The Lady in the Loch…

27 Mar

Another GSP release from Author of the Week: Elizabeth Ann Scarborough.

The Lady in the Loch by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

When a woman’s bones are found in the icy dregs of the noxious Nor’ Loch, newly appointed sheriff of Edinburgh, Walter Scott, is called upon. Are these the remains of a drowned witch or religious heretic, or are they perhaps linked to something more recent and sinister? For although Edinburgh is known to be the center of literature, science, and medicine, it is also the haunt of body snatchers who prey upon the living and the dead alike, selling their victims for study by the student physicians at the medical school. 
     When a band of Travelling People is forced to winter near the city, two young women are taken, one from her bed while she sleeps near her family. Justice from the settled people is rarely accorded to gypsies and the Travellers fear they will be murdered one by one by the ghouls stalking their people.
     A young gypsy named Midge Margret is sure that Scott will care.  He befriended her family before and once more he promises to help find the murderer who prowls the snowy forest in a black coach. 
When a patchwork woman with supernatural strength begins hunting the streets as well, Scott and Midge Margret know the crimes are rooted in bloody dark magic. In order to catch the killer, the butchered victims themselves must testify.


The mother of the corpse wore solid black as she danced round and round the room to the lamenting coronach of the pipes. With her danced the father of the corpse, also in black. The attire of both showed signs of having been recently, hastily dyed for the occasion. Phantoms of the plaid fabric swam beneath the dye of the mother’s gown. The mother wept as she danced and the father scowled. The corpse lay in the middle of the room, her claes deid, her funeral garments, concealing the thirty stab wounds in her chest and the dishonor her killer had subjected her body to before she died. All around the coffin, her brothers and sisters-in-law, her sisters and brothers-in-law, her fiance and her grandmother, all of them weeping, shuffled in their own awkward dancing. The neighbors danced and wept as well. And close by the coffin, the bound and gagged tinkler man was weeping too, less for the murdered lassie than for himself, he who was the accused.
     The time was one minute until midnight by the grand-father clock standing in the candle-cast shadows draping the walls, festooning the ceiling and carpeting the floors. The flickering of these same candles lent astonishing expressions to the corpse’s face and deepened the dread on the faces of the other celebrants, dancing, singing, eating, drinking, and weeping for the dead lass.
     A danse macabre if ever there was one, Walter Scott mused from his chair in the center of the room, close to the girl’s open coffin. Scott was excused from the dancing both because of his semi-official status in the investigation and because of his lame leg. In a way, it was quite thrilling, this lyke-wake, for it was the first he had attended. Lowlanders and Borderers such as himself, people raised in the strictness of the Kirk, did not practice such rituals, but the girl’s family, the MacRitchies, were transplanted Highlanders. So on the one hand, this gave Scott a wonderful opportunity to observe a ritual of which he had previously only read. But on the other hand, there was the girl in the coffin, and though he had never known her, never heard her name, she was touchingly young, younger even than his own eighteen years. She should have been beautiful too, an Ophelia, a Lily Lady of Shalot, but she was actually rather ordinary-looking, robust even in death, the freckles standing out like blemishes on the waxiness of her skin, her eyes, at present, closed with coins, her red hair too festive for her own funeral.
     The sheriff-depute of Selkirk, Scott’s old friend Adam Plummer, stood beside him, both of them shivering, for the room was chill for more common reasons than the eldritch atmosphere that gripped it. The fireplace was cold, as it must be until the body was removed, and the door was still wide open for the moment.
     As the clock gonged the first of its twelve notes for midnight, the dancing wound to a shuffling halt and the piped lament died a wheezing death. Plummer crossed the makeshift dance floor in two long strides and closed the door so that it was barely ajar. The mourners hushed, except for one man who continued, unheeding, to gnaw on the drumstick of a goose. As Plummer returned to the corpse’s side, the clock struck its second gong. The mother, Mrs. MacRitchie, let loose with her eerie keening cry, the hullulu, as the Irish so accurately termed it, for that was the way it sounded, a long mourning-dove yell.
     The MacRitchies’ large, pleasant stone farmhouse was wrapped in the boughs of the Ettrick Forest, and both forest and farmhouse kitchen could be entered from the kitchen door. The house was not too far from that of Scott’s old friend James Hogg, and his mother. Hogg had been with the search party that discovered the lass’s poor body and also with the party that had flushed the tinklers from their camp in the woods and chased the young man through the trees. The murdered girl’s fiance and her brothers had assumed, as had all the neighbors, that the tinkler lad, since he was in the area, was of course the perpetrator of the crime. Had it been left only to them, the young man would by now be hanged. But Hogg, who had some connections with and sympathy for the tinklers, told the accusers that if they proceeded, the current laws of this district would call them murderers as well, that it was best to send for the sheriff-depute and allow him to conduct a proper investigation. Recalcitrant as the younger laddies were, the elder MacRitchies prevailed and allowed Hogg to send a servant with a message to the home of Scott’s aunt Janet in Sandy Knowe. Scott was visiting his aunt and uncle for the summer, far away from his studies at the university in Edinburgh. He and Plummer had been whiling away the early afternoon playing chess when the MacRitchies’ servant knocked on Aunt Janet’s door and told him of the lass’s death (never calling her by name. One never called the deceased by name unless in court or kirk or on one other occasion, as the sheriff was soon to demonstrate). Plummer evidently was acquainted with the family, however, and had some idea that the lyke-wake was in order. He told Scott that this might prove a more interesting experience than most and urged the younger man to accompany him.
     Riding hard, they had reached the farmhouse shortly after sunset, when the forest shadows gave way to the mist rising from the creeks and ponds, and that was joined by the smoke from the kitchen chimney, blowing a solemn ring around the house.
     Plummer questioned Mrs. MacRitchie, who had laid her daughter out, about the girl’s wounds. Scott was relieved his friend had felt no need to remove the funeral linens to see the wounds for himself, but he wondered why. Plummer questioned the tinkler lad as well, but the man refused to say anything except that he had done nothing wrong, and to shake his head stubbornly. The brothers and the girl’s fiance, one Robert Douglas, the son of an even more successful farmer than the girl’s father, wanted to “bate the truth oot o’ the knacker,” and in fact, it looked as if they had already made progress toward that goal before Plummer and Scott arrived. Hogg too bore a couple of visible bruises, although no apparent malice toward those who had inflicted them.
     The clock gonged for the fourth time. Plummer began, “By the power vested in me by the Sheriff of Selkirk and through him the King, I will noo commence interrogatin’ the victim of this heinous crime.”
     “What does he mean, interrogate the victim?” Scott asked Hogg, who had drawn near.
     Hogg shrugged. “Used to be done whenever there was foul play, according to Mither,” he whispered back. “Nowadays nane but the law know the way.”
     “Why’s that?” Scott asked, but just then, one of the men screamed.
     “No! Let her rest in peace! We hae Ma—my bride-to-be’s murderer there. We should hang him and be done wi’ it!”
     “Haud yer tongue, man,” Plummer commanded. “Let nane speak but her whose foremost business it is, the last witness to this crime. In the pursuit of this investigation, once more I invoke thy name, Mary MacRitchie,” he said, in appropriately sonorous tones. “Rise up, lass, and accuse thy slayer.”
     Though he had never seen such a thing before, Scott had read of the dead accusing their slayers, but had thought it only superstition. He, with the other occupants of the room, held his breath, waiting, to see what would happen, what, if the victim indeed rose up, she would say.
     Even the gnawer of the goose bone had finished all the flesh and, putting away his bone, realized that the room was now completely still except for his ever-more-cautious chewing and the echo of Plummer’s invocation, and the heartbeats and expirations of all of those who were not now allowed to speak. The first sound other than those was a slight slipping, like jewels against a lady’s velvet dress, and then a hollow clink as the coins fell from the girl’s eyes and dropped into her coffin as if it were a wishing well.
     Even the tinkler was still, as with a sussuration of the claes deid and a long, pain-wracked groan, the body raised itself, hands still bound across its chest, to a sitting position.
     With the raising, Scott caught the stench of corruption emanating from her, washed and freshly dressed as she was. On such a warm summer day as this had been, her body had already begun to decay.




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