He wanted a storm. Rumbling thunder. The flash and crack of lightning. Ragged, angry clouds. Lashing rain, falling, for preference, in Biblical torrents.
Instead, the haar was down as he sailed up the Forth, the cloudy air still as could be. Deceptively mild. Only when he jerked his head round in startled response to the shriek of a seagull did he feel the chill threat of winter in the air.
Rendering both shorelines invisible, the sea mist was making his return to Scotland – well, what, exactly? Despite his mood of growing trepidation, his mouth curved. He had always been able to laugh at himself. ’Twas one of his few saving graces. So he was perfectly happy to admit that this return of the prodigal was unimpressive. Dare he hope also for not as bad as he feared?
He gazed through the ghostly gloom pressing in on the small vessel which had been his home for the past six days, his portmanteau at his feet. He had wedged the well-travelled brown leather bag against the wooden rail of the ship to stop it from sliding across the creaking boards of the deck.
Under the long grey sweep of his military cloak his left hand rested on the hilt of his sword. He’d wrapped the fingers of his right around a taut rope to steady himself against the slow swell of the sea. A few feet away, eyes flickering up and down to the compass, the Captain with the neatly-trimmed auburn beard was at the helm, steering a careful course to harbour.
A sailor rang the ship’s bell, alerting the crew of any other craft which might be gliding through this curtain of fog to their presence. The single seagull became a flock, wheeling and circling around the boat’s masts, their harsh cries fighting the monotonous tolling of the bell. Pale and intent, the lookouts posted at bow and stern alternately called out depth soundings to the Captain and listened for the tell-tale slap of waves against treacherous rocks or the safety of harbour walls.
He lost focus, blinked to regain it, and saw that land was at last visible through the haar. Scotland was drawing closer. There was no going back now. He made out dockside buildings and a stone quay. An elegant black coach, fronted by a handsome pair of greys, stood on its gleaming cobbles, damp as those were from the mist.
As the ship’s crew plunged into the well-rehearsed actions required to safely dock and tie up, a footman was helping an equally elegant gentleman in a long curly grey wig out of the coach. Bloody hell. The Lord President had come to greet him in person. He must be more important than he thought he was.
Duncan Forbes of Culloden scanned the small deck and spotted him. A smile spread across the cadaverous face. ‘Laddie,’ he called up, ‘you’re a sight for these sore old eyes and no mistake!’
The gangway was swung into place. Beckoned by the eager Lord President, he lifted his portmanteau and strode across it. He barely had both feet planted on Scottish soil before he found himself caught up in a great bear hug.
‘Laddie,’ Culloden said again, his voice gruff with emotion. ‘You’re home at last. Welcome home, my boy. Welcome home! I’ll be able to sleep soundly in my bed tonight!’
Home at last. Welcome home. I’ll be able to sleep soundly in my bed tonight.
He was glad the Lord President could not see his face.
She was in a strange mood today, restless, yet at the same time oddly dull, like a blunt pencil in need of sharpening. The weather wasn’t helping, this haar which hadn’t lifted all day. Making sweets for the shop with the girls, she was gossiping and laughing with them as she always did but her brain felt as cloudy as the fog pressing against the small square windows punched into the outside walls of the kitchen.
Their bottle-green glass panes were opaque from the inside too, steamed up by the heat of pans of tablet and the other sugary concoctions bubbling on the range. She walked across the flagstones to the back lobby of the kitchen. ‘Just going to open the door for a minute.’
The younger of the two maidservants sent her a shy smile from under her neat white cap. ‘Grand tae hae a wee breath o’ air, Miss.’
‘Aye,’ she agreed, throwing the word over her shoulder as she approached the kitchen door, turned the big brass handle and tugged it open. It shrieked its usual protest.
She could have wished for a fresher breeze coming in off the Physic Garden. The air out there was too still today. She stood for a moment struggling to see the neat rows and drills which yielded so many of the herbs and plants she and her father used to treat their patients. Even the imposing bulk of Surgeons’ Hall, no distance away on the other side of the garden, was lost in the mist. The little pagoda-roofed summer house set where the paths met in the middle of the gardens was no more than a shadowy shape.
‘And whit do ye think ye’re doing standing here, young lady?’ came a demand from behind her. ‘Trying to catch your death o’ cold?’
She swung round and had to adjust her gaze downwards. Why did she always forget how short Betty was? It was years since she had outstripped the housekeeper in height.
‘Just getting some fresh air. Nothing wrong with that, is there?’
‘It’s freezing oot there!’
‘And it’s boiling hot in here.’
‘Which is why you’re going to catch your death. Going frae ane to the ither without a cloak or a plaid. Come in, now.’
A concerned hand was already on the sleeve of her sprigged cream and blue gown, tugging her back into the kitchen. She shook it off. ‘Leave me be, Betty. I’m needing to clear my head.’
‘Are you already coming doon wi’ something?’ The older woman peered up into her face. ‘Ye are looking a wee touch pale the day.’
‘That’s because I need some fresh air.’
‘Aye ready wi’ the smart answer, that’s you, eh?’
‘Leave me be,’ the girl said again, trying the disarming smile. It usually worked. ‘I promise I’ll not bide here long. And there’s nothing wrong. Dinna fash yourself about me.’
‘Worry about you?’ The hand left her arm, being required to complement its mate on the other side of Betty’s hips. The posture was an invariable adjunct to scowling at her young mistress, or anyone else who roused her ire. ‘Why in the name o’ all that’s holy would I do that?’
The disarming smile became a wry one. ‘When do you ever stop worrying about me, Betty?’
The belligerent face and posture softened. ‘Is it you that’s worried about something, lass?’
Hard to come up with an answer to that when she didn’t know it herself … and that was at least half a lie. For weeks now she’d been aware of a growing feeling of foreboding, as though some terrible storm were about to break —
‘Aaargh!’ cried the little maidservant. ‘This tablet’s boiling over!’
‘Then slide it aff the heat!’ Muttering direly about folk who dinna hae the sense they were born with, the housekeeper sped across the kitchen. Shaking her head to banish the uneasy thoughts, the girl laughed and followed her.
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