I've been exercising this morning. It wouldn't be healthy, except that it was in a good cause. We have a long, narrow kitchen and I've been making the Christmas cake (now in the oven), which means a good deal of skipping up and down: gathering all the ingredients up one end, weighing and mixing them at the next 'work station', then putting the packets and jars of those things that have already gone in on to the following bit of bench, so that I don't get muddled. I'm easily muddled.
I'm a surprisingly organised cook or baker, and I always clean up as I go along - somewhere in my life I have to be virtuous, and I think this is it.
Stuffing also made and cooling for the freezer, and because it's a slightly milder day and the oven is on the kitchen is almost tolerably warm, so I've taken out the compostables, made paper logs for the fire, sorted out the dishes, and cleaned around the cats' dishes (the cats really didn't help with the baking: I was just about to start wrapping and lining the tin when No.3 Cat went wild and climbed the curtains, and No.2 Cat in protest was sick on the floor).
The stack of boxes of books for the book signing is intimidating me in the study, anyway, and the study also tends to be the place where Christmas presents accumulate prior to boxing and posting to distant family and friends. It's now a bit of a challenge to get to the desk, and the laptop there is being eccentric again, so I've brought the more mobile one into the kitchen where it tells me that actually, no, it is too cold to function out here. It's certainly too cold to make yoghurt, which has to sit and do its thing in the dining room. We usually judge things by how long you can leave the fridge open before the thermostat complains - in November that's usually rather a long time!
Ideas buzzing in my head for the next Murray, which I hope to start writing in the New Year. The rest of the plans for the year include a (possibly final) standalone, a third Hippolyta Napier, and a Letho-based novella dealing with those pesky witches! But who knows?
Friday, 25 November 2016
Helen Braid's latest! www.ellieallatsea.co.uk
A Knife in Darkness
The distant Scottish spa town of Ballater seems a world away from the stylish and familiar streets of Georgian Edinburgh, but recently married Hippolyta Napier is making a new life amidst its dark woods and pure, flowing waters. But suspicion, intrigue and death await both inside and outside her new home, and the forces of nature take few prisoners.Profits from this book will go to the Ballater Flood Fund.
Death of a False Physician
The dreadful day is approaching for the Napiers in Ballater: Hippolyta Napier’s mother is coming to stay.But Mrs. Fettes is not just in Aberdeenshire to visit her youngest daughter: she has other reasons, and one will draw the whole family in, with deadly results.
Proper launch on 30th. December - here and in the Albert Hall! Well, no, not quite, but in the Mike Sheridan Room, Victoria and Albert Halls, Ballater - 5 - 7p.m. Paperbacks, £8.99, will be signed - and please let the weather be good!
Saturday, 12 November 2016
A liquid autumn morning after heavy rain, the sky in slow-moving layers of blue and grey and shocking silver-gilt. A skein of geese slices over, a flock of double-breasted pigeons all shoulder and chest, seagulls high above like a couple of cynically-raised eyebrows, a pair of magpies clattering about in a pale green-gold lime tree, a shower of shining leaves descending with slow grace to glint on the wet black tarmac below.
The sun is breaking through the clouds and dazzling on wet ground and puddles where the beech leaves lie submerged like coppers thrown into a lucky fountain. The first drafts of the Hippolyta Napier covers have arrived and look great - not to be revealed just yet, though!
Thursday, 3 November 2016
Just a quick Murray short story, to stretch my writing muscles again after a break!
The Honour of a Debt
Outside, he was led to believe, it was a fine day. If he rose and stared through the tall, narrow window in the corner of the room, he would be able to see the stern, ancient walls of the Tolbooth nearby, and the overflow from the debtors’ prison airing themselves in the high-walled yard of a neighbouring house, but he did not find the view inspiring. Inside the fire would not draw, the candles which he had had to go out and buy failed to cast any useful light, and altogether it was cold, smoky and miserable. Charles Murray of Letho angled the newspaper to catch what he could of the sunlight outside, and applied himself to finding some kind of distraction.
It was – had been – his great-uncle’s flat. His great-uncle had managed, very competently, to pretend for the last twenty years that he was already dead, so it had come as some surprise to Murray when a notary contacted him with the news that Great-Uncle George had indeed finally died and that Murray was his kinsman’s sole executor and legatee. The flat was in a decaying tenement in the Lawnmarket of Edinburgh’s Old Town, and Murray had thought it would be the matter of a day or so to examine and dispose of the contents. The minute he opened the front door – which needed the judicious application of a strong shoulder – he realised his mistake.
To say the flat was cluttered would be to demean the time and effort that had clearly gone in to covering every surface in randomly assorted objects, and then allowing a layer of dust to descend like a comfortable blanket over the lot. He had spent the day going through the contents of the principal bedchamber with the assistance of his manservant Walter, but the discovery of a door in the far wall which led to a second bedchamber, even more packed than the first, had disheartened them both and so he had sent Walter to scrub the kitchen table with salt and boiling water, while he had gone out to buy them pies and himself a copy of the Courant.
There had to be something in it that would console him for a miserable morning. He turned the page, and his eye was caught by a small headline tucked into the middle of the sheet.
‘ACTORS’ DUEL CASE RESOLVED’, it said. It seemed as good as anything else to read, and less involved than accounts of parliamentary debates.
‘Mr. Lionel Gerrard and Mr. Nathaniel Hudson, both of the Ashton Players at present in Edinburgh, appeared before the Sheriff Court yesterday where both insisted that the charge of issuing a challenge and intending to fight a duel was erroneous. Representing himself, Mr. Gerrard explained that he and Mr. Hudson had been engaged in a quarrel over money, and as it was a relatively good-humoured affair, they had each taken to quoting lines from a play in which they had once appeared, in which a duel formed a principal scene of the action. As they were in the Black Bull Inn at the time, which is near the playhouse, they were overheard by many who misunderstood their friendly banter, and the matter was reported to the City Police who swiftly intervened.’
‘Aye, right,’ Murray murmured basely. He read on.
‘However, Mr. Hudson is now in the debtors’ prison at the instigation of Mr. Gerrard, to whom he owes upwards of three guineas. He will not therefore be appearing as Orsino tonight at the playhouse in the Ashton Players’ production of Twelfth Night, as expected. The part will be taken by Mr. Bridges, with the famous Mrs. Jerrold as Olivia, and the agile Miss Gerrard, a sister of the Mr. Gerrard previously named, adorning the part of Viola as she has several other like roles this season. It is to be hoped that Mr. Hudson can pay his debt before the company leaves Edinburgh for Inverness next week.’
A production of Twelfth Night, with a pretty young woman playing the juvenile lead … that sounded attractive. He was wearing mourning still, but that was not likely to be too much of an impediment. He laid down the paper and stared about the room, smelling the dusty, mouldy concoction, rancid with the rushlights that his uncle had bizarrely used, that was the air amongst his uncle’s belongings. Outside would undoubtedly be healthier, and they could return refreshed to their work in the morning. He rose from the hard chair he had found cleanest, and went to the door.
‘Walter!’ he called. ‘Let’s go to the theatre.’
The play was fairly well performed, though Murray did wonder if the famous Mrs. Jerrold was famous for anything other than impersonations of haystacks. He and Walter were in the mood to be amused and so they were, and Walter, who had only been to the theatre once before in his life and that had been to see Titus Andronicus, laughed himself prostrate at the back of the box and had to be given a glass of wine and water to restore him. Miss Gerrard was certainly the ornament of the performance, and Murray spent most of her scenes happily admiring her: her voice was delightful and not over-actorly, her figure natural and lithe, shown off well in her boy’s garb as Cesario, and her face as pretty as could be desired. As if all that were not enough, she gave to the role a knowing humour that showed she was also well endowed with wit and intelligence. Not one to expend too much energy on being charmed by actresses, he was surprised to find himself grin when she seemed to pick him out at the end of the play, and wave particularly, it seemed, to him. His hand twitched, wanting to wave back, then he laughed at himself. He must be growing old.
Next day, a little refreshed despite the unpleasant sleeping conditions, they started work again and emptied a heap of rubbish, some of it entirely unidentifiable, from the flat, taking it down the common stair to a cart Murray had hired for the purpose. It felt as if they were making some kind of progress: a bed was now bare and ready to be made up, a couple of local women came in and removed various textiles for laundering, and the kitchen, with all Walter’s hard work, looked almost fit to cook in.
‘I don’t much enjoy cleaning as a rule,’ he confessed to Murray as he showed it off, ‘but when something’s really clarted, it’s grand!’
‘I hope never to have to clean anything as clarted as this place ever again,’ said Murray, ‘but if I do, you have my full permission to get on with it.’
He took a last bundle of what seemed to be crossbow bolts down the stairs to the cart, which was nearly ready to go off to a dealer for a surprisingly good price. The crossbow bolts fell with a clatter amongst a heap of stone jars and Murray brushed himself down, exchanging a word or two with the driver. The cart started off, and he turned back to the door, only to avoid by a whisker walking straight into a young woman standing there.
‘I beg your pardon!’ he said, as she jumped back.
‘Not at all: it is my own silly fault! I’m terribly nosy.’ She looked up at him from within her bonnet, and he recognised her at once.
‘Miss Gerrard! Forgive me: we have not been introduced. My name is Charles Murray of Letho: I had the great pleasure of watching your performance last night.’
‘Well, then,’ she said, curtseying with a thrilling smile, ‘since I have played hostess to you, it is your turn to play host to me! Do you live here?’
‘I am staying here,’ he qualified. ‘It was my uncle’s home, and he is recently dead.’
‘I am very sorry. Of course: you are in mourning.’ She could be forgiven for not noticing it: he had removed his coat and his shirt and waistcoat were covered in dust and other, less readily identifiable substances which he hoped did not smell too bad. Her long lashes dipped for just a moment. ‘But how fortunate to have had an uncle in such a place! Since I came to Edinburgh I have been fascinated by these curious stairs. In any other town they would be the resort of the poorest kind, but here they are rather grander, are they not?’
‘They have been,’ he said, not wanting to raise any hopes, ‘In many the grandeur is somewhat faded.’
‘I have never set foot in one of these buildings,’ she said, peering through the door behind Murray, but still with her bonnet angled slightly towards him so that he should not altogether lose sight of her pretty profile. He drew breath to make all the excuses his uncle’s hideous flat warranted, then shrugged and bowed to the inevitable.
‘Would you like to see inside, then?’
She turned back to him, beaming. Her eyes sparkled.
‘I should love to, Mr. Murray.’
Bowing, he ushered her into the dim stone hallway.
‘This is the common stair, stone-built, as you see, against fire, and much worn with time.’
‘Fire?’ She gave a little shiver. ‘Does that often happen?’
‘Oh, yes, though the inhabitants are well-organised to fight it these days.’
‘We always fear fire in the theatre.’ He thought again how lovely her voice was, musical without the artificiality so often heard on stage, English without being either too clipped or too languorous.
‘On the ground floor we have a cloth merchant and on this side a glass warehouse,’ he waved. ‘Up here,’ he continued as they climbed the stair, ‘there’s a clockmaker – a lorimer – and a milliner.’
‘Are there always two flats to a stair?’ she asked, gazing about her as she climbed. She did not need the railings, he noticed, though the stair was steep: her neat brown boots seemed to know each step, touching them as softly as a cat landing.
‘No, not at all,’ he replied. ‘This top floor, for example, is all my uncle’s flat. But I warn you: he died something of a recluse, and I have not yet had time to clear all his strange possessions – or even the air. I am half-ashamed to let you see it at all, except that it is as my uncle preserved it and therefore harks back almost to the days of his youth, which may be of interest to you.’
‘How fascinating!’ Her smiled tickled his toes as she slipped past him into the flat. He gave a glancing thought to propriety, remembered she was an actress, and followed her in, though he folded his arms firmly as if in self-defence. Being seen there with her might do interesting things for his reputation, but it was unlikely to affect hers.
It was almost impossible to see anything in the little dark hallway anyway, but the parlour was in an unexpected blaze of light. Walter had taken it upon himself to wash the window.
‘Ma’am,’ he said solemnly without apparent surprise, bowing. He kept the hand with the dripping cloth out to one side, thus sparing his breeches but soaking Murray’s newspaper.
‘Oh, but don’t let me interrupt such good work!’ cried Miss Gerrard, but she went at once to the window as if inspecting it. She admired the clear glass, and fingered the unpainted waxed wood of the frame and shutters with her gloved hands. Then she turned her attention to the rest of the room, examining his uncle’s curious collections with intelligent interest. Across the hallway, she glanced with decorum into the stripped-down bedroom.
‘And so you are actually staying here? What fun!’
‘Hm, once it was aired, yes, perhaps,’ he said wryly. ‘I have a house in the New Town, but it made sense, I thought, just to stay here. That was before I saw it, though,’ he added.
‘And this is the kitchen?’ She peeped into a room with a high window and the same white painted walls as the rest of the flat: only the nature of the clutter indicated its distinction.
‘Well, barely.’ Walter had found one useable pot, in which he had intended to make porage. However, he discovered – and showed to Murray – three pots which had previously been used to cook porage, and the sight and smell of them had rather put them both off. Instead they had been breakfasting on cold ham and boiled eggs, the consistency of which varied with the levels of Walter’s concentration. He had fed the remaining porage to a large family of mice that had made their home behind the abandoned washboard, and reported that they were thriving on it.
‘Imagine,’ said Miss Gerrard, ‘carrying all your water up here! I hope the local caddies are efficient.’
‘Indeed you have become quite the native Edinburgh woman, Miss Gerrard, if you know about water caddies!’
She laughed, blushing very slightly.
‘I like to find out about the places we visit. Otherwise where is the benefit of travel?’ She slipped back into the parlour again, and spun on one heel in the middle of the cluttered room, taking in everything. He felt that if the notary needed an extra inventory, she could probably provide one with her eyes closed. ‘That’s a wonderful old – kist, do you call it? I should say chest.’ She was on her knees beside it in a flash, touching some substantial ironwork strapping the wooden chest’s lid and front. ‘I’m sure it weighs more than I do!’
‘I should imagine so!’ Murray agreed with a smile, trying not to stare too closely at her lithe figure to compare the two. To distract himself he obligingly stepped over and took hold of the hinged iron handle on the side, hauling one end of the chest an inch or so off the floor. It felt as if it had been built in as part of the tenement, and was as keen to move. ‘I’m not sure I’ve found the key to it yet, though.’
‘Oh, what a shame: I profess I have an eccentric interest in keys and locks. Look at the lovely old ones on these doors, for example! What a handle to that key! It seems made for some mighty fortress, and yet here it is on a parlour door! And the handle could belong to a cathedral.’ She touched the great brown metal loop in awe. ‘Do you have the like on all the other doors in the flat?’
‘Very much so – and all the keys are in place there. If we had to withstand an invading army all we would have to do is lock up – though I fear the doors themselves are less sturdy than the locks.’
‘No doubt the invading army would be slowed by the stairs, though,’ she said with a straight face. He nodded.
‘It’s an important point. And Walter could probably fend them off with some of the older saucepans.’
She laughed again: he liked the sound of it.
‘Well, I must not keep you from your hard work any longer, Mr. Murray: I had only slipped out to visit – ah, a friend who is staying nearby, and I must not be late back to the theatre.’
‘I am only sorry that our hospitality is so poor at present,’ said Murray, hoping to detain her just a little longer. ‘Though we have tea and sugar and milk, I could not immediately guarantee that we would have a respectable cup to put it in, let alone a saucer to go with it.’
‘When I forced my company on you? Not at all, Mr. Murray: I have been delighted with my visit. If you come to the theatre again while we are here, please send your card in and let me reciprocate!’
Reluctantly he saw her to the door and watched as she stepped lightly and all too quickly round the corner of the stairs, and vanished with a bright little wave. He sighed.
‘Well, back to work, then, Walter. Shall we make a start on the parlour shelves?’
‘Aye, sir, I suppose. Shall I get the shovel?’
Despite Walter’s suggestion, Murray managed to resist the shovelling method of house clearance and was glad he had, as amongst the laden shelves he found a few pieces of shapely old glassware, some rare books and one or two archaeological specimens which he put aside for taking back to Letho. The dealer’s cart returned and was once again filled with random curiosities and pots of odd substances with peculiar odours. There would be another couple of loads the following day, but the sun was setting and Murray and Walter were sweating and filthy. Murray sent Walter to boil as much water as he could find, pulled a coat over his disgusting shirt, and went once more to fetch a hot meal from an inn nearby to be delivered forthwith. Back in the flat, he and Walter washed, ate, and surveyed their progress through slowly closing eyes. It was not long before he dismissed Walter to his cosy bunk in the kitchen, and retired to the bleak master bedroom where at least the sheets had been washed and ironed. It was not warm, but he fell asleep almost instantly, curled tightly into the eiderdown.
He came awake so suddenly he was sitting up before he realised it. It was still dark, to go by the cracks in the shutters. What had woken him?
The creaks of the old flat were still unfamiliar, and had probably changed anyway since so much weight had been eased off the ancient floorboards. He sat perfectly still, listening hard. The flat was even colder at whatever time of the night this was. Seizing a loose robe, he slid silently out of bed, bare feet on bare boards a shock, and padded over to the chamber door. No sound came from the hall, and he turned the great handle as slowly as he could, bracing himself against any noise it might make. Was it Walter, up and about for some unthought-of reason? He stepped softly along the dark hallway. The rectangular opening of the parlour door was pale but clear, and he was there in a few long paces.
The figure by the open window was not that of Walter. It was too tall, though dressed in day clothes like his, breeches and boots and a short coat, the outline well delineated against the town’s glowing night sky. The intruder turned with a gasp at some sound he must have made, and spun towards the window.
‘Stop!’ he cried out, uselessly, for the intruder swung easily through the narrow gap, clung to the sill for only an instant with dark gloved hands, and disappeared. A pale flicker followed: the end of a rope, released from some clever knot. He held his breath, waiting for a thud on the ground below, but there was nothing: yet when he leaned under the sash pane himself, he could see nothing below in the darkness. He even looked to either side and, with a self-mocking twist of his eyebrows, above, but there was no one there.
He slid the sash down firmly, wondered about calling a locksmith next day, and lit a candle to sweep the room in a cursory examination. Nothing seemed to be missing, and the figure had not appeared to be carrying anything. He bit his lips together thoughtfully, blew out the candle and returned, less stealthily, to his bed, but he could not settle. It seemed to him that the lithe figure had been strangely familiar, and he laughed at himself for allowing his daydreams to infect his night time fantasies. What a ridiculous notion! he told himself firmly, and began to plan the next day’s work instead, soon sending himself back to sleep.
Next day, however, the notion that he knew the intruder lingered forcefully. He set Walter a few simple tasks to do, told him he would return with food and not to venture out, and donned his coat, hat and gloves.
The theatre was quite busy for a morning: he had not quite known what to expect, and dallied at the doorway for a while, watching men moving sets using long, tough ropes, dancers practising some complicated contra dance, an old cripple with a crutch directing them, two gossiping women seated with a heap of cloth stitching something with rapid, loose stitches. No one particularly observed him, and he could not see any faces he recognised. In the end he decided that the gossiping women looked like his best option: he strolled over to them and bowed.
‘Ladies,’ he said, ‘I wonder if I might sit and pass the time of day with you?’
They both looked up in surprise.
‘Ooh, a gentleman admirer!’ said one, with a mischievous glance at her companion. She was youngish and had dark, curling hair but a face made more for comedy than for romance, and a confident, quick voice. Her companion was a good deal older, round-shouldered over her work but able to squint sideways up at him wryly. Her nose and chin seemed eager for better acquaintance with each other, like a Punchinello, but her grin was friendly enough.
‘Who are you after, then? Is it Miss Gerrard? Or maybe one of the dancers?’
‘I’m just – well, to be honest I did find Miss Gerrard captivating when I saw the play the other night,’ said Murray, deciding that frankness might be the best excuse for being here.
‘Oh, she’s a one for the admirers, that’s the truth!’ said the younger woman with a laugh. ‘We just have to make do with her leavings, don’t we, Moll?’
‘I like a few leftovers myself,’ agreed Moll, winking at Murray sideways. ‘But leftovers is all it’ll be today, my fine gentleman, for Miss Gerrard’s off out and about somewhere, and not coming in till this evening for the performance.’
‘Ah, unfortunate!’ said Murray. He seated himself on bale of cloth beside them and contrived to look disappointed. ‘Has she been with your company for long?’
Moll and her companion exchanged looks.
‘A few years, she and her brother.’
‘Her brother is here too?’
‘Oh, yes! That’s him over there, with the dancers. He won’t do you any harm if you dally with his sister: he’s lost a leg and more, so I’m told. But she’s betrothed, you know!’
‘Is she? Well, well.’ Managing an even more downcast expression, he let his shoulders slump, while casting an interested glance at the crippled man directing the dancers. ‘He looks a good deal older than Miss Gerrard.’
‘He’s not, though,’ said the younger woman. ‘Since his accident he’s had a lot of pain, and it’s just made him look older.’ There was a tenderness in her voice and a sadness, he saw: he wondered if Gerrard knew that he had an admirer.
‘Poor fellow. It must limit his roles considerably. But I thought he had been in court recently for fighting a duel?’
The women both laughed this time, and began to speak simultaneously. Moll waved at the younger one, and began to thread another needle, sucking the thread through her thin lips.
‘You tell him, Peg.’
‘Oh, he and Nat Hudson had a falling out! What larks! A duel: you’d think the pair of them would have more sense. And over money, too: the thing is, it was all a bit peculiar, if you ask me.’ She nodded sagely.
‘I think there was more to it,’ Moll agreed. ‘I think it was something to do with Eliza – Miss Gerrard.’
‘But you said he would not be able to defend his sister’s honour?’ Murray queried.
‘Well, who knows? But it’s Nat Hudson she’s betrothed to,’ Moll explained. ‘And usually the three of them is the best of friends. What else would they be quarrelling about?’
‘But I thought Mr. Hudson had been sent to the debtors’ prison at the instance of Mr. Gerrard? Or am I misremembering?’
‘No, no, you’re quite right,’ said Moll cosily, enjoying her gossip.
‘Then why should they not have quarrelled over money?’
‘Well,’ said Peg, ‘it just don’t seem right. See, Nat Hudson’s right careful with his money. He wants to marry Eliza Gerrard and he’s a proud man and he don’t want her wanting for anything: says when they’re wed they’re both to leave the acting game and take up a respectable profession somewhere. But Mr. Gerrard, he’s the kind who’ll spend his whole earnings and never notice it, on himself or on someone else, and if he’s rich or poor it makes no difference to him. I’d never have thought that Mr. Gerrard would ever take up anyone for owing him money. And I never thought that Nat Hudson would be so careless that he’d not pay someone back straight off, if he ever borrowed at all. It’s not like either of them. So I reckon Eliza Gerrard’s at the bottom of it, no question.’
‘And you reckon she and Mr. Hudson are in love?’ Murray asked wistfully.
‘’Fraid so, my fine gentleman: unless Nat Hudson rots in the debtors’ prison, you’ll never have a chance with Miss Gerrard.’
Murray sighed heavily, but he left the theatre with a lighter step and a little smile on his face. He had a notion he knew what was going to happen tonight.
The first thing that happened, when the intruder arrived, was that the heavy lock on Murray’s chamber door was turned very quietly, and the door secured.
Murray, however, was folded fairly comfortably behind a monumental armchair in the parlour. He grinned to himself. Walter was hidden in the kitchen with instructions not to come out unless Murray called for him: he had been placed in danger too many times already in his young life, and although Murray was fairly sure he was not at risk here, accidents could easily happen in the dark.
He listened for further movements. From his hiding place he would have to shift a little to see the parlour doorway, but he preferred to keep his view of the parlour window: he was sure that was the more important place.
A moment later he jumped, and nearly gave himself away. Something weighty was being moved across the parlour floor, and for a second he had imagined that it was his protective armchair. It was not, however: he focussed on the sound. It was the kist next to it, that was right. Surely the intruder did not think it would be easy to take that monstrosity down the stairs in the middle of the night? The dragging noise stopped, and he risked a very slight move to see the parlour door again. It stood wide open, and the kist was across it. For a moment the intruder’s figure obscured part of the door, but then his view was clear again. A strong rope had been tied to the door handle, and the other end snaked across the floor out of sight. Presumably if the door had been closed, the handle would have been at the wrong angle to hold the rope secure: it was all very well thought out, he nodded to himself approvingly.
He shifted silently back behind the armchair, regaining his view of the window. The figure was in front of it, and in a moment the sash had been slid up. The rope, held in a very efficient whorl, was played out over the sill until it had all disappeared apart from the line across the room. The intruder tugged on it, testing it, and seemed satisfied. The rope made a slight movement on its own, it appeared, and the intruder was suddenly all attention, peering out into the darkness below the window. There was a breathy sound, as if something had been whispered outside, muffled by the wall and the intruder’s shape in the window aperture. Then the intruder seized the rope, and began to pull.
Murray readied himself behind the armchair, crouching ready to spring. He was fairly sure he knew what – or who – was coming up on that rope.
‘Ah!’ came a soft cry from the window. ‘You’ve done it! Careful now!’
The intruder put an arm out to help in a smallish person, obscure in the darkness. Murray waited for both people to be stable inside the room, then straightened suddenly.
‘Good evening,’ he said. ‘Delighted to see you again, Miss Gerrard – though a little unconventionally dressed for a visit to a gentleman’s flat, I think.’
The intruder spun around, breathless.
‘Mr. Murray! I thought –’
‘Quite so – that you had locked me into my room.’ Murray was already striking a light to one of the bunches of candles around the room. In the sudden glow Miss Gerrard was remarkably pretty, lips parted, eyes bright with shock, hair just escaping from the neat pigtail into which it had been gathered for her Cesario costume. ‘And this, I assume, is your prize from the debtors’ prison next door – Nathaniel Hudson, at your service, sir.’
Murray bowed, then shot upright in surprise. The figure, bundled in a cloak, curtseyed, hood falling back to reveal the face of a middle-aged woman, underfed but remarkably cheerful, and by her features the source of Miss Gerrard’s own beauty.
‘Mr. Murray, may I present my mother, Mrs. Gerrard,’ said Eliza Gerrard, with something close to a giggle.
‘Madam.’ Murray bowed again.
‘Mr. Murray,’ murmured Mrs. Gerrard.
‘Excuse me,’ said Miss Gerrard, ‘I must say good night to my fiancé.’ She stepped lightly to the window, waved, and slid the window shut. She turned back. ‘Mr. Murray, I was not able to stay for tea yesterday, but perhaps now you would be so kind? My mother has had a trying day.’
Murray went to the kitchen door and called Walter, who was waiting on the other side of it with a fireiron in each hand.
‘Tea, please, Walter, for three.’
‘Ah, aye, sir.’ It took him a moment to think to put down the fireirons, and Murray shook his head, returning to the parlour.
‘Please take a seat, ladies,’ he said, propping himself against the cold fireplace. He was glad he had thought not to undress: he found himself at quite enough of a disadvantage without entertaining two women in his night clothes. They waited in silence, shivering a little, until Walter brought the tea. He almost dropped the tray when he saw the women at the table. Murray took his cup and dismissed Walter, who left reluctantly, mouth agape.
‘Perhaps we should explain a little,’ said Miss Gerrard.
‘I think it would be polite,’ Murray agreed. ‘After all, you have rather taken advantage of our hospitality here. What was Mrs. Gerrard doing in the debtors’ prison, and why have you left Mr. Hudson there?’
‘My mother owed money, of course,’ said Miss Gerrard. She tucked her mother’s shawl more closely around the bundled form. ‘Well, she owed only a little, but when she paid it back the recreand she owed it to insisted on charging three times that sum in interest. My mother did not have the money, and so he had her thrown into that place.’
‘Aye, well,’ put in Mrs. Gerrard, ‘that was better than the main prison. There was a bit of fresh air to be had down there, and no gallows hanging over you.’
‘My brother wanted to pay off the interest, but I said no: he had an accident a few years ago and he doesn’t make as much money acting as he used to, and Mr. Hudson and I want to marry and set up a little lodging house. Here, in Edinburgh: my home,’ she added, with a smile for her mother. ‘Mr. Hudson and I came up with a different idea. Lionel wanted to be the one to go into the prison, but of course he could not help very much with the escape, so he pretended that Nathaniel owed him money and had him arrested and sent here. Nathaniel found my mother and told her of the plan, and made sure he was able to attach her to the rope. He’ll pay Lionel tomorrow, or pretend to, and the whole thing will be settled. All we needed was a flat that overlooked the prison yard so that we could lower the rope in and help my mother out. That was where you came in most useful, Mr. Murray!’
‘And I thought you were simply rescuing your fiancé,’ said Murray.
‘And have him pursued for his debt? Of course not: he might be arrested just as he was about to go on stage, and that would never do! But my mother we can hide: no one knows of our connexion. Except you, of course, Mr. Murray.’
She favoured him with the kind of smile that would warm a room even as cold as his uncle’s parlour. Her mother nudged her with more strength than she might have been thought to possess.
‘That nice young man you sent in to help me won’t thank you for smiling like that at fancy gentlemen, Eliza!’ she snapped. ‘If you dinna look to Nathaniel, I’ll have him for myself. Here’s how you do it,’ she said, taking an enormous and appreciative draught of hot tea. She turned her warm eyes on Murray, whose spine tickled instantly. ‘Mr. Murray, sir, I’d be mightily obliged to you if you would accommodate our unlooked for and no doubt unwelcome intrusion into your charming abode, and overlook our ill manners like the gentleman you are.’ She pursed her lips and fixed him with a look filled with even more practised charm than her daughter’s. Murray knew he had no hope in the face of this kind of experience.
‘Well, when you put it like that, Mrs. Gerrard, of course I could not countenance taking any advantage of your situation that would be to my honoured guests’ detriment. Please avail yourself of the comforts of my uncle’s flat, poor as they are, for as long as you wish.’
‘It won’t be much longer,’ said Miss Gerrard briskly, draining her cup, ‘for even debtors’ prison guards can work out where ropes come from. Good night, Mr. Murray, and thank you.’ She rose and curtseyed gracefully in her breeches, and her mother followed her. In a moment they had both gone.
Walter slipped back into the parlour to claim the tea things.
‘What was all that about, sir? What happened?’
Murray gave a wry laugh.
‘I think we’ve just been treated to a theatrical performance. I just hope the bill doesn’t come later!’