By M. C. Beaton
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Death of a Cad: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery
When Priscilla Halburton-Smythe brings her London playwright fiance home to Lochdubh, everybody in town is delighted . . . except for love-smitten Constable Hamish Macbeth. Yet his affairs of the heart will have to wait. Vile, boorish Captain Bartlett, one of the guests at Priscilla's engagement party, has just been found murdered-shot while on a grouse hunt. Now with many titled party guests as the prime suspects, each with a reason for snuffing out the despicable captain, Hamish must smooth ruffled feathers as he investigates the case. When the hidden culprit strikes again, Hamish will find himself trying to save Priscilla from a miserable marriage-and catch a killer before he flies the coop.
Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,
Land of the mountain and the flood.
– Sir Walter Scott
Henry Withering, playwright, slumped down in the passenger seat of the estate car after another bleak look out at the forbidding landscape.
'Have we much farther to go, darling?' he asked plaintively.
'Oh, yes,' said his fiancée, Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, cheerfully. 'But we should be home before dark.'
Henry wondered whether to point out that, as they seemed to be surely approaching the land of the midnight sun after all those weary hours of travel, there was therefore very little hope of reaching their destination at all. He suddenly found himself too overpowered by the landscape and too depressed by the change it seemed to be creating in Priscilla to say anything, and so he decided to go to sleep instead. But although he determinedly closed his eyes and listened to the hypnotic swish of the windscreen wipers, sleep would not come. Scotland had murdered sleep.
It was not that he, an Englishman born and bred, had never visited Scotland, it was just that he had never journeyed so far north before.
'It's clearing up,' came Priscilla's cool, amused voice. 'Do look. The scenery is magnificent.'
Henry reluctantly opened his eyes.
A watery sunlight was bathing the steep barren flanks of the towering mountains on either side. As the clouds rolled back, he found himself staring up at the awesome peaks and then around at the immediate prospect of damp sheep and bleak moorland.
The sun grew stronger and a wind arose. A river meandered beside the road, shining and glittering with red and gold lights. Then the scenery was blotted from view as they drove into a cutting. A waterfall hurtled down by the side of the road on Henry's side of the car, a relentless torrent that roared in his ear as they sped past.
He glanced out of the corner of his eyes at Priscilla. There was something rather frightening about a woman who could drive so well. They had left London at dawn, and she had driven the 640 miles north, sitting back, her hands resting easily on the wheel. She was wearing beige corduroy trousers and a cream silk blouse. Her fair hair was tied back behind her ears by a tightly rolled Hermès scarf. She looked sophisticated and elegant. But it seemed to him that there was a certain buoyancy in her manner as she neared her Scottish home, an excited anticipation that had nothing to do with him. In London, he had been used to a graceful and pliant Priscilla. After they were married, he decided, he would insist he did all the driving and that she should never wear trousers again. For the first time, he wondered if she would turn out in later years to be one of those terrible county ladies who managed everyone in the neighbourhood and opened fêtes. He sulkily closed his eyes. She was not even thinking of him, of that he was sure.
In this, he was wrong.
During the journey, a great deal of Priscilla's triumph at having secured a celebrity for a future husband had begun to ebb. She had told him to wear casual clothes, but he had turned up, impeccably dressed as usual, in white collar, striped shirt, old school tie, Savile Row suit, and shoes handmade by Lobb of St James's. She wondered uneasily what he had packed in his suitcase, whether he planned to startle the Highlands of Scotland by parading the countryside attired like a tailor's dummy.
When he had asked her to marry him, all she had felt was a giddy elation at having done the right thing at last; at having finally found someone who would please her parents. Colonel and Mrs Halburton-Smythe had complained for a year because she had become a journalist, although Priscilla had tried, without success, to tell them that a job as a fashion editor's assistant hardly qualified her for the title. They had come on flying visits, always dragging some 'suitable' young man in tow. Priscilla realized uneasily she did not really know very much about Henry.
He was thirty-eight years of age, small, neat-featured, with smooth black hair and brown eyes that were almost black. His skin was sallow, and his legs were rather thin, but he had great charm and appeared to be universally popular.
Over the years, he had had various plays produced at experimental theatres, usually savage satires against the church and state. He was beloved by the Communists, Trotskyites, Marxists, and Liberals. To them, he was what they wanted most, a genuine ex-Eton schoolboy, son of a landed family who had opted to join the class war. He wore faded jeans and black sweaters and rather dirty sneakers.
And then his play Duchess Darling had opened in London. No one could understand what on earth had happened to Henry Withering. For it was a drawing room comedy of the type that opens with the butler and the cockney housemaid discussing their betters. It had every cliché. Infidelity among the aristocracy, a silly-ass guardee, a gorgeous débutante, a stately duchess, and a bumbling duke. But the clothes were haute couture and it had a star-studded cast.
A clever impresario had decided that a London weary of inner-city riots, rape and politics might be in the mood for nostalgia. The left-wing papers stoutly gave it good reviews, convinced that Henry had written a very clever satire that they could not quite understand but were afraid to say so. The right-wing press were hesitant to damn it when the cast contained so many famous names who had been brought out of mothballs. The public loved it. It was frivolous, silly, trite, and beautifully presented. They flocked in droves. After all, it was like going to a royal wedding. No one expected the stars to be clever, only to look very grand and rich. Henry's success was sealed when the left wing at last found out their darling had betrayed them and the Young Communists staged a protest outside the theatre during which five policemen were sent to hospital and a member of the Royal family was seen to frown. Henry's name appeared on the front page of every major newspaper the next day.
Priscilla's work as a fashion editor's assistant had mostly been arranging fashion photographs, sitting around studios, shoving models in and out of fashions that were a cross between those of a medieval page and a Japanese labourer, and wondering whether the blue-rinsed lady she worked for was ever going to allow her a chance to write. She had finally been sent to write a report on the fashions in the play. She had gone backstage and had been introduced to Henry, who had promptly invited her out for dinner. One week later he had proposed. Now, one week after that, they were on the road to Priscilla's Scottish home at the express invitation of Priscilla's rapturously delighted parents, who were organizing a house party in honour of the new fiancé. Priscilla, at the age of twenty-three, was still a virgin. Henry had kissed her five times, and that had been the sum total of his love-making to date. She knew what he looked like in shorts because he had been photographed in tennis whites for a society magazine. But she had never seen him in person dressed other than as he was at that moment. It was odd that a man of his background should always look as if he were dressed for church, thought Priscilla, not knowing that Henry's clothes were a sort of costume to enhance his new darling-of-society image.
Beside her, Henry sat moodily listening to the rumbling of his stomach. They had stopped for a horrible lunch hours ago at a motorway café. He wanted his dinner. He wanted this nightmare journey to end.
Priscilla slowed to a stop and he looked up impatiently.
A shepherd was driving a flock of sheep down the centre of the road. He moved with an easy slow pace and did not look at the car. With an impatient grunt, Henry leaned across and honked the horn loudly. The sheep panicked and scattered.
'You awful fool,' snapped Priscilla. She rolled down the window. 'I'm very sorry, Mr Mackay,' she called. 'An accident.'
The shepherd came up and leaned in the car window. 'It's yerself, Miss Halburton-Smythe,' he said. 'Now, you should know better than to startle a man's sheep.'
'Sorry,' said Priscilla again. 'How's Mrs Mackay's leg?'
'Better, she says. We got a new doctor, Dr Brodie. He's given her the green bottle. She says it's awf'y good.'
'Are we going to sit here all day?' growled Henry.
The shepherd looked at him with mild surprise.
'My friend is tired,' said Priscilla. 'Must get on. Tell Mrs Mackay I shall call on her in a few days.'
'You mustn't hurry things in the country,' said Priscilla severely as they moved on. 'Mr Mackay was most offended.'
'Does it matter what the peasantry think?'
'They're not peasants,' said Priscilla. 'Really, Henry. I'm surprised at you.'
'Well, since you have promised to visit Mrs Mackay of the green bottle and the bad leg, I assume we must be nearly at our journey's end.'
'About another thirty miles to go.'
Lord and Lady Helmsdale sat in the back of their antique Rolls-Royce and shouted at each other, which was the way they normally conversed.
'If it weren't for this playwright-chappie, I would have turned down Mary's invitation,' said Lord Helmsdale. Mary was Mrs Halburton-Smythe.
Lord Helmsdale was small and round with thin grey hair combed carefully in strips over his bald patch. His wife was a huge woman, well over six feet tall, with a slab of a face. She was wearing an old tweed jacket and skirt and a shirt with a hard collar. On her head she sported an off-the-face blue-and-white-spotted hat. It looked remarkably like one Her Majesty had worn during her last American visit, and Lord Helmsdale had delayed their leaving by asking whether she had been ferreting around the rubbish bins at Buckingham Palace again. The resultant row had been frightful. But there is nothing more cosy than a shared marital resentment, and the Helmsdales were once more drawn together by their hatred of one of the Halburton-Smythe's guests.
The target of their hatred was Captain Peter Bartlett of the Highland Dragoons.
'Why on earth did Mary ask him?' demanded Lord Helmsdale querulously.
'If you mean Bartlett, then God knows,' snapped his wife. 'But I know why Bartlett's going to be there. He wants to bag the first brace.' She had long chats on the phone to Mrs Halburton-Smythe and never guessed for a moment how much that lady dreaded her calls.
'Didn't think there would be any grouse shooting,' observed his lordship. 'Grouse population's declining fast, and Halburton-Smythe told me not to bring my guns.'
The previous grouse season – which begins on August 12, known as the Glorious Twelfth, and ends on December 10 – had confirmed Scottish landowners' worst fears: The grouse were dying off fast, and that could soon mean an end to Scotland's £150 million-a-year grouse 'industry'.
'My birds are disappearing as well,' grumbled Lord Helmsdale. 'Think those Animal Rights people must be poisoning them to spite me.'
'Everyone's birds are dying off,' said his wife reasonably. 'The Game Conservancy has launched a three-hundred-thousand-pound appeal to finance research. They're appealing to all landowners for cash. Didn't you get their letter?'
'Can't remember,' said Lord Helmsdale.
'Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum has already given them a hundred thousand.'
'He's a United Arab Emirates Cabinet Minister who has a large estate in Scotland, and you ask me the same thing every time I mention his name.'
'Well, they won't need my money if they've got that much from him,' said her husband comfortably. 'Still, we needn't let Bartlett bother us. This playwright-chappie Withering's damned clever. Best play I've seen in ages.'
'I shall enjoy being rude to Bartlett,' remarked his wife. 'I shall enjoy that very much.
'The man's an utter cad.'
Jessica Villiers and Diana Bryce were best friends – the sort of odd friendship that springs up between a pretty girl and a plain one. Diana was secretly contemptuous of the mannish, gawky, horsy Jessica, and Jessica was bitterly jealous of Diana's stunning good looks.
Both girls' parents had estates over in Caithness in the north-east. Diana and Jessica had made their come-out at the London Season at the same time. Both worked in London and had taken their holidays at the same time, not out of friendship but because August was the fashionable time to holiday in Scotland.
The Highland grapevine works for the landed gentry in the same way as it does for everyone else there, and it seemed that no sooner had Mary Halburton-Smythe hit upon the idea of a small house party to welcome the playwright Henry Withering than she was besieged by pleading phone calls from all over. Everyone wanted to come, but she had kept the guest list down, and Jessica and Diana were two of that fortunate number. As Jessica competently managed her draughty old Land Rover along the single track Highland roads, Diana dreamt of snatching this famous playwright from under Priscilla's nose. Everyone knew Priscilla had about as much sex appeal as a fish. Diana had glossy black hair and a flawless complexion. The fact that the men hadn't exactly all fallen at her feet during her London Season still rankled. She had not yet learned the hard lesson that women who love themselves too much are rarely loved by anyone else. She had been engaged twice and on each occasion it had been the man who had called it off.
She would have been amazed had she known that Jessica was nourishing the same dream of wooing the playwright away from Priscilla. Jessica was convinced that the fellows, in the end, preferred a girl who was 'a good chap' rather than a posturing little miss … like Diana, she thought, casting a brief and evil look at her best friend. Of course, there had been that distressing business two years ago, she remembered, when Diana had become engaged to her, Jessica's, boyfriend. Of course, that engagement hadn't lasted – for how could any man enjoy the pleasures of Diana after having tasted those of Jessica?
'Who's going to be there?' asked Jessica. 'I mean apart from you and me and Priscilla and her fellow.'
'Oh, all the usual faces,' yawned Diana. 'By the time I had coerced Mrs Halburton-Smythe into inviting the both of us, I hadn't any energy left to ask who else was going to be there. There won't be any shooting with all this boring grouse problem, so I suppose the rest will be a lot of old fogies.'
Tommel Castle, home of the Halburton-Smythes, was not a real castle. It had been built by a beer baron in the nineteenth century, when Queen Victoria had made the Highlands fashionable by her visits: it had pinnacles, turrets, battlements, and a multitude of cold, dark rooms. The shallow oak stairs and corridors were guarded by fake suits of medieval armour.
Along the Highland roads heading for the castle sped the rest of the Halburton-Smythes' guests.
First to arrive was the raddled and still beautiful Mrs Vera Forbes-Grant and her banker husband, Freddy. They had a country home quite nearby. Then came Miss Prunella Smythe, a stage-struck spinster lady related to Colonel Halburton-Smythe who frequently wished she were not, and elderly Sir Humphrey Throgmorton, a collector of fine china who lived on the Scottish borders and was an old friend of the colonel.
Captain Peter Bartlett was already there, having arrived two days previously. As the first of the guests rolled up, he was lying fully dressed on his bed, admiring a silver cigarette box he had stolen from the library and wondering how much it would fetch.
Jeremy Pomfret had arrived in time for luncheon and was lolling in front of the library fire, tired from his drive up from Perth and too much food and wine.
He was a small, chubby man, and although he was nearly forty, he looked about twenty-five. He had a shock of whitish-fair hair and round blue eyes fringed with white lashes, which looked out ingenuously at the world from a cherubic face. He was very rich, and his passion was shooting anything at all that he was allowed to shoot.
He thought uneasily about the bet he had just made with Captain Peter Bartlett. Colonel Halburton-Smythe had told them at luncheon that he was not organizing a grouse shoot this year, on account of the mysterious dearth of the game birds. So the usual retinue of beaters, made up of crofters, itinerant farm labourers, and school-children on holiday, had not been hired. But anyone who wished to take his chances bagging a few brace on a walk-up was welcome to do so, the colonel had said.
Captain Bartlett had immediately turned to Jeremy.
'Brought your gun, laddie?' he asked, though everyone who was anyone knew that Jeremy Pomfret never went anywhere without a brace of shotguns.
'Yes, of course,' he replied.
'In that case, how about a bet to see which of us bags the first brace?'
And so the bet had been made, for five thousand pounds.
It had seemed perfectly reasonable and sportsmanlike at the time, especially to a mind mellowed with good claret. And five thousand pounds meant little to Jeremy. But now, sitting down by the fire and thinking it over, he began to have doubts.
Did Peter Bartlett actually have five thousand pounds to bet? He had met the captain before, briefly, at various social events in the Highlands and in London. He had always seemed a bit of a sponger, always broke. Why, then, was he so eager to bet what would be to him a large sum of money? What was Bartlett up to?
Anyway, the details were to be worked out the next night, when there was to be a buffet party held in this chap Henry Withering's honour, for Colonel Halburton-Smythe had suggested that the bet be made known to all the guests in case anyone wanted to make a side bet.
Still wondering what Bartlett could be up to, Jeremy Pomfret fell quietly asleep.
He snored gently through the noisy welcome being given to that famous playwright Henry Withering.
'This is where we turn off,' said Priscilla, slowing the car. 'We take this secondary road. The main road goes along the front of the village and stops outside the Lochdubh Hotel.'
For the first time that long and weary day, the scenery pleased Henry Withering's eye. 'Stop the car a minute,' he said. 'It's lovely.'
The village of Lochdubh lay on the shores of a sea loch of the same name. It consisted of a curve of eighteenth-century cottages, their white walls gleaming in the soft late-afternoon sun. A riot of pink and white Scottish roses tumbled over the garden fences. The waters of Lochdubh were calm and mirror-like. The air smelled of roses, salt water, seaweed, tar, and woodsmoke. A porpoise broke the glassy surface of the water, rolled lazily, and then disappeared. Henry drew a deep breath of pleasure as he watched the circle of ripples from the porpoise's dive widening and widening over the loch. A keening voice raised in a Gaelic lament arose from someone's radio.
'It makes London seem very far away – another country, a wrong world of bustle and noise and politics,' said Henry, half to himself.
Priscilla smiled at him, liking him again. She let in the clutch. 'We'll soon be home,' she said.
The car began to climb up a straight single track road away from the village. They reached the crest of the road and Henry twisted his head and looked back. The village nestled at the foot of two towering twisted mountains, their sides purple with heather. Then he realized they had stopped again. 'It's all right, darling,' he said. 'I'm too hungry to admire the scenery any longer.'
'It's not that. I just want to have a word with Hamish.'
Henry looked at her sharply. Her cheeks had a delicate tinge of pink. He looked ahead.
A tall, thin policeman was strolling down the road towards them. His peaked cap was pushed back on his head, and his fiery red hair glinted underneath it. He was in his shirtsleeves, and the shine on his baggy uniform trousers above a large pair of ugly boots made it look as if he had ironed his trousers on the wrong side. He was carrying a bottle of Scotch under his arm.
What a great gangling idiot, thought Henry, amused.
But as the policeman recognized Priscilla and came up to the car, his thin face was lit up in a peculiarly sweet smile of welcome. His eyes were greenish-gold and framed with thick black lashes.
'It's yourself, Priscilla,' said the policeman in a soft, lilting accent.
Henry bristled like an angry dog. Who did this village bobby think he was, addressing Priscilla by her first name? Priscilla had rolled down the window. 'Henry,' she said, 'I would like to introduce Hamish Macbeth, our village policeman. Hamish, this is Henry Withering.'
'I heard you were coming,' said Hamish, bending down from his lanky height so that he could look in the car window on Priscilla's side. 'This place is in a fair uproar at the thought o' having a famous playwright among them.'
Henry gave a cool little smile. 'I am sure they are also excited to learn that Miss Halburton-Smythe is finally about to be married.'
One minute the policeman's face was at the car window, the next it had disappeared as he abruptly straightened up. Henry looked angrily at Priscilla, who was staring straight ahead.
Priscilla muttered something under her breath and opened the car door, nudging Hamish aside. Henry sat listening to their conversation.
'I did not know you were engaged,' he heard Hamish say softly.
'I thought you would have heard,' Priscilla whispered. 'You, of all people. You always hear the gossip first.'
'Aye, weel, I heard something to that effect, but I chust could not believe it,' said Hamish. 'Mrs Halburton-Smythe was aye saying you was to marry this one or that one.'
'Well, it's true this time.'
Henry angrily got out of the car. If he did not say something to stop this tête-à-tête, he had an awful feeling Priscilla was going to apologize to this village bobby for having become engaged.
'Evening, Officer,' he said, strolling around to join them.
'Why on earth are you carrying around that great bottle of whisky?' asked Priscilla.
'I won it at the clay-pigeon shooting over at Craig.' Hamish grinned.
'What an odd colour of Scotch,' said Priscilla. 'It's very pale, nearly white.'
'Weel, ye see,' said Hamish with a smile, 'the prizes was being giffen away by the laird, and his wife was alone in the tent wi' the prizes afore the presentation.'
'That explains it,' giggled Priscilla. She and Hamish smiled at each other, a smile that held a world of understanding and friendship from which Henry felt excluded.
'Explains what?' he demanded sharply.
'The laird's wife likes a drink,' said Priscilla. 'She drinks half what's in the prize bottles and then fills them up with water.'
She and Hamish burst out laughing.
'I am sure we are keeping you from your duties, Officer,' said Henry in what – he sincerely hoped – was his most patronizing tone of voice.
Hamish looked thoughtfully down at the playwright, his eyes, which a moment before had been full of laughter, suddenly blank and stupid.
'Aye, I've got to feed the hens,' he said. He touched his cap and turned away.
'Wait a minute, Hamish,' cried Priscilla, ignoring Henry's fulminating glare. 'Mummy's having a party tomorrow night in Henry's honour. Do come as well. It's drinks and buffet. Come at seven. Mummy doesn't like late affairs.'
'That's verra kind of you,' said Hamish.
'It's … it's black tie,' said Priscilla.
'I hae one o' those,' said Hamish equably.
'I mean dinner jacket and …'
'I'll find something.'
'See you then,' said Priscilla brightly.
Hamish loped off down the road. Priscilla turned slowly to face an outraged fiancé. 'Have you gone right out of your tiny mind?' demanded Henry.
'Hamish is an old friend,' said Priscilla, climbing back into the car.
Henry got in beside her and slammed the door shut with unnecessary force.
- On Sale
- Dec 18, 2012
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Grand Central Publishing