(If you missed part 1 and want to catch up click here.)
“Welcome to my ancestral home, Mr Houses, and you, Dr Witless! I cannot tell you how relieved I am that you are finally here. Things have got worse since I wrote you – I’m at my wit’s end!”
We didn’t mention that we were equally relieved to discover that the Lady Laird spoke perfect English, but with a pleasant lilt that revealed her Highland origins. Ah, the benefits of a fine English education – even the most savage of peoples can be given a veneer of civilisation!
Having had supper, we were now settled in the grand drawing room of the castle, a large room with doors on three sides. Despite the generous size of the room, it was crowded – books covered every shelf and lay in tottering piles on every surface, and in heaps around the floor. It looked as if some effort had been made at an earlier period to organise them, but it was clear that the attempt had now been abandoned. Big books, little books, old books, new books, even some strange device that, on pressing a button, sprang to life and showed the page of a book on a glass slide! Some mysterious kind of telescopic instrument, I surmised.
Houses said “I deduce you are an avid reader, Lady McFan.”
“Please call me Effie, Mr Houses. Yes, indeed, I always have been since a young child.”
“Good Lord, Houses!” I cried in astonishment. “How in heaven’s name did you deduce that?”
Houses preened a little. “Oh, Witless, surely by now you know my methods. Effie here has the refined, glowing complexion and shining, intelligent eyes that only the true reader ever possesses. That, plus the piles of books.”
“How absurdly simple!” I cried, and for some reason a grimace crossed my friend’s face.
“Quite.” He turned to our client. “Now, Effie, please explain why you have asked us to come here. Very simply, if you don’t mind, since Dr Witless will be listening.”
“It’s the books, Mr Houses! The books!” And she proceeded to tell us her story. For many years, Lady McFan had been adding gradually to the collection of books she had inherited from her ancestors. She would acquire half a dozen or so, read them and add them to her shelves. But suddenly, several months ago, she noticed that the little pile of unread books seemed to be growing larger. And larger. And larger. It soon became impossible for her to read them quickly enough to shelve them before another pile would appear. Every night, she would count the books and every morning she would discover there were three or four more than the night before.
“I don’t order them, Mr Houses, I’m sure I don’t! They just… appear! Oh, please help me! Every cupboard is full of books; I’ve had to put the horses up in a hotel so I could turn the stables into extra library space; the ghost of the Headless Lady has had to move out of the attic to make room for books, and is now wandering the Castle moaning and groaning day and night, and being downright depressing! I’ve even taken to locking all three doors to this room overnight, but still they arrive, always placed just here, on this side table. Am I mad, Mr Houses? Or can you find an explanation and put a stop to this horror?”
She sent a glance of such piteous pleading from her fine blue eyes that even the hardened heart of Houses must surely have been touched. If I weren’t a happily married man, I may well have proposed on the spot.
Houses sat back, closed his eyes and steepled his fingers. Lady McFan and I sat in breathless silence, waiting for that great brain to work its magic. Houses snored gently. I tactfully kicked his ankle. His gimlet eyes opened and pierced me like… well, like a gimlet.
“Is there anyone else in the house overnight, Effie?” he inquired incisively.
“Only the servants, but they’ve all been with my family for generations and are members of the Clan. I trust them with my life. And Lady Fancyboots, my cousin and oldest friend, has been staying here for some months, having spent all her little inheritance on fine chocolate, and being now quite destitute, were it not for my exceeding generosity.”
“Your cousin, you say?”
“Yes, we’re the two last remaining members of the family, so have always been close, even though I inherited fabulous wealth and she only got £100 and Grannie McFan’s recipe for black bun. Some people may have been resentful, but not Lady Fancyboots! She has remained a staunch friend.”
“That portrait,” Houses indicated a full-length picture that hung above the mantel, of a fine-looking old gentleman in what I was beginning to realise must be the traditional dress for the savage natives of these wild regions.
“He is your father?”
Lady McFan assented.
“He bears a striking resemblance to Wullie the Piper, wouldn’t you agree, Witless?” remarked Houses.
Lady McFan blushed gently.
“All the clan are related to one another, Mr House. Furthermore, my father was…,” she cleared her throat delicately, “fond of Wullie’s mother, a maidservant here for many years before her death.”
A gleam had come into Houses’ eyes during this conversation, and he now rubbed his hands, chuckling. “Well, I have high hopes that we may be able to get to the root of your little trouble,” he said. “And now, could I trouble you for some chocolate cake?”
* * * * * * *
To be continued… (only one more, I promise!)