“The ancient feasts,” he explained, still lost in his mental notes. “Hogmanay, that’s New Year’s, Midsummer Day, Beltane and All Hallows’. Druids, Beaker Folk, early Picts, everybody kept the sun feasts and the fire feasts, so far as we know. Anyway, ghosts are freed on the holy days, and can wander about at will, to do harm or good as they please.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “It’s getting on for Beltane—close to the spring equinox. Best keep an eye out, next time you pass the kirkyard.” His eyes twinkled, and I realized the trance had ended.
I laughed. “Are there a number of famous local ghosts, then?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know. We’ll ask the Vicar, shall we, next time we see him?”
We saw the Vicar quite shortly, in fact. He, along with most of the other inhabitants of the village, was down in the pub, having a lager-and-light in celebration of the houses’ new sanctification.
He seemed rather embarrassed at being caught in the act of condoning acts of paganism, as it were, but brushed it off as merely a local observance with historical color, like the Wearing of the Green.
“Really rather fascinating, you know,” he confided, and I recognized, with an internal sigh, the song of the scholar, as identifying a sound as the terr-whit! of a thrush. Harking to the call of a kindred spirit, Frank at once settled down to the mating dance of academe, and they were soon neck-deep in archetypes and the parallels between ancient superstitions and modern religions. I shrugged and made my own way through the crowd to the bar and back, a large brandy-and-splash in each hand.
Knowing from experience how difficult it was to distract Frank’s attention from this sort of discussion, I simply picked up his hand, wrapped his fingers about the stem of the glass and left him to his own devices.
I found Mrs. Baird on a deep bench near the window, sharing a companionable pint of bitter with an elderly man whom she introduced to me as Mr. Crook.
“This is the man I tell’t ye about, Mrs. Randall,” she said, eyes bright with the stimulation of alcohol and company. “The one as knows about plants of all sorts.
“Mrs. Randall’s verra much interested in the wee plants,” she confided to her companion, who inclined his head in a combination of politeness and deafness. “Presses them in books and such.”
“Do ye, indeed?” Mr. Crook asked, one tufted white brow raised in interest. “I’ve some presses—the real ones, mind—for plants and such. Had them from my nephew, when he come up from university over his holiday. He brought them for me, and I’d not the heart to tell him I never uses such things. Hangin’s what’s wanted for herbs, ye ken, or maybe to be dried on a frame and put in a bit o’ gauze bag or a jar, but whyever you’d be after squashing the wee things flat, I’ve no idea.”
“Well, to look at, maybe,” Mrs. Baird interjected kindly. “Mrs. Randall’s made some lovely bits out of mallow blossoms, and violets, same as you could put in a frame and hang on the wall, like.”
“Mmmphm.” Mr. Crook’s seamed face seemed to be admitting a dubious possibility to this suggestion. “Weel, if they’re of any use to ye, Missus, you can have the presses, and welcome. I didna wish to be throwing them awa’, but I must say I’ve no use for them.”
I assured Mr. Crook that I would be delighted to make use of the plant presses, and still more delighted if he would show me where some of the rarer plants in the area could be found. He eyed me sharply for a moment, head to one side like an elderly kestrel, but appeared finally to decide that my interest was genuine, and we fixed it up that I should meet him in the morning for a tour of the local shrubbery. Frank, I knew, meant to go into Inverness for the day to consult some records in the town hall there, and I was pleased to have an excuse not to accompany him. One record was much like another, so far as I was concerned.
Soon after this, Frank pried himself away from the Vicar, and we walked home in company with Mrs. Baird. I was reluctant to mention the cock’s blood on the doorstep, myself, but Frank suffered from no such reticence, and questioned her eagerly as to the background of the custom.
“I suppose it’s quite old, then?” he asked, swishing a stick along through the roadside weeds. Lamb’s-quarters and cinquefoil were already blooming, and I could see the buds of sweet broom swelling; another week and they’d be in flower.
“Och, aye.” Mrs. Baird waddled along at a brisk pace, asking no quarter from our younger limbs. “Older than anyone knows, Mr. Randall. Even back before the days of the giants.”
“Giants?” I asked.
“Aye. Fionn and the Feinn, ye ken.”
“Gaelic folktales,” Frank remarked with interest. “Heroes, you know. Probably from Norse roots. There’s a lot of the Norse influence round here, and all the way up the coast to the West. Some of the place names are Norse, you know, not Gaelic at all.”
I rolled my eyes, sensing another outburst, but Mrs. Baird smiled kindly and encouraged him, saying that was true, then, she’d been up to the north, and seen the Two Brothers stone, and that was Norse, wasn’t it?
“The Norsemen came down on that coast hundreds of times between A.D. 500 and 1300 or so,” Frank said, looking dreamily at the horizon, seeing dragon-ships in the wind-swept cloud. “Vikings, you know. And they brought a lot of their own myths along. It’s a good country for myths. Things seem to take root here.”
This I could believe. Twilight was coming on, and so was a storm. In the eerie light beneath the clouds, even the thoroughly modern houses along the road looked as ancient and as sinister as the weathered Pictish stone that stood a hundred feet away, guarding the crossroads it had marked for a thousand years. It seemed a good night to be inside with the shutters fastened.
Rather than staying cozily in Mrs. Baird’s parlor to be entertained by stere-opticon views of Perth Harbor, though, Frank chose to keep his appointment for sherry with Mr. Bainbridge, a solicitor with an interest in local historical records. Bearing in mind my earlier encounter with Mr. Bainbridge, I elected to stay at home with Perth Harbor.
“Try to come back before the storm breaks,” I said, kissing Frank goodbye. “And give my regards to Mr. Bainbridge.”
“Umm, yes. Yes, of course.” Carefully not meeting my eye, Frank shrugged into his overcoat and left, collecting an umbrella from the stand by the door.
I closed the door after him, but left it on the latch so he could get back in. I wandered back toward the parlor, reflecting that Frank would doubtless pretend that he didn’t have a wife—a pretense in which Mr. Bainbridge would cheerfully join. Not that I could blame him, particularly.
At first, everything had gone quite well on our visit to Mr. Bainbridge’s home the afternoon before. I had been demure, genteel, intelligent but self-effacing, well groomed, and quietly dressed—everything the Perfect Don’s Wife should be. Until the tea was served.
I now turned my right hand over, ruefully examining the large blister that ran across the bases of all four fingers. After all, it was not my fault that Mr. Bainbridge, a widower, made do with a cheap tin teapot instead of a proper crockery one. Nor that the solicitor, seeking to be polite, had asked me to pour out. Nor that the potholder he provided had a worn patch that allowed the red-hot handle of the teapot to come into direct contact with my hand when I picked it up.
No, I decided. Dropping the teapot was a perfectly normal reaction. Dropping it into Mr. Bainbridge’s lap was merely an accident of placement; I had to drop it somewhere. It was my exclaiming “Bloody f**king hell!” in a voice that topped Mr. Bainbridge’s heartcry that had made Frank glare at me across the scones.
Once he recovered from the shock, Mr. Bainbridge had been quite gallant, fussing about my hand and ignoring Frank’s attempts to excuse my language on grounds that I had been stationed in a field hospital for the better part of two years. “I’m afraid my wife picked up a number of, er, colorful expressions from the Yanks and such,” Frank offered, with a nervous smile.
“True,” I said, gritting my teeth as I wrapped a water-soaked napkin about my hand. “Men tend to be very ‘colorful’ when you’re picking shrapnel out of them.”
Mr. Bainbridge had tactfully tried to distract the conversation onto neutral historical ground by saying that he had always been interested in the variations of what was considered profane speech through the ages. There was “Gorblimey,” for example, a recent corruption of the oath “God blind me.”
“Yes, of course,” said Frank, gratefully accepting the diversion. “No sugar, thank you, Claire. What about ‘Gadzooks’? The ‘Gad’ part is quite clear, of course, but the ‘zook’.…”
“Well, you know,” the solicitor interjected, “I’ve sometimes thought it might be a corruption of an old Scots word, in fact—‘yeuk.’ Means ‘itch.’ That would make sense, wouldn’t it?”
Frank nodded, letting his unscholarly forelock fall across his forehead. He pushed it back automatically. “Interesting,” he said, “the whole evolution of profanity.”
“Yes, and it’s still going on,” I said, carefully picking up a lump of sugar with the tongs.
“Oh?” said Mr. Bainbridge politely. “Did you encounter some interesting variations during your, er, war experience?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “My favorite was one I picked up from a Yank. Man named Williamson, from New York, I believe. He said it every time I changed his dressing.”
“What was it?”
“ ‘Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,’ ” I said, and dropped the sugar lump neatly into Frank’s coffee.
After a peaceful and not unpleasant sit with Mrs. Baird, I made my way upstairs, to ready myself before Frank came home. I knew his limit with sherry was two glasses, so I expected him back soon.
The wind was rising, and the very air of the bedroom was prickly with electricity. I drew the brush through my hair, making the curls snap with static and spring into knots and furious tangles. My hair would have to do without its hundred strokes tonight, I decided. I would settle for brushing my teeth, in this sort of weather. Strands of hair adhered stickily to my cheeks, clinging stubbornly as I tried to smooth them back.
No water in the ewer; Frank had used it, tidying himself before setting out for his meeting with Mr. Bainbridge, and I had not bothered to refill it from the lavatory tap. I picked up the bottle of L’Heure Bleu and poured a generous puddle into the palm of my hand. Rubbing my hands briskly together before the scent could evaporate, I smoothed them rapidly through my hair. I poured another dollop onto my hairbrush and swept the curls back behind my ears with it.
Well. That was rather better, I thought, turning my head from side to side to examine the results in the speckled looking glass. The moisture had dissipated the static electricity in my hair, so that it floated in heavy, shining waves about my face. And the evaporating alcohol had left behind a very pleasant scent. Frank would like that, I thought. L’Heure Bleu was his favorite.
There was a sudden flash close at hand, with the crash of thunder following close on its heels, and all the lights went out. Cursing under my breath, I groped in the drawers.
Somewhere I had seen candles and matches; power failure was so frequent an occurrence in the Highlands that candles were a necessary furnishing for all inn and hotel rooms. I had seen them even in the most elegant hotels, where they were scented with honeysuckle, and presented in frosted glass holders with shimmering pendants.
Mrs. Baird’s candles were far more utilitarian—plain white plumber’s candles—but there were a lot of them, and three folders of matches as well. I was not inclined to be picky over style at a time like this.
I fitted a candle to the blue ceramic holder on the dressing table by the light of the next flash, then moved about the room, lighting others, ’til the whole room was filled with a soft, wavering radiance. Very romantic, I thought, and with some presence of mind, I pressed down the light switch, so that a sudden return of power shouldn’t ruin the mood at some inopportune moment.
The candles had burned no more than a half-inch when the door opened and Frank blew in. Literally, for the draft that followed him up the stairs extinguished three of the candles.
The door closed behind him with a bang that blew out two more, and he peered into the sudden gloom, pushing a hand through his disheveled hair. I got up and relit the candles, making mild remarks about his abrupt methods of entering rooms. It was only when I had finished and turned to ask him whether he’d like a drink, that I saw he was looking rather white and unsettled.
“What’s the matter?” I said. “Seen a ghost?”
“Well, you know,” he said slowly, “I’m not at all sure that I haven’t.” Absentmindedly, he picked up my hairbrush and raised it to tidy his hair. When a sudden whiff of L’Heure Bleu reached his nostrils, he wrinkled his nose and set it down again, settling for the attentions of his pocket comb instead.
I glanced through the window, where the elm trees were lashing to and fro like flails. A loose shutter was banging somewhere on the other side of the house, and it occurred to me that we ought perhaps to close our own, though the carry-on outside was rather exciting to watch.
“Bit blustery for a ghost, I’d think,” I said. “Don’t they like quiet, misty evenings in graveyards?”
Frank laughed a bit sheepishly. “Well, I daresay it’s only Bainbridge’s stories, plus a bit more of his sherry than I really meant to have. Nothing at all, likely.”
Now I was curious. “What exactly did you see?” I asked, settling myself on the dressing-table seat. I motioned to the whisky bottle with a half-lifted brow, and Frank went at once to pour a couple of drinks.
“Well, only a man, really,” he began, measuring out a jigger for himself and two for me. “Standing down in the road outside.”
“What, outside this house?” I laughed. “Must have been a ghost, then; I can’t feature any living person standing about on a night like this.”
Frank tilted the ewer over his glass, then looked accusingly at me when no water came out.
“Don’t look at me,” I said. “You used up all the water. I don’t mind it neat, though.” I took a sip in illustration.
Frank looked as though he were tempted to nip down to the lavatory for water, but abandoned the idea and went on with his story, sipping cautiously as though his glass contained vitriol, rather than the best Glenfiddich single malt whisky.
“Yes, he was down at the edge of the garden on this side, standing by the fence. I thought”—he hesitated, looking down into his glass—“I rather thought he was looking up at your window.”
“My window? How extraordinary!” I couldn’t repress a mild shiver, and went across to fasten the shutters, though it seemed a bit late for that. Frank followed me across the room, still talking.
“Yes, I could see you myself from below. You were brushing your hair and cursing a bit because it was standing on end.”
“In that case, the fellow was probably enjoying a good laugh,” I said tartly. Frank shook his head, though he smiled and smoothed his hands over my hair.
“No, he wasn’t laughing. In fact, he seemed terribly unhappy about something. Not that I could see his face well; just something about the way he stood. I came up behind him, and when he didn’t move, I asked politely if I could help him with something. He acted at first as though he didn’t hear me, and I thought perhaps he didn’t, over the noise of the wind, so I repeated myself, and I reached out to tap his shoulder, to get his attention, you know. But before I could touch him, he whirled suddenly round and pushed past me and walked off down the road.”
“Sounds a bit rude, but not very ghostly,” I observed, draining my glass. “What did he look like?”
“Big chap,” said Frank, frowning in recollection. “And a Scot, in complete Highland rig-out, complete to sporran and the most beautiful running-stag brooch on his plaid. I wanted to ask where he’d got it from, but he was off before I could.”
I went to the bureau and poured another drink. “Well, not so unusual an appearance for these parts, surely? I’ve seen men dressed like that in the village now and then.”
“Nooo…” Frank sounded doubtful. “No, it wasn’t his dress that was odd. But when he pushed past me, I could swear he was close enough that I should have felt him brush my sleeve—but I didn’t. And I was intrigued enough to turn round and watch him as he walked away. He walked down the Gereside Road, but when he’d almost reached the corner, he…disappeared. That’s when I began to feel a bit cold down the backbone.”
“Perhaps your attention was distracted for a second, and he just stepped aside into the shadows,” I suggested. “There are a lot of trees down near that corner.”
“I could swear I didn’t take my eyes off him for a moment,” muttered Frank. He looked up suddenly. “I know! I remember now why I thought he was so odd, though I didn’t realize it at the time.”
“What?” I was getting a bit tired of the ghost, and wanted to go on to more interesting matters, such as bed.
“The wind was cutting up like billy-o, but his drapes—his kilts and his plaid, you know—they didn’t move at all, except to the stir of his walking.”
We stared at each other. “Well,” I said finally, “that is a bit spooky.”
Frank shrugged and smiled suddenly, dismissing it. “At least I’ll have something to tell the Vicar next time I see him. Perhaps it’s a well-known local ghost, and he can give me its gory history.” He glanced at his watch. “But now I’d say it’s bedtime.”
“So it is,” I murmured.
I watched him in the mirror as he removed his shirt and reached for a hanger. Suddenly he paused in mid-button.
“Did you have many Scots in your charge, Claire?” he asked abruptly. “At the field hospital, or at Pembroke?”
“Of course,” I replied, somewhat puzzled. “There were quite a few of the Seaforths and Camerons through the field hospital at Amiens, and then a bit later, after Caen, we had a lot of the Gordons. Nice chaps, most of them. Very stoic about things generally, but terrible cowards about injections.” I smiled, remembering one in particular.