Katherine has everything a young woman could hope for in 1849 Scotland, except the freedom to make her own choices. The last thing she wants to do is to get married…and then she meets James Spenser.
Can there be any future together for the outspoken daughter of a railway owner and the charming young man working on the project?
(Originally published under Dare to Cross the Water.)
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“Were it not for hope the heart would break.” –Scottish Proverb
My name is James Spenser. Six months ago, my brother and I came to Edinburgh from Glasgow on our eastward trek across Scotland. The journey started at our farm just west of Glasgow. We had a lovely little place with potato fields that stretched to a river, edged with silver birch. My father’s family had worked the land for two generations, and my brothers and I always thought we’d work the land, too.
All that changed three years ago, when the potato famine came to Scotland. Our fields were ruined as the blight moved quickly, destroying all our crops. We didn’t have enough seed potatoes to try again and barely enough to eat that winter. My father found work at a railway yard in Glasgow and my mother, my brother Andrew, and I all went with him. My oldest brother, Ethan, decided to try his luck in America and found work on a ship bound for New York.
Glasgow was a big change for us all. Our mum took to it right enough, finding her way with the other ladies of the area and helping out with the sick. Da fell in with some mates at the rail yard and started drinking a bit more than before. It was hard losing the farm, but things didn’t seem too bad until we lost our mum.
She was out like always helping those that she could, not knowing that the winter of 1848 would bring a terrible cholera epidemic to the city. When she came down with the illness, Andrew and I were already on our way to Edinburgh. By the time we found out, it was too late to come home. Da told us to stay and work hard in her memory. Six months later, he was gone, too. Andrew and I both thought it was just too much losing Mum. They truly loved each other, and I don’t think he wanted to go on without her.
So here we are in 1849, working on the world’s first railway ferry that will cross five miles of water when completed. The passengers will be taking steamboats across from Granton just north of Edinburgh, but the goods will be transferred by rolling cars out onto tracks on the ferry, then lowered down to water level and taken to the other side. There, the ferry is raised up again, allowing the cars to be rolled off and hooked up to an engine on the other side at Burntisland. The whole process is supposed to take five minutes on each end and then of course, the travel over the Firth of Forth itself, which is an inlet of the North Sea. We’re all calling it a minor miracle, but the bosses say it’s a technological wonder.
The money men wanted a name to call attention to this wonder and with the way the water can whip up when the storms blow in, someone came up with The Leviathan. The name stuck and now we all joke that we feed the Beast, when we go to work. Andrew and I have been putting in as much overtime as possible. We want the bosses to notice us and maybe get a chance at steady work once this project is finished. Maybe even a promotion.
At least, that was the plan until Andrew met his Rebecca two weeks ago. She’s a sweet lass, right enough, but his head’s in the clouds these days. If I hadn’t told him to shape up only last week, he would have fallen right into the water. Whistling and looking up at the sky, rather than watching what he was doing. I have decided there will be no woman for me until I get that promotion.
Or that’s what I had decided before the boss told me to run some papers over to the office this very morning. I was closest to him as he walked up…and that’s something I will be thankful for all my days. It was when I walked into the main office that I saw her. Auburn hair spilling over her shoulders and eyes as blue as the water on a calm summer day. She was talking to someone I couldn’t see and saying she wanted to sketch the men working out by the water.
“Katherine, I have told you repeatedly that having your hair hanging down in your face is simply unacceptable. Your mother will finish me if she sees you like this,” came from the unseen corner.
“I am putting it up,” she replied. “I just can’t find my other comb and when I dropped my painting supplies under that desk, the entire thing just came undone.”
I stood there, frozen to the spot. She was determined, I’d give her that as she held on to the painting supplies with one hand and tried to put her hair back up with the other. Not knowing what to say, I stood there staring until she finally looked in my direction.
“It looks like you’ve brought my subject to me,” she said. “I can sketch this one right here.”
I continued to stare as her father came around the door. Finally, my brain and my mouth started working as one again. “Sorry to bother you, sir. My boss sent me over with these papers, and I’d be glad to take anything back if you wish.” I half expected the man to dismiss me on the spot, but instead he told me to wait a moment.
“Katherine, I’ve had enough. Go back to that empty office and wait for me there,” he said. “Sketch if you like, but for the love of…please fix your hair.”
Just when I thought I had skirted the issue, he finished with, “What if someone, who mattered had seen you like this? I can’t have my daughter running around looking like a heathen.” As we walked back into the hall, he looked at me and said, “I expect you’ll keep this to yourself.”
“Of course,” I answered. After all, I thought, who was I going to tell? The only people I knew were of the ‘didn’t matter’ sort.
Sensing my discomfort, he threw me a quick bone. “Girls,” he said. “I really don’t know what to do with her. I think that’s a universal truth we all share.”
“Aye, sir,” I replied. I didn’t wait any longer but headed back to the dock thinking how wrong he was. There were no girls I’d ever seen that had anything in common with this one. Katherine, I thought…what a lovely name, then shook my head and went back to work.
My name is Katherine Rogers and I live in a cage. At least, that’s what I call it. The house and garden my mother want to keep me in until I decide that I’m going to be reasonable and abandon my dreams of becoming an artist. I am supposed to realize that I’m very lucky to have such a choice, when it comes to eligible young men. Yes, I have to admit there are plenty of them to choose from…but that doesn’t mean any of them are right for me.
My sister Julia is the perfect daughter. She knows how to do everything well. Growing up, she danced, played the violin, and even embroidered pillowcases for our mother. When it was time for her to marry, she managed to meet a handsome, wealthy Scottish Lord and after a grand wedding celebration, they went to his estate in Perth. Now, they have a little boy to carry on the family honor, and she is pregnant with their second child. My mother uses her as an example of what I should strive to become almost every day.
Nevertheless, I am not going to get married. My art is too important to me. I was going to be a poet, but thankfully, I outgrew that. Too much suffering for one’s craft if you ask me. Last year, I toured the London Museum and fell in love with art, particularly pencil sketches and watercolors. All this beauty that I hadn’t realized existed, and the stories these pictures told to anyone willing to really look. I decided that while writing was wonderful, art was even better. I could try to capture the light and shadows in painting and sketches that I could never come close to capturing with words. At least, not in the manner of Robert Burns or Lord Byron.
So, art it will be, and I am quite happy with my new choice. I keep asking my parents to send me to art school and let me find my creative genius. I have high hopes for art. Something, anything, that will give me a reason to pursue a passion other than marriage and children. The idea of marrying some man and turning all my control over to him, just because he can wear pants, is beyond my comprehension.
Speaking of men, today a strange young man came into my father’s office. He was one of the workers from the docks, building the Beast as my friends and I call it, and he walked in and just stared at me. Not in the way most young men stare as if to say, how can she be so outrageous? Or, I wonder if her inheritance will be worth her temperament? But, as if I were an alien creature and he was seeing one of us for the first time. Surely, he’d seen a girl before. Although, probably one with her hair done up. I guess I was a bit unexpected, but one must sacrifice for one’s craft. Now, if only I could convince my mother that art is more important than settling down and doing one’s duty.
My favorite days, besides going to the museum, are when I visit my father at his company offices. There are unlimited possibilities for an artist down on the docks, all visible through his windows. In fact, the whole world exists just beyond those windows. I simply must find a way to get down to an area, where I can do some actual sketches. All this movement and light, not to mention people on the docks, but the office is too far away to see the details. So, I will fix my hair, make myself presentable, and take my art supplies down for a short trip to the waterfront. There is a lovely space with benches that I think even my mother would consider respectable enough for a young lady, who is in the company of her father.
“Da, I want you to please take me down to the docks and let me sketch a few pictures,” I said, walking back into my father’s office. “I have made myself more than presentable.”
“Katherine, I really cannot take you right now,” he replied. “Why do you want to do this anyway?”
“Because it’s important to me.” Sometimes, my father only responds to the absolute truth, so I did my best to explain. “Da, I don’t want to spend my life wondering what might have been. I want to see if I have any real talent before I end up being married off to some man.”
My father looked stern, but I could see his eyes were smiling. “Very well, you can go down and walk along the edge of the promenade, but no closer than that. I’ll be down as soon as I finish with these papers.” Smiling, he added, “And don’t tell your mother!”
“Aye Da, I promise.” With that I was out the door, down the hall, and outside before he could change his mind. Careful to stay on the promenade at first, I soon grew impatient walking back and forth, looking over at the shops on one side and the water on the other. After twenty minutes, I decided I could just walk a little closer and get a much better sketch from that angle.
The men seemed to be connecting large overhead wires, giving the Beast some shadowing of its own, when I heard someone say, “Careful, I don’t think you’re supposed to be here.”
Turning towards the voice, I saw it was that same young man from my father’s office. Just as I started to say something, he knocked me down and landed on top of me. Of all the insolence! I was going to tell him what I really thought about such inappropriate behavior, when I heard the sound of something slicing through the air above my head. The young man held me down and said, “Stay here. Until the men catch that cable, it could swing back again.”
I looked up and saw he had the most amazing green eyes. A deep, dark green like a glen in the late afternoon. Then he was up and off me, helping me up, before I could even think to thank him. I started to take a breath to try to say something, but he was already gone, disappearing into the crowd of workers tying down the cable.
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