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Chapter 1 - The Letter


JAMIE and Jean Stewart sat together on the broad window-sill. They gazed into the dusk along the little rocky road that led to the village. Since nine they had been expecting an ancient Ford bearing their brother and sister from the village, but as usual the train was late. It was a great disappointment, for James and Jean had come home a whole week earlier than the other two, and that meant that a week of the precious holidays was wasted. But it was made up for by the fact that their cousin Sandy Stewart from Skye was coming to stay until the term began again.

“There it is — coming round the corner by the burn,” cried Jean suddenly.

James craned out beside her and they heard the roar of the engine as the car crept up the glen. “They’re late,” he said. “It must be nearly ten.”

“Probably an extra lot of trippers for Fairloch,” said Jean, “or perhaps the bus broke down.”

The old car was making better going up the track than it had ever done before.

“I bet Ninian’s driving,” said James. “Davy always comes up here in ‘first.’ ”

They watched with interest as the doors were opened and people got out. Somehow they felt unaccountably shy at the thought of seeing their elder sister who had been in London for a year, and Ninian, too, whom they had not seen since the spring. They felt more able to meet them up in the nursery than in the half dark of the hall.

They heard the front door open and slam, and then Fiona’s high laugh and Ninian’s deep one. There was a great deal of talking and of the clatter of suitcases and fishing-rods on the stone floor, and they heard Sandy’s voice crying: “Mind the rifle, Ninian!”

They heard Maggie, the housekeeper, give Ninian a letter and the strange silence that followed as he opened it. Then he said: “Go on upstairs, you two, and I’ll come in a minute.”

Fiona and Sandy clattered up the wooden stairs and flung themselves into the nursery shouting: “Where are you hiding, Jamie? Come out and don’t be shy!”

They were greeted with gasps of astonishment. At least Fiona was, because Sandy looked exactly like he had always looked except that he was a foot or so taller.

But Fiona!

When they saw her last she had been an untidy child of sixteen who never looked at a piece of soap or a hairbrush if it could possibly be avoided. But that was a year ago, and in that year she had been the most popular as well as the most attractive debutante of the season, and the change was unbelievable.

Her long black hair had been cut, and hung to her shoulders in curls. She had on powder and lipstick and nail polish. She was very slim and well dressed and her stockings were silk. Jean wondered how she could stand up in such high-heeled shoes, and was later informed that they were nothing to those she wore in London.

Sandy broke the silence.

“That’s right — stare!” he said. “You’ll get used to her in time. I’ve been getting used to her the whole way from Fairloch and it took a bit of doing. But I’ve done it at last,” he added proudly, “and I hardly have to think now whether it’s Fiona Stewart I’m looking at or some smart English lady from London.”

“Oh, shut up, Sandy,” said Fiona, blushing. “You wait until to-morrow.”

“Are you always like that now?” asked Jean, in amazement. A tidy Fiona was more than she could bear. Fiona — who had stayed out all night on the mountains rather than go to tea with other children!

“No, it’ll all wash off in the first bath of peaty water,” said Fiona, laughing. “Goodness, though, I’m glad to be back at Carrick!”

She went to the window and leant out, sniffing. All the familiar old smells were there: peat smoke, and the heather, and damp bracken in the wood, and a tang of pine from the plantation on the hill. A little wind blew westwards, carrying the faintest breath of the sea with it. Fiona sighed. She had forgotten how much she had missed Carrick.

Jamie came and leant out beside her.

“I’m afraid there’s still rather a smell of petrol,” he said apologetically.

Fiona laughed. “I hadn’t even noticed it,” she said, and turned to look at him. “Goodness, Jamie, how you’ve grown! How old are you now?”

“Twelve,” said Jamie, hurt that Fiona should have forgotten. “The same as Jean.”

“I hadn’t really forgotten,” said Fiona hurriedly, “only I wasn’t thinking. You’re taller than Ninian was at that age,” she added. “You’ll soon be as tall as I am.” Fiona was nearly six foot and Jamie came up to her shoulder.

They turned as the door opened, and Ninian stood on the threshold. He was holding the letter in his hand and there was a strange look on his face, a mixture of anger and excitement.

“Hallo, Jeanie,” he said, ruffling her hair. Jean was his favourite, but he scarcely noticed even her. “It was a letter from Father,” he said to Fiona, and walked over to the window. He put one knee on the window-seat and leant out. “I’ll read it to you,” he said, and there was silence.

“My dear Ninian,” he read, “you are probably very surprised at hearing from me (They were. Their father in Burma wrote once in a blue moon), but it’s a very surprising thing that I am writing about. You know old Drake who has taken Carrick House?” (“Nobody told me Father had let it,” said Ninian. “What an awful bore.” “Oh, go on,” said Fiona.) “Well, it turns out that he will neither shoot nor fish. Now, when I let it to him he promised he understood all about fish and deer, but since then he has flatly refused to kill either. I have asked him to let the stalkers or you do it, but he has refused. He talks about cruelty, and giving the weak a chance, as if we aren’t overrun with poor stags almost clamouring to be shot. Well, the long and short of it is, can you four, five with Sandy” (Sandy glowed) “undertake to poach Carrick thoroughly? You all know the boundaries and the limit to the stags. The fish I leave to your own discretion. It’s got to be done, Ninian, or the ground will be ruined, but don’t be too rash. I don’t want any of you taken up for poaching. Keep an eye on Jean and don’t let her go out alone.” (Jean snorted with rage.) “They’d see that flaxen head of hers a mile away. You can use Angus Grant’s pony and Davy’s, but I can’t ask them to help you as it wouldn’t be fair to them. However, they know all about it. I suppose you’ll have to leave the grouse. A drive would be too spectacular. Don’t let old Drake get suspicious before the stalking. I suppose Fiona will be much too smart to go out with you.” (Ninian paused, while Fiona said: “It is likely?” and blushed.) “Give her my love, and tell Jamie that when he can hit the bull seven times running he can take out my Mannlicher. My love to Jeanie, and give her my old rod, unless she has got one of her own. Tell Sandy that if he’s half as good at poaching as his father was he should do well.”

Ninian stopped there and then said: “There’s a postscript, listen. ‘If you want an extra man, try young Hugh Murray from Corriedon. He’s one of the best and would love to help if he’s at home. E.S.’ And then there’s a P.P.S. ‘You’ll have to tell some lies but they couldn’t be in a better cause. E.S.’ ”

There was a long silence. All eyes were fixed on Ninian’s brown face and dark curly hair. Suddenly his blue eyes danced. “You know,” he said, “with a bit of manoeuvring these holidays are going to be the best we’ve ever had!” They all sighed with relief.

“For one awful moment,” said Sandy, “I thought you were going to say that we couldn’t. It’s going to be fun, but it’s going to be pretty difficult. Carrick House is bung in the middle of the forest, isn’t it?”

“Bung,” said Jamie; “but we’ll have a try.”

“It’s going to be fun,” said Fiona; “but who’s Hugh Murray?”

“Son of some old friend of Father’s,” said Ninian. “Probably ghastly, but he might come in useful some time. Anyway, let’s not bother about him but do let’s have something to eat. I’m simply ravenous — have been for hours, too.”

Jean flew to the stairhead and shrieked at Maggie for food, quickly. Jamie remembered how hungry he was, and went with Ninian to their room to brush his hair. Fiona went to hers and Sandy was left alone in the nursery. It had grown dark very quickly and everything was still and quiet but for the noise of the burn at the foot of the hill. Right and left were the black shadows of the hills against the sky, and beyond the burn was the smooth glitter of Hernsary Loch and beyond that the sea. If Sandy could have seen through the hills he would have seen the tips of his own Black Coolins. He sniffed the sharp air as Fiona had done, and found it good. He had neither father nor mother and consequently his holidays on Skye were spent alone, but for the company of an aunt. So he had jumped at the chance of coming to Carrick, for he was very fond of his Stewart cousins and they treated him like one of the family.

A soft wind came over the heather and ruffled his brown hair. He heard old Davy come out of the kitchen and wheel his bicycle on to the track. He lived in a little croft four miles farther down.

Sandy thought of his uncle’s letter and the prospects it brought. He was a born poacher and never in all his sixteen years had he been told to poach on such a scale. He was thrilled. How many stags did the Carrick Forest carry? Jean came in and stood beside him.

“How many stags can we get, Jean?” he asked.

“Fifteen,” said Jean briefly. And then: “Oh, Sandy, do you think we ever shall?”

“Of course we will,” said Ninian, from the door. “But you’re our star fisherman, Jean. We shall have to count on you for that.” Jean smiled. “I’m not nearly as good as you are,” she said, “but I’m longing to try Father’s rod.”

Maggie appeared at this moment laden with trays of food and bottles of beer.

“Maggie, you angel!” cried Ninian. “Are there any more I can fetch?”

“Another at the foot of the stairs, Master Ninian, sir,” replied Maggie, rather overcome by Ninian’s grown-up appearance. To her mind he had changed just as much as Fiona had. His wild black hair had been smoothed almost flat, and as to his clothes! A dark-blue pin-stripe suit and Old Etonian tie fairly took Maggie’s breath away when she thought of his ancient kilt and torn tweeds. But the table was laid and the food spread, and Fiona and Jamie were shouted for.

Ninian carved the cold ham and Sandy cut the bread while Fiona opened the beer. She looked at Jamie, who nodded, and at Jean, who said: “Just half. I don’t like it much, yet!” Maggie had set a roaring Aladdin on the table, and by its glow they took the edge off their appetites.

Suddenly Ninian banged on the table. They all stood up expectantly.

“A toast!” he cried, his eyes sparkling. “To us — Success!”

“Success!” cried the others and drank deep. Even Jean drained her half glass.

To order your copy of Orders to Poach see our online shop, visit our Edinburgh bookshop or one of our Stockists.