Rachel held her young brother’s hand guiding his bamboo stick and its net. They were standing shin deep in the water like herons and alert to the movements of their prey. The minnows swimming around them were taking furtive nibbles at breadcrumbs and their silvery sheen flashed in the daylight as they darted away.
‘Slowly,’ Rachel whispered. She released her hold and encouraged George forward with a nudge.
He reached out sweeping the net through the water, and suddenly lost his balance on the soft sand. He fell and was momentarily submerged in the flowing river.
‘Stop it!’ Someone screamed. ‘What are you doing?’
Rachel turned and looked up the embankment into the woods, her eyes met those of a young woman. A man had gripped her hair in one hand and he was tearing at her blouse with the other, she fell over and he jumped down astride her. The woman fought back pulling at his jacket, he responding by punching her until she lay still.
George was splashing in the water and gasping as he struggled to stand. Rachel rushed in, pulled him upright and dragged him onto the shore.
‘My net,’ he shouted and pointed to the bamboo stick floating away on the current.
‘Get your shoes on,’ Rachel snapped at him. She ran to the path and looked up into the woods. The man was walking away among the trees with the unconscious woman slumped over his shoulder. He pushed through the thicket of the rhododendrons until he was hidden from Rachel’s view.
She returned to the riverbank. ‘Come on, George,’ she whispered and felt tears pour down her cheeks, her breathing rapid and her hands were shaking.
‘What about my net?’
‘Come on, you’re all wet.’ Rachel fumbled helping him with his shoes. ‘We need to get back.’
She wanted to run all the way, but George couldn’t keep up. It took forever before they emerged onto the park road.
Looking up at the house she saw her mother staring out of a bedroom window. She waved, but there was no response, her mother’s attention seemed fixated above the trees, her face appeared ashen and she looked ill.
Pulling George along, she dashed through the back door into the kitchen.
‘Mrs Dawson!’ shouted Rachel, ‘a man is killing someone!’
Their sudden entrance startled Mrs Dawson who was snoring in her chair.
‘George!’ Mrs Dawson stood up and came to him. ‘What happened?’
‘She pushed me in the water.’
‘Please, Mrs Dawson, a man is killing –‘
‘Why were you at the river?’ She interrupted Rachel and with a towel began drying George’s hair. ‘Oh dear, your mother won’t be pleased.’
‘I lost my net.’ George struggled free from the rough rubbing.
‘Mrs Dawson, he is killing her.’
‘You aren’t allowed near the river.’
‘I’ll get mother.’ Rachel headed to the door, but Mrs Dawson grabbed her arm.
‘You’ll do no such thing.’ She shut the door and stood with her back to it. ‘Your mother’s no at home, if she knew you two were at the river, my life would be hell.’
‘But he is killing her.’
‘Aye, your mother would be killing me if wee George had drowned.’
‘She pushed me.’ George stamped his foot, ‘and she left my jar.’ He wrapped the towel around his shoulders. ‘I didn’t see anyone … she pushed me.’
‘What’s this about?’ Mrs Dawson bent down face to face with Rachel. ’Who is killing whom?
Rachel lounged on the cushions of the bench by her bedroom window and looked up at Haley’s comet, a small streak in the sky. Should she feel lucky to witness this heavenly body? Everyone was so excited about this lifetime event, and full of enthusiasm in his or her discussions around the dinner table. Some believed its appearance would create a disturbance in the ether provoking insane souls to conduct pathological acts of madness. She would roll her eyes if they asked her what she thought.
What about her possible engagement to Wilfred? Why couldn’t they talk about him, after all, he has been promoted to Captain in the Lanarkshire Yeomanry, surely he deserves a mention. Perhaps they don’t see him as she does, so gallant and dashing in his uniform, her Captain Wilfred McQueen, so proud on his white stallion.
Would he propose tomorrow as they walk in the gardens? He must or else why she should wait two long years for him to return from Cape Town. What an awful thought.
She didn’t like the idea of Mrs Dawson chaperoning and following them, although at a discrete distance her presence was still an intrusion. My goodness at nineteen she was capable of dealing with the advances of any man, particularly the dashing Wilfred. The image of him in his uniform made her smile, and she hugged her diary to her chest.
The diffused light from the moon created shadows around the rhododendrons, and she spotted a small girl waving from the park road. She pulled the lace curtain aside but the child had disappeared before she had a clear view.
The image jolted her and she shivered. The screams of the woman, she had witnessed when she was eight, were still vivid in her mind. Was it a dream or her wild imagination as old Jeff had muttered?
Although Mrs Dawson had, at the time, sent Jeff with his dog to look around, he had come back smiling. He couldn’t find anyone in the woods, but he did find a jar of minnows. They concluded the incident was probably a tiff between some youngsters from the New Lanark Mills. That was the end of it. Since Rachel and her brother should not have been down at the river on their own, nothing else was to be said, Mrs Dawson had been very firm.
A tiff, a tiff – she had cried herself to sleep that night and for weeks afterwards. Every time she looked in her mirror she imagined the terrified face of the woman in the woods.
Perhaps the appearance of Haley’s Comet would bring her luck. However, others considered it an ominous sign, a premonition that turmoil would erupt throughout the world. She closed the curtains and climbed into bed, she didn’t want to think of such ridiculous sentiments after all it was power obsessive men fighting the tribes in Africa who created turmoil, not the appearance of a celestial sign in the heavens. Why did Wilfred have to go and be part of it? His rightful place was here with her. Were they not happy? Perhaps the sighting of the comet would determine their future, and bring them a time full of fortunes.
The next day Mrs Dawson was fast asleep in the kitchen when Wilfred arrived. Rachel softly closed the door. She ran across the stable yard, composed herself, and walked round the corner keeping her back to the house front entrance.
She turned. ‘Oh Captain McQueen, I didn’t see you arrive.’
He passed the reins and his riding gloves to a stableman who led the horse away.
‘Yes. Forgive me for being so early.’ He approached, shook her hand while glancing behind her and around the yard.
‘Mrs Dawson is busy.’ She felt her smile almost turn into a grin. ‘We’ll be on our own today.’ She took a deep breath to check her excitement and led the way to the terraced garden. There was a faint smell of whisky from his breath, not unpleasant, but still very masculine.
They strolled along the paths beside the rose beds and on between the neatly trimmed privet to where the wildly growing honeysuckle scent engulfed them as they lingered in the warm afternoon.
He spoke of Haley’s comet, of the African wars and how long he would be away. Oh, how dull and how much he would miss her company.
Her heartbeat fluttered every time their hands touched and when he helped her descend the steps. They wandered on towards the river.
‘We call this spot the beach.’ She pointed to the bank of sand on the river’s bend. ‘I remember when George fell in once, we were catching minnows.’ She shivered.
She didn’t want to remember that day, but how could she forget.
He turned and faced her, taking hold of her hands he leaned his body in close. She felt a warm flush come over her neck and cheeks. What would he say?
‘I will be gone such a long time.’ He smiled and stroked her cheek. ‘One kiss to remember you, to sustain us during our separation.’ He gently kissed her on the lips.
She closed her eyes, and felt her whole body tremble in the intimacy of his embrace, more intensive than any of her dreamy expectations. He pulled her blouse out from her skirt and slid his hands up under her slip onto her bare flesh. She recoiled pushing him away. She stared at him, her heartbeat raced and nauseous bile turned distastefully in her stomach; this is not what she was expecting. What about the proposal?
He stepped forward grabbing her hair and tore at her blouse.
‘Stop it!’ She screamed. ‘What are you doing?’
She glanced over his shoulder and saw a small girl standing and staring at them from the beach. Could she help? Rachel fell backwards, and Wilfred jumped down astride her body, he started hitting her.
Rachel groaned as she regained consciousness and felt the shuddering of a weight on her body pinning her to the ground, and animal grunting from Wilfred. A painful throb on her face seemed to ache all down her body. She stretched out her hand feeling the ground until she touched then grabbed hold of a rock. His head was nestled against her neck, and she could smell the musky odour of his armpits mixed with an alcoholic halitosis, she retched and spluttered. Turning her face away, she gripped tighter on the stone.
Wilfred’s motions and thrusting in her intensified and with suddenness his sporadic breathing became a low gratifying moan. He stopped and pulled himself off her body to lie alongside, breathing deeply. There was a momentary silent pause and stillness beneath the thicket of rhododendrons, a blackbird called from somewhere close by.
The birdcall was the trigger that spurred Rachel into a frantic attack and she brought the rock hard down on the side of his head. She leapt astride his chest and began smashing the rock repeatedly down onto his face, blood sprayed across the leaf mould and up over her naked body. She stood and tried to run but her legs collapsed and she fell onto her knees, she looked back at Wilfred. Her whole body shook with the effort of trying to stand and once more she retched, but there was nothing.
‘Why!’ She screamed, and knelt shivering as she stared at the bloody face of Wilfred. The man she would have lovingly married, would have adored forever, would have cared for eternity and would have born him as many children he asked for. What had she done, was she now a murderess? What madness had overcome him that made him act with such unforgivable uncontrollable lust?
How could she explain to anyone why she was alone in the woods with Wilfred? She pulled on his jacket over her shoulders and sat on the tatters of her dress, her body continued shaking sporadically as she sobbed through her erratic breathing.
‘I’m sorry Wilfred.’ She stared at him as flies began to gather around his face. ‘I am so sorry.’ If only he was alive perhaps he could forgive her, and forget this moment of madness. The shame on their families, fathers at each others throat, mothers indignant and horrified, and it was all her fault because she slipped away from Mrs Dawson. They would gossip and snigger in the High Street. How could she face people around the dinner table and in the drawing room? Her dreams were ruined.
The evening chill crept over her bare legs and dark clouds brought a drizzle of rain. Surely by now she would be missed, and Mrs Dawson would probably be pacing in the kitchen, frantic and angry. The stable boys would be sent to scour the paths of the terraced gardens and wood-ways.
Her decision would be wrong, but what else could she do? She pulled on the remains of her slip, Wilfred’s trousers, jacket and boots. She then threw the remnants of her clothes over the body and covered them over with mulched leaves and branches. She sneaked out from the thick bushes and followed the river away from Castle Park. Keeping clear of the New Lanark Mills, she walked on past the Corra Falls until she reached the cottage at Tulliford. It was a risk she had to make, she hammered with her fists on the door.
‘Hold ye’r horses.’ A woman shouted. The door opened slightly. ‘What’s the matter now.’ A scarf covered head peered out through the gap. ‘Oh I thought it was …what happened to you lad?’ She opened the door fully.‘Taken a beating –‘
Rachel felt a trickle run down her legs and she leaned forward onto the woman and fainted.
Her vision was blurred, how long had she been lying on this bed? The only light in the room was the glowing warmth from the fireplace.
‘Here ye are.’
Startled, she sat up. ‘Who, where am I?’ The vision of Wilfred lying among the leaves flashed through her mind. She peered around the dimness of the room and saw a woman sitting beside the bed holding a small tray.
‘It’s some hot broth, here it’ll make you feel better.’
She took the tray from the woman and placed it on her lap, uncertain of what to say.
‘Well, eat up then.’ The woman got up. ‘I’ve some hot water ready for a wash, my dear.’ She went to the fire and swung a large kettle away from the heat. ‘Aye, once ye’r warmed and clean, ye can tell me all about it.’ She proceeded to light an oil lamp on the table.
Rachel took a spoonful of the vegetable soup and a small bite from a dry scone. There was a strong flavour of parsley and mint among the thickening of barley, and she couldn’t help thinking about her mother and Mrs Dawson going distraught around Castle Park House. She choked and coughed as she swallowed, her throat constricted as the tears welled up and dribbled down her face.
The light from the lamp revealed a stout woman with wild red hair tied up with pleated corn stalks.
‘Call me Dorothy or Dotty if you want.’ She pulled a tin bath from under the table. ‘Now, come on, let’s get you cleaned up.’
She felt helpless standing in the warm water as Dorothy wiped a wet flannel over her body, Wilfred’s dried blood washed off in red streams down her legs.
‘Oh, my… my …my,’ Dorothy said.
‘Oh I know,’ Dotty interrupted, ‘the buggers.’
‘I think I killed him.’
Dorothy hesitated for a moment. ‘Good,’ she said and looked directly up into Rachel’s face. ‘More than he deserved.’
Dressed in a clean cotton skirt and woollen pullover she sat numb and watched as Dorothy cut and tore Wilfred’s garments to pieces, and fed them into the fire.
‘Will they hang me?’
‘Aye lass, it’s what they do.’ She poked at the rags in the fire. ‘May God forgive them for their ignorance.’
‘What can I -?
‘Its not your fault.’ Dorothy interrupted and picked up Wilfred’s boots. ‘I’ll get a good price for these.’ She slipped them under the bed. ‘Put yourself in the Lord’s hands.’
‘Go to me sister’s, that’s the Lord’s will.’
Dorothy gave Rachel some money with a letter for her sister, and at Carstairs junction put her on a train to Glasgow.
Four years later Rachel came back to Castle Park and on the park road stood holding her daughter’s hand, she looked up at the house. Her mother was at a bedroom window looking ashen and pale, staring out over the woods.
‘Are ye lost?’ A man got up from planting seedlings.
‘No, No.’ she pulled her Cashmere shawl up over her head and started to walk away.
‘Aye, poor woman.’
‘What? Do you mean me.’
‘No, No, it’s just …. Well, Mrs Ramsay I mean.’ He touched the rim of his hat. ‘Pardon me. She sits there every day after they found the skeleton.’
‘Aye, her daughter, missing for years and all the time rotting under the rhododendrons.’ He threw his trowel down into the soil.
‘Were they sure?’
‘Aye, they thought she had eloped with a Cavalry officer.’
Rachel adjusted the shawl to conceal her face and kept hold of her daughter’s hand. ‘But was it just a skeleton?’ She peered at the gardener.
‘Aye, that was the problem, it was nothing but bones left by creatures and beetles.’ He picked up a basket of seedlings. ‘But it was the buckles from her shoes, her necklace and a brooch. Aye they were sure it was her alright.’ He bent down and started planting.
‘Look Mummy’ Her daughter let go of her hand and ran towards the house waving, the woman at the bedroom window was waving back.
‘Come back!’ Rachel chased after her.
The woman came rushing out of the house and grabbed hold of the child. ‘Is that you Rachel?’ She said looking into the girls face.
‘No, I’m Anne.’
Rachel stopped a few yards away. ‘Come on, Anne, we have to go.’ She looked towards the corner of the house by the stables and saw Mrs Dawson watching, she was wringing a dishcloth in her hands.
‘Rachel!’ her mother looked across and began walking towards her. ‘Rachel, it is you, Rachel!’
Mrs Dawson put her hands to her face.
‘Rachel,’ the woman shouted and came running to grasp her.
‘Mummy.’ said Anne, and stood by watching the women hugging, and weeping.
‘Mummy.’ Anne tugged her mother’s hand.
‘Annie dear, say hello to your Grandmother.’