Rose Nicolson Part 4: Who is the mysterious boy with the long red-hair?
In the penultimate extract from Andrew Greig’s new historical novel, Rose Nicolson, there’s a disturbance in the night.
As the storm abated, the steersman turned to me, water and saliva still running from his beard. His eyes were huge and dark-shining. Perhaps he was a religious man and had just had the revelation he was justified.
‘Weel, yon wis fuckin rowdy,’ he said.
Captain Wandhaver passed his flask. I took a swig, gagged at its fire, swallowed and drank again. We were moored for the evening, off Dysart. I had gone below and changed into dry hose and breeches, but still could not get warm.
‘Some storms come sudden-like,’ he said. It sounded near-apology.
‘Your mother would have been put out if I’d lost her investment. You did well.’
I handed back the flask, feeling his words and the brandy burn down to my toes. That let me speak my mind. ‘Weren’t you feart?’
He looked back at me, that red-faced, rough, clever man.
‘Surely I was. Your mother is a forceful woman.’ He showed a good set of teeth in his round turnip head, then shrugged. ‘The sea is what it is, and I am used to it.’
‘So you are carrying valuables for her?’
‘I am carrying you.’ He paused. ‘And will return with further timbers from the Cathedral.’
We stood silent, amidships, in the half-light. A pale rent flared above the rounded paps of the distant Lomond hills.
‘I was sore afeart,’ I confessed. ‘The sea is so . . . deep.’
‘You have not the face for drowning, lad. I have never been wrong about such things.’
Captain Wandhaver was no plain dealer, but he said this so casually, as if it were simple fact, that I did not think he was joking me. Though there were no reasonable grounds to believe him, his words have lodged in my brain these many years.
‘Hanging, mind you,’ he added with a chuckle. ‘That is another matter. I cannot say you’ll not hang.’
‘I’m o’er wee and unimportant to hang,’ I replied, basking in our manly badinage.
He grasped my shoulder with his mighty paw. ‘Master Fowler, you are too unimportant for the axe, and I wish you the good fortune to stay lowly. But any man may hang – aye, and some women too.’
Intrigued, part in jest, I enquired after my fellow-steersman, the one with the skelly eye, who had bellowed the mighty 23rd Psalm into the storm. Did he have the face for drowning? The captain made no reply. He took another swig, stoppered the flask, and sombrely folded it away within his coat. The gesture reminded me.
‘That boy with the long red hair and the two men – who is he?’
His face and favour turned from me. ‘Never ye mind,’ he said, and stomped off to check the anchor ropes were sound.
Though the Sonsie Quine still kicked and rolled, I was able to eat below with the crew. It seemed I had passed beyond sea-sickness, and indeed it would never return. The red-haired boy and his escort did not reappear to eat with us, though I noted plates and glasses being taken from the galley to some for’ard cabin. The mate saw me watching and shook his salt-crusted head, so I returned my attention to beef and bread.
A sharp cry woke me in the dark. Through the planking I heard a muffled groan, a thump, then silence. The crewman bunked beside me did not stir. He was either asleep or made a good show of it. Across the way, another snored.
I listened in the rolling dark. Perhaps someone had tripped and banged their head? I lay on my bunk, listening through the slap and mutter of water through the hull. There might have soon been voices, but very low. I lay awhile on my back. In pastures green he leadeth me, the quiet waters by. I saw again the view across the tumultuous sea to the green
fields of the Lothians, felt uplifted out of abyss.
Is that how Preacher Knox had felt as a French galley-slave when he gripped the oar, buoyed up in his faith, seeing far ahead and beyond? And what did he see in recent months, aided up into the pulpit by his young wife and the elders of the kirk of St Giles?
Judging by his visage, what he saw ahead was not to his taste.
In my narrow bunk, safe for the moment, I rolled onto my side and sank deep down.