It Happened in the Highlands

By: May McGoldrick


London, May 1802

“A child’s birth should be a moment of joy, not misery.” The words cut through the busy hum of chatter in the dress shop, reaching the young woman in the adjacent fitting room.

“This girl’s origins are the most miserable, and the most abhorrent,” a second woman trumpeted. “Our society has no place for those with such sordid beginnings, if you ask me.”

The voices coming from beyond the curtained doorway cut Jo Pennington deeply, pricking open the wound that had been bleeding for her entire life. As she stared into the mirror, she had no doubt the two women knew she was within earshot. They had intentionally dispensed with any façade of courtesy. The volume and pitch of their conversation underscored their words.

“Indeed,” the first woman agreed. “I have it on the best authority that the girl’s mother was a baseborn courtesan!”

The seamstress pinning the lace to Jo’s sleeve was pretending not to hear, but her flushed face spoke of her embarrassment.

“‘Courtesan’ is too fine a term,” the second woman replied. “I know what happened. I’ve tried to put the memory from me, but I was there. And I can tell you the girl’s mother was from the lowest dregs of existence. I hesitate to use such disgusting expressions, but we must see the world for what it is, even though it shocks those of us with refined sensibilities. The woman was a slatternly doxy wallowing in a ditch. A stale and shiftless vagrant adding to the world’s burden. To use the words of Dr. Johnson, she was ‘a decayed strumpet.’”

Jo squeezed her eyes shut. She knew only too well the identity of the second woman, though she struck a different pose in the presence of any member of the Pennington family. Lady Nithsdale had indeed been a guest at Baronsford’s Summer Ball when the rain-soaked Countess Aytoun carried a hungry, mewling infant into the midst of society’s elite, only hours after Jo’s mother died giving birth in the mud beneath the cart of a kindly old woman.

But now Lady Nithsdale, loathsome and hypocritical, stood in the salon adjoining the dressmaker’s fitting room, loudly proclaiming all she remembered and even more that she’d invented.

How quickly the clouds blotted out the sun!

Only an hour ago, Jo had been basking in the joys of lively Oxford Street, with its large, bright shops filled with hats and bonnets, slippers and shoes, ribbons and lace. Eyeing the latest fashions in the company of her adoptive mother and sisters, she’d been so happy. While her mind had been on her intended and on her upcoming wedding, eleven-year-old Phoebe and eight-year-old Millie had been cheerfully cajoling Lady Aytoun into the absolute necessity of having matching dresses made for them from the colorful array of fabrics hanging in graceful folds behind the fine, high windows.

And now this. Again. Ten days before the wedding.

Jo forced herself to focus on the image of her fiancé’s handsome face. On his dark blond hair, his smile and his contagious laughter. On his broad chest and shoulders within his crisp naval officer’s uniform. On his large, warm hands holding hers in the darkness of a carriage. But even that could not blot out the hurtful, penetrating sound of polished malice.

“And yet I hear she’s to marry a baronet’s son.”

The second woman barked out a derisive laugh. “Your ears have not deceived you, my dear. She’s to marry Wynne Melfort, a strapping navy lieutenant with more than a few eligible young ladies competing for his attention this Season.”

“Melfort must be poor, I imagine. Second sons do need to make their way in the world, and the Penningtons are as rich as Croesus.”

“I assure you money is the only motivation for this match,” Lady Nithsdale asserted, the sneer in her voice clearly discernable. “The Earl of Aytoun has transformed a pauper child into an heiress worth twenty thousand pounds.”

Waves of shame washed through her, leaving her cold and ill. The young seamstress continued as quickly as she could, pinning the lace to the silver-hued wedding dress. As Jo stared into the mirror, unshed tears welled up, clouding her vision, and the delicately embroidered shells and flowers blurred.