A Mistake of Consequence

A Mistake of Consequence

by Terri Evert Karsten

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781458218254
Publisher: Abbott Press
Publication date: 02/10/2015
Pages: 276
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.62(d)

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A Mistake of Consequence


By Terri Evert Karsten

Abbott Press

Copyright © 2015 Terri Karsten
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4582-1825-4


CHAPTER 1

My first mistake was throwing the wine in his face.

The crystal glass shattered against the hearth. The gentleman kneeling in front of me flinched, his wine-spattered face frozen in astonishment. Shocked silence filled the drawing room, a silence so profound I could hear the hiss of the candle on the table. A log crackled and spat in the fireplace. Then everyone spoke at once.

Grandfather was the loudest. He strode across the room and bellowed, "You will apologize to my guest this instant!" Towering over me, with a look as fierce as a Highland warrior, Grandfather meant to frighten me into obedience, but I knew the picture false. Even when Bonnie Prince Charlie's troops had taken Edinburgh nine years ago, Grandfather had stayed well clear of the fighting on either side.

"I will not!" I braced my hands on my hips, my chin thrust forward. "I'm not the one who invited him here."

Mam's hands, a-flutter with lace cuff s, flew up to cover her mouth. My sister Elspeth, standing behind Grandfather, shook her head at me, whether in dismay or in warning, I could not tell.

"In this house, ye will do as I say," Grandfather shouted.

"Aye, as long as you say what's right and reasonable." I was trying not to shout at him, but I had to raise my voice to make him hear me. "I'll not apologize to anyone insulting me."

The gentleman still knelt at my feet, his mouth forming an O as round as his pale eyes and bald head. Beads of red wine rolled down the end of his nose and dropped onto the black velvet of his frock coat where they left damp, shiny spots. He drew a linen handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and dabbed his face. "I meant no insult," he began.

"Insult?" Grandfather interrupted him. "Are ye daft, girl? He meant to marry ye, though God knows why, shrew that ye are."

Marry me? Preposterous! I didn't even know his name. Mam, Elspeth, Grandfather, and even the gentleman all blathered some nonsense. I spun on my heel and ran.

"Wait, Callie," Mam called after me. "Ye're making a mistake!"

I snatched my shawl from the peg in the hallway and pushed outside. The door slammed behind me, cutting off Grandfather's imperious command to return at once.

The city glowered under a murky sky. Grandfather's house stood near the citadel in Leith, a few miles north of Edinburgh, near the harbor and his shipping interests. Now, as evening fell, a fine mist swirled up from the firth and settled on house and lane, chilling the air. Dampness made the cobblestones under my feet slick. As I paused, the front door flew open and Elspeth hurried toward me.

Grandfather threw open the window sash and thrust his head out. "Ye heathen! Have ye no sense? Ye've got the manners of a barbarian."

Mam joined him at the window, her shrill voice carrying down the street. "Ye will never find a gentleman to marry, do ye not learn to mind your temper."

I clutched my shawl and stormed away, ignoring the wet seeping through the thin soles of my drawing-room slippers. The problem was not my temper, but Grandfather's endless stream of pitiful suitors.

"Go on with ye then, if ye'll no see any sense. Ye're no granddaughter of mine!" Grandfather yelled.

Elspeth caught up to me and grabbed my arm. "Slow down, Callie," she panted. "He's only trying to help. You've got to marry someone. You're almost twenty!"

I snatched my shawl free of her grasp. "I don't have to marry some stranger he brings home." It wasn't that I objected to marriage. Nearly all my friends had long since married, and most seemed happy enough. I didn't know what exactly I was waiting for, just not someone Grandfather picked.

"Slow down, Callie," Elspeth repeated. I ignored her, and she dropped back. "Don't be so stubborn," she called.

My anger carried me past the shuttered shops on Dock Street, the pale glow of candlelight spilling through their sashes into the gathering dusk. Dock Street led to the Abbot Ballantyne's Bridge. The steeple of the parish church with its windows covered with latticed wood rose high above the square, stone buildings flanking the narrow street. During the day, busy servants and ladies shopping jostled elbows with burly sailors and dawdling apprentices, as cart drivers pushed through the crowd, holding their horses to a slow walk. Tonight, however, most folk had gone home to their suppers, leaving the street nearly deserted. A single carriage clattered by. I ducked into the shadow of a doorway. Had Grandfather sent the footman after me? The last time I'd run off was when Grandfather swore I would disgrace him if I didn't dance with a fat man old enough to be my father. The footman had dragged me back, but it did no good. The gentleman declined to dance with me when I returned.

Now the carriage disappeared around a corner, and the clop of the horse's hooves was muffled in the gloom. I crossed the stone bridge, passing the tollbooth. The toll man dozed at his post and did not waken at the soft pad of my slippered feet. I walked along the river toward the harbor. If Grandfather did send the footman, he would expect me to go straight on to Leith Walk and turn toward Edinburgh. Most of our friends lived that direction.

A light drizzle started, and the breeze spattered the droplets into my face, but neither dampened my anger. Grandfather thought my marriage nothing more than a business proposition. The fellow who had proposed tonight had never even met me before. How could he think he wanted to marry me? Surely after this introduction, he would never want to see me again. But Grandfather would undoubtedly bring another hopeful home tomorrow, and Mam and Elspeth would keep fussing at me to choose someone from the parade of potential candidates.

I was so upset that I paid little attention to where my feet carried me. The sharp tang of briny air gradually replaced the musty smell of cramped houses. Cobblestone streets gave way to wooden planks, and I walked right out onto the pier.

The night had darkened. Black lumps of what I took to be cargo dotted the wharves. Most of the ships were shuttered as tight as the shops had been, but near me, a long three-masted beauty of a ship had more than its share of activity on the pier near its mooring. A crowd of people gathered near the gangplank. Too bad I had not grabbed my heavy woolen cloak rather than a flimsy shawl. The cloak would have been warmer and far less noticeable. The lace trimming my bodice drooped in a sodden mass, wet from the drizzle, but bedraggled or not, it was still lace and not at all what a sailor's wife might wear.

As I hesitated, I realized this group was not just sailors but mixed company of all types, mostly men. A few children scampered around the edges of the crowd, playing tag. Perhaps it was a leave-taking, or maybe a funeral, though I couldn't imagine why anyone would hold a funeral on the pier. The women, wearing work-worn linen and woolen garments, looked tired and scared. Some were crying; others crossed themselves in prayer. Most of the men wore rough workmen's clothing but a few had frockcoats that marked them as merchants. No one dressed in the high fashion of those gentlemen frequenting Grandfather's dinners and from whom I was supposed to take my pick for marriage.

The thought of that endless stream of suitors renewed my anger. I would not be bartered off to the highest bidder like a horse from one of Grandfather's estates.

The stamp of my foot, or perhaps just my presence, alerted an older man standing among a cluster of young women near my own age. He stared at me a moment, then separated from them and hurried toward me, flapping his hands and beckoning. With his white wig askew, his dark coat stretched tight across a round belly, and his striped stockings revealing short, skinny legs, he resembled an agitated chicken. I stepped back, stifling an urge to laugh. I half expected him to cluck at me.

"Come, come, Miss MacLaughlin," he said in a clipped English accent, speaking before he was even near me. "You are late and keeping the others waiting. I thought I made it clear what time to be here and that dawdlers would surely be left behind."

"I beg your pardon, sir. There is some mistake. I am not Miss MacLaughlin and I have no appointment." I backed away from his flapping hands.

At the same time, two other men emerged from the shadows of the waiting cargo. These men were much rougher, the kind Mam warned me about. I sucked in sharply as they slid to either side of me. I turned to run, but they grabbed my arms, their fingers digging in painfully.

"Let go of me!" I twisted, trying to pull free. "Help! Someone!"

The chicken man nodded, and the scoundrel on my right jabbed me hard in the ribs. I sagged and gasped for air, just as the other fellow hit me in the jaw. Pain blackened my vision and turned my legs to jelly. The man on my left caught me neatly and scooped me up like a child. The other tore away the lace at my bodice with a swift jerk.

"Taken a bit faint, sir," he called out, presumably to the chicken man. It had all happened so fast no one on the dock even noticed.

I struggled, but none of my limbs quite worked. The dark, scruff y face of the man carrying me looked fuzzy through the watery haze of my tears. Even my voice refused to obey. Had the blow broken my jaw?

The gangplank swayed underneath us as the man carried me. Fighting dizziness, I tried to escape. Then, as suddenly as he had picked me up, he dropped me. I managed a squawk before someone caught me and pulled me down into the darkness made thick with the stench of bilge water and mildew. One set of grimy hands after another shoved me forward, away from the hatchway. Still dazed, I had a brief impression of dozens of faces blurred in the gloom. I was deposited on a plank of wood. I lay there, my head throbbing.

More humans were crammed together in this narrow space than I could imagine. I gagged on the odor of sweat and unwashed bodies. Grandfather had bellowed at me for years, but no one had ever hit me. The shock of the blow as much as the pain left me speechless. The calls and curses of the crowd blurred into an indecipherable roar, and the formless, jerking shapes around me were too fuzzy to be real. Or perhaps I was the one no longer real.

I covered my face with my hands and moaned. But the ache in my jaw was far too insistent for this to be a dream. Unbelievable as it was, I had been dumped in the passenger hold of the ship I had seen moored, and I was stuck here along with a good many other people.

That thought set me reeling again. For all the years I had spent in the harbor town of Leith, within the sight and smell of the water, for all the times I had escaped my tutors and my maids to sit on quays and watch the great tall ships, I had never set foot on board one, not even a small schooner. Grandfather had said my desire to feel a ship beneath my feet was only romantic twaddle brought on by reading foolish novels like Robinson Crusoe. Mam merely said 'twas unladylike, and that was that. It had been rare in my life for me to agree with either Mam or Grandfather, but at this moment, I would have sworn they were right.

Still shaky, I worked my way back toward the lighter grayness that marked the hatch. But more people crowded down into the dank hold, jostling me away from that opening. I had to duck to avoid hitting my head on the low crossbeams. I jabbed my elbows into backsides and ribs, shouting as I did so. But the general uproar drowned out my voice. One lusty woman shoved back at me, her elbow hitting me squarely in the ribs and her ample hips knocking me into another bunk. The crowd was so thick it seemed a tangle of disconnected arms and legs and bundles writhing with a dizzying energy. Someone stepped on my hand as he clambered into a berth above me, and a rough burlap sack filled with hard and smelly onions banged into my head. I clutched the rough wood to keep from falling.

By the time the dizziness passed, the congestion had thinned out, not because there were any fewer people, but because most had settled into their places. A few had hung punched tin candle lanterns from the overhead beams. Swaying pinpricks of light cast a pox-like pallor on the grim faces surrounding me.

The narrow aisle between the rows of bunks was nearly empty for the moment. I pushed my way back toward the ladder, grabbing the rough wood frames on either side of the aisle for balance. No one stopped me, but no one moved aside either. Just as I reached for the first rung, someone lowered a water barrel down, missing me by inches. I fell back to make room for the water and the burly workers who manhandled it through the opening and into position behind the ladder. I started up a second time, but two empty buckets and a lantern followed the barrel. Finally, the way was clear. I could see a square of dim sky through the opening above me.

Grasping the sides of the ladder, I pulled myself upwards. No sooner had I set my foot on the bottom rung, when the heavy hatch cover overhead was dropped into place with a thud. The shock of it knocked me backward. The hem of my gown caught on a ragged splinter and ripped as my back hit the floor with enough force to knock the wind out of me.

For a moment everything stopped, but the silence following my fall was so brief I wondered if I had imagined it. In the shifting lantern light, the ordinary wooden ladder looked like a scarecrow from the other world, waving spindly arms as if to ward me off . With a shriek, I clawed up it, shoving my shoulder against the hold door.

"Help me!" I screamed. "Let me out."

No one moved to help me. No one even paused. The rat-like scurrying continued as if I were both inaudible and invisible.

I pounded on the thick wood, but there was no response, above or below. My cries of alarm grew more shrill. I had to get out. I was suffocating. My hands were battered and bleeding, but I ignored the pain and kept pounding. This couldn't be happening.

I felt a firm grip around my waist and heard a low voice not far from my ear.

"Come down, lass. The hold is shut up tight. With the night and the storm coming on, ye willna' be wanting it opened now, will ye?"

Shadows hid his features, but the voice on the ladder below was a man's, with a Highland lilt to it. He pulled me downward with such gentle insistence that I nearly gave in.

"I do want it opened." I tried to shake him off . "Please!" I took a deep breath, trying hard to steady my voice. I might be locked in this horrible place all night. "Please," I repeated as calmly as I could. "There's been a mistake. I don't belong here."

He chuckled softly, a pleasant, comforting sound. Maybe I had found someone to help me at last. Then his words took away the reassurance of his laughter. "Ye are likely right, lass, but there's no help for it tonight. We're shut tight now until morning. The sailors willna' open it, even were someone to die, for they're that busy up top."

My tenuous calm vanished, and I shrieked. "No!" Anger and fear gave me strength. I kicked out to dislodge him. I didn't have much leverage in the cramped quarters, but my heel hit his belly. He grunted and let go. I pushed upwards, trying in vain to shove the hatch cover open with my shoulder. "Help!" I shouted again.

His boots scraped on the rungs as he came after me. I flailed wildly in the darkness to ward him off . Then his strong arm wrapped itself firmly around my waist and hauled me down.

I screamed and kicked, but I might as well have been a naughty child held by the nurse for all the good it did. He dragged me back the length of the hold and plopped me unceremoniously on a bare plank board. I struggled to sit up, but his hands pushed down on my shoulders and held me still.

"Lay still, lass, and bide here. There's no use raving against the night. This hold willna' be opened before morning, and ye had best resign yourself it."

His breath tickled my ear, but his words renewed my terror. I couldn't face a night shut up in this coffin for the living. I couldn't think what to do. Nothing, not my education at the hands of some of the finest tutors in Edinburgh, nor years of scoldings from Mam and Grandfather, none of it had prepared me to suffer a night in the dark hold of a ship with a mass of heartless strangers. "I can't stay. They'll be looking for me." My voice wavered.

"Ye can. Ye will. For surely if ye rise off this bunk I shall tie ye to it." His voice was still low, but not so soft. It was as hard as his arms holding me flat against the plank, demanding compliance.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from A Mistake of Consequence by Terri Evert Karsten. Copyright © 2015 Terri Karsten. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
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A Mistake of Consequence 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
indiebrag More than 1 year ago
We are proud to announce that A MISTAKE OF CONSEQUENCE by Terri Evert Karsten is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree. This tells a reader that this book is well worth their time and money!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Couldn't put it down.