The ferryman was dead.
There was no doubt about it. The fellow had no pulse. His skin was like ice. His pupils were dilated, his eyes glassy and staring. Reilly Stanton didn't need a medical license to tell him that this man was no longer among the living.
But Reilly wasn't the one who needed convincing. It was the wizened fisherman stooped over beside him who seemed to be suffering from some doubts.
"What's ailing him, then?" the old man asked, his breath turning instantly to steam in the cold winter air.
"Aye." The fisherman's question was echoed by several of his peers, all of whom had come to stare down at the corpse, as well as at Reilly, who'd had the ill judgment to plunge into the frigid water after the drowning man.
"I'm afraid," Reilly said, lifting his dripping head from the dead man's equally sodden chest, "that he's gone."
"Gone?" The eldest of the fishermen blinked down at him. "What do you mean, gone?"
"Well, passed on." Seeing the blank expressions on the faces around him, Reilly tried again. "Expired."
The word expired had always worked well enough on the families of Reilly's patients back in Mayfair. It was clear, however, that delicacy was wasted on these particular fellows, and so Reilly said, enunciating with difficulty through teeth that were beginning to chatter with the cold, "I'm afraid your friend is dead."
"Dead?" The old man exchanged incredulous glances with his companions. "Stuben's dead?"
Reilly rose to his knees -- no small feat, since his once fine breeches were stiff with frozen saltwater -- and looked longingly toward the alehouse. At least, it looked like an alehouse. It was the structure nearest the pier where they now stood, and through the fog Reilly could see that there was a sign swinging above the door, and warm and welcoming lights in the windows. An alehouse, a whorehouse, Reilly didn't care what it was, so long as he was soon in it, drying off and warming up before a fire, preferably with a glass of whisky in his hand.
But first, of course, there was the dead ferryman to be seen to.
"But that canna be," the toothless fisherman insisted. "Stuben canna be dead. He's never died before."
"Well, that's the nature of death, isn't it?" Reilly managed a sympathetic smile. "We tend to do it just the once."
"No' Stuben." Around the corpse, shaggy gray heads nodded emphatically. "He's gone under many a time, has Stuben, and he's no' died before now."
"Well." Reilly tried to picture some of his more learned peers -- Pearson, for instance, with his ubiquitous cigar, or Shelley, with that ridiculous silver-handled cane he didn't need -- standing on this desolate pier, arguing the semantics of death with this motley group, and failed.
Well, Pearson and Shelley had too much sense to have signed on for such an assignment. Too much sense, and nothing like Reilly's blue-eyed, golden-haired impetus.
He said, "Well, gentlemen, I'm afraid he didn't make it this time. I'm very sorry for your loss. But he was clearly intoxicated -- "
This was, of course, the grossest of understatements. The ferryman had been so blind drunk Reilly had almost asked if there wasn't some other boat he could hire for the trip across the water. But he'd stopped himself at the last minute. What was the worst, he'd wondered, that could come of a drunk ferryman? That the boat might run aground, or worse, sink?
So he'd drown in the frigid and tumultuous waters off the coast of the Scottish Highlands. So what? It wasn't as if he had anything much to live for, anyway. Christine, back in London, would hear of his drowning and would have to live with the knowledge that Reilly Stanton had died in an effort to win her love...
Of course, when the stupid man had lost his footing and slipped into the sea just as they were docking, Reilly hadn't given a thought to his own safety, much less to what Miss Christine King was going to think. He had plunged without hesitation into the icy water and pulled the old man, dead weight though he'd been, back to shore.
It was only now, standing there soaking wet, shivering like a dog, that it occurred to Reilly he'd missed yet another wonderful opportunity to make Christine sorry for what she'd done. He'd come so close to a romantic death! He could almost hear the ladies back in Mayfair:
"Darling, did you hear? Young Dr. Stanton -- the eighth Marquis of Stillworth, don't you know -- died in the wilds of the Hebrides, trying to save another man's life. I can't imagine what that heartless Christine King was thinking, slipping a man like that the mitten. She must have been out of her head. Such a self-sacrificing, noble gentleman...handsome, too, from what I hear. Poor girl is beside herself with grief."
Well, he had certainly botched it. And because the old duffer had up and died on him despite his best efforts, Reilly couldn't even write home and mention, ever so casually, about how he'd managed to save a life his very first day on the job, damn it all.
When was his luck going to change?
"I'm sorry about Mr. Stuben," Reilly said, to the ferryman's friends, "but he was well past feeling anything when he went, if it's any consolation. He was quite intoxicated. Now if you good gentlemen don't mind, I'm quite cold and wet through, and I'd like to get out of this wind -- "
"That's the thing." Several hoary heads wagged. "Get 'im out of this wind. Someone go for Miss Brenna."
"Already done," a toothless gent assured them. "Sent the boy for 'er, soon as I seed Stuben go under."
"Good lad." The eldest fisherman sighed. "Well, I'll take his head, you take his feet. Ready? Ayuh."
Reilly stood, the bitter wind throwing salt spray all around him, as gnarled hands seized the body of the ferryman and lifted it. Then the solemn-faced processional moved with maddening slowness toward the nearest structure, the one Reilly had been hoping so fervently was an alehouse.
Left alone on the dock, Reilly glanced around. Buffeted by the wind and waves, the ferryboat thudded dully against the side of the pier. His bags and trunk were still aboard it, but as he'd been the only passenger, that was all, save the ferryman's empty bottles, which rolled noisily back and forth across the deck. Other than the dead ferryman's friends and a plethora of vociferous seagulls swooping about overhead, there was no one around. Reilly hadn't exactly reckoned upon anyone meeting him, communication with the mainland being what it was, but he'd thought there might at least be someone to take his bags...
Well, never mind. There'd been a death, after all. He supposed the bags would be safe enough for now. Wrapping his cloak about him -- though the ice-encrusted material did little to shield his body from the wind -- he caught up to the dead man and his entourage. They were headed toward the only building he could see through the fog, that building in which there promised, from the lights in the windows, to be a fire if nothing else.
Reilly fell into step beside the fishermen, and when one complained of weariness, he took a turn at holding the dead man's head.
Then another of the old men, clutching his chest, stepped aside, and Reilly found himself holding not only the dead man's head, but his upper torso, as well.
Then a third fisherman bowed out, coughing with alarming, body-wracking spasms. It wasn't long before Reilly had slung the ferryman over his back and was bearing the full of his weight, while Stuben's friends shouted encouragement and approval at him. Thank God, Reilly thought grimly to himself, there was no way this was going to get back to Christine. Romantic as she might have thought his death, there wasn't anything the least romantic about this particular situation.
He staggered toward the alehouse -- clearly an alehouse, he could see now, though the name of it on the wind-battered sign -- The Tortured Hare -- was not very encouraging. But as soon as the door was yanked open, Reilly was bathed in a wave of beer-scented heat, and he was relieved to find that whatever else it might have been, The Tortured Hare was at the very least warm, dry, and still serving.
And full of people. At the announcement of one of his new companions -- "Stuben's gone in the drink again, and this 'un fished him out" -- there was a collective murmur of excitement, followed by a flurry of movement as men hurried to lift tankards out of the way of the women who darted forward to place an enormous plank across several benches someone had set near the hearth.
"Put him down here," commanded a large, middle-aged woman in a fairly unsullied apron and cap. "Right there, on the table."
Reilly complied, though "table" was not the word he would have chosen to describe the makeshift structure onto which he lowered the cold, lifeless body. No sooner had the man once known as Stuben met the hard planks, than the woman was hurrying to undo his sodden clothes, barking orders at everyone within earshot as she did so.
"Flora, fetch a bottle of whisky. Blankets from the upstairs cupboard, Maeve. There's a pan of water over the fire in the back kitchen, Nancy. Fetch it, and find some rags. Has anyone gone for Miss Brenna?"
"Sent the boy for 'er," one of the fishermen assured her.
"Good," the woman said.
Miss Brenna, again? Who the devil, Reilly wondered, was this Miss Brenna? A peculiarly ugly name in Reilly's opinion, an opinion shared by his friends Pearson and Shelley, who'd unanimously declared Brenna the most hideous name for a female in the English language, with the possible exception of Megan. It was, they'd decided, almost guaranteed that any woman christened with the name Brenna would be cursed with multiple chins, overly large front teeth, and a distinctly horse-like countenance. And during the course of their admittedly not very scientific investigation into the veracity of their theory, they had yet to be proved wrong.
The ferryman's clothes were peeled off until he lay there, quite naked, under the gaze of everyone who happened to be in The Tortured Hare -- which included, Reilly saw, the alehouse's staff, all of whom were women and some of whom looked astonishingly young. Even more astonishing, these young ladies did not seem the least bit shocked at the sight of the corpse or its state of undress. Even as it was subjected next to the indignity of being swaddled in hot rags, dropped from a pot of steaming water held in the girl Nancy's hands, none of those hardened Highland lassies gave the cadaver a second glance.
"Um," Reilly felt compelled to say, when his teeth had ceased chattering enough to allow speech, by which time the dead man very nearly had been covered from head to toe in hot cloths.
The woman -- clearly the proprietress of the place -- spared him a single glance. Then she snapped, "Maeve, dunna stand there like a ninny. Get the gentleman out of those wet clothes and under a blanket."
Reilly looked with alarm at the very determined young lady coming toward him. He took a hasty step backward and raising both hands exclaimed, "Um, no, no. That's not -- I mean, I'm fine. Really. I just think someone ought to tell you, madam, that that man there is -- "
But Reilly, whose only previous visits to Scotland had been for the occasional hunting trip, during which he had had little or no contact with the natives, was ill prepared to defend himself against the single-minded purposefulness of a typical Gaelic maid. In a thrice, Mistress Maeve had hold of his cloak and then his coat, and was wrenching them both from him in a manner that caused him to suspect her well used to undressing reluctant customers...and to what purpose he had only too certain an idea.
Short of resorting to fisticuffs, Reilly saw no way of deterring Maeve from her goal, which seemed to be stripping him as naked as the corpse that lay before them...at least until he found himself standing on the far side of the room, literally backed into a corner, his waistcoat and shirt gone now, as well as his coat and cloak, while a very determined set of fingers worked at the fastenings to his breeches...
"That," Reilly said, seizing the wrists just above those fingers, "will be quite enough, I think."
Maeve blinked up at him, her expression not at all what he'd expected. Instead of looking abashed, the girl's mien was distinctly kittenish.
"She said I was to get ye out of yer wet things," the maid reminded him.
"Yes," Reilly said. "Well, I'd like to keep my trousers just now, if it's all the same to you."
"I don't think ye ought to," Maeve said. "Like to come down with the quinsy, if you do."
"Or the rheumatics," called another female voice.
It was only then that Reilly noticed young Nancy, the girl who'd been dispatched to fetch hot water for the ferryman, had returned, and was watching them both with rapt attention.
"Right," Maeve said, staunchly. "Or the rheumatics. You wouldn't want to be coming down with the rheumatics -- " Maeve's gaze roved over his naked chest. "Not a fine young man like yerself."
Reilly, perfectly convinced now that he'd stumbled into a den of lunatics, gave Maeve's wrists a tug that brought her to her feet. He then pried her fingers from his waistband, thus preserving what was left of his dignity.
"I will," he said, resolutely steering Maeve away from him, "risk it."
Now clad only in a pair of soaked breeches and equally sodden boots, Reilly saw that his fears of being unmanned before the entire village had been ill-founded: no one -- with the exception of Maeve and Nancy -- was paying the slightest attention to him. The patrons of The Tortured Hare seemed to find the contents of their ale tankards more interesting than the half naked man in the corner, and a good deal more fascinating than the fully naked one stretched out upon the table in the center of the room.
All except for the tavern's proprietress, that is, who was calling to the ferryman, "Wake up. Wake up now, Stuben."
Reilly, oddly touched by the woman's tenacious refusal to admit the obvious, said gently, "Madam, it grieves me to inform you of this, but the truth of the matter is, Mr. Stuben is dead."
The woman froze, a hot cloth, which she'd been about to drop over the ferryman's nether regions, steaming in her hands. She eyed Reilly very astonishedly indeed. "Dead?" she echoed.
The word appeared to have a riveting effect on the tavern's patrons. Suddenly, all heads swiveled in Reilly's direction.
"Er...yes." Now that he'd managed, at last, to attract the attention of nearly every person in the room, Reilly became acutely aware of his near nakedness. The blanket that had been suggested earlier seemed a long time coming.
Nevertheless, he had a duty to perform, and perform it he would.
"Yes, madam," he went on. "Dead. He has no pulse, nor has he taken a breath since I pulled him from the water. I hate to tell you this, but I fear your efforts, though valiant, are rather useless at this point."
He noticed that the patrons of The Tortured Hare suddenly seemed a good deal more interested in the man on the plank now that it appeared he was not alive. In fact, some of them were straining their necks to get a better look at him. A dead ferryman, Reilly supposed, was eminently more worthy of attention than a live one.
"Dead?" The woman looked down at the cadaverous visage below her. "Stuben? But he's never died afore."
Reilly raised an eyebrow. "Yes," he said, wondering if everyone in the place was daft, and if so what he as the village's only physician was going to be expected to do about it. "Well, this time, I'm afraid his plunge was fatal. I'm very sorry to be the bearer of bad news. I did everything I humanly could for him, but I'm afraid the water was just so cold, and he is as you can see rather advanced in years."
Reilly thought it wisest not to mention the dead man's level of intoxication at his time of death. There were ladies present, after all.
"He just wasn't strong enough to make it this time," Reilly said. "Now, if it wouldn't trouble you too much, I wonder if you could send someone down to the ferry for my things. I'd like to change -- "
He was interrupted by the violent banging of the front door as it flew open to reveal a tall figure, swathed in a heavy dark cloak, the ends of which whipped smartly in the bitter wind.
"Oh, Miss Brenna!" The proprietress of The Tortured Hare looked immensely relieved. "Thank God you're here."
Reilly looked with interest upon the figure in the doorway. So this was the Miss Brenna everybody kept talking about! Well, she certainly didn't disappoint. She was tall enough to be a Brenna, surely. Only a few inches shorter than he was, by God, and he stood just over six feet tall. The cloak hid her figure, and the deep hood her face, so he couldn't quite see if the rest of her fit her name, but she certainly looked an Amazon. Pearson and Shelley would be right pleased to hear it.
"Stuben's gone into the drink again," one of the fishermen informed her. "And that one said he's dead."
The voice was precisely the sort he'd expect from a Brenna, deep in pitch and not at all feminine. Reilly was congratulating himself on being an excellent judge of womankind when a gloved hand parted the folds of the cloak, swept back the hood...
...and very nearly caused him an apoplexy. Because there was no double chin here, nothing in that countenance that could be construed as the least bit reminiscent of a horse, except perhaps the wild mane of copper-colored curls which tumbled, perfectly unrestrained by net or comb, from the top of her head. In fact, this particular Brenna was all that was comely and fair.
As he was only too capable of attesting, considering the fact that beneath her cloak the girl was wearing...a second glance proved it...a pair of men's trousers.
Yes, men's trousers, which clung suggestively to her slim thighs, and were tightly cinched about the waist with a thick leather belt, into which had been tucked the ends of a bulky green sweater. On the girl's feet Reilly observed a pair of sturdy leather boots.
The sweater and the boots hid some key attributes, but the trousers were magnificent. Reilly had never seen a woman in trousers before. Christine, he was quite certain, would sooner have paraded in a potato sack than anything remotely resembling pants.
Still, it was a fashion innovation that, though it might not have reached Paris or London as yet, Reilly felt he could whole-heartedly support. In truth, he felt quite overwhelmed by its impact, enough so that it was a moment or two before he became aware that the girl was speaking again.
"Who said Stuben was dead?" she demanded, in that mannish voice that now seemed so at odds with her extremely feminine appearance.
A dozen fingers pointed in Reilly's direction, and a second later he found himself pinned under the gaze of a pair of eyes that were not only the bluest, but also quite positively the shrewdest, he'd ever seen. He had no hat to snatch from his head at the sight of her -- Maeve had appropriated that, as well as his coat and cloak -- and so could only bow a little at the waist, morbidly conscious of his state of near nakedness.
"I did," he said, inexplicably unnerved by the brightness of her gaze. "I said it. I pulled him from the water myself. He had no pulse. He was ice cold -- "
"Who," she asked, blinking once, "are you?"
He noticed that Miss Brenna, unlike everyone else whom he'd encountered since crossing the border, did not possess a Scottish burr but spoke as God and the Queen intended, with a good clean English accent.
"Stanton," he said. "Reilly Stanton. I'm the one who accepted the position -- "
She had already looked away from him, and was striding toward the corpse.
" -- you all advertised." Reilly watched as she wrenched the dead man to his side, then moved behind him. "The physician's position. I'm here to begin my appointment." Noting that no one looked very comprehending, he added quickly, "I'm licensed, of course, by the Royal College of Physicians. I'm a Fellow of the College, as well -- Oxford, actually -- and I studied in Paris...I say, perhaps you didn't hear me, but that gentleman is really quite -- "
To his utter disbelief, the girl plowed her fist -- with enough force to cause a hollow thudding sound, which surely would have smarted if the fellow hadn't already been dead -- into the center of the corpse's back, exactly between his shoulder blades.
d" -- dead," Reilly said. "I'm terribly sorry. I did everything I could."
It was at that moment that the ferryman opened his mouth and spewed a fountain of rum and seawater onto the floor, splashing the boots of everyone around him, including Reilly.
Blinking groggily, the previously dead ferryman managed a sheepish smile.
"Sorry 'bout that," he said.
Copyright © 2001 by Meggin Cabot
Lady of Skye
Try as he might, Reilly cannot ignore the toweringly tall lady with flaming chestnut locks and an equally fiery will. She has filled her father's former role as the local physician, and is more than annoyed to find the urbane Dr. Stanton taking over her work and her father's cottage. By fair means or foul, she will give the usurper his comeuppance. But what begins as a sparking tug-of-war between two proud hearts soon flames to a passionate fire...
Critically acclaimed author Patricia Cabot delivers an exquisitely warm and witty novel of love set against the dramatic backdrop of Scotland's magnificent Isle of Skye.
- Pocket Books |
- 464 pages |
- ISBN 9780743421478 |
- February 2001