Company had been disbanded in 1858, as you most likely know, but British Crown interests remained numerous and they required constant protection. There were always skirmishes and uprisings led by the Sepoys, the Indians who had been trained by the British Army but were forbidden from being promoted above a certain rank. It caused a lot of animosity that just festered for years and years and often spilled over into violence.
Colonel Ardkinglas had been posted to the north-east which was generally peaceful but the sepoys suddenly attacked Fort Rajapur where he was stationed. British casualties were high and those men who survived were imprisoned in the dungeons of the old fort. It was reminiscent of the Kolkat incident where most of the prisoners died from the effects of terrible overcrowding – suffocation, starvation and dehydration. When the Colonel was released a year later he was in extremely poor health and was repatriated home.
However, prior to the attack and being imprisoned he had heard of a lucrative mercantile venture involving a large fleet of ships for the tea trade. A group of wealthy British merchants whose families had been involved in the East India Company were behind the venture and they had set up their own trading company. The Governor of Chettingar, Lord Trefoyles, the Earl of Lomond and Lord Cruddock, to name a few, were all buying a share. He convinced his family to sink all their money into the venture, which they promptly did. The first ship to set sail sank to the bottom of the Bay of Bengal on its maiden voyage. It had not been insured. There was no fleet, just the one ship. The entire venture sank with it.
There was talk in the newspapers at the time that the ship had not been seaworthy and that the venture was merely a giant swindle to convince investors to part with their money. And that did seem to be the case in the end because the money all disappeared and so did the directors of the company, all of whom had set sail for far-flung outposts a week before the maiden voyage.
When Colonel Ardkinglas returned to England and discovered he had bankrupted his family it broke him completely. He became a physical and mental wreck. His family had no sympathy and could not bear to have him around and packed him off to their old hunting lodge here in the Borders, it was like exile or banishment. They wanted all reminders of him to just go away. He tried to make the best of it by turning the run-down old lodge into a hotel, but he suffered from dizzy spells and he often had black outs. They got worse and worse, by that I mean more frequent. Then six years ago he threw himself down the well.”
The Countess finished the last morsel of her Victoria sponge. “Lady Moira, do you know if your son lost a lot of money in the venture?”
“My son did not lose any money at all. He sold his share to someone else at the last moment. I cannot say what prompted him to sell but he actually made money out of it – a substantial amount.”
“To whom did he sell his share?” asked Dr Watson.
“If I ever knew it, I cannot remember it now. I suffer from failing health which has blunted the bit of memory that old age has not. I do however remember thinking at the time it would help pay off some of his gambling debts but unfortunately it only encouraged him to gamble even more extravagantly. He went off to the gambling dens of London and came back with less than what he had before the venture. He was an only child, our only son, spoilt by his father and indulged by me, and I’m afraid I am now reaping what we sowed.”
The doctor addressed himself to his wife’s niece. “Do you recall the name of the ship that sank in the Bay of Bengal?”
Miss Lambert shook her head. “No, I must have read it in the newspapers at the time and I do remember Lord Trefoyles talking about it a good deal but I cannot recall the minor details. Perhaps Mr Hamish Ross will remember. He studied the swindle in great detail to see if his mother might recoup a portion of her lost investment but she never did.” She turned to Lady Moira and changed the topic. “Speaking of Mr Ross, I bumped into the ghillie on my way to Graymalkin this morning and he told me to let you know he is planning to dismantle a section of the abbey ruins.”
The old lady gasped apoplectically. “It is not his to dismantle!”
“He believes the section where the stone steps lead to the old bell tower is dangerous.”
“Nonsense!” snorted the old lady consumptively. “It is only dangerous if some fool tries to climb to the top – but who would be so stupid!”
The Countess caught Miss Lambert’s eye. The look was one that warned and beseeched simultaneously. Miss Lambert heeded the look, and recalled the words of Mr Ross as well – don’t get embroiled into defending his decision. She let the matter drop.
Once the doctor and the Countess were alone in their carriage they returned to the subject of the swindle.
“I don’t think it is a good idea to bring up the matter of the Bay of Bengal swindle in conversation with his lordship,” said the Countess.
“I agree. I will tackle Mr Hamish Ross instead. He may be able to shed more light on the matter, though it seems too long ago to be relevant now.”
“Grudges can fester for long periods of time. It is human nature whether in India or Scotland to want some sort of revenge for wrongdoing and do not forget vengeance is a dish best served cold. By the way, have you noticed how Miss Lambert’s eyes light up whenever anyone mentions the name of Hamish Ross?”
“Your simpering romanticism is showing!” he teased.
“I caught them together at the abbey ruins this morning,” she defended.
“They were both coming to Graymalkin. Nothing could be more natural than that they should bump into each other at the ruins.”
“And that’s just what they did – they bumped right into each other’s arms!”
He managed to cross-hatch a chortle with a snigger, but secretly it was one more thing to worry about. He felt duty bound to look out for his wife’s niece. “Even if you are right, she is only nineteen, and though he is about thirty I cannot see him providing for a wife just yet. Unless his lordship offers his ghillie better lodgings than a one bedroom crofter’s hut I cannot see it happening. What’s more, I cannot give my blessing – he is illegitimate.”
“How do you know he is illegitimate?”
“Someone mentioned it after the dinner party when the men retired to the billiard room. I cannot recall who said it but we were talking about the scandal in Bohemia regarding the king’s bastard son when someone said: same as Hamish Ross. Then we moved on to William the Conqueror and so on. And before you condemn me, bear in mind that Miss Lambert has no parents and I feel duty bound to act in loco parentis.”
“Perhaps your loco parentis can demonstrate leniency since he bears your namesake.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“J. H. Watson – H for Hamish – your middle name.”
“What makes you think the H stands for Hamish?” he challenged.
“Henry is the name of your brother, so that rules that out. Harold, Hubert, Herbert, Harvey, Harley or Horatio are unlikely Scottish monikers, however a derivative of the Gaelic Seamus or Saumus is highly likely, hence Hamish.”
Lola O’Hara had decided that the private family chapel in the north wing of Cruddock Castle would make a perfect theatre. The apse, denuded of the usual religious trappings, had been turned into a stage with masses of gold-fringed, red velvet curtains and some dazzling limelights lining the dais. A painted backdrop had been positioned in front of the stained glass window. A mezzanine to the rear of the chapel housed an organ that would provide the music. There was even space for a harpist and a drummer. A door to the left hand side of the stage led to the vestry and then into a corridor. It made a perfect entrance for the actors. There was a powder room at one end of the corridor and several large storerooms that had been converted into dressing rooms and closets for costumes, props and scenery. To the right hand side of the stage was a door that opened to a covered porch which led into a sunken garden. This made for a good exit point. From the sunken garden the actors could hurry back to the corridor for their next entrance.
“Are you feeling alright?” asked the Countess as she and Dr Watson proceeded down the aisle of the chapel. “You look white around the gills.”
“I feel a bit queasy,” he squeaked, noting the limelights. “I think I might have eaten too many anchovies,” he lied. He was annoyed about how she got the H right too, and he had not forgiven her for noticing so much the first night when he had noticed so little. Salivating, indeed!
Miss Dee, who had been chatting to his lordship by the vestry door, broke off her conversation and smiled pleasantly. If she was surprised to see the Countess uninjured her face did not betray her.
“What did you think of the view from the bell tower?” Miss Dee asked guilelessly. “Did you go right to the top of the steps?”
“Oh, yes! The view was to-die-for!” That part at least was true, and Miss Dee appeared delighted that she enjoyed it. Perhaps there was nothing sinister in the motive to send her to the top of the bell tower after all.
Miss O’Hara swept down the aisle like the Queen of Sheba on her way to meet Solomon. All conversation abruptly ceased. Those who were not on stage were expected to sit silently in the pews and watch the play unfold. No one dared disobey.
They started with the opening scene: Thunder and lightning. Enter Three Witches.
But only two witches were out on the dark and windy heath: the Countess and Miss Lambert. Mr Dee was nowhere to be seen. There was some nervous coughing but no one spoke. They watched with bated breath, picturing what would happen once Carter Dee made an appearance. The Witchfinder General would be sure to flay him mercilessly.
Scene 1: The heath.
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air…”
Scene 2: Enter King Duncan and Malcolm.
Scene 3: The Three Witches on the heath – but there were still only two.
“A drum, a drum!
Macbeth doth come.”
Suddenly Carter made an entrance, but he wasn’t playing the part of a witch. He was speaking the lines of Macbeth. Behind him, a fraction late, stumbled his trusty underling, Banquo, red in the face and just as confused as everyone else.
“So foul and fair a day I have not seen,” declared Carter-Macbeth stridently – and everyone held their collective breath.
What was going on?
At the end of the scene it was timid Miss Lambert who put into words what everyone was thinking but were too afraid to voice.
“Why is Carter Dee playing Macbeth? Where is Mr Hamish Ross?”
Miss O’Hara flew out of the directorial throne and flounced onto the stage. “I have decided that Mr Dee is best suited to playing Macbeth. Mr Ross has not learnt his lines and has no hope of learning them in time for the opening. He will help with the scenery changes and the curtain and anything that needs doing backstage.”
A chorus of incredulous murmuring broke out though no one dared question the decision to depose Mr Ross in favour of Mr Dee. No one dared remind Miss O’Hara of her stringent criticism of Mr Dee’s ability to convincingly portray a murderous war general.
“Does Mr Hamish Ross know of your decision?” dared Miss Lambert, sounding offended on his behalf.
“Of course he knows!” snapped Miss O’Hara, and it was a case of ‘pluck out mine eyes’ to anyone who dared to lift their gaze higher than the floor. “Though it is no concern of yours whether he knows it or not! It is my play!” she reminded haughtily.
“Who will play the third witch?” asked the Countess, the only person who was not totally astonished by the astonishing turnaround.
Miss O’Hara flounced across the front of the stage and how natural the treading of the boards seemed to her. She stopped and pirouetted with a flourish when she reached the curtained wing and addressed the cowering audience, projecting her voice like one giving a royal performance at the Edinburgh Playhouse or addressing the worshipful at St Paul’s – there not being much difference between the two.
“I have given that very question some not inconsiderable thought and I am glad you asked it. I cannot permit one of the female servants to go on the stage. It will give them intolerable airs and graces. And I do not wish Miss Dee to go back to playing a dual role. Ergo, I have decided that your foreign maid will play the third witch. She has a rustic face, well-suited to a night-hag, and her foreign accent will thrill the audience. It will be a coup de theatre!”
Miss O’Hara grew more and more short-tempered as the evening progressed. Everyone forgot their lines, some minor, some not so minor, but the more she berated them, the more tongue-tied and muddled they got. Most of them were so confused by the end of rehearsal they would have forgotten their own names. It was 10 o’clock before they were permitted to shuffle off to supper like naughty children who had forgotten their catechisms.
Miss Lambert, tears welling in her eyes, ran through the vestry in search of Mr Hamish Ross, and the fact she did not appear at supper later suggested she had found him and that he was licking his wounds in private, or possibly venting his spleen.
The Countess put on an agreeable smile and tucked her arm through Miss Dee’s as they tripped out of the chapel. Lola O’Hara had provided her with the perfect opening to broach the topic she had been most keen to discuss.
“How do you think Mr Hamish Ross will react to the extraordinary news that he has been deposed by your brother?”
“Oh, he already knows. He took it on the chin. He is not bothered.”
“Really?” She feigned shock. “When did Miss O’Hara break the news to him?”
“Just before you arrived. I overheard her telling him in his dressing room. She just made the announcement and that was that. I saw through a crack in the door as Hamish Ross simply unbuckled his sword, stood up, and went out into the garden.”
“Dr Watson expressed some concern that his wife’s niece seems a little too fond of the ghillie. Do you think that is the case?”
“Oh, without a doubt, the poor girl is hopelessly besotted.”
“I hate to gossip, but Dr Watson also confided in me that he is worried that his niece may make an unsuitable match since she has no one to look out for her best interests. Dr Watson thinks the ghillie’s parentage is doubtful. Entre nous, he may even be illegitimate.”
“Well, I am not one for gossiping either but it is quite true. Hamish Ross was born on the wrong side of the blanket.”
“And here was I thinking that my housekeeper was a widow but there you have it. There was never any Mr Ross to begin with.”
“I wonder who the father might be?”
The conversation was abruptly terminated. They had arrived in the dining room where supper had been laid out on a sideboard. The food had been kept warm using silver cloches, but several of the delicate sauces had congealed and were totally ruined. Everyone was present except for Miss O’Hara who had gone straight to her bedroom, complaining of a headache. Dr Watson waited until everyone was seated around the table, plates heaped with comfort food.
“I am sorry to have to announce that there has been a tragic accident this afternoon. Mr Brown was found dead this afternoon at the Marmion Hydro -”
That was as far as he got. Shocked gasps were followed by an immediate barrage of questions: What did this mean for the tournament? Had the police been notified? Had the Yard been informed?
Everyone looked pale and frightened. Up to this point they may have convinced themselves that the other deaths had been accidents but as the hare-lip man had pointed out – a man did not plunge headfirst down a covered well by accident.
Lord Cruddock’s voice was grim. “I will have to cancel the tournament. Mr Bancoe has no caddy and the police will want to look into the matter.”
Catherine and Carter Dee both cried out at the same time: “No! God-father, please! Postpone it if you must but you cannot cancel!”
It was Dr Watson who answered their prayers. “I don’t think it will be necessary to cancel the tournament. The accident happened at the hotel not on the golf course or the Cruddock estate. Naturally, the police will want to question everyone but they will not have the right to halt a tournament being played on private property. As for the caddy – I have been giving the matter some thought, and if Mr Bancoe will have me, I will be happy to volunteer my services. I was hoping to be able to observe the tournament from close quarters and what better way than as a caddy.”
Mr Bancoe thanked him profusely and accepted his offer most gratefully.
The Dees applauded his generous spirit.
“Bravo, Dr Watson!” trilled Miss Dee, clapping her hands.
When the buzz died down and everyone returned to their plates of food, albeit with appetites dulled, it was the doctor who spoke once again.
“I have offered to examine the body of Mr Brown first thing tomorrow since I have had some experience in this area, so may I be so bold as to suggest the tournament be postponed by one day. If his lordship is in agreement, it can recommence the day after tomorrow.”
“Oh, yes! Absolutely!” chimed the chorus led by Mr Bancoe and Mr Larssensen who were delighted to have an extra day to recover from another late night and a stomach weighed down with countless courses of rich food.
By the end of the evening the doctor was fairly pleased with himself. He had handled that well, he thought. And his time on stage had not been a total disaster.
The Countess was well pleased too. While everyone had been discussing the death of Mr Brown and its effect on the tournament, she had been staring at a portrait of the previous Lord Cruddock, the sire of Duncan, and his distinctive mane of red hair.
“Keep your wits about you,” Dr Watson warned the Countess before setting off the next morning. “We don’t need another accident!” He tried to make light of it but a quaver in his voice betrayed him. The death of Mr Brown pointed to the fact someone wanted to halt the tournament and would go to any lengths to achieve that aim. The doctor did not for a moment believe the poacher to have anything to do with the death of the caddy. Simple men preferred simple villains and simple solutions but years of working with Sherlock had taught him that murder was rarely simple. From the outset he had been inclined to go with the winning-at-all-costs theory, possibly spurred by his instant dislike of Catherine and Carter Dee, but once he removed his feelings from the matter, he had to admit their heartfelt pleas last night during supper suggested it was unlikely they would have jeopardised the golf tournament by eliminating four people – the last one a mere caddy. If they wanted to win why act so early? Why not wait until the field had been whittled down and then just eliminate the best golfer? Despite his initial dismissal, gut instinct now told him that current events were tied to the swindle in India.
Mr MacDuff was waiting for him at the entrance of the hotel, pacing up and down, puffing away at a cigarette. He had the key to Mr Brown’s bedroom in his pocket and handed it over before the doctor even thought to ask for it. Nor did he waste time on small talk but got straight down to brass tacks after a quick greeting.
“Mrs Ardkinglas sent the ostler to Duns to report the death of Mr Brown to the police constable.”
“What time did he set off?” asked Dr Watson, trying to calculate how much time he had before the police arrived and took over the investigation.
“I was up early this morning, but he had already set off. It must have been prior to six o’clock.”
“Was he one of the men in the courtyard yesterday?”
“He was the one with the hare-lip.”
“Oh, yes,” said the doctor, remembering the cocky fellow. “Did you get the names of all five men before they dispersed?”
“Yes and I added Mrs Ardkinglas to the list and young Robbie Fyfe.”
The doctor glanced at the list of names. The writing was neat and legible. MacDuff had proven his worth yet again. “Do you remember which name corresponds to the ostler?”
“It is Walter Shiels. The last name on the list. I thought that if I left him till last he would not get his back up so much. And it seemed to do the trick. He had dropped the chip off his shoulder and when he was certain the other men had cleared off he told me that he might have something useful by way of information. He said it in a low voice so as not to be overheard. I asked him what it was but he said he would only tell it you. I think you must have put the wind up him when you mentioned the Yard.”
The doctor ran his eye over the list of names: Colin Nesbit, Ned Dawes, Graham Ayr, Brian Stornway, Walter Shiels, Mrs Ardkinglas, Robbie Fyfe.
“Do you know the occupations of the other three men?”
MacDuff nodded as he took one last puff of his cigarette and tossed it on the ground, grinding the butt down with the toe of his boot. “Colin Nesbit and Brian Stornway are gardeners. Graham Ayr is the groom.”
“What about the lad?”
“Young Robbie is employed as boot boy but he does all the odd jobs inside and out. He is as quick as a fox and not as stupid as most of the jobbing lads I have come across. I think if anyone saw something suspicious it would be young Robbie.”
The doctor pocketed the list and cast a quick glance over both shoulders. He had made sure to have the conversation away from any windows and doors where they might be overheard but he wanted to make sure the gardeners were not lurking in the shrubbery. It was time to go inside and check the bedroom of Mr Brown. He got as far as the hotel foyer before he realized the caddy was shadowing him.
“Your help has been invaluable, Mr MacDuff, but I would like to examine the bedroom on my own.”
“I may be able to spot if something is awry. I have been in Mr Brown’s room several times. We shared a smoke in there when it was too wet to go outside. His room is at the end of the hall, you see, and the smoke does not float down the stairwell the way it does from my room.”
“Be that as it may, I cannot compromise the search for evidence.”
“No fear, Dr Watson, but if I was going to compromise any evidence I would have done it last night. I had the key. I could have sneaked in at any time during the night and removed anything I wanted.”
Dammit! The man was right! He’d had the key all night. And it was true that he would be the best person to spot if something was missing or out of place. And since the doctor had no idea what that something might be he could use an extra pair of eyes.
“Very well, Mr MacDuff, but please don’t touch anything, confine yourself to your powers of observation.”
At the turning of the stairs they met Mrs Ardkinglas coming down, a bundle of dirty bed linen in her arms. She looked as if she had been crying a good deal. Her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen. The doctor was overcome with pity for the widow.
“Are you alright?” he asked softly.
Her voice sounded as brittle as broken glass. “I cannot fathom what is happening. It seems like a bad dream from which there is no waking up. First my husband and now Mr Brown, both down the well! What can it mean, Dr Watson?”
“Do not wear yourself out with worry, Mrs Ardkinglas. I will get to the bottom of this.”
“Oh, Doctor, I do hope so!” she said, sucking back air in an attempt to stifle the sobs that threatened to rise up and choke off her oxygen supply. “But was Mr Brown murdered or did he choose to end his own life? That is what I want to know.”
“That is something for the police and the coroner to decide. There is no rushing their verdict. Would you like me to give you something to calm your nerves and help you sleep?”
“Oh, would you, Doctor! Yes, yes, I would like something. I am all on edge. I feel cursed. Yes, cursed. And I am frightened. Yes, frightened.”
“My medical bag is in the landau. I will give you something before I leave. But first I want to have a look in Mr Brown’s bedroom and then I will have a look at Mr Brown’s body.”
“Oh, to think of it – a dead body in the cellar! It is this god-awful place! It has brought nothing but bad luck since the day I first set eyes on it. It is cursed! And so am I as long as I remain here! But where else am I to go!”
“Take heart, dear lady. I will get to the bottom of whatever is happening here.”
He recognized a woman on the edge of hysteria when he saw one and knew that words were meaningless, she was deaf to them. He moved slowly past her and up the stairs, leaving her standing there with the bundle of dirty washing in her arms as if lost in a fog.
The bedroom of Mr Brown was small and plainly decorated. There was one sash window, open about one inch for ventilation. It looked out over the rear of the hotel onto the kitchen garden. By all appearances Mr Brown was a tidy man. His golf clothes were hanging neatly over the back of a chair where he had placed them yesterday afternoon when he changed into a tweed suit. In one of the pockets was his golfing notebook for keeping score and a sharpened pencil. Underneath the chair were his golfing boots, brushed clean. A battered suitcase was standing open in a corner of the room and in the bottom of it were socks, singlet vests, long-johns and handkerchiefs folded in separate piles. On his bedside table was a cheap bottle of whiskey, two-thirds empty, and a glass. He had a set of cheap golf clubs. The leather golf bag was scratched and battered. The set was a bit old-fashioned, possibly second hand. On the wash stand was a hairbrush and a pair of small scissors for trimming his beard.
The room did not appear to be the room of a man in mental anguish about to throw himself down a well. It was the room of a man with tidy habits and simple tastes. The clean boots, the unfinished whiskey bottle, the neatly folded garments all indicated a man who intended to return to his room.
“Do you see anything out of place?” asked the doctor, scanning high and low for a Wicca symbol.
Mr MacDuff shook his head. “It all seems as it was from when I was last here. The room was tidy and still is. I thought there might be a note.”
“A suicide note?”
“A note to meet someone.”
“The kitchen courtyard was closed off to guests. We always had a smoke on the terrace on the east side. There is a wooden bench out of the wind and a view of the loch. His tobacco pouch and cigarette papers are not here on the bedside table where he liked to put them so he must have had them in his pocket. I think he smoked a fag or two while he waited for someone because there were dozens of fag ends in the courtyard, though I could not tell if any were the brand he favoured. I don’t think he killed himself. He said something the other day about his luck finally changing. He said things were finally looking up.”
“What do you think he meant by that?”
“I took that to mean he was coming into some money, maybe a bonus for caddying for Mr Bancoe. I was about to ask him but the conversation was interrupted by one of the gardeners who joined us for a smoke.”
The two men left the room, locked the door, and proceeded to the cellar where the body had been placed the previous evening. It was lying on the brick floor in a damp patch of water.
The doctor could not make a thorough examination of the body without permission from the police but he checked the pockets of the tweed jacket and there indeed was a soggy pouch of tobacco and some cigarette papers, soaking wet. There were also some coins and a small piece of paper, roughly torn from a notebook. The colour of the paper was different to the one found in the dead man’s bedroom. Mr Brown’s notebook was white; here the paper was pale green. The paper was cheap, and having been submerged in water, practically disintegrated upon touch. The words were illegible for the ink had all but washed away.
The body had been placed face up but with the help of Mr MacDuff the doctor turned the body over and began to examine the back of it. The head was intact, not battered, indicating the body had gone straight down the well, head first, without hitting the sides. He imagined the limbs and torso to have fared less well and be severely bruised underneath all the clothing, but it was the back of the neck that caught his eye. There was a horizontal bruise as if the neck had sustained a severe blow with a heavy object. That would explain how the killer managed to shove the body down the well. If Mr Brown had had his neck-bone snapped by a great whack it would have given the killer ample time to remove the cover from the well. It was still an audacious crime but so had the other deaths been audacious, relying on timing and luck.
They righted the body and left the cellar, locking the door behind them, and made their way to the kitchen courtyard. They entered it through the same gate as the previous day. It was tucked around a turret as the drive curved and disappeared behind some bushes on its way to the carriage house. A high stone wall surrounded the courtyard and the paving stones were littered with several dozen fag ends. Mr MacDuff confirmed that several of them belonged to Mr Brown.
“Where does that door lead?” asked the doctor pointing to the doorway where young Robbie had been standing in the shadows, virtually unnoticed until he stepped up to speak.
“It goes into the scullery.”
“Do you know where that second gate leads?”
“I had a poke around last night. It leads into the wood yard. There are some compost heaps to one side and a large stack of chopped wood ready for burning on the other side. At the end is a gate that leads into the kitchen garden with some raised beds for vegetables, some fruit trees and a small potting shed. The gate at the far end of that takes you into Crow Wood.”
Dr Watson had a walk around the well and peered down it. He left the wooden cover where it was. He checked the cigarette butts. The variety of brands was enormous and the state of decay of many was advanced. When he was satisfied that he had seen all there was to see in the courtyard he passed through the second gate into the wood yard and then into the kitchen garden to check the layout for himself. It was as Mr MacDuff had described. A door from the main kitchen led directly into this walled garden. He walked past the potting shed, as far as the gate, and opened it to look out on Crow Wood.
A poacher or some other person could easily have come this way unobserved and left by the same route. But why? Why kill Mr Brown? Why kill a caddy? The only answer that made sense was to force Mr Bancoe from the tournament. If that was the case it pointed to only two people – The Dee twins. The likeliest suspect was Carter Dee.
They walked back the long way around the stables and the carriage house and as they came around the corner there was the ostler, Walter Shiels, unsaddling a horse. The horse was coated in sweat and so was the man.
Dr Watson motioned with his head for Mr MacDuff to continue back to the hotel while he paused at the stable door.
“You have just returned from Duns?” he put conversationally.
Hare-lip man eyed him warily. “Aye,” he said.
“The police constable will be arriving shortly?”
The doctor realized they could go on playing silly-buggers all morning. He decided to save time. “Did you see anything out of the ordinary yesterday, Mr Shiels?”
“Could you tell me what that was?”
Hare-lip finished hanging up the bridle and bit before replying. “Come outside,” he said, leading the doctor to a large horse chestnut. “I was relieving myself, see, here behind this old tree where ‘tis private from the hotel-like, when I looks round to make sure no one is coming up the drive and what do I see but Mr Brown hurrying out the front door and heading to the gate yonder.” He paused and indicated with his head the wooden gate that led to the kitchen courtyard. “He was looking over his shoulder to make sure he weren’t being followed and I thought, aha, he looks like he’s up to something.” He paused and looked rather proud of himself.
“What did you think he might be up to?” prompted the doctor.
“Well, the courtyard is where the lassies go with their cigarette since the missus don’t allow ‘em to smoke in the kitchens, so I presume, yes I presume, Mr Brown is going to meet one of the lassies.”
“Did you see who he met?”
Hare-lip shook his head. “I could not see over the top of the wall, but,” he paused and smiled cunningly, “but I could hear two voices – and the second voice weren’t no lassie.”
“You mean they were both male voices?”
“That’s it! So I say to myself – This is queer, this is – and I am about to open the gate for a look when Dobbin – Mr Ayr – calls: Come and give me a hand with Black Bess – she has a loose shoe and is limping!”
“What happened after that?”
“I went with Dobbin to the stable and before too long we heard young Robbie squeal like a banshee so we dropped everything and ran for the courtyard. Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather! I never expected Mr Brown down the well!”
“If you had to guess – who do you think the other man in the courtyard could have been?”
Hare-lip scratched his head. “All I can say is it weren’t a voice from these parts.”
“Not Scottish, you mean?”
Dr Watson thanked the ostler, retrieved his medical bag from the landau and went in search of Mrs Ardkinglas. She was in the dining room laying the table. The strain on her face was telling despite the lack of light filtering in through the small window.
“Will you be staying to lunch, Dr Watson?”
He was mindful that things were tight for the widow and politely declined, citing the up-coming play as an excuse. She had been invited to be part of the audience, along with Mrs Ross, and was looking forward to the evening. He got out some cachets for settling nerves and aiding sleep, explained the correct dosage, then carefully broached the subject of the murder.
“How many servants do you have working here?”
“I have had to let most of the staff go in the last week or two. There are five men who do outside and three girls who do inside. Ellie does the laundry and the ironing. Sally, the parlourmaid does all the upstairs and downstairs rooms and helps to serve the meals. Becky, the scullery maid, helps with the kitchen chores. I do all the baking and cooking myself now. I don’t know what I would do if I had more than two guests as I do at present – oh!” she stopped suddenly and realised what she’d just said. She no longer had two guests, just the one. The thought seemed to startle her.
“Could one of the female servants have observed Mr Brown in the courtyard yesterday whilst carrying out their chores?”
She picked up a pewter candlestick and began to give it a mechanical burnish with her apron. “On any other day it is possible, but yesterday because of the rehearsals and supper at the castle I knew we would have nowt for dinner, so I gave the three girls the afternoon off. It was their first free half day since the golf tournament commenced more than a month ago. The three of them went into Duns together where they all have family.”
How convenient – thought the doctor. Did the man meeting Mr Brown know the female servants would be having the afternoon off?
“Do any of the girls have a sweetheart?”
“I suppose there is a point to your question, Dr Watson, so I will answer you straight. I do not encourage it and they are far too young. Sally is the eldest at sixteen, Ellie is fifteen and Becky has just gone thirteen.”
“Irrespective of age, Mrs Ardkinglas, have you ever seen a man hanging about the place, perhaps in Crow Wood?”
“Oh, so you have heard the natter about the poacher. As far as I know Ned is the only one who has spied him. Ned is not prone to making up stories. If he says he saw someone in Crow Wood I would believe him.”
Doctor Watson’s voiced softened. “Please sit down a moment, Mrs Ardkinglas. I am going to ask you about your husband’s investment in the tea-shipping trade. Please don’t feel distressed,” he pre-empted noting how she had been valiantly struggling to keep at bay the tears that were close to the surface.
“What can that foolish scheme have to do with anything? That was more than ten years ago.”
The doctor decided to be nothing less than honest. “I do not know if it has anything to do with anything at present. All I know is that someone would like the golf tournament to be cancelled, perhaps even bankrupt Lord Cruddock. Very little makes sense at this stage so I must follow all leads no matter how remote they seem.” He waited until she heaved a sigh and relaxed her shoulders. “I understand your husband’s family lost a considerable amount of money in the failed shipping venture?”
She nodded grimly. “They only just managed to hang onto the family home, but most of the farmland was sold off along with the family silver and such like.”
“And your sister, Mrs Ross, lost her life savings?”
Again she nodded. “When my sister became the housekeeper at Graymalkin she was paid a decent income and put aside every penny to buy Hamish a commission in one of the private regiments, but just before Hamish was due to set off, she lost the lot.”
“Hamish became a ghillie instead?”
“His lordship took pity for what had happened and employed Hamish on his estate.”
“Lord Cruddock did not lose any money in the scheme, is that right?”
Her dark eyes flashed like lightning against a metallic sky and her voice was bitter and constrained. “That is right.”
“He sold his share to someone at the last moment?”
She pursed her lips and nodded without speaking.
“Do you know who that someone was?”
“It was his best friend, Mr Crawford Dee.”
The doctor was unable to hide his surprise. “The father of Catherine and Carter Dee?”
“Yes, that is what set Mr Dee on the path to bankruptcy. He tried to recover his losses but it was one desperate scheme after another, as is the way with luck – good luck invites good fortune and bad luck breeds more of the same. He eventually lost everything and shot himself. Lord Cruddock travelled to South Africa to collect the twins and brought them back here to Cruddock Castle, he being their god-father. That was about five years ago.”
“Do you think they hold a grudge against his lordship?”
She thought for a moment and shook her head. “I cannot say. If they did, I think it is forgotten now. It was the twins who persuaded their god-father to build the golf course. They said it was the future, the way of things to come, and I daresay if one of them wins the tournament it will all work out for the best and the past will be dead and buried.”
It seemed a situation that could point either of two ways: Either the twins hated their god-father and held him responsible for the death of their father or they saw him as their mentor and saviour. Which was it?
The doctor thanked Mrs Ardkinglas and asked where he might be able to find the woodchopper.
“Ned will be working in Crow Wood, out by Maw Bridge, where an ancient yew has come down in high winds and fallen across the river. It is on the road to Mawgate Lodge. You cannot miss it. He has the two gardeners with him since it is a big job. Hamish is there too because there is a colony of otters nearby and he wants to check that the riverbank has not been damaged.”
Crow Wood was made up of birch and alder, the same lovely pendulous trees that dotted the golf course. The workmen were having an early lunch, sitting by the riverbank, when Dr Watson arrived. Thane bounded forward to greet him before running off in search of minks which colonised the riparian idyll, though it was not the time for mink hunting; that had to wait for summer when hunters would come with packs of curly-coated mink hounds.
Dr Watson checked the list of names to remind himself of the names of the two gardeners, and noticed that the paper Mr MacDuff had given him was pale green, the same colour as that found in Mr Brown’s pocket. It was hardly significant and there could be any number of feasible explanations. He greeted the men and exchanged a few words about the work they were doing before asking Ned if he could speak to him in private. The men all guessed what it was about and left them to it. Hamish said goodbye and set off across the bridge. He promised to return with some labourers from the estate and a team of oxen. If the tree was not shifted before the next heavy rain it would divert the river and cause it to inundate the road either side of the bridge.
“What can you tell me about the poacher?” the doctor asked Ned when they had walked a dozen yards to a small clearing where the sun broke through the pendulous branches and lit up the golden hues in the leaf litter.
“Not much to tell. I only saw him the once, by that I mean I saw him two times but both times on the same day.”
“I saw him from a distance mind you, not close up, but I’d say he was tallish. He was moving furtive-like, looking around to make sure he weren’t spotted. That’s how I knew he weren’t out mushrooming. A lot of the locals come this way looking for mushrooms and his lordship turns a blind eye to it though Crow Wood is still part of the Cruddock estate. The mushroomers won’t go into Jackdaw Wood though there be more mushrooms there because of talk about witches and such like.”
“Did you see his hair?”
“He was dark-haired and he had a thick dark beard.”
“Are you sure?”
“It matched his face.”
“He was darkish.”
“How could you tell that from a distance? Might it have been the shadows of the trees?”
Ned shook his head emphatically. “He turned his head sudden-like and the sunlight caught him full on the face the way it is doing to those leaves. Just as you can see the colours of the leaves in the light so I could see the colour of his skin. He was a darkie.”
“How was he dressed?”
“He had a tartan cloak and a tartan scarf bundled around his neck and shoulders. It weren’t no local tartan, nor any tartan I have seen before. That’s what made me think he’s not from round the Borders and nor could he be a poor tramp neither with such fine wools.”
“Was he carrying a walking stick or perhaps some golf clubs?”
Ned threw back his head and laughed. “What would a poacher want with golf clubs!”
The doctor had been thinking about the injury to the back of the neck but decided not to pursue it. “What time did you see him – be as precise as possible?”
“That’s easy. The sun was mid-heaven. I found a nice log out of the wind and was just sitting down to my bread and butter when I spotted him going south along the western edge of Crow Wood. I thought to myself. I wonder where this cove is heading? And then blow me down, if I don’t spot him again an hour or so later taking the low path by the loch, going north this time. He had no bundle and no brace and no golf clubs neither! So I figured he might be getting the lay of the land, checking for nests and lairs and dens and where best to set his traps.”
“Thank you, Mr Dawes, you have been very helpful. I bid you a good day.”
The two men parted and as Dr Watson took the shortest path back to his carriage he spotted Lady Moira and Miss Lambert standing on Maw Bridge. They had heard about the fallen yew and had decided to check the damage to the riverbank for themselves.
Lady Moira was quick to let him know she would be conducting a spirit meeting in the evening and invited him (along with the Countess) to dinner, prior to communicating with the spirit world. It would be Ouija tonight and a small gathering – just the four of them. Ouija tiles did not lend themselves to large numbers, she explained. Too many fingers tended to cloud the message from the otherworld, toing and froing the glass, manipulating the result.
Any other time, any other place, the doctor would have swiftly declined, but the manipulation of the result was exactly what was uppermost in his mind when he counter-invited Lady Moira and Miss Lambert to dinner at Graymalkin instead.
“Bring your Ouija tiles with you,” he said, employing a genial tone, but Lady Moira saw through his ploy to play mine host.
“Oh, you are such an unbeliever, Dr Watson! Very well! To prove to you that the spirits are genuine and that my table and alphabet tiles have not been tricked-up, we will hold the spirit-meeting at Graymalkin.” She turned to go then turned back, smiling strangely. Sunlight cast fitful shadows across her pale as death face. “You may live to regret your invitation. Graymalkin has a history of demonology and witchcraft. It is full of tortured souls, who, once they have awakened from their troubled slumber, may unleash all manner of dark deeds. Be warned.”
Countess Volodymyrovna took to golf like a duck to water. While Dr Watson was inspecting the body of Mr Brown the Countess was enjoying a game of golf with Miss Dee. Her friend was an excellent instructress and the incident concerning the abbey ruins was put firmly out of the Countess’s mind. They had decided to play the first six holes and then skip across to the last three. Fedir was doing the caddying for both ladies. They had just moved across to the sixteenth hole when the Countess asked the question that had been weighing heavily on her mind since the previous evening.
“Last night I noticed a portrait of the previous Lord Cruddock in the dining room. It struck me as interesting because we had been discussing the legitimacy of Mr Hamish Ross. I noticed the man in the portrait had red hair and I wondered…”
Miss Dee finished the sentence for her, as good friends often do. “You wondered if he could have fathered Hamish Ross. Yes he did,” she confirmed as she selected a club and whacked the ball fifty yards through the air and watched it bounce another fifty yards onto the green. “Mrs Ross was the old lord’s lover before and after his marriage to Lady Moira.”
“Does Lady Moira know this?”
“Oh, yes, it is common knowledge, though no one talks of it.”
It was the Countess’s turn to tee off. She would need at least three shots to reach the green. “So Hamish Ross knows it too?”
“Certainly. Bend your knees a bit more. That’s better.”
“He and Lord Cruddock are half-brothers?”
“Yes, but Hamish cannot inherit and he knows that too. Make sure you follow through with the club when you swing. Don’t pull up short. Have another shot off the tee.”
“Oh, yes, I am familiar with royal prerogative and titles and inheritance,” said the Countess, recalling the case of the Baskervilles. “Wouldn’t that be cheating?”
“Inherited titles are more varied in Scotland,” explained Miss Dee. “It can hardly be called cheating if it is just a practise game. Have another go and make sure to follow through.”
This time the ball sailed through the air then bounced and rolled an extra twenty yards. The Countess felt elated as she strode down the fairway and noted for the first time the darkening sky. Storm clouds were rolling in and banking up.
“How are titles varied?” she asked.
Suddenly a golf ball whistled past, missing them by inches. They turned sharply to see who had hit it. It was the Rajah of Govinda. He had set off to play all eighteen holes but because the Countess needed to play three or four shots to every one played by Miss Dee the Rajah had caught up to them. They played the final two holes together under an increasingly threatening sky.
Caddying for the Rajah was his factotum, Mr Chandrapur, a strange man with small, dark, watchful eyes that reminded the Countess of a cat. He moved like a cat too, with measured tread and silent footfalls. He also had the habits of a cat – slinking in the shadows, keeping to the edge, never intruding. A snap of royal bejewelled fingers was all it took for Mr Chandrapur to appear out of the woodwork. He appeared and disappeared in the blink of an eye, giving the impression he could pass through walls like a ghost, vanish into thin air, only to materialize someplace else.
Dr Watson was waiting for the Countess in the golf pavilion. It was formerly a glass house for growing fruit and vegetables and since it was positioned midway between the first and last fairway it had been converted for use as a storeroom for golfing paraphernalia. It was never kept locked. Golf bags were lined up along one wall, tooled leather name tags hung from hooks above each bag. His lordship owned six sets of clubs. Even Hamish Ross had a set of clubs, though they were battered and looked second hand. The doctor was polishing his clubs as he waited, eager to whisk the Countess back to Graymalkin before she agreed to lunch with her new best friend; mindful also that he needed to inform Mrs Ross as soon as possible that there would be two extra places at dinner. Through the glass roof he could see storm clouds banking ominously and it did not bode well for the re-commencement of the tournament the next day.
“Who was that man with the Rajah?” he put to the Countess as soon as they were in the carriage rumbling south.
“That is Mr Chandrapur, his factotum?”
“Now there’s a word! I have heard it a hundred times, but tell me, what exactly does a factotum do?”
“Well, I think it is one of those words that means different things to different people. In this case, it means a valet-cum-caddy-cum-equerry-cum-confidential secretary-cum-slave. He is never far from the Rajah’s side.”
“Never far from his side? I have never even seen him!”
“You mean to say you did not notice him in the drawing room when we first arrived? He was standing in the alcove between the two blackamoor candelabras.”
“I was concentrating on names and faces,” he responded defensively. “My eyes were not wandering all over the room. Besides, amongst that fabulous clutter one could hardly be expected to notice a servant in the background. No one notices a museum guard in a museum, do they?”
“Mmm, you were concentrating rather hard on Miss O’Hara too,” she teased. “Mr Chandrapur was also in the library during the séance.”
“Are you sure?”
“Certainement, mon ami! He slipped in half way through the performance. You probably had your back to the door and did not notice. The candle spluttered from the draught and there was a momentary chill.”
“Oh, yes, I remember a brief chill.” He felt an involuntary shiver.
“He reminds me of a cat – the way he creeps about on quiet cat-feet. Now, tell me what happened at the Marmion Hydro Hotel today.”
He recounted all that had transpired, finishing with the fact that the father of Catherine and Carter Dee had purchased his lordship’s share of the tea-trade swindle with tragic consequences.
“I do not think Catherine and Carter Dee harbour any malice toward their god-father. Carter has turned into quite the thespian and Catherine is very likely to win the tournament and make a name for herself in the world of golf. Callous as it may sound, not every death is a soul-destroying tragedy. The death of their father could be counted sad but ultimately fortuitous.”
He nodded without replying, stroking his beard thoughtfully.
“Are you thinking about the poacher?” she asked after a few minutes of silence.
“Yes,” he admitted, “how did you know?”
“We are passing through Crow Wood and your eyes suddenly got that far-away look you get when you are thinking about something abstract – and it is the identity of the poacher that offers us our first real clue as to who could be behind the deaths. You are thinking that it might be the paterfamilias, Mr Chandrapur.”
He nodded with greater animation. “Yes, he is dark-skinned and he could easily have borrowed a tartan cloak and scarf from the costume room to disguise himself.”
“What would be his motive? Why kill Mr Brown? The Rajah is not participating in the tournament. The Rajah and his shadow-cat have nothing to gain from Mr Brown’s death.”
“Hmm,” he murmured, looking vexed, “damned motive!” The carriage gave a jolt and so did his brain. It jolted itself out of the abstract and back to the corporeal. “I just remembered something. I forgot to tell you the reason I was eager to return with you to Graymalkin.”
“I thought perhaps you were desperate to learn your lines.”
“No, no, I invited Lady Moira and Miss Lambert to dinner. It was a clever counter-strategy on my part to avoid dining at Mawgate Lodge.”
She smiled at his choice of phrase – men were such fascinating creatures. They could make a simple dinner invitation sound like a battle manoeuvre. “A counter-strategy?”
“Lady Moira invited us to dinner, to be followed by a spirit-reading involving that ridiculous parlour game called Ouija, but I decided the event would be less open to chicanery if it was to be held at Graymalkin. I hope Mrs Ross has something suitable in the way of provisions.”
“I’m sure the redoubtable Mrs Ross will procure an excellent dinner by sleight of hand. If worse comes to worst she can conjure up some of that delicious kedgeree we had for breakfast using her magic cauldron.”
He rolled his eyes at her choice of phrase. “Did you glean anything useful today from Miss Dee?”
“I learned to follow through when I am teeing off. Oh, and this may make you change your snobbish mind about your namesake as a prospective suitor for Miss Lambert. He is half-brother to his lordship. Mrs Ross was the previous Lord Cruddock’s inamorata.”
“I do not hold illegitimate off-spring to account for the sins of their fathers. I was merely looking out for the girl’s best interests. However, that information does put him in a better frame, not that his parentage turns out to be aristocratic, but that his parentage turns out not to be a dark mystery. I simply prefer there to be no dark cloud hanging over him.”
“Unfortunately, having been born on the wrong side of the blanket, he cannot inherit any part of the estate.”
“Be that as it may, and I am not saying it because he is my namesake, he is a fine young man. I saw him in action today out by Maw Bridge and he did not appear to be carrying a chip on his shoulder from being usurped by Carter Dee for the part of Macbeth, rather he appears to be the sort of chap who has a cool head on his shoulders and genuinely cares for the land and rivers in his charge.”
“If you repeat that to Miss Lambert tonight I think you will win her undying adoration. When you are doddery and bed-ridden it will be Miss Lambert who will sit by your bedside and spoon-feed you chicken broth.”
He gave a hearty chuckle at the touching avuncular scene as he glanced out of the window and spotted the woodchopper and the pair of gardeners hurrying back to the hotel ahead of the encroaching storm. He banged on the roof of the carriage with his cane for Fedir to stop, and leapt out to intercept the men before they disappeared down a steep-sided gully.
“Hey there! Mr Dawes, I forgot to ask you something!”
A flurry of crows took to the sky when he yelled out, the last leaves clinging to the pendulous branches trembled and a palpable shiver spread outward through the wood.
“What colour tartan was it that the poacher was wearing?”
“It weren’t the usual Black Watch that would have blended with the shadows of the wood, that’s for sure.”
“Black Watch – that’s black and green?”
The woodchopper nodded. “His tartan were grey and purple.”
As Dr Watson returned to the carriage a mizzle of grey rain began to fall, akin to a fine mist. They soon entered Jackdaw Wood and neither spoke. It wasn’t until they were out of the wood that the Countess turned to her sleuthing companion.
“Tonight should prove very interesting, mon ami.”
“Oh spare me! Don’t tell me you are a devotee of Ouija!”
“Pas du tout! I meant we will be able to observe Lady Moira and Mrs Ross together under the same roof.”
“The wife and the mistress.”
He slapped the side of his head. “Heaven forbid! I hope I have not made a terrible faux pas.”
“You didn’t know the situation when you pressed the counter-invitation,” she reminded. “Did Lady Moira acquiesce with good grace?”
“I think so. I’m not sure. She smiled oddly and warned me that Graymalkin has a long history.”
“What do you think she meant by that?”
“I dismissed it as the usual piffle about the spirit world.”
“Let’s hope you are right,” said the Countess, glancing out of the window at the forbidding grey fortress rising out of the indomitable grey rock.
Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna were seated either side of a crackling fire in the barrel-vaulted sitting room, enjoying a cigarette as they waited for their two guests to arrive. The storm that had threatened all day did not materialize but the melancholy grey rain continued without surcease.
Antiques abounded but not the elegant pieces that filled Cruddock Castle, these were solid, strong and masculine – they bore their scars proudly as they anchored themselves to the oak floorboards, stood tall against the masonry walls, and held their own beside the heavy Mortlake tapestries. An old gate-leg table in the centre of the room had been set for dinner. The Ouija tiles could be set up on the same table following their meal.
Dr Watson was not a man who appeared at his best in a drawing room. It was not his natural milieu. He always looked stiff and ill at ease in a social setting, especially when the women outnumbered the men. He tried to compensate for his unease by being a stickler for the rules of etiquette but his discomfit and lack of composure only became more obvious the harder he tried to adhere to social expectation. He was a military man who preferred the company of men and that was that.
But tonight he played host with great aplomb and led the conversation with admirable skill. The topics that were not discussed were more telling than the ones that were. He deftly avoided the forthcoming nuptials, the golf tournament, the four deaths, the Scottish play and the dismal weather. Throughout dinner he kept the ladies enthralled with tales of his adventures with the inimitable Sherlock Holmes, and if the women suspected he may have exaggerated his contribution a touch they did not say so.
Xenia cleared the table and Miss Lambert set up the ivory alphabet tiles in a randomly arranged circle, placing an upturned glass in the centre. They returned to their seats and placed their index fingers on the glass.
“Someone needs to ask a question,” directed Lady Moira.
Dr Watson reminded himself not to roll his eyes.
“I will ask a question,” volunteered the Countess. “Will I ever marry again?”
The glass slid slowly to ‘yes’. As well as letters of the alphabet there were a few tiles with frequently used words on them.
Miss Lambert gave a joyous little clap of hands.
“Do not remove your finger, Miss Lambert,” reprimanded the dowager as she steered the glass back to the centre. “It breaks the connection to the spirit world. You must ask the next question to re-open the portal.”
Miss Lambert looked flustered as she replaced her finger. “I’m sorry, Lady Moira. Oh, dear, I cannot think of anything to ask.”
“Don’t be so foolish,” rasped the dowager. “Of course you can!”
Miss Lambert blushed and blurted, “Will I marry my one true love?”
The glass seemed to go one way, stop, and then go the other way. Miss Lambert bit her lip. Dr Watson decided to give the spirit world some help. He exerted considerable pressure on the glass and steered it to where he wanted it to go. The relief on Miss Lambert’s face was worth the deceit.
“Your turn to ask a question, Dr Watson,” said the dowager, eyeing him warily.
It had only been a few minutes but he was already bored with the ludicrous parlour game and feeling bored often went hand in hand with feeling contrary and feeling contrary usually went cheek by jowl with being daring, or rather, reckless and therefore careless of consequences.
“Who killed Mr Brown?”
The glass moved with painstaking slowness around the circle and finally stopped at the letter ‘C’. The doctor was so stunned he lifted his finger without thinking.
“Must I say it again?” rebuked the dowager. “Do not remove your finger. Now you will have to ask another question to restore the link and re-open the portal.”
He felt even more reckless and daring. “Will there be another murder?”
As well as letters of the alphabet and common words there were some Roman numerals among the tiles – I, X, L, C, M. These were underscored to distinguish them from letters. The glass moved to an underscored ‘C’.
The doctor protested that ‘100’ was ridiculous, refraining from adding that the game was stupid and he was clearly mad for participating.
Lady Moira took umbrage. “The Ouija is never wrong. If it fails to make sense it is because you are not yet ready to understand. It is my turn to ask a question now: Who is the father of Miss O’Hara’s baby?”
The glass began sliding toward ‘L’ when Dr Watson decided to fight it but it was akin to battling an invisible force. Someone was exerting considerable pressure. The glass was going back and forth. The idea came like a flash. Abruptly, he withdrew his finger, applying pressure to the rim of the glass as he did so. It did the trick. The glass flipped, tumbled to the floor and rolled under the table.
Lady Moira was furious. She banged her fist on the table and the ivory tiles juddered in all directions. Miss Lambert quickly scrambled to retrieve the ones that had fallen. Prudently, the Countess decided to join her. Dr Watson concluded that now was a good time to serve coffee. He went to find Xenia but as he threw open the door leading to the hall he found Mrs Ross on her knees listening at the keyhole.
“Some coffee,” he said brusquely, “if you will, Mrs Ross,” and briskly closed the door.
It was several minutes before order was restored. They settled into comfortable old armchairs by the fireplace just as Mrs Ross entered with the coffee tray. It was the first time she had come into contact with the two guests. It had been the Countess’s idea to have Xenia serve the dinner on the pretext that Mrs Ross would have enough to do in the kitchen. In truth it was to avoid any awkwardness during the meal.
“Good evening, Mrs Ross,” said Lady Moira stiffly.
“Good evening, your ladyship.”
“You appear to be keeping well?”
“Thank you, your ladyship.”
“Are you still basket-weaving?”
“Yes, your ladyship. Hamish takes my baskets to the market in Duns and old Mrs Greene sells them for me.”
“I have some 5 inch bodkins that I no longer use since my eyesight has started to fade. You may be able to make use of them. Fetch your embroidery bag Miss Lambert. I placed four bodkins into your bag prior to our departure. Keep one for yourself and Mrs Ross can have the other three.”
Miss Lambert delved into her bag and brought out three bodkins with wooden handles and sharp-pointed metallic ends.
“Those are the biggest bodkins I have ever seen,” observed Dr Watson. “They look more like chisels or awls than domestic tools.”
“They look more like lethal weapons,” quipped the Countess as she poured the coffee and offered the first cup to the grande-dame.
“Bodkins come in all sizes,” responded the dowager. “They make useful tools. I keep one in the pocket of my cloak – handy at this time of year for gathering mushrooms and for all sorts of unforeseen eventualities outdoors.”
Mrs Ross thanked Lady Moira and retreated back to the kitchen.
Dr Watson was still feeling reckless and daring. “This afternoon, Lady Moira, you said something about Graymalkin having a long history – something to do with witchcraft. I was wondering if you might elaborate.”
“Such a dark chapter from Scottish history,” the old lady said sadly, accepting a slice of Dundee cake. “Are you sure you wish to hear it with the young ladies present?”
“Oh, I’m sure Miss Lambert and I are much tougher than we look!” joked the Countess, essaying a playful wink at her prim counterpart.
“Very well,” conceded Lady Moira. “Scotland had its own Witchfinder General, an ambitious man by the name of Blair Colquon. The first lady to suffer at his hands was the widow who owned Graymalkin – Jennifer Gray. You have probably seen the dungeon and the instruments of torture. Blair Colquon made good use of them. The Widow Gray was stripped and shaved – a torture in itself for any woman – and then pricked her all over with a bodkin to prove witch-hood. Each time she fainted, she was revived with freezing cold water. The terrible pain and intense cold would have been enough to kill anyone but Widow Gray was hardy. Blair Colquon forced her to wear a scold’s bridle while he inflicted ever more disfiguring punishments until she succumbed. Her body was left in Jackdaw Wood for the wolves to devour.”
The old lady sighed heavily before continuing. “The last witch of the Borders came from these parts too. Her name was Alice Mawson. Mercifully, she was not tortured or left to the mercy of wolves or burnt at the stake. Times had moved on. She was exiled and her wealth and property was confiscated.”
“Did you discover all this when you went to check the archives in Edinburgh?” asked Miss Lambert, sounding impressed.
“Yes,” said Lady Moira, smiling indulgently, the way an adult might smile at a precocious child who has just asked an embarrassing question. “Well, Miss Lambert, I think it might be time to bid our hosts a bonnie good night and to thank them for their hospitality.”
Miss Lambert picked up on the cue and after eliciting charming courtesies went to fetch their fur cloaks, fur gloves and her embroidery bag in which could be found all manner of useful treasure.
“Are you sure the roads will be safe?” posed the Countess, listening to the wind howling around the ramparts. “Perhaps it would be safer for you to stay the night and set off after breakfast. Mrs Ross can -”
“Tosh! The roads will be perfectly safe,” cut off Lady Moira. “I have used them a thousand times in all weathers. The rain has held off and that drizzle is a mere damp squib. We Scots are a hardy race. If we were afraid of a bit of bad weather we would never step outside!”
“I think the Countess may be right,” argued Dr Watson, thinking of this wife’s niece travelling through Jackdaw Wood at night with wolves on the prowl. If anything happened he would never forgive himself – he should never have invited them for dinner, he could see that now. He hadn’t considered the dangers inherent in the return trip home. “The road through Jackdaw Wood is miry at the best of times and the wind may have brought down another tree.”
The Countess was nodding her head in agreement. “Our coachman will not travel through Jackdaw Wood after dark. He thinks – ”
“Spare me!” disdained the old lady. “He thinks it is full of witches! Superstitious tosh and nonsense! I cannot lecture him on his ignorance but you must learn to distinguish between historical fact and childish fairy tale, Countess Volodymyrovna! I bid you good night!”
Dr Watson hauled his trusty golf clubs into the landau, smiling as nervously as a boy going off to boarding school for the first time. The Countess wished him luck with his caddying as she waved him off then quickly donned her warm winter Redingote and set off for the Marmion Hydro Hotel on foot. She wanted to speak to young Robbie Fyfe and she wanted to explore Jackdaw Wood along the way, something she knew her companion in crime would discourage.
The drizzle from the day before had disappeared but a grey haze hung over the land. It was not as thick as London fog, more like a murky grey veil, just enough to confound the senses and bleary the air.
Jackdaw Wood was a queer place – a remnant from a time when Caledon fyrr forests covered most of Scotland. A time of wolf and lynx and wild boar; snow and ice; Picts and Celts. It was a lone survivor in a new landscape treed with slender white beauties called birch and alder, a forgotten place of towering brown trunks that resembled gargantuan legs, like mythic titans minus torsos. Every scarred and wind-whipped trunk was more than a century old, gangrenous with lichen and moss. But what was queer was that there were no jackdaws.
Once the Countess entered the wood it didn’t take long to realize that every moss-mottled trunk looked like another and the one after that and so on. It didn’t take long to lose her bearings. There were no straight paths and too many tracks that curved around clumps of heather and snaked through brittle fronds of bronzy bracken that provided perfect camouflage for foraging deer that sometimes lifted their heads and gave her a fright. The lofty branches dripped with damp and the spongy ground, thick with leaves and centuries of rotting vegetation, made a squelching sound underfoot. Every now and then the greyness was arrested by the startling flash of something vivid as a shaft of sunlight broke through the grey pall and spotlighted a bright red crossbill flitting through the topmost branches.
She heard a rustling sound and looked back. Something darted behind the tree. But which tree? Deliberately, she turned away then spun back round. Something flashed. She knew it wasn’t a deer –wrong shape – or a caipercaillzie – wrong size. Alert to every little sound, she walked on warily, her heartbeat echoing in her ears, but the track wound back on itself and she soon ended up back where she started. The grey veil blurred the light. The trees blocked the sun. She had no idea of the time. She walked on for a bit and once again saw something dart behind the trees – something human.
She turned her back then re-turned sharply and almost died from relief when it turned out to be the young lad, Robbie Fyfe.
He looked equally relieved. “I thought,” he stammered, still getting over the shock, “I thought you might be Mother MacBee. I couldna see your face under the hood and I hid behind a tree. But every time I moved, you seemed to be there. Are you a witch too?”
“No, I’m not a witch. I’m a Countess.”
“Do you count things?”
“My name is Countess Volodymyrovna.”
“That sounds like a witch’s name.”
“Do I look like a witch?”
He studied the mannish great coat. “You could be a shape-shifter. Mother MacBee is a shape-shifter. Sometimes she is a stag and sometimes she is a blackbird.”
“Were you coming to Graymalkin to see me?”
He nodded, looking over his shoulder to make sure they were alone.
“Did you remember something important?”
A sheepish look reminded her he remembered the extra shilling. She extracted a coin and gave it over.
“What did you remember?”
“I remembered I saw a broom down the well.”
“The sort that is rid by witches.”
“Ah! A broom that witches ride? A besom broom?”
He nodded quickly and pocketed the shilling.
“Did you tell anyone else about the broom?”
He shook his head sheepishly and shuffled his feet while he looked down at the ground.
“You kept it secret except foooor…?”
“Becky,” he finished quickly.
“Becky,” she repeated gently. “Why Becky?”
“Because she were cussing and crying and searching everywhere for it. It stood in the doorway to the scullery – for sweeping the fag ends into the well because Mrs Ardkinglas didn’t like the lassies smoking. Does that mean I can not have the extra shilling?”
The Countess thought quickly. The besom broom tied in with the Wicca symbolism but it was also an item common to kitchen courtyards and most likely the weapon the murderer used to strike Mr Brown on the back of the neck before shoving him down the well. The police would need to know about it. It didn’t need to stay a secret.
“You can have the extra shilling because you were a brave lad to come into Jackdaw Wood but first tell me who else might have seen the broom down the well.”
“Anyone coulda but I reckon they didna because none thought to look for it. You could just make out the straw bobbing next to Mr Brown’s boots. It musta gone handle-end first.”
“Yes, I see. When you get back to the hotel you must tell Mrs Ardkinglas that the broom is down the well. Now, off you go home for lunch. Hurry and don’t stop.”
Heeding her own advice, the Countess hurried home but unlike young Robbie she had no idea which path to take. She stood still and took stock, and gradually from a distance she could hear the sound of rushing water and knew she couldn’t be too far from Fickle Beck. She followed the sound and a short time later came into a clearing where the water burbled down the stones. She had walked in a large arc and was downstream from Graymalkin. All she had to do was follow the brook back upstream, but no sooner had she started off than she spotted a large stag with enormous antlers drinking at the river. And that’s when she first heard the singing. A childish chant from somewhere close:
“Ding, dong, dell, pushed down the well…”
The Countess knew at once who the voice belonged to and braced herself for some unpleasantness but when the third sister stepped out from behind a tree she felt her breath catch. MacBee was back-bent and wizened, prematurely aged from years spent foraging in the wilderness – her long, loose, scraggly, white hair had the texture of bleached straw. She was cloaked in black and green tartan, the sort known as Black Watch, and it was easy to see how she might be mistaken for a giant blackbird. Her scratchy voice sounded like rats’ feet on dry grass and whenever she spoke she tilted her head to one side. It made her appear slightly demented.
“Where hast thou been, sister?”
“Killing swine,” replied the Countess glibly, employing Shakespeare in order to sound more confident than she felt.
Mad Mother MacBee threw back her head and laughed at the unlikely response. The sound was exaggerated and sounded like: Caw! Caw! Caw! “Ah! The rump-fed ronyon speaks! Her master’s to Aleppo gone! In a sieve I’ll thither sail! And like a rat… ” Theatrically, she plucked a large dead rat out of a little hessian sack and dangled it by the tail.
The Countess forced herself not to breathe deeply and slowly as she gave her concentration over to the Bard. “I’ll give thee a wind, sister.”
MacBee tilted her head the way a dog does when listening to its master, narrowed her gaze and peered slyly through watery eyes. “Th’art a kind one.”
“And you another,” returned the Countess in a level tone as MacBee dangled the dead rat in front of her horrified face before dropping it back into her sack.
“You know me?”
“The three sisters go together – I know the other two.”
MacBee caterwauled another lunatic laugh and danced a jig, capering on the spot, kicking up her heels, chanting:
“Thus we go in and out,
Once, twice, thrice, about,
All three go into the wood,
To make the charm firm and good!”
An appearance of outward calm was called for. “Hail thee – sister!”
“Hail to all! Hail Macbeth! Murderer! Once, twice, thrice! Hail!”
“Murderer you say – from whence owe you this strange intelligence?”
MacBee circled slowly and seemed pleased when the Countess tensed under her watery scrutiny. “Good sister, why do you start and seem to fear?”
“I fear not the truth – if you can look back in the seeds of time – say it.”
MacBee leapt back as if taking fright and vanished behind a tree.
The Countess whirled on the spot, and whirled again, but there was no sign of the third sister. “Speak – say more to the new sister who neither begs nor fears but seeks the truth.”
“Hail Macbeth! Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!”
MacBee sprang out from behind a tree and danced another impromptu little jig on the spot, singing: “Lesser than, yet greater – not happy, yet much happier.”
Perhaps MacBee was merely ranting, spouting nonsense, mad as a March hare in November. “In the name of truth. Sing what name you know.”
“The earth hath bubbles.”
“As the water has,” responded the Countess, exercising infinite patience.
MacBee looked up to the grey heavens. She appeared momentarily confused, as if she had lost her train of thought in the ethers. “Wither are they vanished?”
“Into the air, melted, as breath into the wind – speak!” prompted the Countess.
MacBee appeared to rouse herself but her train of thought had veered abruptly. “Alack! Alack! See what treasure is in my sack!”
The Countess decided to humour the old woman. “Show me, show me.”
MacBee placed her little sack carefully on a cushion of leaves and opened the drawstring with bent and bony fingers:
“Fillet of a fenny snake, thumb from dead-man in a lake,
eye of newt and leg of frog, paw of cat and tongue of dog,
eyelash from a red-haired drab, wart from Redbeard on a slab,
root of hemlock, slip of yew, gore from fathead cleaved in two,
tooth plucked from a Roman jaw, fingernail from Darkie’s claw,
blond hair from a Viking nob, spittle from an old Salt’s gob,
sweltered venom sleeping got from a posh lord in his cot,
but nowt as yet to see from double-double Dee.”
Shock coursed through the Countess. It was clear that many of the so-called treasures in MacBee’s collection had been taken from the bodies of the deceased – thumb, wart, tooth! But how, when, why? Did MacBee purloin them after the men had been killed but before the bodies were discovered? And if so, did she see who killed them? Or was she, herself, the murderess? Mad in more than name! The Countess tempered her revulsion though her heart was pounding like a war drum and she felt physically sick.
“Oh, well done!” she managed with outward calm. “I commend your pains!”
A rustling sound startled them both and they turned their heads to the noise. MacBee stooped like a pecking bird and quickly packed up her hessian sack, carefully tightening the drawstring on her bower bag. The sound came again but this time she recognized it and laughed softly, strangely.
“By the pricking of my thumb,
Something wicked this way doth come.”
Sensing the strange sister was about to take flight, the Countess pressed her for more information. “A deed without a name. Name the deed. Name the name.”
“Harpier! Paddock! Grimalkin! Hark! They sit in the foggy cloud and wait for me! Make haste! I come!”
“Wait! When shall we two meet again?”
MacBee turned back. “When the hurly-burly’s done, when the game’s lost and won.”
“Name the place.”
MacBee cupped an ear. “The brindled cat doth mew. Aroint thee, now!”
“Name the place,” repeated the Countess a little more desperately.
“Upon the ruined heath.”
No sooner had Mother MacBee vanished than the Countess angled for home and gasped with fright. In the exact spot where the stag had been drinking now stood Mrs Ross. Over her arm was a basket full of chanterelles and brown caps. The Countess decided not to mention her encounter with the third sister unless Mrs Ross brought it up, but as they walked back together to Graymalkin, the latter dropped no hint that she was cognisant of it.
Mrs Ross was the most stoic and the most taciturn of the sisters. Apart from the fact that she was the mother of Hamish and supplemented her income by basket weaving, the Countess knew next to nothing about her. Over lunch the Countess tried to remedy this by taking her meal in the kitchen. She broached several topics ranging from the romance between Hamish Ross and Miss Lambert to the Scottish play – to no avail. Finally she resorted to the ins and outs of basket weaving as a way to learn more about her housekeeper but all she learned was that the new bodkins would come in handy and that the baskets were sold in the market at Duns.
Mrs Ross was an exemplary housekeeper and an excellent cook but she was also a woman who kept her own counsel and never wore her heart on her sleeve. Unsurprising, considering she had lived for many years on her own in a lonely old castle, no husband, and her only child off at boarding school in Edinburgh. It must have been a lonely life until Colonel and Mrs Ardkinglas arrived at the hunting lodge. The third sister was another puzzle. Was she always mad? How did she come to make her home in the middle of Jackdaw Wood? And why, if she was a triplet, did she not resemble her two siblings?
Dr Watson returned in time for dinner, cold, exhausted, but rather pleased with himself. His caddying skills were well received and he was able to make some instructive suggestions that improved Mr Bancoe’s score. Mr Bancoe and Mr Larsenssen played a very decent 3 under par – their best score yet. Tomorrow he would return to the links, along with the other three members of his group, to oversee the game of Miss Dee and Mr Dee, who carry their own clubs and do the caddying for each other.
“So nothing untoward happened?” remarked the Countess.
“There were no attempts on anyone’s life, if that’s what you mean,” he returned lightly before his brows pleated. “There was just one thing that seemed, well, odd.”
“Odd is probably not the right word. I don’t mean strange or supernatural but it’s something that struck me as, well, odd.”
“Your instinct noted something at odds with your brain – is that what you are getting at?”
“Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.”
“And what was this oddness?”
“Mr MacDuff is the worst caddy I have ever come across.”
She was expecting something a little more significant and felt disappointed. But there was nothing odd about male rivalry especially when it came to sport. No doubt he had told himself all day that he was the better caddy. “Oh,” she said.
“He couldn’t tell one club from another.”
“Is that important?”
“Important! It is paramount! A good caddy will advise on the best club to use and the wind direction and the curve of the green and so on! It can mean the difference between a good game and a great one!”
“Mmm, try to find out all you can about him tomorrow. How long he has been caddying. How he came to be caddying for Mr Larssensen. And anything else that comes to mind.”
He nodded sagely, stewing over the fact he had taken the man into his confidence regarding the death of Mr Brown. “How was your day?” he asked to take his mind off his blunder, and was surprised by what she had to say. Her day was much more fruitful.
Firstly, she told him about the besom broom down the well. He agreed with her conclusion that the broom was probably the instrument that caused the mark to the back of Mr Brown’s neck. He made a mental note to quiz Mr MacDuff about it tomorrow morning as soon as he picked him up in the landau. Did he notice it down the well before the body had been fished out? And if he did, why didn’t he mention it when the injury to the back of the neck came to light? Suddenly, the coincidence of the pale green paper found in Mr Brown’s pocket and the colour of Mr MacDuff’s scoring booklet came back to bite him. Did MacDuff slip a note under Mr Brown’s door while he slept, arranging to meet him in the kitchen courtyard where he killed him?
Secondly, she recounted meeting Mother MacBee in Jackdaw Wood. He did not seem too perturbed as to how the third sister did not resemble the other two and recalled a colleague who once presided over the birth of triplets – two identical girls and the third a boy! “It can happen,” was all he said.
When she moved on to describe the sack of treasures he was all ears.
“I wrote down the rhyme as best as I could remember it as soon as I got home,” she said, extracting a piece of paper from her pocket and handing it to him. “Fortunately, I have an exceptional memory and it helped that each line contained its own rhyme. Once I remembered the first word the rest of the line followed quickly.
Ignoring the narcissism – he’d had long practice with Sherlock – his eyes skimmed the paper then went back to the beginning as he read out loud:
“Fillet of a fenny snake, thumb from dead-man in a lake,
Root of hemlock, slip of yew, gore from thickhead cleaved in two,
Eye of newt and leg of frog, paw of cat and tongue of dog,
Eyelash from a redhead drab, wart from Redbeard on a slab,
Tooth ripped from a Roman jaw, fingernail from Darkie’s claw,
Blond hair from a Viking nob, spittle from an old Salt’s gob,
Sweltered venom sleeping got from a posh lord in his cot,
But nowt as yet to see from double-double Dee.”
By the time he finished reading his thoughts were tripping over themselves in the rush to find coherence. “Do you realize what this means? Of course you do! That’s why you went to the effort of remembering every detail and writing it down!”
The Countess, having already digested the contents of MacBee’s sack, was one step ahead of him. “MacBee had access to the dead bodies – either just after they were killed because she killed them or some time shortly afterwards. Did Mycroft mention the missing thumb from the American’s hand?”
“No, and I don’t believe he would have overlooked such an important detail.”
“That means the missing thumb was overlooked and thus not reported – highly unlikely as a point was made of the horned god pose – or it was chopped off later. Logic says the latter – after the body was transferred to the ice house.”
Dr Watson was taking a different but parallel line. “The rhyme also suggests MacBee can get in and out of Cruddock Castle without being observed.”
“A fact confirmed by the sweat she got from a sleeping lord.”
“Exactly! She must have been in his bedchamber!”
“And she somehow wiped his brow using his own handkerchief which she took away with her. Perhaps she is a witch after all?”
“Don’t even suggest it! She must have a key. She could have stolen one any time in the last umpteen years. And I suspect that a glass of whiskey is rarely far from his lordship’s reach. I think it safe to assume he is a heavy sleeper.”
“She must have been in Lola’s bedchamber too. She has an eyelash.”
“The brazen old hag!”
“What about the wart from Redbeard on a slab? That must be a reference to Mr Brown. Did you notice any disfigurement or incision?”
“He was fully clothed. His face was horribly bloated but there was no disfiguring. Wait! I remember looking at his left hand and thinking that the knuckle had been badly skinned. I presumed it had scraped the wall of the well as it went down but now that I think on it the cut seemed too neat. She must have gone down to the cellar and incised the wart.”
“I thought you instructed Mr MacDuff to lock it and keep the key.”
“I did – that’s another question I want answered tomorrow morning.”
“Could she have sliced off the wart before the body was transferred to the cellar?”
He considered the question thoughtfully, rubbing his chin as he pictured the wound. “No, the blood had congealed before the wart was cut off. There was no bleeding around the knuckle.”
“That implies she in unlikely to be the murderess.”
“In other words, she is merely mad!”
“Or just practicing witchcraft – using body parts for her spells.”
“It is sickening! I cannot believe such practices are still going on at the dawn of the twentieth century.”
“I agree but let’s not get distracted by such issues.”
He cast his eyes back over the paper. “The gore from a thickhead cleaved in two must be a reference to the Australian who was killed by a falling branch. What form did the gore take?”
“It looked like dried blood on a section of scabrous white bark.”
“Yes, that matches the death in a birch wood. What about the tooth? Roman jaw suggests the Italian – what was his name?”
“Giuseppe Sforza,” she supplied.
“Incredible! She must have ripped the tooth straight out of the corpse’s mouth!”
“And the cat’s paw in the sack,” she suddenly remembered. “It was black. It must have been sliced off the drowned moggy.”
“Yes!” he agreed with a shudder. “And she must have fished it out of the water later because Mycroft did not describe the black cat as three-legged and he would not have failed to pass on such a detail.”
“Do you realize what that means?” she put to him, suppressing a cold shiver. “She seems to be everywhere and nowhere, lurking about, almost invisible. She might have witnessed all of the murders. She might even know who the murderer is.”
He began shaking his head. “I think she committed the murders herself! Her gruesome treasures might be gory keepsakes. I think she takes a memento mori to remind her of each killing. If time is of the essence or she is about to be disturbed she flees and returns to the corpse afterwards.”
“Some of the keepsakes are not from corpses,” she reminded.
“Blond hair from a Viking nob, that must be Mr Larssensen and he is still alive.”
“There is no saying she would not take a keepsake before the deed. If she is mad there does not have to be any order or method to the killing spree and the grisly collection.” He ran his eyes over the sheet of paper once more. “Spittle from an old Salt – I’d wager that refers to Mr Bancoe. He looks like an ancient mariner. The fingernail from a Darkie’s claw – that must be either the Rajah or his factotum. They are not yet dead but there is no saying they might not be next. I don’t want you to go into Jackdaw Wood on your own,” he finished with conviction. “In fact, don’t go with anyone at all. Not Mrs Ross and not even Hamish Ross. It is too dangerous. We do not know who we can trust.”
“You need to keep your wits about you too,” she warned. “Three of the deaths occurred on the golf course.”
“I am more worried for your sake. Out here all alone.”
“Not quite alone.”
“You know what I mean.”
“In that case, I might tag along tomorrow as an interested observer. I can provide moral support to Miss Dee.”
He slapped the side of his head. “Oh! I just remembered! Your little rhyme put it from my mind completely. The Rajah has invited you to accompany him to Edinburgh tomorrow. He is leaving immediately after breakfast and will stay overnight on his private sailing ship moored in the harbour. If you wish to accompany him you are to come with me in the morning to Cruddock Castle with your luggage.”
“Did he say why he was going to Edinburgh?”
“He said something about some telegrams he needed to send and some business transactions to take care of but my impression is that he is growing slightly bored with golfing in general and Scottish life in particular. If it weren’t for the Scottish play and the wedding I think he would have set sail by now.”
“I think I will accept his offer, not because I need to spend time in Edinburgh but because the Rajah might throw more light on what has happened.”
“I have a secret,” confessed the Rajah after they had been travelling for about three hours and he had answered every question with a question of his own that could be summarized: “Why does a beautiful young woman need to dwell on such unpleasant happenstance?” So after three hours of frustration when he finally said “I have a secret” the Countess felt a spark of hope.
“Secret?” she smiled encouragingly.
“What do you know about the Lammas tiara?”
“Only what I read in the newspaper – that it is considered to be the jewel in the crown of Lammermoor. I have never seen it.”
“It is a coronet of diamonds. The largest diamond, the jewel in the crown, was mined in Govinda. The tiara once belonged to my family. It was stolen by Colonel Fotheringay during the Indian Mutiny and commandeered by his superior officer, Lord Cruddock. I am here to purchase the tiara and restore it to its rightful place.”
“I did not realize it was for sale.”
“It was not for sale, but I approached Lord Cruddock and put to him an offer that was difficult for him to refuse.”
“I watched him drop a considerable sum on the baccarat tables in London last year and noted how each time the magnitude of his bets was accompanied by an increase in his consumption of whiskey – a tell-tale sign that a man cannot afford his losses. The following day, when he had sobered up and the painful extent of his losses dawned on him, I invited him to dine and we came to an arrangement that suited us both. Saving face was paramount. I understood that from the outset. The golf tournament provided the perfect ruse. It was his suggestion that I come as a guest to Cruddock Castle to observe the tournament on the pretence of staging something similar back in India. I would naturally be invited to stay for the wedding, and afterwards, just as the happy bride and bridegroom embark on their honeymoon, I set sail with the tiara in my possession and return it to its original home.”
“I presume that without the sale of the tiara his lordship would be near to bankrupt?”
“Creditors have been circling for months. He has been keeping the wolves from the door with fairy tales.”
“That his mother is not long for this world.”
“Is that true?”
“Who knows?” he shrugged. “Perhaps she is more robust than she appears, most old women are, but the point is that she has an extraordinary collection of jewels that have belonged to the family for generations. Upon her demise the jewels will revert to the Cruddock estate. Presumably, his lordship will bestow them on his wife but he has let it be known in certain circles that he will use them to fend off the wolves. Of course, if he sells the tiara to me he does not need to wish his mother dead and can still bestow the jewels on his beautiful wife. He also gets the funds he needs sooner rather than later.”
“If Lord Cruddock is as skint as you say how is he financing the tournament?”
“I am financing the tournament.”
“Does anyone else know of this?”
He shook his head.
“Does anyone else know you are purchasing the tiara?”
He tapped his nose with his forefinger. “Discretion, remember? But it is more than just a matter of saving face. If anyone else got wind of it the castle door would soon be breeched and his lordship would be torn to pieces by the wolves, provided his mother did not get to him first.”
“She is aware of his gambling,” pointed out the Countess.
“But not the extent of his losses.”
“And his future wife?”
“She has other things to occupy her mind.”
“The baby,” she guessed.
He nodded. “The pregnancy does not fare well.”
“How do you know this?”
“The gossip of servants.”
“You listen to servants’ gossip?”
“Mr Chandrapur reports what he hears.”
She doubted that servants would gossip freely in front of a foreign factotum. “He is privy to the gossip below stairs?”
“He moves like a ghost – neither seen nor heard.”
“He is a handy servant to have,” she remarked blandly, thinking again how much the man reminded her of a cat.
“More than a servant – he is a brother, the offspring of my father’s fifth wife. Our family is large. I have twelve brothers and twenty-three sisters. Many have positions in my household. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. The same applies to family – but doubly so.”
“If the sale of the tiara is so hush-hush why are you sharing the news of it with me?”
He took her two hands in his and brought them to his lips. “I think you sensed from our first meeting that I had set my eye on you. When I spoke of taking a fourth wife I think you understood what I was hinting at. I am sharing the secret to prove that I take you into my confidence, that I wish to share my worldly riches with you, including the Lammas tiara, which I will bestow upon you for your lifetime the day we are wed.”
“Is this a proposal?”
“Not yet,” he returned suavely, arching a dark brow playfully. “I am merely voicing my intention, honourable intention, I might add, and giving you time to think about the sort of future you might want for yourself and your future children.”
“You realize I am a widow.”
“I am aware of your circumstances and your position. That is another reason I am treading slowly. However, I must warn you…”
“I am accustomed to getting what I want. When I set my eye on something I never fail to obtain it, for instance, the Lammas tiara. I have waited many years to secure it. I am a patient man. I bide my time. I wait for the right moment. And when that moment arises I do not hesitate to obtain the object of my desire.”
Once again, he kissed her hand before relinquishing it.
“Think about my,” he paused circumspectly and his dark brows drew down into a thoughtful frown. “I won’t say ‘proposal’, that would be too formal, and the word ‘offer’ sounds too business-like, let me repeat, my honourable intention. India is not as backward as you might imagine. Have you ever visited my country?”
“Briefly,” she said. “My aunt and I were guests of the Maharajah of Jaipurana, and I have never considered India to be backward. Tell me about your other three wives.”
By midday they arrived at a coaching inn surrounded by a cluster of barns and stables set in a clearing where several roads intersected just outside the Cruddock estate. They had not taken the same road that initially brought the Countess to the Borders, but took a shortcut through farmland and forest, cutting north-east across Cruddock land. It sliced hours from the journey and helped to explain how Mrs Ardkinglas knew to expect them that first night for dinner even though the Countess and Dr Watson had set off from Edinburgh hours ahead of Lady Moira and her party.
While Fedir saw to the horses, and Mr Chandrapur and Xenia set up a picnic in a sheltered spot by a brook, the Countess stretched her legs. In a nearby field children were building a large bonfire and chanting:
Remember, remember, the fifth of November.
In a small barn an old woman was busy weaving baskets. At her feet was an old border collie, fur slightly matted. He gave a low menacing growl but did not move from his chosen spot.
“Good day to you,” greeted the Countess upon entering the barn. “Are your baskets for sale?”
“Yes, m’lady,” replied the old woman. “Them that’s on that table are ready for market.”
“How much for this willow basket?”
“Do you sell bodkins?”
“Yes, m’lady. All sizes. Over on that far shelf.”
The Countess checked the lethal looking tools. “Do you have any five inch bodkins? I recall Lady Cruddock mentioning that she prefers the five inch.”
“Yes, m’lady. Tis a popular size for working the withy and it was Lady Cruddock which took the last of the five inch bodkins only the other day.”
“Oh, that’s right she bought four new ones.”
“No, m’lady. She bought five.”
The Countess thought the old woman might be confusing five inch with the number five. “Are you sure? I believe she bought four.”
“Four inch bodkins do just as good a job but she wanted only the five inch and took the lot of them.”
“I will take this three inch bodkin along with the willow basket. How much for the two?”
“Five shillings, m’lady.”
“Here are six shillings. Good day to you and your faithful old dog.”
Now, why would Lady Moira buy five of the five inch bodkins and give three of them to Mrs Ross, telling her she no longer needed them due to her failing eyesight. Was it a peace-offering? An act of kindness she did not want fussily acknowledged?
The Countess gave the willow basket to Xenia as a gift, but kept the bodkin. It really was an excellent tool for a lady – small, neat, deadly and purse-sized.
Mr Chandrapur had been responsible for putting together the picnic and it was testament to his usefulness to procure from the cook some tasty morsels at short notice. Xenia had managed to secure some hot tea and cold beer from the coaching inn and the feast was complete. They would have lingered longer but were mindful to get underway as soon as possible. Several hours later they were in Edinburgh. It was in Princes Street that the Countess and the Rajah alighted from the carriage which then proceeded to the harbour with their luggage and their respective servants where the Rajah’s clipper ship – East Wind – was moored.
The Rajah expected the Countess to occupy herself with shopping for new fripperies and arranged to meet her in the Balmoral Tea Shop at six o’clock, but she announced she had an errand of her own to see to and would meet him on his ship in time for a late supper.
The Archives’ Office was just closing its doors when she pushed against the outgoing throng. The head archivist was adamant she could not enter but she met bureaucratic obstinacy with a charm offensive and some shameless name-dropping. The Cruddock moniker plus her own aristocratic title plus three pieces of silver eventually won him over. After the building emptied out, he directed her to a large desk, lit a paraffin lamp, and brought her several large tomes which recorded every detail of the Scottish Witch Trials.
The East Wind was a typical opium clipper, tall-sparred, sleek-hulled, with a massive boom extending from its slender bow. The Countess paid off the cabbie and turned toward the gangway.
“A penny for the old guy?”
Startled, she spun round and in the shadow of some wool bales and coiled ropes was a cadaverous beggar wrapped in filthy rags, sitting cross-legged, his hair and face scoured by the biting North Sea wind. She dropped her last shilling into his begging bowl and watched as a greedy hand with elongated fingers scooped it up.
Fedir was waiting for her at the foot of the gangplank.
“Arrange for that beggar to have some hot food,” she instructed.
“That one,” she said, looking back over her shoulder, but the miserable wretch had slunk off to the nearest tavern quicker than a rat down a drain.
The Countess’s appetite was negligible and she could hardly keep her eyes open following the strain of reading faded transcripts under dim lamplight. Straight after supper, taken in the Rajah’s luxurious cabin, she elicited sincere apologies, took herself off to bed and fell immediately into a deep sleep, aided by the lulling motion of the waves that gently rocked the ship as if it were a cradle. Numberless hours later, she was woken abruptly from her slumber when she was almost tossed out of her bunk. A change of tide and a stronger wind perhaps, she thought, as she rolled over and fell back asleep. And thus she slept soundly until a voice roused her none too gently.
“The ship, it has sailed in the night!”
That roused her! Eyes flew open and she sat bolt upright, hitting her head on the bunk above. The gentle bobbing motion of a ship moored in a sheltered bay had morphed into the unmistakable sensation of a sleek vessel clipping the waves. Her ears caught the creak and groan of timbers as waves dashed the hull and the ship pitched and rose and pitched again.
Panic, goaded by the twins of Fear and Confusion, spurred the Countess into action. She threw back the bedcovers, leapt out of her bunk, pushed her arms through the sleeves of the dressing gown the maid held out, and stormed the deck. White light was painting the east with broad strokes, a precursor to the dawn, and yes, the clipper ship was skimming the waves, its square-rigged canvas sails harnessing the fullness of the wind. Dark-skinned sailors were scrambling like monkeys up and down rope ladders, dangling from cross beams, unfurling yet another sail until at least thirty of them flapped like angry giant birds, including skysails, moonrakers, and three studding-sails attached to the boom. Fortunately, they had not yet lost sight of the coast of Scotland. It was not too late to turn back.
An adrenal rush propelled the Countess straight to the cabin of the Rajah. Guarding his door was Mr Chandrapur. Did the ghost-cat never sleep?
“Get out of my way!” she snapped.
He stood with arms crossed in front of his substantial chest. “The master is asleep.”
“Not for long!” she dared. “Get out of my way!”
They heard a sleepy voice from inside the cabin.
“Let the Countess pass.” The deep husky voice was muffled by layers of coverlets.
“Turn this ship around and return at once to the harbour!” she commanded as soon as she pushed past the factotum, Xenia hot on her heels. “I will not be kidnapped! Do you hear! Turn back at once!”
The Rajah raised himself on his elbows. His chest was bare and little whorls of black hair sprinkled the mahogany expanse. Minus his turban, some glossy black hair spilled over broad naked shoulders.
“Calm yourself, dear Countess. Let me explain.” He turned briefly to his factotum. “Darjeeling and brioches.”
The Countess continued to pace the Oriental rug, the blood chugging through her veins, though she no longer felt panicked. The feeling that had overtaken fear and confusion was anger. Incensed, she was not about to couch her displeasure in feminine niceties. “Do not tell me to calm myself! There is nothing more infuriating to a woman than to be told by a man to calm herself when she has every reason to feel angry!”
“Yes, yes” he placated. “It makes light of your fears.”
“It is condescending and patronizing!”
“That too, yes, but draw breath, dear Countess, dismiss your maid and let me explain.”
Reluctantly, she dismissed Xenia with a nod of her head but continued to pace the rug like a caged tigress, hackles raised, teeth barred, claws out, roused and growly.
“You are not being kidnapped,” he assured. “We are sailing to Berwick-on-Tweed. The carriage will meet us in Berwick later this morning, having been driven by one of my men overnight using fresh horses.”
“To what end?” she demanded.
“Our return journey today will be the shorter for it.”
She continued to pace fiercely, combing elongated fingers through her unbrushed brunette mane but paused abruptly and glanced down at a desk strewn with papers and documents when something momentarily caught her eye and held it. “Why, er, why was I not informed of your plan last night?”
“You appeared exhausted. I did not wish to burden you with plans which were not fully formed. I made the decision only after you had retired for the evening.”
“It seems a lot of fuss and bother for the sake of a few hours of travelling time.”
The Rajah pulled himself upright and leaned against a bank of pillows. His travelling companion was proving even more attractive with fire in her cheeks, and some scandalous tresses cascading slumbrously halfway down her back, swaying like a burnished bell from side to side each time she flicked her head. And the silky peignoir silhouetting her slender frame was enough to inflame the meekest of men. The Rajah could feel himself getting hard. An ancient Sanskrit text told of fair-haired invaders. He had always believed them to be Scythians – the name of the people who inhabited Ukraine in ancient times. Circassian beauties had always been the most prized.
“I received an urgent telegram yesterday in Edinburgh informing me of some unrest in my kingdom. One of my ambitious brothers is stirring up a nest of vipers. As soon as the tiara is in my hands, the morning after the wedding, I shall set sail for my homeland. Every extra mile I cover now will be one less mile to cover then. To that end we sail east. We drop anchor in time for breakfast.”
This extra information went some way to calming her nerves. She digested the explanation and drew breath for the first time since waking in fright with visions of white slave traders, eastern flesh pots, marriage markets, nabobs, brothels and corsairs playing havoc with her fertile imagination. Mrs Radcliffe had a lot to answer for! Fantasies were all very romantic until you were forced to actually live them!
Without warning he caught her arm and jerked her off her feet. She landed awkwardly on top of him. The kiss that followed was masterful and all too brief, cut short by the return of the Ghost Cat.
“I have revealed my secret,” said the Rajah when they were trundling west in the carriage, following yet another road to Cruddock Castle, “now it is your turn.”
“You have a secret. Everyone does.”
“Certainly, but a lady’s charms are diminished by revealing too much.”
“I am not referring to your past. You can weave whatever fantasy suits you. I am referring to the present. Why did you come to Graymalkin?”
She had feared for a moment he was alluding to the fact she was the daughter of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, but of course he could not possibly know it. Mycroft Holmes was the only person, other than Dr Watson, who knew of it.
“As I explained that first night at dinner – I inherited Graymalkin from my step-aunt and decided to see for myself exactly what it was that I had inherited.”
“And Dr Watson?”
“My dear friend and a native Scot, being rather passionate about golf and wanting to make sure his late wife’s niece was faring well, offered to accompany me when he read about the Lammermoor tournament in the newspaper.”
“He is not your lover?”
She laughed. “I like him too much to ever take him as a lover!”
“I am relieved to hear it, though worryingly, it implies you are not averse to taking a lover and that you would choose a man you actually dislike.”
Strange that talking about possible lovers to a prospective husband was less fraught with pitfalls than talking about why she had come to Graymalkin.
“I am not averse to taking a lover, though I have not yet done so. If and when I do take a lover I will certainly choose someone I like rather than loathe, though I will think twice before ruining a good friendship.”
“Intimacy strengthens friendship – the act of intercourse is raw and honest.”
Her step-aunt’s voice came back to her – sex and friendship cancel each other out, sex is play-acting, friendship is real – the former is transient, the latter enduring…
“The act of intercourse is full of conceit – that is what makes it so much fun but ultimately self-defeating.”
He threw back his head and laughed richly before meeting her gaze. “Speaking of conceit, you still have not told me why you really came to Graymalkin?”
She quickly intuited a lie would not suffice, and sometimes one secret needed to be exposed for another to stay safely hidden. “Dr Watson was a great friend of the detective Sherlock Holmes. They solved many mysteries together. I’m afraid my dear friend now fancies himself as a bit of a sleuth,” she dissembled convincingly. “The reasons I gave for our coming are true, but you can add that he was intrigued by the three deaths, four counting Mr Brown, and was keen to get to the bottom of them.”
“Ah, that is why you pressed me for my view on the matter?”
“I admit I was curious as to what you thought since you have been here from the outset. Do you consider the three deaths to be mere accidents? Or murder?”
“Murder,” he said.
“To destroy Lord Cruddock.”
“Who would wish such a thing?”
“If Dr Watson is looking for a culprit he is spoilt for choice. A rich man has no friends, only levels of enemies. They are called Envy, Resentment, Revenge, Righteousness, Jealousy, Greed, Ambition and Hate. I think Dr Watson will find that the murderer is not an outsider. The deadliest viper is the one underfoot.”
“Tell me about the Indian Mutiny.”
Rain set in at midday when they stopped for lunch at a farmhouse, and continued throughout the afternoon. They arrived at Cruddock Castle in time for afternoon tea. Dr Watson was amongst those waiting to greet them. Before the Countess could enjoy a second cup of Mr Twinings the doctor had ushered her into the landau and was whisking her back to Graymalkin, talking eagerly about the events of the day.
“I tried to find out as much as I could about Mr MacDuff without arousing his suspicion. He claims to be a member of the Shepstone Golf Club and says he was dispatched as an observer to report on the prospect of holding a similar tournament next year at his club. But I am not convinced. His explanation sounds far too similar to that of the Rajah of Govinda and his knowledge of golf is poor and his caddying skills laughable. What’s more, he arrived well after the tournament commenced. He ended up caddying for Mr Larssensen after the three murders sent everyone else packing. No other caddies were forthcoming and he stepped up. I will be keeping a close eye on him during the next few days.”
“By the way, the Rajah is not here to observe the tournament. That was a ruse invented by Lord Cruddock. The Rajah is here to purchase the Lammas tiara.”
The doctor regarded her quizzically. “You heard this from the Rajah’s own lips? Or is this something you intuited by way of feminine logic?”
She ignored the provocation. “The tiara features the Govinda diamond. It once belonged to the Rajah’s family. It was stolen during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, otherwise known as the Indian Uprising, by Colonel Fotheringay and later commandeered by his superior officer, Lord Cruddock. The Rajah is keen to restore it to its rightful home.”
“I cannot believe his lordship would part with such an heirloom. I cannot believe his mother would countenance it. I cannot believe his fiancé would be happy about it either.”
“Lord Cruddock is bankrupt from gambling losses. The sale is a secret. Neither his fiancé nor his mother knows of it. The Rajah is waiting until after the wedding day to spirit it away. It is the Rajah who is financing the golf tournament. He believes the murders are being committed by someone close to his lordship who is out to destroy him.”
“He could well be speaking about himself. Years of rancour may have built up over the purloining of the tiara in the first place, and having to buy back something which was yours in the first place cannot be an easy thing to stomach. Something like that sticks in a man’s craw. And his factotum recalls a wily assassin I once tangled with in Afghanistan. But I take my hat off to you – your trip to Edinburgh was not for nothing. Did you learn anything else?”
“The Rajah’s ship is no longer moored in the harbour. We sailed to Berwick-on-Tweed during the night. There is discontent in his kingdom which he must quell as soon as possible and he is hoping for a quick departure the morning after the wedding.”
The doctor’s voice took on a teasing tone. “Is the nabob still intent on making you his next concubine?”
“Oh, yes,” she replied blithely, “and the Lammas tiara will be mine to keep for my lifetime – a wedding gift!”
The doctor’s smile soured. “And what sort of dowry will he expect in return?”
“He did not mention a dowry.”
“I don’t wonder.”
She recognized jealousy when she heard it and laughed dismissively. “The real reason I went to Edinburgh was not to secure a new husband but to study the transcripts pertaining to the Scottish Witch Trials.”
“Sombre reading matter,” he commented with typical Scottish understatement. “Do you think there might be a connection between the Wicca symbolism and the events of the past?”
“I’m not sure but something Miss Lambert said stayed in my mind.”
“You may need to elaborate. I am in the dark.”
“The night of the Ouija game Miss Lambert said something about Lady Moira going to Edinburgh to read up about the Witch Trials. Lady Moira dismissed the remark rather briskly. Later that night, the howling wind kept me tossing and turning and I thought it odd that Lady Moira would travel all the way to Edinburgh to study archives she has had access to for most of her life, especially as she now has so much on her plate: the golf tournament, a family wedding, the play and so forth.”
“Not to mention some unhappy spirits and four murders,” he interrupted. “Please go on.”
“I remembered the two names she mentioned – Jennifer Gray and Alice Mawson.”
“The first victim of the Scottish Witchfinder General in the Borders and the last woman to be tried as a witch hereabouts,” he clarified to jog his memory.
“Yes, that’s right. Well, Jennifer Gray, the widowed owner of Graymalkin, was denounced as a witch by the local blacksmith, a man by the name of Dirk Ardkinglas, a failed suitor. She endured horrific torture in her own dungeon and died unrepentant. Graymalkin and the land that came with it passed into the hands of the Ardkinglas family before being sold off.”
“Sadly, that appears to be a common feature of witch trials. Revenge, greed and unrequited love coupled with the absolute power of a self-righteous misogynist acting in God’s name are all that is needed to justify unspeakable torture and unbearable suffering, but I don’t see the connection to the present.”
“Neither do I. Graymalkin must have passed through dozens of hands since then and now belongs to me. I simply shudder that there but for the grace of time and tide, go I.”
“What about the second name?”
“Alice Mawson, the last witch of the Borders, was denounced when the witch trials were on the wane.”
“The public had probably grown sick to death of torture.”
“Unlikely. Anyhow, Alice Mawson, also a wealthy widow, owned all the farmland that surrounds Cruddock Castle today. Her manor house stood on the site of Maw Crag and was originally called Lammas Castle Farm. She was also denounced by a member of the Ardkinglas clan after a milch cow went dry. She was not tortured but tried in a court of law, found guilty of bewitching the cow, and exiled. The interesting thing is that the presiding judge was a man named Judge Cruddock. And even more interesting, it was Judge Cruddock who ended up as the owner of her estate after she trudged off to parts unknown.”
“I see,” he said thoughtfully, stroking his beard. “The Cruddocks prospered at the expense of the exiled widow who most likely forfeited her wealth in exchange for her life. There is a connection, though it is tenuous at best. We are talking about a century ago.”
“That’s the really interesting part – the numeral 100.”
“I am still in the dark?”
“Do you recall the night of the Ouija game when the tile pointed to 100 and you said it didn’t make sense and Lady Moira responded with something like: that is because you cannot yet understand it.”
“I still don’t.”
“The date of the witch trial was the fifth of November 1799. The day of the wedding and the conclusion of the tournament will coincide with the day Alice Mawson was found guilty, relieved of her wealth and sent into exile with nothing but the clothes on her back at the start of winter – exactly 100 years ago.”
“A sad coincidence,” he concluded dismally. “Though I am loath to dismiss any fact as coincidence, this one is so tenuous it has faded into the far-fetched mists of time. You don’t seriously believe anyone would set out to avenge Mistress Alice after 100 years? And please don’t answer that. It was rhetorical.”
“All right then,” she pouted, “but one last thing before I rest my case. On our way to Edinburgh we stopped at a coaching inn on the outskirts of the Cruddock estate. Some children were building a huge bonfire and chanting: Remember, remember, the fifth of November. It seems that the far-fetched mists of time are still thriving in the Scottish Borders.”
He burst out laughing. “That rhyme has nothing to do with Alice Mawson. The children were singing about Guy Fawkes. The fifth of November commemorates the night he tried to blow up Parliament. In England he is a figure of derision, a straw man to be burnt on the pyre, in these parts he is a hero!”
Come midnight, and Dr Watson’s robust guffaws continued to echo in her ears. The moon cast a voyeuristic beam through the uncurtained glass and the wind rattled the panes. The embers in the fire were dying. The Countess attempted to resuscitate them with a handful of pine cones then moved to the window and felt the breath catch in her throat. Someone was hurrying across the footbridge, away from the castle, moving awkwardly like a blackbird with its wings clipped. She pressed her face to the misty glass and the blood froze in her veins. At the end of the footbridge, the figure paused a moment just as the moon sailed out from behind a cloud and that’s when she saw that out of the hooded head grew a set of antlers! She thought she might be dreaming and closed her eyes, counted to three, then re-opened them – the antlers were still there!
Suddenly the figure looked back at Graymalkin, directly up at her window, possibly attracted by the reddish glow from the resuscitated fire. In a moment of sheer terror, the Countess leapt back from the window, skidded on the rag rug and crashed to the floor, thankfully landing on her derriere. Her heart was thrashing and she was a mass of sweat despite the chill. After a few short breaths, she crept gingerly to the window and from behind a corner of the curtain peered out. But the supernatural shape had been swallowed up by the shadows of the night.
“I forgot to tell you that the police constable from Duns arrived yesterday to examine the body of Mr Brown,” said Dr Watson as they sat facing each other at the breakfast table. “After a cursory inspection of the kitchen courtyard and the dead body, the fool of a constable concluded that death was due to suicide. There will be an inquest on the seventh of November in Duns. Mr MacDuff will be summoned along with Mrs Ardkinglas and young Robbie Fyfe. My presence will not be required because a proper autopsy will be carried out by a surgeon who specializes in such things for the police.”
The Countess barely heard a word the doctor said. She was still thinking about what she had seen during the night, or perhaps what she thought she had seen. Antlers! Really! She must have been dreaming she was not dreaming! The shadows of the night, the strain of the carriage journey, talk of witches and the eerie presence of Jackdaw Wood – was enough to fuel any number of nightmares.
“Is my hair all right, madame?”
The Countess looked up quickly. “I beg your pardon?”
Mrs Ross was standing in the doorway, a pot of tea in her hands. “You keep staring at my hair, madame. I wondered if there was something not right with it.”
Good grief! The Countess warned herself to get a grip. “No, no, it’s fine. I was just thinking that the way you have coiled it might suit me. It is very becoming, Mrs Ross.”
“Thank you, madame.”
“What is wrong with you this morning?” chided Dr Watson when they were alone in the breakfast room once again. “I don’t believe you heard a word I said.”
“Of course I did. You were talking about Mr Brown.”
“I moved on from that topic ten minutes ago. I was talking about the dress rehearsal. If we don’t get a move on we will arrive late and you know what that means. I hope you haven’t forgotten we are staying the night at the castle. Is twenty minutes enough time for you to gather any last minute things? I instructed Fedir to have the bags in the landau ready for nine o’clock. Where on earth is Xenia?” he finished with exasperation.
Throughout the journey the Countess could not shake the image of Mrs Ross with antlers growing from her head. It was ridiculous, fanciful, mad, but there it was!
Scene 1: Upon a heath.
Thunder and lightning. Enter three witches.
The dramatic gestures and exaggerated poses of Countess Volodymyrovna, Miss Lambert and Xenia earned rare praise from Miss O’Hara. Encouraged, they hammed it up even more. When Xenia’s voluminous hood flew back (supposedly from a violent gust of wind) revealing the long blonde plait snaking like a golden serpent down her back, Miss O’Hara clapped her hands with glee.
“Bravo! Bravo!” she applauded. “A nice touch! I have never witnessed such a perfect trio of witches!” she lauded without a trace of irony. “Now for scene 2. A smooth change of scenery Mr Ross! Well done! Can we have some alarum – that means drums! Oh, wonderful! Perfect tempo! Good man, Fedir!”
And so it went all morning. Miss O’Hara was the only person in the audience, directing and starring at the same time. Everyone else was either in their dressing room or preparing to enter the stage via the vestry or exiting the stage via the porch. Scene changes ran like clockwork and Miss O’Hara was in a rare good mood that became quite infectious. Even Carter earned praise for his manliness. And when he and Miss O’Hara appeared on stage together as Lord and Lady Macbeth, and breaths were tightly drawn with fear and trepidation, it was a word-perfect triumph. What a pairing! A genuine coup de theatre!
Everyone decamped in high spirits to the glass conservatory where a buffet lunch had been laid on in high style. Dr Watson was in the highest spirits of them all. He had solved the problem of the mysterious poacher the moment Carter-Macbeth appeared on stage wearing greasepaint, wrapped in a cloak of grey and purple tartan. A little more greasepaint and his skin would have taken on the tanned hue of a foreigner, or, as Ned the woodchopper put it: a darkie. Going by that description, he had suspected Mr Chandrapur of murdering Mr Brown, but the factotum had no motive. But Mr Carter Dee did.
All that the good doctor needed to establish was opportunity and he had his murderer ready to hand over at the inquest. He pictured another coup de theatre with himself as the star and his chest swelled.
“A penny for your thoughts?”
Dr Watson was jolted out of his moment of self-applause. “I beg your pardon?”
“You were looking rather pleased with yourself, Uncle John. I wondered what had ushered in such an engaging smile.”
Miss Lambert was lunching with Mr Hamish Ross at a wrought iron table positioned in a corner of the conservatory, half-hidden by a plethora of potted palms, tropical ferns and exotic orchids. “Please join us,” she invited, indicating the third chair, asking him again about his smile.
Dr Watson felt a bit like a third wheel as he sat down. “I was feeling relieved that the full dress rehearsal went so well,” he lied. “I hope it all goes equally well tonight.”
“I’m sure it will be a great success,” ventured Miss Lambert, nibbling on a cheese and ham scone.
Hamish Ross shrugged his substantial shoulders as he shovelled down some cold roast beef. “What does it matter whether it is a success or a failure? It is being staged for the benefit of publicity for the golf tournament – so even a dismal failure will be counted a success as long as someone writes an article for the newspapers.”
“The tournament,” pointed out Dr Watson somewhat morosely, “has finished ahead of schedule due to a lack of competition so a bit of positive publicity cannot be a bad thing. The Dees will play-off against each other as scheduled on the fifth of November. Will your mother be amongst the audience tonight?” asked Dr Watson, changing the subject and trying not to picture performances past that would have made words such as ‘dismal failure’ sound like high praise.
Hamish Ross shook his head as he shovelled down more cold cuts slathered with apple jelly. “My mother has gone to help out at the hotel. Your coachman has been roped in as well, along with several local lads and lassies. The hotel is full. My aunt is in quite a tizzy. There are eleven reporters, five photographers and two sketch artists. Most have come from Duns and Peebles or towns nearby, but two have come all the way from Edinburgh. Miss O’Hara is the draw card, of course, but the reporters are all staying on for the wedding, the golf final and the inquest into Mr Brown’s death too. I imagine they will be nosing around the estate for the next few days, getting underfoot and making life difficult.”
“You don’t seem too sorry not to be starring in the play,” observed the doctor, noting the bountiful appetite and the lack of bitterness in the young man’s forthright tone.
Hamish Ross gave a vigorous and throaty laugh. “No fear, Dr Watson! I am immensely relieved! I prefer to work behind the scenes, backstage. It suits me. I guess it comes from being a ghillie and spending long days with only Thane for company. I don’t crave an audience and I’m not one for hogging the limelight. Besides, Carter Dee is a natural thespian. Some men are born to it. No disrespect,” he said, lowering his voice, “but he always struck me as a bit of a show pony.” He glanced meaningfully at Miss Lambert. “Remember the Lammas Ball?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, elaborating. “It was a costume ball with a prize for the best costume. Miss Dee and Mr Dee swapped roles. He dressed as his sister and she dressed as her brother. They had everyone fooled all night. It was only after the masks came off at midnight that anyone knew – and how we gasped!”
“I suppose no one bothered to look at his shaky hands,” said the doctor dryly.
“Oh, no,” countered Miss Lambert. “His hands only started shaking recently. I cannot remember when exactly.”
“I think it was after the third death,” interposed Hamish Ross. “Everyone was a bit on edge after the third death. I think it affected him more than most since he was the favourite for taking out the big prize.”
“Are you sure?” queried the doctor. “I watched them play yesterday and I thought the sister was the superior player.”
“No doubt about that now,” agreed the ghillie. “But at the commencement of the tournament Carter Dee was relaxed and in top form. His sister was tense and anxious. You could see it in the way she held herself, as tight as a coiled spring, and the way she hit her shots off the tee was plain dangerous. It wasn’t safe to stand too close. But it seems to have gone the other way now – done a complete turnaround. He is a bundle of nerves and she is incredibly sure of herself. If she doesn’t take out the prize I will be surprised. What do you think Miss Lambert” he put to his companion, drawing the young lady back into the conversation. “Would you say that is a fair assessment?”
She nodded enthusiastically and smiled prettily. “Yes, quite, in fact I cannot help thinking of the Dees in terms of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth but taking on the opposite roles, same as the Lammas Ball. I hope that doesn’t sound too frivolous,” she expressed blushingly.
The doctor’s bushy brows pleated fretfully. “I’m sorry I don’t follow.”
“Oh, I’m hopeless at explaining things. Lady Moira is always saying that complicated thoughts only lead to complications.”
“Not at all,” disputed the doctor. “Complex thoughts are the making of us. Have a go at explaining what you mean,” he encouraged.
“Well, what I meant was, Miss Dee was ill at ease to begin with, reluctant to throw herself into the competition, she had no taste for it, the same as Macbeth was reluctant when Lady Macbeth first suggested they murder Duncan. Whereas Mr Dee was keen as mustard, ready to hurl himself into the fray and eliminate the competition by fair means or foul, as greedy and ambitious as Lady Macbeth, without scruple. Now, after the three deaths, well, it is even more like the play. There has been a complete turnaround with regards to character. Miss Dee is unstoppable, as if she has got a knack for killing off the competition and cannot stop herself, the same as Macbeth who takes to murdering with a passion, while Mr Dee is going to pieces, a bundle of nerves, wringing his hands – just like Lady Macbeth.”
“You expressed that very clearly, Miss Lambert,” praised the ghillie, causing a most becoming blush to suffuse her cheeks.
“Yes,” agreed Dr Watson, full of respect for his wife’s niece. “You have drawn parallels with the play and put forward your ideas most succinctly. I am very proud of you.”
With a head crammed full of parallel thoughts, Dr Watson picked up his now empty plate. “Excuse me, but the buffet beckons and I will return for seconds of the curried haddock.” He forced a smile, not because he was worried or upset but because he was acutely aware that he had forgotten to ask the question that had been on the tip of his tongue for some time and which he had wanted to put to the ghillie. What was it? He got halfway across the conservatory before he remembered and turned back but the lovebirds were already slipping out the French doors leading to the walled garden. Ah, well, his question would keep.
The red velvet curtain with the elaborate gold bullion fringing parted at precisely five o’clock. The first three rows of pews were reserved for the eleven newspaper reporters, pads and pencils poised, the five photographers with new box cameras at the ready, and the two artists who were sketching feverishly with pencil and charcoal. Behind them sat the more prosperous farmers and some shopkeepers from Duns and Peebles, meaning those who could afford to pay ten shillings for a ticket, along with two vicars, a deacon, a sexton and a curate. Among this group the Countess recognized the red-faced owner of the coaching inn and his buxom young wife, the grand-daughter of the old lady from whom she had bought the willow basket and the bodkin. Crammed on benches to the rear were some of Lady Moira’s retinue – butler, cook, house-keeper, chambermaid, parlourmaid, footman, hall porter and coachman – who had been given tickets by their mistress much to Miss O’Hara’s disgust who had expressly forbidden any of the servants from Cruddock Castle to attend, citing that it would give them insufferable airs and graces.
In the mezzanine could be found Fedir with his drum, the curate’s daughter on the harp and the curate’s wife at the organ. Mr Hamish Ross with a handful of assistants was juggling the demands backstage. Mr Chandrapur was in charge of the limelights, a dangerous task that required consummate skill to avoid setting fire to the stage, the chapel and Cruddock Castle.
Act 1, scene 1: The Tragedy of Macbeth opened to polite applause that did nothing to bolster the amateur actors waiting nervously in the wings for their moment to strut and fret upon the stage, but the moment the three witches stepped onto the windy heath midst claps of thunder and flashes of lightning the audience was transfixed and theatrical success was assured.
From that opening scene the trio of beautiful crones transported the watchers back through the mists of time to the metaphor inside themselves. The power of Shakespeare did the rest. There were a few minor glitches but by the time Macbeth’s knell was knolled they were well and truly forgotten. In the final act of the final scene, where Siward and Malcolm were extolling fair death, no one cared that the manly English general resembled an Indian Rajah or that the new king of Scotland looked like a Viking.
Enter MacDuff as Macduff, clutching the bloody head of the usurper. “Hail, King of Scotland!” he cried.
All: “Hail, King of Scotland!” And the audience cried with them.
Flourish. Exeunt omnes.
And so the curtain fell and the applause was deafening. Encore! came the clamour. And again, Encore! The curtain lifted and the dramatis personae were bundled together for a final bow, Miss O’Hara taking centre stage, glorious, victorious, marvellous! No one noticed the strange figure cloaked in Black Watch tartan standing on the mezzanine until she raised a bony hand and addressed the crowd portentously.
“How now, Hecate! You look proud and angerly.
I came to say: How did you dare
To trade and traffic in my affair?
You were mistress of all charm,
Close contriver of all harm,
And for what? A wayward son?
Who will bring it all undone?
But to make amends tis not too late,
Lend a helping hand to Fate.
Set right a hundred years of wrong,
Strike the fatal gong,
Spurn life, scorn death, be clear,
Summon the Spirits and have no fear!”
The applause built to thundering crescendo. The audience thought the weird sister on the mezzanine was an addendum to the play and though some were thrown into confusion, they remembered it was Hallowe’en and so cast off the vague illusion of something not quite right and clapped and clapped until their hands were red raw and chapped.
“Bravo! Bravo!” rang the chorus of applause.
Mad Mother MacBee, stunned and thrilled and humbled, bowed her frowzy head, waved an arm as though she were the Queen of England acknowledging her adoring subjects, and then was gone, the same way that she came, just like that!
Supper was served in the library where trestle tables had been set groaning with food, flowers and scented candles. In the heart of the eighty foot room, where the séance table had stood, was a glass cabinet which housed a few priceless curios – a lock of hair from Mary Queen of Scots, a belt buckle belonging to Bothwell, an arrowhead from Flodden Field, a Pictish rune – and taking pride of place was the magnificent Lammas tiara. The jewel in the crown – the Govinda diamond – glittered right royally as it caught the flash of bulbs.
“Put on the tiara, Miss O’Hara!” beseeched a photographer for The Quotidienne.
“Yes! Do!” came the call from every quarter.
Lola, wearing a beatific smile, turned hopefully to her fiancé. But his lordship’s stony face rendered those hopes crestfallen.
“Sorry, darling,” he tendered apologetically. “Not until the wedding day. We cannot unlock the cabinet for reasons of security.” His eyes fell on the four liveried footmen who had been tasked with guarding the cabinet, tall and trusted fellows who had been discretely posted to the far flung corners of the longitudinal empire.
Despite the lack of a tiara to crown her shining glory, Lola was the star. Venus in her firmament paled in comparison to the luminous Irish actress as she posed in cameo after cameo of loveliness. By ten o’clock the audience had all drifted home. Some had miles of hard ground to cover but time was meaningless and they were floating airily, borne along on the wings of myth, metaphor and the magic of Shakespeare.
As the chime for midnight counted twelve, the Countess donned her warmest fur cloak over the top of her silk nightdress and navigated her way to the west wing. She had a vague idea of the direction since she had visited Dr Watson’s bedroom during the hours between the rehearsal and the play to ask if he would mind if Fedir slept in his adjoining dressing room since the doctor did not have a valet of his own who would normally occupy the space.
Bluish moonlight shone a beam through the un-shuttered windows and helped to guide her, but she knew her way around large country houses, having spent most of her life in one or another of them. Unmarried women were generally housed in the east wing, bachelors in the west wing, married couples and family members in the south wing, and servants and children in Siberia. The double-storied entrance hall was the place to head. It was the terminus from which all paths radiated.
She had tip-toed to the end of the east corridor when she heard footsteps on the servants’ stairs and ducked back into a bathroom. Through a crack in the doorway she watched as Carter Dee wearing a purple velvet smoking jacket, a chartreuse cravat and tartan pyjama pants slipped quietly into his sister’s bedroom.
When the coast was clear she continued. A few moments later she arrived in the upper gallery of the alabaster entrance hall and realized that she and Mr Dee weren’t the only ones unable to sleep. Someone was stealing across the hall, moving swiftly, a man with long blond hair. She assumed the Viking was on his way to a midnight tryst. She hid behind a pillar and waited for him to disappear.
She began skirting the galleried landing when she heard the soft but distinctive rustle of satin and pressed herself into a niche featuring a statue of Robbie Burns. A heartbeat later Miss O’Hara flew past her and stole down the stairs like a perfumed ghost.
No sooner had she reached the spot where the stately stairs met the landing than she spotted a slender wraith wending her way upward and leapt back into Robbie’s niche. It was Miss Lambert with a glass of warm milk. She knew the milk was warm because a cloth was wrapped around the glass to stop it scalding. Miss Lambert had probably been down to the kitchen to warm it up for Lady Moira. Yes, the young woman entered the first room to the left of the landing – a prime position for a bedroom and presumably the dowager’s former boudoir.
She waited until the door closed then proceeded to the vestibule where several passages intersected and where a narrow spiral staircase led to the tower where his lordship had his private study. Male voices filtered down. She paused to listen and recognized Lord Cruddock’s slurred baritone and the deep huskiness of the Rajah. They were conducting a late night meeting. She moved on.
The west wing with its dearth of windows was darker and more masculine, suits of medieval armour abounded. She was almost to the threshold of Dr Watson’s bedchamber when she heard a noise that sounded like a door opening and closing and took shelter behind a shiny knight with sword in hand. As she held her breath a figure crept past her. It was Mr Bancoe wearing a baggy red dressing gown, mismatched golfing socks and a ridiculous bed cap with a pom-pom. He was creeping soundlessly toward the bachelors’ stairs that led directly to the billiard room.
Was no one asleep!
The one person she expected to encounter in her nocturnal wandering was Mr Chandrapur, but the shadow cat was nowhere to be seen. Could it be that he was tucked up into bed for once? Or was he hiding in the dark, watching, waiting…all-seeing yet unseen?
Dr Watson did not believe in locking his door unless necessary. She let herself in and guided by grunts and snorts proceeded to the four-poster to give him a gentle shake.
“What the deuce!” he gagged, flailing his arms in an effort to fend off the assassin disguised in a bear suit.
“Hush!” she chided as she clicked on a bedside lamp and pushed back her fur hood to reveal a cascade of brunette tresses. “Calm down.”
He fell back on the pillow with a groan and pulled the blankets back over his head. “Turn off that blasted light! And go away!”
“I came to speak to you about Mad Mother MacBee.”
“Forget MacBee! You’re the one who’s mad! Get thee gone, woman!”
His rebuke was a mere bagatelle. Her armour of self-esteem was impenetrable, her measure of self-importance limitless and her determination undaunted.
“I think there is going to be another murder tonight.”
That brought him round. He lowered the blanket and hoisted himself onto his elbows. He was wearing flannel pyjamas with grey and red stripes. “All right, I’m listening. Did you get wind of some plot?”
“Did you overhear something sinister?”
“Did you see something suspicious?”
“Not really. Not unless you count all the people creeping about as we speak.”
“Mr Dee. Mr Larssensen. Miss O’Hara. Miss Lambert. Mr Bancoe. I won’t count myself. I think you’re the only one who’s actually sleeping. Lord Cruddock and the Rajah are in his lordship’s private study discussing something. Lady Moira is drinking warm milk. And Miss Dee is entertaining her brother in her bedroom.”
“In case you failed to notice,” he pointed out acerbically, “I’m not sleeping either! I’m entertaining you!”
“Keep your voice down,” she warned, perching on the side of his bed and pulling her fur cloak around her knees. “Need I remind you we are not on vacation and that the previous deaths remain unresolved and that the situation grows more dire by the day as we draw ever closer to the fifth of November? I have a terrible feeling there will be another murder this very night.”
“Very well,” he heaved through gritted teeth. “Who do you think will be murdered?”
He was still half asleep and didn’t say anything for several long moments while he pondered the possibility, recalling MacBee’s cryptic speech which had clearly been directed at Hecate the queen of witches. “You think MacBee will attempt to murder Lady Moira?”
The Countess raked some fingers through her cascading tresses and frowned. “Yes and no. Something doesn’t sit right. What struck me during her speech was the coherent malevolence of her tone. It did not have a mad or hysterical ring to it. In the woods she sounded insane, but tonight she sounded the opposite. I began to wonder if she had dramatised the part of a mad hag for my benefit. Then I wondered if she might do that for the benefit of others too – to keep them out of Jackdaw Wood. Who would want to have an encounter with Mad Mother MacBee? But this is the truly puzzling part – her well-rehearsed soliloquy did not sound like a death threat but an inducement to self-murder.”
“Are you sure you are not dramatising? What struck me was that she was able to enter and exit the castle without being spotted. So much for security! But self-murder! Really! Lady Moira struck me as a woman who is not open to suggestion unless it is from the spirit world.”
The Countess pursed her lips. “I admit it seems unlikely. But the other thing that struck me was the mention of 100 years of wrong. There is no denying it is a reference to Alice Mawson.”
“MacBee is hardly likely to avenge herself on Lady Moira for something that happened 100 years ago. And remember it was the Cruddocks who were in the wrong. Lady Moira married into the family. She cannot be held accountable.”
The Countess sighed wearily. “You are the voice of reason, Dr Watson. I allowed my imagination to get the better of me – and not for the first time since we arrived I am sorry to say. I think I am frustrated by our lack of progress. There are so many loose ends I don’t know which one to pick up as I run from one to another tying myself in knots.”
“Go back to bed,” he said, suppressing a yawn. “You will feel better in the morning and things will seem clearer then too. The middle of the night is never a good time to tap into logic. It is a time for tapping into dreams. Especially when that night is Hallowe’en.”
Everyone tapped late into their dreams after their midnight meanderings. It was ten o’clock before the Countess, who prided herself on being an early riser, surfaced for breakfast. The first face she looked for when she entered the dining room was Lady Moira’s, and she felt more than a touch worried when she saw that neither the dowager nor Miss Lambert was present.
Lord Cruddock and the Rajah were seated at opposite ends of the large mahogany table. Mr Chandrapur was serving the Rajah some scrambled eggs and black sausage from the sideboard.
“Another cup of tea,” directed the Rajah to his factotum, “and make sure the tea does not spill into the saucer when you stir the sugar.”
Lord Cruddock was instructing the maid to take some breakfast on a tray upstairs to his fiancé. “Miss O’Hara does not eat kedgeree for breakfast,” he reminded in clipped tones. “Some toast with marmalade and a pot of Earl Grey and make sure to put a vase of flowers on the tray. You will find several vases in the library. Choose something small and pretty with blooms that have not wilted overnight.”
Mr Larssensen was eating with gusto, looking rather pleased with himself. Mr Bancoe was looking dour, frowning at his haggis. And the Dees were looking murderous, staring darkly at each other. You could cut the air with a knife.
“Good-morning,” greeted the Countess cheerily as she took her seat and the butler hurried across with a pot of her favourite breakfast tea. “The Scottish play was a great success,” she commented airily before lying through her teeth. “I fell into bed and slept like the dead.”
No one replied to her bit of banter and it soon became clear that their minds were on something else, something that had taken place either during the night or in the early hours of the morning, something that was about to become clear.
“You cannot change the rules at this late stage,” protested Miss Dee, looking beseechingly at her god-father as she moved a forkful of sausage around her plate.
“It is my tournament, young lady. I can change the rules at any stage I like.”
“But it is unfair,” whined Carter Dee in support of his beleaguered sister.
“What is unfair,” cut in Mr Larssensen somewhat righteously, “is playing a golf tournament between four deaths and a dramatic performance of Shakespeare. It is only right that his lordship has taken the decision this morning to allow Mr Bancoe and myself to play one more round of eighteen holes.”
“But I have packed my bags,” interposed Mr Bancoe gloomily, leaning on his elbows. “I was planning to leave straight after breakfast.”
Mr Larssensen turned sharply. “It was your caddy who was killed,” he reminded forcefully. “You were at a massive disadvantage without a caddy, and that well-meaning doctor was hardly a suitable substitute. It was most unfair to be handicapped in such a way. It is only right that his lordship has granted us one last chance. Fair is fair!”
“Oh, piffle!” scoffed Miss Dee. “This has nothing to do with fairness. This is about milking publicity. The reporters and photographers will need something to keep them occupied until the wedding day so that they don’t high-tail it back from whence they came!”
“And we all know who convinced god-father to change his mind,” added Mr Dee.
“I admit Miss O’Hara intervened,” conceded Lord Cruddock gruffly. “She is well-versed in matters regarding publicity as we all witnessed last night.”
“Yes,” agreed Mr Dee snidely. “But who stands to benefit from this current intervention?”
He aimed an Arctic eye directly at Mr Larssensen and it didn’t take much brainpower to work out that Miss O’Hara had worked her interventionist magic for the sake of her lover.
Lord Cruddock slammed his fist on the table in a fit of distemper. “What are you implying, young man?”
“Nothing,” mumbled Mr Dee, hands shaking as he brought his teacup to his lips to moisten chapped lips. “Nothing at all, god-father,” he back-tracked swiftly – noting the unhealthy royal purple flush.
It was at this moment that Dr Watson arrived. He quickly spotted the storm cloud hanging over the table and went straight to the sideboard for a cup of strong black coffee though he rarely drank the stuff so early in the day and actually preferred tea.
Mr Bancoe broke the tension. “I don’t really want to play another round of golf. You can count me out. I still plan to leave straight after breakfast.” He turned to his player-partner. “You’re on your own, Lars. Good luck, old chap. I must get home to the family.”
The Viking frothed and spluttered. “But you don’t have any family! You’re not married!”
Mr Bancoe gulped some tea the wrong way and coughed violently, his voice was raw and hoarse. “I was referring to my old mother in Aberdeen. She has been sickly all year and I don’t like to leave her on her own for too long.”
“But you’re contracted until the fifth of November,” argued the Viking.
“That’s right,” threatened Lord Cruddock, anxious to avoid any new negative publicity. “If you pull out you forfeit your fee.”
“And for me to play you must play too,” pleaded the Viking, placing tragic emphasis on the too. “It is all or nothing. The two of us together. You cannot run off now!”
Mr Bancoe pushed to his feet with nervous abruptness, almost knocking over his own teacup. “I’m sorry, Lars, but you are on your own.” He turned to his host and lifted his chin, not belligerently, but bravely and honourably. “Your generosity and hospitality has been most heartening, your lordship, but my mind is made up. I will forgo my fee if you insist on it. This tournament has been a nightmare from start to finish and my nerves have suffered, yes, suffered. When Mr Brown was found dead I was ready to pack up and go home, but I stayed on for the sake of my golfing partner and because of the Scottish play which has always been my favourite and because it was a high honour to grace the same stage as Miss O’Hara, but I cannot stay a moment longer. I must take my leave for the sake of my jangled nerves. I bid you all farewell.”
A wave of inexpressible relief carried him swiftly to the door where the maid who had been tasked with arranging the breakfast tray for Miss O’Hara crashed straight into him. The dour Scot caught the flustered girl by the shoulders to steady her, then in a flurry of embarrassment, hastened from the room.
“Sir! Sir!” the maid stammered, addressing herself to his lordship, forgetting to curtsey. “The glass case in the library has been broken! The tiara has gone!”
Several things happened in swift succession.
The maid remembered to curtsey.
Lord Cruddock and the Rajah exchanged surreptitious glances.
Mr Chandrapur dropped a china teacup full of carefully stirred tea and sugar.
Miss Dee blasphemed and Mr Dee uttered a profanity.
Mr Larssensen mopped up his runny eggs with a tranche of bread and gobbled it down.
Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna sprang to their feet and rushed from the room simultaneously.
They were the first into the library. Shards of glass littered the rug in front of the fireplace. The fire poker was lying among the shards. It didn’t take much deduction to ascertain how the thief had broken the glass. The other curios were still in place. The only thing missing was the tiara.
“Where are the four footmen?” barked the doctor as soon as his lordship appeared.
“I dismissed them at midnight,” responded the other somewhat calmly, “straight after the castle was locked up. I did not think the tiara would need protecting from family, friends and those guests whom I had invited into my home. The glass case was locked and I have the key in my pocket.” He drew it out and held it up to prove it.
“What about protecting the tiara from the servants?” quizzed the doctor, stunned by the lack of security, scanning the faces of the family, friends and guests massing behind Lord Cruddock, staring in mute dismay at the shattered cabinet. “Starting with the four footmen!”
“All the servants have been with me for years. Some have been with the family for decades. The four footmen were born into service here on the estate. They have had ample opportunity to steal. Nothing is kept locked up. I take precautions naturally, but this is not a museum. It is unthinkable that a servant would purloin the Lammas tiara. Besides, where would he sell it? How would he dispose of it? It is too famous.”
The Countess concurred with Lord Cruddock’s reasoning. This was not the handiwork of servants. In her experience servants were often blamed for stealing and peremptorily dismissed when in fact it was a member of the family in need of ready cash, or a poor relation, or simply a good excuse for dismissal, such as a pretty serving girl that the wife is jealous of, or a faithful old arthritic retainer the family wish to replace but do not have the heart to dismiss out of hand.
Cruddock Castle was an Aladdin’s cave of treasure. It would have been far easier for a servant to steal an ivory bibelot, a jewelled envelope opener, or a jade ornament – something small that would not be missed for days or weeks or years.
“Prior to last evening when the tiara was placed in the glass case,” posed the Countess, “where was it kept?”
“It was kept in Miss O’Hara’s bedroom,” responded Lord Cruddock. “I have a fire-proof document chest that I no longer require. It was stored inside the chest which was kept locked at all times. Miss O’Hara kept the key in a secret place that only she was privy too. She expressed a desire to try on the tiara with different hair styles in the privacy of her bedchamber in readiness for the wedding day and I acquiesced.”
“That is extraordinary!” gurgled the doctor, agog with disbelief. “A priceless heirloom stored in a document chest in your fiancé’s bedroom!”
Lord Cruddock turned calmly to the doctor. “If your wife expressed a heartfelt desire did you not occasionally acquiesce?”
Shame-faced, the doctor coloured guiltily. He had not been able to deny his dear wife anything from the day he met her until the day she died. Love was a great leveller.
The Countess noted the way the doctor shrank back into himself and took charge. “I agree this could not be the handiwork of servants, nor do I believe that someone was daring enough to break into the castle during the night – though we cannot yet discount it – that leaves only one option.” She paused and drew breath, allowing those present to comprehend for themselves what that option might be. “That means it must have been one of us.”
Immediately on finishing her pronouncement she held up a hand. “Please keep your indignation to yourselves. I am not accusing anyone. But I will let you know that last night I had something on my mind and went to discuss my concern with my friend, Dr Watson. As I wandered from the east wing to the west wing at midnight I saw Mr Dee, Mr Larssensen, Miss O’Hara, Mr Bancoe and Miss Lambert wandering about. I also heard Lord Cruddock and the Rajah discussing something in his lordship’s private study. It seems clear to me that no one was asleep and that everyone had ample opportunity to steal the tiara.” She ignored the sea of red faces and turned to Lord Cruddock. “Please instruct a servant to detain Mr Bancoe. His bags will need to be searched. Not that I am accusing him. It is merely a precaution. Everyone will have their bags and rooms searched in due course.”
“Not me surely!” remonstrated the Rajah, looking meaningfully at the Countess.
“Everyone!” she repeated sternly. “There is more to the missing tiara than meets the eye. We cannot assume this to be a straightforward theft. Four deaths suggest something else may be at play and it is high time to get to the bottom of whatever it is.”
“Why should you take charge?” demanded Miss Dee.
“Yes,” added Mr Dee with an arrogant tilt of his chin and an icy stare. “Shouldn’t the police be called? Something as valuable as the tiara is a matter for Scotland Yard.”
“I have no intention of taking charge,” the Countess replied with egalitarian hauteur. “I am merely voicing what everyone else is thinking. I agree the Yard should be notified as soon as possible and a search of the castle organized sooner rather than later.” She glanced at the bracket clock on the marble mantle. It was ten minutes to eleven and she was acutely aware that neither Lady Moira nor Miss Lambert had yet come downstairs to breakfast. That was her first concern. She had had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach all night and it had refused to abate. “In the meantime, I will look in on Lady Moira and inform her of what has happened and then I would like to speak to Miss O’Hara.” She turned once more to Lord Cruddock and softened her tone. “With your permission, of course, your lordship. I won’t disturb your fiancé for long. I have just one question that I wish to clarify. It may be useful to the Yard.”
Lord Cruddock gave a cavalier wave of his hand. “Yes, yes, by all means. I better start issuing instructions to the servants. Everyone else, please feel free to return to breakfast and then go about as you wish. No one is accusing you of theft. This unfortunate matter will soon be cleared up. I am sure the tiara will turn up in some unlikely spot and we will all have a grand old laugh.”
Disappointment was the only word to describe what the Countess felt after she pushed open Lady Moira’s bedroom door without knocking and found the dowager to be alive and well – or rather, alive and unwell. She expected to find the old lady dead.
Lady Moira was sitting up in bed with a cold compress to her forehead. The curtains were drawn. Miss Lambert was sitting in an armchair by the bedside. A single lamp cast a dollop of golden light on the book she was reading.
“Er,” stammered the Countess, smiling wanly, momentarily lost for words, before spotting the breakfast tray on the end of the bed. “I came up to see if you should be wanting some breakfast since you did not come down this morning but I see you have already breakfasted.”
Miss Lambert bookmarked the page and placed the book on her lap. “Yes, I brought up a tray earlier, before anyone had risen. Lady Moira is not feeling well this morning. But thank you for thinking of us.”
“I hope it is nothing serious,” replied the Countess stepping into the room and closing the door. “Is there something I can bring you? I always travel with some comprimes and cachets. Otherwise, I’m sure Dr Watson would be only too happy to give you an examination.”
Lady Moira opened her eyes and removed the compress from her forehead. “It is nothing to be concerned about, Countess Volodymyrovna,” she said cobwebbily. “I suffer from blinding headaches – a symptom of failing eyesight, old age and too many Scottish winters. I shall be as formidable as ever by the time we sit down to lunch. Open the curtain, if you will be so kind.”
The Countess drew the curtains on another grey day and perched herself on the window seat where dull light fell from behind and provided a fair aspect of both Miss Lambert and the dowager – she wanted to observe their reactions. “There is another reason I decided to look in on you, Lady Moira. It is rather bad news, I’m afraid. The Lammas tiara was stolen during the night.”
Miss Lambert gasped and her hand flew to her breast.
Lady Moira’s reaction was more controlled, though not as cavalier as that of her son. It befitted her age, her position and her experience of life’s vicissitudes. “That’s what comes of having a golf course on the estate and inviting total strangers into your home. I suppose the imbecilic police will blame one of the servants. Was anything else stolen?”
“All the other curios were in place, though no one has yet made a thorough search of the castle.”
“I suppose my son left the key to the glass cabinet lying around?”
“I believe a fire poker was used to smash the glass.”
The old lady tut-tutted. “Now we must suffer another investigation. The police will stick their noses into every nook and cranny. They are perfect fools. I would not put it past that Irish actress to have staged the theft to garner more publicity for herself and the wretched golf course while she has all those reporters and photographers eating out of her vulgarly painted hand. Fetch my white wool dress with the high neckline and the plisse cuffs, Miss Lambert. It is time to get up and take charge.”
The Irish actress was seated at a dressing table positioned in a bay window, staring unhappily into an oval mirror. “Oh, Countess Volodymyrovna,” she said with surprise, catching the reflection in the silver glass without needing to turn around. “I was expecting the maid with my breakfast tray.”
“She will be along any moment,” replied the Countess. “There has been an upset this morning and she has been delayed.”
Lola, wearing the same satin peignoir she had worn at midnight, pushed lazily to her feet and sashayed slowly toward a chaise longue in the middle of the room, an impish smile played at the corners of her lips. “Upset?”
“Something untoward happened this morning,” continued the Countess blandly, endeavouring to position herself at such an angle as to observe the actress’s face when she broke the bad news.
“I suppose the Dees are making a frightful fuss.” Lola ran some fingers languidly along the back of the chaise then swivelled to face the Countess. Morning light caught her full on the face which had been schooled into perfect serenity, the impish smile no longer at play.
The Countess realized Miss O’Hara was alluding to the extra game being granted to her lover and Mr Bancoe. It was time to strike. “I came to tell you that the Lammas tiara was stolen during the night.”
Lola uttered a tiny cry, like a baby bird caught in a poacher’s net, as she clutched her breast and went down like a nine pin. No sooner had her body crumpled to the floor with a heavy thud than Lord Cruddock entered.
“My God!” he cried, sprinting past the Countess to gather his fiancé into his arms. “Darling! Darling! Speak to me!”
A lack of blood to the brain caused by a sudden shock does not last long. Lola came to her senses within moments of fainting and allowed herself to be transported to her richly festooned bed. Her fiancé perched himself on the side and patted her manicured hand.
“Darling,” he said tenderly, fearfully, “are you all right? What happened? Shall I summon the doctor?”
Lola was in command of herself once more. “I just heard the news, Duncan. Is it true? The tiara has been stolen – is it true?”
“Yes, darling, it’s true, but do not concern yourself. The tiara will turn up, mark my words. It cannot have gone far.”
The Countess stepped forward with practiced poise. “That’s what I came to speak to Miss O’Hara about,” she said, looking not at his lordship, who sounded oddly sure of himself, but at Lola, the consummate actress, who had momentarily revealed genuine surprise and vulnerability in that moment when she fainted. That was no clever piece of play-acting. The actress had hit the floor with a painful thump and in her delicate condition that could not have been an easy thing to stage-manage. A clever and consummate actress would have gone into a swoon, fallen languorously across the chaise with a limp hand to her forehead. “I was hoping you could answer just one question.”
Lord Cruddock turned on the Countess with seigneurial rage. “Just one question! I hold you responsible for what just happened! My fiancé could have been seriously injured when she swooned! I insist that you leave this room at once!”
Fighting back her own rising anger, the Countess turned to go. It was as if he didn’t care a jot for the tiara whose sale to the Rajah stood to stave off the wolves at the door.
“Wait!” called Miss O’Hara. “If it is about the tiara, I don’t mind answering. The sooner it is found, the sooner I will be able to breathe.”
Without removing her hand from the door knob the Countess looked squarely at Lord Cruddock, perceptively bristling, while addressing herself to the actress. “I came to ask Miss O’Hara if she noticed whether her bedroom had been deranged at any time since the commencement of the tournament?”
“Deranged?” said the actress, sounding baffled.
“It is French, darling, it means if you noticed if anything was out of place.”
“Oh, yes, yes, I did, on two occasions I came back to my room to find items not where I had left them. I like to arrange my scent bottles and hair brushes and ribbon boxes just so. It is a habit instilled by the theatre where one must have everything swiftly at hand between curtain changes. The first time it happened I accused my maid of carelessness and she seemed quite hurt. The second time I accused her of tampering with my things in my absence and she denied it most strenuously and said that someone must have come into the room. I thought it an unlikely story as nothing was actually missing, though it appeared as if someone had rifled through my jewels and even my clothes. But that’s what you think too. You think someone came into my room in search of the key to the document chest where the tiara was kept. Is that it?”
The Countess nodded, relieved that the actress was not as stupid as she imagined and not as defensive as she feared. “Can you recall the two occasions?”
“Yes,” said Lola with surprising certainty. “The first time was during the first rehearsal in the chapel. I came back to my room and found that things on my dressing table, the chest of drawers and both bedside tables had been moved just a fraction.”
“Darling, why didn’t you mention it at once?”
“I was feeling utterly drained and had a frightful headache. I didn’t have the strength to deal with anything after that appalling rehearsal. Besides, nothing was missing so I put it down to the maid’s carelessness.”
“And the second time?” pressed the Countess.
“The second time was the night of the séance in the library. I came back to my room, dazed and giddy from my swoon, and after a brief rest noticed that several things were not in their usual place, including several pairs of shoes and some hat boxes. That’s why I thought the maid’s story unlikely, it meant someone had rifled through my dressing room. Again, nothing was missing.”
“Before I leave you I would like to ask you one last question,” the Countess began gently. “Last night I saw you in the upper gallery at midnight. May I ask where you were going?”
“Where was I going?” Lola repeated dizzily, feigning a momentary spell of forgetfulness. “Oh, yes, now I remember. The play being such a success, my mind was racing and I couldn’t sleep. I decided to read until I felt sleepy but I had left my book in the conservatory that afternoon. Silly of me! You must have seen me when I went to retrieve my book.”
All gleams and graces, the Countess smiled agreeably. “By the way, where is the key to the document chest? Not that it matters now that the tiara has been stolen from the library.”
Lola looked relieved and rather proud of herself, her ample bosom rose to the occasion. “Well, at least it wasn’t stolen while it was with me. Old Hecate would never have let me forget it.” She turned her head to the Boule armoire and smiled triumphantly. “I took a leaf from Shakespeare or Marlowe or someone who writes plays. The key is hidden in plain sight, sitting in the lock of the armoire. I wound a red ribbon around it and attached a tassel to it to make it look fancy. I thought that the more it stood out, the less likely anyone would take any notice of it.”
“You are very clever, darling,” praised her fiancé, gazing at her bosom while bringing her hand to his lips and kissing it fondly, happily forgetting that a priceless heirloom was still missing. “I think that was in a book by Sir Walter Scott.”
“It was Poe,” said the Countess as she left the lovers to themselves, marvelling at Cupid’s delusion. She felt equally certain of something else too. The tiara had not been stolen by an outsider. Most likely it had been stolen by someone who had been creeping about during the night. And that meant the tiara was still somewhere inside the castle. “He writes horror.”
Dr Watson was alone in the library looking for clues when the Countess returned to the scene of the crime. He was on all fours under the glass cabinet, inspecting shards of glass, lint, food crumbs and wilted flower petals.
“Murdered or not?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Lady Moira,” he reminded flippantly.
“Oh, yes,” she pouted. “I must admit I was extremely disappointed to find her still breathing. Have you found any clues?”
“Every man and his dog was in this room last night and they all left a clue,” he returned with disgust. “Take your pick!”
She got down all fours not to look for clues but to recount what Lola had told her about the derangement of her room and the key with the tassel.
He sat back on his haunches, deftly avoiding the broken glass. “So the theft was not impulsive but planned and last night provided the perfect opportunity to put that plan into action. After you left the library I took advantage of everyone’s confusion and eagerness to clear their name. I asked them to account for their movements during the night.”
She waited for him to flip open his pocketbook.
“Mr Dee went to his sister’s room to discuss the decision that had been made about granting Mr Larssensen and Mr Bancoe an extra game. They claim they were incensed and wanted to discuss a strategy of counter-attack which they planned to put into action at breakfast.”
“They provide alibis for each other,” observed the Countess.
“Yes, we have only their word that they remained together until two o’clock when Mr Dee took himself off to bed. By the way, I recently discovered that they have dressed as each other in the past, with great success. If they needed to give each other an alibi it would not have proved difficult, especially from a distance. You think you are looking at Miss Dee when it is Mr Dee instead, and then vice versa straight afterwards.”
“Yes, very handy. And Mr Larssensen?”
The doctor glanced at his notes. “He says he left his scoring book in his changing room and forgot to pick it up at the end of the performance. He was worried it might be mistaken for rubbish and went to retrieve it as soon as he realized it was missing.”
“He was crossing the entrance hall when I spotted him so it is possible he may have been on his way to the chapel to retrieve his scoring book before going to meet Lola in the conservatory.”
“What makes you think they met in the conservatory?”
“She claimed she left her novel in the conservatory and went to retrieve it because she was having trouble sleeping. I seriously doubt the veracity of her statement but I don’t think that indicates she stole the tiara. I believe she was trysting with her lover. What surprises me is that Lord Cruddock appears oblivious to the deception. He appears to be a besotted fool.”
“He is never far from a whiskey tumbler – it dulls the senses.”
“Perhaps that is the point – it dulls the brain too. What about Mr Bancoe?”
The doctor checked his notes again. “He says he went down to the billiard room for a tipple of whiskey because he was wound up from the play and couldn’t sleep.”
“Another dipsomaniac! He was heading for the bachelors’ stairs when I spotted him. They lead to the billiard room, so it is possible he was telling the truth. He was wearing one of those silly old bed caps that went out of fashion last century, mismatched golfing socks, a bright red dressing gown and he was slipperless. He looked like a pantomime version of Father Christmas and Scrooge rolled into one. I nearly burst out laughing.”
“What about Mr Larssensen – what was he wearing?”
“He was still dressed in his dinner suit.”
“And Mr Dee?”
“Purple velvet smoking jacket, chartreuse cravat and tartan pyjama pants. The combination was very stylish.”
“Oh, yes, I think a velvet smoking jacket gives a man a sense of panache. I could buy you one for Christmas. I have been wracking my brains for a suitable gift.”
He gave a hearty dismissive laugh as he closed his notebook. “I would not be caught dead in a velvet smoking jacket! By the way, what do you fancy for Christmas?”
“Well, there’s a nice little Caravaggio – Michelangelo not Polidoro – that I have had my eye on for some time at the Chasleton Art Gallery in Bond Street.”
“In that case, you can expect a Christmas card and a box of chocolates.”
“And you can expect a dark green velvet smoking jacket with a quilted cerise silk collar and the same for the buttons, with a chartreuse cord. Did you get a chance to quiz Lord Cruddock or the Rajah about what they were discussing in the study at that late hour?”
He was trying not to picture the smoking jacket from hell. “They said they were going over the accounts pertaining to the golf tournament.”
“And Miss Lambert was fetching some warm milk for Lady Moira. I saw the glass she was carrying. That accounts for everyone.”
“You don’t seriously suspect my niece?”
“Your wife’s niece,” she corrected. “And no, I don’t. The only person conspicuous by absence is the ubiquitous shadow-cat, Mr Chandrapur. Where was he at midnight?”
The doctor crawled out from under the cabinet and brushed himself down. “I cannot see a devoted servant stealing a tiara that his master has agreed to purchase.”
“Mr Chandrapur is not exactly a devoted servant,” said the Countess, adjusting her petticoats and straightening her skirt.
“I stand corrected – factotum.”
“I meant that Mr Chandrapur is the Rajah’s half-brother.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”
“I did not think it was important. I’m sorry. You’re right. We cannot withhold information from each other no matter how trivial it may seem. Which reminds me – the Rajah once remarked that he likes to keep his enemies close and his family closer – implying something underhand, some danger. I don’t think the factotum is as devoted as he seems.”
The doctor pulled some lint off his sleeve. “That puts Mr Chandrapur in an entirely different light. The theft of the tiara could well be his doing. Let’s return to Graymalkin. There is nothing more to be done here. The servants have been instructed to search high and low for the tiara, including scouring the gardens, the stables and the golf links, leaving no stone unturned. The steward has set off on horseback for Edinburgh to telegraph to Scotland Yard, however I think it will be a day or two before a detective arrives to take charge.”
Together they walked to the library door.
“Something puzzles me,” said the Countess, looking back at the shards of glass. “Am I imagining things or did Lord Cruddock and the Rajah appear unmoved by the theft?”
He stopped suddenly and looked back too as if picturing the scene in his mind’s eye. “Yes,” he said pensively. “So they did.”
When they reached the door the Countess put her hand on top of the doctor’s to defer him from turning the brass knob. She brushed off another bit of lint clinging to his sleeve and lowered her voice. “Something else just occurred to me. The factotum may not have stolen the tiara for himself but he may have been instructed to steal it for someone else?”
“Someone who has had something stuck in his craw for a long time…someone who might not wish to pay for something which once belonged to him in the first place.”
Thane was toasting himself in front of the coal range and Hamish Ross was sitting at the kitchen table with his mother when the doctor and the Countess returned to Graymalkin. They had just finished their lunch and they had already heard the news concerning the missing tiara. Hamish had been charged with the task of scouring Jackdaw Wood and searching the cottage of Mother MacBee since no other man was brave enough to take on the task. The cottage was set in a part of the wood where some trees had been felled in a storm a few years back. The fallen trees pointed the way better than a compass. He bid them a good day and kissed his mother on the cheek.
The doctor caught up to him on the footbridge.
“Wait up!” he called to the ghillie. “I have been meaning to ask you something.”
The waters of Fickle Beck were running high since the yew had been removed. They made a hell of a clamour as they tumbled over the stones where the two men stood facing each other. Hamish was clearly in a hurry but the doctor was not one for long-windedness.
“I understand you looked into the tea trade venture that went horribly wrong?” he phrased without preamble. “The one where your mother lost her savings and which Colonel Ardkinglas had recommended.”
The hardy-handsome features twisted themselves into a bitter scowl. “More like a swindle than a venture,” he said with rancour. “But it is water under the bridge now. Why bring it up?”
“I’m not sure, but do you remember the name of the ship that sank?”
“Apart from Mr Crawford Dee and the Ardkinglas family can you recall anyone else who lost a substantial amount of money?”
“What do you call substantial?” the young man grated out belligerently, turning abruptly on his heel and stalking off.
He got to the end of the footbridge before reconsidering. Dr Watson was still watching him.
“The Rajah of Govinda lost the most,” Hamish shouted back over his shoulder. “Twice as much as Mr Crawford Dee and more than all the rest put together.”
Catherine and Carter Dee arrived unexpectedly at Graymalkin in the afternoon. Cruddock Castle was being turned upside down and inside out. Everyone’s rooms were being ransacked and there was no privacy to be had anywhere. Lady Moira and Miss Lambert had removed themselves to Mawgate Lodge but not before having their bags thoroughly inspected. Lady Moira was livid with indignation and Miss Lambert was pink with embarrassment. The guilty never blush philosophised Mr Dee. And Miss O’Hara had become insufferable, added Miss Dee tartly. Posing for photographs and giving interviews which had nothing to do with the missing tiara but focused on her life story growing up in Dublin, liberally sprinkled with anecdotes about all the plays she has starred in. She changed her clothes three times, each time with more décolletage on display, much to the delight of the reporters and photographers who were now going over the library with a fine tooth comb like a bunch of Sherlock’s.
“What is worse,” complained Miss Dee as they settled in front of the fire in the sitting room, “is that my brother and I have been told we cannot even play a round of golf. The links are out of bounds until a search has been conducted.”
“Have you ever heard anything more ludicrous?” expounded Mr Dee. “As if a thief would go to all the effort of stealing a priceless tiara and then deciding that a golf course might be a good place to bury it!”
“The world has gone mad!” huffed Miss Dee. “First, god-father granting that extra round and now this!”
“Quite!” said her brother.
Countess Volodymyrovna lent a sympathetic ear to the litany of ludicrous goings-on, looking from sister to brother and back again as they listed ever more gripes – and one thing struck her with potent force.
“Lord Cruddock appears to be taking the theft of the tiara seriously then?”
“How do you mean?” asked Miss Dee.
“Well, he didn’t appear too perturbed this morning.”
Brother and sister looked briefly at each other, as if to the read each other’s minds, and then turned back to the Countess, nodding in simultaneous agreement.
“You’re right,” said Miss Dee. “God-father didn’t seem too bothered.”
“Yes,” agreed Mr Dee, “he didn’t seem at all worried.”
“Yet now it seems he has pulled out all stops,” mused the Countess. “I wonder why?”
“Probably for the benefit of Scotland Yard,” offered Miss Dee spitefully.
“Yes,” slated her brother, “he doesn’t want to look like a hopeless jackass.”
“It is one thing to be led by the nose by his fiancé in private,” remarked his sister scathingly, “but another to have the world know it.”
The sitting room door opened suddenly and Dr Watson appeared. His face fell when he saw they had company. He had been having a nap in his room, he explained as he joined them, painfully aware that it was too late to execute a retreat, much to his chagrin.
The Dees recounted once more all the ludicrous goings-on at Cruddock Castle for the benefit of the doctor, adding that they had walked around the long way, past the hotel, since the golf course was out of bounds, and finishing with the fact that this was their first visit to Graymalkin. They had often seen it from the outside, but had not had the opportunity to set foot inside. The Countess immediately offered to give them a guided tour. It was not too large, she said, and they would be finished by the time Mrs Ross conjured up some buttered crumpets and a pot of tea.
The Dees seemed especially amused by the dungeon’s grisly trappings and marvelled at the view of the golf course from the ramparts at the top of the tower.
Afterwards, they made up a foursome and played ecarté until it was time to return to the castle. Horace harnessed the landau for the return journey as a vanguard of clouds heralded rain. Dr Watson and the Countess waved them off.
“I think Carter Dee is our murderer,” said the doctor in a level tone devoid of emotion and sensation as the landau disappeared behind some trees.
“When did you decide this?”
“Yesterday, during the dress rehearsal,” he said with conviction. “I knew it as soon as Carter appeared on stage wearing greasepaint and a cloak of grey and purple tartan. The poacher who was seen lurking in the wood the day Mr Brown was murdered had dark skin and wore a grey and purple tartan cloak. I assumed it was Mr Chandrapur when Ned used the word darkie but I now believe it was Carter slathered in extra greasepaint. I think he murdered the first three golfers too.”
“I have been giving it some thought and I’m glad you asked. The first murder may have been a case of eliminating the competition but our murderer got a taste for murder and it soon got out of hand. There are parallels to the Scottish play that may even have spurred the imagination of the murderers. Catherine and Carter Dee are extremely ambitious, as were Lord and Lady Macbeth. As for the murder of Mr Brown – it may have been a case of blackmail. Mr MacDuff suggested that Mr Brown may have arranged to meet someone in the kitchen courtyard. The kitchen staff were conveniently absent that day so it was a perfect spot to have a clandestine meeting, otherwise why not meet in the hotel sitting room or on the terrace. It is quite possible Mr Brown was attempting to blackmail the Dees. He may have seen something untoward regarding one of the earlier murders.”
“Mmm,” responded the Countess with a nod of her head, much to the doctor’s delight, saving him the trouble of arguing his case with more vigour. “Did you remember to follow-up with Mr MacDuff about the broom and the cellar key?”
The doctor nodded in the affirmative. “He claimed not to have noticed the broom down the well but agreed it could have been the instrument that caused the injury to the back of the neck. As for the key, he said he left it in the pocket of his jacket when he went to bed that night. The jacket was hanging on the back of his chair. The only time it was out of his sight was when he went to the bathroom in the morning to take his bath, trim his beard and use the latrine.”
“Enough time for MacBee to borrow the key, open the cellar, excise the wart from Mr Brown’s hand and return the key to the pocket.”
Siblings will often share a common characteristic: Eye colour, hair colour, shape of nose, etc. Sometimes the feature will be attractive: dimples, a cleft chin, an upturned mouth. Sometimes it will be unfortunate: a long nose, a thick neck, sticking-out ears. And sometimes it will be a curious little defect that is hardly noticeable unless you see both siblings together at the same time and have an uninterrupted period of time in which to observe for it. During the game of ecarté the Countess’s eyes were drawn to the fact the Dees shared a curious little defect.
As soon as Dr Watson had taken himself off to Cruddock Castle, caddying one last time for Mr Bancoe, the Countess wrapped herself up and took herself off to Jackdaw Wood. She soon located the spot where the trees had been felled in the storm and followed the path of destruction to the door of a small dwelling.
This dwelling was not a sturdy, stone, crofter’s hut or a quaint, gingerbread cottage with thatched eaves. If was windowless and could have been mistaken for a dilapidated bird-hide. Most likely it had originally provided shelter for the gamekeeper and his underkeepers during periods of stormy weather. The only thing that stopped it being blown away was the fact it was tucked into a dense clump of furze and bracken which appeared to be holding it together.
MacBee anticipated her approach. “Don’t bother knocking, dearie. The door will fall down. I have put the kettle to the fire. Enter.”
The broken door creaked on rusty hinges and the Countess entered warily to find MacBee stirring a cracked Toby teapot ready for pouring.
The interior hinted at a primitive existence. A hole in the roof allowed smoke from a fire set into an earthen floor to vent, albeit with moderate success. A straw pallet served as a bed. On top of the bed was a large, lumpen, knobbly thing covered with a grey wool blanket. The shape was odd. Not quite human, not quite animal. The mind boggled. A pine table and three stools accounted for the rest of the furniture, and the number was telling.
The Countess waited until MacBee had poured the tea into chipped cups. The old hag sat hunched over the table with her bony fingers wrapped around the steaming hot cup, and it was the hands that prompted the opening line.
“Why do they call you Mad Mother MacBee?”
The old hag eyed her suspiciously from under hooded lids. “Because I am mad, dearie. Drink up. It is dandelion and nettle tea – good for the complexion!”
“You are no more mad than I, though you do put on a good performance, I grant you that, especially that first time I met you in the wood.”
MacBee gave a cackle and gulped some tea.
“No, it is not your madness that draws me here today. I was wondering about the rest of your name,” pursued the Countess, carefully sipping her brew and hoping it was not root of hemlock digg’d in the dark, though both cups had been poured from the same pot and MacBee was drinking confidently. “Why call you Mother?”
MacBee shrugged carelessly and tilted her head. “Who knows why anything is so-called, dearie?”
“Could it be that you are a mother?”
MacBee put her hand to her ear as if she heard a noise and aimed a glance at the door. “Knock, knock, who’s there? In the devil’s name –? Knock, knock, who goes there? Is it Beelzebub? This place is too cold for hell. Knock, knock. Enter the brindled cat, Harpier, tis time, tis time…”
“Stop it! You are trying to distract me, confound me, but it is futile. I know your secret.”
MacBee’s bushy brows drew down darkly. “How do you know? Who told you? They are liars! All of them! Especially Hecate!”
“No one told me. I surmised it for myself.”
“Liar!” she screamed.
The Countess remained calm to counter the high-pitched hysteria. “Some traits run in families. Twins, for instance.”
MacBee threw back her head and cawed raucously. “You draw a long bow, dearie. Twins are common enough. Two’s a pair and all’s fair!”
“Yes, yes, I grant you, but some traits are less common than others and some so rare that when they are shared by siblings they draw the eye. And when a complete stranger shares that same trait it makes one wonder at the weirdness of the world.” The Countess sipped her tea and stared at the bent and bony fingers with dirty nails wrapped around the chipped cup. “It is odd that Catherine and Carter Dee should share the same crooked pinky as a spinster who lives all alone in Jackdaw Wood.”
MacBee didn’t say anything for a few moments and the Countess did not rush her.
“Yes, damn you to hell!” the old lady cursed fiercely. “They were born out of wedlock to Crawford Dee. Is that what you wanted to hear? Well, now you have it!”
The Countess should have felt triumphant but her eyes darted to the strange shape under the blanket. She still couldn’t figure out what it was. And the suspense of not knowing was tormenting her. “Will you tell me the story, Mother?” she prompted in a kind voice.
MacBee expelled a hard breath. “A common enough story to begin: I was twenty-five years of age and unmarried. It was his last night in Scotland before going off to make his fortune in South Africa. I threw in my job as housemaid at Cruddock Castle before I began to show and went to live at Graymalkin with my sister who was housekeeper there. The laird who owned it never used it. It was too cold, too old, too cramped – it suited us well. She was raising Hamish, his lordship’s bastard, and had changed her name to Mrs Ross to make it seem as if she had been widowed. I kept with the family name – MacBee. It did not bother me what people said behind our backs. Three years later Crawford Dee, quite the rich gentleman, returned for a visit to Cruddock Castle. He had a chit of a wife in tow, a pretty little thing, rich, pale, sickly and childless. The night before they departed for South Africa he tricked me into meeting him here in the wood, to see his children for the first time, he said, but his lady wife came too. She died of fever on the return trip – serves her right! Anyway, they overpowered me and stole the twins. I must have hit my head when I fell. My sister found me wandering, dazed and raving, some days later. When I realized what had happened I went mad with grief. Oh, do not doubt the power of madness. I fell ill with brain fever and was sick for a long time. Days turned into weeks and weeks into years. My sister nursed me all that time. But the black dog of despair had taken hold of me and she could do nothing to wrench me from its slavering jaws. Eventually, I came to live here in this godforsaken place where God had forsaken me. Everyone called me mad but I didn’t care. I played up to it. It suited me. Maybe I was mad. Yes, I admit I was. Maybe I still am. Yes, at night when I am all alone and I hear the mournful wind and the clouds shedding bitter tears I feel quite mad. Mad Mother MacBee!”
“How did you feel when your children returned to live at Cruddock Castle?”
“Lo and behold! My darling children!” She began melodramatically, breathing heavily, before switching to a detached tone, like that of a narrator. “But they do not know their mother. They have been fed lies – told their mother died on the birthing bed – and what will they do with the truth? How could they love a filthy hag? Who wants a mother who is penniless and mad?”
“They still don’t know?”
She shook her frowzy head and came back to herself. “They have ambition. They can be famous. Carter – an actor on the Shakespearean stage. You saw his performance. He is born to it. And Catherine a golfer – the first woman to turn professional! Destiny has marked them out for greatness. I cannot allow Truth to ham-string a brilliant future. I want what is best for them.”
If the Countess had any doubts about MacBee’s narrative or her own deductive abilities they were dispelled in that moment. Solomon could not have devised more fitting proof of maternal self-sacrifice. She pressed on quickly before the moment was lost.
“That is why you put the Wicca symbols at the scene of the murders – to draw attention away from them to you?”
It was wild surmise, an impression formed from snippets, a bit of female intuition wrapped in inspiration that had been forming in the back of the Countess’s mind for some time. It hit a raw nerve.
MacBee nodded before thinking, admitting her guilt, and also that of her children. It was too late to backtrack. She had implicated all three. But it was clear she wanted to unburden herself too. She had bottled up the truth for so long it had nearly sent her stark raving mad.
“I shadowed my darlings as often as I could. I wanted to spend as much time with them as possible. I wanted to soak up everything about them. I had yearned and pined and dreamed of my darlings for so long. I was watching from behind a tree when Carter drove his golf club into the man’s head. I was still watching when Carter hurried away and Catherine arrived dressed as her brother and drove a golf ball into the bloody wound, cleaned up the club, put it into her golf bag and hurried off another way. I knew they would be suspected. I arranged the dead hand in the horned pose to point the finger at the mad witch of the wood.”
“And the second death?”
“Murder is like madness. Once it has taken seed there is no un-seeding it, once it has taken root it will grow and grow. I became vigilant. And sure enough it came to pass. I didn’t witness what happened exactly but when I came across the drowned man I knew at once it must have been Carter’s doing. I had the dead cat at the ready in my sack. I threw it in the water next to the body.”
“You came back later to cut off the paw. Why?”
“When I got wind that the Irish actress intended to stage the Scottish play I decided to stage a little play of my own. I decided to collect some bits and bobs from the dead bodies and anything else that might recall the three weird sisters on the heath. It would be proof of my madness should the time come to confess and save their souls. It fooled you, admit it now.”
The Countess conceded that it did. “It was a grand performance. I think Carter must get his acting skills from his mother.”
The old crone chuckled and looked pleased. She was enjoying herself. “Some more tea, dearie?”
The Countess held out her cup. “Dandelion and nettle, did you say? It’s very refreshing and has a pleasing taste. Thank you, kindly. And the third?”
MacBee stared at the steam curling from her teacup. “There was fog that morning. I was watching from the top of Graymalkin tower to see if I could spot my darlings before the fog thickened. I saw Carter run toward Widdershins Brig and Catherine head for the abbey ruin. She was carrying two golf bags and I thought, ah, the game’s afoot. Shortly, along came a witless golfer and his feckless caddy. Fog cloaked the view and I couldn’t see what happened next but I knew in my bones something wicked had taken place. I hurried as fast as I could go to the brig. Nothing! I was cutting through the birch wood to the abbey ruin when I almost tripped over the dead body. Quick as a wink I whipped out a corn dolly and tied it to a branch.”
“An inspired touch,” complimented the Countess, her eyes darting once again to the queer shape under the blanket.
“Thank you, dearie, I thought so too. It did confound those London men. They scratched their heads and it did amuse me. It had been so long since I had laughed or even smiled.”
“Carter and Catherine must have been baffled too?”
“Oh, yes, they must have scratched their heads more than once. All things pointed to me but who could say why I would bother to kill three strangers when I had kept myself to myself for so long. I was a toothless dog, a harmless hag, a mad old loon gone soft in the head. Everyone said so for years and years.”
“Someone must have suspected – Hecate perhaps?”
The watery eyes twinkled. “Oh, yes, you are a bright one. I saw that from our first meeting. Hecate would have guessed for herself whose hand was behind the deaths and whose hand was behind the witchy things, but she had blood on her hands already and so put about the story of supernatural happenings and unhappy spirits to confound the thing. It was a lark!”
“Why so? She is a Spiritualist. She believes in the spirit world.”
“That’s what made it so believable, dearie. When you want to spread an untruth always start with what is true.”
“What did you mean: blood on her hands already?”
“It was she who helped Crawford and his childless chit to spirit my babes away in the night. They could not have done it without her cunning.”
“That’s what you meant by: traffic in my affair. But why would Lady Moira do such an evil thing?”
“Why? Why? Why? Jealousy and hate – she resented me because of the hate she harboured for my sister who had had a child to her husband while she had not!”
“But Lady Moira did have a child to her husband.”
“Oh, no, dearie, she had a child to Crawford Dee’s father, the ghillie before Hamish.”
The Countess’s mind ticked over rapidly and in the rush she stammered. “But, but, that would make the current Lord Cruddock illegitimate!”
“Even more a bastard than Hamish!”
The repercussions were serious and far-reaching, though not where Hamish was concerned. There were no degrees of bastardry. You either were or you were not – and she should know it! “Who else knew of this?”
“Hecate, the queen of witches and the three weird sisters, tis all – we keep it to ourselves and the hell-broth bubbles – double, double, toil and trouble in the cauldron called resentment.”
Tormented and distracted to the point of madness, the Countess could stand it no longer. She pushed to her feet, rushed around the table and whipped off the blanket.
“Antlers! It was you who stole the antlers from Graymalkin the other night!”
“You looked out of your window,” tsk-tsked MacBee, scratching her head. “That was careless of me to stop and look back and to put the antlers on my noggin. But they were heavier than I thought and my arms were aching from the weight of them and I still had far to go.”
“I thought I must have been dreaming, but yesterday when I was giving Catherine and Carter a tour of Graymalkin I noticed the empty gap along the wall where some antlers had recently hung. Why did you take them?”
MacBee gave a lazy shrugged. “I thought I might do some decorating, spruce the old place up a bit. Who knows? I might get used to entertaining and hold an afternoon tea for my darlings to celebrate their success.” She began to sing. “Dandelion and nettle tea. Dundee cake for three! Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog!” She gave a short, shrill, hysterical laugh. “Do you want the antlers back? Take them, dearie, if that is what you came for.”
The Countess shook her head and returned to the table even more confused than before she whipped off the blanket, and tried to think how everything she had learned about what had happened long ago was related to what had recently happened and what was happening now.
“No, no, you may keep them.”
What did the purloining of the antlers suggest? Did it mean anything? Was it related to the murders? Only one fact sprang to mind.
“You are able to gain ingress and egress from the hotel, the tower and the castle at will?”
MacBee smiled furtively, an ugly, occult, evil smile that sent a cold shiver up the Countess’s spine. “I am a witch, a shape-shifter, a spell-spinner. I have the power to come and go as I please, dearie. I am the wind, the darkness, the night…”
“Oh, nonsense!” snapped the Countess, frustrated with herself, exasperated with her inability to see whatever it was that remained maddeningly elusive and out of reach – sensing too that she was being led by the nose, lured away from something MacBee did not want her to see. “Did you steal the Lammas tiara?”
MacBee did not laugh away the accusation and no blink of the eye betrayed her. “No, dearie, I did not. Why should I?”
“You stole the antlers,” reminded the Countess.
“I might make use of them in my decorating. Do you want them back?”
“No, no, keep them – you might want to destroy Lord Cruddock.”
“With the antlers?”
“By stealing the tiara!”
“I tried it on once and it did not fit. My head was too small. It fit Hecate’s fat head quite nicely. And it will fit that red-haired drab too. I have no call for tiaras.”
“Are you covering for your children? Is that it? Did they steal the tiara?”
“I cannot deny they are wrong-uns, like their father and his father before him and so on, but ambition is not the same as greed. I think not. I would look at the darkie if I were you.”
“If that is what they call the one who creeps about like a cat. I know every hidey-hole and secret tunnel inside Cruddock Castle but I swear that black devil can walk through walls.”
The Countess frowned, she could not help thinking there was something she was missing; something MacBee was keeping back; something the weird sister did not want her to comprehend. Then she remembered Mr Brown.
“What about the fourth death?”
“Ah, yes, might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. A few days before Mr Brown drowned in the well my sister was taking a fresh towel to his room and spotted a note he had been in the process of writing. He had ducked out to the latrine at the time. It said something like: I saw what you did. Meet me in the kitchen courtyard at twenty minutes after three on Thursday.”
“She mentioned the note to you?”
MacBee nodded. “I knew straight off that the note was meant for Carter and Catherine and that Mr Brown was intent on blackmailing them. My sister had given the girls the half day off, that’s why he picked that time. I lay in wait in the scullery. I saw when Carter arrived, painted up and clothed in theatrical tartan. I did not witness the murder because the scullery window does not give onto the well directly but when he hurried off I ran into the courtyard.”
“You threw the broom down the well?”
MacBee shook her head firmly. “No, he must have done that himself. It made me smile. There was nothing more for me to do. The man was dead so I went home.”
Dr Watson had been right about the blackmail and Mr MacDuff had been right about the clandestine meeting. How did he guess that? Did he see the note for himself? Was he in on the blackmail? There was something about Mr MacDuff that didn’t ring true.
“Thank you for the dandelion and nettle tea. It has a pleasing aftertaste.”
MacBee’s voice caught her at the door. “Are you going to hand my children over to the law?”
The Countess considered the question thoughtfully and slowly shook her head. “This Scottish play is not yet done. Something tells me there’s another act to go.”
MacBee seemed satisfied with her response. “Promise me you will not hand them over to the police until after the golf tournament finishes. Carter has had his moment in the sun. Catherine must have hers. Promise me.”
“Very well,” said the Countess uneasily. “You have my word.”
“Sherlock would never have countenanced such a thing!” Dr Watson declared vociferously as he paced in front of the fireplace of their sitting room the next morning.
It was a dirty old day. Rain had set in early and had increased as the morning lengthened. There was no hope of venturing outdoors.
“I am not Sherlock,” reminded the Countess calmly as she stood at the window with her back to him, gazing pensively through the panes of glass pearled with raindrops.
“You claim to be his daughter!”
“Certainly, but to paraphrase Shakespeare, I must be true to myself.”
“You claim to be a detective!”
“That does not make me a Witchfinder General.”
“Oh, good grief! A detective’s job is to solve the crime. We have done that!”
“We are missing something.”
“What are we missing?” he demanded, growing hot under the collar, not with pacing to and fro and not from the flames of the fire but from sheer exasperation.
“I don’t know yet.”
“You agreed the night before last that it was Carter and Catherine Dee.”
“I did not deny it,” she conceded, “but there is something else, something more. What about the missing tiara?”
“We came here to solve the golfing murders,” he reminded. “The tiara is an afterthought, an unrelated distraction. Not even his lordship is taking it seriously. Yesterday’s search was a mere charade, a vainglorious pantomime staged for the benefit of his distressed fiancé, his disapproving mother and Scotland Yard prior to their arrival any time soon.”
“Sherlock would never dismiss a theft in the midst of four murders.”
“Ah! You invoke him when it suits you and dismiss him when it does not!”
“Each action and reaction must be decided on its merit. We want the correct outcome, not the most convenient one.”
“If we do not act swiftly the Dees may slip through our fingers.”
“No. This is their home. This is their golf course. I doubt they will flee. Besides, where will they go? What will they live on?”
“The proceeds of the sale of the tiara will serve them very nicely in South Africa.”
The Countess turned to face him and shook her head. “No, I cannot believe it. I do not believe they stole the tiara.”
“How can you be so sure?”
The Countess did not wish to reveal anything about her meeting with MacBee yesterday. She still hadn’t thought through what she had learned and how it fitted in with what they had previously suspected. And though she felt guilty for not sharing the information with her companion in crime, she told herself he would merely run like a bull at a gate, or worse, act like a bull in a china shop, grunt and posture, smash and confuse, and in the destruction he would overlook something important. She needed time to think. This heated conversation was going some way to ordering her incoherent and jumbled thoughts but there was still something missing.
“The golf tournament?” she said sparingly. “It is their raison d’être. It has not yet played itself out. Mr Bancoe and Mr Larssensen will play a final round tomorrow for one last chance to better their score. And as much as the Dees might loath it, they must lump it. They will see it through to the end.”
Dr Watson grated out an unkind laugh. “The other two will not best the Dees no matter how many chances they get! Mr Bancoe concedes all is lost. You saw him at breakfast yesterday. He all but admitted it was hopeless. He doesn’t even want to play. It is another charade being staged for the benefit of Miss O’Hara’s paramour!”
“You don’t think it is being staged for the benefit of publicity?”
“That is a good point that Miss Dee mooted at breakfast. Miss O’Hara may have initiated it in the interests of her lover and his lordship may secretly acknowledge it in his heart of hearts though publicly disputing it, but he is not as stupid as he appears. Despite his drinking he is still an astute businessman who understands that we are on the cusp of a new century where the power of promotion will be paramount to the success of an enterprise. If he has a host of reporters on his doorstep and he wants to milk them for all they’re worth, why ever not?”
The Countess came to sit by the fire. She ran her finger over her lips as she tried to order her thoughts but all she could think was that her lips felt dry from the extreme cold and exposure to the elements. “You realize that if we expose the Dees as murderers then Mr Bancoe and Mr Larssensen will win the tournament by default.”
He sank into an adjacent armchair. “So be it! It happens! And what is the alternative? We let two murderers win? Is that what you are suggesting?”
“We do not know for certain they are murderers.” A moment of doubt crept up on the Countess. What if MacBee had been lying about the whole thing? Besides, MacBee had only witnessed the first murder and deduced from that event that her darlings committed the other crimes. But the theft of the tiara suggested that there was more than one crime happening here, which suggested there was more than one criminal or pair of criminals. “There are a few unanswered questions.”
“Such as? And don’t say the tiara. It is a mere sideshow. The likely culprit is Mr Chandrapur acting on behalf of the Rajah with the blessing of his lordship to avoid admitting he is selling it in order to avoid bankruptcy. That is why he is not bothered by the theft.”
His pronouncement made surprising sense and turned her train of thought on its head. “Very well, let us forget the tiara for the moment. There is Mr MacDuff.”
“You said yourself he was no caddy.”
The doctor’s mouth puckered, pulled to left and right, then straightened itself out. “I concede there is a cloud hanging over him. But it may not necessarily be sinister. He may be an interloper – one of those men who try to ingratiate themselves with a famous person or event for the sake of big-noting themselves. That would explain his over-helpfulness with regards to Mr Brown’s murder. And twice I came across him in the golf pavilion on the days when he was not caddying. He was polishing Lord Cruddock’s clubs. It seemed a bit pathetic. I felt sorry for him.”
“I suppose he might be hoping to gain employment once the Lammermoor Golf Club takes off.”
“Yes, nothing sinister in that.” He pushed to his feet and tossed another log on the fire. “What other unanswered questions do you have?”
There were so many she didn’t know where to start, but they were all so vague. And she wasn’t sure they were related to the four deaths. There was the matter of the stolen antlers, but if she told him he would probably laugh in her face. There was the number 100 but he had already dismissed it as too far back in the mists of time to matter. There was the tea trade swindle and revenge best served cold but was it relevant? There was Lady Moira’s weird rhyme about birds during the séance but what did it mean? There was MacBee’s portentous threat against Lady Moira at the end of the play, or was it more of a desperate plea? There was the white fluff on the doctor’s sleeve but what did it have to do with the missing tiara? There was the orderly line of golf bags in the pavilion. What was it that disturbed her eye about one of the bags? There were the five bodkins. Why five? There was the map shaped like a tree that Mrs Ross was keen for her not to see. There was the fact Lord Cruddock and the ghillie were on a par regarding legitimacy, or should that be illegitimacy? There was Mr Chandrapur dropping the cup of tea at breakfast. Why did such a small thing seem significant?
The Countess clutched her head in frustration. Was any of it relevant? Or was it all just a meaningless sideshow, a historic distraction, a maddening jumble of coincidences? Was she too clever for her own good? Reading too much into things? Looking for answers to questions that had no answers because they weren’t even questions to begin with?
Right now the inside of her head felt like a game of Ouija with letters of the alphabet arranged haphazardly, random questions being voiced and answers being spelled out that didn’t make sense, a letter here, a blank space there, a number, and then just when she was beginning to discern a pattern, the whole thing being up-turned, thrown into disarray.
“None,” she sighed forlornly. “I have no other questions. But promise me you will not hand the Dees over to the police until the end of the golf tournament.”
“I don’t like to make promises like that,” he said gruffly though his tone was less blunt and less hostile than before. He was yielding.
“Promise me,” she pleaded softly.
“Catherine Dee must have gotten under your skin,” he needled unfairly.
“Perhaps,” she conceded, wincing inwardly, yielding a little herself, “but I think it is important that we give it more time.”
“Why? What good will it serve?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted ruefully. “But there is nothing to be done today. Tomorrow you will caddy one last time and then we will go to dinner at the castle.”
“Oh, yes,” he remembered, “the wedding eve dinner.”
“I would like to question Lord Cruddock and the Rajah in private about the missing tiara tomorrow night.”
“Be discrete, for goodness sake. We don’t want the Dees to get the wind up and bolt. And we don’t need another murder!”
She dismissed his melodramatic concerns. “I am a model of discretion. Besides, I don’t think you want to throw the wedding into disarray by arresting the niece and nephew of Lord Cruddock on the eve of the big event.”
“I hadn’t thought of that. Yes, we want to be damn sure we have our facts right. Two more days cannot hurt. Very well,” he promised, hoping he would not live to regret his decision.
Dr Watson and Countess Volodymyrovna arrived unfashionably early for the wedding eve dinner at Cruddock Castle. The pontifical butler showed them into the drawing room and offered them a drink while they waited for the others to join them. He explained that Miss Dee and her brother were in the music room; Mr Bancoe and Mr Larssensen were in the billiard room; Lord Cruddock and the Rajah of Govinda were in his lordship’s private sanctum; Miss O’Hara was in her boudoir; and Lady Moira, Miss Lambert and Judge Cruddock had not yet arrived from Mawgate Lodge.
The Countess’s ears pricked at the name. “Judge Cruddock?”
The butler popped a cork on a bottle of French bubbly for the Countess and poured a whiskey and water for the doctor. “Judge Lennox Cruddock is Lord Cruddock’s father’s cousin. He arrived a day ahead of the wedding as he had to travel all the way from Glasgow and needed time to recuperate from the journey. He has opted to stay at Mawgate Lodge as he does not enjoy large gatherings since becoming slightly deaf. Moreover, his Scottie dog has become aggressive in old age and tends to snap at anyone who makes a fuss. Last year Nessie bit Lady Trefoyles on the hand, nipped the Countess of Lomond on the ankle and sank some fangs into his lordship’s leg. Nessie has also become incontinent and tends to leave puddles in inappropriate places. Miss O’Hara complained that all her shoes smelled of urine during Nessie’s last visit. Three pairs of silk court shoes had to be burned as the ammonia smell could not be shifted despite the housemaid’s best efforts,” he finished sniffily.
As soon as the Countess tossed back her champagne she announced she was going to storm the inner sanctum. Rather than being left to his own devices, Dr Watson decided to join the two unlucky golfers in the billiard room. They had not out-scored the Dees that morning despite being granted an extra round and were probably drowning their sorrows while sinking some balls on a less hazardous green.
Halfway across the alabaster hall the Countess bumped into the Rajah. He was on his way to the drawing room, having been informed by his factotum that the Countess had arrived. She promptly steered him into the library and closed the door. He thought he might be in luck – a bird in the hand and all that – but quickly discovered otherwise. There was no time to beat about the bush let alone fondle any plumage.
“You did not appear concerned by the theft of the tiara?” she stated boldly without preamble.
“Oh, that,” he said dismissively, helping himself to a cigar from the humidor, “no, it did not unduly worry me.”
“May I hazard a guess?”
He shrugged his shoulders as he lit his cigar using a faggot from the fire. “Certainly.”
“You instructed your factotum to steal the tiara with his lordship’s blessing so that he did not have to explain to his wife and mother that he had sold it to you because he is bankrupt.”
The Rajah blew a furl of smoke into the darksome air and laughed. “A cunning plan! I grant you that. I wish I had thought of it. It might have been much less costly. Alas! Not at all. I do not know who stole the tiara but I do know it was not my factotum at my behest.”
The Countess looked crestfallen. “But, in that case, why are you not more concerned? The Govinda diamond: a family heirloom…”
“And a fake.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The tiara that was stolen was a fake.”
“I see, but that begs the question – where is the real one?”
“It is in Lord Cruddock’s private study. I have seen it with my own eyes and can attest that the diamonds are real, including the magnificent jewel in the crown – the Govinda.”
“But what happens when the thief discovers he has a fake tiara in his possession?”
“You are presuming the thief is a man.”
“Yes, yes, I guess so.”
“A thief is hardly likely to make a fuss and complain the tiara he or she has stolen is a fake. I think we can safely assume no one except the thief will know there was a fake at all, which is unfortunate for his lordship since he was hoping to fool his wife and mother for many years to come. But as soon as the bride makes an appearance wearing the real tiara, the thief will know the one in his possession is a fake, and when the real tiara goes with me back to its rightful home in India his lordship will then have some explaining to do. By the by, it is not merely a priceless heirloom, it is more than that. It is a talisman, an amulet, an omen of luck and power and divine right. When I return with the Govinda diamond in my grasp the uprising in my homeland will be quelled and peace will be restored.”
“Who knew Lord Cruddock had a fake tiara?”
“Discounting the Jew who manufactured it, two people – his lordship and myself.”
“What about your devoted half-brother?”
The Rajah shook his head as his hand drifted to the jewelled dagger at his side.
No love lost there!
“I need to speak to Lord Cruddock in private,” she declared as she whirled out the door.
There was no time to lose before everyone drifted to the drawing room and her absence would be noticed. Without bothering to knock she pushed open the door to the sanctum at the top of the spiral staircase. It was a small hexagonal chamber, darkly panelled. Lord Cruddock was seated in a tapestried wing chair behind an old desk, slumped on his elbows, his head supported in his hands. On the desk was a bottle of whiskey and a glass, one was half full, the other was half empty. He looked like a man who had reached the end of his tether, not a bridegroom on the eve of his wedding to a ravishing beauty. The depth of his despair would make it easier to dispense with courtesies and falsehoods.
“Where is the real tiara?”
Startled, he looked up quickly then swore under his breath. “That bloody darkie! He can’t keep his mouth shut! Close the door and keep your voice down!”
She closed the door and repeated the question in a lowered tone.
“Not that it is any business of yours, Countess Volodymyrovna,” he ground out harshly, sounding each syllable of her name with a disapproving timbre, “but since you ask so politely, it is in a secret compartment directly behind the large oil painting of Cruddock Castle executed by Septimus Decimus Cox. But let me draw your attention to the smaller painting on the opposite wall – Lammas Castle Farm, an unprepossessing structure much like Graymalkin, yet solid as a rock. Gothic revival decoration is like icing on a wedding cake. Underneath the icing you will find the thick cake batter and in the yeasty mix studded with raisins and dates, dozens of secret chambers and priest’s holes.”
“Who knows it is hidden there?”
“Just me and that bloody darkie!”
“And your mother?”
“Absolutely not!” he said fiercely.
“Your future wife?”
“No!” he repudiated explosively. “And I take umbrage at the inference.”
The Countess paced to the lancet window and perched herself on the mullioned window ledge, giving him a moment to contain his intemperance. “What I fail to understand is that if you had a fake tiara of such excellent quality as to fool your fiancé for weeks and a host of eagle-eyed reporters and photographers for several hours why did you not allow the Rajah to take the real one as soon as the deal was struck. Why the delay? Why the pretence?”
Lord Cruddock straightened his back in the stiff-backed chair. “Pride,” he said. “Family honour,” he added in a hollow tone. “I wanted my future wife to be married wearing the real tiara not a fake one. I intended to switch the fake one in her room for the real one and then switch them back without her being any the wiser. Is that so hard to understand?”
The Countess was about to ask whether he trusted his fiancé implicitly but changed her mind at the last moment. “You love her very dearly?”
“Of course I do!”
“Do you think she returns your affection in equal measure?”
“What are you getting at with these impertinent questions?” he slammed, purpling with rage.
“I’m trying to grasp what might happen when the thief realizes he or she has a fake tiara.”
“Oh, I see,” he digested, swallowing his distemper. “Heaven help me if that happens before the wedding. Yes, heaven help me if my fiancé calls the whole thing off. But whatever you may think, I am no love-struck fool. I know my fiancé is having an affair with Mr Larssensen. He was her lover before I proposed marriage. I know the baby she is carrying is his.”
“And it does not bother you?”
“Of course it does! But I must turn a blind eye. I am unable to father children of my own and I want an heir. It is as simple as that. And before you start lecturing me on hereditary law let me point out to you that half the peers of the realm are bastards and always have been.”
“Point taken,” she ceded. “One more question before I leave you to yourself.” And your whiskey bottle! “Do you think anyone is out to destroy you?”
He looked stunned. “Destroy me? What in heaven’s name for?”
“The tea trade venture in India that went horribly wrong perhaps, from which you profited enormously.”
“Good God! No! That was years ago! No, no, this business with the tiara is opportunistic greed, pure and simple.”
“And the four deaths?”
“Don’t you mean three?”
“I think the death of Mr Brown is related – that makes it four.”
“The first three deaths were unfortunate, tragic even, and though I may have drawn my own conclusions privately, the same as everyone else, I cannot give voice to what I think publicly. I left that to Scotland Yard and will do so again with the fourth death. I refuse to speculate further. I think it best if you do the same. I suggest you join the other guests in the drawing room, Countess Volodymyrovna.”
Summarily dismissed, the Countess had every intention of going immediately to the drawing room as directed by her host but as she descended the stairs she kept picturing the oil painting by Septimus Decimus Cox and the rows of chimney stacks against the louring skyline, and a random connection was made. By the time she reached the base of the stairs she had formulated half a plan. She proceeded to the library, hoping it would be empty. It was, and she went straight to the bell pull. When the butler appeared, she requested her maid and manservant be sent to her without delay.
Fedir and Xenia never questioned their mistress, no matter how outrageous her requests. They listened attentively and followed her bizarre instructions to the letter.
By the time the Countess arrived slightly breathless in the drawing room everyone was in the process of transferring themselves to the dining room. She caught the disapproving glare of Dr Watson and did her best to ignore him as she endeavoured to snag a seat next to Judge Cruddock but the Rajah engaged her in conversation and Miss Lambert claimed the seat instead.
The topic of the missing tiara was avoided throughout dinner. Everyone was at pains to not cause offence. Lord Cruddock opened with a toast to Catherine and Carter Dee and wished them luck for the final play-off. He then offered a toast to his fiancé and rabbited on about what a lucky man he was. At this stage he touched briefly on the tiara, saying he was sure it would turn up in some unlikely spot in time for the wedding. Of course it would! He would make sure of it! But what about the thief? How would he or she react? The Countess studied the faces of those present, one in particular, but no flitching lip or flickering eye betrayed itself. She would have to wait for confirmation from Fedir and Xenia.
This arrived sooner than expected. As the ladies sashayed to the music room for coffee and cocoa, they passed Xenia in the vestibule waiting for her mistress, a fresh linen handkerchief monogrammed with a double V in her hands – a sign that the Countess’s suspicions had proved correct and that the plan she had hatched was taking shape. Or, in the parlance of Sherlock Holmes, the game was afoot.
Miss Lambert was taking charge of the beverages. Miss Dee was tickling some ivories. Miss O’Hara was seated away from the fire, fanning her face with a silk fan, flipping through a copy of The Era, a popular magazine for actors and actresses with all the latest revues and backstage gossip. Lady Moira was ensconced in the armchair nearest the fire, on the point of dozing off. It was time to lift the curtain on the next act in this drama.
The Countess plonked herself opposite the grande-dame. “I wonder if a séance might reveal the name of the thief?” she posed in a quasi-curious monotone to no one in particular before replying to her own question. “Oh, no, probably not,” she sighed heavily, feigning a yawn. “It is most unlikely we will ever know who stole it.”
Lady Moira’s eyes flew open and her cobwebby voice was honed to sharpness. “Why be so quick to dismiss the idea of a séance? Are you afraid of what it might reveal? The theft of the Lammas tiara is no mere trifle, it is grand larceny, and though my fool of a son may assert the tiara will just turn up like a lost button or an odd sock, it is wishful thinking! Ha! A séance is just the thing for finding our culprit.” Wasting no time, the old lady turned to her paid companion. “Miss Lambert, arrange at once for the library to be made ready. You know what is required. Instruct MacMurtry to make sure the fire is giving off plenty of heat and thoroughly stoked. We do not want the room filling with smoke. A window or two needs to be left open. Not too much. We don’t want to create a wind tunnel. A larger candelabra, this time. The ormolu piece from the dining room will do nicely. See to it at once.”
Miss O’Hara promptly closed her magazine and pushed to her feet. “I shall inform the men in the billiard room that there is to be a séance,” she offered generously, addressing her future mother-in-law. “Thirty minutes? Is that sufficient time, do you think?”
“Yes, excellent,” responded Lady Moira, glancing at the carriage clock on the mantel. “We will congregate in the library in half an hour. And inform that Methodist ninny if he chooses not to come we will assume he is guilty of the theft. That should get him there! Twelve chairs, Miss Lambert,” she directed. “Hurry along, young lady, don’t stand idle while there are things to be done.”
The Countess had two reasons for instigating a séance. The first was to put into play a certain turn of events and observe the reactions of the characters and perhaps force the hand of the protagonist. The second was to arrange a tête-à-tête with Judge Cruddock – an impossibility with the men were holed up in the billiard room and the ladies closeted in the music room; and though the Countess would have preferred that conversation to be held in private, at least the dimensions of the library would afford them a little distance.
Perfect! The judge was standing at the far end of the eighty foot long library. He was scanning a row of leather-bound dusty tomes.
“Bonum vesperum,” she said by way of introduction for they had not been formally introduced though they had recently dined at the same table. “Haec te scire in pulvare cautes timirent?”
“Et omnis scienta est in pluverem,” the old man returned, studying her through his lorgnon à cordon. “Countess Volodymyrovna, I am enchanted to make your acquaintance. I recently heard some splendid things about you from a mutual friend, le Comte d’Aubrey, and may I compliment you on your Latin.”
“Gratias tibi benigni, amice mi periti,” she returned, shamelessly showing off before launching into French for more of the same – her linguistic vanity knowing no bounds. “Ah, comment va mon cher venerable ami, le comte? Est-il encore la chasse par tous les temps?”
The judge chuckled. “Mais oui, surtout en automne.”
She switched to English. “Allow me to digress, I recently read A Short History of English Jurisprudence by Lord Cosimo Burbage. The prose was riveting! I would be delighted to have your thoughts on his chapter contrasting the influence of Seneca and Cicero, and their respective contribution to English law. Which do you consider the more influential?”
Woolly brows drew down pensively as he drew breath, ready to expound on the subject at length but she cut him off, casting an exaggerated glance over her shoulder at the other guests, some already taking their seats at the séance table, where a candelabra with five candles danced in the draught from the bow window.
“I fear we will be reprimanded for our tardiness,” she said. “We simply must continue this conversation tomorrow. However, there was another point of law I was hoping you might clarify for me that I’m sure will not take up nearly so much time as we promenade d’ici-la.”
“Always glad to clarify a point of law for an attractive young lady, though I must admit I cannot recall the last time such a thing happened. Ask away!”
“I was wondering if 100 years was relevant in any way pertaining to hereditary law or baronies of tenure or some such thing.”
“What an odd question,” he said, sounding more amused than vexed. “But in answer to your question, yes, of course, definitely relevant in Scottish Law – quite different to English Law. Oh, yes, quite different.”
“Really? How so?”
“In Scottish Law we have what is called -”
“Oh, do come and join us,” intoned Lady Moira employing a long-suffering drone. “We are all waiting and the spirits are restless. Join hands everyone and whatever happens do not speak,” she warned. “And do not break the circle of hands.”
One extra person at table and they would have made a coven – a fact not unnoticed by several of the hand-holders, including Mr Bancoe who had not dared to absent himself despite his evangelical aversion to hocussing and pocussing.
Lady Moira began the mind-numbing, mnemonic humming and soon fell into a hypnotic trance. Her voice, when it came, was soft, strained and sibilant.
“Come, spirits, attend to mortal thoughts,
expose dark deeds and human mischief,
peel back thick night,
clarify the dun smoke of hell,
summon all-seeing couriers of sightless substance
whisper in our ears the deaf message –
who snatched the fateful crown?”
Five winking waxlights flickered fitfully and almost blew out as a cold draught brushed each cheek but no one flinched. All twelve sat mesmerized, transfixed, rendered mute by the metaphysical world of make-believe and the marvel of metaphor that transported them to the kingdom called Imagination.
The sceptic, the believer, the naïf, the dreamer, the drunkard, the schemer, the strong, the weak, the lover, the fool, the liar, the thief, all were caught in the sticky web of spirit words.
“Hark! Enter the fatal bellman: Duncan lies dead, his noble body steeped in bloody gore…”
There was a gasp or two and a collective corseting of fingers.
“The trumpet-tongued angel cries and cries,
As the fruitless crown floats upon the dark sea,
From here to hell and high water…”
Caught in a sudden up-draught, the candles flared and spluttered and two were extinguished, their wicks streaming a ghostly spiral up to the coffered ceiling.
“Out, out, brief candle! Double, double death!”
The Countess was seated opposite Lady Moira and she could see reflected in the gilt-framed mirror above the mantel what the others had not yet noticed. Four birds were hovering outside the window – a white, a red, a black and a blue bird.
One by one, the others saw them too, all except Lady Moira who remained in a trance-like state, staring blindly into the abyss. Hearts stopped and throats constricted, fingers clenched and everyone blanched. And just when everyone thought they’d had enough of the so-called spirit world there appeared at the window a circlet of white stars, diamond bright, winking at the night!
“My tiara!” screamed Lola O’Hara, breaking the spell-spinning enchantment of the séance before promptly fainting into her fiancé’s arms.
Miss Lambert gasped and swooned and was caught by Judge Cruddock.
Dr Watson kicked back his chair and raced toward the bow window. He almost collided with Mr Dee who raced to check the mirror instead. Mr Larssensen shook the damask curtains and stood on a small library ladder to run his hand along the gilded pelmet, checking for hidden wires. Mr Bancoe checked under the table for hidden box cameras. The Rajah ordered his factotum (tucked discretely into a niche) to search the garden then, himself, ran to help the Countess who was attempting to transport Lady Moira – light-headed and rambling incoherently – to an armchair. Someone called for brandy.
Miss Dee, thinking clearly as usual, went to the bell pull to summon the butler. She then began lighting candles, which helped to dispel the chaos.
Mr Chandrapur returned from the garden to report that he had found no one lurking outside. The slate-paved terrace meant it was impossible to check for footprints, but morning might reveal some clue that could not be discerned under cover of darkness.
Servants came bearing tea trays and a drinks trolley laden with alcoholic beverages. Cigars were lit by several of the men who needed to keep their hands busy and everyone proffered a theory:
“A trick of the misty moonlight reflected in the curvature of the glass.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised to find it was down to a few scampish tricksters from The Quotidienne having some fun at our expense. Rogues and scumbags – the lot of ’em.”
“Someone with a grudge against his lordship – a disgruntled tenant farmer or ex-servant is usually behind such shenanigans – mark my words.”
“Last month there was a fire at the lunatic asylum in Duns. Madmen are often drawn to places where murders have occurred and go in for senseless frightening jackanapes. It gives them a sickening thrill.”
“Some seabirds from the Orkneys with salt-encrusted feathers – that explains the sparkly glint. Our imaginations did the rest.”
“Bats – they were bats. The poor creatures can lose their sense of direction in certain weather, and the way the candlelight reflected off their velvet wings did the rest.”
“I thought they were fireflies. Wrong season, I know, but it was unseasonably warm last summer and some may have survived into autumn. The curved glass would have magnified their iridescence. They are quite magical.”
“If we are talking insects then I would say moths. They are attracted to the light. It is a simple explanation but the simple explanation is often the best according to William of Occam.”
“Snowflakes swirling on the north wind. Occam would find that simple enough.”
“Witchcraft should not be discounted. Witches cavort with Lucifer and he employs supernatural powers to confound those dabbling in the dark arts.”
“Oh, tosh! It was a message from the spirit world:
The whitebird calls tomorrow,
The redbird smiles hollow,
The blackbird cries sorrow,
The bluebird will follow…the tiara will soon be found.”
Catherine and Carter Dee teed-off at 9.30 in thick fog. A large crowd of locals bolstered by reporters, photographers and sketch artists followed the game from fairway to fairway, gathering strength and number as the game unfolded and the fog lifted. Those of morbid persuasion were hoping to stumble upon a dead body but the only sensation came at the end of the eighteen holes when Catherine out-scored her brother by a whacking eleven shots. Carter proved to be a gracious loser. He bear-hugged his sister and lifted her off the ground and swung her round and called for three cheers…Hip, hip, hooray!
“Lesser than yet greater,” remarked Dr Watson. “What a jolly good sport! I am ashamed to say I had him pegged all wrong. By the way, I noticed you were the only person not to proffer an explanation about the strange visitation at the window during the séance.”
“I had my back to the window,” reminded the Countess, busy scanning for a furtive figure clad in Black Watch tartan. None could be seen and yet the Countess felt the palpable presence of a giant blackbird watching from a distance, training a beady eye from on high. “The wind is picking up. Shall we head for home? We can partake of a late lunch. I believe Mrs Ross is making kidney pie.”
His stomach gave an appreciative rumble. “A short kip will go down well after lunch. Instruct Xenia to have your overnight bags packed by six o’clock. We must leave Graymalkin no later than half past six.”
“How many wedding guests is his lordship expecting?” asked the Countess, wondering how difficult it would be to steer the judge away from the Earl and Countess of Lomond, Lord and Lady Trefoyles, et al.
“Not as many as originally expected. Last night, whilst you were gallivanting around the castle, Miss Lambert informed me in confidence that most of the wedding invitations were politely declined. Lord and Lady Trefoyles, for instance, suddenly found themselves committed to an engagement in London. Others suddenly came down with a mysterious malady or found circumstances necessitated them travelling abroad at short notice. The inference being that they are either too frightened to attend, unsurprising after four murders, or too scandalised, meaning they do not wish to bless the marriage of a lord to an actress.”
“What puritans! Last month le Duc de Beauvoisin married a trapeze artiste from a circus and last summer the Prince of San Marlino married his laundress!”
“The Scottish Borders is not Paris or Monaco or Odessa. Once her ladyship produces an heir and disports herself with noblesse oblige things will change. In the meantime, the wedding guests will consist of local gentry rather than aristocracy, same as the night of the Scottish play.”
“Yes, I did wonder about that at the time,” she mused, before finishing on a lighter note, “Perhaps Lord Cruddock’s noble friends are also terrified of Loch Nessie!”
Gurged with golden light, the chapel had undergone a re-metamorphosis from theatre to place of worship and was aglow with luminescence from a hundred beeswax tapers. It was a quiet ceremony devoid of showy splendour. The bride wore a white wool cape edged in ermine that swept the floor. She teamed it with a gown cut from local tartan which earned unexpected praise from the dowager. But it was the Lammas tiara that drew everyone’s gaze. It had been miraculously discovered on the library table by the liveried butler one hour prior to the wedding as he made his rounds to check that everything had been set right from the night before.
Lola O’Hara was luminous with rapture at the last minute miracle, and for the first time in her life rendered humble and speechless.
The grand ballroom had been spruced up with silk divans, scented candles and an orchestra. A traditional Highland fling kicked off proceedings. Lord Cruddock, handsome in kilt and sporran, was persuaded to join in and proved remarkably sprightly for a man in his fifties.
Dr Watson, equally handsome in his own kilt was for once in his element in a social setting. He and the Countess danced three dances in a row.
“I can’t remember the last time I had such a good time,” he enthused, face sheened with sweat, clapping in time to the music and beaming broadly each time they took a breather. “I claim you for the Scottish reel – don’t forget!”
“I’m looking forward to it,” she beamed back blissfully. “In the meantime why don’t you ask Mrs Ardkinglas for the next dance?”
“She has been claimed by Mr Horsefield. I might ask Miss Lambert instead.”
“I think you are too late. Hamish Ross has staked his claim. What about Mrs Ross? Red and green tartan has done wonders for her complexion, she looks ten years younger.”
He spotted Miss Dee striding towards them. “Yes, I think I’ll go and find Mrs Ross,” he said quickly. “By the way, your coronet of wildflowers is very fetching. Purple heather is my favourite flower.” And off he hurried.
“Guess what?” Miss Dee addressed eagerly to the Countess. “A messenger just arrived from Duns with a handful of telegrams. Good news travels fast. I have just received multiple invitations to play tournaments in Cape Town, New York, South Carolina and Sydney. Isn’t that thrilling? I’m so excited. The world has really opened up for me.”
The Countess did not have the heart to spoil Catherine’s moment in the sun and gave her a sisterly hug.
“Carter is thrilled too!” Miss Dee continued to gush. “He is going to come with me to New York. He intends to find work on the stage. I never knew how desperately he wanted to be an actor. Everything has worked out so well. Oh, drat! Here comes the Rajah. I think he is going to ask you for a dance. I’m on cloud nine. I shall float off before he gets here!”
The Rajah did not ask the Countess to dance. He found the occidental passion for jigging just as absurd as the passion for spiceless meat for dinner and charred bread for breakfast.
“What do you think of the Govinda tiara?”
She gazed at the bride whirling across the dance floor, billowing rainbows under a coronet of stars. “Vraiment, c’est magnifique!”
Some dusky skin set off a row of lovely white teeth and a proud smile. “Yours on your wedding day – but for longer than one night. I sail tomorrow and the tiara sails with me. Let me know if you change your mind. My offer remains open. Come to India for a vacation. Bring Dr Watson. The doors of my palace likewise remain open. And to prove that not all of India is dry and dusty I will show you where tea is grown. I have a plantation in the hills. The setting will take your breath away.” He offered his arm. “Shall we take a turn on the terrace? It is a cloudless night and I am told the bonfires can be seen for miles and miles. You can tell to me the story of Mr Guido Fawkes.”
Maw Crag plateau provided the perfect vantage point for viewing the necklace of bonfires that flared across the land, and while she told him about the plot to blow up parliament she noticed two figures sprinting away from the castle – two carefree lovers, perhaps? And why not? It was a perfect night for l’amour!
“We also celebrate a Hindu festival on the fifth of November,” said the Rajah. “It is part of Diwali where sisters honour their brothers.”
India was sounding more and more magical but as he lifted her hand to his lips they heard an embarrassed cough from somewhere close. It was time for the Scottish reel.
The Countess left the Rajah on the terrace and re-entered the ballroom on the arm of Dr Watson and when she saw who was lined up for the reel she realized that the young lovers sprinting toward the abbey ruins could not have been Miss Lambert and Mr Ross as she had been quick to assume. Of course! The figures were exceedingly tall, and besides, they weren’t holding hands! It must have been Catherine and Carter Dee.
Dr Watson began explaining the rules of the reel “Always join a reel from the bottom. The angling of the shoulders indicates the direction -”
“Give me a moment,” she interrupted. “Let me watch for a bit and then I will have it.”
“That will never work,” he grumbled.
After a few moments she said, “Incline head, curtsey, travel in opposite direction, return, repeat, join hands, stamp, right, left, right, clap three times, advance, under arch, travel, repeat, 4, 8, 16, 32. It is all a matter of mathematics.”
And by golly she did have it!
A sumptuous wedding feast had been set up on trestle tables in the alabaster hall. Guests helped themselves to an array of hot and cold dishes then dispersed to find a seat. Some went outside to admire the bonfires, others drifted into the library. The formal rooms in the south wing had been locked up. Time was of the essence when the Countess cornered Lord Cruddock at the top of the stairs a short time later.
“I would like you to inform your wife and to put it about amongst the guests that the bride will be spending the wedding night in the husband’s bedchamber,” she stated, just like that.
Naturally, he took umbrage. “Tradition calls for the husband to go to the bride’s bedchamber and I will not be dictated to in my own home on my wedding night by -”
“If you want to know who stole the tiara you will cede to my request.”
He expelled a weighty exasperated breath. “What do you intend?”
“I don’t have time to explain the fullness of my plan,” she said, ignoring a strong whiff of whiskey, “but the real tiara will not be put at risk.”
“You guarantee this?”
“You have my word.”
“So the real tiara can be placed back in the priest’s hole in my study before we retire for the night?” he clarified to satisfy himself.
“No, your wife must leave it on her dressing table before she goes to your bedchamber.”
“Are you mad! I will not risk it!”
She had no choice but to stick her neck out. “Tomorrow morning I will reveal not only the name of the thief, I will reveal who murdered the three golfers and the caddy, and you will still have your tiara!”
Shocked, he drew back and almost toppled down the stairs. Several faces turned to look as he caught hold of the bannister to steady himself. “I hope to God you are telling the truth,” he hissed angrily as he commenced his descent, mumbling profanities.
Next, the Countess went to find Judge Cruddock. He was seated on a garden bench at the far end of the terrace, a glass of champagne in one hand and a mutton chop in the other. Nessie was under the bench gnawing on a bone. Unsurprisingly, he was without company.
“Entailzie,” she said as she plonked herself on the bench, guarding her ankles from the fangs being honed to sharpness. “You were about to explain the term to me yesterday.”
“Ah, dear Countess. Yes, yes, please join me,” he invited needlessly.
“Entailzie?” she prodded.
“It is a Scottish term for what is entailed…”
He was longwinded and most of it she already knew from her time in Devon solving the Baskerville case, but when he began to outline something called abeyance she was all ears.
Some words are rarely used except in the negative. People are rarely described as couth or gruntled, merely uncouth and disgruntled. And a plan never ravels, it only unravels…
By ten o’clock almost everyone was in the breakfast room discussing the wedding in exalted tones when they were interrupted by a high-pitched scream. It came from the top of the stairs where the bride, wearing a transparent peignoir over a silky slip and looking like a beguiling ghost, was wailing like a demented banshee. It soon became clear that the tiara she had deposited on her dressing table prior to going to her husband’s bedchamber had disappeared during the night. Lord Cruddock turned purple with rage and was about to unleash the full force of his fury when the Countess directed a wink his way and the royal flush faded to a coral hue.
“What can this mean?” he blustered like a third rate actor strutting some provincial stage as he attempted to calm his unhappy bride – with Nessie nipping at his heels.
The sobbing bride danced around the little Scottie to avoid having her peignoir shredded. “Deal with it, Duncan!” she shouted at her husband of one night as she detached some French finery from Scottish fangs. “You will find me in my boudoir – I have a furious headache! And keep that rabid flea-bag away from me!”
“Miss Dee and Mr Dee did not come down to breakfast,” muttered Judge Cruddock, sounding concerned and helpful at the same time, ignoring the trail of ripped lace and the insult to his dear little Scottie who was now weeing on a corner of the Persian carpet. “I don’t know if that is significant.”
“Let’s check their rooms, starting with the brother,” foamed the Viking uncouthly, striding forth to the bachelor’s wing like Harald Hardrader storming Stamford Bridge.
The Old Salt followed in his foamy wake, feeling bolder than Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar, as he aimed a cannon-ball kick at the little biter. “Call back yer doggie, Judge, or I will not be held responsible!”
“I have not seen my factotum all morning,” complained the Rajah in a disgruntled tone, but no one was paying attention except Nessie who was suddenly drawn to some bejewelled slippers like a mongoose to a cobra. “I had to complete my toilette unaided and was forced to dress – Ouch!”
“A breakfast tray to my room, Miss Lambert,” frothed Lady Moira as she stepped into a damp patch. “See to it at once! And keep this incontinent canine away from me!”
Dr Watson rushed off to check the bedroom of Miss Dee.
The Rajah followed hot on his heels before Nessie took a liking to his other slipper.
Judge Cruddock tried to coax Nessie away from the Chippendale she had taken a sudden fancy to as his lordship threw up his hands and withdrew to his sanctum.
Alone, the Countess returned to the breakfast room blithely unaware that the scene she had just witnessed was the beginning of the scarlet thread unravelling.
She had just poured herself a fresh cup of Darjeeling when Hamish and Thane entered through the French window. Hamish Ross was a hard-working young man of serious demeanour and this particular morning he was looking more preoccupied and more serious than usual.
“Can you tell me where I might find Lord Cruddock?” he asked without even offering a courteous good-morning.
“I think you will find him in his private study. Is everything all right? You look worried.”
“You may as well know. You will learn it soon enough. The Dees are dead. I just came across their bodies at the abbey ruin -”
The Countess caught back a gasp and almost spilled hot tea down the front of her silk tartan day dress. “Did they jump from the parapet? Was it suicide?”
“No, no, it was not suicide – thank God for that because I have not yet had the stairs dismantled – no, no, they have been gored by a stag.”
“Yes, I can hardly believe it myself. It is vexing. There is no abature.”
“No trampling of grass, no hoof prints, no sign that any stag has been there at all and yet they have the wounds to prove it, though…” He stopped abruptly and his brows furrowed.
“You were saying?”
“Stags are extremely tall. I have only ever come across three deaths caused by stags and the men were all gored in the throat. The Dees were gored in the stomach. The only thing I can think to explain it would be if they were standing on the stones but then I cannot imagine a stag charging up the stones. But there it is. I left MacBee to watch the bodies while I hurried here to inform Lord Cruddock.”
“MacBee was with you when you found the bodies?”
He had reached the door and paused abruptly. “No, no, she arrived a few moments later. She was out gathering herbs and wildflowers.”
“Is she…is she all right?”
“Yes, she’s fine,” he dismissed quickly, indicating he was not privy to the family secret. “I asked her to watch over the bodies. I thought Dr Watson might want to take a look and I didn’t want anyone else to interfere with the bodies in the meantime. I better let his lordship know. Stay here, boy!” he directed at his loyal companion as he pulled open the door and scanned the hall. “Can you keep an eye on Thane? I don’t want Nessie taking another snap at him. The wound she inflicted during her last visit took months to heal. Put him out if he bothers you. I won’t be long.”
The Countess tossed Thane several rashers of crispy bacon before following after Hamish. She wanted to hear what his lordship would make of the deaths of his god-children. And it was just as well she did. Lord Cruddock was sprawled on his back across his desk, lying in a warm sticky pool of blood which was oozing from a deep wound to his neck and dripping onto the floor, soaking into a tartan rug. He had been stabbed in the throat with a sharp weapon and the attack had happened recently, the body and the blood were still warm.
The tidy state of the room led them to believe no violent struggle had taken place. Lord Cruddock must have been taken by surprise by someone standing at the door, someone who lashed out, stabbed him in the throat, and caused him to fall backwards onto his desk. There were splatters of blood everywhere, including a large red splotch on the oil painting by Septimus Decimus Cox behind the desk. Blood must have spurted from the carotid artery like a fountain in full flow. Hamish Ross looked closely at the weapon sticking out of the side of his lordship’s neck and his body stiffened.
“It is not a dagger I see before me,” he said, his voice thick and clotted.
The Countess had already noted the smooth wooden handle of the weapon. She was familiar with the rounded shape that fit comfortably into the palm of a lady’s hand. “It is a bodkin,” she said. “The type used for basket-weaving. The blade will be 5 inches in length.”
The significance of the weapon was not lost on either of them.
Male voices filtered up the spiral stairs. The men had apparently finished searching the bedrooms of the Dees and had met up at the top of the landing. The dry throaty rumble of Mr Bancoe came first.
“Mr Dee’s bed has not been slept in.”
Dr Watson’s modulated tone came next. “Neither has Miss Dee’s bed been disturbed.”
“They have fled with the tiara!” thundered the Viking. “The security here is laughable! Lord Cruddock is a drunken fool! His wife’s safety, not his next dram, should be his prime concern!”
The voice of reason did little to calm the Viking. “I admit it looks bad for the Dees,” said the doctor. “Lord Cruddock needs to instigate a thorough search before they get too far – the sooner the better.”
“Where on earth is my factotum?” mumbled the Rajah, deftly avoiding the damp patch on the Persian rug, but no one was listening.
“Where on earth is Lord Cruddock?” growled the Viking.
“His lordship is in his study,” replied the Countess calmly, materializing at the base of the spiral stairs, Hamish at her back, “but I’m afraid he won’t be organizing a search, nor will it be necessary. He is dead and so are the Dees.”
No one spoke for several moments. The news took a while to sink in and even then each man insisted on taking a brief look into the study, navigating the narrow spiral stairs one after another to confirm the grim reality for himself. By the time they had all re-marshalled on the landing, shell-shocked by the sight of so much blood and baffled by the choice of weapon and totally confounded by the inexplicable death of the Dees by a stag, the Countess who had the clearest grasp of all that had transpired for reasons that would soon become clear to all, and who had had the most amount of time to think about the whys and wherefores and the whereto now, took charge before anyone else had the wherewithal to do so.
Three years of marriage to a dynamic man had taught her that men were creatures of action. Moreover, they were accustomed to following orders if those orders were delivered with a voice of authority. Following-through on a mission was something they instinctively understood, especially if that mission had a solid rather than an abstract outcome. She spoke directly and authoritatively, addressing each man one after the other, tasking them with something that would contribute to that outcome – namely unmasking the thief and the murderer. They were to assemble in the drawing room at midday.
“Mr Bancoe, please inform my coachman, Horace, to fetch Mrs Ross, Mrs Ardkinglas and Mr MacDuff and bring here forthwith.”
“Mr Ross, please return to the abbey ruins with some strong men and bring back the bodies of Miss Dee and Mr Dee, and make sure to bring MacBee back with you, even if you have to carry her yourself, kicking and screaming.”
“Mr Larssensen, please inform her ladyship of the death of her husband and his two god-children and see to it that she is in the drawing room at noon minus any histrionics.”
“Rajah, if you would please locate the judge and inform him we are meeting in the drawing room at midday. I think you might find him in the garden walking his dog. I spotted him through the study window heading toward the loch.”
“What about my factotum?” the Rajah mumbled as he shuffled his feet. “I fear things don’t look good for him. Though I cannot understand why he did not use, er, never mind.”
“Don’t worry about your factotum,” she dismissed. “I know where he is. I will explain his whereabouts to you when we re-assemble.”
Dr Watson waited for the others to leave. “I’ll go back to the study and examine the scene for clues.”
“Don’t bother with that,” she returned briskly. “I know who killed Lord Cruddock. You need to inform Lady Moira and Miss Lambert of his death, plus that of the Dees. Your calm bedside manner will act better than any panacea, but you had better take your medical bag just in case. Make sure they understand they need to be in the drawing room for twelve o’clock sharp.”
“You know who stole the tiara and who the murderer is?” he called after her as she sprinted down the stairs, his voice incredulous and mystified.
“Yes,” she called back over her shoulder.
“Where are you going now?”
“To finish my breakfast!”
“This is most unorthodox,” mumbled Dr Watson morosely as he and the Countess waited for the others to arrive in the drawing room. He couldn’t help feeling his counterpart was staging a drama to rival the Scottish play in order to demonstrate her cleverness. She had changed into a dramatic silk tussore day dress featuring bold ecossaise-style check patterning. But her vanity might yet be her undoing. It could all go horribly wrong and backfire like one of those fireworks that suddenly explode without warning causing terrible injuries to those in the vicinity. Did she really know who stole the tiara? Could she truly say who killed Lord Cruddock after such a cursory inspection of the murder scene? And gathering all the suspects together to unmask the culprit or culprits! It was an invitation to a disaster that might put innocent lives at risk!
“Sherlock would not have gone in for this sort of melodrama,” the doctor pointed out bluntly, agitated and restless now, checking the time on his pocket watch as he paced up and down beneath a plethora of fan-vaulting, blind to the architectural magnificence and the fabulous bibelots that had once held him spellbound. “If you know who the thief and the murderer are why not just have them locked up until Scotland Yard arrive. A detective inspector should be here any time soon. I cannot imagine what has delayed him,” he finished irritably, glancing once more at his watch.
It was ten minutes before twelve.
“Oh, do sit down,” she rebuked tetchily. “You are wearing out the Aubusson! I need to think and you are distracting me with your carping.”
Good grief! That comment did not bode well! She was about to stage a play for which she had not even prepared a script. This gathering had all the hallmarks of a Shakespearean tragedy with her starring in the lead role and he forced into the role of luckless Falstaff. He was about to turn on his heel when the door flew open and the first of the dramatis personae made their entrance and he knew it was too late to cancel the performance.
Judge Cruddock and Nessie were the first to arrive. They entered via the dining room. The judge parked himself on a fauteuil by the Louis Quatorze bureau plat, Nessie on his lap, where she could cast a doggy eye over proceedings and size up the sport to be had.
Mrs Ross, Mrs Ardkinglas and Mr MacDuff came next through the door leading from the alabaster entrance hall. They found Chippendale chairs positioned around the edges of the room and selected those which they deemed least conspicuous.
Mr Bancoe shambled in a few moments later using the same door as the judge. He found an armchair angled near to the sideboard on which sat some decanters of sweet and dry sherry.
Lady Moira, Miss Lambert and the Rajah of Govinda arrived together. The two ladies chose the settee by the fireplace. The Rajah chose to stand by the elaborate gothic mantel, one hand resting on the carved ledge, the other touching on his ceremonial dagger.
Through the French window came Hamish Ross with a reluctant MacBee in tow, glowering and cursing. Nessie took one look at Thane, guarding the terrace, and launched herself at the glass, barking ferociously. Someone opened the French window and out she burst as if she had a fire-cracker tied to her tail, chasing after the Gordon setter who took off like the wind. The brief explosion sets hearts thrumming but was quickly forgotten when in sashayed the new Lady Cruddock, stunning in black satin and a triple-stranded pearl choker, leaning heavily on the arm of her illicit paramour, Mr Larssensen. They sat together on the settee vis-à-vis Lady Moira and Miss Lambert, as if to directly challenge the old order.
Dr Watson closed the double doors and positioned himself discretely in an alcove by the French window, one hand in his pocket, nervously fingering his service revolver.
No one spoke. All understood the gravitas of the gathering. This was not a social occasion. Each person waited silently for the scene to run through the obligatory script and hopefully end without too much drama.
It was two minutes after twelve.
“Thank you for being prompt,” said the Countess, who had been hanging back in the wings, rehearsing in her head how best to phrase things once she took the floor. “In the absence of Scotland Yard I have taken it upon myself to unmask the thieves and murderers in our midst and I would like to thank you for your co-operation.”
Co-operation had nothing to do with it. They had no choice in the matter. Failing to turn up would have placed them front and centre under a guilty spotlight.
“Scotland Yard is here,” contradicted Mr MacDuff with throaty tonality, pushing to his feet. “I am Detective Inspector MacDuff.” He waited for the gasps of dismay to subside. “But since the Countess has called this meeting and has taken the floor I will allow her to continue. I have taken just one liberty, a precaution as befits my occupation. Footmen have been posted outside each exit should anyone choose to flee before we are done.” Graciously, he bowed his head and gestured for her to go on, ignoring the chorus of disgruntlement that rippled around the drawing room like the softly threatening rumble of distant thunder.
As dismayed as the others, the Countess nevertheless composed herself and acknowledged the Detective Inspector with an equally gracious nod of her head.
“I do not intend to drag matters out. I will deal with the four murders first. I refer to the three golfers and the caddy. I thank Dr Watson at this point for his carefully drawn conclusion, a conclusion many others may also have reached, namely, that the golfing murders were committed by Miss Dee and Mr Dee who were able to assume the guise of each other and thus provide for themselves convincing alibis. We can reasonably assume the first golfer, the world champion, was eliminated from the contest to increase the chance of the Dees winning. However, I suggest that the following two murders were committed for the sake of publicity which many here have pointed out as being of paramount importance to the success of the tournament. I can personally attest that by the time the three golfers had been killed every publication in the land, from The Times to The Penny Weekly, featured an article about the Lammermoor Golf Tournament. There was not a single person who perused a newspaper who would not have heard of the Lammermoor Golf Club. Human nature being what it is – bad publicity is as effective as good publicity when it comes to promoting a new venture and the power of publicity cannot be underestimated.”
“What about those witchy things – the corn dolly and such like?” blurted Mr Bancoe, briefly turning his gaze away from the tantalizing decanters winking on the sideboard. “I say the murders were done by witches!”
“Please don’t interrupt,” reprimanded the Countess somewhat frostily. “I will answer any questions at the end if anything remains unclear. As for the Wicca symbols – I suggest they were placed at the scene by the Dees to point the finger at Mother MacBee.”
She knew full well this was a lie but a forthright tone is always convincing.
MacBee was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. She stood her ground and stared unblinkingly from under the hood of her Black Watch tartan, fixing each gazer with the evil eye – lips pressed tight, as if the top and bottom had been sewn together with needle and thread.
“The fourth death,” continued the Countess, bringing the spotlight back to herself, mightily relieved that MacBee chose not to contradict her, “namely that of Mr Brown, was also committed by the Dees. We can assume with reasonable certainty that Mr Brown was blackmailing someone because Mrs Ardkinglas saw a note he had written implying as much. We can also assume he was waiting to meet someone in the kitchen courtyard at the time he died, as he had been there for some time, smoking cigarettes, yet it was not a place he would normally have gone for a smoke. The kitchen staff happened to be absent on that particular day making it a good place to meet without being observed. We also know he had confided in Mr MacDuff that he had just had a turn of luck that would see him right – indicating he was expecting some money to come his way. From that we can infer with some certainty that he was blackmailing the Dees.”
MacDuff confirmed her summation with a nod of his head.
Apart from the Countess, no one noticed the dark look Mrs Ardkinglas flashed her hooded sister for the part she may have played regarding the details of such an inference being reached by the speaker. They were all fidgeting with buttons, brooches, bracelets, handkerchiefs and cuff-links, or nervously knitting their fingers together, over and under, in and out. Some had chosen to shove their hands in their pockets to avoid giving way to tell-tale nerves.
The Countess had been standing in front of the carved stone mantelpiece with its distinctive gothic design but now paced slowly to the large gothic window where daylight came flooding in behind her, enabling her to better scrutinise the occupants of the room.
“Let me explain further pertaining to this murder. I believe someone borrowed a costume from the Scottish play to disguise themselves before stealing across to the Marmion Hydro Hotel to kill Mr Brown with the intent of putting an end to any chance of blackmail. The most likely candidate was Carter Dee. A person of his stature and fitting his description wearing a tartan costume from the play was spotted twice during the same day that the caddy was murdered. He was spotted going towards and then away from the hotel by the woodchopper, Ned Dawes, who assumed the man was a poacher because of his furtiveness.”
“The killer must have killed my husband too!” cried her ladyship, mopping faux tears.
“I will get to the death of Lord Cruddock in a moment,” responded the Countess.
“The Dees must have stolen the tiara as well!” flared the Viking, patting his beloved’s hand.
“Perhaps the tiara was stolen by you and your lover!” hissed Lady Moira.
“How dare you!” screeched the new Lady Cruddock, sounding not a bit sonorous. “When this is over I’ll throw you out once and for all! You will never cross the threshold again, you bitter old hag!”
“Calm down! Calm down!” attempted the judge, making it sound like: Order! Order!
“You said you would reveal the whereabouts of my factotum,” persisted the Rajah, fingering the jewelled hilt of his dagger.
“I will reveal all in due course,” sighed the Countess, trying to be heard above the constant stream of mutterings and the impassioned interruptions that were derailing her train of thought. “The Dees did not steal the tiara because -”
“How can you say that with certainty?” challenged Mr Larssensen. “They were probably burying it out by the abbey ruins when they were gored by the stag!”
“That’s enough!” warned Mr MacDuff. “The next person to interrupt will be locked in the cellar until we have finished.” He turned to the Countess. “Please proceed.”
“Perhaps we could have some morning tea,” suggested the Countess tactfully, sensing the pent-up emotions bubbling up like a stewpot about to boil over. “Most people missed breakfast. Rajah, if you would be so good as to summon the butler. You seem to be closest to the bell pull.”
“No one is to leave the room,” warned MacDuff, aiming a meaningful glance at the doctor who was still standing guard nearest to the French window, his revolver at the ready.
Everyone began perambulating the vast confines of the drawing room, talking in hushed tones the way tourists do in a museum, stiffly circumambulating the furniture, weaving in and out and roundabout. Someone spotted a Faberge enamelled etui and several people lit up a cigarette. The Rajah stoked the fire while Mr Bancoe helped himself to a dry sherry and offered one to the judge. MacBee kept her distance from her scowling sisters.
Dr Watson stood alone in front of the French window, hands in his pockets, and gazed out across the links, thinking back to his first night at Cruddock Castle. He had felt honoured to be among such an illustrious and exotic crowd. Now he could barely bring himself to look at them. Was it old age? Or was it him? He felt disheartened with society, with people in general, with himself. He felt disappointed. Yes, that was it. The people he met were disappointing. The circle he moved in was perennially disappointing. Only one person had never disappointed him. Sherlock had always been true to himself – that good old Shakespearean line trotted out at valedictorian dinners and speech nights! He hoped to God the Countess knew what she was doing. He didn’t think he could stand to be disappointed any more than he already was.
Mrs Ross and Mrs Ardkinglas dispensed the tea and coffee as soon as it arrived while Miss Lambert helped to serve slices of Dundee cake. Heated tempers had cooled and everyone retook their same seats in a calmer frame of mind.
“As I was saying,” recommenced the Countess, replacing her empty teacup on a tray table, “the Dees did not steal the tiara – neither the real one nor the fake.”
Anticipating a stream of disbelieving gasps, she paused for a moment. Someone checked a cry and several voices uttered stunned surprise but heeding Mr MacDuff’s earlier warning about sitting it out in the cellar no one voiced their thoughts audibly enough to be evicted. Lady Moira opened and closed her mouth like a puffer fish gasping for air, while the new Lady Cruddock fanned her flushed face with a black silk fan.
“Yes, there were two tiaras,” the Countess confirmed in answer to the unasked question that sat on everyone’s lips. “The real tiara was sold to the Rajah to pay off his lordship’s gambling debts. And though his lordship is now dead and cannot confirm as much, the Rajah has the deed of sale to prove it. I saw the deed on the desk in his cabin when I spent the night on his ship. The Lammas tiara, originally called the Govinda tiara, was once the property of the Rajah’s family and purloined by Colonel Fotheringay during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 before passing into the hands of Lord Cruddock. A substitute tiara was crafted to fool the dowager and the present Lady Cruddock. However, it must be said, Lord Cruddock loved his wife dearly and wanted her to wear the real tiara on her wedding day. The Rajah agreed to the delay of sale for that reason.”
“That doesn’t explain where the tiaras are at present,” rasped Lady Moira.
“I’m getting to that,” replied the Countess. “As soon as I realized there were two tiaras the first robbery became much clearer, that is to say, the criminal field narrowed considerably. The thief did not know he had stolen the fake tiara but the Rajah and his lordship did know it. The real tiara was kept in the priest’s hole in his lordship’s study. I deduced where the fake tiara had been hidden after it had been stolen and stole it back from the thief and wore it on the wedding night, concealed beneath ivy and heather. I convinced his lordship to instruct his wife to leave the real tiara in her bedroom on the wedding night and to spend the night in his bedchamber. Lady Cruddock did as instructed and I thank her sincerely. During the night I was able to slip into her room and substitute the fake tiara for the real one. Consequently, the person who stole the tiara from her room has the fake one and I have the real one in my possession which I will give to the Rajah when we are done.”
“So who stole the fake tiara?” hazarded Mr Larssensen, momentarily forgetting himself, feeling slightly confused about there being two tiaras.
“There were two thefts of the fake tiara. The first theft of the fake tiara from the library I will explain shortly. The most recent theft, the one last night, was perpetrated by a person who was observed in the act by my manservant who had concealed himself in the room at the time. It was Mr Chandrapur.”
“The jackal!” shouted the Rajah furiously, knocking a Dresden statuette from the mantel and catching it before it hit the floor. “I will have him flogged and crushed by an elephant!”
“I don’t think you need go that far,” said the Countess matter-of-factly. “When you return with the real tiara and everyone realizes he has the fake, he will be rendered powerless. Peace will be restored not by violence and vengeance but by humility and mercy. The man who holds the talisman – remember?”
“So who stole the fake tiara from the library?” pressed Mr Larssensen, catching up.
“Be patient,” warned MacDuff. “All will be revealed in good time.”
“The person who stole the fake tiara from the library is here with us in this room,” continued the Countess, proceeding more confidently now that she had managed to reach thus far without things coming to blows. “Several clues alerted me to the thief. Firstly, a fleck of white fluff on the sleeve of Dr Watson’s jacket as he searched for clues. Secondly, a person who had somewhere to conceal the tiara after he stole it, should he bump into a fellow guest during his midnight meandering. Thirdly, the hiding spot – an ingenious spot that flashed to mind after I saw the oil painting in Lord Cruddock’s study and noted the level rows of chimney stacks. Fourthly, someone who arrived late for the first rehearsal because they had been busy searching Miss O’Hara’s dressing-room.”
Several people squirmed in their seats; some drew themselves up with dignity lest they be accused; others glanced contemptuously at those they thought guilty. The Countess eyed each person before bringing her gaze circling back to her own hands and counting on her fingers.
“One – the piece of fluff was from a pompom. Two – the place of concealment was a silly old hat. Three – the hiding place was the bottom of a golf bag that had been fitted with a secret compartment a mere two inches high, not easy to spot unless you saw a number of golf bags lined up together and saw that one bag was slightly taller and the clubs slightly higher than all the others. And four – the person who came late to rehearsal: Mr Bancoe!”
“It’s a lie!” he shouted, leaping to his feet and spilling sherry all over himself. “You cannot prove a thing! I have a compartment in my golf bag for storing a flask of whiskey. You can check it!”
“Desist, Mr Bancoe,” warned MacDuff, noting the soggy crotch, “clean yourself up and sit back down unless you wish to be clapped in handcuffs here and now. I can confirm the Yard has suspected Mr Bancoe of theft for more than twelve months. Valuable items have disappeared wherever he has played golf. But we were baffled as to how he always managed to get through even the most stringent search. I thank the Countess for alerting us to the secret compartment in his bag. Pray continue, Countess Volodymyrovna.”
“Who killed my husband?” snapped the new Lady Cruddock. “Can you answer me that?”
“It was that lying, thieving, self-righteous hypocrite!” accused Mr Larssensen, disdaining sporting ties and pointing an accusing finger at his ex-golfing partner. “Lecturing us on morality and séances and pretending to care for his ailing mother!”
Mr Bancoe turned brick red. “You were the one bedding his bride behind his back!” he gurgled angrily. “Better a liar and a thief than a cad and a fornicator!”
“I’m sorry to say I think it had to be my factotum,” interrupted the Rajah gravely, continuing to finger the ceremonial dagger strapped to his side. “Though I cannot understand why he did not use his own dagger. It was his calling card.”
“Pipe down – all of you!” shouted MacDuff. “I have been enjoying this immensely and I would like to hear what else the Countess has to say. By the by, my money is on the Dees.”
The Countess dispensed a sympathetic smile the inspector’s way. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Inspector MacDuff, but it was not the Dees. Driven by hubris a deux they committed four murders but they did not kill Lord Cruddock. I saw them sprinting toward the abbey ruins last night while I was on the terrace with Judge Cruddock. I’d wager their bodies were damp with dew and their clothing stiff with frost this morning. Is that correct Mr Ross?”
“Yes,” he confirmed with a firm nod of his head. “The blood around the wounds had congealed too. They had already been dead several hours when I came across their bodies. Though I cannot fathom about the abature,” he said, scratching his head and frowning.
“Thank you, Mr Ross,” said the Countess with brisk courtesy, “but nature is sometimes unfathomable. We can conclude the Dees were killed last night and could not have killed their god-father this morning. They were killed by a stag just as Mr Ross surmised. I can confirm seeing a large stag by Fickle Beck a few days ago. It was most likely the same animal. Their deaths were a tragedy of nature. It is unfortunate they cannot stand trial for the four murders but they have forfeited their lives and that must suffice.”
“So it was Mr Chandrapur after all?” mumbled the inspector when professional speculation finally caught up to the facts at hand.
“No, it was not Mr Chandrapur,” contradicted the Countess with greater confidence. “My manservant watched him flee last night. He will be half way to the coast with the fake tiara by now. We need not concern ourselves with him any longer. Though I would like to thank the Rajah for the term he employed. The murderer of Lord Cruddock did leave a distinctive calling card in the form of a weapon – a bodkin – which tells us that his lordship was murdered not by a man but a woman.”
The Countess paused while the ladies in the room fanned their flushed faces and grasped at their empty teacups in the hope of moistening parched lips. MacBee was the only one who was actually smiling – a wry, knowing, witchy smile. A row of yellowed teeth that had rarely seen the light of day in twenty years glinted against craggy skin that had long ago been drained of youthful dew and a healthy shine.
“Several women had good reason to kill Lord Cruddock,” said the Countess. “His new wife, first and foremost, so that she could be with her lover -”
“How dare you accuse -”
“Shut-up!” commanded the inspector, silencing Mr Larssensen before he could get any further with his objection.
“As I was saying, several women had good reason to kill Lord Cruddock. The new Lady Cruddock was not alone in wishing his lordship dead. There is also Mrs Ross who we know does basket-weaving and thus has access to bodkins.”
“Everyone has access to bodkins,” returned Mrs Ross coldly.
‘Yes,” agreed the Countess, “but not everyone fathered a child by the old lord and was then cast aside. Someone whose child is just as legitimate as the recently deceased Lord Cruddock. Someone who may have been harbouring hate for decades on behalf of her son, or on behalf of her sister – who was made poor while the so-called rightful heir gambled away the family fortune. But of course, you did not kill him because you were not here at the time, nor was your sister, Mrs Ardkinglas. We know that because Horace delivered you both here in the landau and can vouch for your whereabouts this morning, which in fact he did when I questioned him earlier.”
“I thought you were about to accuse me next!” bleated Mrs Ardkinglas sounding immensely relieved.
“No, it was not you, nor was it the third sister who was watching over the bodies of the Dees at the time. It had to be one of the women inside the castle. Discounting myself, that leaves her ladyship, Miss Lambert and Lady Moira.”
All eyes returned to the ravishing widow who had turned deathly pale and who could no longer fan her face because her hand was shaking uncontrollably.
“Whatever is impossible must be discounted and whatever is left, no matter how improbable…I believe the mantra goes. The new Lady Cruddock was wearing a peignoir when we saw her on the landing this morning. Her maid showed me the same peignoir later that morning and it was not covered in blood. She only had one wedding night peignoir of that style. Furthermore, I know it was the same one because it had a slight rip along the lacy hem where Nessie had caught it in her teeth this morning. My maid can also confirm her ladyship’s maid was with her ladyship in her room all morning. Impossible and improbable – it was not Lady Cruddock.”
At this point her ladyship fainted and had to be revived with smelling salts that Dr Watson administered from his medical bag. Her lover stroked her hair while she rested her head on his shoulder and made pathetic little mewling sounds.
“That just leaves Miss Lambert and Lady Moira.”
All eyes turned to the two ladies seated side by side on the settee. Miss Lambert was torturing her handkerchief in silence while Lady Moira was staring proudly and sternly at her accuser.
“I know that Lady Moira recently bought five bodkins,” continued the Countess in a carefully orchestrated monotone, meeting the seigneurial gaze with orchestrated equanimity. “I know that she gave three to Mrs Ross, possibly to incriminate her.”
“You bitch!” spat Mrs Ross viciously, snatching up the nearest ornament at hand.
“Settle down! Settle down!” warned the inspector. “And return that nice thingummybob back to where it came from.”
The Countess waited for Mrs Ross to replace the priceless Ming bowl. “I know that Lady Moira was growing ever more frustrated with her son for his drinking, his gambling and his choice of wife. She knew his heir would be illegitimate just as the heir she had produced had been illegitimate. I suggest that Lady Moira went to the study to speak to her son. An argument erupted whereby he may have lashed out at his mother and she, defending herself, reached for the bodkin in her embroidery bag and killed him in a moment of desperation akin to emotional insanity. I notice Lady Moira is wearing a different dress to the one she had on this morning when we saw her on the landing. I suggest we will find hidden in her bedroom a dress splattered with blood. Is that correct, Lady Moira?”
Lady Moira continued to meet the Countess’s gaze courageously, proudly and unflinchingly. “Who would have thought my son to have so much blood in him,” she replied with flippancy, recalling a line from the nameless play. “You have left out just one point, Countess Volodymyrovna, an important point which I believe you know to be vital for providing a motive. I will elaborate, if you will allow me to soliloquize?”
“Certainly,” conceded the Countess graciously, smiling an inscrutable smile that hinted at something underhand and which did not ring true for such a brutally honest moment. Neither woman dropped her gaze. It was a poignant moment, uncontrived and yet false at the same time.
Dr Watson wondered if he was the only one who noticed how the Countess’s smile rang false and how her demeanour altered subtly during that brief exchange. The others did not know her well enough, he told himself. But he did. Something was not quite right but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Lady Moira had all but confessed. This was the Countess’s moment of triumph – she had her thieves and murderers – so what was wrong?
“Three years ago,” began Lady Moira, breathing heavily, as though each word cost an effort, “MacBee came to me and told me of an abeyance hanging over the Cruddock estate. She showed me a family tree she and her sisters had traced back to the last witch of the borders, Alice Mawson, who was convicted of witchcraft and exiled 100 years ago yesterday.”
“I have a copy of the family tree here,” croaked MacBee, reaching inside her cloak and whipping out a piece of paper with a complex design on it, the same drawing that Mrs Ross had been careful to conceal from the Countess, which was now handed to the inspector.
Not a map at all!
“During my frequent trips to Edinburgh to treat the cancer of the throat and lungs which will soon claim my life,” wheezed Lady Moira between stertorous breaths, “I made further enquiries. I followed up the family tree they had drawn up. I instructed solicitors to verify marriage, birth and death certificates and so forth. I even double-checked the relevant archives personally. It appeared MacBee was right. The fifth of November 1899 was the last day that the true heir could claim their birthright. I consulted my late-husband’s cousin, Judge Cruddock. He drew up a petition of claim. The true heir signed the petition, not quite knowing what they were signing, all still perfectly legal, and the petition for termination of the abeyance was lodged. Judge Cruddock arrived the day before the wedding to tell me the petition had been successful. The Cruddock estate – including Cruddock Castle and all rights, appurtenances, chattels, and so forth that go with it – belongs to the sole remaining heir of Alice Mawson who was condemned by an unscrupulous judge, aided and abetted by witch-finders motivated by spite and malice and personal gain.”
“Who is it?” screamed Lady Cruddock; sounding like a banshee who had just foreseen her own ghastly demise.
“It is Miss Lambert,” rasped Lady Moira, exhaling with relief. “She is the rightful heir. I employed her as my paid companion several years ago so as not to lose sight of her while everything was being verified. The laws of the land grind slowly. But after 100 years they have finally come full circle and justice has been served at long last.”
Miss Lambert resembled a young actress suddenly thrust into the limelight, the star of the show paralysed with stage-fright.
Hamish Ross kept shaking his head. He was having difficulty accepting that the young woman he loved and planned to marry was suddenly heir to the estate where he toiled as a ghillie. All his matrimonial dreams were crumbling to dust before his eyes.
Dr Watson stood with mouth agape, staring at his wife’s niece in astonishment before transferring his gaze to the Countess. She might not always be the most beautiful woman in a room but she would always be the most intelligent. And while beauty will always fade, her brains would never fail to bewitch. That was the essence of witchcraft – the wise woman.
“I can confirm all that Lady Moira just disclosed,” stated Judge Cruddock, taking up the story. “When Alice Mawson was forced into exile one hundred years ago by old Judge Cruddock, my namesake, he simply took over her estate – no deed of sale was ever recorded. He also deigned to call himself Lord Cruddock though no peerage was ever granted. Hence, the title and estate remained entailed according to Scottish rules of inheritance, in this case ‘heirs whatsoever’, meaning a female can inherit. No claim was made on the estate for 99 years and had it not been made prior to the 5th of November 1899 the abeyant title would have ceased to exist according to the law of the land. Cruddock Castle is in fact Lammas Castle Farm. It belongs to the heir of the barony of Lammas. I have all relevant legal documentation in my possession. Miss Lambert, in reality Lady Adeline Mawson, Baroness of Lammas, was informed of her birthright just after that contretemps on the stairs this morning when the tiara went missing.”
The young lady continued to sit like a marble statue in a museum.
“So you see,” croaked Lady Moira, gathering breath to speak, “when I spoke to my son about the termination of the abeyance this morning he flew into a rage and tried to silence me by killing me. I used the bodkin which I happened to have in my embroidery bag and stabbed him in the neck as he came around the desk armed with a letter opener.”
“No! No!” wailed the dispossessed Lady Cruddock, overcome by a surge of violent despair as the ghastly truth hit home. “It cannot be true! It is a lie! A trick! A falsehood! Noooo!”
“It’s all right, darling,” soothed her lover, patting her glorious hair. “We will escape this mad, murderous, evil place. It is cursed – the castle, the land, the links – all of it! Let’s pack our bags and go as fast as we can away from here before it casts a curse on our child!”
“Yes! Yes!” she sobbed, wide-eyed and frightened at the prospect of unseen evil afflicting her unborn child. “But I will take my jewels! They cannot take my jewels!”
Together the pair rushed from the room.
Hamish Ross fled out the French window.
The statue came to life and chased after him.
Mr Bancoe tried to flee too but was collared by the long arm of the law.
“It was about witchcraft after all,” sighed the Countess.
“It was about the golf too,” Dr Watson reminded, wondering at the lack of triumph in her tone as he gazed across the undulating greens to where Lady Mawson had finally caught up to Mr Ross and Nessie had finally caught up to Thane – both males having slowed themselves down somewhat deliberately. “Not to mention the tiara.”
Together, they walked to the end of the terrace without speaking.
“What about those birds at the window during the second séance?” he said, turning and gazing up at the battlements. “I suspect you had something to do with that theatrical apparition?”
She considered denying it but in the end nodded sheepishly. “I thought a séance might flush out our thief. First, I had Xenia and Fedir search the golf bags in the pavilion. When they found the fake tiara in Mr Bancoe’s bag, as I expected they would, I thought a few tricks involving origami birds dangling from fishing line tied to golf clubs might prompt a confession but I’m afraid it fizzled out rather badly – the same with the dangling tiara!”
He hid his smile behind his hand. “The night was not a total loss. Lady Moira predicted the death of her son and discounting supernatural forces she would know because she would commit the murder. The prediction she made about the double-double death was obvious too. Everyone knew the Dees were guilty. A pity they cannot be brought to justice. Death by stag – who would have thought it! Still, you handled it well back there. I was worried you might, well, over play your hand but you did not disappoint. Sherlock would have been proud.”
“So you finally admit I am my father’s daughter?”
“Not at all,” he denied strenuously, biting his tongue. “I meant: Sherlock would have been proud to observe such perfect deductive reasoning from one so young.”
A surge of emotion welled up as she fought to steady her voice. “When will you trust me enough to take me into your confidence? When will you desist with the delusion my father died at Reichenbach Falls then three years later came back to life though no one who knew him personally has actually seen him with their own eyes, and yet articles appear regularly in the newspapers of cases he has solved and witnesses swear to seeing the great detective out and about in London, and you publish yet more chronicles of mysteries solved and cases closed as if they happened yesterday, when you are merely re-hashing old exploits, and you display his keepsakes in your sitting room, not as mementoes mori but to delude visitors, because it is clear to me he does not live there anymore! Why does Mycroft refuse to meet with me? Why are you keeping the truth from me? What are you hiding? What don’t you want me to know? Tell me, Dr Watson, where is my father? Where is the real Sherlock Holmes?”
Incensed, she didn’t even wait for him to reply but pirouetted on her heel and left him stupefied, secure in his self-deluded certainty, afraid of the truth, stuck in the past, incapable of stepping into the future though it was staring him in the face and he was standing on the cusp of a new dawn, a new century, a new way of living, being, doing, seeing, knowing…
Lady Moira had been confined by Detective Inspector MacDuff to her own bedroom until her transfer to Edinburgh gaol could be arranged – though that event was looking extremely unlikely considering the number of opium twists on her bedside table.
“That was an excellent performance you gave,” complimented the Countess after making sure the dowager was alone.
“Likewise,” returned Lady Moira pleasantly.
“Would you mind giving me the fifth bodkin?”
“So that I can slip it into Lady Adeline’s embroidery bag to replace the one that is missing, since several people are aware she carries one about with her, while you don’t actually have an embroidery bag and even if you did it is unlikely a lady of your rank would have taken it with her while going to speak to her son in his private study about a matter as crucial as abeyance, whereas a paid companion who is obliged to carry numerous items for her employer at all times would.”
“Ah, yes, it is fortunate men don’t notice details like that. It is the little things that often trip one up in these matters. It would not do for Miss Lambert’s bodkin to be unaccounted for.” Lady Moira fished the fifth bodkin out from the pocket of her cloak. “I don’t know how to thank you. Will you accept a small token of appreciation – a thistle brooch to remind you of Scotland – solid silver with amethysts for the thistle flowers? It is my favourite piece, not the most valuable, but the one I cherish the most. I have a second one, very similar, would you be so good as to deliver it to my dear friend, Madame Moghra. She is currently staying in York. I promised to attend one of her shows, but it looks as though I will be unable to stay true to my word after all.”
“Is she starring in one of the York Mystery Pageants?”
“No, she is a Spiritualist – the best medium in all of Britain, possibly the world.”
The Countess thanked Lady Moira for the brooch and turned to go then whirled back. “Will you tell me what really took place in the study?”
The old lady sighed heavily and fell weakly into an armchair. “It is as I described earlier but instead of me it was Miss Lambert who confronted my son in his study – I use the name for the last time. I walked in as he was rounding the desk armed with a letter opener, a murderous glint in his eyes such as I have never before witnessed. He would have murdered her had my sudden arrival not distracted him and stayed his momentum. Struggle would have been futile. He was much stronger than both of us combined. In the blink of an eye she whipped out the bodkin and stabbed him in the neck. It was an instinctive act of self-defence. She was protecting me too. Fortunately most of the blood spurted the other way. Afterwards, I helped her to clean herself up and change her dress. I also changed my own gown, which you cleverly pointed out to everyone – thank you for not mentioning her change of garment – and convinced her that it was better for me to take responsibility as my days were numbered and it was only fitting she allow me to atone for 100 years of wrong before I passed to the Otherside. She was numb with shock and acquiesced before she had a chance to think about any repercussions. I think it best she not know we had this conversation.”
The Countess agreed. “It is just as well men don’t notice minor details like the clothes of a paid companion and that her ladyship is too narcissistic to notice the clothes of anyone but herself. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to know you, Lady Moira.”
“Likewise, dear Countess. By the way, you are a perfect partner for Dr Watson – and I don’t mean matrimonially. I met Mr Sherlock Holmes once. You bear an uncanny resemblance to the great detective. His one failing was that he viewed crime as a conundrum to be solved, pure and simple. It is just as well he has retired to the countryside since that terrible incident in Switzerland, bee-keeping, I hear. With Dr Watson, crime and punishment is about justice, and in this instance justice will be served – a life for a life. Bless him, but he sees the world in black and white, good and bad, right and wrong. But to you, perhaps because you are a woman – crime and punishment is about injustice.”
Dusk was purpling the Borders with broad strokes by the time the Countess turned over in her mind what Lady Moira let slip about bee-keeping. Slowly, she drifted through the painterly mauvish light toward the romantic ruins where she found MacBee perched on a fallen stone. The third sister was watching Hamish dismantling the stairs to the parapet, venting his spleen one angry stone at a time. Jackdaws circled overhead, lamenting the destruction.
“May I sit with you?”
“Please do, dearie.”
“Did the twins know before they died who you were?”
MacBee cocked her head and sniffed the air like a wild animal, as if sensing a change in the weather for the worse. She blinked back some tears and used a grimy sleeve to wipe her dripping nose. “Yes, dearie, they did. Mrs Ross handed them a note the night of the wedding saying I wanted to see them out by the abbey ruin. My note promised to reveal to them a great secret. They thought I had some hidden treasure for them and came running like children after a treat. The truth hit them hard. They called me a filthy liar and a mad witch. Catherine slapped my face; Carter spat in my eye. I had already planned to kill them. I didn’t want them to hang. But I wanted to kill them out of love not hate. In the end they denied me even that tiny scrap of happiness. I stabbed them before they realized what I was up to then I thrust the tines into the wounds to disguise where the knife blade had gone in. Do you want the antlers back? I hid them under Widdershins Brig.”
The Countess shook her head. “Keep them. Perhaps one day you can clean them up and put them back where they came from. I am going to give Graymalkin to Dr Watson as a Christmas present. I’m sure he will be happy for you and Mrs Ross to stay on and look after the place. The old house will not be so empty. You know Horace has proposed marriage to your other sister and is planning to make a go of the hotel? I think it will thrive. There is nothing like a few grisly murders and talk of witches to attract the beau monde from London!”
MacBee chuckled ruefully. “It will end well for some at least, perhaps even for the children of Alice Mawson.”
“Yes, Lady Adeline is talking about turning Mawgate Lodge into a club house so that the abbey ruins can remain as they are. She and Hamish will be married as soon as he comes to his senses and realizes what wonderful custodians of Lammas Castle the two of them will be.”
MacBee hunched her bony shoulders and hugged her Black Watch tartan cloak closer to her sexless breast as the hyperborean barbarian swept across the icy waters of Loch Maw signalling the start of another bleak campaign. “I might move back to Graymalkin now you mention it, dearie. Methinks the days are getting shorter and the Scottish winters are growing longer.”
Book 2 in a series of chronological stand-alone plots. Scotland 1899. Dr Watson and Countess Varvara Volodymyrovna visit the Scottish Borders to solve the Lammermoor Golf Course murders. Lord Cruddock is staging a tournament to promote his new golf course but someone is killing-off the golfers. There are plenty of suspects among the golfing-tragics, weird locals and exotic guests staying at Cruddock Castle, however, it is the dowager Lady Cruddock, a Spiritualist who is opposed to the golf course being built on sacred land, who puts a supernatural spin on criminal matters with her uncanny séances. The plot thickens when the Irish actress, Lola O’Hara, decides to save the tournament from imminent disaster by staging the nameless Scottish play by Shakespeare on the same night that the priceless Lammas tiara goes missing. Our two sleuths must determine if the dark deeds are driven by ambition, greed, jealousy, revenge or witchcraft. And they must do it by the fifth of November.