THUD. THUD. The brass knocker hit the double oaken door and echoed around inside the large country house. Andrew stood on the worn top step in front of the iron bound door, clad in his clean and neatly patched workday clothes. He twirled his top hat in his hands nervously as he waited.
Scuffling noises inside heralded the approach of the butler, and as the door swung open slightly, a slice of his face could be seen in the opening.
"What do ye want?" he asked testily.
"I'm Andrew McCubbin."
"I ken who ye be, I asked what ye want."
"I wish to speak to Mr. McGurr on a matter of business."
"Wait there. I'll ask the master if he'll see ye." With that, he closed the door leaving Andie to his thoughts.
The McCubbin family had operated the shop for some time before his father George died five years ago. Andrew had been only fourteen when George took sick, but he had taken over the shop. On George's death, Agnes passed the managing of the business on to Andrew--over the head of his older brothers due to his better trading skills. Everyone agreed that this was best for the family, although Billy had grumbled a bit, as he then had to look for a position in the mines.
When Andrew married Jessie, the family had given the business to them as a wedding present. But without the shop building, the business would be useless. That is why Andrew's brow was furrowed as he nervously fingered his hat. How to get this through to McGurr? Surely he would listen to reason.
His thoughts were interrupted as the door squeaked opened again, just wide enough to let him in. The butler indicated the way, suggesting that he keep the meeting short, as the master was about to go riding.
The black coated butler led him into a side room, where his landlord stood in front of a roaring fire, warming his hands, his back towards Andrew. McGurr's secretary sat in a corner, his head bent over papers, a quill scratching slowly across the page.
The butler indicated where Andrew should stand, but then instead of retiring, stood to one side in case he was needed. McGurr, sensing the movement, growled, "Well, ye're a mite early with yer first week's payment, but no mind, I'll take it from ye now. It'll save me sendin' Seamus down to ye for it on Thursday."
"But Mr. McGurr, I haven't brought any money with me. I was hoping to discuss the matter with you, if you don't mind." said Andrew.
"Nothin' to discuss. Ye know my terms. Now if ye've nothing for me, I'm about to go riding down Kirkpatrick way." With that, he turned and made for the door.
"But Mr. McGurr, money's very tight at the moment. I don't think I can find another shilling a week, let alone a half crown. Anyway, my father and family has rented that shop from you these last ten years. Surely that counts for something. Can you not let the rent stay as it is for a time? Then I'll gladly pay the increase when the crops are in and my creditors have paid me."
"Sold yer goods on tick, eh? No wonder ye've got naught to pay yer legal debts. Well, if ye cannot find the extra by Thursday, I'll just have to take the business over and ye'll be out in the street with all yer cronies. Ye'll all find out that ye pay yer way or I'll set the law on ye."
"But what good will a shop be to you without someone to run it? It'll lose you money, for you'll not be getting the ordinary rental for it, much less the new one. Surely it would be much better for you to keep me in there for now, and I'll make up the difference to you when the potato crops are pulled in a few months time."
"Ye'll make up the difference then? Well, let me see. The crops should be pulled in about four months, and sold shortly after. Alright, out of the goodness of me heart, I'll let ye stay on at current rental for another twenty weeks. Then ye pay me a lump sum of, let's say six guineas on top of the normal rental to cover the lost increase and my trouble, then we start on the new rental from that day. Seamus, put that down in writing, and the McCubbin is to sign it before he leaves."
He started towards the door, paused a moment, then threw over his shoulder as if as an afterthought: "And add this. If he reneges, he is to be out on the street the next day, leaving all the furnishings as recompense for his crime. I'm off to get my jacket and riding crop."
Turning his head to Andrew, he said, " Good day to ye, sir."
And without waiting for a reply, he strode out of the room. Andrew, rather taken aback by the pace of the encounter, shuffled his feet as the secretary found a fresh piece of paper and wrote out the terms of the meeting. Reluctantly Andrew signed the paper, witnessed by the butler, and before he realized it, he was back out on the front step.
"Was that a victory for me, or for him?" he asked himself. True he didn't have to find the extra money by Thursday. The regular payment hidden under the fourth tread in the stairs would be sufficient, and when his creditors sold their potato crops and paid him, he would have enough to cover the arrears and the new rental.
But he still felt an ominous threat. A feeling that McGurr would see to it that the respite would cost him dearly.
Jessie wiped her hands on her apron to remove some of the dough crumbs. She scooped out some flour from the bowl at her side and sprinkled it liberally on the tabletop. From the other bowl, she lifted out the lump of dough, plopped it onto the loose flour and flattened it out with her knuckles. She picked up the rolling pin that Robbie had given them as a wedding present, remembering fondly all the jokes that had been made about its use on her new husband, and rubbed some flour on it to stop it from sticking. Then, rolling it over the dough in two directions, she leveled out the lumps to form a uniform thickness. Taking an upturned cup in her hands, she dipped the rim of it in loose flour, then with a push and a twist, cut out a circle and placed it on a tray. Within a few moments the dough was holed like Swiss cheese, and the tray was scattered with dough pats. She scrunched up the remaining dough, leveled it out as before, and repeated the operation to get another three pats. Forming the remainder into a rough round, she placed it in one corner of the round girdle-tray, as her own scone for the tasting. After glazing the top of each round with a little sows' milk, she took the girdle of scones to the glowing coal fire and hung it over the heat to cook.
Brushing a wisp of hair off her face, she smiled, remembering last night's festivities, and the culmination of the evening upstairs.
She had decided yesterday that it was time to start their family. They had waited a respectable time after the wedding, although Andie had wanted to know her on their wedding night, and she knew that it was hard for him to restrain himself. But she remembered as a girl, her mother's warnings, and the moans, cries and groans that had come from her own mother's bed in the rough hut in which she was raised. The fear that her mother planted in her was very real. The fear of being 'had away with' as her mother would put it. That what her father had done to her mother had caused her pain and was a thing to shy away from. She thought of Agnes's advice about tying her nightgown to her ankles as well.
However, it was his birthday; she could put up with any pain if it would make him happy. The business was going fairly well, she thought, so there was sure to be enough for another mouth to feed, and the potato crops would surely be good this season, enabling them to put a little money aside even. So with these thoughts uppermost, and a little cider under her belt, she had decided to give in to sinful temptation and allow Andie to have his way with her.
And this morning, she had wondered what her mother had been so worried about. The warmth and joy of holding each other close, the exquisite excitement of exploration, each step pushing the boundaries of knowledge, and sharpening the edge of what must surely be the most sinful activity known, if what Reverend McLeish said was true about the more enjoyment, the greater the sin. But she hadn't cared, swept away in the whirlpool of lust, she couldn't have stopped him to save her life.
The door opened and Moihra came in, a strange smile on her face.
"Ye'll have been havin' a good time up at the house last night, I'll be thinkin'," she said, in a wry voice, "and no much sleep neither."
Jessie's cheeks flushed as she realized that Moihra must have heard some noise from upstairs during the night.
"Sounded like a choir of heavenly angels or some such was in yer room," Moihra continued with a grin. "It's alright, my Alan slept through it, but it sounds as if you didn't, right enough. I'd bin wonderin' what ye did fer a bit o' pleasure. It's bin hard stoppin' Alan from havin' his way with me, but I thought we shouldna do anythin' here, us bein' guests an' all. So when I heard ye las' night, I jes' lay there wi' a big grin on me mush."
Mortified, her face aflame, Jessie muttered, "Oh, I'm so sorry if we disturbed ye. I'm afraid we fair forgot ye were sleeping below. It won't happen again. Please accept my apologies."
Her face now almost split in two by a huge smile, Moihra chuckled "Ye carry on as usual. It's me that should be sayin' sorry for talkin' about yer most private time, but I was so happy for ye. I jest love it fer Alan to caress me. It's the best time of me whole life, d'ye ken. Although it doesna happen near often enough, an' that's a fact."
"Do ye mean ye do it...fairly often then?" queried Jessie, her flushed face wide in surprise.
"Lord, yes, when he's no' too tired from the workin'. It's what holds us togither. And not havin' any bairns, we need somethin' to bind us."
"And ye don't think it's sinful?" Jessie enquired, looking hard at the stove on which the soup pot bubbled merrily.
"When ye're married? How can it be a sin? It's only when it's the likes of young Molly that it's sinful. She that ran off wi' that young Frazer frae Dumfries."
Somewhat bewildered by all this, Jessie brushed her floury hands over her apron and moved over to stir the soup. Her voice muffled by the chimney recess, she said "But it's so nice...and that must be a sin."
"Och, away wi' ye. God's made it nice so we'll keep havin' wee bairns. And there's nothin' sinful or evil about it!"
Putting the lid back on the soup tureen, Jessie turned, more composed than before, and said, "Ye may be right," and to herself mused and if so, what a lot of time I've been wasting!
Andie rode along the dirt road leading from Thornhill to Penpont. His mind was spinning as he mulled over recent events. The meeting with Mr. McGurr was foremost in his mind, but his thoughts kept being interrupted by visions of last night.
Sliding off Mullin's broad back, he led him down to the burn for a drink and some fresh feed. He spread out a rug and sat down on the grassy bank at the side of the gurgling water, an overhanging tree throwing dappled shadows over him. Picking a long strand of lush grass, he stripped the lower leaves off and lay back, chewing the juicy stem.
Shutting his eyes, he let his mind travel back to last night.
The room was dark. He sat down on the edge of the bed and pulled his socks off. Jessie's soft arm snaked around his bare waist and pulled at him. He let the last sock fall onto the floor, and swung himself around to face her as he tucked his feet under the covers. His right hand sought out her face in the gloom, fingers tracing down her eye to the pert little nose and beneath it, her soft full lips. She smiled and he imagined he felt a slight tenseness fall away.
Her lips opened slightly, nibbling on his fingertips, then she ran her hand up his back to the shoulder, pulling him closer. His body now pressed against hers, the length of him cleaving to her soft moist skin. He felt a stirring in his loins and started to pull away, but she moved even closer and he was aware that she had felt the stiffening as well.
"That's alright, my love," she whispered, "just let it be." And she turned her face to kiss him. Her lips parted and he felt a warm puff of breath as she kissed him again. He moaned slightly under his breath, and kissed her hard. All the months of longing went into that kiss, all the frustrating nights of lying next to her and not being able to enjoy her to the full. His tongue forced its way through her lips and melded with hers in an electric moment. Nothing else existed but the warmth of each other, the sharing of each other, the swirling with each other as they let that kiss lead them on into the night.
His hand slid down to her shoulder, and beyond. He expected her to pull away when his palm cupped her breast, but she just moved slightly to allow him better access to her hardened nipple. His fingers circled it as he had done many nights before but this time without the layer of cloth that was normally present. He felt the shape of it, the smooth roughness that made it so special.
He ran his fingers across it, feeling her shudder slightly as each one bumped its way over. Realizing its effect on her, he repeated the movement a few times, then cupped her breast in his palm again as he bent his head down to it. His questing tongue touched the nipple resting between his thumb and forefinger. A sigh escaped her lips and he felt her head go back.
Kissing her on the breast, he ran his tongue around the aureole and back over the top, flicking it as he went. Then opening his mouth to its widest, he covered her and sucked gently, sometimes flicking or circling, sometimes nibbling at the center.
She appeared to be in a trance. She rolled onto her back to allow easier access, her head thrown back on the bolster, hair fanned around her head. In the dark, her eyes were closed, as she centered on the exciting feelings transmitted through her body. A warmth was growing in her stomach, warmth that she had felt before but had not allowed herself to pursue. Her body stirred, unconsciously freeing her legs and moving her pelvis as the waves of warmth washed over her.
Andie felt this movement, and for a moment pulled his head away to see her face in the gloom, expecting her to say "enough", but she pulled his face down to hers and kissed him, long and deep, as her body tingled and rippled with suppressed emotions. He replied in kind, then felt his hand moving down the length of her smooth body. His fingers traced her supple waist and traveled inland to her navel while his tongue dragged over to her left breast. He heard her breath deepen as his finger circled the dip and she sucked in slightly as he explored the depression, rotating left and then right.
He was feeling a little light-headed now, as control was shifted from his brain to his loins, and he could feel his member growing even harder at the thought of what might lie ahead. The smell of her body, slightly sweaty and now developing a musky scent, was driving him on to unfathomed depths. He pulled the finger tucked in her navel up towards her ribs, tightening her pelvic muscles, and heard her moan in his ear. Caressing her stomach again, he started a slow exploration south.
As his fingers passed softly over her velvet triangle to feel the hills of her thighs, she stirred slightly and a breathy "Oh, mmm," came from her. He traced the length of her left leg to the knee, then came up the right thigh, feeling the skin shudder slightly under his fingertips. Lightly running around the edge of her fur, he traced out the perimeter of his desire.
Electricity seemed to crackle from her bush as he floated his palm over it. Her hips moved up involuntarily to meet his hand and he rested on her Mound of Venus.
Her breathing had deepened and he heard her swallow as his lips sought the other nipple. Pinching it with his lips, he made as if to suck. Her left arm, which had been framing her hair, came down around his shoulders while her right hand twined itself in his curly locks as she offered herself to him.
This was a new experience for him. Not the hurried grab and thrust of a barnyard tumble with a local wench, where the result was all, and to be boasted about the next day, nor the hesitant fumbling of prenuptial exploration with its obligatory hand slapping and protestations. Here, she was allowing him to have his way. She had not warned him off or showed any sign of disapproval whatsoever. In fact, he thought she was actually enjoying what he was doing.
Emboldened by this, he shifted slightly, allowing his hand to lie more firmly on her mound. Slowly he moved his palm in a circular motion, timing each turn to her breathing. His circles became more elliptical as her breathing deepened. Then his fingers were moving down into the valley before coming uphill again. She moaned softly again and he felt her pelvis angle even further towards his hand as it delved lower. He was surprised to find she was quite moist, a discovery that was at odds with his past experiences with the village lassies. This honey allowed his finger easy access to her, and he stroked in and out of her for a while, as her stomach muscles tightened on him.
She was now moaning with every breath, and he kissed her to quell the sound, lest it be heard downstairs. Her hips were moving in time to his finger and her arms wrapped around him and urged him on top. His left arm was numb from lying on it, but he levered himself up, and found no difficulty in sliding into her as her hands grabbed his buttocks.
Suddenly it was all too much for him. He felt a flame in the pit of his stomach, which spread down to his legs, and he knew he had lost control. His hips thrust, again and again, as she dug her fingernails into his flesh. His chin was at her neck, his fingers gripping her shoulders for purchase. Her cries were echoes of his, and went unheard in their room, for they were swept up in a maelstrom of emotion. Neither could have stopped even if the wish had been there. Their world was a swirling frenzy of heat and power. Then the world erupted, as with a cry of success they found their release together.
Exhausted, Andie lay on his young wife, elbows supporting some of his weight, while she nibbled his nose and lips. Sweat ran along their bodies, forming pools in the valleys and bonding them together where they touched.
"Och, my bonnie, how I've longed for that moment," she whispered.
"Not as much as I," he replied. "If you only knew the nights I have spent lying here, looking at you and wondering when."
He rolled off her onto his side and she followed him, her arms still around him. A snuffling noise from downstairs intruded into their consciousness and Jessie whispered, "I hope we didn't wake them up downstairs."
"Surely not, we were as quiet as church-mice, I declare."
In a ray of moonlight coming in through the high window they lay side by side, caressing, their hearts filled with love for each other. Soon Andie drifted into a dark whirlpool of sleep, and knew no more.
A soft nuzzling around his face woke him, and his eyes opened to the shafts of dappled sunlight on his face. Old Mullin was above him, her hairy muzzle inches from his nose, her brown eyes looking into his. The rug was getting damp beneath him from the wet grass and he felt her hot breath as she started chewing again.
"This will never do," he muttered as he climbed to his feet, dusted the grass off his jacket and reached for her bridle.
"...and I was most of the way to Monaive, with nary a job in sight, and I came across old Duncan. Well, when I told him I was lookin' for work, he said that that Kirkpatrick MacMillan from Courthill might be lookin' for a helper. So I turned round and came back home. Trust me to be lookin' in the wrong direction. So I'll be off to speak with the man as soon as I wash all the dust off me. And half a pint of ale would take the dust out of me throat, ye ken."
"Well, that's bonny news young Robbie." answered Agnes. "Ye'll be needin' coin in yer pocket, I'll be thinkin'. Now, off wi' ye to the pump, and I'll pour ye a draft. And I'll be cuttin' off a sliver o' cheese as well."
With that, Robert went out the back door, and Agnes hacked at the cheese with her rather blunt knife.
Two minutes later he was back, sitting on a stool, eating a crust of newly baked bannock and some cheese, washing it down with the ale from a wooden mug. "It'll be grand if I can get some work there--it's less than a mile away. I might even get home for lunch every day."
"If ye think I've got nothin' better to do wi' my day than to feed yer face, ye're quite wrong. Now hurry on and get down there, afore he takes on someone else in the position."
George had a sore back. That was not unusual; his back was often sore from bending over the potato crop or the vegetables. Today, as a cold wind tore off the snow-clad mountains and poured down into the valleys, it seemed quite a bit worse.
He straightened up and with hands on hips, bent backwards to relieve the strain, twisting his torso slightly as he went. Blowing out through pursed lips, he bent back to his task. Before him lay the vegetable garden, planted in neat rows with drainage channels between the raised beds. The ground between the plants was green with new weeds, and he had sworn to pick every last one of them before breaking for lunch. A pile of pulled weeds lay as a trail between the beds. His fingers were cramped from the pulling, but he rubbed them quickly before attacking the next clump. His crooked legs planted firmly in the channel, he edged his way up the bed, fingers seizing and yanking the stubborn weeds away from his cherished plants, his mind a pleasant blank.
"Nice to see a man hard at his work." the voice broke in.
George straightened up again and turned to see Andie staring down at him from Mullin's broad back. "Well, someone's got to keep things runnin' around here," he quipped, "What with ye gallivantin' all over the countryside on yer racin' horse, we poor folks are left to keep things going in yer absence."
"Och, ye poor wee timorous beastie, you seem to be handling things just fine. Anyway, I've just spoken to the McGurr about the rent. He's agreed to postpone the rent rise until after the crop's in, then I have to pay him in full for all the arrears."
"That doesna sound like the McGurr I ken. Are ye sure it was him and not the ghost of his dead father?"
"No, it was him right enough. But he did say he'd kick us out on the street if we couldn't pay after the crops were sold. Still, not much to be worried about there, I'm thinking. The crops are looking remarkably healthy, I would say."
"Aye, not like the black muck we dug up a few years ago. Two crops in a row jest rottin' in the ground, fit fer neither man nor beast. Och, remember those years, pullin' the belt in till ye felt the buckle on yer spine. But the tatties look fine so far this year. I was jest talkin' to young Alan McMath this mornin', and he was sayin' the crops on his Dad's land at Burnhead were doin' fine, up to now."
"Aye, I saw them coming back from Thornhill just now, they looked grand." He paused, squinted into the sun and said: "Oh, here's the Minister coming up the path. I wonder what he can be wanting?"
They waited for the black figure of Reverend McLeish to approach, Andie astride Mullin who was now grazing on the grass growing from the foot of the stone wall, while George came over to the wall and leaned his forearms on it.
"Good morning to you Reverend," Andie greeted him when he was within speaking distance.
"God be with you, and you George McCubbin." Reverend McLeish panted, somewhat out of breath from the climb. "I was hoping to find one of the two of you here, but now by God's grace, I seem to have the both of you. Well, that's fine."
"It's our pleasure, I'm sure Minister," answered George. "And what can we be doing for ye, this bright day?"
"I've come up about that poor man we buried last week, God rest his soul. It's been preying on my mind that we dinna ken who he is, so I've been going back through the Kirk records, trying to track him down. And I think I may have come up with something.
"Ye ken that a lot of Kirk records have been lost or destroyed during the troubles, when the armies of both sides were fighting through the land, so it's no' easy to trace people back wi' any certainty. We're luckier than many a Kirk round here, as our preachers often have had enough time to hide the Registers and Session books to keep them safe, but there are still large gaps that canna be bridged, so what I'm saying is that this is only a possibility, mind.
"When I couldna find any details of such a man in the Register or Journals over the last hundred of years, I almost gave up. But I found a box tucked away in a corner of the attic, and in it were some journals of past Dominies of the village. The books are rather moldy, having been under the roof for many years, I'd judge, and the writing is very hard to decipher in spots, but I will read them as I get some time, and I will let you know if I find aught of interest to you."
"That would be very kind of you," replied Andrew. "The mystery of who the poor man could be has been driving me to distraction all week."
A fresh gust of cutting wind swept through the group. Reverend McLeish wrapped his skinny arms around his lank frame. "Well, I'll be off then. My sermon for the Sabbath is only half done. But by the strength of this wind, I'll be back in the Kirk in no time."
He turned and was blown back down the path to the village.
Find out what happens -- Buy the book!