Autumn in Scotland Excerpt

Autumn in Scotland

PROLOGUE

          March, 1833

 

Scotland was a soggy, cold disappointment.

Charlotte Haversham MacKinnon had spent the last three days huddled in the corner of the carriage praying that the sun would emerge from behind watery clouds. The sun, however, was as stubborn as any Scot and refused to make an appearance.

Just like her husband.

However cold she was, however miserable and damp, however exhausted, she dared not utter a complaint.  After all, it was her fault they were there.

The farther north they traveled, the more she understood her husband’s professed love of England. In Sussex, flowers bloomed in shades of orange, red, purple, and white.  Branches boasted a new growth of leaves in the spring.  There was a look of beauty to the land as if it gloried in life.  Even London was a cheery place.

Scotland looked as if it had recently been burned to the ground, as if God Himself had decreed this place a dead and desolate spot.  When it wasn’t drizzling, it looked as if it might imminently storm.  How anything grew in this place, Charlotte had no idea.  If it did sprout from the barren earth, surely it must be the color of slate.

Her thoughts, however, were kept to herself.  Her parents were not in the mood for conversation.  Her father had spent the last two hours frowning, and when her mother did address her, it was formally:  Countess Marne.  As if by doing so, she was reminding her father that some good had come of all this – their eldest daughter had a title.

A month ago, it hadn’t mattered all that much to Charlotte.  A woman must be married, and as her mother said, it was as easy to be wed to an Earl as it was to a Mister.  In this case, however, the Earl was as poor as any squirrel nesting in one of the oak trees near the garden.  Perhaps more so, because at least the squirrel owned a few acorns.

George MacKinnon, Earl of Marne, had a title but precious few coins to rub together.  There was, supposedly, a castle he claimed as his ancestral right, and it was to Balfurin in the Scottish Highlands that they’d been traveling for the last week.

Charlotte leaned back against the cushions and closed her eyes.  She hadn’t done anything.  Not anything that would make George leave her.  Not even when she found him with the chambermaid. She’d simply gone back to her room and vowed never to say a word.

“Charlotte, are you feeling unwell?  We do not need that inconvenience.”

She opened her eyes and turned her head to look at her mother.

“I’m feeling fine, Mother.”

Her father frowned at her again.

Everyone pretended, during this entire journey, that she was on her way to join George at his ancestral home.  But she wasn’t even certain he’d returned to Scotland.  One morning he’d simply disappeared without a note of explanation.  Only days later was it determined that her entire dowry, a not inconsiderable sum, had also vanished.

Charlotte leaned her head back against the cushions again.  She had acted the part of besotted bride as well as she could.  She’d been amenable, tolerable, and charming.  She spoke only when she was addressed, and discussed a variety of subjects when conversation faltered.

She was even to be found in her bed, gowned and perfumed for her husband, her hands resting outside the bed, the lace at her wrists so fulsome that it almost covered her fingers.  Her hair was always brushed and left loose, spread over the pillow because George had remarked once that he’d liked it that way.

But he’d never returned to her bed, not after that first night.  Perhaps she should consider herself fortunate for that fact.

“I’m sure George has a perfectly good explanation for his actions,” her mother said abruptly.

Since it was her mother’s first effort at conciliation, weak that it was, Charlotte smiled.  “Perhaps he will.”

That was the extent of their conversation for several hours.  The coachman had said this morning that they’d reach Balfurin today, but the afternoon was advancing and the scenery looked less promising as they traveled.  If they didn’t pass a town or even a hamlet soon, they’d been doomed to again spend the night on the side of the road, the horses grazing on whatever vegetation they might find.

Charlotte dismissed George MacKinnon, Earl of Marne, and Balfurin from her mind.  For a few moments, she amused herself by envisioning the gardens of her childhood home, lush with a hundred varieties of vibrant flowers.  That vision done, she concentrated on the library, her favorite room in the palatial estate.  She was always to be found there, even as a child.  The reading nook was a sanctuary from her pestering sisters, and the governess who giggled incessantly and postured endlessly.

If she concentrated, she could list all the books in one section of the shelves from top shelf to bottom.  Over the years, she’d read them all.  Some were interesting, some boring, and some she could still recite, as if her mind had captured each page.

Such a memory should be used for some purpose, but it had not, other than to serve her up to ridicule from her sisters as some sort of freak, an aberration of nature.

“You’d better spend your time finding some way to bleach that complexion of yours, Charlotte.  You look as dark as a blackamoor.”  That comment was from Adelaide, a formidable flirt, and the next girl to be wed, a state of affairs no doubt hastening Charlotte’s own nuptials, the speed of which had been blinding.  Either her parents had been beside themselves with the prospect of wedding Charlotte off, or George had been destitute and desperate.

Both circumstances could well be true.

“Damnation,” her father said, leaning forward.

“Nigel!” Her mother frowned.

“Pardon, my dear.  I didn’t think.  But look.”  He extended his finger toward the window.

“Is that Balfurin?” her mother asked faintly.

Her father knocked on the window separating them from the driver.

“Is that our destination?” he asked, and the man answered in the affirmative.

Charlotte had a feeling of impending doom as she turned her head.  Her father’s uncharacteristic lapse of gentility had warned her, but nothing could truly have prepared her for what she saw next.

Balfurin Castle was a disreputable ruin of a place, perched high on a rounded hill and surrounded by a copse of trees, like a bald man with a shiny pate ringed by a fringe of hair.  Three crenellated towers spoke of a warlike past when such defenses were necessary.  The fourth tower, in a crumbled heap, revealed that too many years had passed since anyone had stewarded Balfurin with pride.

The overall color of the castle was gray, with red brick showing vividly where it had been spared the elements.  A yawning archway led to a courtyard.  Charlotte somehow knew that a drawbridge had once been installed there, just as she suspected that the dry gully had once been a moat.

She loved Balfurin at first sight.

This was the place of dreams, of childhood fantasies, of stories she’d sighed over as a young girl.  Without much difficulty she could envision a dragon, scaled and deeply green, creeping down the hill, and the banners of a worthy knight flying in the wind as he left the castle walls to engage in battle.

Within those sheltering walls a clan could live, kept safe by their number and their leader. Voices would be raised in celebration within the Great Hall, and the courtyard would be hive of daily activity.

Such a place needed a chatelaine, a woman destined for the role, strong, resolute, and surrounded by the love and respect of her people.  Charlotte could almost see herself wearing a long linen dress of pale yellow with a belt of hammered gold disks.  Around her waist would be a knotted cord with keys to the granary and storerooms.

Her husband, the lord of Balfurin, would come to her as she stood on the battlements surveying the far crops and nearby garden.

A touch of silliness, then, to imagine herself loved by such a man, such a person.  An illusion, when she was wed to an absent earl who was not much more attentive when he was standing beside her.

“Dearest Lord and all the saints preserve us,” her mother said.  “It’s a horror.”

“Damnation,” her father said again, in evident agreement.

Her mother didn’t correct him this time, wide-eyed as she was at the scene before her.

The carriage slowed, the driver expertly entering the arched entranceway as if he’d done so many times before.  Only inches remained between the carriage’s shiny black lacquered exterior and the darkened bricks.

The courtyard continued the impression of desertion.  Hay was strewn over one side of the space while a few broken crates were set against one wall along with a wagon wheel with most of its spokes missing, and a ladder with three shattered rungs.  A well in the center of the courtyard held a rusted pulley but the bucket looked newly hewn.  A mangy dog eyed them suspiciously from beside the wall.  He, and three scrawny chickens plucking at the dirt were the only signs of life.

“No wonder George wanted my dowry,” Charlotte said.  Both her parents glanced at her, but neither reprimanded her.

What, after all, could they say?

Charlotte had the impression that Balfurin was simply waiting, patient and eternal, that it might have looked like this for hundreds of years.

“This whole journey has been nothing but a waste of time, Charlotte,” her mother said.

Charlotte sighed inwardly, and turned to face her mother.  What would you have me do?  A question she did not dare ask. She didn’t have a rebellious nature.  If she had, she wouldn’t be sitting here wondering about the whereabouts of her husband.  For that matter, she wouldn’t have found herself married at all, leastwise to a stranger, and a Scot.

A desperately poor Scot.

All her life she’d been proper and restrained.  Every single moment, she’d done exactly as her parents had asked.  She’d been a model daughter, a perfect paragon of decorum.  She’d been an example for her sisters, a Haversham worthy of the name.

But it was getting harder and harder to remember her role, especially after the humiliation of being abandoned so soon after being wed.  She’d begun to entertain shocking thoughts of mutiny.

“Your mother is right, girl,” her father said.  “This has been a wasted trip.  Your mother and I have suffered during this whole damnable journey.  Nor does it look as if we’re going to get much of a welcome here.  But I’ll be damned if my horses are going to be ruined for your selfishness.”

My selfishness? How could he say that? All she’d wanted to do was find her husband.  What about George?  What about him leaving his wife after a week of marriage?   Thoughts that weren’t verbalized. There were words for what George had done, but she’d never before spoken them aloud. Very well, in the silence of her mind perhaps – cad, bounder.

Bastard.

She clasped her hands together and watched as her father exited the carriage.  He turned and stretched out a hand to help her mother descend.  Charlotte was next, and when she stepped onto the ground she smoothed her dress down, wishing she had a mirror.  Was her hair acceptable?  She sent a questioning look to her mother, who nodded at her absentmindedly.

Not one single servant had appeared at the arrival of the carriage.  Her father strode forward, calling out, “Is anyone here?”

The coachman leaned down and addressed him.  “Shall I send one of the footmen searching for someone, sir?”

“That’s a good idea, John.  Do so.”

The coachman nodded, and with a touch of his whip, pointed to one of the footmen.  Immediately, he clambered from the carriage and strode toward the rear of the castle.  Some ten minutes later he returned, walking slowly beside a stooped and aged man.

“His name is Jeffrey, and he says he’s one of the few servants remaining at Balfurin, sir,” the footman announced when they approached the coach.

“I’m old but I’ve not lost the ability to speak for myself,” Jeffrey said, eying the footman with some disfavor.  He turned and looked at her father, making no effort to welcome a stranger to Balfurin.

“And who would you be?” Jeffrey asked.

Her father drew himself up and frowned at the elderly man.  “We are looking for George MacKinnon, Earl of Marne, my good man.  Please be so good as to tell him that his wife and in laws are here.”

“What makes you think he’s come back?” Jeffrey asked.  “He left us to starve without a backward glance.  Married, you say?”  He narrowed his eyes and looked at Charlotte, who took a step back. His expression left no doubt of his feelings either for George or her.

“What  now?” her mother asked.  “We’ve come all this way for nothing.”

“A fool’s errand, Jennifer,” her father said, frowning at Charlotte. “We’ll rest the night, and then return to England.  That is, if this ungodly place offers us shelter.”

He turned and strode up the broad stone steps to the door, lifted the iron knocker and waited.

Suddenly, the door moved, groaning on its hinges as it opened slowly inward.  A yawning chasm of black appeared, and then a face, lined, weathered, and topped with a shock of white hair.

“Who you be?” the elderly woman asked.

“Nigel Haversham, my wife Jennifer, and our daughter, the Countess of Marne.”

The old woman kept her gnarled hand on the edge of the door.  Was she Balfurin’s only protector?

“If you will move aside, madam,” her father said.  “We require lodging for the night.”

“So, he married?  And an Englishwoman at that?”  The elderly woman shook her head.  “That I’ve lived so long to see such a horror.”  She squinted into the bleary sun, her eyes sunken and faded.  “Even so, how do I know you’re who you say you are?  I’ve not seen the earl since the spring when he came to have the chapel window removed and taken to Edinburgh.”  Her hand tightened on the door.

“I realize George is not in residence,” her father began, but she interrupted him.

“He told me it would fetch a good price from those who were building their fine houses.  I wouldn’t let them take it.  His grandfather would have curled up in his grave.  That window has been at Balfurin Castle since before I was born.”

“My dear woman, I do not care about one of your windows,” her father said, becoming exasperated.  “Move aside!”

The old woman looked offended by his command.  She drew herself up, and frowned back at him.

“I’m Nan McPherson, sir.  Eighty-seven years have I been on this earth.  Too long to be cowed, even by a rude Englishman like yourself.  I’ve not been given word you were coming.  Go away.”

She tried to shut the door, but her father was having none of it.

Her mother stepped up and placed her hand on her father’s arm.  “Nigel, dear, shall I handle this?  It is, after all, a domestic arrangement.”  She smiled at the woman at the door as if they were conspirators.

Charlotte knew the tactic well, since she’d been privy to it all her life.  Nan did not stand a chance against her mother’s determination.

“We know George didn’t send word, Nan.  But we are tired, and it looks to rain again.  Surely, you don’t begrudge us a night under a roof in a real bed?”

Nan stepped back, the door opening an inch wider.  “The roof leaks, and I’ve not had the strength to air the beds myself.”

“We’ve two footmen who could assist in whatever arrangements need to be made.”  Her mother smiled, and the door opened even farther.

“Well, I’ll not stand here like a beggar,” her father said.

He appeared genial, but her father had God’s own temper when he was riled, and this journey had done nothing to soothe him. He pushed past Nan and gestured to his wife.  “I’ll be damned if I’m going to be treated like a beggar at my son-in-law’s door.”

Charlotte turned and surveyed the courtyard again.  It didn’t improve with a second glance.

“Come, Charlotte!”

What choice did she have?

By nightfall, they’d managed a meal of something purporting to be a stew, and bread so hard that it felt like one of Balfurin’s bricks.  Her parents occupied the laird’s suite of rooms, while Charlotte was installed in a smaller chamber across the hall.

She stood at the open window, shutters carefully folded back against the wall and stared out at the night.

The hills were shapeless now, shrouded by darkness.  Above them winked a thousand stars, glittering brightly in an ebony sky.  A peaceful night, with the soft breath of a cool wind touching her cheek.

In winter the castle would be a cold place.  A fire in every room would not be so much a luxury as a necessity for living in Scotland.  But there could be warmth in this place, just as there could beauty.  A few plants in the courtyard, a garden of sorts, now that the need for defense was not so pressing.  The whole place could do with a bit of sorting through and order, not to mention a good cleaning.  Once the windows sparkled, and the dust was gone, and a few repairs made, Balfurin might be as it had been once before:  a proud laird’s holding, a grand and stately castle guarding the Highlands.

The door abruptly opened.

“I’ve been told to turn the mattress, miss,” one of the footmen said.  He was followed by his partner, a man so young he still had an air of boyhood about him.  “Himself gave me the order, but how that’s going to make this place smell better, I don’t know.”

She wanted to warn him that her father didn’t believe in servant’s airing their opinions and he should use some caution.  For that matter, he didn’t believe in his daughters speaking their minds either.  Her mother was the only person she’d ever heard give her father the honest truth.

Was that the meaning of love, then?  The ability to speak freely and without fear?

She turned and stared out at the night again, hearing them work behind her.  At the least the mattress would be fluffed for the night.  Were clean sheets possible?

“Is it true, miss, that your husband comes from here?”

“True,” she said, not turning to face them.  She could only imagine their looks.

What do you think of him?  Now, that was a question she dared herself to ask, but of course, she didn’t.  Her father would criticize her for even thinking of asking for a servant’s opinion.  But they knew most of what transpired, even in a grand house like the one in which she’d been raised.

She heard the door close, and knew they’d left her.  A moment later, it opened again.

“Did you forget something?  Have the good manners to knock, at least,” she said.

“Must I beg permission of you, daughter?” her father asked.  “I think not.”

She sighed, and stared straight ahead, knowing the confrontation had finally come.  She hadn’t wanted it, had dreaded it, but knew her father would demand a reckoning of sorts. A bludgeoning not by fist or instrument, but the sheer power of his will.  He would demand and she would accede.  Perhaps.

She straightened her shoulders, fixed a smile on her lips, and forced herself to turn and face him.

“We’ll leave in the morning, Charlotte.  Back in England you’ll comport yourself like a proper wife until George returns.”

“From where?” she asked.

“Does it matter?  He’s evidently had business to transact, something he didn’t feel necessary to impart to you.”

“Or to you, Father?”

He didn’t look pleased by that question, did he?

As he was deciding whether to chastise her for her words or offer sympathy to diffuse an emotional outburst, she delivered him another blow – the truth, hard won and very painful.

“George might not return, Father.  He has my money, after all.  Perhaps he sailed away with one of the maids.”

Her father’s nose was reddening, a sure sign that he was becoming annoyed.  His next words verified that prediction.

“If that’s so, it will not matter to your deportment, Charlotte.  You will be a proper countess.”

“A countess in waiting.  Waiting for my husband to return.  I don’t think so, Father.”

He looked startled.  What an odd expression.  She hadn’t often seen her father surprised.  Then he wasn’t going to like what she had to say next.

“I’m going to remain here,” she said softly.  “Here at Balfurin.”

“You can’t be serious.  I forbid it.”

“You cannot,” she said calmly.  “I’m a married woman.  A countess, Father, and capable of the command of my own self, if not my funds.”

“You’ve no funds, Charlotte, and I’ll not give you money for this misadventure.”

“I’ve my grandfather’s money,” she said, having given this decision a great deal of thought.  “Enough to live here in some comfort.  George did not get that.”

“That man was a fool to leave his money to you.  I’ll not have it.”

“Fortunately, Father, there’s nothing you can do.”  She smiled sweetly at him, confident in her words.  She’d visited her solicitor before leaving London.  Her father was not the only Haversham who believed in planning and organization.

“What do you mean to do, Charlotte?  Remain here like a lovesick wife, pining for George’s return?”

“No,” she said.  She reinforced her smile.  “Did you know that in Scotland it’s possible for a wife to divorce her husband?  I’m going to divorce George for desertion.”

Her father, strangely enough, had no comment for that.