“A sophisticated, elegantly written, intensely powerful mystery, the best of an excellent series.”Kirkus Reviews
“Puts a stylish spin on the traditional country house murder...an intricate plot worthy of Dorothy L. Sayers or Agatha Christie at her finest.”Publishers Weekly
1930s Scotland Wedding bells are set to ring as Dandy Gilver with family in tow, arrives in windswept Wester Ross on Valentine's Day. They've come to celebrate Lady Lavinia's fiftieth birthday and to meet her daughter Mallory, a less-than-suitable bride-to-be for Dandy's son Donald. But soon love is the last thing on Dandy's mind when the news breaks that Lady Lavinia has been found dead, brutally murdered in the middle of her famous knot garden. Strange superstitions and folklore abound among the Gaelic-speaking locals. But, Dandy suspects that the tangled boughs and branches around Applecross House hide something much more earthly at work . . .
Release date: November 17, 2020
Print pages: 352
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A Step So Grave
Lavinia, Lady Dunnoch, Viscountess Ross, née Mallory, was loved by everyone. Those who knew her well, those who encountered her now and again, those who merely caught a glimpse of her angelic face and beatific smile in passing: all were in thrall. All but me.
My hatred was quite unfounded – which dented it not one whit – for no one chooses when to be born. I daresay that even Lady Love herself would have preferred a birthday in the gentler months, when she might have celebrated with picnics and garden parties. Be that as it may, Lavinia Mallory had been born upon St Valentine’s Day and so it was in February that I journeyed, along with Hugh, my husband of over twenty years, and Donald and Teddy, our two grown-up sons, to Wester Ross, first by terrible road in the midst of hammering rain and now by rickety boat in the teeth of a howling gale, to mark her fiftieth birthday.
‘Lady Love indeed!’ I said, through clenched jaws, both my hands clamped on the lip of the bench and both my feet braced hard against the gapped floorboards that made up the deck, as the little vessel creaked and yawed and splats of rain came straight at me from her portside. If I had seen rain like this on a picture show I should have laughed. I should have scoffed at the notion that stagehands heaving buckets of water across in front of a camera would fool anyone. As another couple of gallons were heaved with gusto towards the side of my head, I only wished I were at the pictures. I could have got up and left.
‘Ah, but wait till you meet her, Dandy,’ said Hugh. The boys were standing at the prow, sodden and frozen and loving every minute. Hugh cast the odd wistful look in their direction, but stuck by my side from some mixture of duty and contrition. He had told me that we were to embark at Plockton on the banks of a sea loch and traverse something he called ‘the inner sound’ to land in Applecross Bay and so I had been expecting a boating pond. In truth, the sea loch was choppy, the height of the waves in the ‘inner sound’ made me quake to think of the ‘outer sound’, and if the skipper managed to find the mouth of a bay and insert his craft into it, I would doff my drenched hat to him. I shot him a quick glance, there in the wheelhouse. He was standing with his feet so far spread that, when one added the tall hat and sturdy coat, one was somewhat reminded of Toulouse-Lautrec; hardly the last word in reliability. On the other hand, I could still see steady puffs of smoke rising from him and surely an imminent shipwreck would cause the captain to knock out his pipe.
The other passengers did not look concerned. Three of them were sheep, to be fair, and sheep are famously stoical, but there were four women as well – all dressed in black from boot-soles to headsquares – wedged in a row onto the opposite bench, holding parcels and packages on their laps and conversing in low voices. Such low voices, indeed, I wondered they could hear one another at all. I should almost have said they were muttering prayers to themselves if their eyes had been closed and if any Scot would have given way to such excess as public prayer outside a church or, in a pinch, a graveyard. Besides, every so often one of them would hiss with suppressed laughter at something another had said. They did not actually look at Hugh and me as they delivered their bon mots, but I had my suspicions.
‘Do tell,’ I said to Hugh. ‘Regale me with the source of Lady Love’s belovedness. Take my mind off my innards.’
‘Well, you know,’ said Hugh uselessly. I moaned low in my throat, by way of encouragement. ‘She was just a very jolly, pretty, friendly sort of girl.’
I snorted and immediately regretted it, for my face was wet with rain and salt spray and introducing a snortful of it to my nasal passages did not add to my comfort. But really! We were all jolly, pretty, friendly girls. We had had the jollity and friendliness ground into our fibres by battalions of nannies, governesses and tutors until any of us being trampled by a runaway horse would shrug off all enquiries and leap up to check that the poor dear thing had not loosened a shoe. As for the prettiness: we were eighteen and had maids. We were at our prettiest whether we knew it or not. We should have listened to those who tried to tell us so.
I sighed and closed my eyes. Perhaps Hugh was right that there was something special about Miss Mallory as was; she had been snapped up quick enough, at any rate. Therefore, while she was the same age as Hugh, married at eighteen and long gone before I came out, she now had a child of thirty.
Well, I knew she had a child of thirty, for that was the reason I was in this soap dish being buffeted and lashed and half-wishing we would capsize and sink to the peace of the bottom of the sea. The Hon. Miss Mallory Dunnoch, if you please, thirty or not, had captured the unguarded heart of my dear daffy Donald. The purpose of this visit was to see what could be done about it.
That is to say: the Dunnochs’ purpose in inviting us all was to take stock of Donald and the rest of the Gilvers before the engagement was announced. Hugh’s purpose was to talk settlements with Lord Ross. My purpose was to find out Miss Dunnoch’s darkest secrets and put him off her, or even to share a few of Donald’s less edifying exploits and see if her ardour could be cooled.
The trouble was, Donald had so few unedifying exploits from which to choose. (If it had been Teddy now …) He was not the sharpest pin in the cushion; even as his own mother I could not deny that much. But if Mallory Dunnoch and he had spent half an hour tête-à-tête she must know it already. He was very young at twenty-three to be marrying at all, even absent the age difference, which was a gaping chasm. But I could hardly argue that he was too inexperienced, for his romantic life had begun when he was a tiny little boy in his sailor suit. He had marched up to an equally tiny little girl after church one spring morning, handed her a fresh-picked daffodil and planted a kiss on her mouth before she could stop him. After that, he lurched from one passion to the next, eternally lovesick for some village girl, chum’s sister or film star. He had been lucky so far – which is to say we had never had an awkward audience with a burgeoning girl and her furious parents – and it occurred to me that perhaps I should fold my hand while I had some chips left. If I detached Donald from the elderly Miss Dunnoch and the next passion he lurched to was even older – or a barmaid or something – I would look back on this day and kick myself for ever.
I sighed and opened my eyes again. Something had changed while my mind was wandering. The roar of wind, wave and boat engine had lost a note from its chord. As I looked around myself, the skipper turned from the wheelhouse and grappled with an anchor, heaving it up and over the side. It sent up a great spout of water that missed me by an inch as it fell back down onto the deck. My shoes caught a little of the resulting flood washing by on its journey to the stern and a little more on its return journey to the prow again. I noticed that the four women opposite had snatched their feet up out of harm’s way and were tittering again. The skipper pulled on his foghorn, three long blasts, and then came towards us.
‘Here we are!’ he said, a toothy grin showing amid his beard and around his pipe. He pegged about in front of me like a drunkard as the boat pitched and rolled. The anchor, in my view, was doing precisely nothing.
‘Where?’ I said, turning into the wind and searching in vain for a harbour mouth or jetty anywhere in the endless grey.
‘Applecross!’ said the skipper. Then he added an utterance that sounded like a sneeze. It was, I would shortly learn, Applecross’s Gaelic name, spelled A’Chomraich, and it was pronounced exactly like a sneeze; there really is no more helpful way to describe it.
I peered around again, bewildered. The four women were on their feet and Donald and Teddy were racketing along the side of the wheelhouse, with great shouts of hilarity about the way the deck twitched and bucked under their feet and the likelihood that one or both of them might be pitched over the side at any moment.
‘We’ve arrived?’ I said. I tried standing, as though a bay and a village might be hidden from view by the side of the boat somehow.
‘Aye,’ said the skipper. ‘Here comes the wee boaty to fetch you in.’
I twisted round, squinted into the murk and could just glimpse a couple of darkish blobs I might have taken to be shadows on the undersides of the highest waves, except that there was not enough sunlight penetrating the storm clouds to throw shadows on this wretched morning. As I watched I saw one of the blobs grow a crest or plume of some strange kind, and with one blink I finally understood I was looking at a man waving his arm at us from a dinghy that was just about to draw up alongside the soap dish and into which Hugh, Donald, Teddy, the four women in black, the three sheep and I were expected to descend.
I turned to Hugh in disbelief. ‘Did you know about this?’ I said. ‘Did you know, from your maps, that Applecross has no harbour?’
‘One of Lady Love’s current good works is a pier for the village, you know,’ said Hugh. ‘They hope to dedicate it before the year is out. Of course, the building work can’t start until spring. One couldn’t bring the necessary iron and stone by sea in the winter—’ He bit off his words.
‘God forbid,’ I said. ‘Heaven forfend! I’d hate to think of great lumps of stone or loads of iron girders being risked. Wives, though? Wives are a different matter.’
‘Dandy,’ said Hugh, ‘children take this boat to school every week. Those crofters’s wives have taken it to market and back their whole lives. And look at the boys!’
That was my undoing. I could have stuck like a barnacle to my suddenly precious bench on this suddenly acceptable boat until the skipper delivered me back to Plockton, were it not for the sight of my firstborn son straddling a rail on its starboard side, then disappearing. Teddy was after him like a ferret, of course, and then there was nothing for it. A sharp maternal tug somewhere in my middle, that portion of myself already thoroughly discomfited by the journey, drew me to the rail, the ladder, the dinghy and quite the most wretched ten minutes of my entire life. Teddy and Donald, in contrast to me, were even more exhilarated by the rearing and slapping of this even more minuscule vessel. They shouted with joy all the way to shore. The sheep took it quietly. The four black-clad women carried on their murmured gossiping. I kept my eyes and mouth closed and sent up silent pleas. Hugh, I am delighted to recount, was sick.
The means of disembarkation from ‘the wee boaty’ was yet another surprise. I had expected us to pull up to a jetty of some kind – perhaps an inadequate jetty, given the current plans for a new one, but a jetty nonetheless – and was prepared to scramble up some slippery stone steps, skidding on seaweed and ruining my gloves by clutching the rusty bar that served as a banister. I have clambered out of vessels by means of many sets of slimy green steps in my years of Scottish life. What I had never done, before that grim morning at Applecross, was wait in a dinghy that had been grounded on a beach and then been lifted over the side into the arms of a burly stranger, to be carried ashore like a damsel in distress, or rather – I suspect – like a week’s washing.
‘How d’you do?’ I said from under my hat to under his. We both had our heads bowed, he to watch his step in the shallows and I to avoid giving him a crack in the bridge of the nose; my hat brim was stiff and had a peak at just the wrong point on its circumference.
‘Ach bash mash buch,’ said the burly stranger.
‘Indeed,’ I said, to the luxurious red sideburn half-obscuring his right ear. ‘Well, thank you awfully much. Gosh, how strong you are. Thank you.’ That got us to dry land, or at least far enough up the beach that the water was all rain puddles and no waves. He set me down, touched a gloved hand to his hat brim and waded back in to fetch the next one. I trudged up the beach and across a muddy track to take shelter under the eaves of a stone shed. From the acrid smell and the blackened earth criss-crossed with footsteps that led to its locked door, I guessed it was a coal store and I spent the minutes it took Hugh, the boys and our luggage to be brought ashore daydreaming of the fires fed by all that coal, fires that would warm my bathwater, my bedroom and my winter nightclothes just as soon as we could get to Applecross House and put this dreadful day behind us. I had quite forgotten it was not yet luncheon time.
‘Now, the village itself – they call it “the street” – is down there,’ said Donald, pointing into the curtain of rain in one direction, ‘but Mallory’s house is that way, round towards the clachan.’ He gestured again. ‘And someone will be on his way to fetch us. That’s the system, Mother. The skipper blasts his horn and that tells everyone the boat’s here.’
‘What’s a clachan?’ I said, feeling a pang to hear him speak of ‘Mallory’s house’ and its habits in that familiar way. I could not help but notice that a cart had come for the four women and that a young lad dressed in oilskins had driven the three sheep away up the hill and yet we Gilvers were still waiting, foghorn blast or no.
‘Good grief, Dandy,’ said Hugh. ‘Have you learned nothing after all these years? Please try not to be such an out-and-out Sassenach around the Rosses, won’t you?’
I sighed as loudly as I could manage, although I expected the rain drumming on the tin roof of the coal store drowned it out. I have never understood the one-upmanship of Scots regarding longitude. Why should the most northerly-dwelling Scotsman in any gathering be the top dog? London, Paris and Monte Carlo are all to the south, as is Edinburgh if we are scraping barrels, and the farther one goes from them the worse life gets. I hoped these Rosses would not be the type of Highlanders who would look down on Hugh and Perthshire and thereby nudge him into endless accounts of his grandmother’s childhood on Skye to even the score. For northerliness is only one of the winning cards in the game: an island carries a hefty bonus. Of course, Skye is quite a southerly island and the ferry journey to it is a brief one. If a Ross grandmother had come down from some speck in the Shetland Isles, Hugh would be trounced completely.
At last I thought I could hear a motorcar engine and the raindrops off to our right began to sparkle as a pair of headlamps shone through them.
‘I wonder who it is,’ said Donald, peering at the blurred shape of the approaching motor. ‘I hope it’s Lady Love. She’s a terrific driver, Mother. She’s driven through a mountain pass in the Alps, you know.’
‘We know,’ said Teddy. ‘You told us.’ He had taken it very badly to have a brother so besotted he overflowed about his sweetheart’s mother’s driving prowess.
‘But it might be Biddy, or Dickie, or Mitten, or Cherry or—’
‘Uncle Tom Cobley,’ said Teddy.
‘Who’s all that?’ I said. ‘Who are all they, I mean. It sounds like a litter of puppies.’
‘They’re Tibballs,’ said Donald, hardly helpfully, as the motorcar emerged out of the rain. It was a Daimler and quite a new one. The driver’s door flew open and a figure in tweeds and sou’wester leapt down.
‘Gilvers?’ the man shouted, with grin that showed very white teeth in a very brown face. ‘David Spencer, at your service. Bundle in out of this filthy weather. Never mind the bags, I’ll get them. Go on, in you all get. There’s a flask on the back seat and a few hot water bottles and what have you. What a day!’
‘And who’s that?’ I asked Donald once we were squashed into the back seat, hugging the bottles and starting to steam.
‘No idea,’ Donald said, sounding a little crestfallen to be caught out.
‘Competition?’ said Teddy. ‘He’s a fine-looking chap and looks about Mallory’s vintage.’ This was unfair as well as unkind. The man was much older than thirty. On the other hand, he was the right sort of age for a thirty-year-old bride, unlike poor Donald.
‘Shut up,’ Donald said. He had flushed brick red and I did not think it was just the warmth of the bottle or the nip of whisky from the flask lid that had done it.
‘Please don’t use that ungentlemanly expression, Donald,’ said Hugh, twisting round from the front seat, where he had taken up position. ‘And Teddy? Please don’t be uncivil to your brother.’
I boggled at the back of his head as he turned to face the front again. Donald and Teddy had been telling one another to shut up, get lost and much worse since they were lisping it all through their baby teeth. Hugh always left it to Nanny to scold them. If he had suddenly taken it upon himself to hand out etiquette lessons he must be very keen on this alliance indeed.
Before I could apply myself properly to the puzzle of it, Mr Spencer flung himself back into the driver’s seat, slammed the door closed and we were off.
‘It’s only a minute or two round the bay,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘You’ll be warm and dry in no time. What a pity though. Lady Love and Lach are so proud of the place and you’re not seeing its best side today. I’m tempted to ask you to shut your eyes and wait till the sun’s out to take your first look around. They said on the BBC it’s to clear up later and be fine tomorrow.’
I was looking around with great interest already. We had rolled through a gate and were now crunching up a drive of red gravel chips towards a pretty, white house, freckled all over with little windows, topped off with crow-stepped gables and flanked by cottage-like side-wings. A liveried footman with two umbrellas came out as we approached and when the motorcar stopped I could see, through the open door and the lower windows, warmth and light, paintings and flowers, crackling fires and glittering chandeliers. My spirits lifted.
Inside, the house smelled of daphne blossom, from a great wide bowl of it on the table in the hall. I drank it in as I went over to the fireplace to warm my hands. It was an applewood fire, I thought, from the fragrance, and quite deliciously hot. I turned my back and unashamedly toasted my rear. Nanny Palmer would have fainted and Hugh gave a quick frown, but I looked around at the paintings and ignored him.
‘Don? Is that you, darling?’ A silvery voice sang out and a slim figure came skipping down the stairs, landing with a light thump at the turn and skipping down the next half-flight to the ground floor. ‘How did I miss the boat horn? Did Sandy give three blasts? Do forgive me. And welcome, welcome, welcome home!’
I bristled like a hedgehog, unable to help it, unable to say what was most annoying. ‘Home’ was an outrage, of course. But ‘Don’ was not much better. No one had ever called Donald anything but Donald in all his life. And she did not sound the least bit genuinely sorry that she had escaped having to go out into the rain on such a day.
‘My eye,’ I muttered to myself, and scowled at her back as she kissed Donald on both cheeks and then held his two hands in hers and stood back to inspect him. I had never seen such a bumptious young woman in all my days, I decided. Greeting him first and ignoring his parents was atrociously ill-mannered. My heart sank to see how Donald looked at her, with his brows drawn up and his eyes wide, his mouth open and his throat going up and down as he gulped.
Then she turned round and beamed at me. My first thought was that she had spent too much time out in the sun without a shady hat on. Her face was as dark as a gypsy’s and her hands were the colour of walnut shells. She looked every day of her thirty years and more. Much more, I realised as she came forward. She had wrinkles round her eyes and lines down either side of her mouth. This was not Mallory.
‘Lavinia Ross, Mrs Gilver,’ she said, confirming it as she grasped my hand. Her palm was calloused and her fingers were rough with scratches. ‘Excuse my paw,’ she went on, ‘I’ve been pruning.’
‘Dandy, please,’ I said. ‘And you remember Hugh?’ I nodded to where Hugh stood, his face a grim mask. He had seen what I had seen, then.
We do not often commune, my husband and I, but as Lady Love went scampering over to grab his hands and effuse at him, he caught my eye and a question, an answer and an agreement passed between us. If there was any doubt, the arrival of Mallory herself removed it. She came downstairs, skipping just like her mother, although the effect was somewhat more definite since she was twice as heavy and a head taller. They were definitely cut from the same cloth, nevertheless. Mallory’s dark head glinted with the coppery threads that, by the addition of much sunshine, had turned her mother’s as bright as a polished kettle.
‘Hello, Donald,’ she said, offering a cheek to be kissed.
‘Hello, old thing,’ Donald replied, obliging with a peck. His eyes did not widen, nor did he gulp. ‘Here are my olds to meet you. Mother, Father, Ted: my intended.’
‘Aren’t they awful?’ said Lady Love, back at my side and squeezing my arm. ‘Olds! Intended! I thought we were slangy in our day, Dandy, but we’re the Shorter Oxford compared with this lot. Let me show you to your room. The bags should be up by now. Would you like help to unpack? I’ll send someone. Are you too travel-worn to notice our Fragonard? Just at the bend in the stairs here. Terribly sentimental, of course, but I’ve always rather loved it and it’s wonderful for masked balls.’
I murmured about the Fragonard, although I have never cared for those eighteenth-century paintings that look like boxes of sugared almonds. At least, though, it served as acclimatisation for the first floor, where the walls were pink with white swags picked out and the carpet runner had rosebuds on it. Rosebuds. My room was worse: pink striped wallpaper to the chair rail and Chinese silk above depicting a bower of fantastical botanical splendour and lots of little pigtailed gardeners rushing around with wooden rakes and flat barrows. Despite the busyness of this, all the upholstery and hangings were deep pink with enormous white cabbage roses and there were bowls of forced bulbs in moss-pots on the dressing table, bedside table and chest of drawers. Lady Love took a huge breath in as we entered.
‘Don’t you just adore hyacinths?’ she said. ‘It smells like heaven in here.’
‘Mm,’ I said. I had always thought one bowl of hyacinths near an open door was plenty. ‘What a delightful room. Thank you.’
‘I shall send up some coffee,’ she said. ‘Come and find me when you’re ready, won’t you? I’ll be in the garden room until lunch at one.’ Now it was my turn to be beamed at. ‘I’m absolutely delighted about our youngsters,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it marvellous?’ She squeezed my hands and left me.
As soon as she was gone, Hugh rapped on the connecting door and marched in. ‘What’s that smell?’ he said.
‘Hyacinths,’ I said. ‘They smell like heaven. Fragonard is wonderful and the engagement is marvellous. There doesn’t seem to be room for discussion on any of it.’
‘Fragon … What?’ said Hugh, distracted. ‘Dandy, my dressing room is like Madame de Pompadour’s boudoir. Perfectly nice Highland manor house and they’ve got it dolled up to the nines till you can’t see the bones at all. Poor old Ross, living in this. I wonder why he doesn’t put his foot down.’
I shushed him as a movement at the door told me someone else was approaching. I did not want the Applecross servants to hear us traducing their beloved mistress’s taste as early as this. It was Teddy, however, who came into view after a quick knock. His face was solemn and his eyes looked troubled.
‘Ma,’ he said, ‘I don’t quite know how to broach this and I don’t want you to tell me I’m imagining it, but I think there’s a bit of a problem here. With Donald and Mallory, I mean.’ He cleared his throat. ‘And Mallory’s mother.’
Good Lord, I thought to myself. If the frisson between Donald and Old Mother Dunnoch had penetrated even Teddy’s skull, there was nothing for it.
‘Don’t call me “Ma”,’ I said.
‘We came up Plockton Sound on the coal boat, Teddy,’ said Hugh. ‘Not up the Thames on a cracker. Leave it to your mother and me. We shall take care of everything. And do not say a word to Donald or I shall revisit some of our happiest memories of your childhood. Just you, me and a slipper. Understood?’
It was a rare moment for the Gilver family: three of us in accord and Hugh taking charge. I rather liked it, even as the cause of it made me feel even sicker than the wee boaty and chilled me even more than the freezing rain.
Luncheon made a great many things a little clearer, and a few things much clearer than I would want them. We gathered in the dining room just as the clouds lifted and parted. In fact, a rainbow was laid on for us, stretching right across the bay from the quaint row of village houses beyond the coal store to the quaint little church inside its graveyard wall on the other side. In between, frilled ripples played along the edge of the tide and left the pebbles glittering. It was hard to believe that merry spangled water, so harmless now, was the same expanse that had frightened me and sickened Hugh not two hours ago.
Lord Ross was rolled into the dining room in a wheeled chair, a shawl on his shoulders and a cat in his lap. He was a handsome man, with a long humorous face and a shock of silver hair, but his eyes had the strained look that comes with pain long borne, and even the blanket over his knees did not disguise the withered thinness of the legs underneath it.
‘Hugh, my boy,’ he said, lifting a hand gnarled with scars from its resting place on the cat’s luxurious fur. ‘How long has it been? Whose pheasants have you been shooting all these years when you might have been shooting mine? Oh yes, I still keep a shoot going,’ he added, at Hugh’s look. ‘And I can still pot a few, even from this contraption and even with these trotters where me hands should be. Dickie here – this is my nurse, Dickie Tibball’ – he waved one of his shiny fists at the man holding onto the chair’s handles – ‘wheels me up a paved path to the grouse moor and we all have great fun.’
‘Oh, tremendous fun,’ said Dickie Tibball. ‘And I’ve got muscles like Tarzan of the Jungle from the shoving.’
He sounded like one of us, rather than a medical nurse of any sort, and he was dressed in the kind of ancient country tweeds that only a friend would dare be seen in. An employee of the usual sort would be sacked for them. My hunch was confirmed when Lady Love appeared with another woman, in equally ancient tw. . .
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