SERIAL Northern Lights by Betty Mcinnes
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.”
“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