The woman stood a moment on the old drive and stared up at the boarded windows, a dark silhouette against the grey walls, then she turned her back on the house and went down to the blaze on the foreshore.
Figures moved in the smoky shadows, small awed groups, lingering after the drama of the auction. They drew back as she approached, a gaunt stranger in a black coat, and a whisper rustled amongst them. Piuthar Blake! She drew nearer to the flames. Bho Lunnainn… Gusts of wind formed small tornadoes of sparks, and the woman’s eyes followed them until they faded over the drained stretches of sand. Blake’s sister. From London. An outsider now. More of the house’s contents crashed onto the pyre—a broken dis- play cabinet from the study, an easel riddled with woodworm. The flames were suppressed for a moment, then leapt to consume the offering—and a way of life.
Earlier in the day there had been a macabre episode when the moth-eaten birds and animals had been brought out, their glassy eyes catching the flames, flashing a sharp reproach. A hotel owner had bought the stag’s head from the landing and the rarities had been sent to Edinburgh, while anyone who fancied a tatty guillemot as a souvenir had bid a few pennies. The rest, dusty and faded, had gone onto the bonfire, and she had watched them burn. But she had turned away when the once prized black-and-white diver from the dining room was brought out. It had been found in the back of an old boot cupboard, ravaged by mice, together with more paintings, wrapped in old hessian, too late for the auctioneer’s hammer. The paintings had shocked her: the tormented scenes and heavy brush-strokes exposed too painfully the anguish of her brother’s broken mind, and she had ordered that they too be destroyed. All except one, a watercolour which she remembered well, painted when his talent had been at its outstanding best, and she lingered over it while the others burned, then put it carefully to one side.
A figure approached her. “That’s the last of it, Mrs. Armstrong.” It was Donald. She turned and nodded, smiling slightly, and they stood together, the flames casting flickering shadows across their faces.
“Do you remember the last fire you and I sat beside?” she said, wistful now for other times, and watched his face until the memory found him.
“The day we all went to see the seal pups? Cooked fish on the beach?”
She gave an echo of her puckish smile, grateful that he re- membered. “A perfect day.” And she turned back to the fire. “I often think of it.” A smile brightened her face and was gone, and a gull circled them, gave a cry, and flew off across the machair. “And now there’s only you and me.” The flaming easel fell noisily into a void beneath it, sending up a spray of sparks. “I thought that day marked the beginning of everything, but the world tore itself apart instead—” And hell came to earth on Flanders fields.
She looked towards the foreshore, where they had pulled up the boats that day, empty now, then she glanced back at Donald, seeing in the middle-aged man the child who had once run shout- ing beside her as they splashed barefoot through sparkling pools left by the retreating tide, drenched in sunshine, the divisions of class overruled by the compact of childhood. But there had been other children too. Her brother, and his.
She strained her eyes across the strand, shedding the pain as she had taught herself to do, and looked instead at the vibrant Hebridean sky. Midsummer half-light. But when the last colour had drained from the west, she knew there would be a pale light in the east, and she clung to that thought, keeping her back turned resolutely on the house.
All day the men had worked to fix boarding across the windows, entombing the house, blinding it. The thud of their hammers still pounded in her head, but at least the job was done, and in the morning she would leave. “What will become of it, Donald?” The man beside her stayed silent. “At least the land is in good hands, and the farmhouse is now your own.” She brushed aside his renewed thanks. “A few papers to sign and then the matter is completed.”
The fire was almost sated now; it had burned quickly, fanned by gusts which blew unhindered across the two miles of open land. “I don’t suppose I’ll ever come here again.” Her voice was barely above a whisper, and her cheeks shone wet in the firelight. Donald moved quickly to hold her, turning her face into his shoulder as he might a child, not a woman who was almost old—and she smelt woodsmoke in the tweed and was comforted. A sharp crack, and a spark shot from the fire, igniting the dry grass, burning brightly for a while, then it died, leaving a charred and blackened patch. “I’ve been visiting ghosts, Donald.” He tightened the arm which held her, saying nothing. “And thank God it was you who found poor Theo, and brought him home.”
The spectators were dropping away, back across the strand or over the machair to their homes. “Leave the ghosts where they belong, Emily.” He released her and took her arm instead. “Come home with us now.”
They left the embers shimmering low on the foreshore, a bea- con in the encroaching darkness, and made their way down the well-worn track which linked the two houses. The woman paused just once and looked over her shoulder to where Muirlan House stood immense, dark, and sombre against the streaked lead and crimson of the western sky. He gave her a moment and then urged her forward, towards the glow which beamed a welcome from the windows of the factor’s farmhouse.
The first bone he had dismissed as dead sheep. There’d been others—ribs decaying amidst rabbit droppings and debris from the collapsing ceilings, or bleached vertebrae. But the next one was a long bone, and he held it, considering a moment, then rocked back on his heels.
This was no sheep.
He leant forward, interest sharpening, and scraped at the sandy soil, revealing more stained bones and recognising a tangle of threads from decaying textile. A rotting plank half-covered the remains. He tried to move it aside, but it stuck fast, then he straightened, aghast, as certainty came. The plank was an old floorboard, nailed down, and the bones were underneath it.
He stared down at the remains, thrown off-balance, then bent again, his mouth dry, and explored further until he came to the pale orb of the skull. Then he stopped.
The body had been placed on its side with the head hard up against a boulder in the foundations, the chin dropped to the chest, exposing the side of the skull. Exposing not a smooth roundness but a fissured depression, choked with sand. His mind roared as he reached forward to clear crumbs of mortar from the half-buried jaw, flicking an indifferent wood louse from the bared teeth, his hand trembling as he uncovered more of the crushed temple and the dark orbit of an eye. Then he straightened again and stood looking down, the trowel hanging loose in his hand.
It was the snapping of fast wing beats that broke the spell, and he ducked instinctively as a rock dove bolted from its roost in an alcove—bloody bird!—and he glanced at his watch, twisting it on his wrist. Out of time. The tide had turned, and the wind was strong. Storm coming. He quickly bent to cover the bones again, then grabbed his jacket and ran to the Land Rover.
The empty stretch of sand which, for a few short hours twice a day joined Muirlan Island to the main island, was disappearing fast. Had he cut it too fine? He revved the engine hard as the vehicle descended the track and he reached the point where track met sand. Then the battered vehicle sped across, through the shallow water, spray arching from its wheels as it rounded the rocky outcrop at the midway point, following the vanishing tracks which had marked his route across that afternoon. Swooping terns accompanied the incoming tide as it flooded the sandy stretches between the headlands, closing in behind him. He glanced in his rearview mirror at the grey bulk of the house silhouetted on the ridge, and gripped the steering wheel. A body, for Christ’s sake!
Then, as he tore across the wet sand, he glimpsed a figure in a long dark coat standing on a little headland, staring out towards the house. A woman? He looked more keenly. A stranger— The Land Rover plunged drunkenly into the last deep channel and he revved the engine again to pull up the other side, releasing his breath as he felt firm ground beneath the tyres. Then he swung the vehicle to the right, wiping damp palms on worn jeans, and headed down the single-track road, skirting the edge of the bay, to find Ruairidh.
As the last of next morning’s tide retreated across Muirlan Strand, seabirds swooped over the sand ripples, and the low morning sun turned the remaining pools to glittering silver.
Hetty had risen early and now followed the ebbing tide across the sand towards the island. At the halfway point, she stopped for a moment and looked around at the vast, empty bay, then continued on her way. The start of her route across had been marked by tyre tracks, but these had soon disappeared, washed away by last night’s tide. It didn’t matter, of course, because Muirlan House was clearly visible, outlined against the sky on a ridge ahead of her. Presumably it was safe just to head straight for it now that the tide had pulled back. The tyre marks reappeared as she drew closer to the island, and they rose from the beach to become a track, which she followed, stepping along the grassy strip between deep wheel ruts. Birdsong floated down on the soft air, freshened after last night’s storm, and she lifted her head to listen. Skylarks! When had she last heard skylarks?
Ahead lay the house, and she stopped where the track passed between two crumbling gateposts and stared at it. It was huge! Much bigger than she had imagined, somewhere between an oversized country vicarage and small baronial seat. And beyond it, lower down the ridge, she saw another house, a rambling two-storey farmhouse with outbuildings, which was, in fact, much more the sort of place she had been expecting.
She continued through the gateway up the old drive towards Muirlan House. A low wall encircled it, defining an apron of gar- den, the top stones laid to form a crenulation, but the wall had been breached in several places and stones lay tumbled in the long grasses. A side gate, which once gave access to pastureland, lay rusting away amongst the stones in a patch of nettles. As she neared the house, she saw the windows were boarded up, which gave the house a closed, unwelcoming air, as if refuting her right to be there. She breathed deep, summoning up her courage, and the breeze carried to her a sweet scent from a patch of blown wild roses which spread, abandoned, across a heap of broken trellis work. Cheered by this, she lifted her chin and walked up to the front door to find, as expected, that it was locked, secured by an iron bar and a businesslike padlock, recently oiled. The work of Mr. Forbes, no doubt.
But as she turned away, she saw that his precautions had not deterred determined intruders, who had simply ripped away the boarding from one of the ground-floor windows, ignoring the daubed warnings: danger! unsafe! keep out! yes, you! Fragments of shattered chimney pots and roof slates lay strewn amongst the clover and underlined the message.
But a sign on the adjacent window gave her a mighty pulse of excitement, spiked by disbelief.
And she felt a sudden need to get inside, to see for herself, now, at once—before excitement curdled to stark terror at the responsibility of ownership. Her eye fell on an old fish crate lying on a clump of thistles, and she glanced back at the broken boarding. Why not? She looked both ways, an urban instinct, but there was no one about, nothing to stop her. Besides—incredibly—the place was hers. She went quickly, before she could change her mind, fetched the crate and positioned it under the window, and then she was up, through, and over. Like Alice, she thought, as she landed with a crunch on broken glass and splintered wood, and dusted the grit from her hands. And how ridiculous, when the keys were with Mr. Forbes and she had only to ask.
And then, in the stillness of the abandoned house, she became a trespasser, intruding where she had no business, and her courage faltered. She stood motionless as the feeling grew within her, resting her hand on the stained wall, and she listened to the great silence around her. Her palm absorbed a chill dampness from the wall, and she withdrew it, wiping it against her coat, and she looked around at the empty room.
Not just empty. Wrecked.
* * *
On her journey north, she had pressed her face to the train window, telling herself that this trip would mark a watershed, a new beginning. This was where she would take back control and focus her energies. But somehow it had felt more like a flight, or an escape from something…and as the train passed through the built-up midlands and the industrial north, doubts had crowded in. Whatever was she doing? It was madness! She knew nothing about restoring houses, or about running the hotel which she planned would follow. Perhaps, after all, she should listen to Giles and sell, and then invest the money. But as the train passed through the Borders and slowed to meet the demands of the West High- land line, she became lost in the scenery and her mind steadied. At least when she’d seen the place she would know what to do. And so she had sat up straighter, putting aside a thriller plucked from the bookshop at Euston, and listened to the unfamiliar cadence of the attendant’s voice as he pushed the trolley through the swaying train, which now skirted the mountains, pressing northwards, offering glimpses of sea and far horizons.
After a night in Fort William, the self-proclaimed Gateway to the Highlands, she had picked up a hire car to drive the last hundred or so miles, crossing the bridge which now linked Skye to the mainland, and then boarded the ferry to the western isles. It had been a smooth crossing, and when they docked, most of the disembarking vehicles had turned towards the village, but her directions were to continue straight on, away from the small harbour community, where the road had soon dwindled to a single strip of potholed tarmac. It crossed a desolate landscape of moorland and peat bog, where low roofless ruins stood stark beside small grey lochs and streams. Returning to the village had begun to seem an attractive option until, from the top of the next rise, she had seen a fringe of coastline and a greener landscape of small fields with grazing cattle and sheep, and had felt a surge of delight.
The cottage she had rented for the week had been a bit further on, and when she got there she’d left the car and walked out onto a spur of land and stood looking across a vast expanse of drained sand. So there it was: Muirlan Strand. And there was the island, as her grandmother had described it, on the edge of the world, and there, standing tall on a ridge, she had seen the house itself, the painter’s eyrie, silhouetted against the complex hues of the western sky.
The wind had gusted fitfully around her, snatching the cry of a gull. Six hundred miles she’d covered these last two days, but that moment had made it all worthwhile. And then the sound of an engine had shattered the silence, and she had seen a Land Rover racing across the strand towards her, sending up fans of spray on either side. It had rocked through a deep channel, climbed up the foreshore from the beach, then turned onto the road and was gone, leaving behind a deeper silence broken only by the bird’s cry, and the wind.
But that was last night.
In that low evening glow, Muirlan House had had a mystical quality, but in the sharper light of morning, the illusion collapsed, and its true state was revealed. She took a step forward, placing her feet carefully, and looked up at falling ceilings and green damp- stained walls, where fractured plaster exposed rotting laths. Oh Lord, what had she got herself into? An acrid stench of sheep dung rose from the floor as she made her way gingerly to the hall, her eye caught by a line of rusting wires straggling along the plaster coving to connect with long-vanished bells. A wide staircase had once curved elegantly to a half-landing, lit by a glass roof-light, but this was now open to the elements and, through the jagged hole, she could see broken roof beams, angled like the misaligned spars of a wrecked ship. Clouds drifted past. Dear God! Splintered stair treads and drunken banisters led to the second floor, but there was no way she was going to trust them.
She had been warned, she reminded herself, as she peered into dark rooms opening off the hall, rooms where the window boarding remained intact. The lawyer acting as her grandmother’s executor had told her the place had been empty for many years and would need work. But she hadn’t expected it to be just a shell, pillaged and empty.
Returning to the first room, dry mouthed, she had to fight a rising panic. Like it or not, all this was now her responsibility. She’d better go and find Ruairidh Forbes, and then do some hard think- ing. She had a knee on the windowsill preparing to climb out when she heard an engine again and leant out to see a Land Rover pulling up the foreshore towards the house. It looked like the one she’d watched racing the tide the night before—a farmer, perhaps, come to check on grazing livestock.
She pulled back to avoid being seen. Perhaps there was another way out? Back in the hall, she saw a passageway to the rear and started towards it, but then she saw a slit of daylight through one of the doors off to the right and turned to investigate.
She found it was coming not from the room itself but from some sort of small annex built on, so she went through and then stopped at the doorway of a little room. It too was boarded up, and the light was coming from a hole in the sloping roof through which it lit a wheelbarrow, a spade, and recently disturbed ground covered by planks and boarding. What on earth was going on?
And then the hammering started.
She turned her head at the sound. It must be coming from out- doors, close by. But what—? Then she saw that the light from the hall behind her had disappeared and remembered the unboarded window. She rushed back across the hall, shouting out, tripping in her haste, and began banging with her fists on newly fixed plywood which now covered her escape.
The hammering stopped abruptly, she heard a curse, and then the sound of nails being wrenched out. The boarding shifted, and she found herself face-to-face with a man with dark hair and angry eyes.
“Can’t you read, for Christ’s sake?” He rested the boarding against the wall, kicked the fish crate back into position under the window, and jerked his head. “Out.” And he stood back, offering no assistance, watching her clamber, wrong-footed, back across the ledge.
“Wait. Let me explain. I’m not trespassing, I—”Her jeans caught on a protruding nail and tore. Damn. “Look, it’s really alright—”
The man was not listening, and as soon as her feet touched the ground he tossed the fish crate back into the thistles and lifted the boarding again. “There’s nothing left to steal in there anyway.”
“Steal? No! You misunderstand. This is my—” Why was that so difficult to say? This is my house. She winced as staccato hammering drowned out her words, but then the man seemed to catch their meaning, and he stopped and looked over his shoulder at her. He lowered his arm, his eyes narrowing, and she found herself being scrutinised with a disconcerting intensity. His lean face bore the signs of an outdoor life, and beneath the old woollen jersey she sensed physical strength. “Are you Ruairidh Forbes?” she asked, struggling to regain some measure of control. What a start.
“No.” The man continued his inspection. Then: “So why go through the window? Haven’t you got keys?”
“Not yet. He has them. Mr. Forbes, that is—” She dug her nails into her palm. The man clearly thought her a fool, damn him. “I’m about to go and call on him.”
But he was now looking past her, over her shoulder, back to- wards the strand, and she saw his expression lighten. “No need,” he said. “He’s come to call on you.”
She turned to see that another vehicle, an ancient Saab, was coming up the track towards them. The driver halted below the house, perhaps not wanting to risk the low-slung vehicle on the rutted track. He slammed the car door and came towards them, followed by a black-and-white collie. “Right on cue,” said the first man, leaning back against the Land Rover, his eyes alive with amusement. “Morning, Ruairidh. Let me introduce Muirlan House’s new mistress. I’ve just evicted her.”
His tone made her flush, but the newcomer looked at her with sharp interest and came forward. “Harriet Deveraux? I’d no idea,” he said, and held out his hand.
“Hetty,” she said, taking it.
He looked about forty, several years older than the first man, a few stone heavier and, on first showing, a damn sight nicer. “Had you written again?”
She shook her head. “A spur-of-the-moment decision.” Triggered, as it had been, by an intense desire to leave London. And Giles— “I was going to wait until June when I had more time.”
He held onto her hand a moment, then relinquished it. “I’d have met the ferry had I known. Have you somewhere to stay?”
“Yes. Just over there.” She gestured across the sand towards the cottage.
“Dùghall’s place? Well, well . . .”
He lowered his bushy eyebrows to cover a glance towards the other man who, she knew, was continuing to stare at her. But he now stepped forward and put out his hand. “James Cameron.” She took it and waited for an apology. “You took a risk, you know, going in there.” He turned to put his tools back in the Land Rover and described their encounter to the newcomer with ill-concealed amusement, adding, “The place is a death trap.”
No apology, then.
Ruairidh Forbes shook his head with kindly concern. “Dear oh dear! What a welcome.”
“If something had fallen on you, it’d be your—”He now glanced at the other man and stopped midsentence. “You’ll have to tell her, Ruairidh.” He shut the back of the Land Rover and leant against it again, arms folded. “Sooner or later.”
The other man looked unhappy. “Aye. I know.” And as he told her, she understood why.
“Human remains?” she said, when he had finished. Whatever else she had expected, it had not included this. “Who? Do you know?”
“No idea. Just bones. You see, James only found them yesterday, and we couldn’t get back across until now, so I’ve not seen them. I’ll have a quick look, then contact my colleagues on the mainland.” She nodded dumbly, thinking that when she’d learned that her key holder was a part-time police officer she hadn’t expected to need his professional services.
“A tramp, perhaps?” she ventured, a derelict who’d taken shelter, or drunk himself to death. Surely no one could actually get trapped inside, could they? Unless— Oh God. “Was it… Did something fall on—?”Her mind raced towards negligence claims and lawsuits. She’d had ownership for less than a couple of months, but what would her position be?
“The corpse was stashed under the floorboards, so no.” James Cameron was still slouched against the Land Rover, watching her, and the significance of his words took a moment to hit her.
“Under the floorboards?” He nodded.
The policeman returned her another apologetic look. “A bad business,” he said, and gestured to the Saab. “Why don’t you sit in the car, miss, while we take a look?”
She stood, staring back at him, then shook her head quickly. “No. I’ll come. I’d better see—”
James Cameron straightened and produced hard hats from the back of the Land Rover, shutting Ruairidh’s dog inside the vehicle, and went to unlock the heavy padlock on the front door. He stood aside as she made a more conventional entrance, then followed her in. Dazed still, she paused just inside, and in that instant she had a fleeting image of past splendour, seen through sunlit shafts of suspended dust… But the men were waiting for her.
James went on ahead, and Ruairidh ushered her through to the little annex where she had seen the wheelbarrow and tools. James was crouched beside them, his dark hair falling forward as he pulled aside the plastic sheet which was covering the disturbed ground.
They went and stood beside him, and looked down at pale bones lit from above, at the damaged skull lying on its side in a parody of sleep, the empty eye socket forlorn and sorrowful. Hetty felt a tightening in her chest. A heavy pall seemed to hang in the air, and it all felt unreal, and wrong. Dreadfully wrong.
“Poor devil,” the policeman said, crouching down. “A bad spot that, just above the temple.”
Only the upper part of the skeleton was visible, and James Cameron was scraping gently with a penknife at the soil and mortar which framed the skull. “See what I meant? It looks as if the bedding material was packed around and on top of the body, and then the floorboards were laid on top.”
The scene was almost unimaginable.
“To have been buried there, and no one knowing.” Her words fell into a pool of silence.
“Someone knew,” said Ruairidh after a moment, then he straightened, dusting his hands together. “Let’s cover them up again, Jamie.”
She stepped aside to give them space, but almost immediately she heard the younger man exclaim, and she turned back to see him pointing with the tip of his knife blade at something glinting amongst the sand and rubble. Ruairidh crouched again. “Can you free it?” he asked, and they watched as James scratched the sandy soil away to reveal an oval locket strung on a gold chain. “Is it a woman, then?” The policeman’s voice was grim. Clouds covered the sun, dimming the light, and Hetty looked up through the broken roof. A woman?
“An expensive piece.” James turned the locket over and rubbed his thumb across a scrolling pattern of initials. “What is it? BJS, SJB? Can’t tell when they’re all on top of each other. Do I open it?” He looked across at the other man, who hesitated a moment and then nodded. He slid the blade between the two halves of the locket.
Inside lay a curl of hair, and underneath it, a feather. Nothing else. No further inscription, no picture, just a lock of hair tied with thin twine and the feather, reduced to little more than a few spines and dust.