Excerpt: 'Redlegs' by Chris Dolan
View of Greenock, Scotland, Robert Salmon, 1816
There was never a happier day for Elspeth Baillie than the day she was plucked from her old life, the only life she had thought possible, nipped in the bud and transported across oceans to be planted again in the warmth of the sun. She had been a poor stunted bramble in her home ground: nineteen wearying years that felt like forty. Then, on the eve of her second decade, she was unearthed and grafted onto a new vine. The husbandry was performed by the Right Honourable Albert Lord Coak: he it was who stripped away the mildew and mould that had formed on her soul, pared her down, and restored her to youth.
That eminent person’s presence in a cantankerous port – by chance the same town which was playing host to Elspeth and her family – caused several days’ worth of muttering, suspicion and some quite splendid Scotch shrugging. They already had their own dandies of course, the good folk of Greenock, but these were homespun and old hat compared to this newcomer. The sheen of his hand-tooled suit, his blue wool over-cloak and the splash of marigold on his collar, as he weaved his way through their midst, added a watercolourist’s daintiness to the dark oil canvas of the town. The interloper journeyed between the Harbour Master’s office, shipping agents’ premises, and the sugar refinery, ending his afternoon’s travails as a guest in the grand house of a more commonplace, native moneybags. He then caused a considerable stir when he reappeared, at seven o’clock sharp, at the hall of the Seamen’s Mission, and took his seat for “An Evening of Sketches, Songs and Monologues Performed by Mr. Charles Baillie, his Wife Helena, daughter Elspeth, and Sundry Talented Nieces, Nephews and Cousins of the Baillie Theatrical Clan” – not least amongst the family of performers themselves, peeking out from behind their home-made curtain. He sat alone in the theatre, patiently waiting for the show to begin, whilst the rest of the audience remained out- side drinking and jostling until the last possible moment when they could no longer put off the entertainment.
“Who could he be?” whispered Elspeth’s mother, agitated.
“Pay him no mind,” replied her husband. “Another swaggering knab who’ll uptail and awa’ long before we’re done.”
“He seems comfortable enough in his pew,” said Elspeth. “Maybe he’s from the Edinburgh theatre.”
“We’ll ken soon enough. If he gloats at you, we can be sure he’s not.”
Elspeth pirouetted away expertly from her father: his blindness to her genius no longer offended her. She would wait till the end of the performance when, as happened after every show, she would be showered with compliments and surrounded by admirers, while her parents kept four keen eyes out for wandering hands and all ears open for impudent propositions.
The entertainment that night began, as it always did, with the players struggling to be heard above the turmoil and din of the drunken crowd. Tender verses of Gaelic-inspired poetry had to be yelled out at the top of the voice; the subtle love-lines of Messrs Shakespeare and Scott earned only lewd responses from stevedores in the front rows; carefully crafted choreographies were turned into stomps in a bid to secure a smidgeon of attention. Elspeth didn’t mind: the fine gentleman seated towards the back sat still and attentive. She knew from experience that once the evening’s repertoire reached her Cleopatra soliloquy there would be a hush throughout the house.
Helen Baillie, turbaned and tunicked, set down at the feet of her daughter the basket containing the pretty worm of the Nile that kills and pains not. Some jester in the back row cried out – as one always did in every audience from Ayr to Musselburgh – “I’ve got one of yon too!” And, as ever, the rest of Helen Baillie’s speech was drowned out by laughter. But Elspeth knew how to win them over. She stood stock still. For so long that the audience wondered if she had forgotten her lines, and they fell into silence out of curiosity. Finally she took three slow tentative steps towards the fatal casket.
She sank to her knees and spoke in a near-whisper. “Will it eat me?” She looked up, seemingly blind but scanning the faces in front of her, checking that the gentleman was leaning forward in his seat, which he was. She knelt in front of the snake’s basket, and braved the tips of the fingers of her left hand into the deadly lair. She let slip the most restrained of yelps, but held her hand heroically inside, pulling it out at last, dripping with poison – in reality, soured milk. “I have immortal longings in me.” She stood up, and with her right hand loosed the laces of her shift, let one single drop fall slowly from her fingertip between the swell of her breasts. She let the communal intake of breath from the audience pass before wilting, swaying. The audience was entranced; the jokes and quarrels of a moment ago forgotten at the sight of a beautiful young queen dying, and, better still, showing a good measure of cleavage.
Through the glaur of the candle-smoke, in the penumbra of the Seaman’s Mission, she felt the visitor’s scrutiny as much as observed it. A warmth on her skin on a cold night, as if the moon had begun to heat. Men had always stared, gawked, as she tiptoed or paraded in front of them, less voluminously dressed – depending on the scene – than they were used to seeing a woman. Certainly there was lust in the fine gentleman’s eyes too: she could detect craving even in the back pews; but there was something else. Something different. Emptying. His gaze gouged at her insides, like a fishwife’s knife, leaving a drained space, ready to be filled with some new, unfamiliar element.
When she reappeared – after the applause that persisted through- out her exit and for a full two minutes after – to sing in duet with her father “The Shepherd Lass o’ Aberlour”, a ribald verse penned by Edward Baillie himself in his youth, the crowd were amazed to see that the beautiful queen, who only a moment before had lain piteously dead, was now transformed into an uncouth country maid. Her father, behind his greasepaint, scowled at the loosened lacings of her bodice which she had omitted to retie, and at her excessive winking and histrionics, but no one was paying him any mind. All were shouting encouragement at the shepherdess as she sang of her peccadilloes, and laughing at her indelicate turns of phrase. But even that rude piece had its melodramatic finale, when the farmer scolds the maid for her sinful ways and she promises to be good for evermore. Elspeth found a catch in her voice, stooped her stance, and altered the story of a woman reformed to one of a woman defeated.
She did not need to wait until the company had dressed and left the hall to come face to face with the man who – the rumour had by now reached the dressing rooms – was a lord of the realm, in Greenock for sugar business, English and with money to burn. There was a time when any such personage would be immediately tracked down and pursued by her father and subjected to boasts of his talents. But Edward knew that his moment had passed and now went out his way to avoid any contact with the promise of what might have been. So when Lord Coak invited the entire family to share a jug of wine with him, he shrugged and let his family go on ahead. “You ken fine what he’s wanting,” her father shouted to Elspeth, as he struggled with Mark Antony’s chain mail shirt which no longer fitted him.
“Breeding will oot,” her mother liked to say and Coak was proof of the adage. He diligently spoke to each and every member of the company, from Aunties Jessie and Nanie, who toured with their sons and daughters and kept the company’s wardrobe in order, to Mr. Nicol of the Seaman’s Mission, thanking him profusely for opening his premises to such pleasurable and important events as theatre and song. He complimented the cast from the youngest to the oldest, saving his most exuberant praise for Mr. and Mrs. Edward Baillie themselves. He only nodded in passing to Elspeth. She didn’t fret that he was ignoring her: he was saving her up to last. She watched him as he made his rounds, bowing slightly to the most menial of those present, smiling when required, tut-tutting when it was expected, talking as little as possible about himself, making light of a lord’s presence in such a humble venue. He was a smallish man, his hair receding, a pot-belly burrowing out from under his coat like a mole searching for daylight. But his manners were cut as finely as his clothes, and his voice beguiled – the accent a mix of high English rank in its vowels and Colonial oddity in its consonants. He was not an attractive man, yet there was attraction in him, even beyond the lure of his status. Elspeth liked the way he modestly infiltrated the company, speaking to one person at a time, as if he were the privileged party.
He spent a little too long, she thought, with her sister Peggy. Peggy made a meal of him, curtsying and laughing and stretching her head up to show off her slender neck. The gentleman patted her on the back, which Elspeth was pleased to see, it being an act of open condescension. Then he turned abruptly away from Peggy, stepping directly and unexpectedly up to Elspeth. He did not introduce himself. Omitted to make polite conversation. He did not even address her by name. He simply placed himself in front of her and stated bluntly, “You have a faculty for finding beauty in the commonplace.”
Elspeth was wrong-footed by the suddenness of his arrival and the directness of his compliment. She curtsied, said Thank you, reddened in the cheek, and kicked herself for being so unpre- pared. “Yours is a natural gift, my dear. One that has managed to survive whatever nonsense you’ve been taught. Will you come and see me tomorrow? Can you find a way to do so without, as yet, anyone knowing? I assure you, I wish only to speak of matters professional.”
Elspeth found herself nodding dumbly. The pretty words she had rehearsed for this interview were defunct; the practised rejections of his flattery of no use, and she stood like a child being sent an errand by a strict uncle. And yet, there was warmth in Coak’s eyes, and his bearing was amiable. If she was a child to him then it was an especially favoured one. She had received similar invitations in the past, but this was free, she reckoned, of any impropriety. As he gave her the details of his lodgings and suggested the hour of their meeting, she had that emptying feeling again. Stronger now that he was so close to her and addressing her intimately. Elspeth Baillie – the girl she had been, the young woman she was now – was being reduced, as water over a fire is boiled away, leaving her drained and ready for the life that was to come.
She turned and left the Seamen’s mission, the day turning out just as she had expected. That morning when she had risen, before sun-up, and long before news of a Lord’s presence in town had reached her ears, she had seen through the window of the room at the inn where she shared a bed with her sister and two of her cousins, a ripple of light in the sky. Perhaps a fire somewhere dis- tantly flickering, or a trace of the Northern Lights. But Elspeth recognised it as a sign. She had seen such signs before and had gone back to bed at the end of the day wondering if she had missed some covert opportunity. Not tonight. The Fates had long had her in their sights, and now she would give herself over entirely to their power.
Where was the beauty in the little scene she found herself playing now? Black rain fell from a muddy sky. Perhaps she should think of the night as smouldering embers, doused by God’s tears? The tree she was pinned against was hard and cold, its leaves, under the sickly moon, grey and damp. A proper poet would see it differently: silvery boughs danced upon by tiny elves. But even a poet would be hard pressed to make a dashing hero out of Thomas. Perhaps, if ever she were to tell the story, she could portray the grunting, red- faced boy as an ardent young suitor, his jupe and breeks the honest uniform of a decent, manly drover; his popping eyes, as he tried to squint inside the shift he was tearing at, aglow with passion, startled by the grace of her youthful, innocent breast.
The rarest of gifts, said his lordship. A faculty for finding beauty in the commonplace. The Fates had played kindly with Thomas tonight, too. Elspeth’s brisk exchange with a Lord had left her hankering.
The west coast ports in festivities were full to the gunwales of randy callants in second-hand flannel and hand-me-down compliments. Sailors whose fortune would be spent before the night was out; engineers and harbour-boys who hoped their wages would go further with an actress than in the bawdy-house. In society like that, Thomas was as reasonable a suitor as any, and she let him lead her away into the park where other unidentified couples could be heard wooing in the gloaming.
The eternal in the momentary. That’s what the gentleman had said. An actual gentleman. In clean clothes. And the subtlest whiff of perfume – an exotic tincture, that for all Elspeth knew, might well be the natural smell of the well born. Only the best-educated could speak as he did without the aid of a script. An English Lord, travelled all the way from the Colonies, solely to find her, Elspeth Baillie, on stage at the most shambolic of penny gaffs. Judgement like that, surely, could be trusted.
Try as she might, though, she could not convert a farm-loon into a cavalier, sonsie Tam into a dashing swain. The tree felt just like a tree, and if the raindrops were tears, they weren’t God’s. Thomas’s choice of amatory words were a far cry from poetry: between grunts, he employed the only names he knew for parts of her body and his, and his intentions were described in humble, if honest enough, terms. Poor Thomas only managed to increase the hollowness she felt inside. She felt sorry for him, bringing him to the verge of his dreams only to push him back again. But this she did, and with a certain violence. The boy, surprised and convulsing dangerously, could only let out a stricken cry.
“Tom. Go see Peggy.” “It’s no’ Peggy I want.”
The Right Honourable Albert Coak was not in the habit – at least, not lately – of attending cheap burlesques in Seamen’s Missions. He had become accustomed in recent years to more civilised and lavish spectacles at La Scala, or London’s Adelphi or Strand. But he had found himself alone on business and on his birthday, and the Baillie Family were the only show in town. After a day of wearying engagements – talking sugar tonnage and refining requirements – the prospect of rude humour and gauche performances enticed.
Unlike Elspeth, Albert had not seen any special light in the sky that morning; even had he done so, he would have attached no importance to it.
As he took his seat in the Seamen’s Mission, his weariness grew more oppressive. This, most assuredly, would not – could not – be the place where he would find what he had been looking for. If La Scala had failed him, and Drury Lane, and all the arenas, both exalted and profane, of New York, Berlin and Havana, had not produced the talent he sought, then Greenock, he doubted, would come to his rescue. But the moment that girl walked onto the stage – actually, a clearing in the chairs – Coak’s eyes, and heart, widened. Who would have thought? And isn’t it always the way that the thing you are looking for turns up in the last place you look? He caught his breath at his first sighting of Elspeth Baillie, fought his own incredulity, dampened down his hopes, and sat in rapt attention for the rest of the evening trying to convince himself he was wrong. But there she stood in front of him – comely, hearty, pleasingly presumptuous and certainly affordable – the best candidate he had seen for his project. After so many years in countless theatres and concert halls, he had seen pret- tier girls. Better actresses, or, at the very least, better schooled in the dramatic arts. Finer singers; performers even more brazen and assured than the Baillie girl. Yet her voice was strong and sweet and convincing; her acting surprisingly proficient but still, he was sure, susceptible to tuition and improvement. And her looks, as the night grew on, struck him at every moment as more remarkable. There had been contenders in the past whose rejection of his offer had irked him: Italian singers who earned, or were confident they would one day earn, more than he could pay; Londoners who had no wish to exchange the mother country for a colony they thought fit only for convicts and fallen women. He was thankful now that these women had turned him down. The fresh, authentic voice that would breathe life into West Indian theatre was found at last, in the middle of nowhere, deep in the slender neck of young Elspeth Baillie.
He did what was necessary: stayed behind in that mean and dispiriting little hall; let his lips touch the “wine” offered to him, and made polite conversation with the entire dreary Baillie family, the vulgar father and feeble-minded mother, all the many cousins, aunts and menials that surrounded the nugget he was about to pluck from their midst. Doubtless, he could have avoided the whole tedious business, put his proposition to her directly, and sent her off on a boat the very next morning, her hampered little heart bursting with gratitude. But he was in no rush. The ship he had just that day chartered would not sail for nearly a month and, being a cautious man, he saw no reason not to double-check a contem- plated acquisition.
The following morning, armed with a telescope, he spied on the family from behind a tree in a thicket of poplars some distance from the harbourside inn the players had leased. He was Galileo inspecting the moons of Jupiter from a million miles away; Napoleon at the head of his Armée d’Orient reconnoitring the unruly malcontents of Cairo. And there was Cleopatra amongst them – more Queen of the Nile this morning, as she shouted and remonstrated with father, mother, cousin and aunt, and stamped her feet on the cobbles of the embankment, than during her death scene the night before. The entourage were taking out the company’s wardrobe, stacking shirts and dresses, tunics and robes, wigs and hats, on to a cart which would trundle them and their owners two hundred yards to the ferry which in turn would take them all to their next engagement, in Helensburgh, across the estuary. The scene was delicious to the watcher: to facilitate their task each member of the company carried a pile of clothes, but also wore wigs on their heads covered by two or three hats, draped cloaks around their shoulders, and stuffed props under their arms. Thus there was an elderly cavalier sporting a judge’s thatch and carrying a Redcoat’s musket. An elderly woman with Rapunzel’s locks brandished a Turk’s scimitar. Helen Baillie wore several false beards around her neck and a stack of tricorns on her head, while bearing a severed head under one arm and a life-size puppet that dangled like a sacrifice under the other. Albert warmed to them immediately, and all the more so to the aggravated Elspeth who, flushed with exertion and temper, looked more theatrical in life than she did on stage. Presumably her petulance derived from an argument over her insistence on absenting herself, without providing any good reason, for an hour on so busy a day. Her excuses, he could imagine, would be naive but forceful; this girl would not let him down, and he began to look forward to their meeting.
Lord Coak was a perfect gentleman during the exclusive performance. He sat at the far side of the room and listened intently to her Lady of the Lake – sometimes, to Elspeth’s consternation, clos- ing his eyes in appreciation for just a little too long.
The family flitting followed by lengthy wrangling with her father to let her escape for an hour, thereby delaying their ferry crossing to Helensburgh, had agitated her. No one was convinced that she had fallen so in love with the northerly views over the Clyde – a panorama she had never been seen to notice before – that she had to spend time on her own contemplating it. She was met with all kinds of accusations, the most foul coming from her father himself, who had no notion of the whereabouts of her tryst but knew perfectly well whom she would be seeing there.
Her discomfort increased on arriving at the mansion of a ship- per – an associate of Coak’s – set high above the port of Greenock, and being treated by the servants as a scullery maid applying for a position she had no hope of securing. But on being led into a finely furnished room, almost as large as the auditoriums she was used to playing in, where her patron welcomed her with an amiable smile, all disquiet immediately left her. As on the previous night, Lord Coak did not waste time with preliminaries, but set at once to business, asking her to perform some little piece for him. Elspeth sang out the opening lines of Sir Walter Scott’s poem with all the lilt and drama she had in her.
“Harp of the North! that mouldering long hast hung
On the witch-elm that shades Saint Fillan’s spring!”
The colonial gent – as immaculately groomed as before – nodded his way through the recitation, smiling here, frowning there. She did not recite the fiction in its entirety – that would have taken long past the hour the ferry was due to leave, and besides would only give her more scope to make a mistake. The version she used had been edited by her father, who had included as much lyricism, and as much battle and death, as any audience needed. She finished boldly, in a strong and steady voice with the subtlest hint of Gaelic in her accent, on lines that she hoped would draw attention to herself, rather than Scott’s heroine:
“A chieftain’s daughter seemed the maid; Her satin snood, her silken plaid,
Her golden brooch, such birth betrayed.”
She gave a little bow and found that, now that she had stopped performing, the trepidation she had felt at the start returned. Lord Coak sat still, nodding quietly to himself, and stared out the window onto the river below, for such a protracted period that she began to worry that she had disappointed.
“A native talent. You would be surprised, Miss Baillie, at how many – if I may say so – far more experienced actors fail to convey their own comfortableness before an audience and delight in performing.”
He looked back out the window until Elspeth wondered if her presence was no longer required. As she moved towards the door, however, he stirred, raising an arm. As if on a spontaneous whim, he asked her to delay a moment. She stood, watching him while he lost himself again in some unfathomable thought. At last, he spoke the thoughts out loud: “I will understand if you judge my next request as scurrilous. You must not think it so and, if you decide not to comply, I hope you will not think ill of me.”
His lordship did not have any particular quality to his voice that demanded obedience; on the contrary, there was a softness about his manner and his speech. His position and title, though imposing, gave him no authority over her. She felt he was a shy man – regardless of what he was about to request – and one over whom she began to feel a little power. She said nothing, but looked attentive.
“You would not, I don’t suppose, consider speaking the opening stanzas again for me, Miss Baillie, but on this occasion disrobed?”
He looked, for a moment, as if he might explain his flagrant proposition, and then waved it aside, turning away once more, and leaving her to decide without further inducements or justification. Elspeth felt her colour rising, though her awkwardness was not caused by any sense of outrage. She would have been more scandalised if a man – of any rank – did not wish to gaze more fully at her. No, the difficulty at this not entirely unsuspected turn of events, was more a matter of policy. If the request were granted would it lead to a further, unwanted, pass? Though she had no objection, now that she considered it, to having her nakedness looked upon, she was quite unwilling to have to return the gaze at any disrobed part of the old man. More importantly, if she were to decline, would any offer he was considering making be lost to her?
He waited until she had made a move, noting that it was not towards the door, before speaking again.
“Great actors, my lady, must lay themselves bare before their audiences. You must not construe any other meaning into my suggestion – strange, I grant, as it must seem.”
All she had done was shift from one foot to another, but from that he had deduced that she was agreeable to his suggestion. He knew before she did. Despite the differences between them she felt this stranger understood her in a way she did not yet understand herself and knew that he spoke not to convince her or defend him- self but to cover the embarrassment between them as she began to undress. He let her do so without once glancing at her. As she unbuttoned her dress she decided to make her voice heard.
“I suggest, your honour, that you retreat further into the bay of the window while I stand closer to the door. You can assure me, I hope, that no one will come in in the meantime?”
“No one shall disturb you either from within or outside the room. You have my word.”
As he spoke he got up and pushed his armchair so close to the windowpanes that she feared he and it might tumble through them. Elspeth placed herself behind the door, and turned away from him.
Privacy, she told herself, unlacing her chemisette, was a luxury to which travelling players, dressing together in sheds behind halls and barns, should not become accustomed. However, looking now at her underlinen, a new worry caused her to colour again: what must such a perfectly tailored man think of her poor, greyed, and stained clothing? To be sure her mother had always seen to it that her simmit and unmentionables were regularly scrubbed, but they were a far cry from new and crisp. It was too late to go back now, though; nothing to do but hope that her blushing did not cover her like a rash and conceal the bonny cherry-blossom tone of her skin of which she was so proud.
When she was quite bare she turned and looked in his direc-tion. Coak waited a moment then turned to her. He kept his glance markedly above her neckline, gawking even at some point above her head, which gave her the chance to inspect him. She satisfied herself he was not an impostor: his weather-beaten face and wild hair spoke plainly of long voyages and hot, distant lands. His clothes could be afforded only by the wealthy, and there was none of Thomas’s wheezing and ruddiness in the presence of feminine flesh. She had lost the fledgling feeling of power while taking off her faded underclothes, but naked now, and he so resolutely look- ing above her, it returned to her. She let a hiatus open up between them: she would not begin her recital until she had his full atten- tion, so she stood straight and dignified until he was forced to glance at her.
“When you are ready.”
Hearing her own voice speaking the first stanza of the poem she recognised it to be even stronger and more masterful than before. Unrestrained by shifts and chemises, and in the full knowledge of having nothing further to shed or lose, she limited her gestures but sensed each one to be all the more graceful and effective in its restraint. She chose other verses rather than repeat herself, leaving in only those which she felt lent themselves to her particu- lar talents, and choosing more menacing phrases from elsewhere in the epic. She let the words and the images build, not so much in volume or drama, but in intensity, and finished with an almost pained flourish:
“The wizard note has not been touched in vain. Then silent be no more! Enchantress, wake again!”
Throughout, his lordship had continued to take care not to let his eyes drop too often or too conspicuously below her shoulder, and, once she had reached her finale, he managed a smile that she suspected masked tears. He clapped quietly and murmured, “Bravo.”
“There is the most exquisite cadence in your delivery, child. Quite natural, and quite remarkable.”
He spoke on in this vein as each turned their back on the other, his words complimentary but serving merely to bridge the tricky business of her dressing and the announcement he was getting ready to make. He rehearsed over again the argument of acting being a stripping away of layers and false coverings, this time, she thought, a touch more apologetically. Once the matter of making herself decent was accomplished and out the way – her jacket and skirts fixed and tattered shoes replaced – the arrangements were immediately concluded for her passage on a cargo vessel to the island of Barbadoes, in one month’s time.
Excerpt republished with permission of Vagabond Voices. Copyright Chris Dolan © 2012.