Celtic Knot: A Clara Swift Tale

Celtic Knot: A Clara Swift Tale

by Ann Shortell


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Tuesday, December 7


1868 Ottawa

D'Arcy McGee is assassinated. As John A. Macdonald cradles his friend's bloody head, he blames transplanted Irish terrorists: the Fenian Brotherhood. Within a day, Patrick James Whelan is arrested. After a show trial, Whelan is publicly hanged.

That much is history. Did Whelan do the deed?

What if Clara Swift, a mere slip of a girl, sees the trace-line of a buggy turn off Sparks Street, moments after the murder? What if housemaid Clara understands her dead mentor's shorthand, and forges an unlikely alliance with the Prime Minister's investigator? And ends up being trusted by the condemned man's wife - and by Lady Agnes Macdonald . . .

Celtic Knot.
It's reimagining a crisis that tested a nation.
It's history with a mystery.
It's A Clara Swift Tale.

And it all begins with a shot in the dark.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781525520914
Publisher: FriesenPress
Publication date: 03/22/2018
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Ann Shortell was born in Kingston, Ontario, and raised on legends of John A. Macdonald, and of her Celtic ancestors. In a previous century she was a business journalist and author - and won an award or two. She wrote Celtic Knot in homage to the Irish storytelling tradition D'Arcy McGee embodied. She thanks Crime Writers of Canada for selecting Celtic Knot, her debut novel, as a 2017 finalist for the Unhanged Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished Crime Manuscript. She lives in Toronto with her husband.

Read an Excerpt


ASSASSINATION Tuesday April 7th, 1868


Mrs. Trotter didn't allow me in the parlour when it was open for service as a public house. After she closed at ten, we'd mop up, rinse the spittoons, and use the parlour bar as our own sitting room while we awaited the menfolk.

This particular night, just before midnight, Mrs. Trotter saw in three of her boarders. She swept their entryway after they'd gone up to their rooms. Then she lay down and dozed on the men's settee.

I propped a candelabra on the table nearest the window, so as to catch the moonlight, and set to copying Mr. McGee's new speech. He was going on about all the secret Fenians in Montreal's Griffintown, and even here in Ottawa. He believed the rebels might stage another border raid soon.

The tower bell on Parliament Hill rang one o'clock in the morning, startling Mrs. Trotter.

"Clara, you won't be able to do your day's work," she started in with me.

"The gentlemen won't want an early breakfast," I said, "after sitting late at Parliament."

"I don't like my Willy working these hours, and him a year younger even than you," she said. Her son Willy Trotter was a Parliamentary pageboy. "I don't know what to do with the pair of you."

A key scraped in the lock of the boarders' door.

"Have a look out, Clara," Mrs. Trotter said. "See which of our trio of truants that is."

I breathed against the windowpane, and wiped off the frost with my apron.

With the close moon, I could see the sharp outline of a grown man. His beaver hat was flush with the lintel, his boots tamping off snow on the stoop.

"It's Monsieur Robitaille," I said.

Monsieur Robitaille was a foot taller than Mr. McGee and Willy both. Though Willy claimed he'd be as big a man, when he came into his full height. More of Willy's nonsense talk, that was.

A knock followed. Three sharp raps.

"You'll have to let him in, Clara," Mrs. Trotter said. "I double-locked that door, an hour ago."

"Why would you ever?"

"There've been some shiftless lads in the bar this week," she said. "Asking after Mr. McGee — when he's around, what he's up to. They've right spooked me."

"Mr. McGee says — in this new speech — that for all their threats, the Fenian rebels are only succeeding at uniting us Canadians." I waved the paper in my hand, as I walked past. "We good Irish, the Frenchies, and even the Protestants."

"Mr. McGee would be better to stop railing against the Fenians," she said.

"Even if it's Mr. McGee they're het up at, any of us could be hurt. And I want no shenanigans in my boarding house. And no backtalk, Clara."

'Twas true that we were blind to whoever was entering the boarders' door.

The landlord, Monsieur Desbarats, had knocked together two buildings that had long stood cheek-by-jowl on the same lot, to make Trotter's Boarding House at 71 Sparks Street.

The public rooms were in this, the newer of the two buildings, and to reach the boarders' entryway Mrs. Trotter and I had to step through a connecting archway. She'd even had the landlord cut out a new door at the front, just for the boarders. The idea was that the boarders would let themselves in with their own keys. Then they had only to scrape their boots, and they could head up their own staircase. In fact, only Mr. McGee and Monsieur Robitaille were careful to clean the street off their feet. I had to mop up after the rest.

Meantime, their entry hall was so narrow that whenever I had call to open the men's door, I had to step back into the archway to let the blasted door swing wide. Then I couldn't see who was traipsing inside, until they stepped up onto the bottom stair. Of course, a wide-open door attracted snow in winter, dust and wind in all seasons. Mrs. Trotter complained daily that the boarders' door let the City of Ottawa into her home, without her say-so.

Tonight I stood in place to greet Monsieur Robitaille, who had to crouch to fit on the first step, so as not to hit his head on the ceiling. "Good evening, Monsieur," I said. "Did you see Mr. McGee speak?"

"Shut that up tight after him, Clara," Mrs. Trotter called out. She was comfy under a pink woollen blanket, so she didn't bother rising. "Did you speak yourself, Monsieur?" she asked.

"I did say a few words, Madame Trotter."

Monsieur Robitaille had an orator's voice like Mr. McGee's, so he didn't have to raise it for her to hear his reply. Out of courtesy, though, he followed me into the parlour.

"And, Mademoiselle Clara," he sketched a bow at me, "D'Arcy had me read his speech and make a few notes while an Opposition Member was on his feet. My friend McGee knows I can't absorb all his ideas this late — or should I say this early. He's due to be speaking now."

"It might just as well be day, anyhow," Mrs. Trotter said, "with the moon hung so full and low."

"It's the snow," I said. "There's moon-glow all over the snow banks tonight."

"It isn't good for a body, when night turns into day like this," Mrs. Trotter said.

"The faeries will be out for sure," I said.

"Call them the Good People, Clara," she said. "You know 'tis safer."

We both crossed ourselves, Father, Son, Holy Ghost.

Mrs. Trotter didn't mean to put a portent to the moon being this big and bright.

She was a God-fearing biddy, and wouldn't want anyone to think otherwise.

"Do make the Sign of the Cross, Monsieur," I said. "To forestall any ill will."

He smiled, then made the blessing.

"Anyway, the sheen's helping me make out Mr. McGee's words," I said. "I need the aid, the way this tallow smokes so."

"I'm frightened you'll catch fire from the flame yourself, Clara, with the amount of lamb's fat you slather on your hands each evening," Mrs. Trotter said.

"I need to keep them supple —" I said.

"La lune lit my way here," Monsieur Robitaille said. "And she'll light McGee's. Bonsoir, Mesdames." He had heard this argument, over my coddling my fingers to protect my penmanship, more than once before. Ever polite, he bobbed a bow in Mrs. Trotter's direction, smiled at me, and headed upstairs.

"You've double-locked that door, Clara?" Mrs. Trotter gave me a sharp look.

I retraced my steps, turned the key, and pulled the latch bar.

She drifted off to sleep again as I read over my work.

Mr. McGee wrote that the Fenians had caused havoc, but so far had gained no ground against our militia — and no reaction from London, either. He'd scribbled a note to himself about the Prime Minister — "Macdonald confides no troops will be sent to aid us, under any circumstances." Mr. McGee had crossed out that bit, so I hadn't copied it. He'd also written another note, which was mixed in with the speech pages — his elder daughter, Miss Frasa, was in need of a good visit at home, after Easter.

I tucked that scrap away, to hand him directly on his return. Then I rubbed my eyes, and went over to rest on the little chaise. Glad Mrs. Trotter hadn't caught me tiring, after my bold talk.

The bell rang two o'clock.

About half an hour later, I awoke to Mrs. Trotter's snoring, and a scratching like a cat's claws — a key running across the door. There were only Mr. McGee and Willy not yet home. One of them was trying to garner our attention without waking the household.

Willy wasn't so polite.

I rolled off the chaise. I'd best be careful, though. If it were Willy, he might hit me with a snowball.

I stepped through the passage and once again lifted the bar on the latch. When the door was half-open, there was a noise — like a firecracker had been set off.

No one came across the threshold.

"Did somebody shoot a gun?" Mrs. Trotter yelled from the settee.

"I can't see —" I said.

"Gunfire," she yelled. "Shut that door, Clara."

She was behind me, suddenly, shoving me right against the door. Ice-cold wood pressed against my forehead, and I pushed with all my strength.

The door slammed shut. I pressed my ear to it hard, but heard nothing.

Monsieur Robitaille came running downstairs double-quick in his dressing gown, holding his boots in one hand and a kerosene lamp in the other. There was clomping on the floor above; the other boarders stirring.

"Monsieur Robitaille, there've been no more shots," Mrs. Trotter said, as he crouched on the first step. "D'you think we're safe to check?" He nodded.

"Clara," Mrs. Trotter said. "Turn the knob, and ease open the door enough that Monsieur Robitaille can reach that handle — there, now scoot back here."

She and I crowded close in the archway, as Monsieur Robitaille reached forward from his perch.

He stared out. "Tabarnac," he said. "Arrêtez-vousvotre châtelainela clé du verrou de la cuisine."

He slammed the door shut once more.

Mrs. Trotter handed me the candelabra she'd carried over, and untied her key ring from her apron. She pointed the kitchen door key at the floor, near the entrance. "Of all the —" she said.

In the light cast by candles and lamp, I saw that on the hardwood lay a set of teeth. The kind you order from a catalogue.

"Don't go any closer, Mesdames."

Monsieur Robitaille grabbed the key, and ran.

I squeezed around Mrs. Trotter.

"Be sure to bar that again, Clara," Mrs. Trotter said.

But I stepped up onto the Monsieur's place on the stair, and pulled the door full open — so I could see outside.

A heap of clothing was piled like laundry on the stoop. It was not Mr. McGee lying face down there, not looking like that. The best part of a man's body was there, sure, in clothes uncommonly like his. And next to it a walking stick. That was Mr. McGee's, yes. And his white top hat.

Where the back of his head should be, there wasn't anything to see but bloodied flesh and bone. Blood staining the door, blood muddying the hoarfrost that lay over the stoop.

I swallowed and looked beyond, to try and stop gagging. There was blood in the snow bank too, blood in the moon-glow. And down the road, the ghost-grey outline of a buggy, turning onto O'Connor Street.

The wail of my keening filled the night. Mrs. Trotter pulled me back, and held me to her as I wept.

* * *


Monsieur Robitaille had eased Mr. McGee over, so the wound didn't show. Then he had gone for the police. Mrs. Trotter, the three other boarders and I had posted ourselves between Mr. McGee and the street.

By now, the blood was frozen stiff all around Mr. McGee's mouth. He had the voice of an angel. Everyone said so. Nobody else was looking down at him anymore.

I hiccupped, and choked back another sob.

"Clara, you can't stay here, standing over Mr. McGee and howling like that," Mrs. Trotter said. "Go round again and in the back way, girl. The gentlemen and I will set up lamps out here, to make sure Mr. McGee's remains are safe."

Safe. Mrs. Trotter was daft, for sure. She'd double-locked the door so she could be safe. So Mr. McGee couldn't open it with his key, in time to save himself.

Now Mr. McGee would never be safe again, no matter how many lanterns or people were crowded round him.

"Inside, Clara."

I took a long breath of the frozen air, then another. "I'll hand out the lamps through the window," I said.

I scuffed my boots along down the alley's caked snow. Now I wanted nothing so much as to be with other people again.

In the dining room, I picked up the tray of kerosene lamps I'd just filled for the boarders' use, and ran into the parlour. As I pushed up the window, I noted my candle had guttered out.

The bell rang three o'clock. At that moment, Willy yelled from across the street. "Ma, Ma, is that Mr. McGee?"

"Willy, where in the name of Our Lord Saviour have you been?" Mrs. Trotter said.

"Christ on a crutch," Willy said when he reached his mother. "I saw somebody slumped against our door, so I ran into the Times office."

Mr. Lacey, the newspaper's editor, came across after Willy. "It is D'Arcy, by God." Mr. Lacey said. "I'll go for a doctor."

A look passed between Mr. Lacey and Willy. I'd heard them before, talking about 'stories', and how to be first to the telegram office.

"I don't see as — oh, the man's gone already," Mrs. Trotter said. "Willy, take that load from Clara."

Willy grabbed at the tray I'd set on the windowsill, knocking me off-kilter. My tummy gave a great heave, and I spewed dinner's remains. Some landed right on Willy's mitts.

"Clara," Mrs. Trotter called out. "Lay down until you're needed."

"Jesus, Clara, what —" Willy said.

I shook my head and shut the window. Then I pulled aside my cape, to wipe my mouth with my apron. But I didn't head off through the kitchen to my backalley room. Instead, I relit the candle, and retraced my earlier steps. Mr. McGee's denture was still lying on the floor ... I'd been told not to touch.

If I'd only pretended to double-lock the door ... if I'd done as I felt was right, and not as I was told ... Mr. McGee may have made it inside to safety.

I made my way upstairs, plucking Mr. McGee's room key from my own châtelaine and rubbing the blade-edge along the underside of my right arm — where I'd burned it on the washing mangle.

The pain helped a bit.

Mr. McGee's pipe tobacco was all around the room. I'd left the curtains open wide, the way he liked, so he could see without a nightlight.

"Don't think a full moon uncanny, Clara. Shedding light on any matter can only make it better. Remember that."

That's what Mr. McGee had told me when he came home after dinner, to fetch his speech for the special evening Parliamentary session.

I picked up his favourite cream-coloured sweater from his reading chair, folded it. "That's Aran wool, Clara, 'twas my own father's," he'd told me. "And what's better, knitted by my blessed mother."

I understood the comfort in that. I had Gram's cape on, didn't I. I hadn't shed it at the door as I usually did.

Still, I shivered as I crossed the room. The window seat was always piled high with his books and papers. The police might want to look through these. I could straighten them up for Mr. McGee.

As I leaned over the pile, I couldn't help checking on Mrs. Trotter's little ring of light, set between Mr. McGee and the street.

Neighbours were now helping Willy, Mrs. Trotter, and her other boarders.

They were piling up logs, on the far side of the wooden walkway. A few were even rolling stones, to make the barrier a stronghold.

I noticed that the three respected Parliamentarians, whom I served daily, struggled with any heavy lifting. "Lightweights all three," Mr. McGee had scrawled on scrap paper after a particularly difficult dinner conversation.

These other boarders had expressed amazement, and a measure of disgust, that Mr. McGee wanted to give the vote to "the feckless Indians".

When Mr. McGee had caught me reading that note, he'd admonished me to erase it all from my mind.

From that moment — though I always cleaned all three of their rooms to a spit-shine, and I daren't meet their eyes when serving their sausages — I'd never been able to address any of them as anything more than 'Mister,' or 'sir'.

Lest I slip up.

It didn't matter that they were, in reality, Messrs. Wodehouse, Henderson and Buttle. I could think of them only by the nicknames he'd penned in frustration.

Woodmouse, Hedgehog, and Bat," he'd called them — all foolhardy and venal creatures from old Irish tales.

Still, I was glad to have even the likes of those jokers out there, between Mr. McGee and the rest of the world. For on the far side of the street, more and more people were gathering with each passing moment. They were sharing flasks and bottles as they ogled Mr. McGee's body.

Monsieur Desbarats must have arrived from his fancy home in Sandy Hill while I was on the stairs. He was waving people away from this property he owned, and from his printing shop as well. No-one was paying him the least attention.

A man jumped from a carriage, swinging a leather physician's kitbag. How was it the doctor had arrived before the police?

I settled myself among the books on the floor, and inched up Mr. McGee's window. The voices cut through the winter night.

"Dr. Gillivray." Mrs. Trotter let him step inside the circle.

I tilted forward to see. Knocked a pile of snow from the sill, and held my breath. Nobody looked up at the sudden dusting.

Dr. Gillivray turned Mr. McGee's body over again, so that he lay exposed.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

I pulled my cape tighter against the chill.

Dr. Gillivray raised Mr. McGee's cane in the air, then pointed it toward the door.

He stepped right over Mr. McGee, shouting, "Bring my bag, will you?" Then, "Got it. From the head wound, I figured the bullet would be in the door — the cane helped with the trajectory."

"This is Mr. D'Arcy McGee on the ground." I was gladdened by the anger in Mrs. Trotter's voice. "I'd ask you not be talking of wounds and — tragedy."

"A tragedy indeed, Mrs. Trotter," the doctor said, like he was gentling her.

At which point, saints be praised, Monsieur Robitaille emerged out of the back alley with Sergeant O'Neill, a line of coppers trailing after them.

Mrs. Trotter held out a hand in greeting. "Tommy ...."

He took her hand in both of his. "Nancy, I'm sorry for the trouble life's brought to your door tonight."

The doctor stepped forward. "I have the bullet, O'Neill," he said.

"You have, Gillivray?" Sergeant O'Neill's voice hardened. "And who roused you for this?"

The sergeant ordered the other coppers to herd Willy, Mrs. Trotter and the boarders — save Monsieur Robitaille — down the alley and inside.

Another carriage hightailed it up the street, this one a four-in-hand Clarence. The driver jumped down. He wore a banged-up cowboy hat, and he never wore a red coat, but I knew from Mr. McGee that Pierce Doyle held the rank of Major. First in the British Regulars, now as one of the first officers in the Canadian government's new Dominion Constabulary, which was about to be tasked with protecting Parliament.


Excerpted from "Celtic Knot"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Ann Shortell.
Excerpted by permission of FriesenPress.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Wednesday April 7th, 1869 Half-past two in the morning, 3,
ASSASSINATION Tuesday April 7th, 1868, 9,
VIGIL Wednesday April 8th, 1868, 61,
TRIAL Saturday September 5th, 1868, 119,
HANGING Sunday January 31st, 1869, 199,
LIFE AFTER DEATH Thursday February 11th, 1869, 261,
Wednesday April 7th, 1869 Just before two o'clock in the morning, 311,

Customer Reviews