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My name is Catriona Balfour and this is the story of my adventures. I will begin on a certain afternoon early in the month of July in the year 1802, when I buried my father in the graveyard at Applecross, beside the sea. I was eighteen years old.
A melancholy beginning, perhaps. Truth is, it had been a melancholy year. My mother had been taken a bare two months before, carried off by a fever brought to the village by a travelling peddler who came selling ribbons and buckles, gloves and scarves. My mother had bought a length of muslin for a new summer gown. When she died the pattern was only half made.
I stood by my father's fresh-turned grave and thought that at the least he had a fine view. The curve of the bay was before us, in all its harebell-blue beauty. Beyond it, across the shining water, were the jagged tops of the mountains of Skye. The air was soft that summer morning, and smelled of salt and seaweed. The sun was warm on my back and my best black bombazine dressdreadfully disfiguringcrackled when I moved, the material so stiff that the gown would have stood up on its own. I admit iteven as I stood there, hazy with grief, I was aware of the ugliness of that dress and I was ashamed of myself. Ashamed that on the day of my father's funeral I could be thinking of fashion and wishing for a silver gauze scarf from Edinburgh, perhaps, or a pair of soft kid slippers.
‘The child is vain, madam,' Mrs Mansell, the housekeeper, had said to my mother all those years ago, when I was eight and she had found me standing before the mirror trying my mother's Sunday best bonnet. ‘Take the rod to her before it is too late.'
But my mother liked prettythings herself and instead of beating me she wrapped me in a scented hug and whispered that I looked very fine. I remember smiling triumphantly at Mrs Mansell over my mother's shoulder. Her thin mouth turned down at the corners and she muttered that I would come to a bad end. But perhaps she was only envious because she had a face like a prune and no one to love her since Mr Mansell had passed away, and possibly he had not loved her anyway.
My mother was warm and loving, and my father too, doting on her and on me, their only child. He was the schoolmaster at Applecross and had taught me my lessons from the age of three. As a result I was the only young lady in the Highlands who could plot a mathematical course by the stars, or who knew the botanical names of all the plants that grew thick by the burn. The squire's daughters, Miss Bennie and Miss Henrietta Bennie, giggled and said that such knowledge would not help me catch a husband. They spent their days playing the spinet or painting in water-colours, whilst I grew sunburnt red helping Old Davie set his crab pots, or walking by the sea without my parasol.
The Miss Bennies were present at the funeral that morning, standing with the squire and his wife a little apart from the rest of us. Of the other mourners present, we were split into a group of villagers and a separate small enclave of my father's academic colleagues, who had travelled from Edinburgh to pay their respects. I was touched that they had held Papa in such high esteem as to make the journey. Sir Compton Bennie's face was grave as he looked down at the coffin. He and my father had shared the occasional glass of malt whisky and game of cards. That had been to the disapproval of his wife. Lady Bennie was a woman very conscious of rank and consequence, and she had not considered the poor schoolmaster worth cultivating. I once heard her refer to me as ‘that fey, ill-favoured child' when I was about six years of age, and it was true that I had been thin as a rake then, with tangled red-golden hair and a challenging expression in my blue eyes that my father had always commented was fierce enough to scare the wolves away.
There had not been wolves at Applecross for more than a half century now, and I hoped that time had also filled out my figure a little, smoothed the wayward curl of my hair and softened the fierceness in my expression. I was no longer as ill favoured as I had been as a child, although there was nothing I could do about the firm, determined lines of my cheek and chin, the fairness of my eyelashes or the unfashionable freckles that were not only scattered across my face but also sprinkled over the rest of my body. My hair was as thick and springy as the heather, and grief had turned me gaunt. I knew I was no beauty. I did not need the pink and gold prettiness of the Miss Bennies to point it out to me.
I noticed that today Lady Bennie was wearing her second best black gown, thereby conferring on the event precisely the right degree of importance; as first lady of the district it was her duty to attend, but despite the fact that she dabbed her eyes most prettily with her black-edged kerchief I knew it was all for display. The Miss Bennies had not the skill of their mother. Their boredom was plain to see as they fretted and fidgeted and even whispered under cover of the minister's words.
‘Ashes to ashes '
I threw a handful of earth onto the coffin and it rattled on the top. Tears made my throat ache.
‘Dust to dust '
Poor Papa. There had been so many things that he had still wanted to do. I felt so angry that he had been denied the chance. Someone, somewhere in the congregation, stifled a sob. Applecross folk were not the sort to cry, but my father, David Balfour, had been well loved. I had not needed to pay way mourners to attend his funeral, as Sir Compton Bennie was rumoured to have done when his father had passed away. But then Sir Compton's father had sided with the English in the harrying of the Highlands fifty years before, and people here had long memories
‘Come, Catriona ' The service was over and Mr Campbell, the minister, took my arm to guide me down the path to the lych gate. I paused for a moment, gazing at the raw scar of the grave. Douglas, the grave-digger, was leaning on his spade, impatient to be finished there. I looked down on my father's coffin and for a moment felt a desolation so vast, so terrifying, that I had to push it away, because I was afraid my mind would disintegrate under the pain of it.
I was an orphan.
I had no money.
I had no home.
Mr and Mrs Campbell had broken this news to me the previous night, gently, over a beaker of milk laced with whisky to help me sleep. Since my father's death I had been staying at the manse because it had not been seemly for me, a young woman, to continue to live alone in the schoolmaster's house. What I had not realised, though, was that I was never to return there. The house belonged to the Charity of St Barnabas, which had employed my father. The trustees had already arranged for a new schoolmaster to come from Inverness to fill the vacancy. He and his wife and young family were expected any day soon. It seemed like unseemly haste to me, but then the charity were efficient, and did not wish the children of Applecross to have an unofficial holiday for longer than need be.
The trustees of St Barnabas had not been ungenerous. They had paid the funeral expenses, and had also sent Mr Campbell the sum of five pounds ‘to provide for the daughter of the late schoolmaster.' I was bitter; I thought how fortunate it was for the trustees that my mother had died a few months before, thereby sparing them the necessity of paying a further ten pounds for his widow. Mr Campbell had reproved me when I had said this, but he had done it kindly, because he knew I was miserable. But to me it seemed that my father was a footnote: recorded in the charity's ledgers, then swept aside, dismissed, forgotten. Deceased. I could imagine them drawing a thick line in black ink under his name.
We were to go to the schoolmaster's house for the last time now, to attend the wake.
The old path down from the churchyard was uneven, the stone cobbles grown thick with moss. Out in the bay the seabirds wheeled and soared, calling their wild cry. The sun was hot and it made my head ache. I wanted to seek the cool darkness of the shadows and hide away, to think about my parents on my own. I did not want to have to share my memories of them, or stand in the stone-flagged parlour of my old home feeling that I was a stranger there now as I made polite conversation with the mourners.
We reached the garden gate. Mr Campbell and I were at the head of an untidy straggle. Immediately behind us were the Bennies. Lady Bennie was accustomed to going first into all the drawing rooms in the county. I reflected that it had taken the death of my father to get her to concede precedence to me. It was never likely to happen again.
A little muted conversation had broken out behind us as we walked, but suddenly it hushed so quickly that I was pulled out of my self-absorption. I felt Mr Campbell stiffen with surprise, and for a moment his step faltered. Then a man came forward from the shadow of the garden gate and stopped before us. He was in the uniform of the King's Royal Navy, and the austerity of the costume suited his tall figure well.
He knew it, too. He carried himself with an unhurried self-assurance, and there was an arrogant tilt to his head and a gleam in his eyeseyes that were so dark that their expression was inscrutable.
I sensed rather than saw the Misses Bennie shift and bob behind me, like the tall poppies that grew by the roadside in high summer. They were positively begging for his notice. I raised my chin and met the dark gaze of the stranger very directly.
The air was suddenly still between us. Somewhere far away, in the furthest recesses of my body, my heart skipped a beat, and then carried on as though nothing had happened.
‘Mr Sinclair,' Mr Campbell said, and I heard a tiny shade of uncertainty in his voice. ‘We did not expect'
The stranger had not taken his eyes from me, and now he removed his hat and bowed. He was youngperhaps five or six and twenty. The sunlight fell on his thick, dark hair and burnished it the blue black of a magpie's wing.
‘Magpies are dangerous thieves,' my father had once said when we were discussing the ornithology of the British Isles. ‘They are clever and reckless and untrustworthy.'
It was strange to remember that now.
The man had taken my hand. I had definitely not offered it, and I wondered how on earth he had possessed himself of it. He wore no gloves, and I was conscious that the inexpert darning on mine would be all too evident to his touch. I tried to pull away.
He held me fast.
This was most improper. There was a glimmer of amusement in his eyes now that made me feel as though the sun beating down on my bonnet was far too hot.
‘Miss Balfour,' he said, ‘please permit me to introduce myself and to offer my deepest sympathy on your loss. My name is Neil Sinclair.'
His voice was very smooth and mellow, like a caress.
There was a gasp behind me. The Miss Bennies were not good at dissembling their feelings. I sensed that in that moment they would almost have been happy to be attending their own father's funeral if it had entailed an introduction to this man. But he was not looking at them. He was looking at me.
And that was how I met Neil Sinclair, Master of Ross and heir to the Earl of Strathconan.
It was late. The funeral supper was eaten, the casks of ale had run dry and the schoolmaster's house was scoured clean, locked and barred once more against the arrival of its new owner. I had worked my fingers to the bone to tidy up after our guests; anything to block out the cold sense of loss that threatened to break me.
Now there was no more to do, and I stood in the gardens for the last time and breathed in the heady scent of the roses my mother had coaxed to grow against the sheltered southern wall. Across the village green the lamps were lit in the manse, and the moths were bumping against the windows, trying to get to the light. The sea was calm and its sighing was a muted hush on the sand. The evening was sapphire-blue, with a half moon rising, and very peaceful, though cooler now that the sun had gone.
I crossed the green and let myself into the manse by the back door. The house was very quiet, but from Mr Campbell's study came the sound of voices. I had no taste for company that night, and I was about to go past and seek the comfort of my room when Mrs Campbell came around the curve of the passageway. Her face warmed into a smile of relief to see me.
‘There you are, Catriona! Mr Campbell was asking for you.'
I sighed inwardly. I knew that Neil Sinclair was with Mr Campbell, and I had no wish to seek his further acquaintance. After he had greeted me he had spent the rest of my father's wake talking with Sir Compton Bennie and with Mr Campbell, and I still had no notion as to what he was doing here. Occasionally I had felt him watching me across the room, and had glanced up to meet the same speculative interest in his dark eyes that I had seen when we first met. I had no experience with men but I sensed that his interest had little or nothing to do with me as a woman. Instead I suspected that he knew something about me and was measuring me in some way, assessing my character. For some reason this annoyed me.