Northern Lights – Episode 29

What a week that had been, Cathy Mary thought today as she hurried to work. She’d prepared patterns, cut plaid with her heart in her mouth and sewed every spare minute God gave.

Mistress Gray had not spared her in an unexpected rush order that came from the Navy and she’d sewed from dawn till past midnight, often by candlelight.

Her back ached, her eyes grew gritty and her eyelids were heavy from lack of sleep, but the task was completed on time.

She heated flat irons after work in the empty basement and carefully pressed seams on the finished garments before placing them on Mistress Gray’s work bench and stealing off home . . .

She was in a fever of anxiety this morning as she went down the basement stairs. Reaching the workroom, she halted abruptly.

The women were not seated at the benches but stood in groups. Mistress Gray was nowhere to be seen.

“What’s amiss?” Cathy Mary said.

At that moment a door opened and Mistress Gray stepped out.

She wore a high-waisted plaid skirt over a grey silk pelisse, full sleeves gathered at the wrists, topped by a short matching plaid cape collared and fastened in a military style. A plain bonnet and parasol completed the vision.

The workforce sighed in ecstatic unison. One little lass spoke up.

“Oh, ma’am, ye look so –”

“Ladylike?” Mistress Gray provided equably.

The entire workforce joined in spontaneous laughter and applause that echoed to the rafters.

Cathy Mary stood, amazed and close to tears.

Mistress Gray held up a hand for silence.

“I will tell you what I intend. Heaven knows we have plenty fine plaid lying idle in stock. You shall each have a free length and thread to sew a skirt.

“You will sew in your ain time and the work will not interfere wi’ sewing our sailors’ breeks or I’ll ken the reason why.

“When the skirts are made you’ll wear them when ye come to work so that folk can tell you are all smart Nunnery lassies.”

“A uniform, like sojers!” one woman exclaimed.

“Exactly.” Mistress Gray nodded. “And then I will pin a notice to the door.”

“Ma’am, what’ll it say?” Cathy Mary asked.

“Women’s skirts made to measure,” her employer answered. “That’ll do for a start.”

*  *  *  *

After Maggie stormed out Lilias felt badly let down. Ten stonecutters were due to turn up at the lodgings soon.

Lilias had planned that her three granddaughters, in aprons and caps, would be there to greet them, with herself in command. She would establish house rules to ensure there was no nonsense of the flirting kind.

Now her plans lay in tatters. She might act like a hard-hearted old woman at times, but even stone could break.

There was worse to come. The door opened and Alec rushed in.

“Michty, laddie, what’s ado?”

“My father had a spare kitbag, Grandmother. Where is it?”

“In the press.”

He rummaged in the cupboard and came out with the empty canvas bag.

“I have to pack. There’s little time.”

“Where are ye going?”

He looked at her. She could see no trace of the laddie who had gone whistling blithely to work early that morning.

“I’m to work out on the Bell Rock. The ship sails this afternoon and I’ll be on it.”

Shock hit Lilias with the force of a fist.

“You told us you’d never go!”

He shrugged.

“I’ve little choice. The press gang is heading north from Dundee. They’ll take me for sure if I’m found ashore.”

He was in his room, stuffing clothing into the bag. Lilias watched, helpless, in the doorway.

“They’ve no right. You’re under age!”

“I could pass for eighteen, Grandmother. War at sea is hard fought, with ships sunk and a desperate need to replace men.

“I still believe it’s even more important to have the lighthouse built and I’ve told Mr Stevenson I agree to the terms o’ employment. I’m to help the smith set up a forge upon the rock.

“Work will be a month at a time, living aboard ship without shore leave, working on the rock when tides allow, Sundays included.”

“Heaven help us!” Lilias moaned.

At that juncture the front door opened and Maggie came in.

Lucy Crichton

Fiction Editor Lucy is always on the look-out for the very best short stories, poems and pocket novels. As well as sourcing enjoyable content, she enjoys working with our established contributors, encouraging new talent, and celebrating 155 years of 'Friend' fiction!