That mouth of yours will be getting you into big trouble one day.”
My mother started saying that as soon as I could talk. It turns out she wasn’t far wrong. By the time I was ten my refusal to hold my tongue had almost gotten us thrown out of our cottage. And a week before I turned twenty-three, I was on the run, wanted for murder.
The rhythmic puffing of the engine calmed me back to my senses. I had no clear memory of getting to the train station, but the pain in my ribs when I tried to breathe and the way I could feel my dress sticking to my back told me that I must have run every step of those five miles. About the state of the front of my dress I chose not to think. I pulled my shawl more tightly around me and glanced at the other people in my compartment. An old farm couple with weathered red cheeks already dozing in the far corner, a young mother with two lively little ones, plus another on the way, and a priest. He returned my glance and I looked away hastily, just in case priests could somehow read thoughts—or extract confessions. Wouldn’t he be surprised to hear mine right now?
Every time the conductor walked through the train and glanced into my compartment, I was sure he was looking for me. I But then that was stupid, wasn’t it? Justin Hartley was lying dead on my own kitchen floor but nobody would even know he was missing yet. My father and my little brothers weren’t due home until evening and Justin was hardly likely to have told anybody at the big house where he was going. I couldn’t picture him saying at breakfast, over the deviled kidneys or whatever disgusting dish the upper class had eaten this morning, “I’m just off down to the peasants’ cottages to have my way with Molly Murphy.”
So I had a few hours yet to make my escape. This train would take me all the way to Belfast. And then I probably had just enough money for a boat to England. After that, I couldn’t say. Maybe I’d be able to lose myself in a big city like Liverpool. Maybe I wouldn’t. Likely as not the police would catch up with me soon enough. It wouldn’t be too hard to spot an Irish girl on the run, especially one with flame red hair like mine. Since I knew nobody in England, I had nowhere to hide. So it was only a matter of time, but I was going to go on running as long as I could. I’ve never been known to give up on anything without a good fight.
I stared out of the carriage window. It was a picture perfect day, sky like blue glass, sparkling clear, with just a hint of frost in the air—the sort of day that doesn’t happen often in our Irish winters. The sort of day that would have made me rush through my chores, put the stew on the stove, and be off to walk along the cliff tops, with the wind at my back and the ocean at my feet. The sort of day when the gentry would be out, riding to hounds. A picture of Justin in his red coat flashed into my head. I’d always thought how handsome he looked in his red coat. I suppose I’d been a little in love with him when I was younger. Lord knows I never meant to kill him. I could almost feel that priest’s eyes boring into the back of my head as I stared out of the window.
Green fields dotted with fine horses in them flashed past. The horses looked up in alarm as the fire-breathing monster approached, kicked up their heels, and ran off. How well they looked. If I could run that fast they’d not find it so easy to catch me.
When they did catch me, it would mean the rope around my neck—not much doubt about that. My hand went instinctively to my throat and I shuddered. Did you feel anything when they hanged you? Was it all over in an instant? Would it hurt? They certainly wouldn’t listen to my side of the story. I’d killed an English landowner’s son. That had to be a hanging offense, even if I was just trying to preserve my honor. But then peasant girls have no honor, do they? As Justin said, I belonged to him as much as any of his farm animals. I couldn’t think of anyone who’d speak for me. Not my da—he’d be angry enough when he found I helped myself to the emergency fund in the teapot on the mantelpiece. It was supposed to be secret. We children all knew about it, of course, but the thought of my father’s leather belt across our backsides had prevented us from dipping into it. Right now a leather belt across the backside seemed a good sort of punishment compared with what else might be waiting for me. My hand strayed to my neck again.
No, I wouldn’t be counting on any sympathy from my da. He’d probably say I was leading Justin on with my loose ways. My loose ways had never stretched beyond going dancing on a Saturday night and maybe letting a boy walk me home, but that was enough for my father. In his day girls never talked back to their elders and never went out dancing without a chaperon. I did both. Frequently.
If my ma had still been alive, she’d have said I asked for it, too—always did have big ideas beyond my station and a mouth that was going to get me into trouble. It’s a pity she hadn’t lived long enough to say “I told you so.” She’d have enjoyed that.
It suddenly came to me that I was completely on my own. Our relatives were either dead or emigrated to other lands. I had no real friends in the village of Ballykillin anymore. The other girls I’d played with when I was little were long married to local clodhopping louts without a thought in their head but food, beer, and bed. Myself, I was holding out for something better, although I wasn’t sure where I’d find it. The funny thing was that those girls pitied me—I was the spinster, too old for anyone to want me and hopelessly on the shelf. I’d drifted apart from them long ago, of course, when I was chosen for schooling at the big house with the landowner’s two girls. Not that I could call Miss Vanessa and Miss Henrietta my friends, either. They’d always managed to make me feel like an interloper—in their well-bred, genteel way, of course. And now they’d gone off into English society and only managed a polite nod when their carriages passed me.
So I had no one on my side in the whole wide world. It was a frightening thought, but challenging, too. It meant I owed nothing to anyone. I was free of Ballykillin, free of all that cooking and cleaning for four ungrateful males, free to be who I pleased . . . if I could only get far enough away to start over. One thing was sure—I didn’t intend to die yet.
It was late afternoon by the time we pulled into Belfast station. I covered my head in my shawl and blended in with all the women coming out of the linen factories, allowing myself to be swept along with the tide until I could make my way to the docks. Nobody stopped me as I got on the boat, but I kept my head covered and my face well hidden all the way across to England. I didn’t sleep more than a wink all night, and by the time the coast of England appeared in the cold morning light I was hollow eyed and groggy.
Then I was there, in a strange city, a strange country, with fourpence in my pocket and no idea what to do next. As I came down the gangplank I looked across to see a big, beautiful ship with two fine funnels.
“Look, there’s the Majestic. White Star Line,” I heard a woman behind me saying. “You know—the one the O’Shea’s boy is sailing on to America.”
America, I thought with a wistful smile. That’s where I’d be headed if I had more than fourpence in my pocket. Irish boys were always running off to America when they got themselves involved in the troubles with the English. I stepped out of the stream of passengers for a moment and stared up at that fine ship. My but she was huge. Standing there on the dock and looking up was like looking up the tallest cliffs I’d ever seen. You could put the whole of Ballykillin in her and then have room enough left for a couple of cathedrals.
The tide of people jostled around me, sweeping me onward and out of the docks. Then the crowd dispersed, as if by magic, and I found myself alone, facing a wide promenade lined with tall, elegant buildings, the likes of which I’d only seen in pictures before. One of them even had columns at the front, like a Roman temple. There were carriages outside them, and hansom cabs and ladies in big, beautiful hats and fur-trimmed capes strolling past. I forgot that I was penniless and on the run, and I stood there, savoring the moment. I was really in a city at last and it looked just how I had imagined it! The building with the columns had a sign on it saying Cunard Line. The other, even taller in red-and-white brick, White Star Line. Both their balconies were draped in black. It took me a moment to realize that England was still mourning the death of the old queen, now over a month in her grave. Yes, the flags were still flying at half-mast. I hadn’t seen any such public displays over in Ireland, in fact I heard there had been dancing in the streets in Dublin. But then Victoria had never shown any particular love for the Irish, had she? Not that we hoped the new king Edward would be any better for us . . .
I was gazing up at those big buildings as I crossed the street. A blaring horn made me jump out of my skin as something low and sleek and powerful roared past me. So that was a motorcarl I stood watching it in admiration as it disappeared in a cloud of smoke. One day I’d have one of those, I decided, until I remembered that I was a criminal, on the run and not likely to be alive much longer if I didn’t use my wits. At least I was in a big city now. I should be able to blend in with the thousands of Irish who lived here already. I’d get myself a job in a factory, find myself a room, and maybe I’d be just fine. Maybe.
I set off, wandering the back streets. I’d never even been in a city before—until yesterday in Belfast, of course, but Belfast wasn’t half the size of this, and I’d been too frightened about getting caught to notice anything. I’d dreamed all my life of going to live in Dublin, or even London, in a fine house with my own carriage, and servants, lots of servants—always one for big dreams, I was, only they weren’t exactly turning out the way I’d planned.
I soon decided that cities weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Oh, to be sure, there were the grand houses along the waterfront, but a couple of streets back and it was a very different picture. Lots of gray, dirty streets with smoke hanging over them like a pall. It wasn’t like the sweet, herby peat smoke of home. It turned the air brown, and the burned, bitter smell stuck in my nostrils.
I walked and walked. All those houses so close together—rows and rows of them crammed into the dark shadow behind the big wharf buildings. Tired, gray-looking women standing in doorways with babies on their hips. Hard-faced children playing in the streets. One of them threw a rock at me, then fled when I turned on him. I was suddenly feeling hungry but I had no money for food. First a job, then I eat, I told myself.
By the end of the day I was back in the dockside area, still hungry and still jobless. I’d found plenty of factories but they all had signs outside saying, No Workers Needed or, even worse, No Irish Need Apply.
The gray morning had turned into a rainy afternoon, not the gentle refreshing rain of my home in county Mayo, but a soot-laden drizzle that painted dirty streaks down my cheeks and spattered my white cuffs. A bitter wind was blowing off the ocean. My feet were hurting me. I was cold, tired, and hungry. The fear that I’d managed to keep at bay until now was seeping through. They’d surely be looking for me by now. If I didn’t find a place to hide they’d find me soon enough and then it would be all over. Exotic smells came from the tall wharf buildings, spices and scents that conjured up distant ports. Maybe I’d be lucky enough to find an open door and a place to sleep for the night. Maybe something to eat, too.
I was making my way down a narrow alley, trying one door after another when I looked back and saw blue uniforms and helmets behind me. Two policemen were following me. I threw my shawl over my head and quickened my pace, but their heavy footsteps echoed from the high brick walls as they came after me. The alley turned a corner. So did they. Then I saw that I was trapped. It was a blind alley—high walls were all around me and the only way out was blocked by those two policemen. A door on my right was open a crack, although no light shone out. I had to take my chances. I pushed it open and stepped inside.