SERIAL Northern Lights
Two young men warring over Maggie Cargill. Who would have thought it?
OVER the years Lilias had stoically weathered miscarriages, colds, upset stomachs and various aches and pains. Thus, when thundery rain fell on Arbroath one warm day, she dashed out to the green to help Maggie rescue the weekly wash, undertaken for their lodgers at tuppence a head.
Both got soaked to the skin, but while Maggie set about airing the men’s garments on a clotheshorse by the stove, Lilias sat down. Her teeth chattered and her fingers turned white and numb. Maggie grew concerned. “Away and change those wet clothes afore ye catch your death!”
Lilias obediently shuffled off to the bedroom, leaving Maggie staring after her.
After a time, Maggie tapped on the door.
“Grandmother, come and warm yoursel’ by the fire.”
No answer. Alarmed, Maggie went in.
Her grandmother’s wet clothes lay on the floor. Lilias had donned nightdress and nightcap and wrapped herself in a shawl before collapsing on the bed. She lay huddled on top of the bedspread, shivering violently.
“Ah, Maggie, it’s cold!” It was little more than a whisper but it struck Maggie with the force of nightmare. For one moment she was twelve years old, watching her mother dying on this same bed.
She helped Lilias snuggle under the blankets. “There, is that better?” Lilias nodded. Maggie placed a hand upon her brow. It felt hot. “Does your heid ache?” “No, but my throat’s sore since yestere’en, Maggie,” Lilias croaked. “I thought it would heal, but it’s worse.”
Terror swamped Maggie. Sore throat could be a sign of diseases ranging from the common cold to cholera, typhoid or a fatal inflammation of the lungs! She summoned a smile. “Pa gave us honey in hot water when we were poorly. Maybe that’ll help.”
“A spoonful o’ honey never killed onyone,” Lilias agreed huskily.
Amy and Cathy Mary had no appetite for supper when they learned their feisty grandmother was ill.
In addition, the tide was at a low ebb and their thoughts turned to Alec out on the hostile rock. He would be hard at work for the next two hours before a rising tide regained possession.
Amy, now thirteen, toyed listlessly with her tasty stew.
“Papa warned us not to turn our back to the sea lest an unexpected wave rose and swept us away. But if Alec is working on an island he must turn his back on it all the time, mustn’t he?”
Maggie tried to show confidence she didn’t feel.
“Noah tells me working on the rock’s as safe as working ashore, if ye keep your wits about ye.”
“You fancy him, don’t ye?” Amy’s gaze was sharp. “I do not!”
“Well, he fancies you.” “Stop havering!”
Yet Maggie had to admit Noah’s presence was welcome with Lilias laid low.
“Can I help at all, Miss Cargill?” he asked when the lodgers were alerted to the crisis in the house.
“My grandmother’s feverish and her throat’s badly swollen,” she said. The young man frowned. “Sounds like quinsy.” “Is that serious?”
“It can be. First ye must be rid o’ harmful poisons gathering in the throat.” Maggie wrung her hands. “How do I do that?” “Dinna fash, Miss Cargill. My ma had quinsy two years syne. Pa made poultices with goose grease spread on socks round her neck and gave her drinks o’ treacle in hot water.” He put an arm around her shoulders. “Flagons o’ cider eased Ma’s pain and chicken gruel and marrowbone broth soon had her up on her feet again.” Noah withdrew the arm. “Mind you, we are farming folk wi’ access tae countryside remedies. I dinna ken how fisher folk living by the sea will fare.”
“I could make fish liver poultices and get cider from the tavern, if only Grandmother will drink it,” Maggie mused.
“If not, the men’ll see it’s no’ wasted!” Noah said.
That night Maggie applied cold compresses to Lilias’s fevered brow while she tossed and turned restlessly, sometimes wailing piteously, mourning her husband and daughter, the and her life in Auchmithie. The long night wore on. Maggie wakened with a start from an exhausted doze at dawn. Lilias lay pale and silent. “Grandmother?”
Lilias opened her eyes. She was lucid, though pitifully weak after winning the battle with fever.
“Bless ye for the good ye did for me this night.”
Relief made Maggie’s response brusque.
“Dinna bless me, it’s yoursel’ that’s done it.” Lilias winced. “There’s little love lost between us, lassie. I wish I knew why.”
“I cannot tell ye. I promised my father. Now, close your een and rest.”
Lilias’s heavy eyelids drooped, and she slept.
Maggie made breakfast for her relieved sisters and saw them off to work. Silence settled on the house.
At noon there was a gentle tap on the outer door.
The visitor was Noah carrying a bundle.
“I begged bones and a leg o’ mutton frae the cooks in the yard, Miss Cargill. There’s skinned rabbits, too, tae feed the family.” “Oh, Noah, how kind!” Maggie resisted an urge to hug him. Her visitor was already attracting attention from passers by.
“Bring the meat inside, please; the larder’s cool.”
She left the door ajar, mindful of her reputation. No doubt every gossip in Arbroath would know that Lilias, her chaperone, was out of action.
Samuel Cameron was outside the shop sweeping the pavement free of mud from yesterday’s deluge when the two younger Cargill lassies appeared.
He was given a tearful account of Lilias’s sore throat and Maggie’s efforts to fight the fever.
The shop was not yet open for business so Samuel mounted the stairs to the living quarters to give Beatrice and his mother the news.
“Tell the granddaughter the best treatment for putrid throat is ginger in hot water,” his mother advised.
“You can’t get spices wi’ the French blockade on, Mama,” Beatrice said. Samuel frowned. “There’s stem ginger preserved in syrup in two or three jars on a shelf in the back shop.”
“See Mistress Spink has all she needs, free o’ charge,” Marion ordered.
Her son and daughter stared at such generosity. She scowled. “Dinna stand gawping. There’s nae time to waste wi’ a putrid throat.”
“Mama,” Beatrice ventured, “ye never usually concern yoursel’ wi’ customers. Why this one?”
“Lilias Spink’s my friend,” her mother answered.
Maggie lost no time storing Noah’s gift away in the north-facing larder whose stone shelves were icy to the touch even in the depths of summer. She unpacked a generous bundle of meaty marrow bones, a haunch of mutton and several skinned rabbits.
“Bless you, Noah. My grandmother will be ruling the roost in no time wi’ good food to sustain her.”
They stood in the big room, sunshine slanting through a half-open door. It was the first time they had been alone together. Maggie felt a strange sensation possess her.
Noah took her hand boldly and kissed it.
“Bonnie Miss Cargill, forgive the liberty,” he murmured.
The outer door opened wide, catching the pair in a full glare of sunlight.
“An unforgivable liberty!” Samuel Cameron cried. “Who the devil are you?” “I’m come tae protect Maggie from scoundrels like you.”
“Maggie, is it?” Noah said. “You deny Miss Cargill the respect she deserves.”
The remark infuriated Samuel.
“I’ve known Maggie since she was a bairn.”
“Biding your time till she grew, were ye?”
The taunt was the last straw. Samuel bounded forward.
“Stand aside, Maggie. I’ll put the upstart out!” Noah stood his ground. “I’ll leave when I please!” Maggie stood between the two warring men. It reminded her of tales of knights jousting for love of a lady. Fancy plain wee Maggie Cargill fought over by two lads, she marvelled.
The pair were posturing around, fists raised. It was almost laughable. “Stop your nonsense!” The protagonists lowered their fists and stared. Maggie pointed a finger. “Noah, I give you leave tae go. And thanks for the gift o’ meat.”
Noah mumbled a sheepish goodbye and left. She turned to Samuel. “In future, you will address me as Miss Cargill, as is mair fitting to my status as householder and your customer, Mr Cameron. Now, what business brought ye here?”
Samuel reached into his jacket for a jar.
“It’s stem ginger, er, Miss Cargill. My mother says an infusion o’ ginger in hot water will ease Mistress Spink’s putrid throat.” Maggie smiled warmly. “Thank your mother kindly for her concern. I’m sure my grandmother will want to visit Mistress Cameron to deliver her gratitude in person when she is recovered.”
She crossed to the door and held it open.
“Now I must attend to my duties. Goodbye.”
Maggie watched Samuel Cameron stride along the street towards the shop.
Noah had already departed in the opposite direction towards the work yard.
In the distance the steady clip clop of mighty Bassey’s hooves told of yet another delivery of
Aberdeen granite from the harbour to the workyard.
All was as it should be, Maggie thought, satisfied.
“What was the stir ben the hoose?” Lilias demanded when Maggie appeared with the ginger drink, prepared as instructed.
“Och, Noah was attempting tae win my favour when Mr Cameron arrived and took exception to the liberty. I showed them the door afore it ended wi’ fists flying.”
“I thought that young man could do wi’ a bucket o’ cold water thrown over him.” Lilias nodded.
Maggie gave a trill of laughter.
“I’ll mind that course o’ action next time, Grandma!”
“Grandma” sounded more fond, Lilias thought. A wee crack in the ice, a hint of a thaw?
Maggie settled her grandmother to rest. It was too soon to judge, but she fancied the ginger had helped. Feeling more optimistic, she turned her attention to the daily routine of sweeping and dusting the lodgers’ living quarters.
In the garden she vigorously wielded a carpet beater on dusty rugs hung on the washing line. Then she heard movement in the house and, fearing her grandmother had fallen out of bed, rushed into the kitchen.
The larder door was open, displaying a thief inside caught in the act.
Maggie cut off the escape route.
The miscreant was a lass Maggie judged to be a little older than Amy, though so skinny and unkempt it was hard to tell the age.
She recognised the type. Many of the sort passed through Arbroath over the years as Highland landlords cleared poor tenants off their land to make way for the more profitable sheep.
Pathetic family groups, homeless, trekked through the countryside, heading for the cities hoping to find menial work.
Many had gone on to the larger ports, to be shipped far from the land they loved that treated them so ill.
With the war raging and Napoleon’s invasion of Britain a real threat, the number of Highlanders passing through had dwindled. This girl must be a straggler.
The girl hugged her stolen prize to her chest.
“Put that down, you thieving rascal!” Maggie ordered.
“Miss, it iss only one bone, and you have many,” the girl pleaded in the precise manner of the native Gaelic speaker.
“No matter if it is only a bone, stealing is sin.” The lass raised her chin. “I would not steal for myself. It iss for Bodach, who iss starving.” “Bodach?”
“It means ‘old man’ in Gaelic.”
Stealing to feed a starving old man cast a different light on the crime. Maggie was about to stand aside and let the girl go when her grandmother called out.
“Who’s that oot there, Maggie?”
“A Highland lassie, crept in to steal food for a starving old man. I’m putting her oot this minute.”
“Haud on!” Lilias croaked. “I’ll not turn starving folk away unfed. There but for the grace o’ God go we, Maggie. Sit the lass and old man down and feed them afore they go on their way.”
Maggie did a swift mental tally of the larder contents. Apart from Noah’s contributions, there was bread, cheese and broth intended for supper.
She sighed and motioned to the lass.
“Bring the old man in.” Still clutching the bone, the lass stood in the kitchen, tears of gratitude dripping down her thin cheeks.
She pursed her lips and whistled. The outer door burst open and a large dog bounded in.
“Bodach!” the girl commanded sternly.
The dog sat, drooling, its starving eyes fixed upon the bone.
Maggie’s jaw dropped. “You mean that dog is the old man?”
“It iss because from a pup he has been greyhaired,” the girl explained.
The dog gave a low, impatient moan. “Bodach, sguir dheth!”
The dog became obediently silent and she glanced at Maggie apologetically.
“He knows only Gaelic. Please may he have the bone?”
Lost for words, Maggie waved a hand.
The bone was laid on the flagstones and a short command issued. The dog pounced and began gnawing frantically.
The Highland lass watched, knuckling away emotional tears.
“Cù Annabarach Tapaidh,
She turned to Maggie. “Bless you for the bone. I am telling him it iss because he iss a good dog.”
A voice called from the bedroom.
“Maggie, whit’s going on? Has the old man come in?”
“Aye, Grandma, and it’s no’ an old man at all, it’s a grey-haired dog.”
There was an outraged screech from the bedroom.
“Whit? Bring that lassie through here to me.”
Maggie took the reluctant girl’s arm and marched her through. The faithful hound picked up its prize and followed, continuing his slobbery destruction of the bone on the bedroom floor.
Lilias eased herself upright on the pillows, studying the girl.
“So ye are a thief and a liar?”
The girl met Lilias’s glare. “It was wrong to steal the bone, but I did not lie. It was a misunderstanding.”
“Ye claimed the dog was an old man!”
“No!” the lass protested. “The dog iss grey haired so my grandfather named him Bodach which means old man in Gaelic.”
Lilias was losing patience. She waved the girl away.
“Bring your grandfather into the hoose and my granddaughter will see you are fed afore ye journey on.”
The lass’s expression grew tragic.
“My grandfather died in Montrose last week. There iss only his dog and me.” Lilias was shocked. “Lord save us, lassie, where’s your ma and pa?”
“They died of fever when I was little. Ever since, I have lived with my good grandfather on the croft. The laird valued my grandfather’s carpentry skills and he was permitted to stay when other tenants were turned off the land.
“But when the old laird died his son wanted all tenants removed from grazing land. The factor came and burned our house down.”
“Ah, the wickedness!” Lilias murmured, distraught.
“My grandfather had a cousin in Montrose he had not seen for years. He remembered she was a kind woman, sure to take us in. But journeying over the mountain tracks was long and hard and he was old and frail.
“When we reached Montrose, neighbours told us his cousin left town a while ago to join her family across the sea.
“It – it was plain my grandfather was dying, but kind members of our clan cared for him to the end and gave him decent burial.
“They told me there would be work for me in Arbroath, so I came here with his dog. But there iss no work! Everywhere I go I am turned away, sometimes with cruel words and a slap.”
Lilias sighed. “That’s the way wi’ the poor and penniless – move on fast lest ye become a burden tae the town. The world’s a heartless dwelling for the poverty stricken.”
She lay quiet a minute, one hand picking restlessly at the quilt, a measure of her indecision.
“What’s your name and age?”
“I am Fionah Creagh. From one year old I lived thirteen years with my grandfather, Iain Creagh. The name means a rocky
place in Gaelic, and he – he was the rock on which our family was founded.”
She bit hard on a quivering lip to check her tears.
Lilias looked towards Maggie.
“While I’m lying useless ye need help wi’ the house. Ye canna turn tae your sisters for aid and the Highland lass is seeking work. Would ye consider taking her on?”
Startled, Maggie considered the suggestion. She could see the sense in it. She did need help with work in the lodgings and the weekly washing that took hours of toil.
She eyed the girl dubiously. She did not seem an attractive proposition in her present state, though wiry enough. Still, one could not deny her resilience.
Maggie made up her mind.
“If she’s willing to work, I’ll give her a trial.”
The girl lifted her chin. “I am willing indeed, but only if the dog may stay.”
Lilias and Maggie eyed the grey-haired mongrel warily. The dog was making short work of demolishing the meaty bone with impressively strong white teeth. Another hungry mouth to feed.
Mind you, it might be a wise move to have a dog in this household of women surrounded by men, Lilias thought.
“The dog stays, if it’ll guard the door.”
The lass’s face lit up. “Bodach will guard with bark and bite if I command. He iss a very clever dog.”
“Then we’re agreed.” Lilias yawned and, decision made, wearily closed her eyes.
Amy Cargill was walking on air as she returned home that evening. Midshipman designate William Walker had taken possession of the finished ditty bag at noon.
His genuine delight in the exceptional article and warm smile of gratitude he bestowed upon Amy would live in her memory for ever. Bandaged fingers and
aching hands during the difficult sewing was small price to pay.
Only Amy knew of a secret prayer expertly sewn and hidden away, tucked under the leather lining of the ditty bag base. God bless you and keep you safe from harm.
She kept her gaze lowered as the young man enthused over the workmanship. She dare not let him glimpse how much she feared for his safety as he prepared to go to war, and how grievously she would mourn should he never return.
William Walker saw a bowed head surmounted by the linen close cap all lasses wore. Soft curling tendrils of fair hair escaped, framing flawless rose-pink cheeks.
He recalled he’d been somewhat high-handed during their first encounter and wanted to make amends.
“They say battles are won by the powder-monkeys who keep the cannons firing. If I am called to join their ranks I shall be proud.”
Amy glanced up sharply. “No, sir! Resist the call. The danger is too great.”
“You are concerned for me?”
“Yes, I am.”
Their eyes met and he was startled by the jolt it gave him.
“I do not know your name.”
“It is Amy.”
Her working companions were whispering and giggling and he felt his cheeks redden.
“The ditty bag is beautifully made. I thank you, Amy.”
He gave a formal little bow and made a hasty exit.
Amy walked home in a dream, reliving every moment of the encounter.
It was a harsh return to reality to find a stranger installed in the house. Fionah Creagh had survived Maggie’s rigorous bathing and hair washing in a tin bath in front of the fire.
The Highland lass’s clothing was discarded and she had been dressed in cast-offs Amy recognised as her own rejects.
The old dress fitted the girl’s slender form perfectly and suited her well.
Amy could not help a twinge of jealousy, but gritted her teeth and decided to put up with the skivvy . . . because the intruder had a dog.
For years Amy had begged her father to let her have a dog, but his response had never varied.
“Not when I’m away at sea for days on end, lass. A dog needs a master to control and train its behaviour. Dogs have sharp teeth and are not toys for a little lass to play wi’.”
Yet this skinny girl had a dog.
“What is its name?” Amy demanded.
She wrinkled her nose when given name and translation.
“He’s not an old man! I will call him Smokie, because he is grey like Grandma’s smoked fish.”
She held out a hand imperiously.
“Come here, Smokie!” The dog stared, lowered its head suspiciously and growled deep in its chest.
“I am sorry. He only understands Gaelic,” the girl explained.
“Stupid dog!” Amy tossed her head and stumped off to her room.
Cathy Mary had watched the small drama unfold. She felt sorry for her young sister, even if it taught her a salutary lesson in pet ownership. The dog’s allegiance was to the Highland lass and Amy must earn its trust.
Cathy Mary turned her attention to Fionah Creagh. The girl would not be judged bonnie by popular standards of the day, but Cathy Mary’s trained eye noted how well she wore the hand-me-down dress, with a flair that made it her own.
Cathy Mary’s clever fingers itched to design a gown that would enhance this graceful girl’s full potential.
It had been a momentous day already. A titled lady had arrived in the Nunnery that morning demanding a plaid skirt of superior style, suitable for gentle gardening in the estate’s rose garden.
Cathy Mary was selected to perform the commission and took the fine lady’s measurements with trembling hands and bated breath.
Afterwards, Mistress Gray called her into the office.
“My cousin Ethel writes of a New Town of noble terraces being built in Edinburgh, Cathy Mary.
“Overcrowding in the old town properties around Castle Hill makes life unbearable for the upper classes and Ethel, too, plans to move her dressmaking business to premises in the New Town.
“It will be a golden opportunity, she writes. Assemblies and fashionable functions will create huge demand for new gowns and she would value my help when the time comes.” She paused a moment. “The war goes badly, with the loss of ships at times, Cathy Mary, and if the Navy terminates our contract the Nunnery will close. Then I will join my cousin’s establishment in Edinburgh and we will need to employ staff. Would you be willing to come to the city and work with us?”
A stunned silence greeted the proposal. Mistress Gray smiled. “Keep the offer in mind. If the opportunity comes and you can bear to leave Arbroath, then you can decide.”
Pondering the amazing offer in bed that night, Cathy Mary saw that the final decision might well rest with Fionah Creagh.
If the homeless girl stayed on to help care for their ageing grandmother, it would release Cathy Mary from an obligation of duty.
Leaving home and loved ones in Arbroath would be heartbreaking, but the thought of working in Edinburgh made her clutch the bedclothes closer to her chin, shivering with excitement.
Early September found Alec Cargill working on the Bell Rock. He was a different lad from the timid
youngster who’d refused a tot of rum in mid August for fear of his grandmother’s disapproval. Alec had grown tall and hardmuscled, a valued member of a working team.
Six days out from Arbroath, the blacksmith’s forge was built close by the site selected for the wooden beacon-house that would house builders of the stone lighthouse.
Alec’s job was tending James Dove the blacksmith’s fire, pumping bellows for white-hot metal beaten into shape on the anvil. Not a pleasant task, with water swirling around his boots and wind blowing scorching sparks on to his face and bare arms.
Yet, despite the limited few hours available between tides, 12 bore holes were drilled for the hold-fasts fixing the first massive wooden beams.
Then a new moon formed a silver crescent in the night sky, heralding the onset of neap tides. As the first quarter of the moon progressed, the neap tides rose and stabilised so that the Bell Rock remained constantly awash and landing was impossible.
For five wearisome, seasick days Robert Stevenson’s workforce, Alec included, suffered aboard the Floating Light as it heaved, rolled and yawed at anchor, one mile distant from the rock.
Small wonder sailors called this phenomenon the dead o’ the neap, Alec thought.
But on this second day of September tides had returned to normal. The rocky, indented face of the shoal swarmed with workmen eager to make up for lost time.
The Smeaton sailed in earlier that morning from Arbroath, bringing extra timbers for the beaconhouse and a large team of carpenters and joiners intent upon its construction.
Alec and his workmates rowed a mile across from their quarters on the Floating Light in two boats, as usual. A mist upon the calm sea promised a fine day and Alec wished the noisy, whistling strangers had not arrived to disturb the peace. His ears rang with the alien sound of hammers on wood.
It would be wrong to say he had grown to love the rock, but it held its own strange appeal for the lad. He had gathered dulse from its pools, a seaweed that was a sure cure for seasickness.
He had marvelled at sea anemones and starfish caught in its crevices, picked up small pretty stones polished like jewels as presents for his sisters.
Best not think of home. That brought an ache to the breast.
Today Alec gathered seaweed and took it back to the forge. Dulse wound around a hot poker made a tasty treat. He was busy rousing the fire when he realised the blacksmith’s attention was elsewhere.
James Dove was staring fixedly through the mist. Alec paused.
“What do ye see?” “The Smeaton drifting where she shouldna, nearly three mile to leeward,” the smith answered grimly.
“You mean she’s dragged her anchor?”
“Or they were careless wi’ the mooring.” He nodded.
Alec laid down the poker. The first small wave of the rising tide washed around the forge. He stared around at workmen busy and unaware, absorbed in their tasks. His mouth grew dry and he swallowed.
“The Smeaton brought sixteen men from Arbroath and sixteen of us rowed over from the Floating Light, Mr Dove. That means thirty-two men ashore, the tide rising fast and the
miles away.” “Aye,” the blacksmith said quietly. “Thirty-two men with two small boats that can carry only eight men apiece. Some will be saved, but I fear many will drown in a panic.”
The seaweed had burned to a blackened crisp. Acrid smoke filled Alec’s nostrils as a white-crested wave washed over the top of his boots.