Sharyn McCrumb

The Windsor Knot

The fifth book in the Elizabeth MacPherson series, 1990

For Roy and Jean Faulkner,

Accessories Before the Fact


TWO-THIRDS OF THE people on the list would have to be eliminated and the decision rested with Adam McIver, aged twenty-nine, a minor civil servant in Her Majesty’s government.

McIver, late of Fettes College and the University of Edinburgh, stared wearily at the list of names on the otherwise empty expanse of mahogany in front of him. On the other side of the table, Sir Spencer Duff-Binning (Cambridge, late Pleistocene) was sprawled in his black leather captain’s chair, his nose buried in the current issue of The Sun (which he kept tucked inside a copy of the more respectable newspaper, The Scotsman). Although he was the project director, and in theory even more responsible for the decision than Adam, he was apparently unconcerned with the grave task that lay before them. The decision had to be made at once, and Sir Spencer Duff-Binning (known as the Old Duffer only after his departure from the building) did not seem inclined to be helpful.

Twice now Adam had cleared his throat meaningfully and remarked, “Well, better get on with it!” The only response from the portly figure behind the newspaper was a grunt and a rustle of pages. Adam glanced at his watch, and again at the paperwork in front of him. He had just cleared his throat for the third time, intending to make a more direct suggestion for getting to work, but his introductory utterance was drowned out by the clatter of a metal cart and the call of “Tea time!” shouted in brassy Glaswegian from the doorway. Adam sighed and summoned a pale smile for Mrs. Drury, the tea lady, who was maneuvering her cart into the room as if she were docking a destroyer.

Another distraction.

Sir Spencer looked up from his newspaper with a happy smile and waved her over. “Got any chocolate Bath Oliver biscuits today, Mrs. D.?”

Adam inspected the cake selection without favor. “Just tea, thanks.”

While Sir Spencer and Mrs. Drury nattered on about their respective gardens, name-dropping flowers at a dizzying rate, Adam accepted his cup of tea and returned his attention to the list. When he had chosen a career in the civil service, he had been fully prepared to accept the gravest responsibilities in carrying out his country’s affairs of state. Just now, though, he was finding it a bit difficult. In some ways officialdom in Edinburgh’s Old St. Andrews House was much as he had imagined it from childhood. He looked around the oak-paneled room, with its shelves of gilt-titled books, black marble fireplace, and the blue government-issue Wilton carpet. It looked like a room in which major policy decisions ought to be made. Except in wartime. Where did the major historic events take place then?

“In tents, I suppose,” said Adam, thinking aloud.

Sir Spencer stopped stirring his tea and looked up. “What’s that?”

“Nothing, sir. Just wondering where the country’s great decisions are made.”

“In tents, you said? Absolutely. Quite a lot of policy decisions are made in tents. Except in wartime, of course. It’s castles, then. Or fortified basements. But nowadays, tents are the usual thing. Diplomats crowd under them at state funerals, when they get together to do a little bargaining between the psalms, so to speak. Rally round the punch bowl at garden parties. Ascot. That sort of thing.”

“Railway carriages, too,” said Adam, still thinking of history.

“Oh, that,” said Sir Spencer in chilling tones. “Well, it guaranteed the succession, but I’d hardly call that particular episode a policy decision.”

“Ending World War I not a policy decision?” said Adam. “I was thinking of the Armistice. It was signed in a railway carriage in France, wasn’t it?”

“Oh, that. Indeed,” said the old man, more red-faced than usual. “I thought you were referring to an incident in the courtship of the present Prince of Wales.”

Blushing, Adam returned to the subject of his immediate concern. “I’m in a bit of a funk over this list,” he admitted. “It’s quite a solemn responsibility.”

Sir Spencer’s attention strayed back to page three of his newspaper. “Well, just make a little cross beside the names that you select,” he said. “I’ll back you up. There’ll be no whining from the rest, you know. They’re British, aren’t they?”

“Well… actually, I believe we have to include fifty Americans.”

“Yes, but you don’t have to choose them. Their ambassador will do that. Get on with it. Who have you got so far?”

“Director-general of the Forestry Commission, the Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Gardens, the chairmen of the Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland, the lord provost of Edinburgh…”

Sir Spencer was not impressed. “Those are the easy ones,” he said with a smirk.

Adam nodded in agreement. “I know. It’s the others that I feel for. Those who have only one chance.”

Mrs. Drury had been making a great show of attending to the tea service so as not to be thought eavesdropping, but this last declaration had rendered all pretense of disinterest useless. “Excuse me, I’m sure,” she said, straining for a peek at the document. “But about your list there-oughtn’t you to put in a lot of doctors and nurses?”

Adam frowned. “Well, we have a couple of surgeons, of course, and two veterinary surgeons, but… nurses?”

The tea lady nodded. “It seems to me that medical folk-and firemen, now that I think of it-are the sort of people that ought to have first place in the fallout shelters. Not bankers!” She sniffed at the impracticality of bureaucrats.

Adam was at sea. “I’m sorry,” he stammered. “Fallout shelters?”

Mrs. Drury pointed to his list. “Aye. You’ve been talking about your grave responsibility of deciding who should be included. What else could it be?”

“Something even more momentous,” said Sir Spencer solemnly. “We are determining who shall be asked to the Queen’s garden party in Edinburgh.”

Mrs. Drury shook her head. “Fallout shelters is easier. Them that gets left out won’t be around to argue with you.” With that pronouncement, she pushed the tea cart toward the door, leaving them to their task.

Several minutes later Adam McIver stopped in mid-check mark as he noticed the next name on the list. “Hel- lo!” he cried. “Cameron Dawson! I was in school with him.”

Sir Spencer grunted. “What’s he down for?”

Adam consulted the biographical sheet. “It says here that he’s a marine biologist. Doctorate from Edinburgh. Areas of specialization something-something; papers in-oh, here we go. Remember when we had that epidemic among seals in the North Sea? We were afraid that they were all dying of pollution.”

“Vaguely,” said Sir Spencer, who preferred horses to seals.

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