the main avenue below the big house. I could only follow.
âSunday afternoon.â He calmed me as we approached the shrubbery bordering the drive. âThere wonât be a soul about.â
âBut look!â I pointed to the lion standard above the house. âThe flagâs up. Sheâs there!â
âProbably having an after-dinner snooze.â
He had barely spoken when, emerging from behind a clump of rhododendrons, we almost collided with a short, plump figure in a light muslin dress who, from the shade of her lace-edged parasol, stared at us in shocked surprise. I almost fainted. It was her. I wanted to bolt, but my legs refused their function. Father, on the other hand, apart from an involuntary start and a momentary loss of his natural colour, was managing to conceal his discomposure. He removed his hat and bowed.
âYour ladyship.â He paused and gave a slight cough. I knew he was racking his brains as to how he could get us out of this frightful disaster. âI trust you wonât regard this as an intrusion. If I may explain â¦â
âYe may,â came the reply in the broadest Scots, mingling suspicion with extreme displeasure. âWhitâs your wull in ma policies?â
âGladly,â Father exclaimed, rather pointlessly, and coughed again. Then, by some sleight of hand and without disturbing the folds of his cape, he produced one of his business cards from his inside breast pocket. âMadam, if I may introduce myself,â he said, politely yet winningly, pressing the card on the little woman. She took no notice of it whatsoever. â The fact is that my partner, Mynheer Hagemann of Rotterdam â¦ you see his name on my card â¦ is by way of being something of a horticulturist. A Dutchman, you understand they are all gardeners there. When in conversation the other day I chanced to mention your famous collection of orchids he asked, indeed begged me, to seek an appointment for him. He expects to be in Winton some time next month. And so, if you could be so gracious â¦â He broke off.
Silence. Lady Whaleboneâs gaze, passing from one to the other, had come to rest on me and in her eyes I saw a fateful recognition. Finally she put on her pince-nez, suspended from her neck by a fine gold chain, and studied the card.
âHagemannâs Royal Dutch Yeast.â Her eyes again sought mine. âA close relation of the staff of life.â
âYes, madam,â Father acknowledged with the modesty and assurance of one who has made his case good. Standing easily, almost playfully, he was quite unconscious of the mysterious yet steady drip, drip of water which was already forming a sizeable pool exactly between his feet. My heart sank. Had she seen it? And what in heavenâs name would she make of it?
âSo your partner is interested in orchids.â She meditated. âI thocht the Dutch grew only tulips.â
âCertainly, tulips, mâam. Fields of them. But orchids also.â
The ghost of a smile playing around Lady Meikleâs lips gave me hope. Alas, it was illusory.
âCome awaâ then.â She spoke with decision. âIâll show ye my collection and ye can tell your fancy Mynheer all about it.â
âBut mâam, I only hoped for an appointment,â Father protested. âWe could not think of deranging you on a Sunday. â
âThe better the day, my dear sir, the better the deed. Indeed, I insist. Iâm rather interested to jalouse how both of the two of ye will react to my orchids.â
Father, for the first time, looked thoroughly taken aback, at a loss for words. But there was no escape. We were led by our cicerone up the avenue, along the terrace that fronted the imposing mansion and into the conservatory, a great high Victorian erection of glass and ornate white-painted ironwork that adjoined the far wing of the house. We entered this crystal palace through double