M.C. Beaton: Death of a Gentle Lady

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M.C. Beaton Death of a Gentle Lady
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    Death of a Gentle Lady
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Gentle by name, gentle by nature. Everyone in the sleepy Scottish town of Lochdubh adores elderly Mrs. Gentle – everyone but Hamish Macbeth, that is. Hamish thinks the gentle lady is quite sly and vicious, and the citizens of Lochdubh think he is overly cranky. Perhaps it’s time for him to get married, they say. But who has time for marriage when there’s a murder to be solved? When Mrs. Gentle dies under mysterious circumstances, the town is shocked and outraged. Chief Detective Inspector Blair suspects members of her family, but Hamish Macbeth thinks there’s more to the story, and begins investigating the truth behind this lady’s gentle exterior.

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M.C. Beaton

Death of a Gentle Lady


Hamish Macbeth #24

2008, EN



∨ Death of a Gentle Lady ∧

1

There is a lady sweet and kind,

Was never face so pleased my mind;

I did but see her passing by.

And yet I love her till I die.

—Thomas Ford

The English who settle in the north of Scotland sometimes find they are not welcome. There is something in the Celtic character that delights in historical grudges. But the exception to the norm was certainly Mrs. Margaret Gentle. Gentle in name, gentle in nature, said everyone who came across her.

“Now, there’s a real lady for you,” they would murmur as she drifted along the waterfront of Lochdubh in the county of Sutherland, bestowing gracious smiles on anyone she met.

Lavender was her favourite colour. And she wore hats! Dainty straws in summer and sensible felt in winter, and always gloves on her small hands.

No one knew her age, but she was considered to be much older than her looks because she had a son in his late forties and a daughter perhaps a year or two younger. She had silvery white hair, blue eyes, and a small round face, carefully made up. Her small mouth was usually curved in the sort of half smile one sees on classical statues.

She had bought an old mock castle outside Braikie. It stood on the edge of the cliffs, a tall square building with two turrets. Mrs. Gentle’s afternoon tea parties were in great demand. For some reason, she preferred to shop in the village of Lochdubh which only boasted one general store and post office rather than favouring the selection of shops in Braikie.

Perhaps the only person who did not like her was Hamish Macbeth, the local policeman. He said she made his skin crawl, but no one would listen to him. The Currie twins, village spinsters, shook their heads and said that it was high time he married because he had turned against all women.

Mrs. Gentle had moved to the Highlands about a year ago. Hamish had waited until she was settled in and then called on her.

As he had approached the castle, he had heard voices coming from the garden at the back and ambled around the side.

His first sight of Mrs. Gentle was not a favourable one. She was berating a tall, awkward-looking woman whom he soon learned was her daughter. “Really, Sarah,” she was saying, her voice shrill, “it’s not my fault that Allan divorced you. I mean, take a look in the mirror. Who’d want you?”

Hamish was about to beat a retreat, but she saw him before he could. Immediately her whole manner went through a lightning change.

She tripped daintily forward to meet him. She was wearing a long lavender skirt and a lavender chiffon blouse. On her head was a little straw hat embellished with silk violets.

“Our local bobby,” she trilled. “Please come inside. Will you have some tea? Isn’t it hot? I didn’t think it could get as hot as this in the north of Scotland.”

“I’ve come at a bad time,” said Hamish.

“Oh, nonsense. Children, you know. They’d break your heart.” Her daughter had disappeared. Mrs. Gentle hooked her arm in his and led him into the cool of the old building. Hamish remembered hearing it was a sort of folly built in the nineteenth century by a coal-mine owner. It was perilously near the edge of the cliffs, and Hamish shrewdly guessed that she had probably managed to buy it for a very reasonable price.

The drawing room was country-house elegant with graceful antique furniture and paintings in gilt frames on the walls. She urged him to sit down and rang a little silver bell. A tall, blonde, statuesque girl appeared. “Tea, please,” ordered Mrs. Gentle.

“Is that one of your family?” asked Hamish.

Again that trill of laughter. “My dear man, do I look as if I could have given birth to a Brunhild like that? That’s my maid. I think she’s from Slovenia or Slovakia or one of those outlandish places. I got her through an agency in Inverness. Now tell me all about yourself.”

Hamish suppressed a frisson of dislike. Perhaps, he thought as he chatted amiably about his police work, it was because of that remark to her daughter he had overheard.

Tea was served; a splendid tea. Hamish felt too uncomfortable to enjoy it. He later described his experience to his friend Angela Brodie, the doctor’s wife, as ‘drowning in syrup.’

He left as soon as he could. As he stood outside the front door, he noticed that the lace on one of his large regulation boots was untied. He bent down to fix it.

Behind him, inside the house, he heard a voice he recognised as Sarah’s. “Well, have you finished oiling all over the village bobby?”

Then came Mrs. Gentle’s voice: “Such a clown, my dear. Improbable red hair and about seven feet tall. These Highlanders!”

“If you don’t like highlanders, you should get back down south, Mother. Of course you can’t, can you? Can’t play lady of the manor down there.”

Hamish walked off slowly. He felt uneasy. He had felt it before when some incomer had started to spread an evil atmosphere around the peace of the Highlands.

“Evil!” exclaimed Angela Brodie when he met her later on a sunny afternoon on the waterfront. “That’s a bit strong. Everyone adores her. Do you know, she has just promised a large sum of money to the church to help with the restoration of the roof?”

“I still don’t like her,” grumbled Hamish. His cat, Sonsie, and his dog, Lugs, lay at his feet, panting in the sunshine. “I should get the animals indoors where it’s cool.”

“Have you heard from Elspeth?” Elspeth Grant, once a local reporter, was now working at a Glasgow newspaper: Hamish had toyed too long with the idea of marrying her so she had become engaged to a fellow reporter. But the reporter had jilted her on their wedding day.

“No,” said Hamish curtly.

“Or Priscilla?”

“Neither.”

Hamish moved off. He liked Angela but he wished she would not ferret about in his love life – or lack of it. He had once been engaged to Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, daughter of a colonel who ran the local hotel, but had ended the engagement because of her chilly nature.

In the comparative coolness of the police station, where he also lived, he suddenly felt he was being overimaginative. Mrs. Gentle was, in his opinion, a pretentious bitch. But to think of her as evil was going too far.

Autumn arrived early, bringing gusty gales and showers of rain sweeping in from the Atlantic to churn up the waters of the sea loch at Lochdubh. Hamish was involved in coping with a series of petty crimes. His beat was large because the police station in the nearby village of Cnothan had been closed down. He was soon to find out that his own station had come up again on the list of closures. The news came from Detective Inspector Jimmy Anderson, who called one blustery Saturday.

“Got any whisky?” he asked, sitting at the kitchen table and shrugging off his coat.

“You’re not getting any,” said Hamish. “Have coffee. You’ll get caught one day and off the force you’ll go.”

“You’ll want a dram yourself when you hear what I have to say,” said Jimmy.

“What’s that?”

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