SE­RIAL North­ern Lights by Betty Mcinnes

The People's Friend - - News -

MOST of the 32 men work­ing on the Bell Rock that September morn­ing were obliv­i­ous to the dan­ger. The tide rose higher, wash­ing into the black­smith’s forge.

Two row­ing boats lay at the moor­ings, each ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing eight in safety. The Smeaton, bro­ken free from her moor­ings, drifted three miles away with all sails set, bat­tling vainly against the wind and tide.

Alec feared for his life as he stood with James Dove, the black­smith, watch­ing the sea flood in. “What do we do?”

The smith looked grim. “Pray.”

Robert Steven­son ar­rived. The re­spon­si­bil­ity for the men’s safety rested on the light­house-builder’s shoul­ders and his drawn ex­pres­sion re­vealed the full ex­tent of their plight. He turned to Dove. “Well, James, I’ve no doubt you’ve a clear no­tion of the dan­ger.”

“Aye, sir, but the rest are un­aware. There will be panic when they find out.”

More wa­ter sloshed in over the top of their boots and Robert Steven­son made a de­ci­sion. “They must be told.” The smith’s cheeks paled. “There will be a bat­tle for a place in thae two boats. Oth­er­wise it’s take to the sea and sink or swim.”

Alec could swim, but was no ex­pert. Even strik­ing out for the Float­ing Light a mile away was be­yond him. He stared at the two small boats wal­low­ing in a wide ex­panse of ocean. If he ran he might se­cure a place be­fore the oth­ers came . . .

Ter­ror plays tricks with the eye­sight. As he stared out to sea, Alex blinked to clear his vi­sion, then pointed a trem­bling fin­ger.

“There’s a ship com­ing in, Mr Steven­son!”

The three hur­ried out­side. A sail flapped in the breeze close by the rock as the ves­sel hove to.

“Thanks be to God!” Robert Steven­son breathed. “That’s the Bell Rock pi­lot cut­ter, de­liv­er­ing mail to the Float­ing Light. James Spink, the pi­lot, would have seen the Smeaton adrift, far out of po­si­tion, and has­tened here. God bless that man! He has saved many lives this day.”

Af­ter the res­cue mis­sion was ac­com­plished, car­pen­ters brought from Ar­broath that morn­ing gath­ered on the pi­lot cut­ter’s deck, watch­ing the tide fi­nally over­flow the rock’s sur­face. When they re­alised how close they had come to drown­ing the

The men work­ing on the rock lit­tle knew of the dan­ger they were in . . .

mood turned ugly. There were an­gry shouts and fists shaken in Steven­son’s di­rec­tion as he and the rock’s reg­u­lar work­force headed back to the Float­ing Light.

“Fine fare and good pay are no’ worth an hour spent on that god-for­saken place, Mr Steven­son. You’ll no’ tempt me back, that’s for sure!” one yelled.

There were heart­felt cries of agree­ment as the pi­lot cut­ter’s sails car­ried the ves­sel home to Ar­broath.

Robert Steven­son’s men be­gan row­ing to­wards the an­chored ves­sel they now called home. Time passed be­fore Steven­son spoke.

“I don’t blame them. Ev­ery man has a right to ex­pect ad­e­quate safety mea­sures. There’s a ship build­ing in Ar­broath ship­yard at this mo­ment, ready for duty by Jan­uary as a safety light­house ten­der ex­clu­sively for those work­ing on the Bell Rock.

“Mean­time we must press ahead with all speed, build­ing the wooden bea­con-house. It will be a refuge for rock work­ers, and liv­ing quar­ters for the ma­sons build­ing the light­house. I’ll no’ rest easy till that is done, my lads!”

“Amen!” The men rowed with re­newed vigour.

There were anx­ious house­holds in Ar­broath when news of the near dis­as­ter reached the town.

Mag­gie was par­tic­u­larly up­set. She and Alec had shared a deal of an­guish in their young lives and a strong bond had formed be­tween el­dest sis­ter and the only brother.

Work­men in the bothy raised a glass of cider to James Spink, the Bell Rock pi­lot, hero of the hour. It was said that the North­ern Light­house Board was to grant him a life­time pen­sion in grat­i­tude for the lives he’d saved.

“The man’s a Spink. One o’ my hus­band’s Auchmithie kin,” Lil­ias told Fionah Creagh, who was by her bed­side that morn­ing. She was be­ing taught how to knit. Lil­ias had ex­pressed as­ton­ish­ment when the High­land lass ad­mit­ted she could not.

“Fif­teen and never held a knit­ting nee­dle! Did your grandma no’ show ye?”

“There was no need for me to knit. My grand­fa­ther made a spin­ning wheel and I spun wool for a poor

cail­leach that knit­ted gar­ments for a liv­ing.”

“What is a cail­leach?”

Lil­ias asked cu­ri­ously. Fionah smiled.

“It is chust an old wo­man in the Gaelic.”

“Like me?”

“Oh, never, Mistress Spink! You have more –” She paused, think­ing. “Spunk?” Lil­ias sup­plied. The girl nod­ded. “Yes. Spink has spunk!” They laughed.

Lil­ias felt sad. She longed for a sim­i­lar rap­port with Mag­gie, her grand­daugh­ter. Could that ever be?

She turned her at­ten­tion to the knit­ting ses­sion.

“You’ve mas­tered plain stitches, lass, now for purls.”

Mag­gie steeled her­self for the visit to the gro­cer as Lil­ias slowly re­cov­ered. She chose a suit­able dress and pinned her hair up in a more ma­ture style en­hanced by a linen cap.

Her shoes were hand-medowns from a wealthy pa­tron in her step-scrub­bing days. The black leather, but­toned an­kle boots made a click­ing sound on the pave­ment.

As she ap­proached the shop Mag­gie had a sen­sa­tion that she was be­ing watched. Could it be Beatrice Cameron? The wo­man had never liked her.

How­ever, as she en­tered the shop Beatrice called out a friendly greet­ing. “Good day, Miss Cargill.” Sa­muel Cameron waited be­hind the counter. Mag­gie faced him, the fra­cas over Noah fresh in her mind. But his man­ner was im­pec­ca­ble.

“I trust your grand­mother found the gin­ger of ben­e­fit, Miss Cargill?”

“She did, and was grate­ful, Mr Cameron.”

“You have a list for me, Miss Cargill?”

Mag­gie watched as he scanned it. She had not con­sid­ered him hand­some but now she con­ceded his fea­tures were at­trac­tive.

He caught her star­ing and she looked away.

“The lighter items may go in your bas­ket, Miss Cargill, but the lad­die will bring the heav­ier goods on the bar­row later.”

“I shall be obliged if you will tell me the reck­on­ing, with delivery charge added, Mr Cameron.”

“Delivery is free to busi­ness premises, Miss Cargill.”

She eyed him with sus­pi­cion.

“I wasna aware board­ing a few lodgers qual­i­fied as busi­ness premises.”

“Of course it does, Miss Cargill. Have you not heard our en­emy Napoleon be­lieves we are a na­tion of shop­keep­ers?”

Mag­gie was strug­gling to think of a suit­able re­sponse when a hush fell over the busy shop. Its cus­tomers stared to­wards the back shop where a shad­owy fig­ure stood in dim light.

“Mar­ion Cameron!” an awed cus­tomer said. “She hasn’t set foot in the shop since her man died. Whit’s brought her oot to­day?”

The old wo­man leaned on a stick and stared in Mag­gie’s di­rec­tion. A shiver ran down her back. Then Mar­ion turned and hob­bled away and nor­mal busi­ness re­sumed in the store.

Fionah took in­stantly to the joy of knit­ting. Her one re­gret was that the spin­ning wheel had burned to a cin­der when the croft burned. Spin­ning wool for the fam­ily would have re­paid some of the debt she owed.

She had no fam­ily apart from her grand­fa­ther. Dearly as she had loved the old man, Bo­dach’s ar­rival as a play­ful grey-haired puppy had brought a di­men­sion of fun and laugh­ter that was lack­ing in her life.

He grew into a big strong dog, ador­ing his gen­tle master and the lonely or­phan. See­ing Bo­dach grow as piti­fully thin and starv­ing as Fionah her­self had brought her near to de­spair, un­til a mir­a­cle had changed their luck.

Fionah al­ready revered Lil­ias. She had no grand­mother, but if she had been so blessed, this was the grand­mother she would choose.

As for the sis­ters, she won­dered if they re­alised how for­tu­nate they were. How she would have val­ued and loved a sis­ter!

She ad­mired Mag­gie, the el­dest, although she was in awe of the young wo­man who held the house­hold reins in ca­pa­ble hands.

Amy, the youngest, was clos­est in age and Fionah wished Amy would be more friendly. Per­haps it was not pos­si­ble when some­one wore one’s old clothes.

To com­pli­cate mat­ters,

What had brought Mar­ion Cameron out from her hide­away?

Bo­dach did not like Amy. He slunk be­hind Fionah, tail be­tween legs and ears down, when Amy made over­tures. That made Amy an­gry, fling­ing im­pa­tient words at him.

Poor dog. He only un­der­stood Gaelic and didn’t know how he had sinned.

How­ever, the mid­dle sis­ter, beau­ti­ful Cathy Mary, had shown Fionah noth­ing but kind­ness. She was even mak­ing a dress for Fionah that would be her very own. The dress was cut from an old blue cur­tain that sun­light had faded to grey and would be worn to ac­com­pany the sis­ters to church, so that the ser­vant lass would not be­come a hea­then. Fionah could hardly wait.

Now, she could tell that the old lady was grow­ing weary. She bun­dled up the knit­ting and stood up.

“You must rest. I will make a hot drink for you with the good gin­ger.”

Lil­ias made no protest and Fionah went through to rouse the fire and heat the ket­tle. She hardly had time to rake the ashes

clear be­fore there was a tap at the door and Bo­dach barked a sharp warn­ing, which meant the caller was male.

Fionah lifted the sneck, peer­ing out through a nar­row gap in the canny High­land way her grand­fa­ther had taught her. Lil­ias called out. “Who is it, lass?”

“It is a chentle­man.” “How do ye ken?”

“It wears a tall hat.” “Heaven save us! It’s no’ a bailiff, is it?”

“I think not. It is chust an old man in a big hat.”

Lil­ias puz­zled over the in­for­ma­tion for a minute.

“Bring it in, but keep the dog close by,” she or­dered.

The visi­tor en­tered the liv­ing-room.

“Lassie, tell Mistress Spink that Mungo Mc­dou­gal o’ the Fish­ery Store has ar­rived tae pay his re­spects.”

Fionah re­layed the mes­sage, which was greeted with in­credulity. “Him? You are jokin’!” The mes­sen­ger re­turned to the kitchen.

“Mistress Spink says to come through and state your busi­ness, but I am to stay handy in the lobby with the dog.”

Lil­ias re­ceived the visi­tor propped up on pil­lows, wear­ing a lace-trimmed night­cap and her finest shawl. She noted that he seemed ill at ease, tall hat rest­ing in the crook of one arm.

“To what do I owe this hon­our, Mr Mc­dou­gal?”

“I was per­turbed to learn you were laid low wi’ quinsy, Mistress Spink, but grat­i­fied tae hear you were re­cov­er­ing.”

He cleared his throat. “It crossed my mind ye might ben­e­fit from a trip on the Boatie once back on your feet. The power o’ sea air to cleanse throat and lungs of evil hu­mours is well tes­ti­fied.”

Lil­ias raised her brows. “You think me fit tae wield an oar af­ter a brush wi’ death?”

He has­tened to re­as­sure her.

“You’ll no’ be ex­pected to ex­ert yoursel’, Mistress Spink. The Boatie’s a two-man craft easy rowed by one.”

She gave him a nar­row glance.

“In­deed. But what will Ar­broath make o’ us two out to­gether in a boat?”

“Who cares what Ar­broath thinks?” He flushed.

“I do, Mr Mc­dou­gal!” Then Lil­ias re­lented.

“A trip on the Boatie is tempt­ing. I’ll con­sider the sug­ges­tion when my strength re­turns. Now I must ask ye tae leave and let me rest.

“The lassie will see ye out, but mind the dog doesna bite ye. It doesna wel­come strangers!” she called serenely as he bowed him­self out of the room.

Amy Cargill had reached wom­an­hood ear­lier than her two older sis­ters and found the tran­si­tion irk­some and per­plex­ing.

She de­vel­oped a shapely bo­som and Cathy Mary was kept busy adapt­ing blouses and dresses with darts and smock­ing to en­hance her young sis­ter’s blos­som­ing at­tributes. Young lads be­gan tak­ing an in­ter­est.

Amy strug­gled with mood swings rang­ing from child­ish gig­gles with friends at work over boys, to tears shed in the dark for one spe­cial young man who fought, far away, in a dread­ful, dan­ger­ous war at sea.

They had shared only a mo­ment as their eyes met, but it had wo­ken an in­stant re­sponse that trans­ported Amy from child to adult. She knew that he had felt the shock, too. She wanted to be a grown wo­man for him if he came back.

Dear God, not “if”. Let it be “when”!

If she were not work­ing in the sail­maker’s yard when Wil­liam Walker re­turned, he might go away think­ing she did not care for him.

Was this tor­ment she en­dured re­ally love? In child­hood she had be­lieved love to be a happy ex­pe­ri­ence, but as a young adult she found it a cruel and di­verse emo­tion.

For in­stance, she loved Fionah Creagh’s dog but it made no se­cret of its dis­like and fear.

Amy had ac­cepted Fionah’s pres­ence in the fam­ily cir­cle. Fionah helped Mag­gie care for their grand­mother, which freed Amy and Cathy Mary to do work they en­joyed.

Grandma had taken kindly to the home­less High­land lass. Amy of­ten heard the two whis­per and laugh to­gether and that made Amy happy, although Mag­gie tight­ened her lips and clat­tered pots in the scullery at the sound.

Amy sensed dis­cord be­tween Mag­gie and their grand­mother. She thought it stemmed from events that had taken place dur­ing that bit­ter win­ter when Mama died. Amy had been only a lit­tle girl, shiv­er­ing in bed with quilt and blan­kets pulled over her head.

Her child­ish mem­o­ries were dim, but she could well imag­ine how deeply af­fected Mag­gie would have been. Girls on the brink of wom­an­hood could be scarred for life as ten­der emo­tions ma­tured.

This Amy knew, be­cause of a dog.

She loved dogs, though the fam­ily had never owned one. It was more usual for sailors to have cats aboard ship or in the home. It was love at first sight when Amy saw Fionah Creagh’s grey-haired dog, Bo­dach.

How­ever, Amy did not for­get her fa­ther’s ad­vice. Dogs were not toys to play with. They had sharp teeth and should be trained to obey and re­spect a master or mistress.

Amy tried hard to earn this dog’s re­spect, chang­ing his in­ap­pro­pri­ate name to Smokie, the warm colour of Grandma’s fishy del­i­cacy.

“Come, Smokie! Sit, Smokie!” she com­manded mas­ter­fully while the dog’s ears flat­tened and it slunk un­easily be­hind the High­land lass with its tail be­tween its legs.

She tried ca­jol­ing. “Smokie, please come here! Smokie, please wait, please sit!”

Lack of suc­cess left Amy stamp­ing her feet and tear­ing her hair in a fury of frus­tra­tion as the dog cow­ered, cring­ing mis­er­ably on its belly, act­ing as if it had been soundly beaten.

Fionah stood watch­ing, wring­ing her hands and re­peat­ing the same thing over and over dis­tract­edly.

“Poor Bo­dach, poor Bo­dach. He only un­der­stands Gaelic.”

By mid September the mood in the Cargill house­hold was op­ti­mistic. Lil­ias’s health im­proved and she spent time out of bed in the af­ter­noon, sit­ting by the stove and keep­ing an eye on the boil­ing pots and ket­tles.

The weather had turned un­sea­son­ably chilly. Seas be­yond the har­bour wall tossed and churned rest­lessly with the threat of a storm brew­ing.

Even so, Mag­gie sang while she worked. Alec had signed on as ap­pren­tice to Mr Dove the black­smith on the Rock for one month, and that month was al­most over. The press gang had come prowl­ing around Ar­broath and had gone off dis­ap­pointed, praise God!

Mag­gie was plan­ning a mem­o­rable home­com­ing feast for her brother within the next few days. Food sup­plies were dif­fi­cult with a French block­ade in place but she whee­dled a haunch of smoked ham from Sa­muel Cameron.

These days he was Mr Cameron, oblig­ing shop­keeper, and she was Miss Cargill, val­ued cus­tomer, and that com­fort­able state of af­fairs suited Mag­gie fine.

If she caught her­self smil­ing com­pla­cently while hum­ming a love song pop­u­lar with Ar­broath lasses at the mo­ment, she as­sumed that was just height­ened self-es­teem boosted by the ri­valry be­tween a well-off gro­cer and a hand­some young stone­cut­ter.

Both were kept firmly at arm’s length.

Alec’s sis­ters waited ex­pec­tantly for his re­turn, due any day now. Cathy Mary some­times worked late at the nun­nery on a side­line of dec­o­ra­tive aprons favoured by ladies dab­bling in

gen­teel gar­den­ing and this evening Amy ar­rived home alone.

The wind was blus­tery and she shook the first heavy droplets of rain from her shawl as she closed the outer door.

There was no­body in the liv­ing-room, only gen­tle snores em­a­nat­ing from her grandma’s bed­room and sounds of ac­tiv­ity out­side as Mag­gie and Fionah read­ied the lodg­ings for the men’s re­turn.

The room was un­oc­cu­pied ex­cept for the dog.

It had taken a fancy to a rag rug Cathy Mary had made from scraps of wool and ma­te­rial sewn on to an old sack.

The rug was placed in front of Lil­ias’s chair by the fire­side to keep her feet warm and the dog also rel­ished the com­fort. It lay re­laxed and snooz­ing, but woke and raised its head when Amy en­tered.

They stud­ied one an­other war­ily. Amy and the dog had never been alone to­gether and it was a ner­vous mo­ment.

She held out a hand. “Come here, Smokie.” Cornered, the dog gave a low, dis­tressed whim­per, cow­er­ing and press­ing its body deep into the com­fort­ing rug.

Amy looked at the dog in hope­less de­spair. Its re­jec­tion hurt more cru­elly than bites from sharp teeth. Peo­ple talked about hearts break­ing and Amy had al­ways con­sid­ered that say­ing fool­ish. If your heart broke you died, and that was that.

But tonight some­thing in­side her chest did break, welling up in a tear­ful flood of mis­ery. She sank to her knees on the floor and buried her face in her hands.

“Bo­dach, Bo­dach, why won’t you like me? Ah, Bo­dach, Bo­dach, I love you so!”

She sobbed, painful, wrench­ing sobs muf­fled in her hands lest the oth­ers heard and came run­ning.

Tears dripped from her eyes and ran over her hands and cheeks, wet and strangely soft and warm.

Amy cau­tiously parted her fingers and found her­self look­ing into a pair of con­cerned brown eyes. A warm pink tongue was mak­ing short work of her salty tears.

“Bo­dach? Bo­dach, is it you?” she ven­tured in dis­be­lief and was re­warded by the thud of a tail wag­ging a friendly beat upon the floor.

She stretched out her arms and hugged the dog’s warm grey body rap­tur­ously.

“Bo­dach, Bo­dach, Bo­dach!” she re­peated, over and over.

The de­lighted dog re­sponded with a warm tongue on her cheek.

Hum­bled and re­pen­tant, Amy ac­cepted that this beloved dog only an­swered to Gaelic.

Lil­ias was bored with be­ing con­fined in­doors, and was grumpy in con­se­quence. She in­sisted she was fit enough to at­tend kirk for the first time on the Sab­bath, though it was blow­ing a gale, and it took a bat­tle royal to make her change her mind.

Mag­gie’s pa­tience had worn thin by the time she and the girls de­parted in a rush.

They left their grand­mother sulk­ing by the stove, the dog on the rug at her feet and a bible os­ten­ta­tiously open on her knees.

Fionah would have stayed but Lil­ias would have none of it.

“Off you go and take heed o’ the ser­mon, lassie. That preacher’ll put the fear o’ death in ye.”

As a re­sult the four girls ar­rived late, caus­ing a stir in the crowded pews and earn­ing a fierce glare from the min­is­ter al­ready set­tled in the pul­pit.

Af­ter prayers, the con­gre­ga­tion braced it­self for the ser­mon. Ex­pec­ta­tions were high and they were not dis­ap­pointed.

“Van­ity!” the preacher thun­dered. “An evil sin es­tab­lished by the devil him­sel’, tae sell his wares!”

The Cargill sis­ters stiff­ened, form­ing a united front to face the min­is­ter’s ac­cus­tomed blast. Fionah was more per­turbed. She wore with pride the dress Cathy Mary made for her.

It was mod­est and sim­ple in de­sign, made out of old, faded cur­tains, but the high neck­line was trimmed with a scrap of rose pink rib­bon, a rem­nant from a flo­ral gar­den­ing apron.

Fionah took great plea­sure in that one lux­u­ri­ous de­tail, but now learned it was the first step on the slip­pery path to Hell.

She lis­tened, open­mouthed, to a fear­some ha­rangue and came out of the church with threats of ill re­pute and damna­tion ring­ing in her ears, the in­evitable con­se­quence of sin­ful fe­male van­ity.

To make mat­ters worse, some of the stone­cut­ters from the lodg­ing-house were present in the con­gre­ga­tion, in­clud­ing the hand­some young man called Noah.

He and Fionah were pressed to­gether face to face in the crush out­side the kirk and the young flirt took his chance to give the young lass an ap­pre­cia­tive wink and a quick squeeze of her slen­der waist.

Fionah’s fears of sin­ful ret­ri­bu­tion were con­firmed, and she took refuge in con­fused dis­tress be­hind Mag­gie till Amy and Cathy Mary came to the res­cue and whisked her off home.

Mag­gie faced the young man with out­raged fury as the crowd of wor­ship­pers dis­persed.

“I’ll thank ye to stop mak­ing un­wel­come ad­vances tae the maid.”

“There’s no harm in­tended to the lassie, Miss Cargill. There was pink rib­bon on her gown and ’tis said pink makes the lads wink.” Noah’s at­tempt at a joke fell upon stony ground.

“I’ll have none o’ that in the house! Any more of it and you’ll be out the door!” Mag­gie warned.

He stud­ied her war­ily. He had ex­pe­ri­enced the wrath of jeal­ous fe­males be­fore and Mag­gie Cargill was dis­play­ing symp­toms. This was en­cour­ag­ing. He has­tened to make amends.

“I’m shamed and sorry, Miss Cargill. The in­no­cent lass has noth­ing tae fear from me. I freely ad­mit my con­duct was out o’ order, just a weak mo­ment prompted by the preacher’s rant.

“It would break my heart to be banned frae the lodg­ings. I lis­ten to you sing as you work, blithe as the lark, and be­lieve there’s fes­tiv­ity in the air. Is it a birth­day, per­haps?”

He ven­tured a smile and Mag­gie re­lented. His re­morse seemed gen­uine and she could sym­pa­thise with the re­lease of high spir­its when younger male mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion crowded into the kirk­yard af­ter the preacher’s lengthy moral­is­ing tirades.

“Not a birth­day,” she vol­un­teered. “My brother Alec’s month of duty on the rock is over and we plan to have a feast to cel­e­brate his home­com­ing any day now.”

They had started to walk back to­wards the house but Noah stopped short.

“But Miss Cargill, all men work­ing out on the rock have voted to re­main till the bea­con-house is ready as a safety refuge. They won’t be home till Oc­to­ber’s end. Hadn’t you heard?”

“No, not a word!”

The news struck Mag­gie like cold sea­wa­ter. A chill­ing blast of the ris­ing gale struck her, whip­ping the colour from her cheeks.

She had con­fi­dently ex­pected a let­ter from Alec an­nounc­ing the date of his re­turn and had won­dered why it had not come.

Look­ing to­wards the har­bour, she saw the fish­ing fleet come crowd­ing in to shel­ter, heard the grind of metal upon metal and clank of chain, the creak of strain­ing bul­warks as the re­stricted har­bour wa­ters heaved.

In­vad­ing rollers crashed against the outer walls, spew­ing white froth and spray over the tops, drench­ing men strug­gling be­low to se­cure their gear.

Mag­gie hardly dared lift her gaze to the seas be­yond, where the gale lashed mighty white-crested waves ad­vanc­ing to­wards

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