“Oh, ye gods,” groaned Daphne, glancing down the list which Roxy had drawn from her capacious handbag, “this, this inventory of the people you met earlier in the vicinity of the High Street, has almost as many names as the Inverary and Inverurie Caber Tossing Classes I attended as a stripling - how we can possibly narrow it down, when it contains Doctors of Law from the Court of Session, Dustmen from Duddingston, Organ-grinders from Portobello, Ophthalmologists from Port Seton. Mince-meat makers from Easter Road and Moguls (or are they Oligarchs) from Cramond, I don't know," at which Maude interjected with a cry of “Piffle!” for she had spotted a unique contradiction in the nomenclatura mentioned by Daphne; “an Organ-grinder from Portobello, and a Mince-meat maker form Easter Road and a Mogul from Cramond; why, Daphne, you must see the connection - doesn't that remind you of The Black Douglas and The Heart of Robert The Bruce?”
It was Roxy who spoke next, suggesting that as there was clearly a danger to Daphne while the person unknown who had incarcerated her still roamed free, and it were better if the three Chums adopted disguise and found themselves a safe place,”nu?” she enquired, to which the others eagerly assented; Daphne knew of a commodious bench in Princes Street Gardens, to which they might repair; Maude had an extensive collection of Fancy Dress, which she and her own Chums made frequent use of for “games and entertainments,” as she put it; Daphne suggested that they should adopt a secret name for themselves and suggested “Anapest” as there were three of them, two whose names could be abbreviated to short single syllables: viz. Daph and Rox, and the third was the possessor of a gloriously long, drawled syllable already – Maude, which she pronounced with Oxford languor and tone; but Roxy interjected, believing that in The Gardens they would be highly visible, even disguised, and Daphne explained that hidden in plain sight, with all the cacophony of a General Election in full swing, with canvassers mingled among hawkers, sideshow barkers and evangelists, even MacBeth's Three Witches would go unnoticed at which Maude interjected, devout Bardolator that she was, that in his original stage directions Mr Shakespeare had these three characters identified as “Newhaven Fishwives, “but not a lot of people know that,“ she said with a mischievous grin – and so, to Princes Street Gardens, by way of Maude's rooms hard by The Castle, they made their way with discreet haste, each taking a different route.
“Oh, Gosh!” exclaimed Roxy Davidova, pausing for breath, and looking down at her suit, which was now covered with a fine, pinkish-whitish-bluish-greyish dust; “I say, what is all this stuff?” she asked, starting to brush it off with her hands, and Daphne laughed heartily, for she was genuinely entertained by Roxy's query, cried that it was original Edinburgh Rock, and swung her arms expansively, indicating the rock floor, walls and roof of the winding tunnel in which they had paused, adding that it's an aa, at which Roxy looked puzzled; “what's a naa?” she asked, scratching her scalp as Stan Laurel was wont to do; and Daphne grinned, and explained that it was not a naa, but an aa, because you see, she added, pointing, that it was rough lava dating back to Edinburgh's last period of volcanic activity, and that, she added, wasn't yesterday....but Roxy still looked perplexed; “no,” she said, “I'd have heard about it,” doggedly nodding her head to demonstrate how positive she was that she was absolutely up-to-date – and Daphne chuckled merrily; which was when Maude pointed to a shape which seemed at odds with it's surrounding, and asked, “what's that?”; at which Daphne strode forward, seized the object, which was a rather large Gladstone Bag and tossed it to Roxy, saying that it was a portmanteau, and asking if she could see any indication of it's owner; Roxy fumbled with the clasp, and managed to open the bag – she gasped and put one hand over her mouth! - Daphne took the bag from her and turned to Maude, twisting the bag inside out as she did so, which caused a photograph and a rosary to fall on the ground, asking Maude if they meant anything to her, at which Maude picked up the objects and studied them - when she too gasped, and looked at Roxy, “is this your mother,” she asked, showing Roxy and Daphne a photograph of the Dowager Duchess of Tomintoul, in her full regalia as one of the Queen's Ladies of the Besom and Broom – Roxy nodded, and pointed at the rosary, “and that was hers too, handed down from generation to generation, mother to daughter, for hundreds of years, together with the portmanteau – it belonged to Sister Evadne Eglantine,” and she started to croon an old nursery rhyme her mother had sung to her when she was very young; Daphne took command of the situation, saying (rather abruptly) “Don't get maudlin on us, Miss Davidova, but tell us when and where you last saw these things and who had them, for it may be that whoever that was is the very person who so cruelly tried to end my life back in yonder dark oubliette!”
Down, down and ever down, Maude Lyttleton drew Roxie Davidova into the bowels of Edinburgh; stairs gave way to rough stone steps; rough steps to even rougher passageways, and these then became a steeper descent through a kind of natural crevice, leading ever down – Maude's mouth was set with firm determination, Roxy's an O of wonderment, quite appropriate to the term 'os' which crossed Maude's mind as she glanced back, for she was sure that despite her confusion, Roxy was quite a savvy individual, capable of comprehending what was happening to her at any given moment – and then, of a sudden, a wail brought them to a halt, for it seemed to come from beneath their feet and Maude, dropping to her knees began to scrabble through the dust and grit and discarded bones of small rodents which littered the place; her eyes smarted, her breath was ragged, she feared for the worst, till “Stop!” cried Roxie, placing a hand on Maude's arm, “be still,” she admonished and Maude was still, gazing at Roxie's face, which seemed to glow, until “There!” she cried, this time pointing at a tiny gleam in the dust and excrescence, and flung herself down like some kind of divinely inspired vates, and quickly cleared enough to show a rude hatch, with two bolts securing it; she drew them back and the hatch swung downwards revealing total darkness, except for the red glow of a cigar, behind which they saw the faint impression of Daphne Dumbiedykes face, smeared with dirt and framed by tousled hair as she reached up, grasped the frame of the trapdoor and hauled herself out and embraced Maude, kissing her face and showering her with endearments: “I dropped my last match,” she said, “but you found me in the nick of time, my darling, you saved my bacon,” to which Maude responded with a touching demeanour, full of genuine veridicality, including Roxy in a warm embrace, and saying, “'’twas Roxy, she found the hatch, Bless her!” and all three, linking arms, joyfully began their journey to the surface.
“I wonder,” thought Maude Lyttleton, as she comforted the seemingly heartbroken, short, dumpy, and far from lissom, Roxie Davidova, clutching the forlorn Leader of Scotland's Unionist Party to her breast, and murmuring soothing words, “if all is not what it seems, perhaps, if Miss Davidova's attachment to the English Party led by the uncharismatic Duncan MacAroon, is but a simulacrum, an appearance adopted in defiance of her true self – for is she not by nature a rococo creature, full of surprises and contradictions, at one and the same time a gentle and loving woman, yet adopting a facade at odds with her own self, or” and here Maude felt it necessary to use an expression oft employed by her cousin Agatha who resided in one of what Maude still thought of as 'the American Colonies' “merely an inside baseball matter – of interest only to the cognoscenti,” at which moment she was startled by a faint cry from far below, deep, down, in the bowels of the earth and Maude suddenly recalled her reason for being where she was – her fear that some harm had befallen her dearest, darling, Daphne Dumbiedykes, and seizing Roxie Davidova by one of her small, plump hands, she pulled her down the stairs with the cry of “hold on Daphne, we're coming!”
Maude Lyttleton never hesitated in her ungainly descent of the stairs, but she saw from the corner of her left eye – the right, the wayward, unfocussed and so disconcerting to anyone unfamiliar with her acuity, still scanned the stairwell – the fast-approaching figure with hands upraised as if to fling her over the railing and her mind made a rapid calculation: less lissom than a gazelle, nor so lissome as the ballerinas of Les Ballet Trockadero she had seen at the Festival Theatre two years previously; wearing the black trouser-suit, white shirt and blue tie so favoured by politicians in this city, yet giving off an impression of someone at odds with their own outward appearance; this was no mere man, no man at all, but a person weel kent to the readership of the Scotsman, or the Sunday Post, and oft-discussed in the drawing-rooms of the Capital's culturati and so, when Maude spoke, softly, but with excellent diction: “Roxie Davidova, as I live and breathe, come to paint the town red I presume” her words stopped the leader of Scotland's tiny Unionist Party in her tracks, felt to her like a slap in the face with a wet haddock, and she flushed, her face redder than the Socialist Flag, disconcertingly so, and to Maude's temporary confusion she saw tears spring from Miss Davidova's eyes and stream down her cheeks, the sight of which brought a tenderness to her breast and she placed a comforting hand on the other's sobbing shoulder and “there, there, pet,” she murmured, her voice full of concern and compassion.
Now, agile and elegant though her mind is, by no stretch of the imagination could Maude Lyttleton be described as lissom, svelte, or graceful and, as she clumped and stumbled down the stairs and corridors that lead from Edinburgh's City Chambers into the depths containing "lost closes" and "forgotten cells" a watcher might have thought her but a tyro in the very earliest stages of walking - for even a toddler would have been more agile than she - but Maude never lost her composure, her sang-froid, for she had walked thus all her life, for her it was "normal" and she was used to it; but the watcher was ignorant of this and felt confident that Maude was no threat, and so it was not as a levant - what might colloquially be described as a "thief in the night" - that he pushed out of his hiding place and strode towards her, ready to cast her aside, or even to pitch her over the bannister and let her tumble into the darkness of the stair-well - but, though clumsy on her feet Maude may well be, she was certainly no pushover!
Now you should know, before going any further, that Maude Lyttleton is an intractable bardolator – she can cast a withering glance at Marlovians, Baconites, Oxfordists, Southamptonians and others of that ilk while uttering her pithy judgement of “Claimants to the Title are surely Ten a Penny, But they're null and void; of True Contenders William's not got Any” for to Maude, The Swan of Avon was not a Pub in Warwickshire, but a bolide which, like the comet, shone with dizzying brilliance astounding his own age - and those yet to come - with an astonishing output and the sheer genius of his writing; she may seem a shrinking violet, a wallflower, a – dreaded insult – Spinster, but Maude can cross verbal swords with anyone on the subject of Master Shakespeare and has not been bested yet!
And, while her dear friend, bosom companion and true soul-mate, the esteemed Professor Daphne Dumbiedykes found herself trapped in a foul dungeon, Maude Lyttleton sat on a bench outside St Giles Cathedral licking ice-cream from a wafer cone and applying her skills in crosswordese to that morning's cryptic puzzle in The Scotsman; her dour appearance attracting occasional glances from passers-by – no doubt wondering how one so apparently gloomy of aspect could find such evident pleasure in ice-cream or have the ability to tackle a puzzle set by Omniom simultaneously - the feared compiler of ferociously fiendish Monday Crosswords in that respected journal – for Maude had the appearance of a quidnuc, a fishwife, a frequenter of low bars and street corners where gossip is traded and salacious tales are told and the names and nefarious exploits of the city's elite are bandied about, rather than of an astute and intellectually gifted historian and Mademoiselle-de-Lettres who herself compiled her own puzzles under her pen-name Sartorius - often the devilishly difficult Saturday Prize Crossword which could quite easily take the whole weekend to complete – who only glanced once at 5 down, saw the clue “Mrs B's f(l)avourite for fish but in-no-wise foul” and instantly and correctly wrote in the 8 letters of mirepoix which she knew well from her own copy of Mrs Beeton's Manual, and sat back, for some instinct, some inexplicable sixth, seventh or eighth sense, had alerted her to danger, to some evil which befell at that precise moment, which put the life and exquisite limbs of Daphne in peril – “Something's Up” flashed across her brain and it was as if Ten Foot High letters of burning flame stood at the very spot where once was located The Heart of Midlothian and Maude leapt to her feet, dropping her newspaper and pen, heedless of the unfinished crossword or the photograph of Salomon on the front page, and dashed in the direction Daphne had taken just an hour before.
Down at the bottom of a deep, dark, dank and dismal dungeon passageway, Professor Daphne Dumbiedykes - formerly one of Miss Brodie's legendary "Golden Girls" and now holder of the emeritus chair in Late-Early Mediaevalism at St Sebastian's College - scrambled down through the rusty frame of a collapsed trapdoor and dropped into a foul and evil-smelling oubliette, some 50 metres below Edinburgh's cobbled High Street and caught her breath; for, in the shadows cast by her guttering stub of a tallow candle she could make out the scrawled epithets of those tortured souls whose last days of life were spent here and, in the furthest, deepest, darkest, dankest and most dismal corner of the cell she spotted a crumpled ball of fabric - once spotless and white, now begrimed by mucous, faeces and the scamperings of a thousand generations of rats - which she gently took hold of and unfolded to see that it was indeed the wimple of Sister Evadne Eglantine, after whom Daohne's own dear mother had been named, and just as averred in the statements given under duress by the other two Benedictine nuns who had survived their incarceration with Sister Evadne, it truly had been turned into an opisthograph for, as they had testified, the dying Sister had written, in ink distilled from her own blood and tears, on both sides of the fabric lines which, though smudged and often indistinct and in parts the lines on each side co-mingled and distressed, yet even after seven and more centuries, in words that resonated with the Professor, her own unique recipe for a Tincture of Asafedita with directions for its preparation and application for the relief of asthma; the very condition which Sister Evadne had herself borne so stoically, and, yes, there too was a delicate drawing of the plant itself - familiar to Daphne from her own much-thumbed copy of Culpeper Complete Herbal, and this last brought a catch to the Professor's breath, a tickling at the back of her memory, and a rising of the hairs on her nape - for she suddenly realised the full implicatioms of this discovery and its confirmation of an incident in Scotland's bloody past which could well wreak havoc for so many in this very present day - Triumph or Disaster, but which would it be?
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