Read Cold, Lone and Still Online
Authors: Gladys Mitchell
|Cold, Lone and Still|
|Mrs Bradley |
|G.K. Hall (1983)|
Comrie and Hera are planning to marry but, before taking the risk of setting up as legal life-partners, they decide on an unusual test of compatibility: they embark on a long, sometimes arduous pilgrimage along part of Scotland's West Highland Way. The fact that such a project is thought necessary indicates that doubts exist--and matters are not helped when, lost on the moors in a heavy mist they come upon the corpse of a murdered man.
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Also by Gladys Mitchell
speedy death • mystery of a butcher’s shop
the longer bodies • the saltmarshmurders
death at the opera • the devil at saxon wall
dead man’s morris • come away death
st peter’s finger • printer’s error
brazen tongue • hangman’s curfew
when last i died • laurels are poison
the worsted viper • sunset over soho
my father sleeps • the rising of the moon
here comes a chopper • death and the maiden
the dancing druids • tom brown’s body
groaning spinney • the devil’s elbow
the echoing strangers • merlin’s furlong
faintley speaking • watson’s choice
twelve horses and the hangman’s noose
the twenty-third man • spotted hemlock
the man who grew tomatoes • say it with flowers
the nodding canaries • my bones will keep
adders on the heath • death of a delft blue
pageant of murder • the croaking raven
skeleton island • three quick and five dead
dance to your daddy • gorydew
lament for leto • a hearse on may day
the murder of busy lizzie • a javelin for jonah
winking at the brim • convent of styx
late, late in the evening • noonday and night
fault in the structure • wraiths and changelings
mingled with venom • nest of vipers
mudflats of the dead • uncoffin’d clay
the whispering knights • the death-cap dancers
here lies gloria mundy • death of a burrowing mole
the greenstone griffins • the crozier pharaohs
First Published in Great Britain by Michael Joseph Ltd 44 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3DP
August 1983 Second Impression October 1985
©The executors of the Estate of Gladys Mitchell 1983
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the Copyright owner
ISBN 0 7181 2264 X
Composition by Allset, London
Printed in Great Britain by Hollen Street Press, Slough, and bound by Hunter & Foulis Ltd, Edinburgh
The Companions of Margaret Hallahan
with love from the author
week before I married Jane and moved with her into the house I had bought, I was sorting out the last odds and ends in my bachelor flat when I came upon some poems which I must have written to Hera in the early days of our love affair. One of them was only a rough draft, but I do not think I would have altered it much before I sent her a copy. I wonder whether she has kept it? I must have been head over heels in love with her at the time, or I would never have committed myself to praising her in verse. As I read the poems, two thoughts came into my mind. One was the memory of a quotation from an early novel by Aldous Huxley in which he causes a young writer to say, ‘Ah, what genius I had then!’ The other was that I had better tear up the poems. It would never do for dear little freckled Jane to come across them after we were married. She would know that those passionate evocations could never, in this world or the next, apply to her. I suppose I should have known better than to submit to Hera’s rulings about our conduct towards one another on the tour, but I was so besotted with her at the time that I suppose I would have agreed to anything she suggested. I was foolishly, fatally in error. As John Gay has said so rightly:
‘Youth’s the season made for joys;
Love is then our duty.
She alone who that employs
Well deserves her beauty.’
Perhaps Hera did employ it while we were in Scotland, but, if she did, it was with Todd, not with me. She denied that she had done more than hold conversations with him, but I have never believed her. What man, finding a ripe peach nestling in the palm of his hand, would hesitate to gather it? From what I know of him, Todd would have had no scruples, and who shall blame him? Certainly not I.
He may have been an opportunist; I was undoubtedly a fool. The prayer book appears to make no distinction between the sins of commission and those of omission, so, in our different ways, I suppose Todd and I are equally guilty. Anyhow, Nemesis, with whom there is no arguing, has caught up with both of us, although I suppose most people would say that I am luckier than I deserve to be.
ooking back, I think the preparations and the anticipation were by far the best part of the holiday. It was fun to assemble and check the gear, receive confirmation of the bookings and read and re-read the maps and brochures. The shopping was fun, too. We bought nailed boots, new anoraks and sweaters, ash-plants, a compass, electric torches, whistles in case we needed rescuing, a first-aid kit, and the latest make in rucksacks, framed to give the maximum comfort on the march. I mentioned emergency rations, but Hera said that we could stock up nearer the start of the walk.
According to the brochure, the trail could be walked in a week, but we decided upon a fortnight to allow for detours to any places of interest and also to give us time for stop-overs if the weather turned very wet, for even in June it was not to be trusted where we were going.
The walking tour was Hera’s idea, not mine. We had talked over the possibility of living together before we were married, so that we could test our compatibility and all that sort of thing, but she said that it would be ‘a something and a nothing, Comrie. We would know that it was only an experiment and not meant to last long, and we should be on our best behaviour all the time and that wouldn’t be any test at all.’ She went on to point out that a walking tour in hilly and often lonely country, with mishaps occurring daily, weary legs, blistered feet, rain, wind, mist and losing our way, would be the best means of discovering whether a partnership for life would be a viable proposition. ‘If we can get through a fortnight like that without disaster, we can get through the next forty years,’ she said.
‘But supposing the weather stays fine, our boots fit, the scenery is as superb as the brochure promises, the hotels and youth hostels are first-rate and we don’t meet with any mishaps at all?’ I said. She laughed.
‘If heaven smiled to
extent,’ she retorted, ‘I would ditch our engagement and hand you back the ring as soon as the journey ended.’
‘Call it superstition or anything else you please, but that would be my reaction. Luck of that magnitude comes only from the Devil.’
I need not have worried. We were in for trouble all right, although not of any kind which I could ever have expected or foreseen.
Only over one thing did I get my way at the beginning of the trip. I was determined that it should kick off in comfort, so I had booked us in for the first night at the airport hotel near Glasgow. We did not get to it by air, of course, but I guessed that, however luxurious the place turned out to be, travellers would not be expected to dress for dinner. Indoor shoes, however, we did carry with us, nailed boots being regarded askance when worn on the polished or carpeted floors of the youth hostels and hotels in which we were to spend our nights.
I had booked separate rooms under our separate names at the airport hotel, and we met in the bar for cocktails at a quarter to seven. The train journey from London had been a long one and it was good to find that every bedroom had its bathroom and that the hot water was unlimited.
‘I’m not sure this makes the most sensible start for the kind of holiday we’ve planned, but I must say it’s very pleasant,’ said Hera. She had changed her trousers and sweater for a rather slinky little frock and (not for the first time) I regretted the single rooms and a bed to which I knew I should not be admitted.
In the bar we made brief and inauspicious acquaintance with a man of whom we were to see more later. He stumbled as he passed us on his way from the bar to a small table and spilt some of his drink, for it was a glass of sherry and, as is the idiotic habit of bartenders, whether men or maids, it was full to the very brim, instead, after measurement, of being tipped into a larger glass, as I always request. Luckily, only the merest drop fell on to Hera’s arm and that was bare, so no harm was done and my handkerchief soon did its job of mopping up. The fellow, a tall, rather good-looking chap, apologised and wanted to buy our drinks for us, but when I had refused this offer, Hera added, looking sweetly at him, ‘Please don’t bother. Some people can’t help having two left feet.’
‘I say, that was a bit strong, wasn’t it?’ I asked, when we reached our own little table.
‘That crack of yours about two left feet. He apologised, and he didn’t trip up on purpose.’
‘That’s where the two left feet came in. Don’t be silly, Comrie. He was determined to speak to me.’
‘But why? It wasn’t as though you were here on your own.’
‘I don’t know why. He was on the train, you know.’
‘Well, so were lots of other people.’
‘He tried to get into conversation with me in the corridor. Oh, never mind him. Finish your drink. I’m starving.’
The dinner was a good one and I wished I had booked the hotel for at least one more night, but we were due to spend the next night at the youth hostel in the centre of the city. However, we had breakfast and lunch at the hotel and then took a bus. We had not enough luggage to warrant a taxi.
The youth hostel came under the Grade 1 category. It was open all the year round, had one hundred and twenty beds, was on the telephone and had a members’ kitchen where hostellers could cook their own food. It also provided food for those who did not want to do their own cooking. It comprised two very large three-storey houses with a flight of steps up to the front door and was in a quiet street only a few minutes’ walk from the bus stop.
Although we had been told that the peak months at the hostel were July and August, even in early June the place was pretty full. We had not been in the common-room half an hour when we were faced with the prospect of being urged to join the largest party present. A fellow of about my own age approached us and asked whether we were going along The Way.
‘I’m afraid we haven’t any religious convictions,’ I said.
He laughed in the hearty, unconvincing way these muscling-in types affect and said, ‘Nothing like that, old boy, old boy! I meant, are you doing the footslog to Fort William — the West Highland Way, you know?’
‘Heavens, no! ’ said Hera, before I could answer. ‘We are merely butterflying hither and yon.’
‘Oh, what a pity! I’m trying to rope everybody in who is doing The Way. Much jollier in a big party and we can all get together in the evenings and make whoopee, what!’
He seemed to have begun as he meant to go on, for, when we came in, he had been chaffing other hostellers (among whom I recognised our acquaintance of the cocktail bar) and shouting with mirth at his own witticisms. A fellow to be avoided at all costs, I thought.
‘Sorry. We are only doing bits of this and that. We are not seasoned walkers,’ I said, ‘and we have to respect our limitations.’
‘Oh, well, anyway, come and meet the gang. There are eleven of us, all told. Not bad, eh, considering I set out on my tod? But I always reckon to pick up a mate or two at the hostels who will be going my way. After all, it’s a case of fellow-travellers, isn’t it? And I don’t mean the nasty political kind. No, no. The more the merrier, that’s what I always say.’
‘Eleven of you?’ said Hera. ‘A good thing we can’t join you, then, isn’t it?’
‘How come, fair one?’
‘Because it would make the number up to thirteen and you wouldn’t want that, I’m sure.’
‘Oh, I don’t go for that sort of bunk. Come and get matey, do.’
We could not get out of it without being boorish, although a certain restlessness in the atmosphere indicated that some of the company were not too happy, any more than we were, at being roped in by this hot-gospeller of togetherness. He introduced himself as Neville Carbridge, but invited us to call him Nel. ‘Only one “1”, of course, old boy, old boy!’ The only lone wolf was the fellow who had approached Hera on the train and then slopped drink on her at the airport hotel. I could see that Hera was not overjoyed at meeting him again. He was introduced to us as Barney Todd.
‘Not Sweeney?’ asked Hera, with the innocence she always displays when she looses off a barbed shaft.
‘Now, now, fair one! ’ shouted the idiotic Carbridge. ‘I thought of it first! You’re not the only joker in the pack. Besides, I doubled up. I said, “Sweeney” and then I said, “I’m on my tod, too, so why don’t we mingle, eh, old boy, old boy?” And now he’s going to be the life and soul of the party, just like hot toddy! I say, I say! That’s a good one, boys and girls! That’s a
good one. See? Todd, toddy. Damme, I go from strength to strength, dashed if I don’t. There’s no holding me when I’m in the mood. Mind you, Todd is one of his aliases. He’s got hot Spanish blood in his veins.’
One or two of the girls giggled, but I noticed that Todd himself was not amused. Personally I wondered whether I could restrain myself from assaulting Carbridge if he called Hera ‘fair one’ just once more. There was no stopping him on the subject of Todd, however. He put his hands to his forehead in the shape of horns and curvetted about, shouting, ‘My name is Toro! Bring on the matadors! Toro! Toro! Bring on the toddy, for the toro,
el toro grande
Todd took it calmly, but I don’t think he liked being the butt of Carbridge’s joking, or listening to the giggles of the girls. Apart from Carbridge and Todd, there were four other men. One, called James Minch, was accompanied by his sister Jane. Another rather cluttered-up chap seemed to be acting as bearleader to four students, two men called Lucius Trickett and Freddie Brown, and two girls. Their leader’s name was Andrew Perth, and it seemed to me that already he had the harassed look of a schoolmaster in charge of a pack of unruly children on a school outing.
It turned out that the students were from a London polytechnic and were ‘doing’ The Way as part of a course in geology. Perth had been hired by the college as an experienced guide who had a detailed knowledge of the countryside through which the walk would take his party, so that accounted for his being with the four youngsters and looking somewhat disconsolate.
The girls were called Coral Platt and Patsy Carlow. There were two other women, but these had come on their own and got themselves collected by Carbridge. I put them down as office girls, possibly minor civil servants. They turned out to be clerks in two different insurance firms. They had been friends from schooldays and always managed to fix their holidays for the same three weeks of the year. I spotted them eyeing the men in the party, particularly Todd, James Minch and myself.
James Minch was a straw-haired lad in, I guessed, his early twenties. It transpired that he had been president of his students’ union and I could well envisage him in the part, for he turned out to have the gift of oratory to an extent which almost reduced the exuberant Carbridge to silence, and during the course of the evening he gave us not only what I thought was a highly coloured and would-be humorous account of his college career, but also a description of his journey that day with his sister from their home town to the youth hostel in which, the prisoners of Carbridge, we were now stuck until the morning.
Jane Minch, the sister, was a redhead and her otherwise unremarkable but pleasant young countenance was completely smothered in freckles. The office girls, Rhoda and Tansy (I did not get their surnames at the time), were a good deal older than any of the other women except Hera. They must have been going on for thirty. They were homely-looking girls, quite unexciting, but probably kind-hearted. I thought that the men would write them off.
‘I hope they have that much going for them, anyway. I mean, kind hearts,’ I said to Hera next morning. ‘They don’t seem to have much else to recommend them.’
‘They’re all right,’ said Hera, who was not always a defender of her sex. ‘Isn’t it about time we set out?’
I had delayed our departure deliberately in order to give the others a good long start. There had been some debate among them about whether to take the public transport to get to Milngavie, where The Way kicked off, or whether to footslog it, but this meant pavement-bashing and also it would add another seven miles or so to the long walk to Fort William. In the end it was decided, for the sake of the girls, that the public transport was to be favoured and, as we were going to use it too, although for a longer distance than theirs, I decided to let them get away first. I hoped we should never see them again. It was no part of our experiment to travel in convoy, even if we had liked the gang. The essence of our arrangement was that Hera and I should be on our own for a fortnight except for contact with hotel staff, hostel wardens and the cottagers who were to lodge us for an occasional night.
Hera had demurred when I insisted upon delaying our start, but I held on firmly and said, ‘We’ve got to let that lot get clear away. Besides, I’d like to see as much as I can of the city before we leave. We’ll have lunch somewhere and get on our way this afternoon. We’re in no hurry. Don’t you want to see the sights while we’re here? We can still clock into the hotel at Drymen in plenty of time for a bath and dinner. How I hope we’ve seen the last of that laughing jackass and his party! My bet is that most of them will jettison him the first chance they get. Tomorrow morning we’ll begin our tramping. We can start out directly after breakfast and take it easy to Balmaha. They will be a long way behind us by then, because we’re getting transport to Drymen and they’re walking all the way from Milngavie.’
There was plenty to see and do in Glasgow and, although we by no means covered everything, we did look around the twelfth-century cathedral, the museums, the art gallery, the shops in Sauchiehall Street, and we had lunch at one of the hotels. Hera was still slightly peevish and said that she could see no reason for my having delayed our start, but added that she had enjoyed her lunch. By mid-afternoon I felt we had had enough of sight-seeing and I could see that Hera was almost exhausted, so I suggested a slight change of plan.
‘We’re staying here for the night,’ I said. ‘We’ll have some tea and then I’ll book us in at the hotel where we had lunch.’
‘Nonsense!’ said Hera. ‘We’re booked in at Drymen and that’s where we’re going to spend the night.’