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The Master of Blacktower
By Barbara Michaels
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Barbara Michaels
All right reserved.
The black tower of dunnoch.
I saw it first at twilight. The Highland mountains were purple in the fading light, the western sky a brilliant tapestry of gold and crimson. Against the fiery northern sunset the ruined tower rose in jagged silhouette, still standing guard over Blacktower House, which sprawled along the slope of the hill below.
The coach jolted and swayed as the tired horses swung into the last steep rise. I hardly felt the jolting, or the bite of the wind that pushed insistent fingers through the velvet upholstery. A different sort of cold chilled me; I shivered and drew the folds of my mantle closer.
I was tired, and an easy prey to nervous fancies. It had been a long journey from London to this lonely glen buried in the heart of Scotland's highest mountains, long not only in miles but in experience. I had never been to Scotland. It was like another world.
The month was April, the year, 1853. Spring had not yet dared to venture into the Highlands. The gorse and heather were brown and shriveled, and the bare white trunks of the birch trees looked cold. All that day, the only color had been the somber black-green of the pine trees, and the harsh purple of the mountains. One would never think that in London the soft pale flowers were pushing through the earth--lavender crocuses, and daffodils, and butter-yellowprimroses. The new grass there was a tender April-green--like the grass in the churchyard of St. Clothilde's, on a day two weeks earlier.
The memory was as sharp as a knife. When I closed my eyes I could see it again: the sweep of delicate green broken by white marble crosses and weeping angels, softened by a gray veil of rain--and the austere rectangle of the newly dug grave at my feet. Not only my father was being laid to rest in the quiet churchyard outside London, but my whole world.
Rain dripped off the budding trees onto the brim of my black mourning bonnet and trickled down my cheeks. The ebon plumes on the horses' heads were sodden with water; the black umbrellas of the mourners shone as if they had been varnished. There were not many mourners--only the servants and a few elderly colleagues of Father's, who had braved the wet to pay their last respects to an honored scholar and antiquarian. "I am the Resurrection and the Life; and whosoever believeth in me . . ." The minister's voice was blurred by haste. He wanted to be done with it, and go back to his fireside and glass of port.
At my side, Mr. Downey shifted his feet and contorted his face to restrain a sneeze. No doubt, he too was thinking of his own fireside, and so were the others. Only Father would not be going back to his fire. He would stay here, in the rain, under the quiet grass.
Mr. Downey was Father's lawyer, and he was at my side because there was no one else to take that place. He had been kind, in his dry, legal way, but as soon as the service was over he led me firmly toward the waiting carriage. We had business to discuss, he and I--unpleasant business--and I was as anxious to be done with it as he was.
A fire was burning in the library when we reached the house. The room was cozy and warm; the ruddy light shone on Father's big desk, with his cracked leather chair behind it, and on the book-lined walls. At the sight of the familiar room and the empty chair behind the unnaturally tidy desk, my eyes filled with tears. I offered the lawyer a glass of wine as an excuse to turn my back. Taking a glass myself, I drank it down. The sherry ran warmly through my body and into my cold hands and feet. I poured another glass, ignoring the lawyer's disapproving stare, and sipped it slowly, gazing out the window at the gray pencil lines of rain. Then I was ready. I took off my bonnet and flung it onto a chair, and turned to face Mr. Downey.
I had caught him staring. He quickly averted his eyes, but I had seen the direction of his gaze. I pressed my hands against my hair, flattening the springing curls.
"I wish I could cut it off! Or dye it black, to match my dress--"
"That would be very foolish," said Mr. Downey, deploring female hysterics. "A lady's hair is her crowning glory, and yours is a becoming shade of--er--auburn."
"Father called it red-gold," I said softly. "He quoted Homer . . . I beg your pardon, Mr. Downey. You've been so kind to me. I'll not trespass on your time any longer. What is it you want to say?"
Mr. Downey's thin sallow face remained impassive, frozen by years of legal caution; but I think my outburst worried him. He didn't want a weeping woman on his hands.
"Perhaps this is not a good time. Your father told me you were accustomed to assist him in his affairs; but you are very young . . ." He studied me thoughtfully, stroking his long bony nose, and then he said, surprisingly, "It has been a strange life for a young girl--your mother dead since your infancy, no companions of your own sex and station--"
"I needed none," I said coldly, resenting the implied criticism of my father. "Papa was all I needed--friend, teacher, parent. . . . Please, Mr. Downey, don't . . . remind me. Tell me the truth, and let's be done with it. I'm destitute, am I not?"
"Two hundred a year is not destitution."
"But neither is it independence."
"A young lady of eighteen has no need of independence." Mr. Downey made it sound like a nasty word. "Your aunt will certainly offer you a home."
"My aunt dislikes me intensely, and has ever since I informed her, at the age of five, that she looked like her own pug dog."
Excerpted from The Master of Blacktower by Barbara Michaels Copyright © 2006 by Barbara Michaels. Excerpted by permission.
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