Jessica Stirling continues the epic of love, greed and betrayal that began in The Island Wife in her magnificent novel, The Wind from the Hills.
For Innis and Biddy, daughters of the embittered Vassie Campbell, life has changed greatly from the days when they were poor crofters. Innis, the mother of three young children, has found that marriage to handsome Michael Tarrant is utterly different from the idyll she expected. And Biddy has become only too accustomed to being a wealthy widow who keeps herself aloof from both the life she once knew and her dead husband's family.
But though the sisters' lives seem set, they are destined to change once more. For Innis, a temptation to a better life may have to come too late--and for Biddy, courted by an ardent new suitor, happiness may have come at last.
Set against the background of an island off the coast of Scotland that is being forced half-willingly into a new era, the story of the two very different sisters and their very different longings is one of the most memorable that Jessica Stirling has created.
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About the Author
Jessica Stirling was born is Glasgow and still lives in Scotland. She has enjoyed a highly successful career as a writer, beginning with the bestselling trilogy The Spoiled Earth, The Hiring Fair and The Dark Pasture. Her other novels include The Marrying Kind, The Workhouse Girl, and the first volume in her Mull trilogy, The Island Wife.
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.
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The Wind from the Hills
By Jessica Stirling
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1998 Jessica Stirling
All rights reserved.
The Barren Hind
In the long summer of 1891 there was hardly a man came to Fetternish who did not have his way with Mrs Bridget Baverstock: that, at least, was how the stories went. But you know what stories and islanders are like, how if you put one with the other you can wind up with a fact that's as far from the truth as Land's End is from John o' Groat's.
Indeed, some imaginative scandalmongers even suggested that Willy Naismith was closer to his mistress than a house servant had any right to be; that the widow of Fetternish now and then borrowed him from his good wife not so much to share her bed as to fertilise it, not to scatter his seed, of which by then there was a great deal less than there used to be, but to put a kind of charm on the sheets so that the select band of suitors who were invited to warm the widow's four-poster might be endowed with uncommon potency and with a single cast of the rod, as it were, land Fetternish an heir.
It was all nonsense, of course, pure fancy, a skein of lies spun by folk who envied Biddy Baverstock her wealth and still resented the fact that a fisherman's daughter had inherited the estates of Fetternish without doing a stroke to deserve them; as if it were her fault that her poor, love-struck husband had dropped dead only six weeks after taking her to be his bride.
However you chose to interpret her behaviour you could not dispute that Biddy Baverstock was just the sort of woman whose dash and daring encouraged such scurrilous tales, a woman to whom men were drawn like moths to candle flame, not only for her beauty – sea-green eyes, auburn hair, a face and figure that would have tempted an anchorite – but also for her determination to prove herself as good, if not better, than any other landowner on Mull.
So far even the most spiteful gossips would have to admit that she had used her talents and advantages well. In the dozen years since her husband's death she had resisted several under-hand attempts by her husband's family to wrest Fetternish back from her and had defied the temperamental climate and impoverished soil that had sent previous owners of Fetternish skulking back to the mainland vowing never to set foot on the island again.
Unlike them, of course, she thoroughly understood Mull's quirky character. She had been raised on the cattle croft of Pennypol, less than two miles from the great, handsome house on the cliff that, together with all its shaggy acres, she managed with the assurance of someone who had never been afraid to look a gift horse in the mouth, even to the extent of prising its jaws apart and totalling up its teeth. She had gradually cultivated and fructified most of the glens and headlands of the north quarter, had brought them under her sway and made them yield profit, just as she brought everything under her sway and made it yield profit.
Even Nature, it seemed, could not stand up to Biddy Baverstock; except that Nature, reluctant to be outfoxed, had pulled one grim little trick by way of revenge and had so far denied her that which she most wanted in life – a child of her own, an heir to Fetternish. By any reasonable standards Biddy was not old. But she lived in a community where women tended to marry early and expend what there was of their youth on bearing and rearing children, so that the schoolhouse in Dervaig was crammed to capacity and the fields about Crove contained almost as many toddlers as sheep. Or so it seemed to Biddy who, entering her thirty-third year, had abruptly woken up to the fact that she was half-way to being left on the shelf and that the best of her breeding years might already be behind her.
You would never have guessed to look at her that she was, or could possibly imagine herself to be, a dried-up old husk. She was tall and broad-shouldered and if not wide at least not narrow at the hips. She glowed with robust good health. She was out and about in all weathers and had recently developed quite a passion for outdoor sports; so much so that even with the aid of the latest cold creams and complexion lotions and dust-storms of French powder she could not disguise her naturally high colour or cool her propensity to perspire when taking any sort of exercise.
'Radiant,' the shooting gentlemen would declare, without a hint of criticism. 'By God, Bridget, you look positively radiant today.' By which, Biddy imagined, they were politely informing her that she looked no better than a boiled beetroot.
Although she was still arrogant she had shed much of her conceit. These days she did not have time to mope at her dressing-table and now and then would experience a wave of revulsion at the battery of jars and pots that she had accumulated and would instruct Margaret, who deputised as a lady's-maid when she wasn't too busy elsewhere, to sweep the lot out of sight so that the temptation to paint herself up like some haggard Edinburgh dowager would be temporarily removed. What she did not tell Margaret to do, though, was to wheel away the cheval-glass that stood in a corner of the dressing-room. In the slanted glass Biddy would examine herself whenever the mood stole over her and the faint wistful longings that had troubled her in the early years of her widowhood flared up into something very close to panic.
She did not strut before the glass, did not exhibit herself for her own pleasure or to rehearse the pleasure she might give to the favoured few who were admitted to her bedroom. In those private moments of contemplation she did not dwell on thoughts of marriage but, rather, on its consequence, on the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy when she would be lovely and swollen with a child of her own. Then, back arched, belly thrust out, she would realise just how false her posing was and what it signified and would pivot and pad away, cursing her foolishness and trying desperately to staunch the tears that trickled from the corners of her eyes.
So, while many women envied Mrs Baverstock there were many women whom Mrs Baverstock envied, not for the simplicity of their lives, not for the tasks at which they toiled, of which she had done more than her fair share, not for the smoky cottages in which they dwelled nor the plain fare on their tables, but for their babies, their children, the girls and boys with which the island was seeded now that burnings and land evictions were things of the past and the economy more settled. It was, Biddy thought, Mull's growing season, a time of sprouting, when the next generation would take root in ground of good heart.
And there were children, children everywhere.
And not one of them hers.
* * *
Of the eight children to whom Biddy was related the ones that she loved and coveted most were the three that her sister Innis had borne to Michael Tarrant who, a long, long time ago, had been Biddy's first lover and who, if he had not been a Roman Catholic and she had not been so infected by her father's prejudices, she might have married in preference to Austin Baverstock.
The Tarrants seldom came to the big house and were never invited to any of the grand parties that marked the social season. Even so, Biddy visited them almost daily, walking the mile to Pennymain cottage over the narrow wooden bridge she'd had built across the glen at the rear of their holding, over the lush, watery ravine that was called in Gaelic Na h-Vaignich which, roughly translated, meant 'The Solitudes'. When Michael had first lived there alone, and Biddy had crept into his bed in dead of night, the name had seemed appropriate to the isolation of the place. Now it had changed, had become a hub of liveliness, with dogs, hens and children darting about, so that its only stillness, its only sullen centre was Michael himself, more dour and silent than he had ever been, as if marriage and fatherhood had not cured his loneliness but had in some way exacerbated it.
It lifted Biddy's spirits to come down the slope towards the shrouded glen and glimpse smoke rising from the chimney of her sister's house, to see the neat hedges that Michael had planted, the wooden shed where the hens roosted and, straggling off on the seaward side, the peat stack and the drying-green with washing flapping like bunting on the sagging ropes. She could smell sheep and whiffs of peat smoke, and cooking. And she could hear, among the bleating from the pastures, the cries of her two little nieces, Rachel and Rebecca, as they played about the yard. From her Tarrant nephew Gavin, though, she heard nothing, for even at the age of ten he was silent and guarded, like his father.
The little girls, aged four and six, called her Auntie Bridget. Innis, of course, still called her Biddy but to Michael and the boy she was always Mistress Baverstock or now and then, when something displeased them, they would address her, straight-faced and straight to her face, as 'your ladyship', as if to exaggerate the distinctions that lay between them.
Biddy's nieces and nephew were by no means the only youngsters to inhabit the quiet back roads of Fetternish. In fact the only dwelling on the estate, apart from Fetternish House itself, that did not contain new life lay beyond Pennymain in the crook of the arm of Pennypol bay, the broad, well-watered acres that had once belonged to Biddy's mother, where Vassie and Ronan Campbell still lived. There was no smoke, or precious little, hovering above the Campbells' turf-roofed cottage, no cats or hens skittering about in the shadow of the high drystone wall that Vassie had once built to keep the Baverstocks' sheep off her property. There were dogs, though, a pair of yellow-eyed, skulking mongrels that, when not working the herd, were kept locked up in what had once been the byre; fierce cattle dogs that answered to no one except Vassie and would, at the first sniff of an intruder, snarl so savagely that not even brave, dour little Gavin dared come near them.
It wasn't the dogs or the big-horned cattle that roamed along the foreshore that made Pennypol seem inhospitable, however, so much as Vassie herself, Vassie and her drunken husband.
Even Biddy and Innis preferred not to pass too close to the house, for they were disgusted by the sight of their father sprawled on the doorstep, a whisky bottle hugged to his chest like a cherished child, motionless as granite or, rather, some soft and crumbling substance like lignite or grey lava. They of all people knew that it wasn't drink but brute pride that had torn him down, that had soured his marriage and turned family love to family loathing. And there were secrets too, dreadful, whispered secrets that Vassie still kept to herself while she patiently watched him shrivel and decay before her vengeful eyes.
On paper Vassie Campbell still owned Pennypol, including water rights and rights of access but many years ago she had leased it out to Fetternish, an arrangement that Biddy had augmented by taking the sheep off the low grazings and purchasing enough cattle to establish a small, high-quality herd over which her mother had sole charge. Now there were cows to be milked once again, calves in the calf park, bullocks braying along the foreshore and Vassie restored to her natural element. Except that her children were gone and would never return to live with her in Pennypol. And the moor had been closed off with stobs. And the dike at the top of the calf park had been rebuilt, the old jetty repaired and the fish shed, Ronan's last sanctuary, had been torn down and replaced by a fine new slate-roofed byre. Improvements, expensive improvements that Biddy had commissioned and paid for and whose benefits Mam did not acknowledge, not even grudgingly, as if she somehow still blamed Biddy for all that had gone wrong, for all that had been irretrievably lost.
No one stepped uninvited on to Vassie's patch, not Biddy, not Innis, not Hector Thrale, the factor, not even amiable Willy Naismith who was friend to everyone on the estate. Nobody came closer than the end of the wall for if they did then the dogs would bark and Ronan would stir and roll his head and moan, uttering those unintelligible sounds that only Vassie seemed able to interpret. And she would come whisking out of the cottage or out of the byre waving a stick in her fist and would shout, 'Who is it? What do you want with us?' and all along the foreshore the cattle would lift their snouts and roar too as if she was not just their keeper but their leader, as dangerous and unpredictable as they were, only female.
'Mam, it is me. It is Innis.'
'I cannot see you.'
'I am here, by the new gate.'
'Who is it that you have with you?'
'I have brought Gavin to see you, and Rachel.'
The stick would be lowered but not discarded. Vassie would abandon the protection of the cottage and scuttle, crab-like, along the path by the wall. Her skin-and-bone build and leathery complexion made her appear ancient but her restless energy remained inexhaustible. She wore a greasy black cotton dress with a canvas apron tied around her waist and a ragged shawl knotted at her breast in traditional style. Now that her sons and daughters had gone she neglected herself and her home shamefully and the cottage had deteriorated into something not much better than a hovel. Only her fondness for the cattle, which she never neglected or ignored, seemed to be keeping her sane.
She peered at everyone with such suspicion that her brown eyes appeared to have receded into her head and left nothing but empty sockets under the fringe of hair that cut across her brow. There was nothing wrong with her eyesight – she could still spot an ailing calf at three hundred paces – but there were many things she chose not to see, visitors to Pennypol among them.
'Where is the little one? Where is Rebecca?'
'She is asleep at home.'
'Do you tell me that you have left her alone?'
'Biddy is with her and will stay until I return.'
'Why have you come here, bothering me? Have you no work of your own to be doing?' Vassie would say but not snappishly, not now that she had come close to her little girl grandchild and to the boy, the boy so solemn and watchful that she could not even begin to guess what he thought of her. 'And you, Gavin, is there no school for you to be going to today?'
She addressed him in Gaelic, knowing that he would only answer in English, for teaching in the day school in Dervaig was mostly done in the modern tongue. He could understand the old language of the islands well enough but he would not deign to have it on his lips. He was his father's son through and through, Vassie thought, more Lowlander than Highlander, with a sallow, clear-eyed handsomeness that would give him the air of a saint or a martyr once his growth had come upon him.
She longed to brush the curl of hair that licked his forehead but she had practised the role of hostile old wife for so long that even Gavin, brave as he was, would surely flinch if she stretched her hand towards him. He was polite though, well-mannered enough to answer, 'I have no school today because our master has had to go home to Oban where his father is unwell.'
Vassie leaned on the stick, claw-like hands folded on top, elbows cocked. 'Is there no other teacher to be giving you your lessons?'
'There is one lady but she is only there for the children.'
'I see, I see,' said Vassie. 'Do you mean for the babbies?'
'Aye,' her ten-year-old grandson answered. 'For the babbies.'
Rachel was quite unafraid of Vassie and, unlike her brother, did not appear to disapprove of the old woman. She was, however, bashful. She clung to her mother's skirts and peeked up at her grandmother in a way that reminded Vassie of her youngest, of Aileen, in the days before anyone had realised that she was fey. There was a sweetness in Rachel, a generosity that Vassie failed to recognise as a quality that she herself had once possessed, long, long ago now, before she had sacrificed her father's love for love of a worthless man.
Innis indicated the wicker basket at her feet. 'I have brought you some eggs and a jug of stock for broth and a loaf or two from yesterday's baking.'
Vassie grunted; the most Innis could expect by way of gratitude.
The Campbells were by no means poor. On the contrary: income from the hirings was more than enough to keep them on easy street. But there was no will now, no urge or purpose in Vassie, nothing she seemed to want. Ronan, of course, was too far gone to care about anything but whisky. In fact, it was considered a miracle that he was still alive at all.
'Bread, Gran,' Rachel said. 'Mammy bakit it.'
Innis was the good wife that she, Vassie, had once supposed herself to be. Only Innis was more loving, more expert and efficient; a better cook, a better baker, better with sewing-needles and knitting-pins, better too in her management of time. When Vassie contemplated her middle daughter she sometimes wondered how she could have produced such a paragon of virtue – or if it was Innis's conversion to Catholicism that had mysteriously endowed her with all these skills.
Excerpted from The Wind from the Hills by Jessica Stirling. Copyright © 1998 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.
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Table of Contents
BOOK ONE: BIDDY,
1. The Barren Hind,
2. A Family Man,
3. The Empty Road,
4. Tupping Time,
5. Every Good Omen,
6. The Highland Game,
BOOK TWO: INNIS,
7. A Leap in the Dark,
8. The Feeding Box,
9. A Sorrowful Sinner,
10. The Higher Learning,
11. The Bitter Pill,
12. Arms and the Man,
13. The Wind from the Hills,
Also by Jessica Stirling,