Read The Counterfeit Madam Online

Authors: Pat McIntosh

The Counterfeit Madam

The Counterfeit Madam

A Gil Cunningham Murder Mystery

Pat McIntosh





For all the people who taught me geology,
in propriam memoriam
and also for Imogen, copy-editor without equal 



Students of the geology of the West of Scotland will recognise that I have taken serious liberties with Campsie Glen. In fact, I have borrowed a section of the Ochils, which are also Carboniferous lava flows, and transplanted it to the Campsies. I am indebted to
Bonanzas and Jacobites: the Story of the Silver Glen
, by Stephen Moreton (National Museums of Scotland, 2007) for the details of geology and setting.

Ever since it became a kingdom, Scotland has had two native languages, Gaelic (which in the fifteenth century was called Ersche) and Scots, both of which you will find used in the Gil Cunningham books. I have translated the Gaelic where needful, and those who have trouble with the Scots could consult the Dictionary of the Scots Language, to be found at

Gil Cunningham had hoped that the first time he set foot in the whorehouse on the Drygate would also be the last; but by the time all was settled he felt quite at home within its artful painted chambers.

The first inkling he had of the matter came one day in late April, in the form of a loud knocking at the door of his father-in-law’s house as family and servants were eating their midday meal in the hall. Conversation at the long board ceased and heads turned towards the sound; Gil and Alys exchanged a surprised glance, Alys’s aged French duenna Catherine paused in her absorption of sops-in-wine. The wolfhound Socrates was already on his feet, the hackles standing up on his narrow back. A stranger, Gil concluded.

‘Who calls at the dinner-hour?’ wondered Maistre Pierre, pushing back his great chair. He rose with caution, muttering darkly about his knees, but his young journeyman Luke was before him, opening the big planked door to reveal a serving-man in unfamiliar blue-grey livery bowing on the doorstep, felt bonnet in hand.

‘My mistress, Dame Isabella Torrance, seeks Maister Gil Cunningham,’ he said. ‘Is this where he dwells?’

‘Isabella Torrance?’ Gil repeated in some surprise, going forward as Luke turned to relay the message. ‘She’s still alive, then?’

‘She’s at the gate, maister,’ said the man.

Gil looked down at his wife as she joined him in the doorway. ‘Godmother to my sister Tib,’ he explained. ‘Dwells over by Stirling, I think. I wonder if it’s about Tib’s marriage?’

‘Stirling?’ repeated Alys. ‘Whatever is she doing in Glasgow?’

The servant shrugged his shoulders.

‘Likely she’ll tell you hersel,’ he offered. ‘Will I bid her come in?’

‘Aye, bid her enter,’ said Maistre Pierre from the head of the table. ‘We are still at meat, man, ask her if she will join us.’

‘She doesny eat in the middle of the day,’ the man said, shaking his head regretfully.

There was a commotion in the pend which led out to the street, and a number of people emerged into the courtyard, headed by a short, stout, loud individual with a stick. Their guest had not waited to be invited in. Alys exclaimed briefly and hurried down the steps past Gil to offer a welcome. Her curtsy was spurned with a brief nod, her arm was ignored, and the small dark figure ploughed across the yard to the foot of the steps where it stopped, scowling up at Gil with eyes like jet rosary beads.

Dame Isabella was probably five feet high and the same around, though this girth also engrossed a vast furred brocade gown which hung open over several layers of different, equally expensive, black fabrics. Beneath a black silk Flemish hood with extravagantly long foreparts, finely pleated linen framed her small padded face, heightening its colour unbecomingly; she had a dab of a nose, separated by a dark wispy moustache from a mouthful of very large, improbably white teeth. She seemed to have brought her entire household visiting; at her back were four sturdy grooms, including the man who had come to the door, and two waiting-women.

‘So you’re Gelis Muirhead’s laddie, are you?’ she said in deep, disparaging tones. ‘Aye, you’ve a look of her, though you’re more like your faither.’ This was clearly not a compliment. ‘At least you’ve more sense than get yoursel slain the way he did. And both your brothers, was it?’

‘Dame Isabella,’ Gil said, very politely, and bowed.

‘Welcome to my house. Will you enter, madame?’ offered Maistre Pierre over Gil’s shoulder.

‘Aye, I’ll come in. You’re the good-father I take it. I hope ye’ve a seat for me. I want a word wi young Gilbert, afore that gowk Sempill gets involved. Here, you fools, get me up these steps.’

‘Sempill? John Sempill of Muirend?’ Gil repeated, but the servants who surrounded Dame Isabella had begun the considerable task of hoisting her up the fore-stair, which she endured with much shouting and brandishing of her stick. In his ear his father-in-law said,

‘What does she want with Sempill? Why should he come here?’

‘No idea,’ said Gil, stepping back to allow the nearest manservant elbowroom. ‘When did we see him last?’ He counted on his fingers. ‘It must have been August last year. It’s been the gallowglass – Euan Campbell – who brought me the money for the boy’s keep at both the quarter-days since then.’ He met Maistre Pierre’s eye. ‘If it’s about the boy, it’s likely no good.’

‘So I think,’ agreed the mason. They both turned to look inside the hall, where Maistre Pierre’s foster-child, small John McIan, bastard son of John Sempill’s runaway wife and her lover the harper, was perched on his nurse’s knee at the long table addressing a large crust of bread.

‘Sempill still needs an heir, surely?’ said Maistre Pierre doubtfully. ‘That was why he acknowledged John. What is he about now?’

‘We’ll find out soon enough,’ said Gil.

‘Parcel of fools!’ announced Dame Isabella. Achieving the topmost step, she paused long enough to adjust her grasp on her stick and surged forward, shaking off her gasping servants and ignoring Maistre Pierre’s courtesies as she had ignored Alys’s. Behind her, Alys slipped up the fore-stair and into the hall, with a brief touch on Gil’s hand as she went.

‘You’re at meat, are you?’ continued their guest, staring at the household arranged round the long board. Small John waved his crust and shouted something unintelligible. ‘I hope you’ve all had your bowels open at stool the day. It’s no good to eat on a full bowel.’

‘Will you not join us, madame?’ Alys offered, gesturing at the head of the table. ‘There is good broth, and fresh oatcakes and cheese—’

‘No.’ The black beads considered her. ‘I suppose you’re the French wife. Christ aid us, you’ve a nose on you like a papingo’s. I see he’s no bairned you yet. Has he bedded you? Is your bowels regular? You’ll no take if your bowel’s full, it unbalances the humours.’

Alys stared at the old woman, amazement outweighing her natural courtesy. Gil moved to intervene, but Catherine had already risen and now forestalled him.

Vraiment, madame
,’ she said in her elegant French, ‘you do right to concern yourself with such matters. It is important to keep the humours of the body balanced, but I find the young are often careless of their internal economy.’

‘And who are you?’ demanded Dame Isabella in the same language. ‘You speak French uncommonly well, even if you have not kept your teeth as I have.’

Over the two black-draped heads Alys caught Gil’s eye, her expression carefully neutral. Catherine closed her toothless mouth on whatever reply came first, and Gil said hastily,

‘This is Madame Catherine Calvin, who keeps my wife company. Will you sit in by the hearth, madam, while they clear the board?’

‘Aye, and watch all,’ said Dame Isabella, ‘so I can tell Gelis Muirhead what kind of household you’re wedded into. No, I’ll ha no refreshment. It’s no my hour for it.’

‘Lady Cunningham was with us for a week at Yule,’ observed Catherine. ‘She is a most cultured lady, and speaks excellent French.’

Dame Isabella ignored this shaft, and seated herself nearest the hearth, staring about her. The household, taking the hint, began the process of dismantling the long table, stacking up platters and bowls and sweeping the cloth into a bundle to be shaken into the courtyard. By the time board and trestles were in place against the wall, Dame Isabella’s entourage had been dismissed to the kitchen, save for a man with a huge leather satchel and one waiting-woman who studied Maistre Pierre with intent dark eyes, and the two old ladies were deep in a conversation involving the humours, the elements, and the zodiac. Gil, standing awkwardly by, was aware of his wife conferring with her father, and of the mason’s two journeymen leaving the house, but his mind was occupied with possible reasons for this sudden visitation.

He had met Dame Isabella once or twice as a boy, and felt she had not improved. She had been a member of Margaret of Denmark’s household alongside his mother, which was presumably why she had been invited to stand godmother to his youngest sister. Lady Cunningham had mentioned her occasionally over the years; he vaguely recalled that she had been wedded at least twice since the death of her royal mistress, though to judge by her black garb and the pleated linen barbe pinned below her chin she was currently a widow. Small wonder, he thought.

As Tib’s godmother, it would be appropriate for her to do something for the girl before her approaching marriage, whether it embraced coin or a gift of land or jewels, and as Tib’s nearest male relative he could expect to be consulted in the transaction. But she had mentioned John Sempill’s involvement. There was no connection between Sempill and Tib that he knew of.

Maistre le notaire
awaits your convenience,
,’ said Catherine by the hearth. ‘We should not keep him waiting, perhaps.’

‘He’s got little enough to do,’ pronounced Dame Isabella, but she turned to stare at Gil. ‘Like my servants, the useless troop. Come here, Gilbert. Is that the brat?’ She nodded towards small John, who was just being led towards the kitchen stair by his quiet nurse.

‘That’s John Sempill’s heir,’ agreed Gil, repressing anger. ‘Does this concern the boy? My good-father should be present if so.’

‘Why? What’s it to do wi him?’

‘The boy is in my care,’ said Maistre Pierre, coming forward from the door. Dame Isabella glared at him, grunted, and gestured at the bench opposite her.

‘You may as well sit down and all, then, and listen.’ Catherine rose at this point with a murmured farewell, which was ignored, and Alys moved quietly towards one of the far windows, where she had left her needlework. ‘Now, Gilbert. You’ll ken I’ve two goddaughters, your sister Isobel and a lassie Magdalen Boyd, who’s some kin of yours so Gelis your mother tells me.’

‘Boyd.’ Gil sat down obediently beside his father-in-law, searching his memory of the kindred. ‘Aye, she is. Third or fourth cousin, I’d say. There was a brother too, name of – name of – was it Alexander? They were about penniless, I think.’

‘That was their faither’s doing,’ she said dismissively. ‘Any road, Magdalen has wedded John Sempill for her second husband.’ She looked with satisfaction at his astonished face. ‘Aye, a good match, for the both of them, and I was right glad to support it.’

‘I’d not wed my worst enemy’s daughter to John Sempill,’ said Gil. Beside him Maistre Pierre rumbled agreement.

‘He’s done better than you have, mewed up here in a town wi a barren foreigner. Maidie has no trouble wi him. But the point is, she’s in a likely way.’ Sweet St Giles, when were they wedded, Gil wondered grimly, not looking at Alys. ‘So she’s no wanting another man’s get to be Sempill’s heir, no when she’s in a way to provide him wi one. Sempill’s in full agreement, so they’re proposing that he’ll no recognize the brat as his heir any longer, and in consideration they’re offering it a bit land here in Glasgow where it’s handy.’

Gil stared at her, preserving his expression as best he might. After a moment Maistre Pierre said,

‘But does the man Sempill have anything left to offer? I thought he was hard pressed.’

‘He was,’ Gil said. ‘He was in Glasgow to deal with that when his wife – his first wife,’ he corrected himself, ‘was killed, and left her son motherless. That was why he took the boy for his heir, so old Canon Murray would leave him his fortune, though I think the old man still lives.’ He eyed Dame Isabella, hoping his dislike did not show. ‘I take it his circumstances have changed with the new marriage?’

She gave a bark of laughter.

‘Aye, they’ve changed, and for the better. So will you accept the offer?’

‘We can’t say,’ said Gil without pausing to consult with Maistre Pierre, ‘until we know what the offer might be.’

‘That’s a pity,’ said Dame Isabella, ‘for once that’s dealt wi I’ve a couple of plots to dispose of and all. There’s one of them out Carluke way, been in my family for years, and one in Strathblane, they bring in much the same rent, and we’ll can see about which goes to Maidie and which to your sister Isobel.’

‘It would surely be more convenient,’ said Maistre Pierre reasonably, ‘that the Lanarkshire property go to the Lanarkshire lassie, unless your other goddaughter dwells there also. No, she must be in Renfrewshire,’ he corrected himself.

‘We’ll can see,’ Dame Isabella repeated. Gil sat still, wondering how his mother had ever liked this woman enough to invite her to be Tib’s godmother. The bargain was clear enough: if he agreed to Sempill’s proposal for young John McIan and accepted the offered property in exchange for the boy’s present status as Sempill’s heir, Tib would get the land close to where she would be settled; if not, it was likely she would find herself in possession of a patch of Strathblane, a full day’s ride from her new home, with the attendant difficulties of administering the rent and overseeing the tenants.

‘We need to know more, madam,’ he said as politely as he could, ‘and we’ll need time to consider. As the boy’s tutor and foster-father we should take it all in advisement—’

‘You’ve an hour to think on it,’ she retorted. ‘We’re to meet at your uncle the Canon’s house. He made a right to-do about having no time, this was the only moment in the week he could spare us, as if he didny dwell and work in the burgh, so you’d best no be late.’

It was hardly worth trying to explain, Gil thought, that the Official of Glasgow, the senior judge of the diocese, had a caseload that would tax an elephant and regularly worked all the hours he was not sleeping. Sempill had been fortunate to find a moment when Canon Cunningham could see them. As for the papers he himself had to complete for the next day’s taking of sasines in Rottenrow, that would clearly have to wait until later.

‘Will we convoy you up the road?’ he suggested.

‘No, you’ll no. If you need to consult, you’ll consult, for I want a decision the day, else the whole goes to Maidie.’ She turned her head. ‘Here, Attie scatterwit, where are ye? And you, you worthless frivol. Call the men, and send out to see if Sproat’s waited like I bade him. Time I was on the road.’


When Maistre Pierre returned from seeing their unwelcome guest to the street he found Gil discussing the interview with Alys.

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