Billie's Kissby Elizabeth Knox
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In the spring of 1903, a ship explodes as it docks on a remote Scottish island, drowning many of the passengers and crew in the icy waters of the harbor. Young, pink-haired Billie Paxton is among the only survivors. Clumsy, illiterate, and suddenly alone, she will not say why, moments before the explosion, she leapt from ship to shore—and so she falls under the immediate suspicion of her fellow passenger Murdo Hesketh, who is determined to discover the truth behind the ship’s fate.
As Billie attempts to come to terms with an uncertain future, she acquaints herself with the eccentric inhabitants of Kiss Castle: the enigmatic Lord Hallowhulme, who owns the island; his beautiful wife and worldly children; Geordie Betler, a spinsterish gentleman’s gentleman; and the fierce, fair-haired Murdo Hesketh, who inspires in Billie equal amounts of rage and passion.
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By Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University PressCopyright © 2002 Elizabeth Knox
All rights reserved.
The Gustav Edda
The crossing was rough, and Edith unwell. Billie couldn't read, so she sang to her sister. Edith kept her eyes closed and her face turned into her pillow. Billie saw sweat beaded beneath the reddish down on her sister's cheek, the down that had grown gradually darker, from cheekbone to jawline, as Edith came nearer her time. It seemed to Billie that her sister was turning into another kind of creature, with furred skin and an extra layer of soft fat on her arms, her midriff firmly tight, not laced and nipped, as it had been, but convex. Even Edith's hair had changed, now so luxuriant that her unpinned plaits were as thick as Billie's forearms. But these changes weren't Edith's whole alteration, and as Billie sang to her sister she kept her right hand against Edith's belly, between belly and supporting pillow, to feel the other thing, the motion, strong and irregular, and as invisible as the ocean.
The flame was fairly steady in the binnacle lamp on the ceiling of the cabin, for the lamp itself rocked on its gimbals, moved in counterpoint to the heaving ship. All the room's shadows tilted this way and that, as, no doubt, any person on deck at that time would have done.
Beneath Billie's hand and her sister's skin the baby seethed. Billie paused between verses to whisper to herself: 'Let the cat out of the bag.' It was an expression she'd always liked. Of course they weren't fully ready for the baby – they: Edith, Henry, Billie – and cats out of bags meant trouble. But, as a child, whenever her father had turned to her, his index finger barring his mouth before he whispered, 'Don't let the cat out of the bag,' Billie would imagine the cat – the abducted feline – on the sill of an open window, fur upstanding, haloed in darkness, framed against a garden, and looking back with eyes like embers.
Edith squeezed Billie's arm and gasped. 'Why did we have to go on today?'
Edith had been content to travel by train, but baulked at the idea of a sea voyage. So her husband, Henry Maslen, planned a journey that used the Inner Isles as stepping-stones, and ferries that crossed at all the narrowest places. In Henry's plan they were to cross from Dorve, in the Inner Isles, on a steamer small enough to navigate the crooked way among the reefs that lay between Dorve and Southport, on the southeast coast of an island called Kissack and Skilling. Dorve to Southport was a short, fair-weather journey. From Southport it was only a day's travel north to their ultimate destination, Stolnsay, Kissack and Skilling's only town. But when Edith and Henry Maslen, and Edith's sister Billie, arrived in Dorve, it was to a harbour whipped up by wind and a reef not to be chanced. Not for several days, they were told. It was suggested that, if Mr Maslen liked, he could take his family overland to the port of Luag, where they would coincide with the arrival of the Gustav Edda. The Gustav Edda was a big, Swedish-owned steamer that passed through the islands every month on a circuit that began and ended in Stockholm. Henry Maslen had hesitated before rushing off to catch the bigger ship. He hesitated, and his sister-in-law watched him hide his worry and his calculations, watched his lips move against the heel of the hand with which he screened his mouth. Then Henry dropped his hand. He looked at his sister-in-law. 'Billie, you and Edith could keep our room here and follow me when the weather's calmer. But ...'
But they were short of funds, and he wanted to have his wife settled before the baby came. Its arrival was imminent. Henry's new employment had come at exactly the right time, but the journey hadn't. Mr Johan Gutthorm, who, in his own words, handled Lord Hallowhulme's 'indoor business affairs', advised Henry to come before summer. Since Mr Maslen meant to bring his wife and her sister it was, Gutthorm wrote, 'better by far to make the most of the best of our weather.' Henry had read Johan Gutthorm's letter to Billie and Edith as they sat in the tiny parlour of their cottage in Crickhowell. Edith said, 'We should all go at once. We're very crowded here.'
They were – spring damp breaking in on them, making black stars of mildew on the paintwork around the windows – crowded out by Edith's belly, Henry's books, and Billie's upright piano, and by a tortuous cyclonic current of feeling that could neither be borne nor gone with. That afternoon in Crickhowell, Henry had agreed with his wife. He repeated his salary offer, pounds and shillings, but warned that there was no guarantee that they wouldn't find themselves again crowded at Kiss Castle in Stolnsay. Henry looked at her then – Billie – but his eyes said: 'Edith.' He could say her sister's name without moving his lips. Henry appeared sad. The flaring ends of his fair muttonchop whiskers – minus moustache – were shaved to terminate exactly parallel to the lines beside his mouth: two defined lines that always made his face seem sober, his mouth bracketed, braced, and disciplined. What had he been looking for in looking at her, Billie wondered, encouragement or warning?
The ship pitched and tossed, and Billie sang to her sister: hymns, love ballads, a comic song from the music hall. The ship yawed, and the swinging light chased the shadows into a corner of Edith's bunk, where they concentrated into such thickness Billie expected to see them coalesce, leaving something solid sitting there.
Edith rolled over, showed a whole perspiring face, and asked, 'Why do you say that? "Cat out of the bag"?'
'I was thinking of the baby.' Billie stroked her sister's abdomen.
'Honestly, Billie. Why would a baby bring to mind a cat in a bag? People put cats in bags only to drown them.' Edith's lower lip trembled, then she said she was sorry, she hadn't meant to be sharp. Could Billie go up on deck and see how near they were to that headland the captain had explained would afford some shelter from the north? The ship surely couldn't still be out on the open water. 'And send Henry down,' Edith said. 'And take the bucket out and empty it. Please, dear.'
Billie got up. She said that she'd heard that the saying was nautical, or naval anyway, the 'cat' was a lash. Then she had to swing the zinc pail back at her sister's urgent signal. Edith's mouth filled, and she leaned over and spat out another gob of ropy bile. The wet rag with which Billie had been wiping her sister's face was already in the bucket, so Billie turned up her dress hem and found the scalloped cotton edge of her petticoat. She wiped Edith's mouth. 'I don't like to leave you.'
Edith said, weakly, that Billie could give her some hope. 'See where we are,' she said again. 'But leave Henry up in the fresh air if he's ill.'
Billie wrapped her shawl around her head and carried the pail from the cabin. She crept along the passage, her free hand braced against the wall. By the hatch an oblong of light skated about, probing the darkness, sliced by the rungs of the ladder, whose own shadow surged so wildly that it seemed dangerous to climb. Billie went up, one rung at a time. She didn't dare put the pail down above her.
The sea was higher than it had been, and its waves were streaky, but the wind was now only stiff. Last night's gale had passed. Billie steadied herself, took hold of a shroud. The hemp thrummed in her palm as the wind drew its long, smooth bow across the few ropes and cables on the steamer. It made a mournful sound, and seemed to be missing something. The wind shoved the stack smoke down, so that several hot smuts hit Billie's cheeks – like snow in Hell. Billie thought of another phrase and imagined the coalesced shadow from the corner of Edith's bunk, a black cat, step out of its jute bag and onto the black ice of a Hell frozen over. Billie shook her head.
Henry was at the rail, his back to a group of well-dressed gentlemen – two youths and two men. One of the men was just putting his pipe back in his pocket with the air of one who has tried and failed at something – igniting it, probably. The boys were in the uniform of a military academy, their greatcoats grey and piped with black, the facings of their collars crimson. They wore their scarves high, halving their faces, and their caps pulled low. The second man wore a long astrakhan coat, its blurrily black sable collar turned up around his ears. He held the collar in place with one black-gloved hand. His head was bare, and his thick, phosphorescently pale hair blew forward.
Billie passed the huddled group, nodded to them, cordial. She didn't catch any eyes. She felt a little self-conscious seeing them so uncomfortable, for this party had formerly occupied the cabin in which Edith was now lying.
It was the first of June, and in summer the journey from Luag to Stolnsay took around ten hours and was undertaken from midnight till morning. The Gustav Edda had come on from bigger mainland ports, and there were no cabins empty for its outermost journey. When Henry and his hugely pregnant wife had presented themselves unexpectedly at the quay at Luag the captain of the steamer had Henry write several letters petitioning 'the gentlemen' who had the ship's four cabins. Three were friends, with a cabin each, and the captain had imagined they might be content to bunk together.
Yet it was the letter carried to a hotel adjacent the harbour that was the only one answered. 'Dear Sir,' Henry read. 'My party is happy to oblige yours. I wish you, and your wife, as comfortable a crossing as can be hoped for in a northerly gale in the bight. Yours etc. M H.' 'Mr Hesketh,' the captain said. A cousin of Lord Hallowhume. Hesketh was an officer in King Oskar's household cavalry. 'Now he sees things done for Lord Hallowhume. There's no love lost between Hesketh and the islanders. Lord Hallowhulme is full of plans, and they say he's a good-natured fellow, that his heart's in the right place, but his cousin is the one who keeps the plans in motion whenever they stick.'
Now, although they were on deck together, Henry had his back to the obliging Mr Hesketh and party. Henry was stooped over the rail, but when Billie stopped beside him she saw he wasn't unwell, but was hiding, shy.
HENRY. EDITH had met him in her first situation, with the Lees family at Falmouth. Henry was a tutor. Edith wrote to her sister that a Mr Maslen had come to prepare the boys for better things. 'To meet their maker, in the shape of Eton, he says. With the twins now at Latin and German with Mr Maslen, I have just the three girls in my charge. But I don't have more time on my hands. Mrs Lees and I spend our afternoons printing bookplates and pasting them in every volume in the library. We began on the bottom shelves till Mrs Lees saw the value in dusting as we go. Billie, the dust has drawn the youth from my hands – you should see them, worse than they are even after Aunt's spring cleaning.' (This Edith put in to tease Aunt, who had always to read Billie her mail.)
Henry Maslen, it turned out, was a cataloguer, a man who knew his books – or other people's – and where to put them. When Mrs Lees abandoned her bookplates to nag the kitchen about preserves – the apricots and peaches being ripe and overabundant – Henry and Edith worked together. 'Mr Maslen arrives in the early evening and as well as keeping me company keeps me quite entertained explaining what he's about. I've taken to teasing him a little, and call him Mr System. He takes it very well – rather like a nervous horse in its best blinkers – and explains in good faith as though if only he can make me see the sense of his cataloguing decisions, and the authority of other cataloguers behind him, I'll stop mocking him. Of course I only mock because, although it's quite right to be serious with the work, it really isn't much good being serious to me after my long hours with those dull girls. I miss you, Billie. The longer I live and teach the more baffled I am by what father would unkindly call your obtuseness (as though it were willed, some resistance you put up to the world, not the bewildering trouble it is). The Lees girls are pleasant, but no way quick or perceptive or witty (as you are). But they do read. They read, but they read like they eat soup, not like you listen to me reading.'
When Edith and Henry came to an understanding it was, of course, Billie who first heard of it. In fact, it was only Billie whom Edith told when she was home for Christmas. She couldn't tell their great-aunt, with whom the Paxton girls had lived after their father died. Aunt Blazey would have thought an 'understanding' improper between a governess and a tutor employed in the same house. She would have considered it somehow dishonourable in relation to the family employing them. Edith suspected that her employers might share this feeling – so had persuaded Henry to hide even their friendship. She told him to deceive people about his regard for her, to conceal his feelings. On her visit home Edith confided to her sister that she was a little disturbed by how good Henry was at dissembling. 'The girls suspect feelings on my side. If he surprises me, I blush or trip over my words, or fumble my cup and saucer, and the Lees girls peer into my face as if they're watching for the moment of reaction in a chemistry experiment. But Henry – he never turns a hair. It's dreadful! The girls are all interested, and sympathetic, and sorry for me.
'They'd always be mistaking me for being in love,' Billie said. 'If those are the signs they look for. I'm forever blushing, fumbling cups, and tripping over words.'
'You do it the other way around, dear. You blush because you fumble.'
In the new year Henry found a situation teaching in a school. He gave his employer notice, and his sweetheart a gilded silver ring to wear. Then he put his trunk on the carrier's cart and went with it to Crickhowell, in Wales. Edith told her employer that she planned to marry in June, and that she hoped that would give the Lees ample time to replace her. But Mrs Lees seemed to feel that she had been deceived and told Edith that her employment was terminated and she must leave immediately. Without a reference. 'Carrying on a romance right under my roof!' said Mrs Lees. And Edith, defending herself: 'But we waited to become engaged. We waited till Henry had gone. Is it wrong to fall in love?'
Edith was sent home without a reference and followed by a letter to her aunt about her deceitfulness and impertinence. It was the second such letter Aunt Blazey had received – Billie's even shorter foray into paid employment had ended in her dismissal after only four months. Aunt Blazey was ill, and worried for both girls. She had so little to leave them. Their rooms would go – with her late husband's chandlery, above whose premises they all lived – to her husband's nephew, also a chandler by trade. That left only a little money, forty pounds apiece, and Edith would have to keep Wilhelmina's till the girl came of age. Forty pounds, and a silver tea service, the china, the linen, a few little pieces of jewellery. It was the best Aunt could do. She had hoped the Paxton girls had inherited some of her own good sense, or that at least Edith had. Aunt Blazey did declare her intention to give Henry Maslen a good looking-over before she died. The moment he was able to take the time to travel from Crickhowell he must present himself for inspection.
Aunt Blazey died that spring, before the end of Henry's first term. She never did look him over. Henry stayed in Crickhowell and found lodgings, a cottage with a small back bedroom off the kitchen for Billie. He wrote describing the place and his plans for it. He and Edith published their banns. Edith made arrangements with the vicar who had buried Aunt.
That summer Henry came south for his wedding, and to take possession of both sisters. He found Edith alone, on a hot day, settling saucers among the sheets and pillowcases in a trunk in the rooms above the chandlery. She made him tea and had him promise he'd stay put – wasn't he tired? – while she fetched Billie, who, since she was gone so long, must have climbed around to the cove beyond the arm of the harbour. Edith kissed him, put on her hat, and went out.
Billie always imagined it this way, imagined the scene, the steaming kettle, Henry settled before the pewter pot and one of the two cups still unpacked, with the cracked jug they weren't going to take before him also, filled with milk and under its beaded cover – her handiwork, both the crack and the beading. Edith kissed Henry, put on her hat and closed the door, and Billie imagined that Henry got up to follow Edith's progress along the road from the parlour's bow window. Billie's elaborations on these events were her picture storybook, the story being how Henry and she first met. Billie liked to imagine it from his point of view.
Excerpted from Billie's Kiss by Elizabeth Knox. Copyright © 2002 Elizabeth Knox. Excerpted by permission of Victoria University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Elizabeth Knox is the author of The Vintner’s Luck and Black Oxen. She lives with her family in Wellington, New Zealand.
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