Excerpt for The Discreet Charm Of Mary Maxwell-Hume by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Discreet

Charm of



Gordon Lawrie

Comely Bank Publishing

©Gordon Lawrie all rights reserved

This edition published 2017

by Comely Bank Publishing

for the Smashwords platform.

A print edition of this book is also available

ISBN 978-0-9930262-9-4

For Bruce Levine,

whose idea this was.



The Logan

Fugue And Other Arts

Mary Maxwell-Hume and Me

In The Tunnel of Darkness

The Reluctant Hero

The JewelThief

The Cocktail Party

Competition Time


The Piano Exam


About The Author


Mary Maxwell-Hume was never a character I really gave a lot of thought to in the first place. I’d written a novel, Four Old Geezers And A Valkyrie and, as kind of ‘hook’, I wrote a short story called The Piano Exam as a prequel to the novel itself. It was always intended to be a giveaway, but of course Amazon had to spoil that making a minimum charge. All I was trying to do was to introduce my central character to potential readers, and in particular to my writing style. In addition, The Piano Exam, like Four Old Geezers And A Valkyrie, is written in the first person and in present tense: I wanted to readers to have the chance to see if they could deal with that. If you haven’t read The Piano Exam, it’s at the very end of this book, and you just might to choose to read it first. But the nine tales that make up The Discreet Charm of Mary Maxwell-Hume technically end at Christmas.

The story was already five years old and had been snapped up by hundreds of readers (it was free, after all), when I found myself corresponding with Bruce Levine. Bruce is a native Manhattenite now living in Florida. He’d submitted some flash fiction – ultra-short stories – to a website called Friday Flash Fiction that I edit. Bruce is actually a well-known musician, musical director, and composer as well as many other skills in theatre, writing and the arts, so I sent him The Piano Exam for his entertainment.

Bruce loved the story, but even more, he loved Mary Maxwell-Hume, the ‘other’ character in The Piano Exam. He urged to me write more about her exploits, and this very short volume of nine stories about this sensuously loveable rogue of a woman is the result. The first two are written in the third person, but in the third tale Mary ‘acquires’ an assistant: a young police constable. From then on, the remaining stories are told from his point of view.

I hope you enjoy them.

Gordon Lawrie,

June 2017



The woman was peering at a painting that was around four feet wide and three feet tall. A nervous-looking member of the security staff was studying her as she leaned further and further towards the wall. Jim watched anxiously as, without taking her eyes off the painting, she slipped her hand down into her deep red leather handbag. Did she have a knife? Or a pen? A can of spray paint? His colleague should have searched her bag at Lambert’s entrance, but Bomber Brown was on the door this shift and he was as idle as they come. Just the previous week Bomber had been employed as an agency guard at the Sheriff Court and failed to spot someone bringing a camcorder into the main court to film the entire proceedings as Mad Malky Morrison had been sent down for thirty years for a Glasgow gangland killing.

Still leaning impossibly like the Tower of Pisa, the woman emerged with… a gold lorgnette. Utterly confused, and clueless as to the woman’s intentions, Jim was about to summon assistance when the woman lifted the gold-rimmed reading glasses to squint at the label more closely. He relaxed, realising that the woman was simply unable to read without assistance.

‘Were you worried?’ she asked, still not taking moving her gaze from the canvas. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘No, no, it’s all right,’ Jim lied. He felt uncomfortable, sweating a little in difficult places under his uniform. The woman wore a black, sheer crepe dress which flowed effortlessly across her form from her shoulders to around the middle of her calf. It showed very little, but somehow managed to reveal everything. He knew he shouldn’t be doing it, but he found himself imagining what else she might be wearing, and couldn’t come up with much of an answer. Apart from her perfume that was; something subtle, ancient, penetrating and lingering – and probably expensive.

‘What do you think?’ she asked.

‘Sorry?’ Jim wanted her to leave and wanted her stay all at once.

‘What do you think?’ she repeated. She smiled serenely. ‘The Logan.’

Jim managed to pull himself together briefly. ‘Sorry, Miss – I mean Madam. I’m afraid I don’t know much about art. I only work here.’

The woman’s eyebrows shot up. ‘My,’ she said, with a wry chuckle, ‘that could almost be Lambert’s motto – ‘I don’t know much about art, I only work here.’ I wonder what the Latin for that is?’


‘Never mind,’ the woman said, reassuringly. ‘It doesn’t matter. And you were right first time…, Jim,’ she added, now using her lorgnette for the first time in his direction to read his name-badge. ‘I am a ‘Miss’.’

‘Sorry, Miss, it’s none of my business.’

‘Don’t apologise. We nuns are proud of our profession.’

‘Nun?’ Jim was now back in full-on confusion mode as he studied the black figure with the scarlet handbag.

‘I serve the Sisters of Mary of the Sacred Cross,’ she explained.

‘I’ve never heard of them,’ Jim confessed. ‘I thought nuns wore habits, or whatever they’re called.’

‘We do sometimes wear red habits. You might have seen us around the city?’

Jim pondered for a moment, then admitted, ‘Sorry, I don’t believe I have.’ It always paid to be honest with a woman of God, he decided.

‘We believe in wearing only as much as is necessary to preserve our modesty,’ the woman said, slightly at a tangent. Jim could do with as few tangents as possible at that moment. The woman was still leaning somewhat in the direction of the Logan, and briefly glanced at her back to see if she was in fact supported by wires from behind.

‘Do you like it?’ she smiled, invitingly.

Jim looked away quickly. ‘Sorry. Do I like what?’

‘Take a look at what you can see, Jim. Do you like it? Yes or no?’

Jim gulped. ‘Yes.’

‘You prefer this to his Grey Period?’

‘Grey Period?’ Slowly, Jim realised that the woman was referring to the painting again. ‘Sorry. I really don’t know much about art. I get a bit confused.’

‘Walter Logan was one of the Dundee Circle of painters, Jim. They painted in the 1920s and 1930s around the same time as the Scottish Colourists – Peploe, Hunter and so on. Have you heard of them?’

Jim shook his head. To be honest, he was still somewhat distracted by the woman’s Leaning Tower impersonation.

‘The Colourists were very influenced by French Impressionists, Jim. They used lots of bright colour to paint still life, ladies in bright dresses and so on. The Dundee Circle thought that was dishonest. Life in the industrial city of Dundee at the time was drab, so they painted instead in browns and greys. They weren’t so successful, unfortunately. People preferred pretty things then. But the Dundee Circle are very desirable now.’ She managed to infuse the word ‘desirable’ with a certain something that emanated from her entire being.

Jim was all at sea, ‘You seem to know a lot about the painting, Miss,’ he said in desperation. ‘As I said, I really don’t know much about art.’

‘This is from Logan’s Brown Period, Jim. At least that what the label there says.’ Then after a moment she added, ‘But I don’t blame you for being confused. Whatever else this is, it’s not a Logan Brown Period. Did someone switch the label while you weren’t looking?’

It shook Jim out of what might have passed for a reverie. ‘Certainly not, Miss…’

‘Maxwell-Hume. Mary Maxwell-Hume. Licensed to verify paintings. And this is definitely not a Logan Brown Period. In fact I’m all but sure that it’s not a Logan at all. It’s a copy, a clever copy, but it’s a copy. Are you sure no one switched the labels?’

‘Not on my shift, Miss Maxwell…’

‘Hume. Call me Mary if it’s easier. Sister Mary if you like.’

‘Not on my shift, Sister Mary. Mind you, I only came on an hour ago. It was that Aziz before me and he’s just a young lad, he doesn’t take his responsibilities as seriously as me.’

‘There you go then, Jim. A weak link. Don’t you think we should call the management?’

Theodore Plews – who would have been known as ‘Teddy’ to his friends if only he’d had any – was an unpleasant little bald man in his late fifties who seemed to think a Hitler moustache suited him. In his five years as Director at the Edinburgh branch of Lambert’s Auction House, he’d had to deal with all sorts of troublemakers, but women always brought out the worst in him. He strutted towards the scene in irritation: when he saw it was Mary Maxwell-Hume standing beside Jim at the Logan, he cursed silently under his breath.

Plews’ default tone of voice was ‘abrupt’. ‘Yes?’

Mary Maxwell-Hume smiled, but said nothing. Instead, Jim was left to do the explaining.

‘Sir, this lady’s been studying the picture for a good while. She’s…’

Mary decided it was time to help him out. Addressing Plews, she said, ‘‘The lady’ – I – have some concerns about this picture, Mr… You haven’t introduced yourself yet, by the way.’

‘Theodore J. Plews. Director of Lambert’s Auction House.’ Then, as an afterthought, he sneered, ‘And who am I speaking to?’ He was faintly aware that the woman might be wearing some sort of perfume. He didn’t offer his hand.

‘Mary Maxwell-Hume. How nice to meet you, Mr Plews,’ Mary said sweetly, offering the back of her hand for Plews to kiss. When he ignored her, she made her distaste clear, even although the words that came from her mouth would suggest otherwise. ‘Mr Plews, am I to understand that this is Lot 64 from the art sale that Lambert’s are due to hold tomorrow?’

‘The Carberry Estate sale, yes,’ Plews said. ‘Are you in the market, Miss… Maxwell-Hume?’

‘Well I’d be interested in any Logan, or indeed any of the Dundee Circle’s work for that matter. I do find them so genuine, don’t you?’

‘I’m glad you like it. You’ll see from the catalogue that it has a guide price of £8,000. We can look forward to seeing you tomorrow, then?’ Plews knew it wasn’t going to be that simple, though. Whenever he felt pressured, a nervous tic developed in the left corner of his mouth; it made his moustache shake quite visibly. His moustache was vibrating now.

‘As I said,’ Mary repeated, ‘I’m interested in Dundee Circle art work, but this isn’t Dundee Circle. It’s probably not a Logan, either. It’s something else. Let’s be kind and say it’s a copy, shall we?’

Theodore Plews said nothing for a moment, then he folded his arms. He decided to take a patronising approach.

‘Well, now, Miss Maxwell-Hume… so what makes you think this isn’t what it claims to be?’

‘I’m surprised that a man who claims to know so much about art has to ask that question,’ Mary said sharply. ‘Do I really need to take you through it?’ She glanced in the general direction of Jim to remind Plews that any humiliation would be public.

The Director weighed up his options, and decided that the woman posed little threat.

‘Go on.’ Plews didn’t do smirks: he couldn’t quite make his lips bend enough. Jim looked on with interest, though, as Mary drew herself up to her full height, which allowed her to look down on Plews’ bald head from slightly above.

‘Well, Mr Plews, I am disappointed,’ she sighed. ‘I’d have thought anyone with the first knowledge of the Dundee Circle would be aware that Logan never used brown after 1928.’

Plews cocked his head aggressively. ‘I’d agree. This is dated 1926. So?’

‘This wasn’t painted in 1926, for sure.’

‘Oh? And what makes you so sure of that?’ The little man’s face was scarred with contempt, but the twitching moustache gave away tell-tale signs of worry.

‘You’ll have noticed the canvas,’ Mary said.


Factories At Dawn is painted on coarse-grained canvas – and of course he obtained his canvasses from Donald’s of Dundee, who were capable of weaving local jute into the material.’

‘Of course,’ Plews said. In fact, he hadn’t a clue what Logan’s canvasses were made of, but he wasn’t admitting that.

‘This, you can see by looking close up, uses four-ounce jute on the warp, and three-ounce jute on the weft. Can you see that? There’s clear difference in the vertical and horizontal threading in the weave – the warp is heavier.’ Mary stood back for a moment to let Plews look more closely. Then she added, ‘Can you see that, Jim?’

Jim peered closely at the canvass. ‘Is that those textured lines at one-inch intervals in both directions?’

‘Well spotted, Jim – we’ll make an art connoisseur of you yet. Can you see it Mr Plews?’ Plews waved away the offer of Mary’s lorgnette.

‘Of course, of course.’ Plews wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be looking at, but he wasn’t about to admit that Jim was better at spotting art detail than he was.

Mary moved in for the kill. ‘The thing is, Mr Plews, you of all people will be aware that Donald’s of Dundee didn’t manufacture any mixed-fibre canvasses before 1931. He never painted on this type of canvas in his grey period at all. This is brown period, so…’

Plews was unsure whether to be angry, or to try to dismiss the strange woman. He was a getting confused, becoming increasingly aware of her perfume. ‘Are you saying this is a fake, Miss Maxwell-Hume?’

‘I’m saying that this painting is not as advertised in your catalogue. Beyond that I can’t say.’

‘You seem to be remarkably knowledgeable, Miss Maxwell-Hume,’ Plews said. He’d re-grouped now. ‘We had this painting valued and verified by an expert, Professor John Adam of Edinburgh University. Why should I believe you over him?’

‘Because Adam is a generalist,’ Mary said. ‘I am the true specialist in the Dundee Circle.’

‘What gives you the right to claim that?’

‘This, perhaps?’ replied Mary, digging down into her large handbag once again to produce a small glossy-covered paperback. The cover read

The Dundee Circle

Mary Maxwell-Hume

At the foot of the page, a banner was printed: ‘NOW TRANSLATED INTO ELEVEN LANGUAGES.’

‘You wrote this?’ Plews said, surprised. Then he remembered who he was and turned on the contempt tap again. ‘I’ve never heard of it. Or you, for that matter, Miss Maxwell-Hume.’

‘Well, of course, Mr Plews, if you’re happy, that’s all that matters. I’m only trying to help. You’ll be the one that’s sued by any buyer who discovers that the painting on the wall isn’t what it claims to be.’

‘I’m prepared to take that chance,’ said Plews, smugly.

‘As you wish,’ Mary said. ‘But I’d have thought that one fairly insignificant picture was hardly worth taking any sort of chance, given the overall size and value of the Carberry estate, wouldn’t you agree? I’m sure the sellers would prefer to see that their property was sold correctly.’

‘Was there anything else, Miss Maxwell-Hume?’ said Plews, ignoring Mary’s question. ‘I presume you’ll not be here for the sale tomorrow?’ It was said as an order.

‘Of course not, Mr Plews,’ said Mary. ‘I’m only interested in the work of the Dundee Circle, and Logan in particular. So, no, there’s nothing that interests me here.’

She turned, and gracefully made her way across the room towards the exit. Only then did Plews identify Mary’s perfume: Chanel No.5.

Next day, Lambert’s auctioned off 132 lots from the art collection of the Carberry estate. Theodore Plews was relieved to see that, true to her word, Mary Maxwell-Hume was nowhere to be seen. He didn’t like female art experts: they made him feel uncomfortable.

When Lot 64 came up, it was announced by David Cockburn, the auctioneer for the day, as ‘Factories At Dawn by Walter Logan, oil on canvas, 1926.’ It was – by the standards of the rest of the sale – a low-value lot, and Cockburn had to bang his gavel a couple of times to grab the audience’s attention. He was about to set off when a hand rose in the audience to ask a question.

‘Excuse me, can I seek a little clarification on something?’ It was an elderly gentleman, tall and distinguished-looking with silver hair. Wearing a sports jacket and tie, he stood out slightly from many of the professional suited figures standing around who had come to bid for some valuable items which were sure to be good investments.

The auctioneer realised that the elderly gentleman was inexperienced and nodded encouragingly. ‘Please sir, go ahead.’

‘I’ve heard a rumour that the picture you’re about to auction might not be all it seems. Do we have any protection if we buy?’

Across the room, a younger, bearded man piped up, ‘I’ve actually heard that, too.’

Some thirty or so heads in prime bidding positions in the centre of the room turned from the elderly gentleman towards the younger bearded man, and back again. Then as one they turned towards the auctioneer, to see what would happen next.

The auctioneer seemed relaxed enough. ‘I’ve had no information to suggest that Lot 64 isn’t as described,’ he said, peering over his reading glasses at the audience.

‘I don’t mean to be impertinent, but I think that picture’s provenance is being questioned now,’ said the bearded man. ‘It’s one thing to auction some item and get it wrong accidentally, but wouldn’t it be fraud if you knew it was a fake?’

The auctioneer drew himself up. ‘Are you suggesting that Lot 64 is a fake, sir?’

‘No,’ said the bearded man. ‘I’m asking you if Lot 64 has been subjected to independent verification by Lambert’s.’

The auctioneer picked up his telephone: Theodore Plews was on the auction floor within thirty seconds, his face scarlet with anger.

‘This damned picture!’ he said as burst through the door. ‘Who’s causing trouble now? Is it that woman again?’ He stopped to look around, but he could see no sign of Mary Maxwell-Hume. Curiously, he was sure someone in the room was wearing Chanel No.5.

Many of the bidders were shocked by Plews’ behaviour; a couple actually walked out there and then, audibly muttering about the Director’s rudeness – and misogyny.

A third bidder – a little hunch-backed lady in her late seventies – raised her hand to speak. The auctioneer spotted her and, teacher-like, invited her to speak.

‘Excuse me…’ She had a slightly nervous, quietly clipped accent that might have once been South African. She stood, blinking at Plews in an inquiring manner, with her dark red raincoat hanging open. ‘I understand that you’re the Director. Perhaps now that now you’re here, you can vouch personally for the painting? If all of us here heard you vouch for this painting’s authenticity with your own personal money rather than Lambert’s, we’d all be satisfied.’ She smiled sweetly, although her hunchback meant that she had to twist her head slightly to allow the smile to be seen. Plews stood speechless, so she added, ‘How does that sound? Hmm?’

Plews felt his collar a tightening a little. At times like these a couple of veins stood out a little on his forehead.

‘You want me to underwrite the risk personally?’

‘Why not?’ the woman in red said. ‘You’re the boss here, aren’t you?’ Then she added, ‘Assuming you insist this is a Logan, of course.’ She could see Plews struggling to maintain control of things.

‘Or perhaps we could just sell it as ‘unattributed’?’ suggested the hunch-backed lady in the red coat. ‘It could be ‘sold as seen’, and those who thought it was by… this Logan ‘chappie’ could simply take their chance.’ She waved vaguely, cocked her head and smiled again. ‘Personally I haven’t a clue. I think it’s a miserable-looking thing myself.’

Plews was aware that the Carberry estate sale was going well; most lots had realised far in excess of their anticipated value. He could have withdrawn the painting from sale, but this Logan – or whatever it was, he was beginning to wonder now – was a relatively minor item. Lambert’s had a reputation for its ‘White Glove sales’, disposing of every single lot up for sale. He was anxious to get on with the rest of day.

‘Go ahead, we’ve got more important things to be concerned about.’ he grunted at the auctioneer. The auctioneer shrugged his shoulders, although inwardly he was embarrassed by Lambert’s lack of professionalism.

Now ‘sold as seen’ the bidding began low, and in truth the room was slightly unsettled by the unseemly debate over the ‘Logan’. Only two people bid, and the picture was knocked down at £450 to the inexperienced elderly gentleman. He went forward immediately with his chequebook, and it had to be explained to him that the payment process could wait until a gap in the proceedings. One or two of the others let out a snigger, including the bearded man who in turn found himself being upbraided by the hunch-back lady in the red coat for being ‘cruel and superior’.

Seven months later, a Walter Logan painting called Factories At Dawn sold for just over £15,000 at the Glasgow rooms of Lambert’s Auction House. The seller, Henry Dougall, was delighted, having picked up the painting for just £450 in a similar auction in Edinburgh. A gentle man, as well as a gentleman, the money had come at a good time for Dougall. Recently widowed, he’d spent the previous three years paying for his wife’s nursing care in a nearby, but rather expensive, home: he’d much rather have cared for at home, but the demands of her Alzheimer’s Disease had simply overwhelmed him. On her death, he’d been sent an unexpected bill for several thousand pounds, money he wouldn’t have been able to raise without selling his house.

Lenny Roebuck was a man in his mid-thirties. For a few years Roebuck had sported a neat beard, the one good thing he’d picked up from a spell in Saughton Prison where he’d spent thirty months after being caught up in tax evasion scam. As the company accountant, he’d been held most responsible by the judge, even although he’d tried to say that he’d only been following instructions. Accountants who have been jailed for fraud often have difficulty once they’ve served their sentence, the more so since Roebuck’s error had cost him his marriage as well as his profession. He, too, was a man in need of financial help.

The auction that day had been notable for the presence of a nun, unusual in itself, but doubly so because she wore a scarlet red habit that clung to every last crevice of her tall, slim form. Some onlookers expressed surprise that a nun should be so interested in art, then went on to compliment her dress, to which she replied rather enigmatically that her order believed that nuns should only wear what was necessary to preserve modesty. The nun had been rather a distracting and perfumed influence: as she drifted up nearby, several male bidders had made slightly excitable bids, driving up the eventual sale price of the lot. The Logan had been the main beneficiary.

No one complained, though.

Shortly after the Glasgow Lambert’s sale, Dougall and Roebuck could be found seated at a table opposite each other in a smart new cafe in the city’s Byers Road. They chatted for several minutes, but abruptly rose to their feet as the red-robed nun floated in to join them.

‘That went well,’ the nun said. ‘Are you happy, Henry?’

‘Delighted,’ the older man said. ‘I won’t need to move house now.’

‘You understand why I felt it was better to come to Glasgow,’ she said. ‘We didn’t really want to arouse Mr Plews’ suspicions, did we? And he’s on holiday this week as well – studying World War 2 East Anglian airfields, or some other warlike thing. Are all men the same?’

‘We’re not all the same, Mary,’ Roebuck reassured her.

‘I’m relieved to hear it, Leonard.’

‘And thank you for helping me with my own financial difficulties.’

‘But the money’s not all mine, is it?’ Dougall said. He drew out his chequebook. ‘Of our fourteen thousand pounds’ profit, I understand that Lenny and I can take five thousand pounds each, is that what we agreed?’

Roebuck smiled.

‘Indeed,’ said the nun, ‘and the remaining four thousand are my… expenses, you understand. Two books needed to be printed, for instance. And in terms of dress… a woman must maintain standards.’

‘Of course.’ Neither of the men was ever going to argue.

As Dougall handed the two cheques over, Roebuck said to the nun, ‘Henry and I wanted to give you a present to thank you.’

‘Oh, but you shouldn’t – ’

‘You’re not an easy person to buy a gift for, Mary, I won’t deny it,’ Roebuck said. ‘You don’t seem to… wear the trappings of wealth very much.’ The nun lowered her eyes coyly. ‘So Henry and I hope you’ll accept this instead,’ he added, placing a small box on the table in front of them.

The nun opened the box carefully. Could it be? Yes… a bottle of Chanel No.5.

‘Ah,’ she said. ‘My favourite. However did you know?’


Lambert’s might have been an old-established Edinburgh firm, but it wasn’t old-fashioned. While other auctioneers traded on tradition and decaying style, Lambert’s had long held the view that customers needed the best facilities that modern life could offer. At the turn of the millennium, the firm had moved from a back-street city-centre building to a purpose-built complex on the city boundary, comprising four different auction rooms, and a further ten exhibition rooms. Inquisitive members of the public could come and browse for free through the thousands of items ‘for upcoming auction’. No visit, though, would be complete without allowing the children half an hour in the definitely not free soft play area, or coffee and eye-waveringly expensive cake in the tearoom. Lambert’s was also aware of the need for the little things of life: it was the first to offer internet access for free, and large wall-sized television screens broadcast the BBC News Channel all day.

Mary Madeleine Scarlett Maxwell-Hume was banned from Lambert’s.

Mary Maxwell-Hume was taller-than-average, yet she could appear quite small. She was slim, yet she could appear overweight. She was bleach-blonde, brunette, grey- and silver-haired, and her hair was both long and short. She never wore the same dress twice in the same month. No one could quite put an age on her. In other words, no one at Lambert’s actually had a clue what Mary Maxwell-Hume looked like for sure.

Mary’s preferred attire was, shall we say… well-fitted. Whenever she could, she chose a dress that emphasised her real figure, which was quite tall and fairly slim. She claimed to be a member of the Sisters of Mary of the Sacred Cross, an obscure order whose exact membership numbers were even more obscure; indeed, no one could ever remember seeing two Sisters together in the same location. Sometimes Sisters could be seen out in their striking red nun’s habit, but it was never easy to identify which Sister was which. They maintained a website which revealed few details other than the order’s motto – in French, not Latin, Au Naturel, Mon Dieu – and its core philosophies. The philosophies were mostly unexceptional, bar one: sisters were expected to wear ‘only as much clothing as is necessary to provide due modesty’. Sometimes, Mary Maxwell-Hume’s choice of dress made it all too clear that she obeyed the Order’s rules to the letter.

Mary had one weakness – perhaps all the Sisters had the same weakness – she could never bring herself to meet another human soul without a discreet dab of Chanel No.5 on her wrists and behind her ears. Sometimes not so discreet. Lambert’s Auction House might not be able to work out which of the women (or sometimes even men) present was Mary, but they were aware from her scent that she was there somewhere.

Mary knew that, and worked within her limitations, sometimes even using those limitations to her advantage. Once, she managed to panic an auctioneer into knocking down a collection of letters which had survived the Titanic disaster at less than a third of the guide price. On another occasion she succeeded in persuading two American golf collectors to bid against each other for a rare nineteenth-century golf ball which would later prove to be a complete fake. She could, and did, cause chaos. She was too clever to bid herself – that would simply have seen her identified and banned in yet another form.

Instead, Mary had friends. No one quite knew what hold she had over these men: there was speculation that it might have been blackmail, but readers will be relieved to know that Mary Maxwell-Hume was a woman of strict morals and would never stoop so low. Instead, she selected some of society’s unfortunates – lonely divorcees, those recently made redundant, some struggling to provide for families, men with depression and other mental health problems; ex-convicts were particularly well-represented. Mary sought to redress some of life’s ills by giving these men’s lives some purpose and incidentally redirecting some income in their direction. Redirecting some in Mary’s, too, of course.

Mary’s ‘friends’ were detailed off to ‘work’ Lambert’s on her behalf. Sometimes the salesroom was auctioning furniture; on another occasion it might be works of art; or perhaps the sale that day had a music theme – cellos, violins and the like. Indeed it was a music sale that led to Lambert’s very first attempt to ban Mary Maxwell-Hume.

Most people have heard of J. S. Bach, in the eyes of many the greatest composer who ever lived. He produced a vast body of work, and towards the end of his life started work on a project called The Art Of Fugue. It’s not an easy piece. Effectively, there’s only the one tune, reworked over and over again, possibly for different instruments, but no one has ever been absolutely sure what Bach had in mind for The Art Of Fugue. Some people might regard The Art Of Fugue as the most tedious piece of music ever written, but for purists it’s intriguing, weaving magical patterns around the listener’s ear. What’s more, arguably its most fascinating feature is that it was Bach’s final masterpiece – literally so, in the sense that he died in the middle of writing it. It’s unfinished. Indeed, performances and recordings frequently stop slap bang in the middle of the eighteenth piece, leaving the untrained listener wondering if something’s gone wrong; meanwhile the cognoscenti smugly enjoy the opportunity to show off their knowledge by bursting into loud applause.

Needless to say, such a curious piece attracts curious collectors. Ever since Bach’s death, ambitious composers have attempted to complete the canon in the great man’s style: faintly amusing heard once, but usually fit to be filed away somewhere in a drawer afterwards for ever. And inevitably, there have been rumours of a completed version, written in Bach’s own hand and therefore all the more priceless. Perhaps it’s in a private collection somewhere? Perhaps something assumed to be the work of a contemporary of Bach’s – his son Carl Philipp Emanuel being the chief suspect – was actually the undiscovered Holy Grail?

But the sudden, magical appearance of anything claiming to be a ‘complete’ version of the unfinished eighteenth Contrapunctus 18 was always going to be greeted with suspicion by the experts. Had the missing manuscript been claimed as such by its owner, that would indeed surely have been the case. But that wasn’t how it happened.

Founded in Leipzig, the Sisters of Mary of the Sacred Cross were a little-known order dating back to the time of the time of Martin Luther. According to its website, the nuns had attempted to bring peace and harmony to the Reformation-era Church by trying to see good in both sides, and had naturally ended up being persecuted by both instead. But instead of bowing to persecution, the Sisters decided to follow the lead of Our Lord and embrace suffering, even choosing the colour red for their habits: blood doesn’t show (much) on red clothing. That, though, was all they allowed themselves to wear. If Christ himself was naked on the Cross, then the Sisters surely needed no clothing other than that which was necessary for due modesty. The red habit would suffice.

Nowadays, the Sisters of Mary of the Sacred Cross are an order on the verge of extinction, driven to find peace and calm in the most distant corners of Europe. One such ‘distant corner’ is the Trinity area of Edinburgh, where the residence of Mary Maxwell-Hume is to be found.

Mary had been giving a piano lesson – giving lessons was her main source of income – to a young woman called Laura who was herself a viola teacher, but who needed to maintain her piano accompaniment skills. As usual, Mary had invited Laura to play some of the accompaniments she had recently found challenging. Then, also as usual, she had finished the session by inviting Laura to rummage around in her copious files of music comprising some little-known pieces by famous composers, some new pieces written by Mary herself, and plenty of ‘scraps’ – assorted hand-written pieces, usually unsigned. For a change, Laura had dug down, right to the foot of the ‘orange box’, and emerged with a very old, yellowed piece of paper covered in handwritten, but clear enough, keyboard music. Mary shrugged her shoulders as if to say ‘No idea, never seen it before’, so Laura set it on the music stand and started to take it on.

Two things were immediately evident. First of all, the piece was completely unplayable. Secondly, the music was familiar: whoever had written it had borrowed Bach’s Art of Fugue and reworked it. It bore a signature of sorts, but neither Laura nor Mary could make anything of it. The music finished on a bar which progressed Bb, A, C, B.

Intrigued – and rather against Mary’s advice – Laura had burrowed down again into the box and found several other old pieces of music. Several were clearly of 18th century origin: for instance there was a collection of tunes by the great Scottish composer and fiddle player Niel Gow. But this solitary fragment intrigued her. What was it? Who had written it?

Mary suggested that Laura take it to an auction house if she were that interested – Lambert’s, she suggested, were the most reliable. The pile of musical scraps had been in the Sisters’ hands since long before anyone could remember, although Mary Maxwell-Hume herself had attempted to sort out some of them. She recalled some letters on the same type of paper; some were in Latin, some perhaps in Germanic script, but none were in English. She’d passed the letters over to a friend years ago, and had never given any further thought to them. Laura spoke German, and wished she’d had the chance to see them for herself.

Theodore Plews, Director of Lambert’s Auction House (Edinburgh) Ltd., took one look at Laura’s scrap of paper and suggested it might be ‘a minor fragment related to the Niel Gow collection’ that Mary Maxwell-Hume possessed, but decreed it to be of ‘little interest’ otherwise. But at that very moment a passer-by overheard the conversation, older, perhaps, probably around seventy. He asked to have a look at Laura’s ‘scrap of paper’ and wasn’t quite so dismissive.

‘It’s always worth having a quick look at the paper and ink used in anything like this. Check for watermarks and so on, too.’ He held it up to the window, studied it, then pronounced, ‘Hmm. Where did you say you found this?’

‘My piano teacher had it in a box of other bits and pieces,’ Laura said. ‘I was telling Mr Plews – beside the Niel Gow fiddle pieces and a couple of handwritten fragments on old paper. This one seemed complete – and I recognised a part of the tune.’

Plews was definitely a little put out by this man’s interference.

‘And you are…?’

‘I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself,’ the man began, but Laura interrupted him and he wasn’t allowed to finish.

‘Actually – I’ve just realised – aren’t you Donald Rattray? The famous Perthshire fiddler?’

The man chuckled. ‘And there was me thinking I was incognito,’ he said. ‘But I wouldn’t have thought too many people would recognise me, all the same. Are you a musician, too?’

Laura blushed. ‘Well, I play the viola a little. Violin, too, of course,’ she said. ‘I’m only a teacher, though.’ She went on to explain that her contact with Mary Maxwell-Hume was because her accompaniment skills needed brushing up.’

‘We all owe our careers to a good fiddle teacher or two, Miss…’

Laura introduced herself in return, saying how proud she was to meet the great Donald Rattray of Dunkeld.

‘And you’ll understand that it was the Dunkeld connection that caught my attention, Laura,’ said Rattray. ‘As you might know – ’

‘Of course! Niel Gow came from Dunkeld, too,’ said Laura. Meanwhile Plews was watching this conversation go backwards and forwards as though it were a tennis match.

Rattray nodded to acknowledge the compliment. ‘Mr Gow was truly a great man, Laura. But I’m a student of classical music, too. I’m as happy giving Bach recitals as I am playing at a ceilidh. And did you know that the two great men actually met?’

‘They did?’ said Laura and Plews, simultaneously.

‘Yes indeed,’ said Rattray. ‘They were contemporaries, you know – so many of these great composers knew each other. Did you know that Bach, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti were born in the same year?’

‘Really?’ said Laura, wide-eyed.

‘I thought everyone knew that,’ Plews said dismissively. Laura blushed slightly again, rather humiliated by the unpleasant dapper little man with the Hitler moustache.

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Out of interest, what year was that, Mr Plews?’

Plews had over-reached himself: he’d no idea. He pretended he hadn’t hear.

‘1685, Laura,’ Rattray called out. ‘I’m not sure Mr Plews actually heard you.’

‘I’m sorry, Mr Rattray,’ Plews said, ‘but my mind was on rather more important matters than a Trivial Pursuit question. I’m a busy man.’

‘Of course, of course. I understand,’ Rattray said. ‘And I quite understand that this discovery is far too big, too historically important, for a small provincial auction house like this to handle. This is for the major league players down in London. I might let King and Castle see it first, perhaps.’ King and Castle were Lambert’s main competitors in Edinburgh, although Lambert’s thought they were a cut above.

‘Look, on second thoughts…,’ said Plews.

‘No, no, you’re busy. I appreciate that you personally might not have the confidence or experience to deal with this.’

Plews regrouped and returned to sneer mode.

‘If you’re the expert, why don’t you tell us what you know, Mr Rattray?’

‘The theme is definitely The Art Of Fugue, Bach’s final masterpiece,’ said Rattray, ‘and the paper might actually be 18th century German. Of course, it could be any 18th century bit of German music, and it could also be someone pretending to be Bach, but then there’s the music itself.’

‘What about the music?’ asked Plews, already more than a little irritated with himself that he’d allowed the specialist to usurp his position.

‘Well it’s obvious, isn’t it?’ Rattray said. It wasn’t, of course, not to anyone else but himself. Seeing the blank looks on the other two faces, he went on, ‘It’s the final bar – Bb – A – C – B. The B natural in German notation at the time would have been an ‘H’. It’s like a signature.’

‘Bach,’ Plews repeated. ‘But anyone could have written that.’

‘Indeed they could,’ the music expert acknowledged. ‘What makes it interesting is what it might be, not what it probably isn’t.’

Plews often struggled to understand what experts said, but Laura was a little confused, too.

‘Could you just explain that?’ she said.

‘Sorry,’ Rattray said. ‘I quite understand, it’s probably nothing at all. However, although I see lots of old fiddle manuscripts, this one is a little special. This is definitely Niel Gow’s handwriting – he had a unique way of setting out the notes. But, it’s on an extraordinary kind of paper.’ He held it up to the light. ‘Can you see that swirling marks at the bottom left…? Those are the marks of handmade paper, made from rags rather than wood fibre. This paper is definitely pre-1800 in date. Paper-makers made their wares from whatever rags were to hand locally, and this is, I’m pretty sure, Eastern European – Polish, perhaps, or more likely Prussian.’

‘Is Leipzig a possibility?’ Laura asked.

‘Leipzig? Why, of course, but why did you ask?’

Laura explained that her piano teacher had inherited some ancient possessions from the city.

‘But that’s astonishing!’ Rattray said. ‘That’s a real connection.’

‘I’m sorry to sound so stupid,’ Laura said, ‘but your story about Niel Gow and Bach. How would they have met? How would they have even spoken to each other?’

Plews, for his part, wondered this, too, but was glad to have Laura ask the daft questions on his behalf.

‘Ah,’ said Rattray. ‘Now that’s an interesting question, and the answer is an extraordinary coming-together of a number of events. Bach died in 1750, just four years after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite Rebellion ended at Culloden. Niel Gow’s great patron in Dunkeld was the Duke of Atholl, who helped defeat the Jacobites by raising troops in Dunkeld itself. As a reward, George II sent the Duke and his favourite musician Gow to meet Bach – and as a translator, sent Handel.’

‘They were all there together!’ Laura said.

‘So the story goes. Handel was bi-lingual by this stage, of course, although legend has it that only the Duke of Atholl could understand Gow.’ Laura chuckled as Rattray continued, ‘Bach, Handel and Gow played to each other on their preferred instruments – Gow could really only play the fiddle, but he was very good. Anyway, I think this was around 1748, shortly before Bach died and during the very period when he was obsessed with The Art of Fugue. It all fits.’

‘But it’s just a story,’ Plews reminded him. ‘There’s no evidence of any meeting at all, is there?’

Rattray stood silently to allow Plews to consider what he’d just said.

‘There was no evidence, no. Until now,’ he said, eventually. ‘But that’s just my opinion. You’re entitled to yours. Why don’t you check it out?’

‘I’m not sure who to ask,’ Plews admitted.

‘How about one of the other auction houses?’

‘No!’ Plews said, abruptly. ‘They’ll just try to question it.’

‘So what do I do?’ Laura asked.

Plews said that there was a Lambert’s music sale due the following month. He could include it as a lot for sale if Laura was willing to part with it. Laura said she would check with her piano teacher, but thought it should be fine. Plews agreed to advertise it in the sale with all of the details as supplied by Rattray but thereafter ‘sold as yet unauthenticated’.

Theodore Plews knew that written evidence of a meeting involving Bach and Gow would be worth tens of thousands of pounds, perhaps more. He’d already worked out that it was well worth the gamble on spending a couple of hundred pounds to claim ownership now. Of course, he wasn’t allowed to bid for the lot himself, that simply wasn’t professional. However, Plews had a plan: his cousin Arthur – who conveniently looked nothing like him and was always looking for a way to earn a quick penny – could stand in for him instead.

In the weeks leading up to the music sale, Plews had managed to work himself into quite a frenzy, increasingly certain that this small fragment of paper in a glass case was in fact a priceless link between two utterly divergent cultures. In his own mind, each week added another million to its value.

Arthur was instructed that he was to make sure that he outbid anyone else, up to and including £10,000. Arthur was surprised, but Theodore assured him that if the bidding started to go crazy, then that in itself was reassuring that the document was indeed priceless. Arthur meanwhile made a mental note that cousin Theodore was clearly well-enough off to be tapped for a loan at some point in the future, but in the meantime was to receive £300 for his services at the sale.

By the day of the auction, the musical fragment had received a fair amount of publicity in the local news, as well as in some trade publications. Everyone was aware that buying it was a gamble, but Lambert’s had a reputation and Plews was repeatedly quoted saying that the auction house was rarely taken in.

The sale-room was very full by the time Lot 198 came round. He recognised the usual mix: genuine buyers, interested spectators, even some journalists. Plews’ eye was drawn to a tallish woman in her early thirties. Dressed in a back-trimmed well-fitting knee-length red dress, she had prominent front teeth, wore bottle-thick glasses, wore her long blonde hair tied back quite severely and was writing notes on a clipboard. She seemed faintly familiar – he was sure she’d covered a Lambert’s auction before for a local newspaper. Plews was nervous: he began to worry that even £10,000 might not land his prize. The bidding began briskly, led mainly by two competing men who were standing quite close to each other. Plews himself had taken up his usual position in the middle of the salesroom floor along with the bidders. His eyes darted from side to side, and as the bidding picked up he was pleased to see that Arthur had now entered at just over £1,200. Soon, the price was almost £5,000, and it was around then that he was aware of the tall blonde behind him. To be more exact, he was aware of her Chanel No.5 perfume.

‘I’m so glad you find my little scrap of paper intriguing, Mr Plews,’ the woman said, adding, ‘I do hope you win the auction. It might be a little… difficult if someone else were to discover what you’re up to here.’

Plews turned round in horror, but the red-dressed woman was already making her way towards the exit. His nemesis had somehow managed to get into Lambert’s undetected, and now she was going to escape, too. Not that there was much he could do, anyway. Plews realised that he was trapped; he’d been duped, but above all he had to stop anyone finding out. He knew that the only route out was to ensure that he himself became the owner of the ‘little scrap of paper’.

Turning to Arthur instead, he whispered in his cousin’s ear, ‘Make sure you win the bid. No matter what.’ Arthur raised his eyebrows to say ‘you’re sure?’, but Plews nodded his head vigorously.

In the event, Arthur – well, Plews – had to pay almost £11,000 for a scrap of paper he knew to be worthless. Plus £300 for Arthur’s services. But at least he’d preserved his reputation, and Lambert’s itself would never find out that he’d broken the company’s rules.


Laura and Donald Rattray sat in Whigham’s wine bar. Three other adult pupils from Mary Maxwell-Hume’s piano-teaching stable had joined them, each of whom been bidding for Mary’s ‘scrap of paper’. Mary herself was due, but always made a grand entrance precisely five minutes after the official meeting time.

Sure enough, at 7.35, a stunning silver-haired woman in her early fifties glided into the bar. Gone was the red-and-black knee-length skirt, gone were the prominent false front teeth, gone were the blonde wig and bottle-thick glasses. Instead she was dressed in her preferred calf-length extremely well-fitted dress – black on this occasion. Only the Chanel No.5 remained.

There was almost £11,000 to divide up. As the major players, Laura and Donald each received £3,000, a recognition, too, that their teenage daughter needed expensive dental treatment not available on the NHS. The three bidders received £1,000 for their work, leaving the remainder, around £1,500 for Sister Mary herself – or as she put it, for necessary expenses.

The group were well onto their second bottle of chardonnay when Donald finally asked the question they all wanted to know.

‘Why are we meeting here, Sister Mary? Whigham’s isn’t your usual haunt.’

Sister Mary smiled quietly. ‘Wait, Donald. Wait and see.’

They only had to wait another twenty minutes for their answer. Just before half past eight, Theodore Plews and his wife – who was several inches taller than him, incidentally – entered Whigham’s, although they didn’t see Mary or her friends.

Mary allowed them to settle into a quiet corner, order a bottle of red wine, then wandered across with another bottle herself and placed it on the table.

‘Good evening, Mr Plews. This is on me,’ she said. Plews looked furious, but his wife said, ‘Good evening, and thank you, Mrs… Aren’t you going to introduce us, Teddy?’

Mary took the lead herself. ‘My name’s Mary Maxwell-Hume. I’m a sort of working acquaintance of… Teddy’s,’ she said. ‘I’m interested in the arts myself.’

‘Oh, nice to meet you, Mary. I’m Nancy, Teddy’s wife. So what do you do? Are you a collector?’

‘No, no,’ Mary laughed. ‘I’m a piano teacher, really. But I’m actually a nun.’

‘A nun! But you’re not dressed…’

‘I belong to the Sisters of Mary of the Sacred Cross,’ Mary said. ‘One of our rules is that we only wear as much as is necessary to maintain due modesty.’

She watched as Nancy and Plews absorbed what she’d just said. She was just as amused to watch as Nancy’s eyes turned to her husband’s, who was glued to Mary’s dress. Then Mary leaned over and whispered in Plews’ ear – lingering a little longer to allow him to be even more embarrassed by her proximity – ‘Mr Plews, you can’t cheat an honest man. I hope my music gives you consolation.’

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