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Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking,
Morn of toil, nor night of waking.
—Sir Walter Scott, “Lady of the Lake,” Canto I, stanza 31
Duff Head, Northeast Highland Coast June 1820
“Hard times been choking folks around here for a long while, and most of them would sell their own kin if they thought there’s a ha’penny to be made from it.” Jean paused and fixed her eye on her guest. “And one look at ye, and they’ll know yer good for more than that.”
A loud pop from the driftwood fire in the old woman’s hearth drew Isabella’s gaze. Sparks rose from the blue and lavender flames, struggling to find their way up the chimney. Wind and rain from the storm hammered fiercely at the shutters and the cottage door.
From what she’d learned on the journey here from John Gordon, Jean’s nephew, the village that huddled around the cove in the shadow of Duff Head consisted of no more than a few dozen families of fishing folk trying to scratch a meager living out of the sea. Desperate. Hungry. Poor. Though she’d always lived her life in the city—Wurzburg, Edinburgh—she’d known many people like them. They didn’t frighten her.
The soldiers pursuing her posed the real danger.
A ha’penny, Isabella mused. She was worth a fortune. These Highlanders knew nothing about the thousand pounds sterling on her head—the bounty offered by the government to anyone who could bring her back to Edinburgh alive to face interrogation, trial, and a public execution. Certainly, Jean had no knowledge of this. Nor did she know of the lesser amount bandied about by the radicals for her corpse to guarantee her silence. Both sides wanted her dead.
“I’ve lived here my whole life. The sea makes ye hard, and these folks are hard as stone,” the woman continued, perhaps reading a hint of skepticism in Isabella’s face. “They give their loyalty to no one. In the Rising of ’45, they wouldn’t fight for any side. If ye weren’t born here, yer an outsider. To them, even the Bonnie Prince was a stranger. And they don’t trust strangers.”
If only her husband, Archibald, had been a little more like them, Isabella thought. Perhaps he’d still be alive. But it was his nature to take a side. And now, she and her sister and his daughter were running for their lives from the same butchers who cut him down in his own surgery as he tried to care for injured men. Men who’d simply stood up as citizens against a line of British Hussars in the streets of Edinburgh.
“Yer a stranger and an unprotected woman traveling in the Highlands. An easy mark, to be sure,” Jean warned. “They’ll figure ye to be carrying at least a shilling or two, and they’ll cut yer throat for it. And then yer carcass’ll go into the sea. Them waters have swallowed up more than a few strangers.”
The older woman’s dire prediction was surely an exaggeration, but the fate that Isabella faced if she fell into the hands of the British was not. Her late husband’s friends, newly released after being held by the authorities, had often been brought to the surgery bearing horrible wounds. Their bodies had been broken. Unspeakable tortures had been inflicted on them. And it mattered naught if they were man or woman.
“Ye keep to the cottage,” Jean ordered, her tone as sharp as the needle she stabbed into the mending on her lap. “And if by chance anyone sees ye here, ye say nothing, ye hear? Ye look no one in the face, and ye answer no questions. If there’s anything to be said, I’ll do it.”
Outside, the storm continued unabated, and the wind whistled and rattled loose shutters. The stone cottage, poor as it was, provided safety and a thatched roof to keep most of the weather out. The rustic meal they’d shared of stewed fish and bannock cakes warmed and filled her. She was grateful to have it. The journey north through the Highlands had been wet and rough.
“I appreciate you taking me in like this.”
“I took ye in because my nephew asked me to … and gave me enough for yer room and board. But I don’t know what John is up to. Other than yer name, he didn’t say much about who ye are or where ye came from or where yer headed. But he’s a good lad, and he’s all the kin I have left. I trust him.” The hard glare softened with affection. “He says to me, all I need to know is that yer a good woman and some vile Lowlanders’ll pay to get their hands on ye. Says I’m to keep ye hidden for maybe three days. He’ll come back for ye.”
Jean’s nephew had gone back to Inverness to book passage for Isabella, her sister, and her stepdaughter on a ship that would carry them across the Atlantic to Halifax. But that meant three days of worrying and waiting before she was reunited with Maisie and Morrigan. Still, she hadn’t let the lawyer tell her where he’d placed the young women in the port town. Isabella was afraid she’d be forced to divulge their whereabouts if she fell into the hands of her British pursuers. She had to keep faith that John would do right by the girls. He’d been charged by Sir Walter to look after them all until they left Scotland.
Isabella’s gaze fixed on Jean’s trembling right hand. She’d noticed it before while the woman was eating, though her hostess tried to hide the infirmity. Now Jean’s needle could not find the target, and she sat back in her chair in frustration as the piece slipped off her lap to the stone floor. Isabella bent over and fetched it, along with the woman’s darning mushroom.
“Let me finish this for you.” Sitting across from her, she studied the threadbare stocking. There was hardly anything left of the heel to work with, but she put the needle to the task. From the corner of her eye, Isabella saw Jean using one hand to try and quiet the other.
The Shaking Palsy. Jean’s shuffling gait, the forward stooping, the occasional wiping of drool from the corner of the lips, and the trembling hand that wouldn’t be controlled confirmed it. A disease with no cure that would become increasingly difficult to manage for a woman of advancing years who lived alone. Especially living in a place as desolate as this lonely outpost. Duff Head was a rocky bluff pushing out into the cold green-grey swells of the sea to the east of Inverness. And Jean’s cottage sat like a hunchbacked sow between two stone-studded hills below the coast road, away from the village. She had no neighbors close by. Isolated as it was, Isabella understood why John suggested this would be a safe hiding place for her.
Her own difficulties aside, it was troubling to think Jean lived alone, out of reach of immediate help if she needed it.
Isabella made another covert survey of the cottage. The iron cooking pot was too heavy, and earlier, when Jean had struggled to swing it out from over the fire, Isabella had jumped to help her. The threadbare rug on the stone floor certainly presented a hazard as the ailing woman dragged her foot. If she fell and broke an arm or a hip, she could lie there helpless forever. “Does anyone visit you?”
Jean bristled. “If someone comes to the door, I’ll do the explaining. I’ll say yer Mrs. Murray, a friend of a cousin, on yer way down from the Orkneys. Heading to the Borders, ye are. Resting here for a few days. That’s all they need to know.”
Murray was her family name, and she’d lived as Isabella Murray for twenty-eight years until she’d married Archibald Drummond six years ago and returned to Scotland, to a homeland she hardly knew.
“I only asked out of concern for you.” Isabella looked at the gaps in the shutters where rain-drenched wind was coming through. And the thatched roof was hardly watertight. A stream was running down one wall and pooling in a dark corner. “I’m sure a cottage like this requires a great deal of upkeep and—”
“I manage. Always have and always will. And I’m not about to hearken to John’s talk of forcing me to live with him.” The cap sitting atop the grey hair bobbed in agreement. “Feet-first is how I’ll go. That’s how my sainted husband left our house, and they can take me out the same way.”
Isabella had known very little about John Gordon’s aunt before they got here. Their entire trip north, she’d been more worried about getting Maisie and Morrigan beyond the reach of the men who would surely be chasing them.
“The curate does his duty and looks in on me once a fortnight when he comes through. And the women in the village stop by with a basket now and again.”
The door shook from the force of a gust of wind. Jean followed Isabella’s gaze and frowned.
“If one of them comes calling, remember what I said. No talking. Even a whisper of that Lowland accent’ll give ye away.”
“I’m quite good at following directions. I’ll cause you no trouble.”
The roof of the cottage shook as if in disagreement and showered them with broken bits of thatch.
Trouble. Isabella plied the needle to the stocking. Trouble had been a constant companion to her from the moment Archibald brought them all back to Scotland, to their house on Infirmary Street near the surgical hospital. In Wurzburg—thanks to her father’s tutelage and influence—she was living a quiet and productive life as an accomplished physician and surgeon, well-versed in the science of medicine, privileged among her sex for being allowed to practice in a profession dominated by men.
Archibald had promised all would be the same in Edinburgh. Neither of them pretended that theirs was a love match. It was a marriage based on respect. It would meet their mutual needs, for her sister and his daughter would be provided for. She could practice medicine in his clinic and lead the same kind of life in Scotland. But he’d only spoken half the truth; he said nothing of the other part of himself.
He was a political idealist, a reformer, and his nationalist consciousness had reawakened the moment he stepped foot on the soil of his homeland. From then on, her husband led two lives. One, as a respected and learned doctor who was sought after by Edinburgh’s elite. And the other, as an activist whose evenings were constantly filled with secret meetings and radical efforts to change the repressive direction of the government in London. But that covert life of his, Isabella wanted no part in. She was Scottish by birth, but she’d lived nearly her entire life away from this land. Scottish nationalism and reform were lost on her, for she’d dedicated herself to one passion: medicine.
The collapse of embers in the fireplace tore away a barrier in her mind, and suddenly she was back in her house in Edinburgh. Back in the midst of the mayhem of that fateful day in April.
It had been a day of strikes. Weavers had ordered a shutdown of the city. Shopkeepers shuttered their windows and doors. Protests has been organized in Glasgow and in smaller towns as well.
The government’s response was direct and brutal. Troops on foot and horse attacked without warning, riding down and beating protesters in the street. After the clashes, eighteen were carried back to the clinic in their house with severe injuries. They hadn’t enough room for all the patients. Bleeding men lay moaning on the floor, in the hall, on the table in the kitchen. Some were not conscious.
Archibald saw to those wounded lying in the front rooms. Morrigan worked at her father’s elbow. Isabella set the broken leg of a six-year-old boy, an innocent bystander knocked down by the mob trying to disperse and trampled on by the ironshod hoof of a cavalry steed.
She’d just put the boy upstairs on her own bed when the sound of shouts and pounding outside drew her to the window. Red-coated militia crowded the street in front of the house.
“Soldiers!” Maisie cried, rushing into the room. “Here. Demanding to be let in!”
Sharp, clawing fingers of fear took her throat in a viselike grip. Isabella was no fool. She knew what was happening on the streets of the city. She was well aware of the identity of some of the wounded they were tending to downstairs at this very moment. She knew the roles these men were playing in the unrest.
“Grab your cloak,” Isabella ordered. “Go down the back steps and wait by the kitchen door while I fetch Morrigan. You two must leave the house.”
As she raced toward the stairs, the sound of the front door splintering from being battered open was followed by shouts. Her feet barely touched the boards as she flew down the steps.
The front rooms—always a place of order and healing—were a battlefield. Tradesmen and women fought fiercely against the invading soldiers in blue and red jackets. She’d never seen such brawling. More shouting. A gunshot.
Copyright © 2019 by May McGoldrick