New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 43: At Single Malt House
They arrived at Single Malt House, the principal, indeed the only, seat of the Duke of Johannesburg. It was not a comfortable-looking house – the sort of house that would, in the country, and in the past, have been described as a tacksman’s house, a house suitable for one who took a lease on a substantial piece of land but who was not considered the social equal of the local laird.
Such houses were serviceable as farmhouses, but would have, in addition, a few good rooms that could be used for entertaining. A tacksman might even have a library and a gunroom, but could take family meals in a simple, rather than a formal dining room. Single Malt House had long since slipped out of that antique social order, and would now just as likely to be in the hands of a lawyer or accountant who wished to live out of town but who could not be bothered with fields and livestock. Such a household would be on nodding terms with mud, with certain breeds of dogs, and with pheasants, of course, but would be well-heated and draught-proofed – both features markedly absent from real working farmhouses.
Matthew parked the car under an oak tree at the end of the drive. Not far away, under a lean-to built against an old steading, was the car that he and James both recognised as the Duke’s. This was the car that the Duke had bought from a man at Haymarket Station – a strange, canoe-sterned vehicle of no recognisable make, although there was a possibility that it might be Belgian.
“At least your uncle’s car is here,” remarked Matthew, as he switched off the ignition. “He must be in.”
Matthew looked doubtful. “Sometimes he goes off in an ancient Land Rover,” he said. “I don’t see that around. But then the farm manager uses that a lot to go into Penicuik. He may have it.”
“What about that Gaelic-speaking chauffeur of his?” asked Matthew. “What was his name again?”
“Pàdruig,” answered James. “He never drives the Land Rover: he only drives the … the …”
“The Belgian car?” prompted Matthew.
“Yes,” said James.
Matthew began to get out of the car. “Where does Pàdruig live?” he asked. “Does he stay here?”
James shut the passenger door behind him. “He has a small flat at the back of the house. He lives there, I think. He comes from Stornoway. He’s the real McCoy. And before that, his people came from St Kilda. My uncle told me that. He said Pàdruig’s grandfather had been one of those people who were lowered on ropes down the cliffs to harvest seabirds’ eggs.
“It was a hard life,” said Matthew. “I went there once, you know. When I was at school. A friend’s father had a boat that he kept at Ardfern. We sailed over to Barra and then on to St Kilda. It took us ages, but we managed to get into Village Bay. I found it really moving – the thought of all those people – the whole community – being taken away, off the island. A whole culture ended.” He paused. “That wouldn’t happen today.”
They began to follow a path that, skirting a somewhat unkempt lawn, led to the front door.
“Does your uncle normally cut his lawn?” asked Matthew.
James glanced at the uneven sward. “He usually does,” he said. “Sometimes it gets a bit long, but he usually cuts it. Or he gets the stockman to do it.”
“Well, he hasn’t done that for a while,” said Matthew.
They approached the door; this dominated a small porch built out from the main facade of the house and of a different, lighter stone. On either side of the porch there was a large window, with astragals. Sun-blanched curtains were evident at the side of these windows, but these were drawn back, affording a view of the rooms within. One was a drawing room, the other contained a large table on which papers and books were spread, as if to serve a working session that had suddenly ended. That’s how it must have been on Hirta, out at St Kilda, Matthew thought: tables left with the things still upon them, the interrupted notes of a song still hanging in the air.
James pressed the doorbell, glancing at Matthew as he did so, giving a shrug, as if he already expected no response. The bell was surprisingly loud, and could be heard from somewhere within the house.
“Give it two rings,” suggested Matthew. “Two rings always show you’re serious.”
James pressed the bell again, but once more there was no response. James tested the door handle: it was locked. “He never locks the door,” he said to Matthew.
Matthew looked up. On the floor above, a window was open. He pointed to it. “Somebody’s in,” he said. “Look up there.”
James shrugged again. “I don’t know …” He stopped. “There’s a window at the back, you know. The catch is broken. Once my uncle locked himself out and we crawled through the window. It’s quite large.”
Matthew was not sure. “I don’t know about breaking into people’s houses. I’m not sure that we should go that far.”
“He could be ill,” said James. “He could be lying on the floor somewhere.”
Matthew hesitated. James was right, and there were times when people had to get into houses without the owner’s consent. This, he decided, was probably one of those.
He had an idea. “Have you got his phone number?” he asked.
James nodded. “It’s on my phone.”
“Well, why don’t you phone him – just on the off-chance. See what happens.”
James took his mobile from his pocket and tapped at the screen. Almost immediately they heard a phone ringing within the house. And almost immediately the ringing stopped.
“Uncle?” James said, in a surprised tone.
There was a silence, and then a click as the receiver at the other end was put down. James turned to Matthew in astonishment. “He’s inside.”
Matthew made up his mind. “Show me this window,” he said.
They walked round to the back of the house, the gravel crunching beneath their feet. They disturbed a bird that had been perching on a windowsill, a thrush, in a speckled waistcoat, thought Matthew. It swooped off into the foliage of a garden shrubbery.
“That’s the window,” said James, pointing to a window that was a good eight feet above the ground.
“I’ll give you a leg-up,” said Matthew. “Then you reach down and give me a hand.”
He thought, as he crouched, his hands cupped to provide a lifting stirrup for James: when did I last do this? Did I ever do this before?
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