Authors: Highland Secrets
To Terry and Jim.
Edinburgh Castle, February 1752
HE GUARD’S KEYS RATTLED
against the heavy wooden cell door, creating a strange echo in the chilly, stone-vaulted corridor of the prison. Before unlocking the door, the burly, grizzled man leered over his shoulder at the plump, silent laundress behind him.
“Mind ye behave, lass,” he said suggestively. “Ye dinna want me tae leave ye locked in wi’ her ladyship, or teach ye proper manners wi’ the sting o’ me cat.”
“Aye, ye’d like that, ye fousome auld flit,” the laundress muttered with a grimace that showed a mouthful of blackened teeth. Shifting her large bundle to her other shoulder, barely missing his head as she did, she waited with scarcely veiled impatience for him to open the door. The hood of the dingy, dark-gray wool cloak she wore against the winter cold was drawn low, concealing her face, but her tone left no doubt of her irritation when she added, “The gentry looks after its ain, ye ken. Ye’ll no want her complaining tae your governor aboot any lack o’ respect.”
“Och, an she’ll be doing that anyways, won’t she? Got a tongue on her sharp as a needle. I canna repeat what she’s said about Argyll, and him a duke! Dinna be long now,” he added, pulling open the cell door. “I’ll be a-locking of this after ye, so raise a shout when ye want tae be let oot again.”
Silently she stepped past him into the cell, noting a squint in the door above her eye level that told her he might keep watching after he shut the door. Taking a chance, she pulled her handkerchief from her sleeve and stuffed it into the hole, then watched to see if he would push it back. When it stayed put, she turned to face the cell’s occupant. Bobbing a curtsy, she said in quiet, much more refined tones than those she had used with the guard, “I bid you good day, madam.”
The light in the cell was dim and gray, coming as it did through high, barred vents from an overcast sky. The slender, middle-aged woman sitting on the lone wood bench narrowed her eyes, then stiffened, leaning forward to see her visitor more clearly. With patent disbelief but in a reassuringly firm voice, she said, “Diana?”
Grinning, Diana Maclean dropped the bundle to the floor and stepped nearer, pushing back the wool hood to reveal her glossy dark curls and sparkling hazel eyes. “Aye, it’s me,” she said ungrammatically with a chuckle of relief, “though you would do better to call me Mab or some such thing, in case that wretched turnkey overhears us. But we must make haste, Mam. Are you well?”
“Aye, as well as anyone could be in this horrid place. I’ve not known whether to wish for company or be glad they have left me alone, but at least they did not stuff me into that odious room over the portcullis where they kept the Duchess of Perth and her daughter for a full year after Culloden. They say the Tolbooth is worse than this, too, but I find that hard to believe, and so I told Argyll the last time I wrote to him. Odious man. At least they let me keep a proper chamber pot. Most folks have to make do with a bucket.” She was still looking at Diana as though she could not believe her eyes. “What’s that on your teeth?”
“Boot blacking,” Diana said, slipping off her cloak. “It tastes terrible, but Neil said the turnkey might try to kiss me, and I thought if he did, black teeth might put him off. As to your being alone,” she added, “be glad you are, and that they did not secure you with irons and shackles. I’d never have dared to do this if they had, but thank heaven, Neil was easily able to learn that you had a cell all to yourself.”
“Aye, because they’ve freed every other woman of rank,” Lady Maclean said bitterly, “and I’ve tongue enough still to scorch the ears of any fool trying to house a less suitable female in here. But what are you doing here? I am glad they’ve allowed you to visit, of course, but why the blacking and those dreadful padded clothes? Your rank alone ought to protect you from that detestable turnkey.”
“I hope you don’t think the clothes too dreadful, Mam,” Diana said, stripping off the faded blue dress she wore and the bulk of her plump figure with it, “because you must put them on. Quick now,” she added, straightening her shift. “We must make haste, for Neil is outside the gate, waiting to take you to Glen Drumin.”
Lady Maclean still had not moved, and now she looked puzzled. “Are you out of your senses, child? You cannot mean to take my place here.”
“That is exactly what I mean to do, Mam. I’ve another dress in the laundry sack, which you will wear under this fat-laundress costume of mine, and I’ll put on the clothing you take off. Fortunately that brown stuff frock is not notable enough to make the guard wonder why his prisoner is still wearing it instead of a clean one.”
“I doubt he notices much,” her ladyship agreed, “but surely you and Neil did not come to Edinburgh alone, Diana.”
“No, Dugald Cameron and some others came with us,” she said. “They’ve got a coach to take you from the city, and once beyond its walls, there are horses to speed you to MacDrumin. He will keep you safe. After all, he’s successfully hidden his smuggling from the English authorities and their Scottish lackeys for years.”
“But dim as that turnkey is, he’ll see the difference between us in a blink!”
“No, he won’t. He never saw my whole face, and if you take care, he will not see yours either. He expects a plump woman to leave with a bundle, and that is what he will see. The only attention he paid me was when he tried to put his hand on my backside. I growled at him that all he would get if he forced his attentions upon me was a dose of the French pox, so I doubt he’ll attempt to molest you.”
“Diana, you never said such a vulgar thing to him!”
“I did. There was no time to worry about decorum. You’ve been here nearly six weeks now, and all on a whim. Campbells like the Duke of Argyll and Red Colin Glenure seem to see naught amiss in ill-treating women when they can no longer lay hands on our menfolk. However, I will
allow you to stay here when I can help you escape. We Macleans look after our own. The fact that the only men left to us now are boys and young lads like Neil does not mean our ways must change. Now, pray, do as I bid you. Mary assured me that she felt no undue alarm when she heard our plan, and in any case, this is no time to argue its merits.”
“I suppose not,” Lady Maclean said, standing at last and allowing Diana to help her remove the stuff gown. “It will be good to have fresh clothing on, I can tell you. They would not let me have visitors, but even Argyll is not so lost to his senses as to deny me an occasional clean dress. Oh, Diana, do you really imagine your plan will serve? Even if Mary believes in it, it seems far too rash and daring.”
“Don’t think about that,” Diana advised, making quick work of the gown’s buttons and laces. “Think only about reaching Glen Drumin in safety.”
“But I don’t know that I should go to Glen Drumin,” Lady Maclean said, frowning thoughtfully. “Really, my dear, do you think that wise? The MacDrumin is our cousin, to be sure, but an Englishman owns his estates now, you know.”
“Yes, of course I know, Mam,” Diana said, waiting while she stepped out of the gown before handing her a fresh one from the bag. “The Earl of Rothwell has owned MacDrumin’s land since shortly after the defeat at Culloden, but Rothwell and Cousin Maggie spend their winters in London or at his estate in Derbyshire, and will not return until summer. We’ll have whisked you away long before then, and mayhap even have arranged for your pardon. After all, you did nothing to harm anyone, only cutting down a few trees.”
“You forget they say that I have refused to submit to the
authorities,” Lady Maclean said bitterly. “How they expect any self-respecting Scotswoman to bend a knee to German George is more than I can think.”
“Aye, but we need not discuss that now,” Diana said hastily, adding once she had fastened up the new gown, “Here, let me fling this laundress costume on over your head. You’ll feel a bit burdened in it, I expect, but you need wear it only till you are safe in the coach. Neil has a bonnet for you, too, with a widow’s veil.”
“You’ve gone daft, Diana. I should not let you do this.” But she held up her arms obediently so that Diana could slip the costume on over her fresh gown.
“You have no choice, Mam,” Diana said, smiling as she retrieved the stuff dress, stepped into it, and pulled it up. “If we waste time arguing, I’ll undoubtedly be caught and identified. Then they’ll clap me in here with you, and much as you might think you would enjoy my company—”
“That will do, miss. Here, turn round and let me fasten that for you. Did you say you spoke to the guard when you came in? That was foolish. What if he makes it necessary for me to speak and recognizes the difference in our voices?”
“He won’t do that if you just mutter at him. Oh, and I used broad dialect, too,” she added, grinning over her shoulder. “I know you were used to scold whenever we aped the speech of the lower orders, but you must admit that our skill has proved useful more than once. Your voice is enough like mine so that if you remember not to come the gentlewoman over him, he will not hear any difference.”
Turning, Diana looked critically at the now-plump Lady Maclean, then reached to push curling salt-and-pepper curls back from the older woman’s forehead. “Cover your hair with the hood, Mam. He did not see mine, but he has seen yours, and we must give him no hint that aught is amiss.”
Obeying, Lady Maclean said, “What about you? He’ll see you at once. Really, Diana, I cannot simply leave you like this.”
“Yes, you can.”
She spoke with more confidence than she felt, but for her mother’s sake, she did not betray her fear. Giving Lady Maclean a quick hug, she tousled her own hair a little more, stepped to the door, and pulled her handkerchief from the squint. Then, shouting for the guard before she had a chance to lose her nerve, she turned to the bench, raised the handkerchief to her face, and sat down.
Trying to imitate her mother’s earlier posture, she slumped forward, so as to look tired and depressed. The handkerchief concealed her face. Her hair remained uncovered, but in the dim gray light, she did not think he would note a difference between what he saw now and what he had seen before.
Hearing the keys rattle against the door, she fought down rising panic and avoided looking at Lady Maclean. It was not the first time circumstances had forced that stately dame to play a role other than her natural one, however, and Diana did not fear any foolish mistake. Still, she would feel boundless relief if no one raised a hue and cry within the next few minutes.
The cell seemed darker when her mother had gone, leaving her with her thoughts. She felt little of the triumph she had expected to feel. In truth, she felt only surprise that their ruse had succeeded, despite her cousin Mary’s assurance that there would be no trouble.
Upon arriving at the castle, Diana had crossed the drawbridge over the dry ditch without incident, for the two guards had been chatting and showed no interest in her or in anyone else. Walking between the high stone walls of the inner barrier, she had seen three more soldiers guarding the portcullis gate, but they had shown interest only in the elegant crested carriage that had drawn to a halt there. With no more than a glance at her bundle and costume, one of the men had waved her on.
She had visited the castle only once before, years ago, but Neil and Dugald had given her excellent directions, and she strode along with as much confidence as if she had really been the laundress coming to collect prisoners’ clothes. Neil had a way with the lasses, although Mam would not approve of his latest flirtation any more than the girl’s father did. He had learned of the laundress through some means of his own, and he and Diana had pieced their plan together accordingly.