Read The Low Road Online

Authors: James Lear

The Low Road

Table of Contents
 
 
 
Chapter One
My father was a soldier, and his father before him. That's all I know about my family history, or all I am allowed to know. Since my mother and I returned to Gordon Hall a year ago, I have grown used to evasions, silences and lies on the subject.
For many years, since my late childhood, we lived out on the island of Rum, remote from the storms and alarms of the Jacobite uprising, protected by a few miles of water from the dangers of the mainland. My father, who I last saw when I was twelve, stayed at Gordon Hall, the family seat on the east bank of Loch Linnhe, where I believe he distinguished himself in the service of the Stuart cause. More than that I have been unable to discover. I know, from my mother's tearful silence on the subject, that my father is dead and that I will soon inherit Gordon Hall as head of the family. I am eighteen now, three years from my majority. Three years before I, Charles Edward Gordon, named after the rightful king now in exile, can take charge of family affairs and demand the truth.
We returned to the mainland in 1750, four years after the Battle of Culloden when my mother judged it safe to re-establish the family in its rightful home. Here we are comfortable and quiet, respected if distant members of the community, coming into contact with our neighbours at the weekly visit to the church at
Portnacroish, three miles from Gordon Hall. My only companions are my mother, my nurse Ethel-a grim-faced but good-hearted Highland woman who still treats me like a child and a succession of female tutors, employed by my mother but regularly dismissed when, as inevitably happens, she suspects them of moral laxity. My mother fears that contact with these ‘Hanoverian trollops' will corrupt me, and is constantly on the lookout for any sign of intimacy between us. I can assure her with a clear conscience that I have little interest in these girls beyond their slender grasp of Latin, algebra and, particularly, history. What I want more than anything is the company of men, but this is forbidden; my mother won't have my ‘head filled with idle dreams of glory'. In this I have little choice but to obey her.
I am less able to obey my mother in other areas, however. Try as she might to stifle my curiosity, I am determined to know more about my father and his role in the glorious Revolution of 1745. I know that we were on the ‘right' side, the Jacobite side, although you'd scarcely guess it from the house or its inhabitants. All trace of our historic allegiance to the Church of Rome has been purged from Gordon Hall - the exquisite little Lady Chapel gutted and converted into a grain barn, the ancestral portraits removed from the dining hall. We can't conceal our identity absolutely, and the locals know who we are - but, as my mother is at pains to point out, people forget the past quickly enough if nobody reminds them. She has even encouraged me to use my second name, Edward, in preference to the ‘more inflammatory' Charles - the name my father gave me in recognition of his lord and master, Charles Edward Stuart. But even she is unsuccessful in effecting this ridiculous transformation.
Starved as I am of male company, I take pains to keep myself in readiness should the Glorious Cause claim my services. I ride daily, I run twice round the perimeter of the estate, I swim in the cold waters of Loch Linnhe, I practise my swordsmanship. This latter, I
must admit, is a doomed enterprise without a proper fencing master, but my mother will allow no one even faintly resembling a soldier into the house. And so I stand before the great mirror in the hall attempting thrusts and parries with none to correct my flailings.
Fortunately I am strong by nature, happiest when outdoors, blessed with sturdy limbs and a healthy constitution. I inherited my father's looks and colouring: I have short, sandy-red hair, close-set blue eyes, a straight, rather leonine nose and a pale complexion that is prone to freckles, especially in the summer. Ethel says I still look like a schoolboy, but I am conscious of growing into manhood: my shoulders and chest are broad, my waist and hips still narrow. My backside, as I survey it in the mirror during my lonely fencing sessions, juts out like a shelf and forms a perfect hemisphere in profile.
I have said that I am surrounded entirely by women, but this is not strictly true. My sole contact with my own sex is Alexander, our groom, the only man I know who knew my father. Alexander kept the horses at Gordon Hall after Culloden, and remained in the family service ever since, tending the stables until our return from Rum. He's a quiet individual, maybe six years my senior — he must have been little more than a boy when he entered my father's service during the Uprising. Alexander greets me every morning when, shortly after dawn, I arrive at the stables to help him exercise the horses; our conversation is limited to curt exchanges on equestrian matters. I wonder sometimes whether Alexander is simple, so taciturn is he; but he alone holds a key to my past - and so I live in hope that one day he'll drop his guard. I can only assume that he's kept on at Gordon Hall under strict instructions from my mother to say nothing to me. With two ailing parents of his own, and any number of brothers and sisters to support, he's in no hurry to lose his position.
Like many of the local people, Alexander is tall and dark,
almost a different race from me. His thick black hair is cropped close to the skull; his skin is olive in colour, compared to the milky whiteness of my own. He has high cheekbones, deeply hooded eyes and a large, full mouth which, sadly for me, he keeps closed most of the time. But when he does choose to speak, he reveals a mouthful of extraordinarily white, regular teeth-a rarity in these parts, where most of the young men have lost theirs either in fights or under the tender ministrations of the dentist. Or lack thereof. His smile is as rare as sunshine on these misty lands, and just as welcome when it comes.
I have learned a good deal from Alexander. He's immensely strong, can spring on to a horse in a second, and can hold Starlight, our biggest stallion, at a rope's end. Occasionally, after a hard gallop and a quick wash at the horse trough, we've wrestled in the exercise yard; Alexander's not heavy, but he can pin me to the ground every time. The first time this happened I was fascinated by the black hair under his armpits, just inches from my face, and the patch of soft black fur on his stomach leading down into his coarse wool trousers. What little hair I have on my body - and it's all grown in the last six months - is just a shade redder than the golden hair on my head. Try as I might to initiate these enjoyable matches, Alexander usually shrugs me off with a quick twist of the arm and returns to rubbing down the sweating horses.
One morning in May, however, Alexander was in a fresh, mischievous mood - and this is where my story begins. It was a beautiful day, the mist hanging over the loch when I left the sleeping house in my suede riding breeches and white cotton shirt. The dew soaked my boots as I strode through the grass whisking the heads off a few early dandelions with my crop. I arrived at the stables just as the first shaft of lemon-yellow sunshine was breaking through, sparkling dimly on the waters and catching the steam as it spurted from the horses' nostrils. Alexander, as ever, was hard at work cleaning out the stables, humming to himself and talking to
the animals as I crept silently up behind him.
‘There's spring in the air, boys, and I should be out there running with you instead of shovelling shit for her ladyship,' he muttered, as I crept up the ladder that gave external access to the hayloft. Perched above the stable I watched Alexander from a new angle, occasionally seeing straight down the neck of his shirt to the firm, brown torso beneath, sometimes as far as the patch of black fur that so intrigued me. ‘Where's Master Charlie?' he murmured in Starlight's ear, leaning himself against the stallion's thick grey neck. ‘Still abed, the lazy little fucker, where I should like to be myself right now.' I wasn't offended; Alexander called me worse to my face when I made a blunder with the horses. But what did he mean about being in bed? Not in his own bed, surely; I knew that he shared that with two of his younger brothers. In mine, perhaps, enjoying the luxury of the big house. ‘Wouldn't we have some fun, Starlight?' he said, leaning for a moment on his shovel. ‘Me and Master Charlie...' He rubbed the stallion's spine where I had ridden bareback often enough. ‘He's a fit little jockey, ain't he? Fit for service.'
It was the longest speech I'd ever heard Alexander utter, and I was so struck by the incongruity of the situation that, rather than betray my eavesdropping by laughter, I chose to launch myself with as much noise as possible from the loft door straight down into the soft, golden pile of hay beneath. Alexander should think I had simply run up the ladder for a prank, without knowing I had been spying before my sudden aerial entrance.
He yelled when I landed, then laughed, grabbed me by the ears and pulled me upright, hoiked me over his shoulder and ran out into the yard where he made to fling me into the trough. I could see the green, foamy water approaching at a frightening speed, and was just screwing up my eyes and mouth to endure the dunking when suddenly we stopped in our tracks. Alexander held me over his shoulder for a while then dropped me lightly on to my feet. We
stood facing each other, both breathing hard. Somewhere overhead a lark was singing; the horses, excited by the burst of action and noise, were stamping in the stables. I braced myself for wrestling and made to grab Alexander by the waist, but he extended one lazy arm and kept me at bay while I swung and lunged impotently towards him. Finally he pushed a little harder and I landed hard on my arse on the damp earth, my legs splayed out straight in front of me. The shock of the landing took my breath away, and I sat for a moment gasping as Alexander stared down at me, smiling his rare, enigmatic smile.
‘You're a cheeky wee fucker,' he said, his gaze boring down from beneath his heavy lids.
‘And you're an insolent groom,' I said, returning the gaze and the smile. He extended a hand and pulled me to my feet. I watched the thick, corded muscles working in his forearm.
‘Oh Charlie, look at the state of you. You're covered in filth.'
He was right; I'd landed straight in the mud that surrounded the horsetrough where the thirsty beasts were wont to shit and piss while they slaked their thirst. I tried to rub some of the muck off my backside, but this just made matters worse.
‘Get the bloody things off, boy,' muttered Alexander. ‘We'll hang them up to dry and brush them down later. I've an old pair of the master's you can borrow.'
Leaning on his strong, sinewy arm, I struggled out of my boots then, trying to avoid the stinking mud that coated the seat, primly pulled down the riding breeches until they bagged around my ankles. I must have looked ridiculous - my boots held up in one hand as I bent over, wriggling and squirming to protect myself from further soiling. From this ludicrous position I looked up to see Alexander laughing his head off. I was about to remonstrate with him (I could be a bossy little lord when I put my mind to it) when he charged me once again, threw an arm round my waist and heaved me into the air. There was little I could do; my breeches effectively bound my legs at the ankle, and my shirt had ridden up
over my ears. I was conscious only of the fresh air on my bare bum, and of the heat from Alexander's arm where it encircled me.

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