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The Blackhouse Bride

By: Fiona Monroe
Published By: Blushing Press
Copyright: ©2016 by Blushing Books® and Fiona Monroe
21 Chapters / 75,000 words
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Bridie is the daughter of a farrier on an estate near Aberdeen, in Scotland. Her father wants her to marry his apprentice; Lord John Dunwoodie wants her to become his mistress. All Bridie wants is to read books and study.

To escape marriage to a loutish farrier or ruin in the arms of a dilettante aristocrat, Bridie accepts a proposal from a man she has never met. A man who, above all, says he wants an educated wife. But Angus MacAllister is steward or ‘tacksman’ of a remote Highland township, and Bridie is used to the comforts of a great estate. Life in a blackhouse comes as a shock.

Can Bridie learn to be a good wife, and can she ever grow to love the man she married out of desperation?

*Publisher Warning: This book contains scenes of disciplinary spanking of adult women, intended purely as fantasies for adults only.  

Chapter One

 

Bridie knew she had made a mistake even before he reached around her waist and pushed the door closed with a soft but definite click.

"Ah now," said Lord John Dunwoodie, younger brother of the present Marquess of Crieff, fifth son of the late Marquess, and author of Songs of Innocence and Despair - a slim volume of sonnets, printed in quarto at his own expense - "we are quite alone at last."

It was late afternoon, and the small dressing room - an ante-chamber to the bedroom beyond - was filled with early summer sunshine. Even in her panic, as she backed against the door and tried to grope for the handle behind her, Bridie could see that she was in a comfortable, masculine room, equipped with a mirror and a wardrobe and a rack for hanging ties and a stand below the window for shaving. And there was a small leather couch, the kind she thought was called a chaise longue.

There were no books that she could see at first glance. An interior door stood open, and beyond that she glimpsed a much larger room, and the outer post of a bed.

"My lord," she managed to gasp. "Please, I must return to my mistress - "

"Not yet. Not for a little while yet. Ah, Bridie - have you any idea how fervently I've longed for this moment?"

He made a grab for her, and she found herself clasped in his arms before she could make any decisive move to escape. His mouth was hot and hard and urgent on hers.

It was not the first time she had been kissed. The first time had been Robbie Johnson, the baker's apprentice, who had persuaded her the previous summer to walk with him down the lane to the oldest tree in the village and there, under its ancient spreading branches, clumsily and wetly planted his lips to hers. She remembered how he had trembled, and how his whole face had glowed as red as an apple, and how he had stammered out his declaration of love and offered her his damp, yeasty hand in marriage.

She had been taken off guard that first time, but she had also been conscious of a certain intellectual curiosity. She had wanted to know for herself what it was that had inspired the great poets, the dramatists, even the authors of novels. She found it hard to believe that the sublime transports of passion, the love of Romeo for Juliet, of Dante for Laura, could begin with this sweaty squashing of mouths. She had soon removed herself from the danger of any repeated importunity from Robbie Johnson, and declined his suit perhaps a little too sharply.

Lord John was as far away from poor Robbie Johnson as Milton's poetry was from the pedestrian verse in the Kirk hymnal. It was as if he were another species of animal entirely, cut from different stuff. She smelled spices, an exotic scent, as he trapped her in his arms and held her commandingly against his whole body.

Just for a moment, she weakened. She had struggled and held herself rigid, but as he would not let her go, and as he would not stop the bruising kiss, she felt herself begin to melt in the heat of his embrace. She relaxed against him, she parted her lips and let his tongue slide between them.

His hand went to her bosom, and squeezed.

"No!"

With all her strength, with all her fading sense, she threw him off.

He was not a particularly big man, and she was a well-grown girl, as tall as him. She had felt the strength in his imprisoning arms, and truthfully had found it just a little thrilling, but if she struggled she had the power to throw him off. Or perhaps, he was letting her escape for the moment. Certainly, he grinned as he staggered back from her, then made another lunge.

But she had given herself the moment she needed. Her fumbling fingers found the handle, and she was gone through the door before he could trap her in the room again.

"Bridie! I say, come back here, young lady! Bridie! I haven't given you that book!"

She ran full pelt along the corridor, fearful that he would give actual pursuit. The appearance at the top of the connecting staircase of Marchbanks, one of the senior footmen, made her skid to a guilty halt.

"What is the meaning of this?" Marchbanks demanded, glaring at her.

"I'm sorry," Bridie mumbled.

"Bridie, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir."

"And what do you think you're about, girl, being in this part of the house at this time of the day, all on your own and running around like a wild thing?"

Bridie was just trying to work out whether it was worth attempting a lie, to say that her ladyship had sent her on an errand, when Lord John strode down the corridor towards them and laid a hand on her shoulder.

Marchbanks immediately stood back and bowed.

"Don't row the girl, my good man," said Lord John easily. "She's with me."

"Yes, my lord," said Marchbanks, keeping his gaze respectfully lowered.

"I invited her to my rooms, to lend her a book. Bridie here is a great scholar. Are not you, my dear?"

Bridie could form no reply. Her heart had begun to hammer, her throat squeezed. But momentarily paralysed as she was, she did not miss the quick upward glance of Marchbank's eyes. She saw the footman take in his lordship's hand pressing into the exposed flesh of her shoulder, she saw the sly twitch of his lips before he composed his features to blank servility once more.

A hot wave of shame flooded up through her, making her face - her very ears - burn as red as flame. By nightfall, or sooner, the whole servants' hall would think that Bridie MacFarlane had surrendered her virtue to Lord John. His lordship had not been back at home long enough to make any new conquests that Bridie knew of, and she had only been at Dunwoodie herself for six months before his return from Italy, but even in her own home in the village of Bridge of Auchtie she had heard tales of how the old Marquess's fifth son regularly despoiled housemaids and other serving-girls. It would be believed, she had no doubt, and her reputation would be in danger.

"Come then," Lord John added, with a warm grin. He really was a very handsome man, and his smile - like a cheeky boy's - was perhaps his most attractive feature. "I believe I've found the volume now." He squeezed her collarbone gently.

"Excuse me, my lord," she said, mustering all her resolve and breaking free. "I must return to my mistress."

She dropped a clumsy curtsy and stumbled away, down the stairs, towards the east wing upper hall and the safety of the Marchioness’s sitting room.

This time, he did not pursue.

 

 

#

The small upper east sitting room, known to the servants simply as 'her ladyship's room', was pretty and airy and filled with light. It had been newly furnished the year before, when the Marquess - then, merely Lord Atholl - had brought his beautiful and highly eligible bride home to Dunwoodie House.

Bridie slipped in quietly, her heart still thumping hard in her breast. She was sure that her face, too, must still be flushed.

The Marchioness of Crieff was dozing on the sofa near the open window, which let in soft summer air and the sweet sound of birdsong. A book was lying open in one senseless hand, her other was resting on the great swell beneath her white muslin gown. Bridie moved quickly to catch the book, which was just about to slip to the floor, and her mistress stirred and blinked sleepily.

"Oh! Bridie. I must have fallen asleep. What is the time?"

"Not much past four o'clock by the clock in the hallway, my lady."

"Oh good, there is still plenty of time before dressing. Would you read the rest of this chapter to me? I cannot seem to concentrate on it. Then perhaps we might take a turn around the terrace."

"Yes, my lady," Bridie mumbled, and got back to her customary seat before Lady Crieff could notice anything amiss about her demeanour.

But it was too late. A tear had escaped one eye, and she could feel it rolling treacherously down her hot cheek. The Marchioness noticed, as she noticed everything.

"Why, my dear, you are distressed! What is the matter, Bridie?" She shifted upwards on the sofa, awkward with the bulk of the child, and held out her hand to her.

Bridie went to her and let her take it, and curtseyed. "Please, my lady, it is nothing. Nothing of import. I am - a little homesick, perhaps. I was thinking of my father."

She blushed anew at being obliged to lie so shamelessly. The last thing she wanted to do was to return to live under her father's roof, to the house by the forge where she had been dutiful but unhappy mistress since the age of eight. She respected her father, of course; he was a virtuous and pious, if not very kind man, and she asked every night in her prayers that the Almighty might make her a better daughter in her heart, but she could never be anything other than miserable at home.

Her mistress's lovely face softened further. "Of course. Of course you must miss him very much. Now listen, my dear. This Sunday you must go and visit him. I will have Ritchie take you in the cart."

"Oh! No, my lady, it is not so far, I can walk there quite easily."

"No doubt." She smiled. "But if I send you in the cart, I may fetch you back again as I will. I cannot do without you for long."

"Yes, my lady. I do not need to go at all, if you need me here."

"It is settled. Now, please, the end of the chapter. I must find out whether Lord Waverley is deceiving Clarabelle, though I expect he is. Why do I enjoy this trash? It would be excellent if for once, the aristocratic gentleman turned out not to be a vile seducer. Some of my dearest friends are aristocratic gentlemen, and I cannot say that any of them have ever attempted to ruin me." She smiled at her own pleasantry, stretched out luxuriantly, and closed her eyes.

Bridie's answering smile was fleeting. She hung her head over the pages of the novel, for a moment seeing no words through a blur of fresh tears. She could not tell the Marchioness, whom she adored, about her brother-in-law's importunities. It would be disrespectful towards Lord John to carry tales of his private conduct to the mistress of the house, and she did not want to trouble or distress Lady Crieff in any way when she was so near to her confinement.

Nor could she bear her mistress to think ill of her. Bridie knew it was scarcely rational, but she found that she was ashamed; ashamed of the way her body had responded with a flush of excitement when he had pressed his own so insistently against it, ashamed of the very fact of having drawn his lordship's notoriously lascivious eye.

How could she continue to say no to his advances, when he might summon her on a pretext at any time? How would she continue to have the strength to say no, when his mouth tasted of fire and his touch set her heart hammering?

Only fleeing Dunwoodie House could keep her virtue safe, but she had nowhere else to go but her father's house. And she had a very particular reason for not wanting to end up back there.

What was she going to do?

 

Chapter TWO

 

 

Her troubles had really begun six months before, in the winter, although she had thought at the time that her dreams were coming true.

Bridie's father was farrier at Bridge of Auchtie, a little village near the edge of the Dunwoodie Estate. Although too small even to have its own church - the village belonged to the parish of Kirkhaven, the larger village one mile distant - it was on the main road towards Aberdeen, which meant that her father's workshop was a busy, prosperous one. Travellers of all stamp stopped at the forge to have their horses re-shod, and her father and his apprentice also did a portion of the work for the estate.

It meant that her father was hard at work, either at his anvil or abroad, from daybreak to sunset six days a week. Since Bridie's mother had died when she had been only eight years old, and her parents had no other living children, the whole responsibility for her father's domestic comfort had fallen upon her from an early age.

The house attached to the workshop, where she had lived all her life, was a good one, with a parlour separate from the kitchen and an upstairs storey with three bedrooms. They even had a fair sized pantry and a privy in its own brick building. There was meat on the table every day, and Bridie admitted that she had never wanted for anything. She knew she was fortunate.

And yet she was discontent, sometimes wretchedly so. The house was large and well-appointed for folks of their station, but it was she who had to clean and maintain it; even with the help of their maid-of-all-work, Peggy, it was hard and constant work. They had as much food as they wished to eat, but it was she who had to cook every meal and wash up afterwards. Her father expected order, scrupulous cleanliness and his dinner on the table at his accustomed hour.

Bridie knew it was her duty to keep house for her father, and she knew she ought to take pleasure and pride in fulfilling her role as a good daughter. She knew it was a heavy fault in her that she could not, and she prayed every night to be granted the strength to overcome the resentment that ate at her heart as she knelt to scrub the parlour floorboards and peeled barrels of potatoes and swept out the hearths.

But the work left her hardly any time for her true and guilty passion. That afternoon, she had finished leading the kitchen range in a hurry, and skimped on scouring the copper pots, because her father had gone all the way out to Lothie Farm to attend the draught horses there and Peggy had managed to get a lift with Farmer Stewart all the way to Aberdeen to purchase cloth for making new table linens. Peggy had been delighted that Bridie had sent her on this excursion, rather than making the trip herself. For the little maid, an afternoon's journey on a hay cart, and the chance to wander the streets of the big city and visit its shops, was a treat indeed.

Bridie was far less interested in a trip to the city than she was in the fact that her father's prolonged absence, and Peggy's, meant that she would have three or four glorious hours quite alone in the house. She made sure that the pots were put away in something resembling good order, she stoked up a fire in the parlour, she put on the kettle for tea and then she scurried up to her bedroom and knelt on the floor to retrieve the secret bundle from below her bed.

Then, with a sigh of happiness, she curled her feet under her in the armchair by the fire, and opened volume one of Clarissa at the page where she had left off the night before.

Beside her on the table sat a Latin primer and a copy of Hamlet, also part of her treasure hoard. Each clothbound volume held its own, different allure, but she could not help herself starting her feast with the pudding, the novel. She would allow herself a few chapters, then immerse herself in the slow, difficult, fascinating task of mastering the Latin language. Her only opportunity for reading and study otherwise was at night, after bedtime, and it was fortunate for her that she had her own room. Even then, she took the precaution of hiding her candle under the bedclothes and reading by its yellow light in the hot, airless tent. She had to be up at six every morning to help Peggy tend the fires and make breakfast for her father and Callum the apprentice, so she dared not stay awake too late.

A whole afternoon, or nearly, was a rare luxury. She would have to put on the mutton stew that was to be that night's dinner before three o'clock, but that still gave her plenty of time.

But Clarissa riveted her attention so completely that Bridie did not notice the hours slip by. The story, though published over fifty years before, was an exciting one; a truly good and virtuous young lady, wealthy and educated, was being relentlessly pursued by a charismatic blackguard. It used the rather old-fashioned device of telling the story entirely in letters between the various characters, but the conceit had the effect of making the narrative addictive. She could not put the book down when reading the next letter would surely not take very long, and she just had to find out what happened next, and next, and next.

Clarissa had just fled her unkind parents' house and put herself in the power of the dastardly Lovelace, when Bridie was startled by a step and the sound of voices in the hallway. She glanced frantically at the clock on the mantelpiece. It was only just past four. She was not expecting her father to return from Lothie until at least six o'clock.

And yet a moment later, before she had had the presence of mind to rise from the armchair or even hide away the books, he was standing in the parlour doorway.

It was the deepest, coldest time of winter, when the day died not long after three of the clock, and frost stood hard on the ground. Her father was muffled up against the bitter air in a great overcoat, scarf and cap pulled firmly down over his brow. As he removed his hat, the stern glowering expression on his always hatchet-like face deepened. She saw his sharp eyes take in her posture, the utter darkness of the house beyond the glow of the parlour hearth and her one small reading candle, and above all, the books.

Bridie unfroze and scrambled to her feet, but it was far too late to conceal the evidence of her idleness.

Her father marched to her and snatched the volume from her hand. He glared at the spine. "A novel!" he spat.

It would have made little difference to the outcome, perhaps, for her father believed that all book learning was wicked folly for a girl of her station, but for the sake of her own pride, Bridie wished that she had been caught reading the Latin primer, or the Shakespeare. She hung her head and trembled. "I'm sorry, Father."

"Aye. As well you should be. Did I not expressly forbid you to waste your time with reading?"

"Yes, Father."

"And a novel - filthy, immoral spew of the devil." He made to fling it into the fire.

"No!" Bridie screamed. "Father, no - that belongs to Dr Menzies!"

Her father hesitated, then lowered his arm and tossed the book onto the floor instead. "Dr Menzies," he spat contemptuously, but he was clearly unwilling to destroy the property of the minister of the parish.

Bridie well knew that her father's opinion of Dr Menzies' theology, and therefore of his character in general, was not high at all, although he rarely spoke against him outright.

She became aware of the great bulk of Callum, her father's apprentice, looming just outside the door. He was hanging back in a show of respect, but she knew that he was watching her reprimanding avidly.

"And why is the house all in darkness?" her father continued. "We come home on this freezing day, earlier than I thought we might, expecting a warm house - tea ready - dinner cooking on the stove. I smell no meat cooking, child. Have you even started dinner?"

"I - no, Father, I'm very sorry. I forgot. I - "

"Do you mean to tell me that you have been sat here since I went away, reading - reading a novel?"

"I - yes, Father," she whispered. "I'll go and light the lamps and the other fires and put the stew on right away - "

She made a helpless, hopeless move for the door, but her father stopped her with a single firm grasp of her arm. She sagged, and stood still, her stomach doing sickish somersaults. How could she have been so stupid as not even to have remembered to light the lamps, and put on the dinner? Most of it had been prepared early that morning by Peggy.

"Aye," he said, "you will do all that right enough, but not right away. Callum, go and see to the horses and put away the tools while I deal with this idle, disobedient daughter."

There was no point in pleading her case, or begging to be spared. Bridie was fully aware that she was entirely guilty of both offences, and deserved the punishment that her father never hesitated to deal out. She only wished that he were not so merciless in his adherence to Proverbs 13:24, He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes. Or that he would interpret it more literally, and not apply it to a daughter.

Slowly, moving deliberately, her father lit the lamp near the window and closed the shutters that she had also forgotten to attend to. Then he reached up to the shelf and thumped the family Bible down onto the table.

"This book," he said, laying his hand upon it, "is the only book you need. It is the only book fit to be read by a girl in the station of life where God has placed you. Fine fancy ladies with their accomplishments may do what they please, but you are a farrier's daughter, and may one day be a farrier's wife, and you can have no higher duty than to keep your father's house and obey his commands."

"Yes, Father."

He opened the Bible and flicked with practised fingers to a page he seemed to know well. "Read it." He turned the book towards her.

Her voice cracking a little, Bridie read from where his finger indicated the start of Ephesians 6. "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honour thy father and mother, which is the first commandment..."

"And do you think, Bridie, that you have obeyed and honoured your father today?"

"No," she said, hardly able to get the word past her dry throat, twisting her hands. She wished he would get it over with. The lecture, the inevitable appeal to Bible verses, was almost the worst part of a punishment, because it prolonged the terror of anticipation.

It was almost the worst part, but not quite. That came when at length he turned to the fireplace, where the long leather strap hung always on its hook. This strap had been especially made by the tanner in Kirkhaven as an instrument of chastisement, when Bridie had been twelve years old and had picked up a sixpence she found lying on the floor, concealed it and spent it secretly on sweetmeats. Her crime had been discovered when the apprentice at the time had missed his coin, and she had broken down and confessed. Her father had not deemed a hiding over his knee with the sole of his old leather slipper, her usual punishment up until then, to be severe enough for such an offence. He had commissioned the strap to be made, she had waited a miserable week for the leathering of her young life, and the fearful instrument had hung in full view by the fire ever since. She knew it was kept there to remind her to do her duty and be virtuous, and it had to be said that she had never again even thought of being dishonest about money.

Many times, however, her father had laid the strap across her backside for the offence of idleness and even disobedience, and she never seemed to learn that lesson. She had already been beaten twice before for reading, even after he had expressly forbidden it. To fail to prepare the dinner too because of it was folly bordering on wickedness, and Bridie's eyes were filled with tears of anger and contrition even as she bent forwards over the parlour table to take her punishment.

And indeed it was very bad. Bridie dug her fingers around the edges of the table and screwed her face into a silent grimace as she fought to avoid crying out at each relentless lash. For one small mercy, her father had never bared her behind. She thought he probably would not consider that seemly. He brought the strap down over the skirt of her worsted house dress, and the cotton petticoat beneath. But those two layers of fabric, after several strokes of the belt, never seemed to offer much protection at all. The leather bit through the skirts with a sting she thought could not possibly be more ferocious on bare skin. She also wondered if her father did not trouble to spare the considerable strength of his forge-hardened arm, since he thought a hiding over skirts was an easy one.

Today, he certainly did not hold back. He had never swung the fearsome strap so hard. From the first stroke Bridie was gasping to hold back her cries, and eventually she could not. A moan escaped her as the belt lashed her thighs, and then a strangled wail as it struck an already-tender spot on the top of her buttocks.

Her father disapproved of making any kind of fuss during a punishment. She was supposed to demonstrate her humility and repentance by fully submitting to chastisement without a murmur or complaint. Often when she had been younger he had admonished her for crying, and laid on extra strokes until she had learned to take the bite of the strap in silence. Afterwards, when she was alone, she would indulge in the relief of tears, and rub her aching backside to try and ease the lingering sting.

Now, however, she could scarcely help herself. It hurt so much, and it seemed that he would never cease. He always left a measured pause between each lash, so that she had plenty of time to dread each before it fell, and she could never be sure whether he had decided that her punishment was over, or he was just giving her extra time to reflect upon her sins. More than once she dared to hope that he might give her the command to stand up, before another agonising stroke of the belt landed across her backside or thighs and made her grip the table and clench her teeth. But when the cry forced its way through her throat, she felt her father pause, and exhale a breath.

"Bridie," he said, his voice quiet and almost regretful. "It pains me too, child, to have to punish you like this. But it is my God-given responsibility to guide you and correct you, when you need it. I would be neglecting that sacred duty if I let you carry on with your idle, frivolous ways."

"Y-yes, Father," she mumbled against the table top. Her hair had fallen into her mouth. She was surprised, because he almost never spoke during the beating itself.

"It will not always be my responsibility, but while it is I will do my best to make sure you continue to grow into a virtuous, dutiful woman. Now take the rest of your lesson with a good grace, and learn it well, and there will be an end to it."

She squeezed shut her eyes and braced herself. The four swingeing lashes that followed were as hard as any he had ever laid on her, and they came unexpectedly in rapid succession. It was all she could do to bear them in silence, but she did.

After the last blow fell he bade her rise. She stood humbly before him, red in the face, trying not to let the tears come, trying not to reach behind to rub at her blazing, aching backside.

"There," he said, stern again but calm. "I hope that taught you well."

"Yes, Father." She could hear the beginning of tears in her voice.

"And?"

She had almost forgotten. "Th-thank you, sir, for correcting me."

"Very well. Now go to your duties."

As she shuffled out, desperate to attain the temporary privacy of the kitchen and have a little time to cry and attempt to ease the smart in her nether regions, she found that Callum was still standing right outside the door. She had a horrible suspicion that he had been behind the door the whole time, listening to her punishment. She almost brushed against him as she passed. She kept her face downturned, but out of the corner of her eye she saw his broad, satisfied grin.

 

 

#

It was with a heavy heart that Bridie walked the road between Bridge of Auchtie and Kirkhaven the next morning, carrying the precious bundle of books under her arm. Under her skirts, she could still feel the chafing effects of yesterday's chastisement. It had been one of the worst hidings she had ever had, she thought, and it had been so thoroughly deserved too. She was very wicked to harbour anger and resentment in her heart against her father for forbidding her books and learning, and she was resolved this time never to submit to the temptation of reading again.

It had been an uncomfortable evening, trying to get through all the tasks she had left undone all afternoon and put dinner on the table at a time not too far beyond the regular hour, all the time with a sore backside. She sat uneasily at dinner, and she did not like the looks that Callum gave her. She had not much liked the way Callum had been looking at her for quite some time, whenever her father was not around, or when he thought, presumably, that her father would not notice. In her father's sight and hearing, Callum was ostentatiously pious. Bridie suspected he was no such thing, and she was beginning to find him repellent.

Those thoughts occupied her as she crunched through the frost towards the stock square building of the Manse, which stood behind the kirk. She presented herself at the front door and asked the maid if Dr Menzies was at home. There was a short episode of confusion while she consulted within, and then the young maid scurried back to say that the minister would see her in his study.

As Bridie was led through the small hallway towards the study, she was momentarily surprised to see the tall, spare figure of Mrs Menzies standing at the top of the staircase as if guarding it. Bridie had not often spoken to the minister's wife, being in no need of alms or assistance but equally, beneath her notice. Yet Mrs Menzies seemed to be glaring at her, as if finding her personally offensive.

Bridie had not long to think about this before she was led into the study, and Dr Menzies rose from his fireside chair to greet her.

"Bridie - my dear - this is a surprise. I - " He looked around her towards the door, as if expecting someone else to come in behind her.

"Is this an inconvenient time, sir? I'm sorry - you did say I might call whenever I could, and if you were at home it would be all right."

"No, no, no, yes. Quite all right. Quite all right, but the fact is - sit down, Bridie. I was intending to send a note this very morning, asking if you would come to see me."

Bridie sat in the other armchair by the fire, conscious as she did so that she could feel a tenderness from yesterday's hiding still.

Dr Menzies leaned forwards, and steepled his fingers together in a characteristic gesture. He was an elderly gentleman, or at least Bridie thought him so, with his long, straggling grey hair, his thin face with its kind blue eyes, and his dusty, old-fashioned frockcoat. Today, however, those eyes would not somehow look at her directly, and he seemed to be hesitating over his words. "Bridie - my dear - I have very much enjoyed teaching you, I'm sure you know how highly I think of your intellect, and how much I respect your passion for knowledge."

"You have been very kind to me, sir."

"In all my years as minister, I've run many Sunday schools for the children of farm labourers, and crofters, and artisans and tradesmen such as your father. I was also for a time proprietor of a small school for the sons of gentlemen - well, I think I told you that."

"Yes, sir."

"And, in all that time, I rarely came across a boy - of whatever degree - with as much understanding and potential, and indeed as hard working, as I find in you."

While Bridie flushed with pleasure inside, she could hear a huge 'but' hovering in his hesitant tone.

"Indeed, I have championed more than one boy of humble origins, and helped him by the application of his intellect to raise himself in the world. Some people do not believe this is morally defensible - many people contend that everyone should learn to be content in the sphere of life in which God has placed them, and others that it is nothing less than cruel to encourage false ambitions. But I do not think this is always the case. You remember Gray, I'm sure?"

"Yes, sir. Do you mean, Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air?"

Dr Menzies grew momentarily more animated. "Yes, indeed. Oh, very good, Bridie, you follow my train of thought like the hound to the vixen. You see? This is what I mean. And though Gray might have thought it inevitable that Some mute inglorious Milton may here rest, I do not. In the past, if I have found a boy in a croft or blacksmith's forge, who seemed to me to have the potential to be more than that, I have endeavoured to give him the means to do so. There was Tommy Meikle, who is now a physician practising in Edinburgh, though his father was a tanner - and James Brown, who lectures in law at the University. I have to say - they were clever lads, and applied themselves, but you are fully the equal of either of them at that age. In mind, that is. However - " He sighed. "It has pleased the Almighty to make us not beings of pure spirit, able to love exclusive of membrane, joint or limb like Milton's angels, but fashioned from the clay of the Earth. Male and female created he them. How old are you now, Bridie?"

"I am twenty years of age now, sir. My birthday was last month."

"Twenty! Dear, dear. You were all of ten years old when you first started having lessons from me, a mere slip of a child. Do you remember?"

Of course she remembered. Her father had not much liked her staying behind at the manse after the morning service, but he could hardly refuse the minister. Besides, she had no work to do that day, as her father was a strict observer of the Sabbath and required her to prepare their Sunday meals the night before. On the Sabbath, they did nothing but read the Bible, go to church, and eat cold meat. Sometimes - many times - it occurred to Bridie how many of those dreary Sunday hours she could have spent instead on study, since she was not to work. And always she repented immediately of these wicked thoughts, and re-applied herself to reading Scripture for the hundredth time.

"And, since then, you have blossomed - into what I see before me now. A beautiful young woman, not a child. You will want a husband soon."

"Oh, no, sir. I could not leave my father."

"Ah well, all young ladies say that, and they all do. Your father, I'm sure, would wish to see you respectably married, as much as anyone."

"Sir, I - " She wondered whether she ought to speak out, but she had told Dr Menzies more of her inner thoughts than she had anyone. He was, she realised suddenly, her only true friend; unlikely as that seemed, with the disparity in their age and rank. "I am not sure I want to marry at all. I would, if I could, devote myself to study and remain celibate all my life."

"Ah, my dear." Dr Menzies sighed again. "That is what I feared you might wish. And that is what can never, I'm afraid, be your fate. The Good Lord has made you a woman, and a beautiful woman, too. I might sponsor Tommy Meikle and James Brown to attend the University, but I cannot do anything like that for you. It is impossible. No woman may be admitted to any university, not in this country at any rate, and while there are ladies of letters - ladies of great learning, indeed - they are, I'm sorry to say, ladies. That, again, you can never be. Your own good sense must tell you that."

Suddenly, she felt tears in her throat. She swallowed, and looked down at her hands and the bundle of books in her lap. Trying to keep her voice steady, she said, "Why do you say these things to me now?"

"Because, Bridie my dear, it has become impossible for me to teach you anymore."

"Why?" She had not expected that.

Dr Menzies put a thin hand to his mouth and rubbed it. Then he spoke in a low soft voice, rapidly. "I will be perfectly frank with you, Bridie. It pains me to say it, but I will. My wife has required me to dismiss you."

"Your wife?"

He put up his hand. "Hush! Keep your voice down. She may be listening."

In horror, Bridie glanced at the door. It was slightly ajar, and she was not sure if the maid had shut it behind her when she had admitted her.

"Mrs Menzies is, has always been, subject to jealousy. I have often been accused, and I must add unjustly, of taking too much notice of many a fair parishioner. Lately she seems to have realised that you have, as I said earlier - blossomed. She is not happy for me to spend any time alone in your company, or - at all."

The absurdity of the idea that Mrs Menzies - that anyone! - should suspect any impropriety between herself and the spare, elderly, intellectual clergyman would have made Bridie laugh, if it were not painful and shameful. She felt her cheeks blaze with mortification, and she stood up immediately. "If Mrs Menzies suspects me, sir, then I must ask your leave to go away immediately. I am not - I would not - my reputation is very important to me."

"Bridie, Bridie, it is I whom she suspects, child - she always has. I would not have told you this, except that I want you to understand that it is not because of anything you have done, that I must teach you no more. And everything that I said about your future prospects - perhaps it has not been kind of me to educate you above your station, when nothing can ever come of it in the end. Better for you to put a stop to it now - turn your thoughts, turn your heart, towards your duties as a woman. As a daughter, before long as a wife, and God willing as a mother. These are sacred duties, child."

Bridie could not help it. She began to weep. The kindness in his voice, the sorrow, somehow made her dismissal all the harsher. "Am I - am I never to see you again, sir?"

"Oh my dear, not at all, you will see me every week as everyone else in the parish does, and I hope you will always think of me as your friend. If ever you are troubled, come to me for counsel. It is simply that I may not carry on with our lessons. Now dry your tears."

Bridie made a great effort to gain control of herself. She was ashamed to give way to tears in the presence of her tutor, though she supposed he was her tutor no longer. "I must return these books, sir." She thrust the bundle towards him.

"Clarissa, the old Latin primer and Hamlet? No, my dear. You keep them as my gift to you, since I may no longer give you the gift of learning." He pushed the books gently back into her hands.

On her way home, stumbling and blinded by the tears that welled up insistently, Bridie clutched the parcel to her chest as guiltily as if it had been stolen. She ought to have insisted upon returning the books to Dr Menzies; he would have no longer pressed the gift upon her, had she told him the truth about her father forbidding her the use of books. Dr Menzies would of course have urged her to obedience, so she had lied to him - her beloved mentor and tutor - by failing to disclose her father's mandate, just as she was about to deceive her own father yet again by smuggling these books home.

She was a wretched girl, and she deserved to be miserable. Her only consolations were the guilty fact that she now owned three precious books of her own, and the reflection that things could not get any worse.

 

 

#

She discovered that she was wrong about this almost as soon as she reached home.

She had wrapped the books tightly in a length of old worn table cloth, the ones that she and Peggy were in the process of replacing, and she was sure that this would protect them from any harm. There was an ancient tree with a fissured trunk at the very bottom of the fair-sized garden attached to the house, where Bridie planted and tended rows of potatoes, neeps and kale, whatever would grow in the oft-harsh climate. Her father never went near the garden, so she felt safe in secreting her illicit parcel in the depths of the tree's hollow. She would find a way later to retrieve the books and hide them somewhere in her room, so that she could continue to read under the bedclothes.

Relieved of the visible evidence of her defiance, but feeling horribly ashamed of herself and fancying that her guilt must be plainly evident in her countenance, Bridie entered the house. It would soon be time for lunch, which her father and Callum ate in the parlour when they were not working on another part of the estate. Today she knew that they were both in the workshop, so despite the fact that he had insisted on her walking to Kirkhaven to return Dr Menzies' books immediately, her father would expect lunch on the table at one o'clock sharp.

She only hoped that Peggy had taken heed of her instructions that morning to knead the pastry and stew the hough for the meat pies, for it would be far too late to start it now. Peggy was a heavyset slow-witted lass of sixteen who would idle when she could, and as Bridie was responsible for managing her, she had more than once taken the consequences of the maid's incompetence. Bridie was hurrying towards the kitchen to see what work had already been done towards lunch, when she was startled by her father stepping out of the parlour doorway.

It was almost as if he had been waiting for her. She could not understand why he was not still in the workshop, as it was not quite midday.

To her consternation, her cheeks flamed and her breath caught in her throat. Her immediate thought was of her dreadful secret, the bundle in the tree. How could he have discovered her guilt so soon?

Her father had taken off his leather apron and rolled down his shirt sleeves, something he always did before sitting at table, but his hands were still grimy and there were soot stains from the fire on his face. His expression was curiously grim.

Bridie quailed. "F-father? It is early yet for lunch, I've yet to make the pies."

"Never mind the pies for now, child. Come into the parlour. I've something to say to you."

Trembling, Bridie followed him into the room. Her surprise mounted when she saw that Callum too was there, standing behind the table twisting his cap in his hands. It looked like he had just lumbered to his feet, from the armchair by the fire where Bridie had spent her ill-advised afternoon the day before.

Everything about Callum was lumbering. He was a great ruddy-complexioned youth of one-and-twenty or thereabouts, with bright red hair and freckles all across his face and arms. These arms, the fore of which were exposed now, were thick as tree-trunks. Bridie had rather liked her father's previous apprentice, Tam, who had always been ready with a joke and who had got the milliner's daughter in Kirkhaven with child, two years ago. Tam had vanished, and before too long, Callum Dobbie had arrived to take his place.

Her father had often talked about what an improvement Callum was over Tam, whose moral character he had always suspected, and whose work had left much to be desired. Callum was pious and industrious, he said, and would make a fine farrier.

Bridie was in no position to judge the quality of Callum's work at the anvil or in the stable yard, but she had reason to suspect that his professions of piety were a charade calculated to gain favour with her father. He claimed not to drink, but Bridie had heard that he had been seen drunk in the alehouse at Kirkhaven more than once. She herself had, the previous summer, witnessed him kissing some girl - and on the Sabbath - behind a hedge just outside the same town, while she had been walking back from her lessons with Dr Menzies. And there was just something about the way that he looked at her, when her father was not present, that made her uneasy.

Callum had wit enough to present himself as devout to her father, but not enough to misbehave further away than Kirkhaven. And really, beyond a kind of sly cunning, he had no brains at all.

"Bridie," said her father, "Callum asked this morning to speak to me, and I think you know why."

"I do not know why," said Bridie, in genuine puzzlement. Her father did not seem angry, though he was very serious, and she began to relax just a little.

"Modesty is pleasing in a young woman, Bridie, but honesty is more pleasing to the Lord. Callum has told me everything, and very properly applied to me for your hand. I have told him that it would have been better had he asked my permission before courting you at all, but since you seem to have behaved well enough, I have told him that I have no objections to your union."

"Our - what?" She could hardly speak. The shock was like a physical blow under her breast. She stared frantically at Callum, who gave her one tiny, sly smirk.

"I will go further," her father continued, as if she had not spoken, "and say that Callum is the best possible husband I could have hoped for you. I have never looked forward to your marriage. I haven't wanted to lose you. But in marrying this fine young man, you will not be going away. This house will be his home for the foreseeable future, and even - well, Callum. I may as well make it plain. I have no son, no son living in any case. Two dead, both as wee bairns. I have no-one to leave my few worldly possessions to, except my daughter, and what use would they be to her? A son would have followed me into the trade, and taken over the tenancy of this house and workshop. Callum, lad, when you and my Bridie are wed, that future will be yours." He clasped Callum on his wide, meaty shoulder.

Callum broke into a broad grin, which he quickly tempered. "Thank you, Mr MacFarlane. Course it's Miss MacFarlane herself I care about. I'd wed her if she hadnae a penny in the world."

"I know you would, lad. May the Lord forgive my pride, but there's no better girl than Bridie between here and Aberdeen. Aye, she can be idle and forgetful sometimes, but a good dose of the strap soon sets her on the right path again. Her heart is pure, and she's dutiful and devout. She'll make you a fine wife."

"Thank you, Mr MacFarlane."

Bridie found her voice at last. "No!" she cried.

Her father's face darkened immediately, although there was a shadow of confusion in his expression. Bridie had raised her voice against him so seldom, that it might have been shock.

Callum, however, looked as if he relished her reaction.

"No?" said her father, after a dreadful pause. "What do you mean by shouting out in this way?"

"I'm sorry, Father. I did not mean to speak disrespectfully. But - no. I cannot marry Mr Dobbie. I don't want to marry him. He has not offered me his hand and if he had, I would have refused him. I do not - I don't wish to marry anyone. All I want is to keep house for you, Father."

Her father frowned, and glanced at Callum, then said, "But you will still keep house for me, child, when you are married. For me and for your husband too. We will all live together, just as we do now. The difference will be, I will rest happy in the knowledge that you are safely united to a hardworking, righteous man, who will be able to provide for you after I am gone. I worry about you, Bridie. I have worried for your virtue, ever since you grew so beautiful."

Her father had never called her beautiful before. He had never offered a single compliment on her person, nor would Bridie have expected it of him; vanity was sinful, and he would never have encouraged her to take pride in her appearance. Now, he made it sound like a fault in her. "I have never given you any reason to doubt my virtue!" she blurted out.

"I do not doubt it, child. But men are wicked, and women are weak. Callum will protect and guide you, even after I have been gathered to the Lord."

"Excuse me - please - I cannot marry Mr Dobbie. I do not want to. I will not."

"Bridie, be very clear. I forgive you, that you did not tell me that Callum was paying court to you. Make no mistake, you ought to have done so, but I understand. You are young and innocent, and your modesty tied your tongue. But now that Callum has confessed all to me, I will not tolerate further underhand dealings."

"There have been no underhand dealings! I did not tell you that Mr Dobbie was paying court to me because he never was, he never has!"

Her father folded his arms across his chest, and his expression became severe. "Bridie! I have never thought you likely to be fickle."

"I am not! I am not... fickle."

"Then I'll hear no more of this nonsense. No - not another word. Callum has declared his honourable intentions towards you, I have given him my blessing. I have told you why I believe this marriage to be in your very best interests. Now you will thank me, and go about your duties."

Bridie mumbled something that might have been thanks, and fled to the kitchen.

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