44 Scotland Street: A meeting with Marchmont

Illustration by Iain Macintosh
Illustration by Iain Macintosh
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The Lord Provost’s party in the City Chambers was in full swing when Angus Lordie and ­Domenica Macdonald met the Duke of Johannesburg. The Duke was wearing a lightweight linen suit, a red neckerchief, and a pair of brown suede brogues. He had reminded Angus of their previous meeting, which was at a whisky nosing conducted by the Duke himself, an authority on the subject and author, under a nom de plume or, as he put it, a nom de malt, of several books on the whiskies of Scotland.

The Lord Provost’s party in the City Chambers was in full swing when Angus Lordie and ­Domenica Macdonald met the Duke of Johannesburg. The Duke was wearing a lightweight linen suit, a red neckerchief, and a pair of brown suede brogues. He had reminded Angus of their previous meeting, which was at a whisky nosing conducted by the Duke himself, an authority on the subject and author, under a nom de plume or, as he put it, a nom de malt, of several books on the whiskies of Scotland.

Angus had forgotten the occasion but, prompted by the Duke, now remembered it. “We had some very peaty island malts, as I recall,” he said. “You used some colourful terms to describe them.”

The Duke laughed. “Our whisky-nosing terminology is much less pretentious than our dear colleagues in the wine business,” he said. “They’re always going on about things being very agreeable and flinty and so on. They actually don’t have all that many terms to use, anyway. Once you’ve said something tastes of blackcurrant, you’ve said it all.”

“I think you described one of the whiskies as tasting of diesel oil,” said Angus. “And another reminded you of the leathery smell of an old Rover car’s interior.”

“Very probably,” said the Duke. “We call a spade a spade in the whisky business.” He took a sip of his host’s wine, and made a face. Then he leaned forward to whisper a confidence to Angus. “Would you fancy a pukka drink? I mean an actual dram …?

Angus smiled. “Is there any? You never see whisky on these occasions?”

The Duke patted the pocket of his jacket. “I have a hip flask to hand,” he said. “Never go anywhere without it. Be prepared! As Baden Powell used to say to the boys. Purely for emergency use, you understand, but I think this counts as an emergency.”

He turned to Domenica. “Mrs Lordie? Would you care for a dram too?”

Domenica declined. She was not a whisky drinker. “You go ahead,” she said to Angus.

The Duke fished a small silver hip-flask out of his pocket, along with two small silver beakers engraved with a coat of arms. He poured a dram into each, replaced the hip-flask, and raised his beaker in toast. “Slàinte!” Angus reciprocated.

“This is actually rather a special whisky,” said the Duke. “They asked me to write some tasting notes for them. What do you think of it?”

Angus took a sip of the whisky. “Peppery?” he said.

The Duke nodded. “Yes, a good amount of pepper. There’s a prickliness, I’d say.”

“What is it?” asked Angus.

The Duke drew him aside. Dom­enica had now drifted off to make conversation with somebody she had spotted in a knot of people near the door, leaving Angus and the Duke together.

“This,” he whispered, “happens to be the oldest casked whisky in Scotland. 1939, would you believe, and they’re only now getting ready to bottle it. How about that, Angus – 1939?”

Angus was thinking. “Do you know that poem by Auden? September 1, 1939? The one that begins with his sitting in a bar in New York and reflecting on – what did he call it? – the low dishonest decade?”

The Duke did. “He disowned it, didn’t he? The poem, that is – not the world.”

“He did,” said Angus. ‘He thought it was meretricious. He didn’t like political posturing.”

The Duke made a face. “Who does? People are so keen to wear their heart on their sleeve and …” He trailed off, peering into the far corner of the room. Angus followed his gaze.

“That chap over there,” whispered the Duke. “His face looks vaguely familiar. You don’t know who he is?”

Angus followed the Duke’s gaze. A well-groomed man, wearing a light brown tweed jacket, was talking to a small circle of guests. “That’s Adam Bruce.”

The Duke frowned. “Have I met him? I think I have, but I can’t quite place him.”

“He’s Marchmont.”

“Marchmont?” Lives in Marchmont?”

Angus shook his head. “No, Marchmont Herald. He’s one of the Lord Lyon’s men. He used to be Unicorn Pursuivant, but now he’s Marchmont. He’s pretty knowledgeable on heraldic matters.” Angus paused. “In fact, I think I saw Unicorn here as well. Somewhere or other …” He looked about the room and then pointed to a far corner of the gathering. “Yes, Unicorn’s over there.”

The mention of these ancient heraldic offices would have caused no more than slight interest in most circumstances, but the effect on the Duke of Johannesburg was profound. The confident, cheerful demeanour, exemplified in the red neckerchief, became almost immediately furtive, the sanguine complexion drained of colour.

“The Lord Lyon’s men …” stuttered the Duke.

“They’re in plain clothes,” observed Angus. “No tabards or anything like that. Obviously not on duty – not looking for any false display of arms or anything like that.”

The Duke was silent. Angus noticed that he was looking towards the door, as if calculating the distance between it and himself.

“Are you feeling all right?” asked Angus.

At first, the Duke seemed almost too preoccupied to answer. But then he turned to Angus and said, “Look, you do know, don’t you, that I’m not quite the real McCoy? You know that, don’t you?”

Angus shrugged. “I’d heard something said in the Scottish Arts Club. Somebody said your claim was a bit dodgy …”

“Not a bit dodgy – not recognised by Lyon at all, I’m sorry to say. Morally, yes, but not strictly speaking in, how shall we put it, a legally watertight sense. You know how pedantic some people can be.”

Angus laughed. “I wouldn’t worry, if I were you. The Lord Lyon and his people have got far better things to do than chase after people calling themselves this or that.”

“Better things to do?” said the Duke. “Such as?”

“Oh, I don’t know,’ said Angus. “They keep quite busy, I believe.”

It was at this moment that the Marchmont Herald looked across the room. The Duke stiffened, reaching for Angus’s forearm. “Oh no,” he muttered. “He’s seen me.”

Angus looked across the room. At first he had doubted the Duke, but now he saw that Marchmont was indeed looking in his companion’s direction – and frowning.

The Duke’s grip on Angus’ forearm tightened. “Look,” he whispered, “I’m going to have to make myself scarce. Would you mind terribly helping me? It’ll look far less suspicious if the two of us make for the door – deeply engaged in conversation about something. If I scarper by myself, they’ll think that … well, they’ll think I’m scarpering.”

Angus could hardly refuse, and he accompanied the Duke as he began to sidle towards the door. One or two people, recognising the Duke on his way out, tried to engage him in conversation, but were quietly but firmly fobbed off.

“Terribly sorry,” muttered the Duke. “Another engagement. How nice to see you.”

They reached the door, and Angus turned round.

“Marchmont’s following us,” he said to the Duke. “What now?”

© 2015 Alexander McCall Smith

• Alexander McCall Smith welcomes comments from readers. Write to him c/o The Editor, The Scotsman, Level 7, Orchard Brae House, 30 Queensferry Road, Edinburgh, EH4 2HS or via e-mail at scotlandstreet@scotsman.com.