Chapter OneCape Wrath
Somebody once told me that every tower had a ghost, and every ghost had a story. Certainly there’s nothing more compelling than a well-told ghost story. They made for great fireside tales, tales devised to scare children so they’d lie awake in their beds late into the night straining to hear ghostly footsteps on the landing, the rattling of chains against the walls or, heaven forbid, the high-pitched moans of the unliving. As a child, tales of the ghosts of Edinburgh enthralled me—specters such as the immortal Wizard of West Bow Street ambling down the lane with his demonic thornwood staff, boisterously celebrating his hellish afterlife, or the Lone Piper playing his haunting lament in the secret tunnels beneath the Royal Mile. There were gray ladies wandering through castles by the score, and the White Lady of Corstorphine appearing in a virginal gown of white as she brandished the very sword used to kill her unfaithful lover . . . still dripping with his blood! I’ve heard tales from those who have witnessed for themselves the Death Coach—that notorious ghostly soul-collector, pulled by black, demon-eyed steeds who blew flames of fire out their nostrils—and lived to tell their tale, and fewer still were those who had actually seen the headless drummer boy at the Castle, beating his ghostly tattoo, an augury of a future attack on the city. It was marvelous fun, but just stuff. Besides, it was common knowledge that those who claimed to have actually seen an entity dangling between the living and the dead were those known to succumb to flagrant imbibing. Sure, some argued that excessive drink was a result of a frightening encounter, not a precursor to it, but this was just an excuse. Drink flowed too freely and rather cheaply in the ancient, terribly haunted, wynds and closes of Edinburgh.
My head may have been filled with stories and my imagination fertile, but I had never seen a ghost; therefore, I didn’t believe in their existence. Still, I had to wonder if the forlorn, lonely tower I had been banished to was home to a lingering spirit.
I pondered death as we sailed along the treacherous coast—what it was, what it meant, how it felt. When someone dies, do they know they’re dead? And can someone be dead yet still think they’re alive? I believed I fell under this last category. But the wind, beginning to pick up, bit straight through my clothing, reminding me that I was indeed quite alive.
Yet I felt so dead inside.
The more forceful gusts began to lift the bitter cold spume off the sea, driving it into my face. I cursed it under my breath, damned it to hell and knew I had too much hatred inside me to be truly dead. I also cursed myself for choosing style over warmth and attempted to shrink farther inside the meager protection my soaking ermine-trimmed pelisse provided. Fog was also proving a menace, thick and damp, turning the air into a vaporous pudding where sea and sky were nearly indiscernible. I was sitting in the middle of a goddamned cloud being tortured by the elements!
And then I heard the tolling of the bell.
The deep, resonant din wafted through fog and sea to warn us we were near. But I had no idea how near we were. Another gust of wind and the fog peeled farther back, rolling like a woolly blanket off a newborn babe. It was then I saw the yellow eye. It hovered above me, suspended in the cloaking mist, only able to break through with its roving, searching, blind eye. I jabbed my elbow into the shivering body next to me and whispered, “Polyphemus. You’ll know Polyphemus, Kate? The Cyclops who relishes the taste of human flesh? We’ve not landed on the Cape, we’ve been blown all the way to the Isle of Sicily! Isn’t it marvelous? But don’t worry overmuch, I hear the Cyclops only eats those with sweet flesh, not sour and rotten like yours. However, on account of my benevolent nature, I shall put in a good word for you nonetheless.”
Kate, my lady’s companion, glowered at me. There was real hatred there. She didn’t bother to hide it, as would be proper for a person of her position. Because hiding things, as well as keeping secrets, were not amongst Kate’s virtues, I had learned.
“You have spent what little sense God gave ye on unholy, pagan tales! How ever did your dear mother, a good, honest Christian forbye, beget such a wicked child as you?” she hissed through clenched, chattering teeth, shifting her gaze to the light.
“The Odyssey is literature, Kate, and I believe you know very well how one begets a child.” At this she had the good sense to look affronted. And I would have smiled in triumph had I not been thrown from my seat.
“Clap a hand on the rail there, Miss Sara!” came the late warning from the helm. Captain Seumas MacDonald might have been a crack skipper, but he was no hand with hospitality. I hit the freezing wet deck with startling force.
It was the strong yet gentle hand of Robbie MacKinnon that helped me back to my place on the bench in the stern. Robbie was a good man, even if he was married to Kate, and knew very well the nature of the baiting that played out between his wife and me. Where once it had been mere folly and sport—all in good fun—it had recently taken a turn toward the malevolent. And why?
Because Kate had betrayed me.
There was a time when we had been very close, much closer than what was normally accepted between a servant and her mistress. At twenty-two, Kate was only three years my senior and could be charming good company when she wanted, but she also possessed a startling self-righteous streak. This mor?ally superior air was why my mother had liked her so well, no doubt, both being cast from the same unyielding mold. Yet her high and mighty, dare I say tattling, ways had also been self-destructive too. After all, she was here with me freezing in the inhospitable elements and not in our warm, comfortable home in Edinburgh.
“There, now. Ye must take care, Miss Sara,” Robbie gently chided. “’Twould never do to let go just now. Think on it. Think of your responsibility—nay, your duty to this place and to us. Aye?”
His words brought me once again to the problem at hand. “Oh, aye,” I responded slowly, without emotion, forcing my eyes back to the light on the promontory, guarding that place on the sea so fatal to mariners. The sheer rock sides of the cliff dropped hundreds of feet straight into the icy water, where the breakers hungrily lashed at it and cliff-dwelling birds circled through the mist, awaiting their next meal.
And then I began shaking uncontrollably, because this time I knew that the yellow-eyed Cyclops was truly going to de- vour me.
Perhaps I deserved it. To use the exact words of my father, I had brought this problem on myself by being a “foolish, ignorant, ungrateful, ill-mannered, amoral, disobediently willful child” who had disgraced her family. And the real shame of it was my father’s strong words hadn’t caused me much pain. This was because his accusations were partly truthful, but also because I was too young, and alive, and gullible to believe I had made a mistake. My punishment for not conforming to the rigid standards of my family was banishment to this little purgatory—this little cape of hell. Yet even as befuddled as I was, I knew that banishment to the lighthouse on Cape Wrath was not what hurt me so, causing me to feel so dead inside. That was something altogether quite different, and the mere thought of it sent another wave of hurt and anger running through me, along with the now familiar ache in the pit of my stomach.
“Miss Sara, lass, Mrs. MacKinnon,” Captain MacDonald called out from the helm, both hands firmly grasping the wheel. “We’re gonna give Mr. Campbell a wee signal, let him know we’re here, aye?” Assuming that was enough of a warning for us, he gave the signal and a cannon at the bow was fired. The sound was deafening, louder than any clap of thunder I had ever heard, especially so since it echoed off the cliff walls. This sent the sea birds exploding off their roosts, causing the air to be at once a swirl of gray fog and flapping wings.
“That’ll wake the lad. Now, then,” he continued, looking much better for firing his weapon, “if you ladies will please clap a hand on the railing and keep it there. We’re about to head into the rough stuff.”
“Rough stuff?” I parroted, spray hitting my face as the boat rocked more violently than I thought it could withstand. “How can it possibly get any . . .” But my words were whipped away on the wind.
I held on to the rail, as told, though there was a part of me that harbored a fantasy of letting go as we neared the angry breakers. The sea mirrored the turmoil I felt; we were kindred spirits—wild, unruly, a force to be reckoned with. The swells had grown, the sails were taut to the point of imprudence and the hearty little lugger was being pushed onto her side as she raced down the coast. It would be so easy, I thought. There was nothing any of them could do. And my fingers began to relax a measure.
I was startled by an ice-cold grip that came hard over mine. A warm breath hit my ear, carrying the stern words: “No ye don’t!” I looked next to me and saw Kate.
“If I have to endure it, so must you!” And then came that look of pity, so distasteful coming from the likes of her. Purely out of respect for her husband, and none for my own comfort, I liked to believe, I let her hand stay over mine.
It wasn’t long before we entered a barren gray cove not far from the towering light. The wind died down within the high cliff walls, the surf slackened until the waves were no more than a gentle, soapy, lapping presence. And then a lonely wooden pier arose beside us.
This was not the first time I had come to Cape Wrath. I had been here before, a mere six months ago. Yet somehow it seemed a lifetime away. It was the same unremarkable pier we had docked against then, only our boat had been much grander at the time. More people had been aboard her too. And it was the memory of one of those travelers that caused the tightening in my gut and the stabbing pain in my chest. As a sailor secured a rope around the piling that passed for a bollard, I felt the familiar sting of tears once again.
“Och, come now, lass,” soothed Robbie, noting my reduced state as he extended a hand to assist me to the dock. “This is not the end of the world.”
I stood on the unmoving wooden planking, cold water dripping off my clothes, and looked to the north. I then turned to the east and to the west. There was nothing but an unwelcoming gray sea sparsely dotted with more cliffs, towering stones and faraway islands. And to the northwest stood the Atlantic, unobstructed—a straight shot clear to America. “But it is the end of the world, Mr. MacKinnon,” I corrected. “It is the very bitter end!”
It was true. Cape Wrath was the very end of my island home of Great Britain. It was the lonely, desolate, harsh northwestern tip of Scotland, located in a region known as Sutherland; and it was my father who had dared to build a lighthouse here. He was a civil engineer who had made a name for himself illuminating the dangerous coasts of Scotland for all the worlds’ mariners. I used to think it was a commendable business, for the coast of Scotland was so wild and dangerous that many sailors unaccustomed to navigating her waterways avoided going anywhere near her shores for fear of wrecking. But perhaps I had been too proud and too caressed by the wealth such an endeavor created to see it clearly back then. Glancing at the white tower on the cliff, sound in design, perfectly cylindrical and topped with a black domed cap, I felt a wave of foreboding shoot through me.
Perhaps some places on earth were not meant to be touched by man.
Pushing my unreasonable fears aside I looked once again at my new home, and then I smiled recalling a bit of ribaldry on the subject from my early youth. It pertained to a man named Willy Campbell, who, as fate would have it, just happened to be the current principal light-keep on Cape Wrath and the very man Robbie MacKinnon had come to assist. Mr. Campbell had been younger then; it was a good five or six years since he had emerged from my father’s office at the back of our home at Baxter Place, winning the title of light-keeper. My sister and I were hiding in the garden. She was older than me yet we both liked to watch the men who came and went from my father’s door. It was then a group of sailors came walking toward Willy, hailing him and asking where he was bound. “Bell Rock,” Mr. Campbell had answered.
“Ye hear that? Why, if our ain Mr. Willy Campbell isn’t off to the towering prick o’ the waves!” one of the sailors declared, causing the rest to break out in raucous laughter.
“Mr. Stevenson’s erect wonder! ’Tis a fine place for ye, laddie!” another added playfully.
“Though dinna expect to bows your jib for a while,” they teased. “A man spending his days polishing a tower that size scares off the lasses!”
My sister and I giggled, she because she understood what was said, I because I liked the sound of men’s laughter.
Poor Mr. Campbell, a fine-looking dark-haired gent, turned red with embarrassment. He narrowed his pale blue eyes and defended, “It is a feat of remarkable engineering, gentlemen. And you’d do well to remember it.” He then strode off amidst more gales of laughter. It was only as I grew older that I realized lighthouses, for want of better design, did tend to resemble men’s more private parts. The “prick o’ the waves” the sailors had been referring to was my father’s first and most remarkable lighthouse. It was built on Bell Rock and was a wonder of modern engineering—that men could build a solid, towering structure on a reef in the North Sea! It stood directly in the path of ships entering the Firth of Forth on a northern approach, and was designed to withstand high winds, crashing waves and partial submersion in salt water. It had sealed his fame; perhaps it had been the downfall of mine.
Captain MacDonald and a couple of his sailors began depositing barrels and crates on the dock. These were supplies for the lighthouse. Next came our trunks. When first I learned of my banishment to Cape Wrath I made no attempt to pack light and frantically stuffed my trunk, not only with every stitch of clothing I owned, but with books and paper, quills and ink and all the gold coins I could procure. I packed bed linen, bolts of fabric, thread, yarn and needles. I even threw in a couple of loose bricks from my old fireplace and a wrought-iron poker. Watching the good men of the tender Pole Star struggle under the weight of it caused me a pang of guilt, guilt I hadn’t felt when my father’s porters had struggled to haul me away.
Excerpted from The Exile of Sara Stevenson by Darci Hannah. Copyright © 2010 by Darci Hannah. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.