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Authors: Gwen Kirkwood

The Laird of Lochandee

BOOK: The Laird of Lochandee
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Published by Accent Press Ltd – 2012

ISBN 9781909335813

Copyright © Gwen Kirkwood 2012

The right of Gwen Kirkwood to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

The story contained within this book is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author's imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publishers: Accent Press Ltd, The Old School, Upper High St, Bedlinog, Mid Glamorgan, CF46 6RY.

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Bairn, bairnie
Child, baby
A type of cake/bun
Blether, blather
Foolish chatter
Bonnie, bonny
Beautiful, handsome
Small hut, cottage for farm labourers
Fine, handsome, brave
Dare not
Did not
Land agent, steward
Tickling, fishing for trout
Ken, kenned
Know, knew
A harvest celebration
Laddie, lassie
Boy, girl
Church minister's house
Memento, reminder
Milk pail
Cocked, as in raised eyebrows
Blacksmith's, smithy
Year-old bullock or heifer
Groups of sheaves stood on end in field
Iron rod in fireplace for hanging kettles etc.
Gorse, furze
Exclamation – hush/get away with you!

Chapter One

!' G
. ‘I can't believe Connor O'Brian would write after all this time. And such a letter.'

‘He must be desperate,' Cameron agreed. Since the seizure he was not the energetic, decisive man he had once been, but his mind still functioned clearly – except when his wife administered more of the medicine than the doctor had recommended. He had a way of considering his words now, but once uttered there was no mistaking his opinion.

The letter had been addressed only to him but he knew Gertrude longed to snatch the single page and read it for herself. He and Connor were old friends; they had attended the same village school, all those years ago.

‘He must feel his end is near.' Cameron sighed with regret for a youth long past. ‘I'll …' ‘We'll ignore the letter.'

‘Gertie! You canna mean that. He needs reassurance that his lassie will have a roof over her head.'

‘I do mean it.' Her mouth tightened into a thin line.

‘Where's the Christian spirit you're always preaching, woman?'

‘I've told you, Cameron…'

‘Oh aye? Well, I'm not finished yet. I'll have my way over this, Gertie. We can't see Connor's bairn without a home, and neither kith nor kin to help her.'

She stared at him. Her mouth opened, then shut with a snap. Even in the early days, when he was fit and strong, Cameron had rarely argued, but he had always got his own way when something mattered to him.

Those days were gone. Cameron needed her to care for him now. He was dependant on her to keep the farm going, along with Meg and Willie. It was harder since the war – the Great War that had taken away her beloved Josh to fight, and to die, in the trenches. Only this week, Lloyd George had announced that Germany would have to pay for the devastation in France, but that would not bring Josh back, or the thousands of other young men.

‘The lassie can bide with us for as long as she needs a home.' Cameron's tone was still firm, but gentler. `You're always saying you need more help now that I'm not fit to work. She will help you.'

‘I have a daughter of my own to help.'

‘Aye, you have that. And fine you know Meg would be happier married to Peter Sedgeman and looking after his wee bairnies. You can give her your blessing and stop making her feel she'd be deserting us if you'll only give Connor's lassie a home.'

‘I will not see my only daughter waste her life slaving after another woman's family!'

‘She loves bairns. You've told her often enough she'll never have any of her own.'

‘Don't change the subject. When I need a maid I'll find my own. There's folk everywhere looking for work. I don't want a brat of Connor O'Brian's in my home.'

‘Gertie!' Cameron fixed her with his steady gaze. She turned away. He didn't understand. How could he? He didn't know the memories Connor O'Brian's letter was awakening. She felt the old panic rising, tightening her chest. The past came flooding back. She could not bear to have the daughter of Mhairi MacLean and Connor O'Brian under her roof – a constant reminder of her rejection, her humiliation – and the horror of it.

They had all attended the same school, and later the same village dances. Gertrude had been an only child. Her mother had borne two boys before her. They had died in infancy. There had been another baby after her, but he too, had died at birth. So she had been doubly cherished and shamefully indulged.

‘My ain lassie, ye're a survivor,' her father had told her often. He had doted on her, buying her the smartest wee pony he could afford and teaching her to ride at an early age. When she was bossy at school it was because she was used to having her own way.

Mhairi MacLean was the daughter of a shepherd and walked three miles or more to school, and back in the afternoon. She had rarely mixed with other children and had never seen so many faces until she started school. She was dark and pretty and very shy and Cameron Maxwell and Connor O'Brian had taken her under their wing with youthful chivalry. Gertrude had been envious, until she realised that Mhairi gave everyone that same shy smile, including herself.

As the years passed Mhairi's gentle manner made her popular with all the children, especially the younger ones. When they were thirteen, Cameron's sister, Cathie, started school. In spite of the eight years difference in their ages she adored Mhairi and they had much in common. They smiled and helped, and rarely criticised, so they were liked by everyone from the stern Dominie to the youngest pupil. Gertrude resented such effortless popularity while she strived to gain attention.

Cameron had inherited the Maxwell family's musical skill. He could entertain pleasingly with his harmonica by the time he was ten. As they grew older and attended the local dances Cameron was frequently invited to take a turn with the fiddle. Reluctantly he left Connor to partner both Gertrude and Mhairi in the reels and jigs. Gertrude always had the prettiest dresses, no hand-me-downs or makeovers. Whatever her heart craved her father bought for her and she revelled in the attention of the charming Connor, but he was not to be bought.

Connor O'Brian had a smile which could charm the birds from the trees, but he had a mind of his own – except when it was fuddled with alcohol.

When a letter arrived from his uncle, Connor travelled the fifteen miles with eager anticipation. Uncle Sean had no children of his own, but he did have a thriving blacksmith's business and he wanted to train his nephew in the smiddy. Connor would take over when he grew too old to do the work himself, especially shoeing the big Clydesdale horses.

Connor was delighted at the prospect, but he loved Mhairi MacLean with all his heart. He could not bear the thought of being separated from her so he asked her to marry him and go with him, swearing he would decline his uncle's offer if she refused.

Even now, standing in her own kitchen at Windlebrae, gazing back down the years, Gertrude could not suppress a shudder. She remembered the shock when she learned Connor was to marry Mhairi.

She couldn't believe it. She wouldn't believe it. How could Connor choose the meek, mild mannered Mhairi for his bride? Gertrude would not accept it. Connor was hers. She wanted him. She needed him. She couldn't bear to see him with Mhairi. She made plans.

She underestimated the strength of true love – Connor's love for the gentle Mhairi.

Oh, he had fallen into her trap all right. He had taken all that Gertrude had offered so freely – but only because he was too drunk to resist.

In the cold light of the following day he had come near to hating both himself, and her. Worse, his dismay and remorse were not because he had taken away her own virginity, but because he had betrayed the trust of Mhairi, his dearest love. Even now Gertrude felt the chagrin, the disbelief, the humiliation – and then the anger.

Nothing would sway Connor from his chosen path.

Gertrude shivered as events she had thought forgotten, memories she had swept into the past, came rushing back.

Nothing had prepared her for the horror which resulted from her night's lusting. The shame burned afresh in her mind as though it had been yesterday. The disgrace to her family. The prospect had been unbearable. She had considered drowning herself in the river. She would hang herself from the beam in her father's barn. She had been half-crazed with worry and shame.

Cameron had been quietly devastated by Connor's marriage to Mhairi. He was bereft, but they were dear friends and he summoned all the control and generosity of spirit he could muster. He wished them well and played the fiddle as they danced on a cloud of happiness. Only Gertrude guessed his true feelings and another plan came to her mind. Life was precious and Cameron would be an easy prey while his own heart was sore.

In desperation she resorted to another trap, more of the raw whisky from her father's secret still.

Her hasty marriage to Cameron Maxwell had saved her from the ultimate shame and disgrace and in return she had vowed to be a good wife, but when Josh was born, a fine boy to be premature, Cameron had eyed her keenly, expectantly. She had seen the questions in his eyes but she had offered no explanation, uttered no confession. In silence he had turned away from her, but as he looked down at the sleeping infant she saw his expression soften. He was kindly, like his sister, Cathy, but Cameron could speak with his eyes, without a word passing his lips and she saw the doubts, the questions. She pursed her lips and no words were spoken, and so she had convinced herself the secret was hers alone.

She did her duty to Cameron, working hard in the house and dairy at Windlebrae, the Ayrshire farm they had rented, with help from their respective families. Two years later Meg had been born. They had lost a baby the following year causing Cameron concern for her health and drawing them closer. The following year Willie had been safely delivered and Gertrude felt she had repaid Cameron for her past deceit. She had given him a daughter and a son, while she had her beloved Josh.

Several years passed before the calm was shattered by the news of another birth, another child to be given a home at Windlebrae. Gertrude did not want another baby to feed and clothe and care for, least of all a bastard who would bring shame to her own children. She hurled every possible argument at Cameron. He listened in silence, but he remained adamant and tension mounted.

Secretly Gertrude was afraid the gossips would awaken old rumours and tongues would be set wagging. She was obsessed with her love for Josh and she could not bear anything which might destroy his respect for her. She wanted the best for all her children, but especially for Josh.

Cameron considered himself responsible for the baby – bastard or not.

‘He will be brought up the same as Josh and Meg and Will,' he had insisted. ‘His name will be Ross and he will be just as much a Maxwell as they are.' He had given her one of those steady stares of his. Although he had refrained from mentioning Josh's birth, Gertrude had known it was in his mind as clearly as if he had shouted it from the rooftops. Josh did not resemble either of them and as he grew older his black hair and dimpling smile bore unmistakable resemblance to Connor O'Brian.

In the end she had gone away from Windlebrae and returned with the baby, passing him off as her own, forestalling questions and wagging tongues. The four young Maxwells had grown up believing themselves to be brothers and sister.

There was no future to be considered now for Josh. There was nothing to make her obey Cameron this time and she would never take Mhairi MacLean's brat into her home.

As though he had read her thoughts Cameron's mouth tightened.

‘You liked Connor well when we were all young. I've always known how things were. I never held it against you – or young Josh. So now you will not hold a spite against Mhairi's bairn, or so help me, the whole parish will hear about it.'

Gertrude stared at him. After all these years he had finally uttered the words she had dreaded. Guilty colour stained her sallow skin, even to the hollows at her scrawny neck. Still his gaze held hers. Her heart hammered and her eyes fell. Cameron nodded, knowing she valued her reputation, her standing in the eyes of the minister, the kirk, the congregation. Her character would be worth nothing if she turned an innocent, homeless lassie out into the road.

A sudden clatter of buckets came from the adjoining dairy. Relief surged through Gertrude at the interruption.

‘The milking must be finished. I must boil up the porridge. They'll be hungry.' She hurried to the gleaming black range. The fire had settled to a steady glow but she poked it agitatedly, striving for composure.

‘Tam was early with the post,' Meg said, coming to stand at the door which led from the dairy into the kitchen. She was drying her hands on a piece of rough, well-washed towel, which had once been a meal sack.

‘Aye, he's going to Duncan Watson's funeral.' Cameron grimaced. ‘That's another one away. Probably be my turn next.'

‘Please don't say that,' Meg pleaded. She loved her father deeply.

‘Well it's true lassie, and for all the good I am here I'd be as well in my box.'

‘Not yet you wouldn't, Father!' Ross Maxwell called cheerfully, moving to stand at Meg's side, sharing the rough towel. He towered head and shoulders above her, his blue eyes sparkling with laughter. ‘You haven't taught me to play all your jigs and reels on the fiddle. How can I take your place at the dancing if I don't know the tunes?'

‘You're doing fine from what Tam was telling me,' Cameron told him with a glow of pride. He surveyed the tall, straight figure of the youngest Maxwell. Why had Gertie never been able to love him, he wondered, shaking his head. She had done her best to knock the laughter out of him.

He wondered if he had ever really understood the woman who had taken his name and borne his children. Sometimes he had blamed himself for the hardness in her. When Mhairi MacLean had married Connor, he had known that anyone else would always be second best for him. It had seemed natural that he and Gertie should find solace with each other. Theirs had been a marriage of convenience, but Gertie had wanted it and she had planned for it. Too late, he had guessed the reason.

She was capable, hard-working, thrifty and clean, God-fearing – but he had often wished there had been more laughter in her. Since Josh's death, in the Flanders mud, there had been little but bitterness and bigotry. She had barely shown kindness, even to Meg, her own flesh and blood and the best of daughters. Meg reminded him of his sister Cathy– too caring, too gentle for her own good.

It was three years since the end of the war. Ships were bringing in huge cargoes of cheap corn, yet men were unable to afford bread and milk. They haunted street corners, desperate for work. Discontent was rife. So far his own family had been fortunate in comparison, in spite of his illness.

BOOK: The Laird of Lochandee
13.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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