Illicit Union_Sanctuary, page 14
“Ssshhh. Shut the door.” urged Margaret. She fought her bedmate’s weight to get up but rethought this plan when her belly hindered her effort. No, she dare not stand for the gown would cling across her swollen waist. Unprepared to share her pregnancy at this very moment, Margaret instead piled covers over her expanded form.
Solidly closing the door, Betty advanced on the bed hissing, “What is going on here?”
“Nothing. Nothing is going on here.” Declared Margaret keeping her voice low. “MacGillivray came in to check on me last night . . . to make sure my tray was delivered and all.” She pointed out the empty dishes cluttering the discarded tray. Skepticism dipped from Betty’s dour expression. Margaret forged onward trying to adhere to the truth, “Well, I was . . . I was so upset over the baby and . . . Alfreda. MacGillivray sat on the bed to comfort me, and grieve himself. And we both fell asleep.”
Betty’s lips disappeared in a tight fold. In her panic, Margaret recalled a trick of Alfreda’s: The Haughty Lady. She decided to dismiss Betty’s right to judge either of them. Betty’s jaw had been moving, but when a syllable escaped, Margaret cut in. “Hush, let him sleep. The man is exhausted. You would not believe what he has gone through these past three days to get me here. Myself as well. Thank God, he concerned himself on my behalf, no one else did.”
“The babe . . .” Interjected Betty.
“Yes, no one could spare a thought for our supper . . . but he arranged it.”
Betty spoke with great determination, “Yes, I know. I fixed this tray myself.”
“When he asked?”
“Yes, he came down to the kitchen and roused me to cook for you and the off duty guards.”
Margaret gritted, “Yes, and that was before he relieved the watch. I took care of poor William whilst he hunted down someone named Auld Margie to take charge of the poor forgotten tyke – all the while comforting the bereaved and building fires as he went.” In what she hoped was an imperious tone, Margaret concluded, “All after long day of travel which started before dawn. So leave him be. He needs his sleep.”
“Then I suppose you will not be wanting breakfast?” Snapped Betty.
“No, I am going back to sleep myself.”
The cook turned on her heels, but as she reached for the door, Margaret entreated, “Please, say nothing of this, for it is nothing. I swear upon my mother’s grave nothing untoward happened here this night.”
Under Betty assessing gaze, the urge to squirm nearly undone Margaret’s high-handed ruse. “Please, now is not the time for a tempest in a teapot.”
A sharp nod affirmed Betty’s agreement, but no promise did she tender before closing the door behind her. Margaret fell back expelling the breath from her body.
“Once again, ye are a braw woman, Maggie.” MacGillivray voice trembled with mirth. “Ye did good.”
Flipping on her side to confront him, she exclaimed, “You’re awake? You were awake the whole time? Why didn’t you help me?”
“But ye were doing fine without my help.” He playfully planted a kiss on her forehead. “I would have ruined yer tale.”
Stung, she retorted, “It wasn’t a tale . . . I told her the absolute truth.”
“That ye did.”
“And she won’t tell a soul.”
“Nae that it matters anyway.”
“Why do you say it doesn’t matter?”
“Because, the tale will spread anyway, and I am right sorry I did nae get up and get out before the first light of dawn.”
Relaxing within his arms, she countered, “No, Betty is totally loyal to us Chilliams.”
“Aye, so she’ll tell nae one but Alfreda – eventually. But Two Pence Betty who thrust her head in earlier will see to it all the Scots ken The MacGillivray slept in yer bed.”
“Oh no.” Bemoaned Margaret.
“What’s done is done. Like ye told English Betty, we need our sleep, for this will be one long trying day.” With this he gathered her up, rested his head atop hers, and murmured, “One good thing, Betty will give us a spirited defense. Thanks to ye, Maggie.”
Looking down at the tilted stomacher of her gown, Margaret doubted anyone would be deceived. The question remained, was her pregnancy accentuated by the point of the sheath? Possibly she would be better off in the other dress which clearly proclaimed her increased girth. Resolving to disclose her secret all the sooner, she opened the door.
“Dinnae ye ken ye are going out there to face the world alone.” The sharpness of his tone brooked no disagreement, so she shut the door. “Give me a moment, and we’ll go down together.”
“Is that wise?” Questioned Margaret, nonetheless seating herself to wait.
With a philosophical shrug, MacGillivray confessed, “I ken we missed our chance at wisdom when I dinnae leave last night.” Taking on a hearty tone, he assured, “But never ye fear, Lady. Tis my fault, and I’ll deal with the aftermath.”
She levelly pointed out, “Well, when they see this dress hiked out like it is now, they’ll find better gossip to spread.”
He stood looking about nervously, then asked, “Could ye step out on the balcony for a bit so I can use the chamber pot?”
“Of course.” Agreed Margaret and as she passed him, he handed her the shawl from the bed. “Here, it could be freezing out there again today.”
The temperature proved brutal. Her gratitude for the wooly shawl grew until he summoned her, “Come on back.”
Slamming the door on a gust of frigid wind, Margaret shivered, “Ooooo, thank God we’re not traveling today.”
“I dinnae ken which would be worse the vicious wind out there, or the vicious gossip we’ll face down here.” He seemed unconcerned about either. “There – that’s it. Wear the shawl wrapped about ye.” He stepped forward to adjust the ends pulling them lower. “Yes like that. Now it seems like all yer waist is naught but wadded up wool.”
“Really? Won’t anyone get suspicious?”
While straightening his clothes and running a comb through his hair he replied, “Nae, not in this drafty barn of a castle. Ye won’t be the only one bundled up while sitting by the fire.”
Holding out his up turned palm, he invited, “May I escort ye, Lady Margaret?”
The hand she laid in his shook. He grasped it tight encouraging, “All will be well. Ye will see. Let Gillie take care of ye.”
She tried her best to obey his suggestion. Truly tried, telling herself he always had the solutions before. But the farther they traversed through the darkened hallway and down a sweeping staircase, the more anxiety gnawed at her gut. At the foot of the stairs, all thought of embarrassment and shame fled her mind.
For there in a great hall, on a dais surrounded by greenery, sat a box draped with satin and lace. All about, kilted men and subdued women gathered. Some sat on benches others stood or even leaned against the walls or one another. Not one looked at Margaret and her escort nor did they glance at the sad casket sitting behind baskets of pine boughs and holly. MacGillivray escorted her through the throng to the foremost bench and seated her directly in front of the casket.
Instead of joining her as she anticipated, he stepped to the side, and began addressing the assembled company in Gaelic.
Gillie lifted his voice so all could hear, “This is a terrible loss to yer Laird and his lady. And today we have much to do.”
All nodded agreement.
“The way I look at it, and correct me if I’m wrong, we have four tasks ahead of us. One, we need to start digging the grave.”
“Daimh, Angus Hop Foot, and Red Ian are already at the graveyard opening the ground.” Offered Auld Ian.
“Good, but they will have to come in, rest, and get warm – even have a bite to eat.”
Again all head bobbed in response.
“Has Wee Allie ever turned up?” Blank stares answered his query, “Then we will have to form a search party to find him.”
No one laughed, but Gillie admonished, “I dread having to tell Laird McBain his bosom friend broke his leg and froze to death. I would nae want to admit we did nae so much as look for him. Ye ken?”
They did as confirmed by vigorous nodding.
“Of course, there’s all the usual tasks needed to keep Black Bannoch warm and fed. The women both here in the kitchen and in their homes will need to feed those digging, guarding, and searching. They must also get a start on the meal for after the burial tomorrow.”
Since no one disagreed, he concluded, “All right, on top of all that there’s the wake. We cannae have Laird McBain or God forbid Lady McBain coming down here to find their wee babby lying alone, unmourned, unguarded.”
A universal intake of breath greeted this unthinkable possibility. Quickly Gillie assured, “So we have to get organized. It’s double duty for all.”
“Auld Ian, ye are in charge of the grave site. Pick six more to help with the grave. They’ll work in shifts of three.”
Ian came forward, “Will we need nine men to dig one wee babby’s grave?”
“Aye, the ground is frozen solid. It will be slow going. All nine will need to eat, warm up, and attend to their regular duties: For instance Angus must feed the horses and clean the stalls. Nae a mount had fodder when I went to feed mine.”
Jean Nigh-to-Ness explained, “Och, but all the day yesterday the lad wandered in a frenzy of fear for his beloved Lady McBain.”
“Angus is nae the only one, but today we’ve got to take up the slack. Angus has taken his turn with the shovel. He needs to come in and eat some breakfast . . .”
Several corrected, “Dinner.” Robert Bruce McBain went so far as to chide, “Tis dinner for most, except you, MacGillivray.”
“I was up half the night after riding all the day long.” Snapped Gillie.
A distinct murmur barbed, “Or was that the other way around?” And quiet snorts erupted.
Ignoring the lewd jest, Gillie cleared his throat and continued, “Anyway, Angus needs to eat then serve his time as a mourner while he warms up. Then he’s away to the stables to take care of horses before going back to help with the grave – by lantern - if necessary.” He glared at Robert Bruce and assigned, “Robbie Bruce, ye will organize a search party. Send to the village, go door to door. Send someone down to the Cock and Goose to see if he’s holed up there.”
He could see resistance knuckling Robbie’s forehead, so Gillie expanded, “I came by there around noon yesterday and saw no sign or mention of Allie, but then I dinnae ken to ask, so someone needs to.”
Again a mumbled barb wafted to Gillie’s ears, “Mayhaps ye should have bided a while longer at the Cock and Goose.”
Having no further tolerance for insolence, Gillie drew himself up and growled, “I ken why ye are saying these things . . . and in the presence of the dead. So I’ll say this: Yon lady is Margaret Chilliam, Lady Alfreda’s sister. She came here expecting to welcome her niece into this world but instead she’ll be burying the babe. After sailing a winter sea then traveling for three days in the foulest of weather, she comforted her sister until our laird could rally himself and take over. None of ye thought to turn down a bed or offer her a bite to eat.”
Auld Ian grinned in toothless glee, “Thank God, ye had that covered Gillie. Why ye even warmed her bed.”
Laughing in the face of death was too disrespectful, but many of their eyes gleamed with humor. Gillie gritted out, “I merely went in to make sure her supper had arrived, since the kitchen was in chaos. I came upon the lass distraught and alone. I comforted her and in the process fell asleep.”
His glare roved the room wiping grins from faces as it went. “For I too have been through a three day ordeal in rain, ice, and snow, then I come here and must try to set things to right. So yes, my weary eyes did close.”
Just in case any doubts lingered, Gillie warned, “I’ll kick the arse of anyone who says I went straight from lying a cold still babby in a cradle to committing acts of lewdness with its auntie. Understand?”
They surely did. He appointed multiple responsibilities to each, and no one dared tease him again. When Two Pence Betty came over with the paper, ink, and pen, he directed, “Take it to Lady Margaret, and the rest of ye line up to volunteer a time each of ye will sit with the babe – even unto tomorrow at noon.”
Ensuring no one dared disrespect Margaret, Gillie stood over her as she neatly listed time in half hour increments. When each stepped up she inscribed their name for the times they specified. When the last one had committed, Gillie said, “Leave the list for now, and come to the kitchen to eat.”
When they entered the kitchen out of ear shot of the Scots dividing up into smaller cliques, he whispered, “Ye have served your time in the wake. Tis nae good for you. So eat and go to yer room and get some rest. I’ll check on ye later.” He took a few steps, turned back and said, “Or mayhaps ye should go up and check on yer sister. With Lady McBain’s intimates, Bonnie Jean and Lillias, gone, there’s only ye or English Betty, and the cook is so busy. Ye would be giving poor Lyall a chance to steal away a bit himself.”
Vivid flash of Laird McBain collapsed upon Alfreda who cradled his head, ran through her head, so Margaret asked, “Will he leave?”
“I dinnae ken if he will, but someone ought to give the man a chance to eat and bathe.”
Margaret nodded and looked about trying to orient herself. Where was the round tower with the steep winding stairs? The stairs with curving stone walls echoing with screams and weeping? His hand on her shoulder brought her back to attention, “First ye shall have yer breakfast. I ken ye have little appetite after being in . . .” He threw his head toward the great hall they were leaving behind, “But sit here in this warm kitchen, and chat with Betty until ye swallow something. I’ll take ye up the tower after.”
And MacGillivray was gone, with a curt bow he retreated to the great hall. How quickly he merged with the other kilted men still milling about in the great hall. How alone Margaret felt. But Betty, bless her forgiving heart, made a bee-line through the throng of hustling women to swoop down on Margaret, “O Meg, my darling Meg. Come over here and have a sit down whilst I feed an army.”
Margaret found herself swept along to a work table where a bowl of porridge materialized along with a plate of scones already buttered. How sweet. Betty remembered after all these years how Margaret loved buttered scones, heavy on the butter. Sitting on a stool, letting her porridge cool while Betty tortured dough, lent a homey touch to this decrepit eerie castle.
They talked of nothing: trivial news of Baron Worton’s staff, of her brother Willie and his lurid adventures, and of LizBeth’s growing brood, but then Betty stared long at door way to the great hall, “Have you been up there? On the podium to see the babe? Up close?”
“No, but I saw her last night . . . actually Alfreda showed me . . . her curls and her tiny hands.” Margaret fell back into the memory, intoning, “Freddie handed her over to me. When she would yield to no one else.”
“You held the poor baby? Was she . . . ?”
“Already gone when we arrived.”
Floured hands clasped Margaret to Betty’s ample bosom, “No wonder you were distraught and could nae be left alone. God Bless The MacGillivray’s heart. I’ll have to apologize to him for the foul deed I laid at his door.”
And just like that Margaret was off the hook, with Betty in any case. So then why did she feel so guilty? She had, after all, told the truth. Nothing had happen – well, a kiss or two. Kissing while some old woman bathed and dressed her deceased niece and her sister wept until exhaustion sounded frivolous and calloused, but had she not seen Laird McBain repeatedly kissing his wife’s hand when he wrested it from Margaret? His wife, and therein lay the shame. There were kisses and then there were romantic kisses. Margaret harbored no illusions as to the romantic nature of Ferquhar’s lip
Half attending to Betty’s prattle about not missing London starting with the superior quality of the fish here in Scotland. Margaret mused upon the Scotsman in the thick of the pack next door. Having nothing more than a shrewd guess as to what he said, she thought she could identify the moment he confronted the rumors he slept in the English sister’s bed. How quickly he backed them down. Of course, the McBains would keep the peace at a time of bereavement, but later this conflict would come back.
Margaret sighed from the bottom of her soul. All her life all she wanted to do was be pleasant and useful. Alfreda stirred enough controversy for all the Chilliam sisters. How had Margaret landed in the midst of the whirlwind?
A strong hand pulled at her elbow, and Betty’s voice penetrated, “Come with me then. With you by my side, I think I can . . . look at . . . Have they named her?”
“Not that I’ve heard . . . but I slept in, remember?”
Dragging Margaret upward, Betty stated rather than asked, “You will walk up with me?”
Stalling to rearrange her shawl, she grabbed the last scone, “Wait.” In three gulps she devoured the scone, then grabbed a spoon and shoveled the porridge down without bothering to sit back down. Seeing Betty’s astonishment, Margaret confessed, “Suddenly I am just starving. At first I was way too upset . . .” Lamely, she concluded, “I even let my porridge get cold.”
“Eat! Eat!” Invited Betty sinking down on a stool beside Margaret. “I need to get off my feet while I can. Today is going to be . . . I have no idea how bad a Scottish funeral might be.”
“What do you mean bad?”
“I mean will there be 100 drunken Highlanders expecting to gouge themselves until they pass out, and for three days thereafter? Or will it be just the people here at Black Bannoch, who watched her stomach swell. Laying bets on boy or girl. Stitching clothes in secret . . .” A catch silenced Betty, then a hiccup, before she wept, “Clothes which will now be carried to the grave.”