Talla Dileas, near Loch Chon, The Trossachs of the Scottish Highlands
They needed money. Banknotes or coin, it mattered not, just so long as there was plenty of it.
All seven Lockharts agreed that they had no choice but to return to England and attempt to find the ancient family treasure, a solid gold beastie with ruby eyes, to stave off certain ruin. They would not, however, dispatch Liam to fetch it.
That had been their first blunder -- Liam had returned from London with a woman and a bonny young lass. But not the beastie.
No, this time, Liam's younger -- and dandier -- brother, Grif, would go.
Yet Aila, the lady of Lockhart, had reservations about a second attempt at retrieving the beastie. "'Tis certain disaster," she said as the family reviewed their latest scheme at the supper table. "We tempt fate, as we've no' the slightest notion where the beastie may be. We know nothing other than Lady Battenkirk took the blasted thing!"
"And gave it to Amelia," Ellie, Liam's bride, pleasantly reminded the lot of them.
Everyone paused to look at Ellie as she blithely continued her meal.
That was because Ellie had stolen the beastie from beneath Liam's nose, then sold the priceless ornamental statue for a paltry amount to a Londoner she'd encountered in a small shop of knickknacks and household wares in Cambridge. Now, the only thing they knew for certain was that the Londoner's name was Lady Battenkirk, and that Lady Battenkirk had said at the time of purchase that she intended to give the beastie to her friend Amelia. That was it -- the sum total of what they knew about the precious statue. Everything else was wildly imaginative conjecture.
But Grif was confident in his ability to bring the beastie home, and affectionately squeezed his mother's hand. "Liam went as a soldier, no' a gentleman, like me. He was ill-suited to acquaint himself with society, whereas I am perfect for it."
"Society!" Liam muttered. "Ye can have the bloody lot of them!"
Liam, a captain in the Highland Regiments, was, kindly speaking, a little rough around the edges. And while Grif could be just as rough if push came to shove (he was, after all, born and bred a Highlander), he fancied the life of a high-society gentleman, a desire that had been firmly entrenched after two years of university in Edinburgh.
That had been, by his measure, an eternity ago, when the family had means, before they began to buy out the tenants who could no longer support Talla Dileas, the remote family estate in the Highlands near Loch Chon. When Grif returned home five years ago, it was to a different place, where crofter's cottages stood empty and the old mansion had begun to fall into a state of disrepair. The situation had only worsened -- not a fortnight past, the roof over the original kitchen had collapsed, and they could do nothing but board it up.
Grif missed his former life on Charlotte Square, where he and his lifelong best friend, Hugh MacAlister -- who was seated across from him now, trying gamely to swallow the stuff in his bowl -- had been the most popular of the young gentlemen vying for the attentions of the debutantes. The prospect of London -- London! -- was perfect for a young man such as himself.
"Aye, Aila, what choice do we have, then?" Carson, the laird of Lockhart, asked wearily. "We've no tenants to pay rents, the cattle are so few in number as to be laughable, and we lose money each day. All around us are sheep that graze the Highlands much easier than the blessed cattle. If we donna do something rather soon, the sheep will put us in debtors' prison, they will."
He spoke true. For all their misgivings, one fact remained indisputable -- the beastie, that ancient piece of valuable art, the one thing that the English and Scottish Lockharts had continued to feud over the last several hundred years (in spite of the family chronicles showing quite clearly that it rightfully belonged to the Scottish Lockharts, thank you), was the key to their survival. Only it had been stolen back and forth for centuries, and their damnable English cousins had last pilfered it around the time of the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Since then, it had languished in a fine London salon, a trophy for the English Lockharts.
But the English Lockharts were quite wealthy. They didn't need it. The Scottish Lockharts, on the other hand, needed it desperately.
"Ye have me word," Grif said to his mother, "that I'll no' skip merrily to London and hie meself home again with a wife and bairn -- "
"I beg your pardon!" Ellie interjected, as she was the wife Liam had hied himself home with, along with her daughter, Natalie.
"Forgive me, Ellie," Grif said, turning from his mother and instantly grabbing Ellie's hand and bringing her knuckles to his lips. "Ye know I adore ye, but ye're no' exactly what we had hoped for, are ye now?"
"Oh no -- Liam has made it perfectly clear that I'm not," she admitted cheerfully.
"But Grandfather says we are much better than that old beastie," Natalie sniffed, earning a tweak of her cheek from Carson.
"Of course ye are, Nattie," Grif quickly reassured her. "And we'd no' have it any other way...but if only ye'd come to us without selling the beastie -- "
"Honestly, Grif!" This interruption from Mared, the Lockharts' only daughter. "Ellie's atoned for it, has she no'? She single-handedly turned ye into a gentleman -- "
"I beg yer pardon -- I was a gentleman long before our Ellie walked through this door, if ye please!"
"Aye, but ye canna deny she's taught ye to dance and to walk and to talk like a proper English gentleman, as well as taught ye all their customs!"
"Aye, she has, indeed," Grif grudgingly admitted.
"And the letters of introduction she's penned for ye -- why, they're brilliant, they are!"
"Thank you," Ellie said, clearly pleased.
"Ye think it is easy, then, to introduce Griffin MacAulay, laird of Ardencaple?" Mared demanded.
"That name..." Hugh said thoughtfully. "I donna understand why ye willna go as yerself, Grif. What harm can come of it? It all seems a wee bit complicated."
"Ach, now," Liam said gruffly. "Is it no' as plain as the nose on yer face, then, MacAlister? Look here, I traveled to London and let it be known that I was a disgruntled outcast from the Scottish Lockharts, and thereby managed to ingratiate meself to our cousin Nigel. But then the beastie was stolen, and before I could set it all to rights, I was forced to depart abruptly" -- that remark prompted everyone to look at Ellie again, who colored slightly -- "so we canna be entirely certain if the English Lockharts know the beastie is even missing, can we now? And if they do know she's missing, have they connected her disappearance to me? Or worse, perhaps they might be prodded into making a connection if they discover me very own brother in London. 'Tis all quite simple, lad!"
But Hugh shook his head in confusion. "Aye...but have ye no' forgotten one thing, Liam? Grif looks like ye! How can he hide it?"
"He's right," Aila agreed, looking at her son Grif. "If Nigel Lockhart lays eyes on ye, he might very well recognize Liam in ye."
Liam snorted at that. "No, Mother, Cousin Nigel is a bloody sot. He'd no' recognize his own toe without help, I'd wager. And there is difference enough between us -- if Grif has a different name, Cousin Nigel will no' put it all together. Of that I'm bloody certain."
"I'd no' be so certain," Aila said warily. "Ye know what they say of the beastie -- she'll 'slip through the fingers of a Scot, for she's English at heart.'"
"Hogwash," Carson said. "I put no more stock in that than I do Mared's curse," he said, waving his hand dismissively at his daughter.
Mared colored instantly and stole a sheepish glance at Hugh, embarrassed by the medieval curse, which stemmed from the tragedy of the condemned first lady of Lockhart. The daughter of that unfortunate woman was cursed with her mother's shame and her father's hatred, and took her own life in 1454. Since then, and for reasons that were no longer clear, it was said that no daughter of a Lockhart would ever marry until she looked into the belly of the beast -- or faced the devil, as it were. And it was true that no daughter had ever married -- some were never offered for, and those who did receive offers died or watched their lovers die before a betrothal could take place. Wiser heads argued that the deaths were merely a coincidence, the result of human carelessness. But most in and around these lochs believed the deaths were the work of the diabhal, the devil himself, and that Mared, the first daughter born to a Lockhart in almost one hundred years, was cursed.
"This plan is really much better than the last, Mother," Mared said now, before Carson could say more about the curse. "And we've thought it all through, have we no'?"
They had indeed carefully thought it through. They knew that Grif could only succeed in finding the beastie if he had money, had entry into society, and a place to reside that would convince the haute ton that he was legitimate, even if he had assumed a false and rather lofty identify.
"And all the obstacles have been resolved, have they no'?" Mared continued.
No one could dispute it -- Mared and Griffin had pored over old books and family trees until they finally landed on the fictitious Lord Griffin MacAulay, laird of Ardencaple, a title that was passed to the duke of Argyll one hundred years prior and was later abolished by the duke as redundant. There was nothing left of Ardencaple now save a few crofters. "Ardencaple. Who could possibly know that old name?" Grif had laughed.
Once his identity was established, Liam and Ellie took over, schooling Grif daily on the habits and haunts of London society and many social protocols. They enlisted Dudley, the Lockharts' longtime butler-cum-manservant-cum-groom-cum-gardener to accompany Grif and lend credibility to his being a lord.
But it was the wee lass Natalie who had handed them a bit of a quandary one day when she remarked, from amid her collection of Mared's old dolls, "I think he must have a valet if he is to be a lord."
They'd all stopped talking at once and stared in horror at the lass. "Dear God, I had forgotten," Ellie muttered.
Carson came up with a brilliant solution, and enlisted Hugh, the son of his oldest and dearest friend, Ian MacAlister, to play the role of Grif's valet in exchange for a small percentage of what the beastie might bring. Not only was Hugh willing to pose as Grif's valet, he also knew of a place they might take up residence. Hugh's maternal grandmother, Lady Dalkeith, had married an Englishman after her husband died, and he knew his grandmother's house on Cavendish Street sat vacant and unattended while she accompanied her husband to France every summer.
The Lockharts celebrated with several tots of Highland whiskey, for not only had they access to a vacant house in London for several months, but proper letters of introduction, expertly fabricated by Ellie.
That left them with one last hurdle -- money. As the Lockharts had scraped together all they had to send Liam to London, their pockets were now decidedly empty. But Grif had an idea. "I think we've no other option, then, but to ask Payton for a small loan," he suggested. "He's the only one with money in these parts."
"Traitor," Mared hissed.
"Payton Douglas?" Hugh asked.
"Bloody Douglas, that's who," Carson said, as he was wont to do anytime the name Douglas came up, and then instantly softened. "Aye, he'd be a Douglas, but a decent sort, if there's such a thing."
"He's been right clever," Grif said carefully, knowing how the subject rankled his father. "The sheep have served him well, and I hear he plans a distillery. He's no' an idiot, that one," he said, and added, for Hugh's benefit, "He's suggested an arrangement of lands between us, he has -- one that would benefit both Lockhart and Douglas."
"Ach, ye're a fool, Grif!" Mared said instantly with a dismissive wave of her hand. "He's a Douglas! Lockhart and Douglas have never seen eye to eye!"
"Aye," Liam said on a weary sigh, "but Grif is right. Douglas is our only hope."
"Then Mared must ask him," Aila said. "He esteems her greatly and always has."
"Mother!" Mared cried. "I'd rather be drawn and -- "
"Quartered!" Aila exclaimed with her. "I know, I know, mo ghraidh. But it doesna alter the fact that he's sweet for ye -- although God knows why, the way ye treat the poor soul. Yet he might be favorably inclined to make a small loan to yer father...if ye were to ask him nicely."
With a moan, Mared covered her face with her hands.
"There now," Liam said kindly. "It's no' as if ye must kiss him," he said, and he and Grif laughed roundly at her muffled cry.
Copyright © 2005 by Dinah Dinwiddie