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Death of a Charming Man
By M. C. Beaton
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The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.
– John Knox
Hamish Macbeth opened the curtains of his bedroom window, scratched his chest lazily and looked out at the loch. It was a bleached sort of day, the high milky-white cloud with the sun behind it draining colour from the loch, from the surrounding hills, as if the village of Lochdubh were in some art film, changing from colour to black and white. He opened the window and a gust of warm damp air blew in along with a cloud of stinging midges, those Highland mosquitoes. He slammed the window again and turned and looked at his rumpled bed. There had been no crime for months, no villains to engage the attentions of Police Sergeant Macbeth. There was, therefore, no reason why he could not crawl back into that bed and dream another hour away.
And then he heard it … faint sounds of scrubbing from the kitchen.
The sweetness of his unofficial engagement to Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, daughter of a local hotelier and landowner, was fast fading. Cool Priscilla would never deliver herself of such a trite saying as 'I am making a man of you, Hamish Macbeth,' but that, thought Hamish gloomily, was what she was trying to do. He did not want to be made a man of, he wanted to slouch around the village, gossiping, poaching, and free-loading as he had always done in the tranquil days before his engagement.
There came a grinding of wheels outside, the slamming of doors, and then Priscilla's voice, 'Oh, good. Bring it right in here.'
He opened the bedroom door and ambled into the kitchen. Where his wood-burning stove had stood, there was a blank space. Two men in uniforms of the Hydro-Electric Board were carrying in a gleaming new electric cooker.
'Whit's this?' demanded Hamish sharply.
Priscilla flashed him a smile. 'Oh, Hamish, you lazy thing. It was to be a surprise. I've got rid of that nasty old cooker of yours and bought a new electric one. Surprise!'
Hampered by Highland politeness, Hamish stifled his cry that he wanted his old stove back and mumbled, 'Thank you. You should-nae hae done it.'
'Miss Halburton-Smythe!' boomed a voice from the doorway and in lumbered the tweedy figure of Mrs Wellington, the minister's wife. 'I came to see the new cooker,' she said. 'My, isn't that grand. You're a lucky man, Hamish Macbeth.'
Hamish gave a smile which was more like a rictus and backed off. 'Aye, chust grand. If you ladies will excuse me, I'll wash and shave.'
He went into the newly painted bathroom and looked bleakly at the shower unit over the bath. 'Much more hygenic, Hamish. You spend too much time wallowing in the bath,' echoed Priscilla's voice in his head.
He washed and shaved at the handbasin, taking a childish pleasure in deciding to have neither shower nor bath. He went back to the bedroom and put on his regulation shirt and trousers and cap. Then he opened the bedroom window and climbed out, feeling a guilty sense of freedom. Towser, his mongrel dog, came bounding around the side of the house to join him. He set off along the waterfront with the dog at his heels. He had forgotten his stick of repellent but was reluctant to go back and fetch it, so he went into Patel's, the general store, and bought a stick. Jessie and Nessie Currie, the spinster sisters, were buying groceries.
'I heard you had the new cooker,' said Jessie. 'The new cooker.' She had an irritating habit of repeating everything.
'You're the lucky man,' said Nessie. 'We wass just saying the other day, a fine young woman like Miss Halburton-Smythe is mair than you deserve.'
'Be the making of you, the making of you,' said Jessie.
Hamish smiled weakly and retreated.
He went along and sat on the harbour wall and watched the fishing boats bobbing at anchor. There was something about him, he decided, pushing back his cap and scratching his red hair, which brought out the cleaning beast in people. He had successfully rid himself of Willie Lamont, his police constable, now working at the Italian restaurant, after Willie had nearly driven him mad with his cleaning. The first few heady days of his unofficial engagement to Priscilla had not lasted very long. At first it seemed right that she should start to reorganize the police station, considering she was going to live there. It had to be admitted that the station did need a good clean. But every day? And then she had decided he was not eating properly, and to Hamish's mind nourishing meals meant boring meals, and the more nourishing meals he received from Priscilla's fair hands, the more he thought of going down to Inverness for the day and stuffing himself with junk food. He felt disloyal, but he could not also help feeling rather wistful as he remembered the days when his life had been his own. He remembered reading a letter in an agony column from a 'distressed' housewife in which she had complained her husband did not give her enough 'space' and he had thought then, cynically, that the woman had little to complain about. Now he knew what she felt. For not only was Priscilla always underfoot, banging pots and pans, but the ladies of the village had taken to calling, and the police station was full of the sound of female voices, all praising Priscilla's improvements. He was sure the police station would be full of them for the rest of the day. A new electric cooker in Lochdubh was the equivalent of a guest appearance by Madonna anywhere else.
He slid down off the wall and headed back along the waterfront and up out of the village, with Towser loping at his heels. Hamish had decided to go to the Tommel Castle Hotel, now run by Priscilla's father, to see if Mr Johnston, the manager, would give him a cup of coffee. Priscilla's home seemed to be the one place these days where he was sure he would not run into her.
Mr Johnston was in his office. He smiled when he saw Hamish and nodded towards the coffee percolator in the corner. 'Help yourself, Hamish. It's a long time since you've come mooching around. Where's Priscilla?'
'Herself has chust bought me the new cooker,' said Hamish over his shoulder as he poured a mug of coffee. Mr Johnston knew of old that Hamish's accent became more sibilant when the police sergeant was upset.
'Oh, aye,' said the hotel manager, eyeing the rigidity of Hamish's thin back. 'Well, that's marriage for ye. Nothing like the ladies for getting life sorted out.'
'I'm a lucky man,' said Hamish repressively. He never discussed Priscilla with anyone. He often wondered if there was anyone he could discuss her with, even if he had wanted to. Everyone, particularly his own mother, kept telling him how lucky he was.
'You might not be seeing so much of her in the next week or two,' said Mr Johnston.
'And why is that?' Hamish sat down on the opposite side of the desk and sipped his coffee.
'Hotel's going to be full up. The maids keep going off work with one excuse or the other. So you won't be seeing much of her, like I said. You need a crime to keep you going.'
'I don't get bored,' said Hamish mildly. 'I am not looking for the crime to keep me amused.'
The hotel manager looked at the tall gangling policeman with affection. 'I often wonder why you ever bothered to join the police force, Hamish. Why not jist be a Highland layabout, draw the dole, poach a bit?'
'Oh, the police suits me chust fine. Also, if I had the big crime here again, they might send me an assistant and I could not be doing with being scrubbed out o' house and home.'
'So what are you doing here when you ought to be wi' your sweetie? A rare hand with the scrubbing brush is our Priscilla, talking about being scrubbed out.'
Hamish looked at him blankly and Mr Johnston suddenly felt he had been impertinent. 'Well, I've a wee bit o' gossip for you,' he said hurriedly. 'Drim is on your beat, isn't it?'
'Aye, but nothing's ever happened there and never will. It must be the dullest place in the British Isles.'
'Oh, but something has happened. Beauty's come to Drim and it ain't a lassie but a fellow. Folks say he's like a film star.'
'What brings him to a place like Drim?'
'God knows. Jist strolled into the village one day, bought a wee bit of a croft house and started doing it up. Posh chap. English.'
'Oh, one o' them.'
'Aye, he'll play at being a villager for a bit and talk about the simple life and then one winter up here will send him packing.'
'The winters aren't so bad.'
'I amnae talking about the weather, Hamish. I'm talking about that shut-down feeling that happens up here in the winter where you sit and think the rest of the world has gone off somewhere to have a party, leaving you alone in a black wilderness.'
'I don't feel like that.'
'No? Well, I suppose it's because I'm from the city,' said Mr Johnston, who came from Glasgow.
'I might take a look over at Drim and pay a visit to this fellow,' said Hamish. 'Any chance of borrowing one of the hotel cars?'
'What's happened to the police Land Rover?'
Hamish shifted awkwardly. 'It's down at the police station. I walked here. Chust wanted to save myself the walk back.'
'Well, if you're not going to have it away too long,' said Mr Johnston, stopping himself in time from pointing out that when Hamish returned the car, he would still have to walk back to Lochdubh. He opened the desk drawer and fished out a set of car keys. 'Take the Volvo. But don't keep it out all day. The new guests will be arriving. I'll just give Priscilla a ring and tell her she'd better be here to welcome them.'
Hamish took the keys and strolled off. As he drove out on the road to Drim, he felt as if he were on holiday, as if he were driving away from the monstrous regiment of women, the rule of women as John Knox had meant, the one particular woman in his life who was hellbent on making a successful man of him. Priscilla had determinedly set out to make friends with the wife of Chief Superintendent Peter Daviot. Hamish knew Priscilla wanted him to be promoted higher. But promotion meant living in Strathbane, promotion meant exams, promotion meant becoming a detective and never being allowed back to Lochdubh again. He shoved his worried thoughts firmly to the back of his mind.
The wind was rising and tearing the milky clouds into ragged wisps. The sun shone fitfully down, the heather blazed purple along the flanks of the mountains, and as he gained the crest of a hill he looked down across a breath-taking expanse of mountain and moorland, with the tarns of Sutherland gleaming sapphire-blue among the heather where the clumsy grouse stumbled, flapped, and rose before the swift feet of a herd of deer.
He concentrated his mind on wondering what had brought this Adonis to a place like Drim.
Drim was a peculiar place at the end of a thin sea loch on a flat piece of land surrounded by towering black mountains. The loch itself was black, a corridor of a loch between the high walls of the mountains where little grew among the scree and black rock but stunted bushes. The only access to Drim, unless one was foolhardy enough to brave a trip by sea, was by a narrow one track road over the hills from the east. The village was a huddle of houses with a church, a community hall, a general store, but no police station. The village was policed from Lochdubh by Hamish Macbeth, although the villagers hardly ever saw him. There had never been any crime in Drim, not even drunkenness, for there was no pub, and no alcohol for sale.
He parked the car and went into the general store run by a giant of a man called Jock Kennedy. 'Hamish,' said Jock, 'have not seen you in ages. What iss bringing you to us?'
'Just curiosity,' said Hamish. 'I hear you've got an incomer.'
'Oh, aye. Peter Hynd. Nice young man. Bought that old croft house o' Geordie Black's up above the village. Putting in his own drains. Old Geordie just used a hut out the back for a toilet and there wasnae a bathroom, old Geordie not believing in washing all ower except for funerals and weddings.'
'Geordie's dead then?'
'Aye, died six month ago, and his daughter sold the house. She was as surprised as anyone, I am telling you, when this young fellow offered her the money for it. She thocht it would be lying there until it fell to bits.'
'I might just go and hae a wee word with him,' said Hamish. He bought a bottle of fizzy lemonade and two sausage rolls and ate and drank, sitting outside on a bench in front of the shop. Priscilla, he thought with a stab of guilt, would no doubt have prepared a nourishing lunch for him, brown rice and something or other. He should have phoned her.
The loch was only a few yards away, its black waters sucking at the oily stones on the beach. Everything was very quiet and still. The mountains shut out the wind and shut out most of the light. A grim, sad place. What on earth was a beautiful young Englishman doing here?
The village consisted of several cottages grouped about the store. It was a Highland village that time had forgotten. The only new building was the ugly square community hall with its tin roof, its walls painted acid-sulphurous yellow. Behind the hall was the church, a small stone building with a Celtic cross at one end of the roof and an iron bell at the other. Hamish realized with surprise that although he knew Jock Kennedy, he hardly knew anyone else in this odd village to speak to. He rose and stretched and gave the last of one of his sausage rolls to Towser and then set out for Peter Hynd's cottage.
He heard the sounds of pick on rock as he approached. It was an ugly little grey cottage with a corrugated-iron roof. A new fence had been put around a weedy garden where no flowers grew. He walked round the cottage towards the sound of the pick and there, down a trench, working industriously, stripped to the waist, was the most beautiful man Hamish had ever seen. He stopped his work, put down the pick, scrambled nimbly out of the trench and stood looking at Hamish, his hands on his hips.
Peter Hynd was about five feet ten inches in height. His face and body were lightly tanned a golden brown. His figure was slim and well-muscled. He had golden hair which curled on his head like a cap. He had high cheek-bones and golden-brown eyes framed with thick lashes. His mouth was firm and well-shaped and his neck was the kind of neck that classical sculptors dream about.
'Hello,' he said. 'Is this visit official?'
'No,' said Hamish, 'Just a friendly call.'
Peter smiled suddenly and Hamish blinked as though before a sudden burst of sunlight. That smile illuminated the young man's face with a radiance. 'You'd better come indoors,' said Peter, 'and have something. Tea or coffee?'
'Coffee would be chust fine,' said Hamish, feeling suddenly shy.
Peter took a checked shirt off a nail on the fence and put it on. His accent was light, pleasant, upper-class but totally without drawl or affectation.
Hamish followed him into the house, ducking his head as he did so, for the doorway was low. The cottage was in the usual old-fashioned croft-house pattern, living room with a fire for cooking on to one side and parlour to the other. Peter had transformed the living room into a sort of temporary kitchen, with a counter along one side with shelves containing dishes, and pots and pans above it. In the centre of the room was a scrubbed kitchen table surrounded by high-backed chairs. Peter put a kettle on a camping stove at the edge of the table. 'I used that old kettle on the chain over the fire when I first arrived,' he said with a grin, 'but it took ages to boil. The peat around here doesn't give out much heat. Milk and sugar?'
'Just black,' said Hamish, beginning to feel more at ease.
'I'm building a kitchen at the back,' said Peter, taking down two mugs.
'What are you doing in the garden?' asked Hamish.
'Digging drains and a cesspool. I plan to have a flushing toilet and a bathroom. You've no idea what it's like when you want a pee in the middle of the night and have to go out to that hut in the garden.'
'You might find it difficult to get help,' said Hamish. 'The locals can be a bit standoffish.'
Peter looked surprised. 'On the contrary, I've had more offers of help than I can cope with. People are very kind. I didn't know we had a policeman.'
'You don't. I'm over at Lochdubh. This is part of my beat.'
'Verra quiet, I'm glad to say.'
'Macbeth, Macbeth. That rings a bell. Oh, I know. You've been involved in some murder cases up here.'
'Yes, but I am hoping neffer to be involved in another. Thank you for the coffee.'
Peter sat down opposite Hamish and stretched like a cat. A good thing there were no young women in Drim, thought Hamish, with this heart-breaker around.
'Do you plan to stay here?' he asked curiously.
'Yes, why not?'
'But you're a young man. There's nothing for you here.'
'On the contrary, I think I've found what I'm looking for.'
There was a slight hesitation. Hamish shivered suddenly. 'Tranquillity,' said Peter vaguely. 'Building things, working with my hands.'
Hamish finished his coffee and got up to leave.
'Come again,' said Peter and again there was that blinding smile.
Hamish smiled back. 'Aye, I will that, and maybe next time I'll give you a hand.'
Hamish walked away from the cottage still smiling, but as he reached the car parked in the village his smile faded. He gave himself a little shake. There was no doubt that Peter Hynd possessed great charm. But out of his orbit, Hamish found himself almost disliking the man, almost afraid of him, and wondered why. With a little sigh he opened the passenger door for Towser to leap in, before getting into the driver's seat.
His spirits lifted when he drove up the hill out of Drim and into the sunshine. There was no need to go back to Drim for some time, no need at all.
He parked the hotel car in the forecourt of Tommel Castle and then walked into the hotel and handed the keys to Mr Johnston.
'Priscilla's back,' said the hotel manager. 'Will I let her know you're here?'
'No, no,' said Hamish. 'I've got my chores to do. I'll phone her later.'
He hurried off. Five minutes later Priscilla walked into the hotel office. 'Someone told me they had seen Hamish and Towser walking off,' she said.
'Aye, he said he couldnae wait. He had chores to do.'
'I wonder what those could be,' said Priscilla cynically. 'All he's got to do is put the dinner I left him in his new oven. Did he tell you about the electric cooker?'
'Yes, he did mention it. Did you ask him if he wanted a new cooker?'
'No, why? There was no reason to. That old stove was a disgrace.'
'I think he liked it,' said Mr Johnston cautiously. 'Cosy in the winter.'
'He's got central heating now.'
'Aye, but there's nothing like a real fire. You won't change Hamish, Priscilla.'
'I am not trying to change him,' snapped Priscilla. 'You forget, I'm going to have to live in that police station myself.'
'Oh, well, suit yourself.'
'In fact, I might just run down there. I left the instruction booklet for the new cooker on the table, but you know Hamish.'
'Aye, he's a grown man and not a bairn.'
Priscilla fidgeted nervously with a pencil on the desk. 'Nonetheless, I'll just go and see how he's doing.'
Mr Johnston shook his head sadly after she had left. It was as if the usually cool and calm Priscilla had taken up a cause and that cause was the advancement of Hamish Macbeth.
Priscilla pulled up outside the police station. Dr Brodie was walking past and raised his cap.
The doctor was one of the few people in the village opposed to the forthcoming marriage of Hamish Macbeth and Priscilla Halburton-Smythe. He saw over Priscilla's shoulder as she got out of her car the approaching figure of Hamish at the far end of the waterfront. Priscilla must have passed him on the road without seeing him.
'If you're looking for Hamish,' said Dr Brodie, 'he's gone off to see Angus Macdonald.'
'That old fraud!'
'He's been feeling poorly.'
Priscilla opened her car door again. 'I may as well rescue him before Angus pretends to tell his future.'
She drove off, swinging the car round.
That was childish of me, thought the doctor. I was only trying to give Hamish a break, but she's bound to see him.
But as he looked along the waterfront, there was no sign of Hamish. Priscilla's car sped out of view. Then Hamish reappeared. Dr Brodie grinned. Hamish must have dived for cover. Priscilla should be marrying one of her own kind, he thought, old-fashioned snobbery mixing with common sense.
Angus Macdonald had gained a certain fame as a seer. Priscilla thought he was a shrewd old man who listened to all the village gossip and made his predictions accordingly.
When she drove up it was to see the old man working in his garden. He waved to her and beckoned.
She went forward reluctantly. The Land Rover had been outside the police station. Hamish surely would not have bothered walking.
'Dr Brodie said you were not feeling well,' said Priscilla. 'Where's Hamish?'
'Why should he say that? I havenae seen Hamish.'
'I'd better be getting back.'
'Och, stay a minute and give an auld man the pleasure of your company.'
Priscilla followed the seer into his cottage, noticing with irritation that he was putting the kettle on the peat fire to boil. With the money he conned out of people, she thought, he could well afford to buy something modern.
But she politely asked after his health and learned to her increasing irritation that it was 'neffer better.'
Angus settled down finally over the teapot and asked her a lot of searching questions about people in the village. 'I thought you were a seer,' said Priscilla finally and impatiently. 'You are supposed to know all this by just sitting on your backside and dreaming.'
'I see things all right.' Angus Macdonald was a tall, thin man in his sixties. He had a thick head of white hair and a craggy face with an enormous beak of a nose. He smiled at Priscilla and said, 'I see your future.' His voice had taken on an odd crooning note. Priscilla, despite herself, felt hypnotized. 'You will not marry Macbeth. A beautiful man will come between you.'
Priscilla burst out laughing. 'Oh, Angus, honestly. There is nothing homosexual about Hamish.'
'I wisnae saying that. I see a beautiful young man and he's going to come between you two.'
Priscilla picked up her handbag. 'I've no intention of being unfaithful to Hamish either. Beautiful young man, indeed.'
She drove down to the police station, but as she was raising her hand to knock at the kitchen door, she heard the sound of masculine laughter coming from inside. She walked around the back of the house and glanced in the kitchen window. Hamish and Dr Brodie were sitting at the kitchen table, an open whisky bottle in front of them. Hamish appeared more relaxed and amused than Priscilla had seen him look for some time.
She walked away and got back in the car. Surely Dr Brodie could not have been deliberately lying to her about Angus. But she felt reluctant to go in there and face him with it. Besides, the new guests would be arriving about now at the hotel. She would feel more like her old self when she got down to work. She always felt better these days when she was working.
When she arrived at the hotel, Mr Johnston popped his head outside the office door and said, 'Thon Mrs Daviot's on the line for you.'
Priscilla brightened. The Chief Super-intendent's wife. 'Hello, Mrs Daviot,' she said.
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 1995
- Page Count
- 176 pages
- Grand Central Publishing