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Death of a Gossip
By M. C. Beaton
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 M. C. Beaton
All rights reserved.
Angling: incessant expectation, and perpetual disappointment.
"I hate the start of the week," said John Cartwright fretfully. "Beginning with a new group. It's rather like going on stage. Then I always feel I have to apologize for being English. People who travel up here to the wilds of Scotland expect to be instructed by some great hairy Rob Roy, making jokes about sax-pence and saying it's a braw bricht moonlicht nicht and lang may your lum reek and ghastly things like that."
"Don't chatter," said his wife, Heather, placidly. "It always works out all right. We've been running this fishing school for three years and haven't had a dissatisfied customer yet."
She looked at her husband with affection. John Cartwright was small, thin, wiry, and nervous. He had sandy, wispy hair and rather prominent pale blue eyes. Heather had been one of his first pupils at the Lochdubh School of Casting: Salmon and Trout Fishing.
He had been seduced by the sight of her deft back cast and had only got around to discovering the other pleasures of her anatomy after they were married.
Heather was believed to be the better angler, although she tactfully hid her greater skill behind a pleasant motherly manner. Despite their vastly different temperaments, both Heather and John were dedicated, fanatical anglers.
Fishing was their hobby, their work, their obsession. Every week during the summer a new class would arrive at the Lochdubh Hotel. Rarely did they have a complete set of amateurs; experienced fishermen often joined the class, since they could fish excellent waters for reasonable rates. John would take care of the experts while Heather would mother the rank amateurs.
The class never consisted of more than ten. This week they had received two last-minute cancellations and so were expecting only eight.
"Now," muttered John, picking up a piece of paper, "I gather they all checked in at the hotel last night. There's an American couple from New York, Mr. and Mrs. Roth; a Lady Winters, widow of some Labour peer; Jeremy Blythe from London; Alice Wilson, also from London; Charlie Baxter, a twelve-year-old from Manchester—the kid's not living at the hotel, he's staying with an aunt in the village; Major Peter Frame. Oh dear, we had the galloping major before. These men who hang on to their army titles don't seem able to adapt to civilian life. Then there's Daphne Gore from Oxford. I'll send the major off on his own as soon as possible. Perhaps you'd better look after the kid."
John Cartwright glanced out of the hotel window and scowled. "Here comes our scrounging village constable. I told the hotel I needed coffee for eight people. But Hamish will just sit there like a dog until I give him some. Better phone down and tell them to set out an extra cup.
"What that policeman needs is a good, juicy murder. Keep him off our hands. All he's got to do all day is mooch around the village getting under everyone's feet. Jimmy, the water bailiff, told me the other day he thinks Hamish Macbeth poaches."
"I doubt it," said Heather. "He's too lazy. He ought to get married. He must be all of thirty-five at least. Most of the girls in the village have broken their hearts over him at one time or another. I can't see the attraction."
She joined her husband at the window, and he put an arm around her plump shoulders. Hamish, Lochdubh's village constable, was strolling along the pier that lay outside the hotel, his hat pushed on the back of his head, and his hands in his pockets. He was very tall and thin and gawky. His uniform hung on his lanky frame, showing an expanse of bony wrist where the sleeves did not reach far enough and a length of woolly Argyll sock above large regulation boots. He removed his peaked hat and scratched his fiery red hair. Then he reached inside his tunic and thoughtfully scratched one armpit.
The smell of hot coffee wafted up from the hotel lounge below the Cartwrights' bedroom window. It obviously reached the nostrils of the policeman, for Hamish suddenly sniffed the air like a dog and then started to lope eagerly towards the hotel.
The Lochdubh Hotel had been built in the last century by the Duke of Anstey as one of his many country residences. It was battlemented and turreted like a castle. It had formal gardens at the back and the clear, limpid waters of Lochdubh at the front. It had stags' heads in the lounge, armoury in the hall, peat fires, and one of the best chefs in Scotland. Prices were astronomical, but the tourists came in droves, partly because the main road ended abruptly in front of the hotel, making it the only haven in a wilderness of barren moorland and towering mountains.
The village of Lochdubh nestled at the foot of two great peaks called the Two Sisters. It was a huddle of houses built in the eighteenth century to promote the fishing industry in the Highlands. The population had been declining steadily ever since.
There was a general store-cum-post office, a bakery, a craft shop and four churches, each with a congregation of about five.
The police station was one of the few modern buildings. The old police station had been a sort of damp hut. Constable Hamish Macbeth had arrived to take up his duties a year before the fishing school was established. No one knew quite how he had managed it, but, in no time at all, he had a trim new house built for himself with a modern office adjoining it with one cell. The former policeman had made his rounds on a bicycle. Constable Macbeth had prised a brand-new Morris out of the authorities. He kept chickens and geese and a large, slavering guard dog of indeterminate breed called Towser.
Lochdubh was situated in the far northwest of Scotland. In winter it went into a long hibernation. In summer, the tourists brought it alive. The tourists were mostly English and were treated by the locals with outward Highland courtesy and inner Highland hate.
John Cartwright had been struggling for a month to make the fishing school pay when he had met Heather. It was Heather who had taken over the bookkeeping and put advertisements in the glossy magazines. It was Heather who had trebled John's low fees, pointing out shrewdly that people would pay up if they thought they were getting something exclusive and the rates were still reasonable considering the excellent salmon rivers they were allowed to fish. It was Heather who had made the whole thing work. She was plump, grey-haired, and motherly. Her marriage to John Cartwright was her second. John often thought he would never know what went on under his wife's placid brow, but he loved her as much as he loved angling, and sometimes, even uneasily, thought that the school would not have survived without her, although most of the time he prided himself on his business acumen and his wife comfortably did all she could to foster this belief.
He tugged on his old fishing jacket with its many pockets, picked up his notes, and looked nervously at his wife.
"Don't you think we should ... well, meet them together?"
"You run along dear," said Heather. "Give me a shout when you're ready to show them the knots. Once you get started talking, you'll forget to be nervous."
John gave her a swift kiss on the cheek and made his way along to the main staircase. He prayed they would be a jolly crowd. At least he knew the major, although that was more a case of being comfortable with the evil he knew.
He pushed open the lounge door and blinked nervously at the eight people who were standing around eyeing each other warily. A bad sign. Usually by the time he put in his appearance, they had all introduced themselves.
Constable Hamish Macbeth was sitting in an armchair at the window, studying the Daily Telegraph crossword and whistling through his teeth in an irritating way.
John took a deep breath. Lights, camera, action. He was on.
"I think the first thing to do is to get acquainted," he said, smiling nervously at the silent group. "My name is John Cartwright, and I am your instructor. We find things go easier if we all get on a first-name basis. Now, who would like to start?"
"Start what?" demanded a heavyset woman imperiously.
"Hah, hah. Well, start introducing themselves."
"I'll be first," said an American voice. "My name is Marvin Roth, and this is my wife, Amy."
"I'm Daphne Gore," drawled a tall blonde, studying her fingernails.
"Jeremy Blythe." A handsome, stocky young man with a cheerful face, fair curly hair, and bright blue eyes.
"Charlie Baxter." The twelve-year-old. Chubby, beautiful skin, mop of black curls, remarkably cold and assessing eyes in one so young.
"Well, you know me. Major Peter Frame. Just call me Major. Everyone does." Small grey moustache in a thin, lined face; weak, petulant mouth; brand-new fishing clothes.
"Alice Wilson." Pretty, wholesome-looking girl; slight Liverpool accent, wrong clothes.
"I am Lady Jane Winters. You may call me Lady Jane. Everyone does." The heavyset woman. Heavy bust encased in silk blouse, heavy thighs bulging in knee breeches, fat calves in lovat wool stockings. Heavy fat face with large, heavy- lidded blue eyes. Small, sharp beak of a nose. Disappointed mouth.
"Now we've all got to know each other's names, we'll have some coffee," said John brightly.
Hamish uncoiled himself from the armchair and slouched forward.
Lady Jane eyed his approach with disfavour.
"Does the village constable take fishing lessons as well?" she demanded. Her voice was high and loud with a peculiarly grating edge to it.
"No, Mr. Macbeth often joins us on the first day for coffee."
"Why?" Lady Jane was standing with her hands on her hips between Hamish and the coffee table. The policeman craned his neck and looked over her fat shoulder at the coffee pot.
"Well," said John crossly, wishing Hamish would speak for himself. "We all like a cup of coffee and ..."
"I do not pay taxes to entertain public servants," said Lady Jane. "Go about your business, Constable."
The policeman gazed down at her with a look of amiable stupidity in his hazel eyes. He made a move to step around her. Lady Jane blocked his path.
"Do you take your coffee regular, Officer?" asked Marvin Roth. He was a tall, pear-shaped man with a domed bald head and thick horn-rimmed glasses. He looked rather like the wealthy upper-eastside Americans portrayed in some New Yorker cartoons.
Hamish broke into speech for the first time. "I mostly take tea," he said in a soft Highland voice. "But I aye take the coffee when I get the chance."
"He means, do you take milk and sugar?" interposed John Cartwright, who had become used to translating Americanisms.
"Yes, thank you, sir," said Hamish. Lady Jane began to puff with outrage as Marvin poured a cup of coffee and handed it over her shoulder to the constable. Alice Wilson let out a nervous giggle and put her hand over her mouth to stifle it. Lady Jane gave her shoulders a massive shrug and sent the cup of coffee flying.
There was an awkward silence. Hamish picked up the cup from the floor and looked at it thoughtfully. He looked slowly and steadily at Lady Jane, who glared back at him triumphantly.
"Oh, pullease give the policeman his coffee," sighed Amy Roth. She was a well-preserved blonde with large, cow-like eyes, a heavy soft bosom, and surprisingly tough and wiry tennis-playing wrists.
"No," said Lady Jane stubbornly while John Cartwright flapped his notes and prayed for deliverance. Why wouldn't Hamish just go?
Lady Jane turned her back on Hamish and stared at Marvin as if defying him to pour any more coffee. Alice Wilson watched miserably. Why had she come on this awful holiday? It was costing so much, much more than she could afford.
But as she watched, she saw to her amazement the policeman had taken a sizeable chunk of Lady Jane's tightly clad bottom between thumb and forefinger and was giving it a hearty pinch.
"You pinched my bum!" screamed Lady Jane.
"Och, no," said the policeman equably, moving past the outraged lady and pouring himself another cup of coffee. "It will be them Hielan midges. Teeth on them like the pterodactyls."
He ambled back to his armchair by the window and sat down, nursing his coffee cup.
"I shall write to that man's superior officer," muttered Lady Jane. "Is anyone going to pour?"
"I reckon we'll just help ourselves, honey," said Amy Roth sweetly.
Seeing that there was going to be no pleasant chatter over the cups, John Cartwright decided to begin his lecture.
Warming to his subject as he always did, he told them of the waters they would fish, of the habits of the elusive salmon, of the dos and don'ts, and then he handed around small plastic packets of thin transparent nylon cord.
He was about to call Heather down to tell her it was time to show the class how to tie a leader, when he suddenly felt he could not bear to see his wife humiliated by the terrible Lady Jane. She had been remarkably quiet during his lecture, but he felt sure she was only getting her second wind. He decided to go ahead on his own.
"I am now going to tell you how to tie a leader," he began.
"What on earth's a leader?" snapped Lady Jane.
"A leader," explained John, "is the thin, tapering piece of nylon which you attach to your line. A properly tapered leader, properly cast, deposits the fly lightly on the surface. The butt section of the leader, which is attached to the line, is only a bit less in diameter than the line. The next section is a little lighter, and so on down to the tippet. Now you must learn to tie these sections of leader together to form the tapering whole. The knot we use for this is called a blood knot. If you haven't tied this thin nylon before, you'll find it very difficult. So I'll pass around lengths of string for you to practice on."
"I saw some of these leader things already tapered in a fishing shop," said Lady Jane crossly. "So why do we have to waste a perfectly good morning sitting indoors tying knots like a lot of Boy Scouts?"
Heather's calm voice sounded from the doorway, and John heaved a sigh of relief.
"I am Heather Cartwright. Good morning, everybody. You were asking about leaders.
"Commercially tied leaders are obtainable in knotless forms," said Heather, advancing into the room. "You can buy them in lengths of seven and a half to twelve feet. But you will find the leader often gets broken above the tippet and so you will have to learn to tie it anyway. Now, watch closely and I'll show you how to do it. You can go off and fish the Marag if you want, Major," added Heather. "No need for you to sit through all this again."
"No experts in fly fishing," said the major heartily. "Always something to learn. I'll stay for a bit."
Alice Wilson wrestled with the knot. She would get one side of it right only to discover that the other side had miraculously unravelled itself.
The child, Charlie, was neatly tying knots as if he had fallen out of his cradle doing so. "Can you help me?" she whispered. "You're awfully good."
"No, I think that's cheating," said the child severely. "If you don't do it yourself, you'll never learn."
Alice blushed miserably. "I'll show you," said a pleasant voice on her other side. Alice found Jeremy Blythe surveying her sympathetically. He took the string from her and began to demonstrate.
After the class had been struggling for several minutes, Heather said, "Have your leaders knotted by the time we set out tomorrow. Now if you will all go to your rooms and change, we'll meet back here in half an hour. John will take you up to the Marag and show you how to cast."
"Well, see you in half an hour," said Jeremy cheerfully. "Your name's Alice, isn't it?"
Alice nodded shyly. "And mine's Daphne," said a mocking voice at Jeremy's elbow, "or had you forgotten?"
"How could I?" said Jeremy. "We travelled up together on the same awful train."
They walked off arm in arm, and Alice felt even more miserable. For a moment she had hoped she would have a friend in Jeremy. But that fearfully sophisticated Daphne had quite obviously staked a claim on his attentions.
Lady Jane surveyed Alice's powder-blue Orlon trouser suit with pale, disapproving eyes. "I hope you've brought something suitable to wear," she said nastily. "You'll frighten the fish in that outfit."
Alice walked hurriedly away, not able to think of a suitable retort. Of course, she had thought of plenty by the time she reached the privacy of her bedroom, but then, that was always the way.
She looked at her reflection in the long glass in her hotel bedroom. The trouser suit had looked so bright and smart in London. Now it looked tawdry and cheap.
Excerpted from Death of a Gossip by M. C. Beaton. Copyright © 2013 M. C. Beaton. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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