THE dinner party in Helensburgh was going well. A magnificent Beef Wellington, a whole fillet in an envelope of pastry, was being carved when the lights went on in the garden outside, activated by a cell which detects the approach of visitors or intruders.
''It must be a fox, or a cat,'' said our host, peering out of the window. ''But,'' said his wife, ''the electrician said he'd adjusted it so that cats, dogs and foxes wouldn't set it off.''
Our host wandered into the conservatory and had a look out from there. Nothing. We returned to the business in hand. In the Dickensian phrase, we discussed the Beef Wellington, the pudding and the cheese. The wine drank superbly. The conversation turned to housebreaking which all had experienced.
At length one of the party went to the sitting room in search of the cigarettes in her handbag. There was no sign of it. Her husband was a touch irritated, instantly assuming she had mislaid it. But our host tried the door of the main bedroom. It was locked from the inside. ''I can't believe this,'' he said. We went round the back. The bedroom window was open and through it we could see the room in uproar, with things scattered all over the floor.
The lights had not lied. The thief had then been making his approach. He had the audacity to continue, entering by the bedroom window and silently lifting its heavy frame. While we were at table he went through the rest of the house. In the other rooms he gathered up anything of value or items which, like a coat or a bag, might have contained valuables.
He must have been only yards away from us at times and must have had to dodge our hostess as she went back and forth between kitchen and dining-room. Then he locked himself in the bedroom and went through what he had collected. When he heard the alarm raised about the handbag, he made his escape through the window; he was probably in the bushes nearby when we went round to check.
This is not an unusual tale, certainly not in this part of the world. When the police arrived, which they did very quickly, they told us that this was undoubtedly the work of a well-known local criminal, a Helensburgh Raffles to whom, for legal reasons, we shall give the name of Pierrot.
The senior bobby spoke of him with a kind of wide-eyed admiration that had a certain moral ambiguity. ''Aye,'' he said, ''we've been after him for about eight years. He's been in court a couple of times but he aye gets off. He's that good!''
For a time we had thought he might still be around in the upstairs flat (a false alarm). Once the police did trap him in such circumstances. They had the place surrounded. ''But he ran all along the roof, jumped 20 feet into a clump of bushes, and ran off like a hare,'' said the policeman, beguiled by it all. He's an athlete. He keeps himself in tip-top shape. If you met him in the street, he added, you'd find him a really nice bloke. The Great Zorro, I thought sourly, could have had nothing on him.
For our hostess the most upsetting aspect of the burglary was now discovered. Outside, more or less on the front step, the criminal had left clothes she had bought as Christmas presents for her little grandchildren. They had been ripped. It was, apparently, Pierrot's cruel calling card.
She wept but the policeman consoled her. ''Don't worry,'' he said. ''He does this to taunt us, not you.'' Pierrot hated the police and appeared to enjoy his contest with them. Sometimes he cut clothes into strange shapes which he then hung over a light to leave a ghastly and disturbing trade-mark.
After the police left one of the missing handbags was found stuffed down the loo in the bedroom with the lid closed. Various other items began to be discovered under the bed and elsewhere. Pierrot had taken cash and wallets. In the morning much of their contents was found scattered over neighbouring gardens. In the dark he had even mistakenly discarded a #50 note. His haul was just over #100 and a gold tie-pin. He strictly avoided anything that might incriminate him later: he presumably would not use the credit cards (which by then had been cancelled in any case).
My immediate reflections included anger bcause of my friends' distress and a certain wry amusement over the policeman's naive wonder about the burglar. But it also seemed a hard way to earn a hundred pounds or so. Pierrot must do it for kicks.
This column has written before about the plague of housebreaking. Because of the demands on police resources made by other crimes deemed to be more urgent, it seems that very little can be done about it. But we all pay for it in the shape of rising insurance premiums which are a kind of tax to subsidise burglary.
As the police left that night they explained apologetically that the CID would not be able to call until the next day. ''They've just arrested a drug dealer in Dumbarton,'' said our friendly bobby, ''and that has tied them up completely.'' A not untypical circumstance, I suspect.
Meanwhile Pierrot, with his nerve, his luck and a good lawyer who does not give the police an inch (does he sleep well at nights?), lives to rob another day. After being burgled three times in the town I have perhaps grown a little blase but it remains a violating and deeply distressing experience. At least, I suppose, Pierrot scarpered: it could have been worse had he not.