Streets of Shadow
Estate of Lord Ramsay, Earl of Chessington
East Lothian, Scotland
Ladies do not scramble up the outer walls of their homes with their skirts hitched high. They do not cling to trellises filled with shriveled roses, prick their fingers on thorns, and bite back oaths they are not supposed to know. And ladies never creep through the windows of forbidden chambers.
But at times, there are more important things than being a lady.
The leaded casements defy my cold fingers at first, but I finally work my nails into a narrow crack and pull. The hinges give way grudgingly and the window swings toward me with a low groan. When last granted permission to see my sister, two days ago, I purposefully left the casements unlatched. Smiling at my success, I ease inside the darkened chamber, my body trembling from the effort.
As my feet stretch toward the floor, my knotted skirts catch on a corner of the casement. A harsh tearing sound reaches my ears.
“God’s beard!” I mutter under my breath, frozen in stark realization that I likely damaged my new winter gown.
I thump down on the carpets in Cinaed’s chamber to inspect my heavy overskirts. The green silk, shot through with silver thread, is split in front to show the lighter skirts beneath. A jagged rip, as long as my hand, mars my lovely clothing. To my horror, ‘tis not a mere separation of the threads at the seam but a conspicuous tear through the fine cloth. I frown at the ugly sight. There will be no hiding this.
My sister, Cinaed, moans and stirs in her bed but does not open her eyes. With a sigh, I straighten my shoulders. Were my sister in possession of her health, she would gently scold me. Grandfather will simply chide me with the ever-present spark of amusement in his eye. But Oliver, Cinaed’s husband, will freeze me with his stern gaze, chide me for an interminable length of time for my unseemly behavior, and banish me to my chamber. Or forbid sweets for a fortnight. I prefer banishment.
The thick air within this stifling chamber is tinged with a sourness like the smell of curdled milk. Wrinkling my nose, I fling the curtains wide and leave the casements open in defiance of the brisk wind. The gray autumn mist that haunts our shores swirls about Grandfather’s home, dimming the afternoon sun. Footsteps crunch over the fallen leaves below, signaling the passage of a household servant who was fortuitously absent when I made my ascent moments ago.
The tang of brine fills my nose while a distant rumble speaks of an approaching tempest. Closing my eyes, I breathe deeply, welcoming the ocean breeze that flows over my skin like gentle fingers soothing a fevered brow.
When I turn back to my sister, her slight, fragile form on the bed steals my breath. Thoughts of my ruined raiment and any upcoming punishments flee. Hurrying to Cinaed’s side, I am truly thankful the terrible English plague has not come here. Yet, she suffers while we stand by helpless. Would that the sea air could soothe and heal her of this strange distemper that defies any cure the apothecaries and physicians have applied!
Leaning over her, I place a hand on my sister’s cheek and study the rise and fall of her chest. I fancy that her breathing eases as the cool air fills her chamber. But the wan light reveals a visage so wasted and lined with pain, my eyes sting with tears.
My sister’s damp hair clings to her glistening forehead, and her pale cheeks sink into her face, giving her the look of a crone rather than a woman not yet thirty. Another tooth lies in a tray on the carved table beside the bed. The chip of bone tinged with red holds my gaze for a moment, and my stomach folds at the sight. I am glad Cinaed does not appear to be aware of her surroundings.
“Och, does Oliver not see what is happening to you?” I whisper the words aloud as I touch my sister’s pale skin. “Does he not have eyes, that mutton-head?” For a moment, I picture my brother-in-law’s face as if he were to hear me. Each time I speak without thought, without guarding against any “un-ladylike” words, a deep line appears between his eyebrows.
No matter. Oliver is not here to scold me for destroying my overskirts or for my rash words. I came to draw Cinaed’s portrait. I pull a stool close to the bed, sit down and pluck a scrap of parchment and a bit of charcoal from my pocket. With care, I also remove my bundled handkerchief and unfold it to reveal the tiny bouquet plucked from the surrounding fields. The golden-hued blossoms are like drops of sunshine fallen to earth to give life to our gray autumn days. ‘Tis such a wonder to me they bloom even now when all other flowers have long since withered away. Hissing as my poor fingers touch the sharp spines, I place the blooms near Cinaed’s head and commence my drawing.
Forced to squint thanks to the wan light in the chamber, I add lines to the parchment. While my drawing takes form, Cinaed’s breathing sounds more strained, like the scraping of rough stones. A heavy sensation fills my chest. My sister is the only mother I’ve known since our parent’s death. They died so long ago, their faces no longer come to mind. I cannot bear the thought that one day I may no longer recall my sister’s image.
I bow my head as though in prayer. Why do I create a memento of my sister? She will recover. She must. I close my eyes and fill my lungs with great gulps of the biting air that now fills the bedchamber.
I only draw Cinaed’s portrait because she so oft asked me to, I tell myself. My heart eventually slows to a walk. I raise my head and return to my drawing.
After a few minutes, I regard my work and frown. I made the mistake of recreating in exactness what was before me, drawing the sharp angle of my sister’s cheek, shrunken with illness. Scrubbing with my fingers, I redraw her as she was before, with round cheeks and clear eyes that dart here and there, quick like a robin’s.
My sister’s eyes, like mine, are the color of storm clouds, but this does not speak to her nature. Hers is a disposition like a day of bright sunshine—not a brooding sky filled with the promise of icy rain. Tears threaten to spill again, and I squeeze my eyes closed. I miss Cinaed’s smile. Biting my lip and blinking rapidly, I trace the lines of my drawing with a smudged finger and sigh. Why can I never create a drawing that matches what I envision?
“Miss?” Our maid, Lorna, speaks from the corner of the room. Yelping in surprise, I dart to my feet. The lass had escaped my notice, sitting silently in the shadows with her knitting on her lap.
“I am only here to draw her portrait,” I whisper. “I’ll not take long.”
“I’ve already waited to speak as long as I dare, miss.” Lorna’s forehead crinkles and indecision is clear in her amber-hued eyes. She understands. She is my age, having not yet reached her sixteenth year, and we have always been particularly fond of each other. We used to play together in the kitchen when we were but wee lasses. But the maid faces a cruel choice. She must never disobey the master of the house, or she will lose her place. And her mother will no longer have her daughter’s wages to help feed the many wee ones at home.
“I must see my sister! Surely, you understand.”
As we gaze at one another, both pleading silently, Cinaed moans once more. Lorna’s shoulders droop.
“Please, be quick.” The lass seats herself again and takes up her knitting. I flash her a grateful smile and promise myself I’ll thank her with a gift. Perhaps she’d like a new length of scarlet ribbon or a bit of lace for her bodice.
As I hold my drawing up to catch the window’s meager light, Lorna whispers once more: “‘Tis nearly twelve o’clock and the surgeon is to come. Ye must hurry.”
I only manage to add a few lines when footsteps approach. Lorna gasps and I dart to my feet while my drawing flutters to the floor.
“You were asleep,” I whisper to the maid. “You did not hear me enter.” She obligingly leans her head against the wall and closes her eyes.
The moment the final word falls from my lips, the door bursts open and my brother-in-law marches inside.
“Kenna?” He scowls at me. The line between his brows carves deeper than ever. “Why are you here?” His accusing eyes sweep to the corner where Lorna feigns a yawn and rises to her feet, bobbing a curtsy.
“I am sorry,” she says in a faltering voice. Her eyes fill with tears.
“She was sleeping.” I march to stand before Oliver with my arms crossed. “Of course, she was. You make her stay here at all hours. Why do you not sit with your wife for a while and let the others rest?” I tap my foot, waiting for my brother-in-law to answer. “Let Lorna go to her room. She can return later.”
Oliver’s face darkens and his lips thin to a mere line. This is also something that happens often when we cross paths. But thankfully, he bobs his head in a nod to Lorna, who curtsies again and scurries from the room.
When Oliver turns his stern eyes to me once more, I settle myself on the stool again and arrange my skirts. “I’ll not leave until I finish my drawing.”
But my brother-in-law sweeps me off the stool as our cook might shoo a kitten away from her favorite chair. “You shall leave now. The surgeon has arrived.”
“Please, Oliver, let me stay with Cinaed! You’ve kept me away for two days.”
Ignoring my pleadings, he jerks me to the door of my sister’s chamber, gripping my arm stronger than necessary and closes me without.
Dismissed in such a way, I bite my tongue against the sharp words I wish to hurl at my guardian. Some call him my father, since he married my sister when I was a wee one, having only seen five winters. My brow crinkles. Oliver was meant to take on that role when he married Cinaed, but from the time of the wedding until now, ten years later, I’ve yet to see a single sign of fatherly affection.
I call the man my keeper. My jailer.
The thick carpets beneath my feet are a mockery to me. They are Oliver’s folly, unrolled in the corridors only yesterday so the sound of passing footsteps would not disturb my sister. I wrap my arms around my middle and shiver. My sister is not dead. Why does Oliver insist we creep on silent feet as though we tiptoe down the aisles of the kirk with prayer books in hand? And why did I forget my drawing? I raise my hand to knock on Cinaed’s door. I must have it back. Oliver will tread on it with his great, booted feet or throw it into the fire.
“Ah, Kenna,” Grandfather’s deep voice speaks from nearby and his tall form approaches from the direction of the stairs. The thick carpets have muffled his heavy, measured tread. I fly to his side, and he holds me so close I feel his steady heartbeat. I lean my weight against his solid form, and my breathing slows.
“Do not fret, child. Take courage, your sister may yet recover.” Grandfather strokes my hair as he speaks. His words are even and measured, still heavily accented in the manner of our English kin. He was born and educated in Canterbury, though he has lived in our northern kingdom of Scotland for many of my lifetimes.
“Oh, Grandfather,” I murmur into his coat. He smells of apples and mulled wine. Our paths cross often when we sneak into the larder searching for a bite of something sweet or a sip of claret. We are comrades in household thievery, causing no end of grief to Mrs. Harris, who rules over her gleaming pots and strings of onions like a grand duchess. I swipe at my tears. Aside from our clandestine meetings over midnight feasts, Grandfather expects me to behave like the lady I am to become.
“Grandfather, what can be done?” My voice trembles.
The man smiles at me, though I read his weariness in the dark smudges beneath his great blue eyes. He places a hand on my shoulder, and I cover his fingers with my own.
“Do not weep, lass.” His lips curve downward in a slight frown as he pats his doublet. “I am sorry, but I seem to have misplaced my handkerchief.” He straightens his clothing. “No matter. My good friend and surgeon, Sir Robert Ogilvie, is here, Kenna, come especially from town. He shall help Cinaed. I am certain of it.”
As the words leave my grandfather’s lips, the surgeon himself approaches from the staircase. He pants with the effort of heaving his portly form up the stairs. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I remember my manners in time to sink into an ungainly curtsy. The air touches my bare ankles and I remember my unshod feet. Cheeks stinging, I turn to the side, hoping Grandfather will not see the ragged gash torn into the rich fabric of my skirts.
I lift my gaze in time to spy the clear look of disapproval the esteemed physician wears on his round, unpleasant face. His egg-shaped head is wider at the bottom than the top, and his chin dissolves into the folded flesh of his neck. Despite his mussed coat, his pursed lips and upturned nose lend him an air of self-importance. His demeanor turns my stomach.
“I shall do all within my power to help your sister,” the man says in a smooth voice. “Though I must say I’ve not heard of such a case before.”
“Please, sir!” My throat closes.
Grandfather pats my shoulder again, while he motions with sharp, impatient gestures to old Tom, his valet, who has appeared in his noiseless way. The wizened servant receives his master’s curt orders and escorts Sir Robert to my sister’s bed chamber with haste.
“Come. My friend shall attend to your sister while you follow me to the kitchen. A cup of ale will do you good.”
He holds out his arm, and I link mine in his. We descend to the ground floor, passing the portrait of Grandfather as a child. The small painting sits in a half-hidden alcove at the head of the stairs. The lad in the portrait poses stiffly in his old-fashioned jacket, his wan features and spindly limbs giving no indication he shall one day grow to become a tall and broad-shouldered man. I never once questioned why the painting resides in this out-of-the-way place. The painted child’s face is so sour he looks as though his fur collar makes his neck itch dreadfully. I used to giggle each time I passed it, but today, nothing brings a smile.
At the ground floor, Master Williams, my tall and pale tutor, greets us in silence. He nods in deference to Grandfather but only peers down his sharp nose at me, taking in my bare feet and ankles. The man’s thin lips twist into a sardonic smile. I straighten my shoulders and hold my head high, despite my flushed face. Years ago, Grandfather hired the English-bred tutor to instruct me. The haughty man chides me when I forget my lessons in diction. I must not say “I dinnae ken” when I do not know the answer to my lessons. I must not tell one of the maids, the petulant Kate, “Do that again and I’ll give ye a skelpin!” when she takes the sugared almonds I hide in my chambers.
The man slips silently into the library and my embarrassment dissolves back into dread. The servants glide through the front hall like silent, tiptoeing ghosts who never lift their gaze as we pass. They, too, feel the heavy sadness of my sister’s plight. Do they also fear she is dying?
“Kenna, there ye are,” Mrs. Harris says as we enter the kitchen. Tempting smells of cooking meat fill the air. Lorna chops vegetables while another girl stirs the steaming pots. A suckling pig turns on a spit in the great fireplace, its skin just starting to brown and sizzle. Grandfather orders ale without words, his imperious gestures known by all in his house. After a curtsy to her master, Mrs. Harris fills a tankard with spiced ale, which she warms by plunging the glowing end of the fire iron into the liquid. She hands me the steaming drink and I nearly drop it. ‘Tis not too hot, but my clumsy hands are shaking.
I draw closer to the crackling fire, seeking to warm myself from the chill of fear that seeps into my bones. Grandfather pats my shoulder and turns to leave. “I’ve business to attend to.” His face is grave, yet his eyes are gentle when he looks at me. “Take courage, Kenna. Your sister will be well again.”
Will she? I dare not speak such thoughts aloud. Grandfather strides from the room while the maids scatter out of his way like a flock of frightened geese. I take to pacing in the warm room, noting again how the servants, even Lorna, keep their heads down. Only Mrs. Harris regards me directly. Her eyes fall upon my skirts and she gasps.
“Why must ye traipse about those thorny fields, Kenna? Ye catch your skirts on the gorse, and I shall no’ keep mending them! Why can ye never stay on the pathways in the garden?”
Gazing down into my drink, I sigh. ‘Tis no surprise the woman assumes I’ve damaged my skirts outdoors. I’ve never quite dared tell her why I often flee to the open fields. The graveled pathways that circle Grandfather’s house do not take me away from the sight of its many, many windows and ever-watchful eyes. But when I wander far from the trimmed hedgerows and flowers arranged with exactness in solemn ranks, I am free. Each time I drink in the honeyed scent of the gorse blossoms blooming in the fields, I know I am alone. Blessedly so.
“I am sorry.”
“Och, ‘tis no great matter. Now, then.” She smiles at me and speaks with a false cheer that irritates me, like a pebble in my slipper.
“We’ll have guests this evening. Of course, there’s the surgeon from town, and I hear he has a sweet tooth! I’ll make the cakes ye like, Kenna, with currents. And, er …” The woman turns to the fire and pokes absently at the roasting pig, as though she is at a loss for words. “And someone else is joining us.”
“Who?” I hold my breath, fearing I already know.
“Remember last month, lassie, when ye broke the…” Her voice trails off, and she continues to jab at the piglet sizzling over the fire.
My body freezes in place. When I broke the harpsichord. The recollection makes me grimace, scrunching my nose in a childish fashion. In front of Grandfather’s most distinguished guest.
The esteemed man who visited, the piggish and self-important Sir I-Forget-His-Name, had quaked with amusement, and so had his haughty, horrid daughter. I still hear her laughter as she watched me struggle to my feet with splintered wood tangled in my skirts. That was the night Cinaed first began to feel the effects of her strange malady.
Before I can answer, Mrs. Harris turns to me, clutching the salt box to her ample bosom as though it is her greatest treasure. “Oh, lassie?” She clears her throat. “Sir Oliver says ye must go to your chambers. He ordered a new gown. The dressmaker waits for ye.”
A new gown? My spine stiffens. I slam my tankard onto the table and clench my fists as rage surges through my body, burning like the fire beneath the bubbling pots. Does Oliver think that all shall be made well for me simply by ordering a gown? He once said, females care only for their finery. Never mind that my sister, his wife, lay so ill!
Can he truly believe that is all I care for?
Pivoting on my heel, I flee the kitchens, ignoring Mrs. Harris’s startled spluttering at my sudden exit. Lifting my skirts high, I leap up the stairs two at a time in a most unladylike fashion.
Oliver will see what I think of my new gown. Aye, that he will.