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Jean at the Witching Hour

Chapter Text

I came to Castleside Farm in 1885, a man not yet thirty, of no background or family to speak of.  I was an incomer to the district; but I knew the work for which I’d been hired, and wanted a fresh start with opportunities to better myself.  Old Wilson had died; and his widow needed help, for she had several daughters, but no sons.

Castleside was a large and prosperous farm.  The house and its yard and outbuildings lay well upslope from the banks of the Loch, with pastures down nearly to the water’s edge.  Like most farming households, they grew the larger part of what was needed. There were hayfields for winter feed, and other land put to potatoes, wheat, and oats for the family.  I was nominally hired as ploughman; but I dealt with all the other heavy field work such as men mostly do.  The kitchen garden was Mrs Wilson’s responsibility, as were the chickens and pigs.  However, you should not get the notion that Castleside was a mere croft.  The main business was dairying; and part of my job entailed rising before dawn and getting the cows in for milking.  The womenfolk dealt with the dairy itself, of course; but it was I who loaded the cart to take the cans down to the railway station, whence the milk went down-the-line for the good burghers of Glasgow to pour on their morning porridge.

On Sunday, we all walked to church and sat together in our usual places in the new gallery, leaving the pews below to the gentry.  I sang the hymns in a good voice that drew the eye of more than one maid; but they were close shepherded by the housekeepers for whom they worked (and, in any case, I had little time to call my own).  The seven older daughters of the Wilson family were also in service, and were granted a few minutes to greet their mother after the sermon.  Still, they did not return often to the farm even when they had more time off—perhaps because, on the rare occasions when they did, Mrs. Wilson promptly put them to work.  As a result, I never came to know any of them more than slightly.

Upslope a ways from the farm was a wall, cutting through the woods on the hill. It was a high, heavy stone wall—not the sort that separates field from field, but mason-built of grey granite, cut and smoothed and fitted, with capstones atop.  This wall obscured most of what lay beyond; but it was possible to see turrets and the tops of trees in the park beyond.  To me, it was obvious that this was the “castle” from which the farm took its name.  One evening, though, as I sat mending a halter by the fire, I said such in idle comment; and Mrs. Wilson began wheezing with laughter and slapped her knee.  Eventually, the youngest daughter, Jessie, told me that Castleside Farm was far older than “that great pile o’ fanciness up hill”, which had only been built by the Duke of Lomond some twenty years earlier.

“Not this Duke,” she added, “but his Da; and must have cost a pretty penny.”

“All those turrets don’t come cheap, not to mention th’enclosure,” added Mrs Wilson, still red-faced from her humour.  “Ran out of funds, His Old Grace did.  Had to sell off land,” and she shook her head.

Selling land is the ultimate heresy to any farmer; and, though I come from south of the border, it had been no different there.  It was clear that—if only from this one matter—the Wilsons had come to have no great respect for the Dukes of Lomond.  Yet the family were by far the largest landowners in the area and had property elsewhere, as well.

“Och, it’s no old family,” the good farmer’s wife scoffed.  “The title was only gi’en ’em back last century.”

She did, however, consider one good thing to have come of the improvements to the Lomond estate, for it was the old Duke who had had a spur of railway built along the shore of the loch.  This direct route to the city had opened the Glasgow market, and thus led to the enlargement of Castleside’s dairy herd.  Furthermore, a curve of fine new houses now graced the uphill land sold by the Duke.  These overlooked the Loch, and had been built by rich folk escaping the bustle of the city.  The domestic needs of their households offered employment opportunities to the local farming families, of which the elder Wilson daughters had taken full advantage.  Down by the station a cluster of shops had sprung up, whose proprietors also made the rounds of the local farms, providing a much greater variety of goods than the old peddlers.  All in all, it had turned Lochfoot into something almost approaching a small town. Indeed, there were rumours that the railway company wanted to buy more land and build an end-of-line depot. I doubt the burghers of Lochview were pleased by the notion, for it would have spoiled the vistas for which they had built their mansions.

Besides the fieldwork, I had responsibility for the local milk round.  The route first took me uphill to the Crescent, where early-rising maids handed over yesterday’s empties and took the day’s fresh milk.  After that, I drove past church and school, dropping off at the rectory before heading to “the Village”, as it was known.  This was a double row of cottages that must have been built shortly before the new Castle, for a break had been left in the great wall surrounding its grounds.  Here the Old Duke had rehoused the families of the men who worked on the Home Farm of the Lomond estates.  Sturdily built, neatly kept, their doors and windows freshly painted each year, the cottages of the Village did not receive the scorn Mrs. Wilson laid on His Grace’s fancy “castle”.  For one thing, she respected the families who lived there:  good workers, she said.  The Home Farm was productive land, and its herds of Cheviots well managed.  I made sure always to have a pleasant smile for the Village wives and a saucy wink for the maids of the Crescent, for it was impressed on me that a surly face does not attract business.  There were several other farmers—albeit with holdings that were more distant—who would cheerfully have become dairymen to the market that Mrs. Wilson saw as her own.

If it were not for me, I do not know how the farm would have fared, and that is the truth. Had Old Wilson had sons or one of the daughters married a farmhand, it would have been a different matter; but, hard though his widow worked (and she seemed never to cease her labour), a woman simply cannot keep a large farm property in fine fettle. Indeed, if Castleside had been a tenant farm, her landlord would undoubtedly have put her out of her home—though, I will say in defence of the Duke, he would probably have found her lodging elsewhere on the estate. (Certainly, there were old folk living in the Village who were pensioners, one way or another. I knew this full well, for I delivered their milk, after all.) Still, he would never have permitted Mrs Wilson to try to run the farm on her own. At least she had help in the farmyard. Unlike the older sisters, Jessie did not go into service. She was needed in the dairy to share the milking, and fed the fowl and pigs as well assisting in the usual care of the house. So that work was dealt with adequately. Still, any farm needs at least one man for the fields, and more would be better. Just the widow and her youngest daughter? Old Wilson and his wife should have had sons, as well as daughters.

However, the matter was moot. Castleside Farm was not a tenancy. It was freehold property, and had been in Old Wilson’s family for generations. Yet, even with just the one ploughman, which was all his widow felt she could afford, it was hard to manage, and must have been so before her husband died, too. I speak here from my own experience, you appreciate.

I could see only two possibilities ahead of them in the long run; and, after I had been at the farm for about a year, I felt confident enough in my position to bring the matter up.

“What will happen when you’re gone?” I asked, seeming idly, but (of course) with much in mind.

“Gone?” said Mrs. Wilson, not getting my drift.

“The farm has been in your husband’s family for years, so I believe; but it’s now only you and Jessie.”

“Well, I’ve no intention o’ going anywhere,” my employer declared.  “So, if it’s your job you’re worrit about, ye needn’t be.”

I let it be—for the time.  A week or so later, though, when the Sunday service was over and she stopped in the churchyard to visit her husband, I accompanied her.

“Some day, you’ll lie beside him, I dare say.”

She looked at me, startled.  Then, perhaps thinking that I offered comfort for her grief, she said, “Aye, that’ll be the way of it; and space left on the stone,” for, in the way of things, only part of the slab was inscribed and part left blank.

“What’ll come of Jessie then?” I asked.

“Och, long before then, I’ll see her settled wi’ a husband to take over the farm,” she said, comfortably enough.  Later on, though, I saw her cast a thoughtful look at her daughter.  Jessie was not the sort to catch a man’s eye—not a bad-looking wench, though no beauty; but she was quiet to the point of seeming sullen.  Nor was there time for courting, not on a farm.  It was no surprise to me that the older daughters preferred their life up the Crescent, where their work was no harder than it would have been at home, and an afternoon to themselves every other week.  Certainly, none had quit her job to help her mother.

After that, I could see that Mrs. Wilson took pains after church to see that Jessie should speak to the eligible men from other farms roundabout.  Still, nothing seemed to come of it.  The girl scarcely spoke; and, as I said, she did not so much come across as shy and demure, as she did sulky.

Now, you will perceive that there was only one man who saw Jessie daily; and that was myself.  Furthermore, the situation was positively traditional:  the apprentice marries his master’s daughter and takes over the business; the ploughman marries the farmer’s daughter and….

So I began my courtship, quiet-like in the evenings, chatting with Jessie rather than her mother as we sat by the fire, or more openly flirtatious when the girl brought me a piece in the fields whilst I was working.  I never pushed it, you understand: the wise bull takes his time before mounting the untried heifer.  I simply made it clear that I had an interest.  It was not long before I caught the tail end of a speculative glance or two from Mrs. Wilson, at least.  I would not be surprised if she’d done some praying on her knees before bedtime; and I was quite prepared to be the Lord’s answer.

Harvest that fall was hard.  The cows were still in milk; and there was all the usual work as well as the need to bring in the crops.  The women helped, as they do at such a time of the year; and it was clear that Mrs. Wilson was finding the physical labour hard.  She was none so young, after all:  widow to an old man, and mother of eight:  I was not sure of her age (which is not something one asks), but I reckoned she must be the wrong side of fifty for certain, and quite possibly sixty or more.  On top of that, she had the preserving to do:  vegetables and fruits to be put up in brine or syrup, the slaughtered pig to be turned to ham and bacon.  She was not a woman to complain; but she held her back often, as if it ached.  She looked tired in the early afternoon, and quite exhausted by nightfall.  I thought it an excellent time to speak to her about Jessie.

What she said to her daughter, I do not know.  The next day, though, Jessie brought me my dinner in the field; and her face looked like a summer storm.  Now, the crops had been brought in safely before the weather broke; and I thought to do the same here, too.

“Did you not know I fancied you?” I asked.  “You’re a fine woman, Jessie Wilson; and I reckon you’ll make me a good wife.”

“I never looked to take you for husband,” she said baldly.  “I’ve other hopes.’

“What would they be then?” I said, putting more than a touch of sarcasm in my voice.  “You’re here on the farm all day, every day.  I’ve not seen the young men of Lochfoot crowding round you.”  Then I hesitated, doubting my plan, for a thought occurred to me.  “Were you thinking to go into service when your Ma died, then?”

“I don’t ever mean to leave Castleside,” she declared.  “It’s my home.  It was my Da’s home, and Grandda’s, and before that.  I’m a Wilson.  And Castleside belongs to Wilsons—always has, and always will!”

Which was reassuring.  Now, I thought, I need only leave it to her mother.  She will do the rest of my courting for me.

That night, when the wick was trimmed and the lamp lit, Mrs. Wilson sat down with her mending.  Jessie was knitting socks.  I kept well out of it, over by the fire; but I could hear everything, of course.  It went much as I expected, at least on the part of the mother, who was worldly enough, in the restricted world of the farming community of the Scottish countryside.  After all, it is one thing for a middle-aged widow to hire a ploughman.  It is quite another thing for a nubile lass like Jessie to do so.

Quiet girls can be obstinate.  It took a long time for her mother’s message to get through . I’ll say this for the old woman, she worked hard to save the farm.  If this were to be done, Jessie had to marry.  The sooner the quicker, in fact; and I was there, and willing and able.  I was not always around to hear what Mrs. Wilson said to Jessie, of course, for there is always work to be done on a farm.  Still, often enough when I came through the kitchen, I heard her telling the girl that, if she didn’t wed someone, Castleside would eventually have to be sold.  This would, like as not, be followed by, “and your father would turn in his grave”.  “What will become of you then?” was another favoured tack.  Certainly, I often heard, “If you want to stay on the farm, you know what you have to do. If not him, then find another.”

Naturally, I did my part, sweet-talking the lass when I saw her, making sure I shaved carefully each morning and washed when I came in from the fields.  I bought some macassar oil to slick my hair, and spent good money on a small brooch to give her on her birthday.  (I never saw her wear it.)

Winter came, though lightly at first.  There was frost on the ground when I rose at dawn; and, like as not, the water in the jug would have a thin crust of ice to break before I could pour it in the bowl to wash—though there was always some hot on the stove in the kitchen to take off the edge and make shaving easier.  I dubbined my boots yet again, and wore a sweater under my coat when I saw to the stock.  Most of the cows had dried up, as they do that time of year; but there were still a few in milk.

It’s women’s work, dealing with the dairy.  So I knew that Jessie would be coming.  After I’d brought in the cows, she came with a pail.  As she was reaching for the stool, I grabbed her from behind.  She gave a little yelp.

“Don’t be so shy, Jessie,” I said, and bent round to kiss her cheek.  She turned her head away, and I bumped my lips on her ear.

“Look!” I said sharply, drawing back a bit.  “I’ll do more than kiss you when we’re wed.”

“I dinna want your courtin’,” she said stubbornly, and pulled away.

“Shall I tell the rector to call the banns?” I asked.  “Or should your mother speak to him?  You know she wants this as much as I do.”

“Give over.”  She set the stool down beside the nearest cow in milk.

I strode over, grabbed her arm, and hauled her to her feet.  As I did, the startled cow kicked out, catching her on the leg.

“Christ God Almighty!” she cried, as it buckled.  For a moment, she sagged down, then straightened on the other leg.  I boxed her ear—for swearing at all as much as at me.  (Her mother would have washed her mouth out with carbolic.)

“Don’t talk like that,” I chided her.

“Leave me be.”

“You’ll not talk like that once we’re wed.”

“I told you, I’ll never!”

“Then what’s your choice?  Go or stay:  pick one.  There’s no point in dallying, for it’ll come to that sooner or later; and, if you decide you want to stay, then we must wed; and best wed sooner than later—it’ll give you a chance to get used to me.”  As she continued to glare, the side of her cheek reddening, I added, “I’ll not make you a bad husband, Jessie. No worse than another man, anyway; and what other man have you?”

She looked at me silently, her eyes round.  For a moment, I thought she was going to cry.  Then she simply pulled herself free, and said, “I have the cows to milk, Peter.  Go you ben the house; I’ll be in later.”

Seeing her quieter, I left; and a while later she did, indeed, come in.  She stayed in the kitchen helping her mother with supper; and, as I went out to deal with the horse, I didn’t hear what was said. However, after we’d all eaten, she sat with us in front of the fire, doing no work (for which her mother forbore to chide her). Then, she said suddenly, with no hint of what was in her mind, “I’ll just go outside a bit.”

We thought she’d gone to the outhouse, as anyone might before bed.  I swear, on any bible or holy book you care to bring me (not that I’ve set foot in a church for years), it never crossed the mind of either of us, neither her mother nor me, what it was she planned to do.  It’s what we said at the inquest, both of us; and it was the truth.

There was a camp of tinkers up near the Old Dam.  It was they who found her there, next morning when they went to fetch water.  They pulled her to the shore, and sent someone down the village to fetch the policeman.  He knew her, drowned though she was, and came to tell us.

Well, it was brought in as accident:  no one could prove it was suicide, for she left no note; and it did, at least, save her public name (though everyone knew the truth, for why else would she go up the Old Dam at that time of night).  She was buried in the churchyard; and rector said as much as he could without perjuring himself in the eyes of God.  No one understood why she would do it:  it was a great mystery all round the neighbourhood; and there were the whispers that no one said loud enough for us to have to notice.  What her sisters thought I don’t know; but one of them lost her position and had to come back to the farm for a fortnight; and then she and the one next in age to her both went down-the-line, saying that Lochfoot was no place to be a Wilson till the talk died down.

After that, their mother seemed to dwindle.  She knew, I think, that none of her living daughters would return with a husband in tow, ready to take over Castleside and the dairy business; and that, of course, meant that the farm would be sold out of the family.  It was not her own family, of course, not by birth:  she was Wilson by marriage.  Still, it had been a long marriage; and she had come to identify with her husband’s interests and those of his family.

We spent long and lonely evenings, she and I, sitting in that large room by the fireplace, she at her knitting or darning or sewing and me with some mending or other, or conning over the accounts of the farm, which she left more and more to me, for I was always good with figures.  (It was a fine farm, and made a fair bit of money.)

“If only she’d had the sense God gave her,” she said more than once.  “I’d have left the farm in your hands, yours and hers, and been glad to see it all safe for the next generation.”

“I’d have cared for it as if I were your son in truth,” I assured her, “and not a mere son-in-law, as it were.  It’d be Jessie’s and mine, after all; and our children’s after us.”

Her eyes drifted to the fire; and what might-have-beens she saw in the flames I couldn’t say.

It was a hard winter that year.  It snowed, more than once: snow on snow, with cleared paths only between the buildings where I took the shovel to them.  Beasts need tending whatever the weather.  Yet, in some ways, they were the lucky ones.  Close in the byre, they kept warm and dry.  In the house, it was another matter  The place had draughts, so that the heat toasted you one side by the fire while the other chilled.  Beds were icy even with a hot brick in to take the edge off.  So it was not at all surprising that Mrs. Wilson came down with a cold, nor yet that I took it myself shortly after.  Still, she insisted on going to church that Sunday, as she did every Sunday.  Afterwards, she lingered a while.

“I’ll just bide a wee while wi’ them before I go,” she told me.  “You head back to the farm.”

I refused:  the weather threatened another storm; and I would not leave her to make her own way home.

“In that case, you go ben the kirk,” she told me.  “It’ll be dry to the feet there, if nothing more.”

I waited in the porch, following her with my eyes as she broke through the snow, going round to the familiar spot where her husband lay, and the new heap of earth, as yet unturfed and without headstone, where Jessie was buried.  The wind was picking up; but I stood there.  In the end (and long after everyone else had hurried away), she came back and told me she was ready to go.

That night, it was clear that she was worsening; and the next day she ran a fever.  I did not want to leave her, even to fetch the doctor.  There were home remedies in the pantry; and I got them as she directed.

The following day, she was finding it difficult to breathe.  Each intake came with a stab; and she drew only shallow gasps, quick and slight, lest the pain get worse.  Her throat was sore; and now and then she coughed, her face twisting as the spasm caught her.  In the afternoon, she said faintly, “I wish she’d married you.”

“Too late for that,” I said.  I went out, down to the town, and rousted the doctor from his surgery.  He came with his bag, heard her breathing through his stethoscope, and called it pleurisy.

The next morning, early, she told me to go down-the-line to fetch a solicitor.  Fearing to leave her alone for so long, I bethought me of the houses on Lochview Crescent, and recalled one whose owner was in the legal profession.  I’d never met the man himself, of course; but I was emboldened to go to the door of The Beeches (as the house was named), where I explained my request to his butler—yes, a very butler!—and Mr. Dawson granted me an audience. And if that seems a grandiose way to put it, well … I can only say that, at the time, that is the way it seemed to me; and, I dare say, to himself as well.  And most certainly to his butler!  Still, the important thing was that Mr. Dawson agreed to drive in his carriage to Castleside Farm with his clerk, who was come there from his office with some papers.  I was not permitted to be present at his interview with Mrs. Wilson; but afterwards he came out, saying that, if things should turn out badly, then I should send word.

She died the next day, near dawn.

There was a funeral, rather larger than that for poor Jessie.  All the farmers came from miles round, for Castleside and its Wilsons had been familiar neighbours to them for generations. The five daughters in service in Lochfoot all were granted time off sufficient to attend, though the two who had gone to Glasgow did not show up until the evening, after their day’s work was over.  We went into the parlour, which seemed chill and empty without its mistress, and sat stiffly for the reading of the will, while Mr. Dawson presided from the armchair that had been Old Wilson’s own, and never used since his death.

After he had finished, there was silence—and accusation in the silence as they all looked to me.  “I don’t believe it,” said one of the daughters.

“We’ll fight!” quoth the next (though what money she had to hire a solicitor of her own is another matter).

“That would be a waste of time and effort,” declared Mr. Dawson, and sat back in the chair with his fingers steepled before him.  “I drew the will up myself, and saw it signed by Mrs. Wilson, your mother, in my presence.  And witnessed by my clerk.  It’s a document as sound and secure as Castle Rock in Edinburgh itself.”

You may ask if I had known of the contents of the will; and I answer truthfully that I had not.  As I said before, I was sent, quite properly, out of the room when Mrs. Wilson spoke to her lawyer; and I did not see him again until he left, at which time he spoke to me only a little. However, I must admit that I had my suspicions—not least since, at one point, I had listened at the door and heard the word “witness”, yet not been called to serve as such myself.

Mr. Dawson sat there in Old Wilson’s armchair.  He wore an expensive suit, the likes of which I'd never be able to afford, with a gold watch and fob across his waistcoat, and a look of assurance on his face that cowed the black flock of daughters.  They had no place in the farmhouse, not any longer—and they knew it, and cawed like ravens.  Once, though, once, they had sat there by right; yes, and had their rights, though they had given them up of their own free will.  He, though: he was as out of place in that parlour as the old Queen herself would be, were she to alight from her carriage and ask for a draught of milk from one of our cows.

My cows.

Yes, my cows.  The will that Mrs. Wilson had made so few days past, the will that Mr. Dawson had just read aloud to us all, left Castleside and all the property to me.

I exulted:  it was mine! all mine!  And I had won it without marriage, simply by offering the widow something that her own family denied her:  a future for her farm.  So now, I owned it all, the farm and the house and the herd:  footloose no longer, but still fancy free.  In time, I reckoned, I would find myself a wife—and one who was willing, too—and she’d bring me yet more good fortune, even as much as Mr. Dawson himself.