Authors: Alanna Knight
For Sandra and Donnie,
‘Danger comes in many disguises.’ So said my stepbrother Vince wearily considering the Beast snorting and casting clouds of steam onto the roadside as it awaited liquid refreshment.
But to begin at the beginning.
We were to have a summer holiday at Balmoral Castle, or rather in an estate cottage, for although Dr Vince Beaumarcher Laurie was a physician to the royal household, that privilege did not extend to members of his family. HM King Edward, now in residence for the deerstalking and the shooting season, did not care for children, not even his own, from all accounts.
‘Indeed, even the most innocent of situations can turn quite threatening,’ Vince continued back inside my house as he considered my shelf of logbooks from the year 1895. That was ten years ago when my career as a
lady investigator began soon after I arrived back home to Edinburgh, wrapped in grief and uncertainty, refusing to believe that since my husband Danny McQuinn had disappeared in Arizona I was probably a widow. I had not the least idea what the future held or that I was destined to follow, somewhat hesitantly, in the footsteps of my father, Chief Inspector Jeremy Faro, a legend in his own lifetime.
In my case, the role had been unwillingly forced upon me by an accidental meeting in an Edinburgh store with an old school friend, who tearfully whispered over afternoon tea that a servant girl had been murdered and her husband’s odd behaviour aroused horrified thoughts that he might have been involved. She had no one to turn to. Would I help her? I had been so good at solving puzzles at school. And so I did and very successfully trapped the real criminal, not without considerable danger to my own person.
That was the first of my less dramatic cases as a self-styled ‘Lady Investigator, Discretion Guaranteed’. Cases mostly of fraud, thieving servants, domestic incidents, clients all with good reasons for not wishing such problems to be put before the Edinburgh City Police and dismissed on lack of evidence. And what if the incident involved a close relative or those blackmailing letters bore the grim shadow of a former indiscretion?
My clients were mostly female. Except in the direst circumstances men were suspicious and publicly scorned the powers of a female detective, apart from an occasional gentleman of some importance in the city in a state of desperation. Threatened by indiscreet letters to an ex-mistress,
in terror not only of publicity but of bringing about the end of a now happy marriage.
And then there were murders.
‘Yes, my dear,’ Vince had continued, turning his attention away from the logbooks with their accounts of homicides which I have already chronicled through the years. ‘You undoubtedly have had a charmed life.’ He laughed, tipping the contents of a hip flask containing some exotic liqueur into his innocent cup of Earl Grey tea: ‘Dangers can lurk in the least expected places.’
This less than profound statement I was to learn referred not to humans but in this instance to the latest addition to his accoutrements as physician to the royal household. The motor car was the very latest passion for wealthier members of society and ranked a trifle higher on the social scale than the bicycle which, ten years ago, I had adopted as the most suitable means of covering the two miles between my home in Solomon’s Tower on the lower slopes of Arthur’s Seat, and the city of Edinburgh.
Learning to ride simply by falling off and getting on again, one could only stop and jump off when the treadle was at its lowest point, the brake an uncertain plunger upon the front wheel. Consequently I was often carried on beyond my destination, to the alarm of onlookers, shocked by this apparition of a female riding perched on such a precarious vehicle and in danger of exhibiting her lower limbs.
But the bicycle was the swiftest thing on the roads. The change from horse-drawn to mechanically propelled vehicle did not take place without a period of transition
during the last decade, when solid rubber tyres and the pneumatic tyre made the bicycle an acceptable means of transport for ladies. This daring new fashion soon caught on: ladies bicycling became the smart thing in society, lords and ladies had their pictures in magazines, riding in the park, wearing straw boaters, while ladies took to knickerbockers under their frocks. Scandalous and shocking was the cry, but really rather grand.
But Vince was enchanted by this new Rolls. Nicknamed the ‘Beast’, since it snorted and roared, and not yet quite reliable enough to rival the royal train, it was locked in that other royal residence at Holyroodhouse for use by HM or other trusted members of the family, and also by Vince, since he was regarded with particular affection by the King who had been wayward Bertie, Prince of Wales for such a long time and, on occasions when travelling, had had to rely on Vince’s discretion to ease him out of some rather indelicate situations.
Bertie loved a challenge and had transferred some of his devotion to horses onto the Beast. Out riding, however, he would pat his present favourite mount and remark: ‘It is quite extraordinary: you have been replaced by a snorting steaming engine with a ferocious roar instead of the gentle biddable creature with four legs that you are.’
Back in Solomon’s Tower, Vince was telling us that he had arranged this month in the country as a special late treat for my stepdaughter Meg’s seventh birthday. Vince’s wife Olivia had been persuaded to come from their London residence at St James for a short visit, bringing their
youngest, Faith, with her. The two boys, more than a decade older than their sister, were firmly established with lives of their own. Jamie was now a young intern at St Thomas’s Hospital and Justin, a law student in his final year at Oxford. Faith, that late and unexpected child, frail and delicate, so unlike her sturdy brothers, was subject to every prevailing cold wind that blew.
Summers in Scotland were known to be notoriously variable and Olivia had consistently refused to risk the anxiety of a bedridden Faith regardless of the fact that her father was an excellent physician. He did, however, manage to overcome her fears, needing less persuasion this time. Olivia’s best friend from schooldays, Mabel Penby Worth, was also heading for a holiday in Ballater and they would be meeting for the first time in many years, their friendship sustained by an exchange of letters. Mabel, who had never married, was a career woman of sorts.
‘I know little of her private life, only that she writes for magazines and occasionally for
,’ Olivia had added in tones of awe. ‘And she travels a lot, often across to the Continent, quite alone.’ Suddenly the chance of spending a few weeks with this accomplished lady was irresistible.
Mabel was the reason for Vince’s presence in Edinburgh. As always, he had worked at the plan, smoothing out all the possible difficulties so that it sounded much simpler than indeed it proved to be. He would drive the Beast and collect Mabel who had been taken by hired carriage off the London train at Newcastle railway station and carried to Peebles to visit an elderly relative.
Peebles was also near the home of my husband Jack’s parents and a reasonable distance for the Beast to travel. Jack and I normally did the journey by train, however Vince produced a road map where the house was indicated and, certain that Mabel would enjoy this daring new experience, he would drive her back to Edinburgh where we would meet Olivia and Faith at Waverley Station, board the royal train to Ballater and thence the eleven miles to Balmoral.
Jack would only join us whenever his duties permitted. That was sad but inevitable. As Senior Detective Inspector Macmerry of the Edinburgh City Police, he was in the middle of a case.
‘Will we be staying at the castle?’ asked Meg. ‘Won’t that be terrific, Mam?’ she laughed, whirling me round a wild dance of delight.
‘Alas, no,’ Vince shook his head.
Meg released me and demanded sternly, ‘Why ever not?’
‘We will be very near the castle, in a cottage of our own.’
I knew there was no question of staying in Balmoral while Vince wrestled with plausible explanations to a now disappointed Meg, explaining that the cottage was very handsome, complete with every luxury for a royal person wishing to relax away from the trials of state. Abergeldie had filled this role adequately for HM in his days as Prince of Wales, but was now too public; he had devious private reasons for wanting his privacy other than a retreat from domesticity. The wild prince who had been Bertie still existed under the sombre royal crown and the
less said about that the better, according to Vince. All he would say was to repeat that HM disliked the presence of noisy shrill children, and that included his own.
Mabel had written to Olivia that she intended staying in a hotel in Ballater to which Vince responded that there was no need for that, as the so-called estate cottage would have ample room for us all.
Olivia had looked doubtful, clearly recalling a vision of estate cottages as somewhat primitive in matters of sleeping accommodation and sanitation.
‘I told Livvy that we’d let Mabel decide about that when we see her,’ Vince said, adding a cautious, ‘after all, it is years since they met.’
Meg had turned her attention to other more important items. ‘Thane will love it too, won’t you?’ she said giving the massive deerhound a hug.
Glances were exchanged. No one had thought about Thane and anxious looks were diverted in my direction.
Meg had taken it for granted but here was a quandary indeed. In pre-Meg days Jack and I had cheerfully left Thane to his own devices. Feeding him had never been a problem. He was, in truth, a wild animal, still a hunter and as such made his own arrangements. There was plenty of wildlife on Arthur’s Seat to satisfy his appetite as well as keeping him exercised. There was no walking the dog required with Thane, he was too large and strong – the size of a pony, he made the hint of a dog lead absurd.
I looked at him sitting close to Meg. There had been a change in his habits since Meg’s arrival four years ago. Suddenly he was Meg’s dog and had spent less time out
on the hill and more indoors, transformed into the role of a domestic pet. Seeing him lying contentedly before the kitchen fire or happily at Meg’s side, I had some misgivings.
Was this change an indication that Thane was feeling the weight of his years? Worse was the thought that this might indicate that he was soon to leave us. A future that seemed desolate and sorrowful for me, since Thane had been an integral part of my life for ten years, since the day when he had rescued me from the drunken tinkers on the hill. I had no idea how old he was then, fully grown and quite immaculate in appearance, his coat was shiny and neat; the mystery of his presence on Arthur’s Seat had never been satisfactorily explained. But in ten years he had not aged in the slightest and what Meg did not realise was that in the natural law of canines, they did not live as long as humans, and calculated by a factor of seven, Thane was now eighty-four years old. I looked for signs of age, a greying muzzle, a general slowing down. There was none.
Jack shared my anxiety, mostly on Meg’s account I must admit, although he made light of my fears; but refusing to countenance that Thane had always been an enigma, he would say: ‘She’ll get over it. He’s just a dog after all, Rose, he isn’t immortal.’
‘Try telling Meg that,’ was my reply. ‘I don’t envy you.’
We knew nothing of Thane’s origins, except that deer- and wolfhounds belonged in the pages of history. Deirdre had one with her in Glen Afric, King Arthur had one always at his side and in the present day, Sir Walter Scott
was devoted to the breed with Maida at his side on his memorial statue in Princes Street.
I had also heard from a doctor owner a remarkable story that deerhounds were capable of renewing themselves.
According to his account, Thane would not visibly grow old. He would suddenly disappear. We would mourn his passing and looking out on Arthur’s Seat realise that he had gone to rest in one of its many secret caves. Having resigned ourselves to never seeing him again, we would get on with our lives. Then one day, a joyous bark and he would be back with us again.
The same dog? Well, not perhaps exactly the same, although Jack would say of course he was Thane. But we would never know the truth. It was magic and there was some consolation that Meg believed in magic.
One afternoon she had arrived from the convent school down the road at St Leonard’s, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Uncle Vince was on one of his rare visits and their delight was mutual.
‘How was school?’ Vince demanded after a final hug. ‘Are you good at sums?’
Meg threw down her uniform hat. ‘I do quite well, thank you, Uncle.’ A sigh. ‘But the nuns are much better at teaching us how to sew and do useful things like cooking.’ She frowned, looking at Thane who had rushed to her side. Stroking his head, she said: ‘There are so many things I want to know that they haven’t got answers for, and they get very cross when I insist.’
‘What sort of things?’ Vince asked gently.
Meg sighed again. ‘When I talk about magic, like you, Thane.’ Pausing to kiss his head, she looked up at Vince.
‘It’s very odd, but he seems to know what I’m thinking, as if he can read my mind sometimes. Better than Mam and Pa here, or anyone else,’ she added with an apologetic glance in my direction.
I knew that feeling well. Long before Meg came into our lives, Thane and I had shared this strange kind of telepathy.
‘It’s a kind of magic,’ she said. ‘How can they deny that when Jesus was magic? But when I try to tell the nuns that of course magic exists they just cross themselves and whisper that it is … is …’ and struggling to find the word, ‘blasphemy. They say I must be punished.’ Bewildered, she shrugged and looked at us. ‘But it isn’t wicked; if you believe in God, then that is a sort of magic, isn’t it?’
We were saved from being plunged into deeper waters of theology when Jack arrived.
As I made tea I only half-listened to the conversations, their laughter echoing round the ancient Tower. Jack and Vince, Meg sitting on her father’s knee. How alike they were, physically, anyway, and clever too. Meg was the brightest pupil in her class at the convent. So bright, in fact, that the nuns had to keep on moving her up into the next class. At that rate she would soon be with the eleven-year-olds.