18 April 1935
Hugh, cloaked in righteous indignation as well as a measure of true sorrow for Lady Love’s demise and his usual desire to see fair play, was happy to go along with the plan. Donald—his breast heaving with a sorrow all the greater for its being new to him, young as he was was—stirred to a manly conviction that he must soothe Mallory’s broken heart and dry her tears and that he could only do it by sweeping in like Robespierre and unmasking the serpent. Not that serpents wear masks. I was greatly relieved that his own heart was not broken and that Mallory was uppermost in his thoughts. Teddy was unmoved by the death of a woman older than his mother whom he had met only once, and he did not set such great store by fair play nor by manly sweeping, but he was loath to miss out on all the fun. Likewise Grant, who blithely inserted herself into the roster for attendance at the funeral and would not be denied.
The Dunnochs, however, outwitted us all. Less than a week after Valentine’s Day, when we were still waiting for the black-edged card to arrive, Hugh had spluttered over his coffee at breakfast one morning and shaken his newspaper at me.
‘“The funeral has taken place, privately at her home at Applecross, of Lavinia, Lady Ross, née Mallory, beloved wife of Lachlan Dunnoch, Lord Ross of Wester Ross, mother of the Hon. Miss Mallory Dunnoch and of Mrs Martin Tibball (Cherry). May she rest in peace.”’
‘They’ve made a mistake, surely,’ I said. ‘They meant it to be a death notice and intimation of the funeral and the newspaper office has mixed it up somehow.’
‘Dandy,’ said Hugh. ‘This is the Scotsman. Think what you are saying.’
I nodded. ‘So. They’ve bundled her away,’ I said. ‘Could anything smell fishier?’
Hugh looked down at his plate of kedgeree and grimaced, pushing it from him. We were alone at the breakfast table, as we usually are these days. Donald was over at Benachally, eating his own breakfast, cooked by his own cook, and it was nowhere near time for Teddy to wake.
‘Did Donald know?’ Hugh demanded. ‘About the private funeral?’
‘I can’t imagine so,’ I said. ‘He rushed straight off to his tailor for a new suit, didn’t he? But, equally, he’s been on the telephone to Mallory every day, so I don’t quite see how she could have kept him in the dark.’
‘Not accidentally anyway,’ said Hugh grimly. ‘I absolutely see how she could have lied through her teeth until the deed was done.’
‘Oh, Hugh!’ I said. ‘You can’t suspect Mallory. Surely.’ ‘I suspect everyone until they earn their way off my list,’ said Hugh. ‘And you’d do well to follow suit.’
It was the first indication of how deeply Hugh meant to dig into this case. He had tended theretofore to wait on the sidelines finding fault until Alec and I had teed up an easy shot, which he then took. By the time Easter came, in mid-April that year, he was champing so hard at the bit that both Alec and I began to wonder if we should abandon the whole enterprise. Hugh galumphing into the middle of things, alerting our suspects and destroying our chances, would be hard to stomach.
Thankfully, we made the trip to Applecross for the announcement of Donald and Mallory’s engagement in two motorcars, so Alec and I had hours on our own to plot and plan.
Spring had changed the countryside entirely and some of the glens were almost pretty, with blossom on the bent hawthorns, ranks of daffodils nodding in the shelter of the field walls and everywhere a fresh carpet of new grass, upon which the great resurgence of life was played out in all its glory. Lambs were wherever one looked. The newborns, tiny knock-kneed creatures, stood wobbling and bleating while the ewes whickered their love and licked the babies clean; little balls of scrubby fluff scampered here and there, testing this new world in which they found themselves before taking fright and huddling into their mothers’ flanks again. Best of all to watch were the sturdy little fellows, full of milk and already beginning to dot their heads down and take nibbles of grass, who were filled with an abundance of energy and such sheer joy at being alive in the sunshine that they rushed around the field as though it were a racetrack, infecting all the other lambs with their exuberance until there was a solid pack of them, stampeding at breakneck speed and bursting out into little explosions of jumping.
Alec leaned against the bonnet of his Daimler watching a lively gang of them while we enjoyed our last cigarette before the final leg of the journey, over the ‘new road’ from the banks of Lochcarron. Bunty was locked inside, for even an angel such as she could not be trusted with spring lambs gambolling. She whined a little and I am sure that had I turned I would have seen her beseech me with enormous eyes. I did not turn.
‘Look at that dark one!’ I said to Alec, pointing. ‘He sprang three feet straight up into the air. Look! Look! There he goes again.’
‘He’s right at the far edge of being adorable,’ said Alec. ‘A few more days of such exercise and he’ll begin to look delicious instead.’
‘Are you practising to talk to the crofters?’ I asked. ‘Or have you been farming so long now that you can’t see this as a landscape any more? You’ll end up like Hugh.’
‘With acres of land in good heart, healthy forest plantings, sound fences, happy tenants and a case full of silver cups from the local show?’ said Alec. ‘There are worse fates.’
I grunted. It often chastens me to be reminded what a good countryman Hugh is. When the reminder comes from Alec it is irritating too.
‘Anyway,’ he went on. ‘I wouldn’t be so crude as to talk of these sheep to the crofters.’
‘What do you mean?’ I dropped my cigarette end and ground it out with the toe of my boot. Then I lifted my face and turned out of the breeze to feel what I was sure was a trace of true warmth in the sunshine.
‘This is cleared land,’ said Alec. ‘I think this might be part of His Majesty’s estate, as a matter of fact. But, in any case, the crofters are long gone from this glen.’
‘Cleared land,’ I echoed. ‘It sounds so innocent.’
‘One of the more ticklish jobs ahead of us is to find out from the Dunnochs whether Lady Love’s bounty to her crofters has survived her death. Cuo bono?’
I nodded. We had talked long into many nights about it. ‘If Lachlan is now free to run the estate on more conventional lines and stop giving such heaps of cash . . .’
‘But he couldn’t have done the deed from his wheeled chair,’ said Alec. ‘Although Mitten, with an eye on his future prosperity, might have been willing to help.’
‘Any of the Tibballs,’ I agreed.
‘All that said,’ Alec went on, ‘Spencer’s the one I want to get my teeth into.’
‘Why?’ I said. ‘You keep saying that but you’ve never offered a wisp of a motive.’
‘Because there was no reason for him to be there. It was a party for neighbours and he came all the way up from London for it.’
‘Meaning that we would have to go all the way down to London if we were ever to find out why,’ I said. ‘For the next few days, we need to put David Spencer out of our minds and concentrate on the family. If we can satisfy ourselves that they are innocent, then we’ll get him in our sights.’
‘Agreed,’ Alec said. ‘Very well then. Gawping at baa-lambs won’t get us anywhere. Let’s go. I’ll open the door slowly and you grab her collar, Dandy.’
As dreadful as the coal boat had been, I almost missed it as we turned off the low road and began the climb up the bealach na bà. It rumbled along the lochside for a while, then switched sharply, rose, switched again, twined around the
side of the hill for a while and finally reared up ahead like the neck of a bucking horse. Alec shifted down into a lower gear and set his teeth grimly. I hung on to the door handle and braced my feet against the floorboards. Bunty, wisely, got down off the back seat and curled herself into as small a ball as she could make behind me.
As we pulled and pulled up to the summit, the spring retreated. There were no blossoming hawthorns up here, nor any daffodils. The green blades thinned and disappeared until the grass at either side of the track was as grey as the rocks that stuck up from the thin soil. More and more of them stuck up, until it was all rock and only a very few tufts of straw-coloured stalks whipping in the wind. Up here, the sheep were still fat and waddling and I was glad to see it, shuddering to think of a lamb being born into such a comfortless world.
At long last, with Alec in second gear and the engine straining, the road levelled and we were teetering on the edge of a dizzying drop, looking out over the bare, brown slopes to blue water and distant islands.
Alec whistled and let go of the steering wheel to shake the cramp out of his hands after gripping so tightly. Then he took an even tighter hold, lifted his foot from the brake and began the descent.
When we arrived at the metalled road that ran along the side of the bay and turned in at the gates to Applecross House, we were astonished to see, helping to untie trunks and cases from the back of Hugh’s motorcar, none other than David Spencer.
Hard on the heels of that surprise came another sight to drive it out of our minds: Lord Ross stood on the doorstep, leaning on a stick to be sure, but with his wheeled chair nowhere in sight.
He told us all about it over tea by the hall fire. Teddy had disappeared somewhere with Bunty but the rest of us were there, trying not to boggle too obviously.
‘It was my birthday present to Lavinia,’ Lord Ross said. ‘It was to be a surprise for her. Me getting out of me chair and walking at her party. We had hoped I’d be able to dance, hadn’t we Dickie, but I wasn’t quite there. Not by Valentine’s Day. I shall dance at your party tomorrow, Mallory. A slow foxtrot. And by the wedding I shall be doing reels again, just like the old days.’
I could not have summoned a polite response for a gold bar and a mink stole. Alec looked equally stunned by this bombshell, and Hugh shot me a quizzical glance. Thankfully, one can always rely on Donald to miss most of the import of what he hears and he answered Lord Ross with cheerful words and a ready grin.
‘That’s good news, sir,’ he said. ‘I came up ready to say I was willing to wait if you thought it was still too soon, but I’m glad to hear you talk about the wedding. We both are, aren’t we Molly?’
Lord Ross looked as surprised at ‘Molly’ as I had been at ‘Don’ but he nodded. ‘It’s been two months,’ he said. ‘And it’s only a few friends and neighbours, not as if we’re opening a London house and dyeing ponies pink. By midsummer we’ll all be ready for a happy occasion, shan’t we?’
‘Are you the only friend who’s made a long trip?’ I said, turning to David Spencer.
He spoke lightly as he replied but there was a glint of steel in his eyes. ‘I’ve settled here, Mrs Gilver. For a while anyway. So, you see, I’m one of the friends and neighbours.’ ‘And how are dear Cherry and Mitten?’ I said. ‘And are Biddy and Dickie coming for the party?’
‘Coming?’ said Lord Ross. ‘They’re here, Dandy. They’ll be in for their tea in a minute. Nothing has changed except for the loss of our darling. Everyone else is still here. As before. Everything continues and we have all been of great comfort to one another, I’m glad to say. If my friends had started deserting me I don’t know how I could have borne it. But with them I still have so very much to be happy for.’
That, in my estimation, was something of an understatement. And it skirted very close to the notion that Lady Love had had some scheme in hand that her death had scotched. Thankfully, before I had to drum up an answer, I recognised the smart clip-clop of Grant’s feet on the stairs and then she swung into view with an enquiring look on her face.
‘I’ve prepared—’ she began, then stopped. ‘Oh, you’re having tea first?’
Mallory flushed and got to her feet. ‘Forgive me,’ she said. ‘I should have thought. Of course, you want to wash and rest. I’m sorry. I still haven’t—’ She took a deep breath and started again. ‘My mother was such an effortless hostess,’ she said. ‘And I’m such a boob in comparison.
There was a flurry of denials from Lord Ross, Donald and Hugh and in the midst of it I escaped.
Grant and I said nothing until my bedroom door was shut behind me. Then we both exploded into chatter. Grant, having some theatrical training, exploded more effectively and held the floor.
‘I can’t believe it!’ she said. ‘Standing there bold as brass. Large as life! No wonder he took the vapours at luncheon on Valentine’s Day, after Miss Cherry and Mr Mitten saw him out on the moor! What a nerve!’
Grant’s outrage was close to irresistible, but I did my best. ‘I don’t think Lord Ross’s halting steps could be described as “striding out” even now, Grant,’ I said. ‘But otherwise, I agree.’
‘Do you think they told the police that he was only pretending to be crippled and really he was perfectly up to the job?’ said Grant. ‘Did they all know? Did every one of them cover it up?’
‘Too bad if they did,’ I said, nodding. These points were well made. ‘It’s uncovered now. I shall ring Inspector Hutcheson with the news as soon as I can be sure of a quiet moment at the telephone.’
‘And why’s that Captain Spencer still here? That’s very suspicious if you ask me, madam. The whole thing is very suspicious. A party! When I was a girl they’d still be in black crêpe and not even thinking of a grey hat or a purple glove, never mind a party! Do you think they think two months is really plenty of time for mourning before they go throwing parties and dancing the night away? Or do you think they think we think there’s something up?’
‘I can’t follow that,’ I said.Then: ‘Grant, were you listening?’ ‘Very handy, serving tea under the landing,’ she said. ‘The sound carried up the stairs quite nicely and I have sharp ears, madam, as you know. Someone’s coming,’ she added, as if to prove it to me.
There was just a suggestion of a knock at my door and Alec sidled in.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘What do you make of that then?’
‘How did you find me?’ I said. ‘Alec, for heaven’s sake don’t tell me you asked a servant which bedroom was mine!’ ‘I’m like a homing pigeon, Dan,’ Alec said, throwing himself into a little sofa. ‘I can always find you. But never mind that.
How did you stop your jaw from hitting the floor?’
‘When Lord Ross admitted that he was secretly able to walk the day his wife was killed by a non-existent passing stranger?’
‘For starters. But also, what do you think of them throwing a party and setting the date for this summer? Is it just me being too sentimental or does it seem a bit callous?’
‘It seems like the most heartless outrage I’ve ever heard of,’ I said.
‘Me too,’ said Grant. ‘Can I start unpacking, madam? Or would you rather I waited?’ She waggled her eyebrows in Alec’s direction.
‘Avert your eyes from my undergarments, Alec dear,’ I said. ‘I don’t know that the callousness is suspect, though. It’s so blatant, I don’t know if it doesn’t perhaps scream innocence.’
‘But whose?’ said Alec. He was averting his eyes by way of filling and lighting his pipe. I thought of vetoing it in my bedroom, but it does help him think. ‘If one innocent person says “Lady Love would want it” perhaps the guilty person or persons can’t work out whether to agree or demur.’
He had just got to the end of this speech when my door opened again and Teddy appeared.
‘Ma?’ he said. ‘Oh, a party. Listen, talking of parties . . . have you heard that the Dunnochs are pushing for a June wedding? That footman, Lairdie, just told me. Doesn’t it seem a bit off to you?’
‘It does,’ I said. ‘Don’t call me “Ma”.’
‘It’s a bit tight too,’ he said, ignoring me. ‘I mean, I’m assuming that you’re not going to actually wheel Donald down the aisle before we’ve found out if one of this lot bumped off the old girl?’
‘Teddy, your language!’ I said. ‘And no, of course not. We’re going to be very sure to detach Donald from Mallory if we find out that one of the Dunnochs “bumped off the old girl”. Rest assured.’
‘Or Tibballs,’ said Teddy. ‘They’re all as thick as thieves and it would make no odds. Maybe they’re all in it together. Should we be locking our doors at night in case they’re not finished?’
I opened my mouth to scold him, but before I could begin my door was opening again. Hugh’s body appeared, leaving his head out in the corridor, then quick as a fish he pulled his head in and slammed the door shut. He turned the key.
‘Dandy?’ he said, turning. ‘Oh!’ ‘We know,’ I said.
‘Do you think anyone told the police?’ Hugh said. ‘That the stranger striding about out on the moor, who looked a bit like Ross, was probably Ross himself practicing for the big birthday surprise?’
Alec whistled. ‘I never thought of that bit,’ he said. ‘Surely Cherry would recognise her own father?’ I said. ‘She did recognise him,’ said Grant. ‘You said as much to me, madam. She came pelting back because she thought she’d seen a vision of her father, foretelling his death.’
‘Will this be enough to tip the police out of their “passing tramp” nonsense?’ Alec said.
‘There is much to be learned,’ said Hugh, sounding like an ancient oracle. I saw Grant bite her cheeks.
‘And let’s make sure Donald doesn’t hear any of what we’re saying,’ I said.
‘Why not?’ said Hugh. ‘Surely the boy needs to be on his guard.’
‘Because,’ I said, ‘he’s not that good an actor.’
‘He did a pretty splendid job acting the lovesick pup when we arrived,’ Hugh insisted.
‘As I said, I think, with Lady Love out of the picture, he has really and truly lost his heart to Mallory.’
‘He can’t marry her,’ said Hugh. ‘Not with all of this hanging over their heads.’
‘Of course not,’ I said. ‘We shall solve the murder and then we shall see. But, while I’ve got you all here, I need to say this. Leave it to Alec and me. Do not meddle.’
‘I wouldn’t know where to start,’ Teddy said.
‘Hugh?’ I said. ‘Promise me you’ll keep out of it. It’s not that you aren’t capable, but if we go asking the same ques- tions you’ve asked already, the suspects will begin to smell a rat.’
‘I shall keep my mouth shut, my ears pinned back and my eyes peeled,’ Hugh said.
‘And you, Grant,’ I said.
‘But I’m an assistant detective,’ she said. ‘I’m only under- cover as a lady’s maid these days.’
It was news to me. But I had had enough years with Grant to know her weaknesses. ‘Very well,’ I said. ‘Only I was thinking, with your role as lady’s maid to the fore, you might offer your services to Miss Dunnoch. Her with her wedding coming and no mother to help her.’
Grant’s eyes gleamed. The thought of a wedding dress and honeymoon trousseau was irresistible.
‘I shall report to you if I hear anything,’ she said. ‘From undercover, as I suggested.’
‘And now we’d better get back out,’ said Alec, ‘before we’re all missed.’
They left in reverse order: Hugh slipping away first, then Teddy, Alec next, followed by Grant and finally me. As I shut the door and walked towards the head of the stairs, though, I felt that prickling sensation I knew came from eyes following me. I took my handkerchief from my pocket and dropped it, then tried surreptitiously to take a good look around as I bent to pick it up again.
An indistinct figure stood in the shadows at the turn of the passageway. It was female. I was sure of that much. But whether it was Biddy, Mallory or Cherry I had no idea. As to what whoever it was would make of the mass exodus from my bedroom, that was anyone’s guess.
When I was halfway back to the ground floor, a shiver passed through me. It was undoubtedly caused by a draught from the tall and uncurtained landing window, but it might have been helped just a touch by a sudden notion that it was the ghost of Lady Love who had been standing in the shadows there.
From A Step So Grave by Catriona McPherson. Used with the permission of the publisher, Quercus. Copyright © 2019 by Catriona McPherson.