Since the dawn of time, the Isle of Mull, off the Scottish coast, has had to fend off ferocious winds and a ravenous ocean intent on swallowing the island whole. Roughened by ceaseless storms and chill, Mull remained a quiet community, set in its ways, with almost no fodder for town gossip, as the nineteenth century drew to a close. Until, that is, new blood moved in, setting the local Campbell sisters, Innis and Biddy, against each other in all-out war for the love of the same newcomer, Michael Tarrant.
But just as the passage of time changes slightly the cragged hills of Mull, so does it soften hearts to reconciliation: the two sisters realize their bond is too thick for a man to sever. For Innis, marriage to Michael Tarrant turned out far from idyllic: he fled to seek life outside Mull, leaving Innis to raise their children. Biddy, too, has married, but still yearns for the happiness that has always slipped through her fingers. Although it has taken sixteen years for life to return to a semblance of what it was before the Tarrants arrived, something is still amiss.
Then a pregnant woman's arrival on the island turns any countryside serenity on its head. Loathed by some, loved by others, and feared as an ill omen by still others, this Fay Ludlow embodies the changes due to fall upon Mull. The winds of change at her back will bring with them ghosts of a past buried too soon in Jessica Stirling's The Strawberry Season.
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About the Author
Jessica Stirling has always lived in Scotland, where her Isle of Mull trilogy takes place. The Strawberry Season is the last of the three installments, after The Island Wife and The Wind from the Hills, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Romantic Novelists Association Prize. A beloved and successful writer, she thrilled readers with her bestselling first trilogy, The Spoiled Earth, The Hiring Fair, and The Dark Pasture.
Born in Glasgow, Jessica Stirling is the author of more than two dozen novels, many with Scottish backgrounds. She has enjoyed a highly successful career as a writer, beginning with the bestselling Stalker trilogy. Her novel Shamrock Green is set during the First World War in Dublin and France; other books include The Wind from the Hills--shortlisted for the 1999 Romantic Novelists Association award--Sisters Three, and Prized Possessions, in which the Conway sisters first appeared.
Read an Excerpt
The North Quarter
It was close to nightfall and the sun, veiled by fast-moving cloud, was already sliding towards the horizon when Fay Ludlow came over the crest of Olaf's Hill and first looked down on Pennypol. She was so relieved to have arrived at her destination that she felt like weeping. She was not much given to weeping, though, for marriage had taught her that there was no profit in self-pity. If her husband had been with her she would have pursed her lips and dug her fingernails into her palms rather than give him the satisfaction of seeing tears in her eyes. Her husband was not with her, however. He was four hundred miles away in Derbyshire and now that she had finally arrived on the wild west coast of this remote Scottish island she felt sure that she had put herself beyond his reach.
Everything about Scotland was new and unexpected. Until yesterday she had never seen the sea, had never travelled on a railway train, except once when old Mr Musson had been smitten with pleurisy and she had been sent to Buxton to help Josh market the fruit. Buxton was not much more than twenty miles from Fream but it had seemed a long way to her then. She remembered how she had clutched her pennies tight in her handkerchief and had imagined that every man in the marketplace was a thief. She had come a far piece from Fream now, though, and the wind from the sea seemed fresher than the breezes that raked the dreary uplands of Derbyshire had ever been.
She knelt by the rocks that marked the end of the ridge and looked down on the derelict farmhouse. A high drystone wall snaked away into a fold of the moor, a stream spilled ferny patterns across the sand and a little stone jetty was tethered to one corner of the bay. An upturned boat no bigger than a broom seed lay close by.
The sheep that skulked among the tussocks were not the rotund white-faced Exmoors that made up Sir Johnny Yeates's flock or the soft French Merinos that Colonel Liversedge nursed on Fream's home pastures but tough little Blackface hill ewes. The cattle that browsed above the tide line were dark and scrawny compared with the sleek dairy cows of Fream and Cloudshill. And as she glanced up a raucous accumulation of seabirds wheeled over the ridge and vanished downwind as if to announce her arrival to the folk of the north quarter. Pennypol, Pennymain, Crove and Fetternish: only the names were familiar. In reality she knew little or nothing about this big, awkward island or the people who lived here.
In the lounge of the Grenadier crossing from Oban, for instance, an old woman had addressed her in a language that Fay had never heard before.
'I'm sorry,' Fay had said politely, 'I don't understand.'
'So you will not be having the Gaelic, will you not now?' the old woman had asked in a slow, sing-song voice. 'Och well, is that not a pity. Where is it you will be going without the Gaelic to help you?'
It had popped out before Fay could help herself. 'To Fetternish.'
'To Fetternish, is it? Well now, you will be doing fine without the Gaelic there, I'm thinking. Is it the big house you are bound for?'
'Yes,' Fay had answered. 'Do you know it?'
'Aye, everyone knows Fetternish House. Are you another of Biddy Baverstock's relatives come looking for work? Is there no work in England that you have to be coming all the way to Mull in search of it?'
'I've heard that Mull is a peaceful place, and very grand.'
'Grand enough, I suppose.' The old woman's smile had held more than a hint of malice. 'If it is peace you are after, however, you will not be finding much of that in Biddy Baverstock's house.'
Nervous at being interrogated, even by a stranger, Fay had retreated from the passenger lounge to watch the mainland dwindle behind the steamer's wash and to study the map she had purchased in the early light of morning in the railway station in Glasgow. The map had been her lifeline. It had finally set in perspective the landscapes through which she travelled and had focused her aim on the one place in the world where she might find not just allies but friends.
She knelt on the high ground above Pennypol Bay with the map tucked into a pocket of the big canvas sack that she had stolen from the hook behind the door of the cottage on Cloudshill Edge. It was the one thing, apart from a little money, she had taken from him to which she could not fairly lay claim.
It still smelled of sheep smear and black powder and the scales of the trout her husband had caught on the stretch of the Fream where Cloudshill servants were not supposed to fish, but everything would stink of him, no doubt, until the salty winds of Mull washed the bad memories away.
She was unaware that she was crying. She was really overjoyed to be crouched on the barren hillside above the turf-roofed cottage with the waves sweeping the beach and islets, and headlands reaching out to the horizon as far as her eye could see. The fact that her sanctuary was spare and empty did not matter. All that mattered was that she had shaken her husband off at last and that he would never think to look for her here.
Picking up the lambing sack she wiped her eyes on her sleeve and headed, limping, downhill towards the derelict farm.
* * *
It was a day like any other except that no two days were ever quite the same for those who lived on Mull's north quarter. From the terraces of Fetternish House impressionable strangers could look out upon the ocean's shades and shifting hues and decide what the weather would be like for the rest of the day. If they happened to be right they would consider themselves wise in country matters and believe, quite wrongly, that all it took to be an islander was a knowledge of winds and weather and tides.
What went unremarked by those who visited Fetternish just for a week or two, however, were the subtle changes that took place in the earth itself, the small miracles and disasters that occurred under the rocks or between the roots across the whole harsh organism of moor and hillside and shore. They did not see the crumbling basaltic shelves off the tide- line's edge or the rotting carcasses of ancient oaks that Robert Quigley hauled out of the peat bogs, or the rabbit hordes that destroyed the sweet green pastures, or the voles that gnawed away the roots of new tree- plantings, down and down into the kingdom of the tick and the husk worm, the louse, the maggot and the mite.
By God, though, you could drop a Mull man down on the outermost tip of Caliach Point and he would be back home in half an hour and telling you how the mackerel were running and which ewe had a cough or which cow would calve before morning, for if there was one thing that islanders did understand it was how to listen to and interpret the arcane utterances of nature.
It came as no surprise to George Barrett when his third son, Billy, lifted himself from the heather beside the ailing ewe and said, 'I smell something.'
Barrett – everyone called him Barrett – wafted away the cloud of black flies that hung about his head and sniffed the dank morning air. Beneath his big hands the upturned ewe wriggled and kicked. He held her almost effortlessly, and thought: It's a sure sign of ageing when the boy can smell something that I cannot.
'What is it, son?' he said.
Barrett studied the sky, sniffed and spat. He could smell nothing out of the ordinary, only the ewe's wet fleece and the stench of suppuration from her rotting hoof. At the ripe old age of thirty-eight were his senses already deserting him? Perhaps he had married too early. Muriel, his bride, had been betrothed to Donald Campbell, one of Vassie's brood from Pennypol, but Donald had drowned in a storm off Arkle and she had settled for Barrett instead. As far as he could tell she had not so far regretted it. She had presented him with ten healthy children in eighteen years and not one thrown before its time or lost to sickness afterwards. But now the bottom had fallen out of the wool market, employment was drying up and it seemed as if the golden years were over for master and servant alike. Billy's older brothers had already gone to work in Glasgow and Billy would be next to leave.
Barrett sniffed the air again.
'Get on with you, son,' he said. 'You cannot be smelling anything from a half-mile away, not even with this wind to help you.'
'I can, Dad. I can. It is the stink from an old hearth.'
'What old hearth? There are no old hearths here.'
'There is at Pennypol. That must be where it is coming from.'
Weary of being pinned down, the ewe kicked frantically, broke a bit of wind and uttered a loud baaa-aaah to remind her keepers that her patience was by no means infinite.
Barrett sighed and set about paring the under-run horn on the sheep's forefoot with his clasp knife. He worked quickly but carefully, for a cut on the sensitive underlying matrix would cripple the ewe completely. He held the beast with his knee and reached out behind him. Billy put an uncorked whisky bottle into his hand. The bottle contained a solution of formalin and copper sulphate mixed to a recipe passed on to Barrett by his father who had been a shepherd on Fetternish long before Austin Baverstock's widow had inherited the estate. Stooping over the sheep, he sprinkled a generous amount of the solution into the cup of the hoof and squeezed. The ewe bleated plaintively.
'So there is smoke coming from Pennypol, is there?' Barrett said. 'Well, perhaps you would care to turn your nose that way again and tell me who has been lighting a fire in the hearth since nobody ever stops there long.'
'Why do they not, Dad?'
'Because it is a place of bad omen.'
'The woman cannot know that then.'
'Woman? What woman?'
Innocently, Billy said, 'The woman who is cooking her breakfast in a black pot on the fire in the old hearth.'
Barrett had already guessed what was going on but he was reluctant to spoil the lad's fun. 'Even in my heyday,' he said, 'I could not pick up the scent of a female from much more than a quarter of a mile. Can you be telling me what this lady is having for her breakfast, you and that long nose of yours?'
'Porridge.' Billy grinned. 'Mind you, that is by way of being a guess since I did not see her fill the pot with oatmeal, only with water.'
'So you saw her, did you? And what were you doing at Pennypol?'
'Looking for the old ewe which, by the by, I did not find.'
'No, because she was never lost in the first place,' said Barrett. 'Is some woman putting up at Pennypol right enough?'
'Aye,' the boy answered. 'A woman I have never seen before.'
'Old or young?'
'Older than I am – but not by much.'
'Did you speak to her?'
'No, I noticed her from the hill when she was drawing water. I know she had a fire going because there was a deal of smoke, so much smoke I thought she had set the roof alight.'
'A thunderbolt could not be setting that mouldy old roof alight,' Barrett said. 'Even so, I think we should be reporting the matter to Mr Quigley.'
'She might just be a tinker passing through.'
'It is too early in the year for tinkers.'
'Perhaps times are hard for tinkers too,' Billy said.
'Times are hard for a lot of people but tinkers are not among them,' Barrett said. 'We had better be reporting the matter.'
'I could go over and see what the woman is doing now, if you like.'
'Oh, so she's pretty, is she?' Barrett said.
Billy blushed. 'Dad!'
Barrett laughed and got to his feet. He hefted up the ewe and turned her.
As he did so a collie rose like a wisp of black and white smoke from the bracken, long pink tongue hanging out, yellow eyes fierce and attentive.
'Are you for penning her, Dad? The ewe, I mean.'
'No. We will be taking a look at her again this afternoon to see if her hoof has improved. Put her down on the flat by the gate for the time being.'
'Am I not to go over to Pennypol then?'
'To gawk at this beautiful female?' Barrett said. 'No, I will go myself.'
The boy frowned and shook his head, the joke forgotten.
'She is not beautiful. I think ...' Billy hesitated, 'I think perhaps she has been damaged.'
'Damaged? What in God's name do you mean by "damaged"?'
Billy could not bring himself to explain. He shook his head. 'Go and see for yourself, Dad,' he said, then with a little whistle to alert the dog, gathered in the limping ewe and strolled her gently towards the gate.
* * *
Innis Tarrant had spent longer than usual at prayers that morning. Some mornings she would kneel before the Blessed Mary only for a minute or two, others she would linger to offer thanks for all the blessings that had been bestowed upon her. Last thing at night, however, her prayers were more concentrated and she would kneel beneath the silver crucifix that Gillies had given her and pray for her sister Biddy, for her daughter Rachel in Glasgow, for her daughter Rebecca who was flighty and stubborn and too full of modern ideas, and, of course, for Gillies Brown, the friend of her heart these many, many years.
Now and then she might also put in a word for her husband and son, that they might find happiness wherever they happened to be. And that morning, with the March wind blustering about the stone-built cottage, she had offered a prayer for her mother's soul and the soul of her father, both long departed, for in spite of Father O'Donnell's assurances to the contrary, she had a suspicion that neither Vassie nor Ronan Campbell would be entirely at peace in the mansions of the Lord.
Safely removed from the pernicious influence of crucifixes and painted statues Becky Tarrant slapped the frying pan with beef dripping and clattered it down upon the stove to indicate disapproval of Mam's devotions, which to her way of thinking were almost as pagan as Auntie Aileen's communion with the elves and fairies. Rebecca was small-built, not striking like her Aunt Biddy but with more than a share of her grandmother's sallow, hot-eyed character. She was a tireless worker, attacked all her tasks with determination and even routine chores like feeding hens, lighting fires and cooking breakfast were performed at top speed.
'Are you not done with your chanting yet, Mam?' Becky yelled.
She was due at the big house at eight o'clock and Maggie Naismith, the housekeeper, would not tolerate tardiness. It was now a little after seven.
The kitchen was steeped in grey daylight but the coals in the hearth and flickers of flame within the iron cooking stove gave some cheer. Becky had been bustling about for the best part of an hour. Hens had been fed and eggs gathered. The dog – a lively spaniel pup which, much to Becky's consternation, refused to be regimented – had had a plate of oat mush and mutton scraps thrust under his nose, and the last item on Becky's agenda was to make sure that her mother consumed an adequate supply of nourishment before she, Becky, left for the half- mile hike to Fetternish House. At one time half a dozen servants had staffed the house but the Baverstock-Quigley fortunes had slumped badly in recent years and Becky was well aware that Aunt Biddy and Quig were sailing close to the wind these days. Becky's sister and cousins had gone to the mainland to complete their education; if she had complained loudly enough no doubt funds would have materialised from somewhere to send her to college too. Becky, however, had chosen to remain on Mull to look after her mother.
'I am serving your porridge now, Mam.' She clacked the ladle on the rim of the pot. 'I am putting the eggs into the pan, so you had better be saying goodbye to Our Lady if you want your breakfast piping hot.'
Unperturbed by her daughter's hectoring, Innis emerged from the back bedroom. Becky was so like her grandmother that Innis occasionally wondered if the old woman's spirit had found refuge in the girl. Becky even looked a little like Vassie but without the harsh lines that hardship and a vicious marriage had imprinted upon her, Innis's, mother.
'Do you want to make me late?' Becky snapped. 'Do you want me to be told off by Maggie Naismith for the third time this month?' She ladled porridge into a bowl and placed the bowl on the table which, because the morning was chilly, she had dragged closer to the fire. 'Now, will you please tidy yourself and sit down.'
To humour her daughter Innis peeped into the mirror that hung on the bedroom door and pretended to primp her hair which she had worn short for a number of years in a style quite tidy enough for a country woman.
'I don't know what it is about saying prayers that makes you so untidy,' Becky went on. 'Two eggs?'
'One will do me fine, thank you.'
Becky broke a fresh egg and slid it expertly into the pan.
'You don't eat enough to keep a bird alive, if you ask me.'
'Well, Becky,' Innis said, 'that is just how it is with old people.'
'Are you being sarcastic?'
'Take it how you will, dearest.'
Becky glanced round. 'Hoh! I do not know why I put up with you.'
'I am never too sure myself,' said Innis.
Excerpted from "The Strawberry Season"
Copyright © 2000 Jessica Stirling.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. The North Quarter,
2. Bread of Angels,
3. Scandal and Concern,
4. The New Leaf,
5. Out of the Nest,
6. Little Nobody,
7. A Woman Against the Light,
8. The Charmed Circle,
9. Blessings in Disguise,
10. Something Unexplored,
12. Balancing the Books,
13. False Witness,
14. Distant Voices,
15. The Lion and the Lamb,
16. A Moment of Madness,
17. Rough Pasture,
18. The Strawberry Season,
By the same author,