Mr. Charles Ballantyre’s Estate, Scottish Borders, 1888
The gunshot lifted the rooks from the branches.
James was already running fast through the woodland when he heard it, and he plunged on, cursing now and desperate, careless of skin and clothes that caught on twigs and brambles. He reached the edge of the trees in time to see Jacko fall to his knees, head thrown back, his hands clutching at his chest.
The rooks were etching a ragged halo in the sky as James broke cover and ran to where the poacher lay beside the bulrushes, a booted foot in the shallows. He sank to the ground beside him.
“Jacko! Jacko, hold on—!”
But the old man’s breath was just a wheezing rasp, and his eyes were closed. Blood oozed between his filthy fingers, and spread over his shirt. “No!” It could not end like this.
The circling rooks protested their own outrage, while a coot scuttled to safety amongst the reeds.
James stared down at the wreck of a man, once his champion, protector, and friend. And guilt flared. Oh Jesus, how complete was his own betrayal . . .
“Good God! There’s another of them.” A man’s voice carried clearly from the other side of the river, and James looked up. Then he fumbled through Jacko’s torn pockets for something, anything, to stem the flow. Hopeless. “I’ll get help.”
Jacko’s eyes opened and gleamed briefly. “From them?” And he gave a croak of a laugh. James lifted his head again and looked across the river, his brain sharpening into the moment. Two men in sporting tweeds stood on the opposite bank, looking back at him, motionless. House guests? One had a gun half-raised, and James’s head began to pound. What had happened here? Had they shot Jacko? Reckless he was, half-crazed, maybe, but the old poacher offered a threat to no one but himself.
Then James saw a third figure, hidden by the shadow of an ancient oak, and he cursed, sickened with sudden comprehension. It must be one of the keepers, probably McAllister himself. He would gun Jacko down without a thought, and so settle a conflict decades long. That, he could believe.
Then the man stepped out of the shadows, and James’s heart stopped.
It was not McAllister, nor one of his men.
It was Ballantyre.
Thank God! But the relief withered, stillborn—for Ballantyre did not move; he simply stared across the river at James, and James stared back.
“Run.” Jacko’s voice was a hoarse whisper, his fingers pawing at his sleeve, but James’s eyes were still fixed on Ballantyre, locked with his across the river’s gentle current, frozen into the moment. “Run. I tell you. Run fast, lad, and as far—”
And then the rooks, dark witnesses, broke their circle and flew off, their protests fading into the soft autumn evening. They regrouped briefly above the great roofs and chimneys of Ballantyre House and circled once, as if in judgement, then disappeared into the gathering mist. And the house stood solid on its raised terrace, above the neat lawns and gravelled paths which led down to the river, quite indifferent to the passing moment.
What happened next happened fast. Only later would memory replay the events in James’s brain, scene by scene, endlessly over the years, as he sought the sense in it. Jacko’s body had crumpled in his arms, a spent force, his wild spirit flown with the rooks—and then: bang! A second shot had whistled past James, its wicked breath fanning his cheek.
Somewhere, someone gave a furious roar.
It needed no more. Old instincts, buried deep, took hold as James rose and spun in a single movement and then tore, half crouching, back to the shelter of the oak woods, a fox streaking to sanctuary, to the echo of the rooks’ reproaches.
Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893
Every few minutes the beam of a giant arc light swept the roofline of the White City, cleaving the Illinois night sky to startle the grebes that rode the lake’s dark swells. It lit the sleek undercut bow of Mr. Larsen’s steam yacht Valkyrie, which rode at anchor, adding lustre to her varnished hull, and it reached Evelyn Ballantyre as she leant over the port rail, staring down at the jagged reflections. She began counting the seconds between each raking shaft. One, two, three—and as the beam swept away again, she raised her head, following its course over the ripples to the pier a hundred yards away, where it lit the promenade with its booths and stands, shuttered now for the night, before rising again to illuminate the improbable cityscape of classical domes and colonnades, every roofline a string of stars. The White City . . .
Briefly, the beam lit the aft deck where her father sat with Mr. Larsen, their host. They were elegant in evening dress, taking their ease under the yacht’s striped awning until the evening’s engagement should begin.
“Alright, my dear?” her father asked, lifting his head and looking across at her. She nodded briefly and turned back to the lake. She had sat with them earlier, then risen, excusing herself with a smile that neither man noticed, and drifted over to the rail to watch the extraordinary spectacle as the miracle of electricity transformed the scene on shore. Their conversation had been dominated, as ever, by the day’s newspapers with their daily accounts of bankruptcies and suicides, and she had found it tedious. How could there be anything new to say? She frowned down at the toes of her sequined shoes. It was a new pair, and very fine they were, very costly, purchased during a brief shopping trip after disembarking in New York en route to Chicago. The sequins glittered as the arc light swung back, evoking a glamour that, as yet, had no substance. The White City.
Back in Scotland, when she first heard the name, it had conjured up an ethereal, mysterious place of great wonder, and looking across the shore now, she thought it lived up to expectations. But there had been nothing ethereal inside the noisy Machinery Hall, where they had squandered their morning, nor in the Mines and Mining Building that afternoon. Her father, inevitably, had been fascinated by both places, engrossed by what he saw, probing for information about costs and returns while she stood by with nothing to do but wait and study the extraordinary fashions of the few women there who, like her, attended their male companions. Mr. Larsen had left a selection of souvenir guidebooks and programmes in the yacht’s saloon, and she had browsed through them with a keen interest. “The world has come to Chicago,” he told her with a smile, “so prepare to be amazed.” She had browsed through the Illustrated Guide to the World’s Fair and Chicago and The World’s Columbian Exposition, which informed her that, quite apart from the main pavilions, there was a Japanese garden and a Chinese pagoda to see, a group of Esquimaux and a Red Indian encampment, as well as the well-publicised attractions of the Midway Plaisance. But her father had skimmed over those pages, focussing instead on the dullest of the exhibition halls, not for a moment considering what she might want to see.
Tomorrow, though, when the rest of their party arrived, she and Clementina would leave the men to their machines and explore the wonders of the Woman’s Building together. A whole building designed entirely by women, Mr. Larsen had told her, filled with the creations of women, lined with murals which celebrated the different spheres of womankind, and with exterior ornamentation, the work of a sculptress her own age. She glanced again at her father as he sat there, complacent and urbane, and considered what she had to show for her nineteen years. Buried in the rural fastness of a Borders estate, miles from Edinburgh, she was left for weeks on end with only the dullest of companions, an occasional drawing master and an enfeebled tutor who taught her classics. Did her father ever consider her feelings, or her future? Did he simply assume that she would marry some neighbour’s son, as Clementina had done, and live out her days on a similar estate, while the world passed her by?
The thought terrified her, the sheer relentless boredom of it.
And could he not see, for goodness’ sake, that it was boredom, nothing more, which had led to the Incident? She gazed down at the water again, seeing how the reflections fractured into zigzags as the raking light swept towards the Valkyrie’s hull. A simple friendship, nothing more, born of loneliness and a deepening frustration—it had meant nothing! But the shock of her father’s discovery had spurred him into action, and the outcome had left her more delighted than she would allow him to see. Nothing more had been said about it since that dreadful day when she had stood before him in his study and been asked to account for herself, but she knew that he watched her now with an unnerving intensity and a speculative eye.
Behind her, she heard him laugh at some remark of Mr. Larsen’s and raised her head to look again towards the enchanted shore. He watched her, yes, but he saw nothing. The two men talked of visiting the Electricity Building tomorrow morning, before George and Clementina’s train arrived, and Mr. Larsen had chuckled at her expression. “But we will see the Midway Plaisance too, my dear, I assure you, and Mr. Ferris’s great wheel. Will we take a ride, do you think? Have you courage enough?” She had returned him a tight smile. Did he consider her a child to be placated by a promised treat?
The giant wheel was visible now above the rooftops, lit by a double row of sparkling lights, an extraordinary sight, and she felt another stab of impatience for the evening to begin. But still they talked . . . What more could be said? There were financial and political catastrophes exploding around them, she had been told, and yet the two men appeared to be calm, so she could only assume that they had suffered no great losses. So why the endless debate?
“It won’t be long now, my dear, I promise you,” Mr. Larsen called across to her. “Keep a lookout. The Wizard said to watch for the magic.”
Mr. Larsen was a banker, one of a very small number of her father’s business associates who visited Ballantyre House, crossing the Atlantic regularly once a year in pursuit of the bank’s business, and Evelyn liked him. He was a genial man, generous of spirit and proportions, and he would discuss books and paintings with her, seeking her opinions, exploring her tastes.But invariably, as she struggled to express views half-formed or ideas newly considered, her father would take him away to spend hours closeted in his study, or out on the terrace with their papers and cigars, locked in endless discussion. Thick as thieves, she once heard the housekeeper remark as she sent afternoon tea out to them. Not thieves. Oh no.
She looked back out across the lake’s gun-metal surface as the familiar sickening sensation churned her insides. Her father was respected throughout the county, a magistrate who upheld the law, dealing out the Queen’s justice to thieves.
And poachers . . .
Quickly she shifted her gaze to the yachts moored close by and began counting their bowsprits—anything for a distraction. Eighteen, nineteen—there must be twenty of them, which, Mr. Larsen said, had formed a flotilla from the New York Yacht Club. And now they rode there, pulling at their warps, tethered like restless thoroughbreds, magnificently en fête, dressed over all with bunting and flags, as sleek as their owners. Glossy paintwork bounced the light to brass deck rails and fittings, scattering it across varnished decks, while the aroma of expensive cigars wafted across the water towards her. Perhaps the same anxious conversations were being repeated there too, punctuated by demands to liveried servants who hid concerns about unpaid salaries behind an unctuous servility.
“Now what is the lovely Evelyn thinking, I wonder?”
She was familiar with the banker’s avuncular gallantry, which was offered with a sparkling eye and traces of the singsong accent of his native Aalborg as he joined her at the rail. She smiled slightly and shook her head. From the corner of her eye she could see her father, still seated, drawing on his cigar, watching her through narrowed eyes. Was he asking himself the same question—
“I’m trying to make sense of it all,” she said—and that would be the answer she would give him too, if he ever troubled to ask.
“Ah. The sense of it—”
Well-bred laughter floated across the water from the other yachts, and Evelyn gestured towards them.“Where’s the panic and the collapse you describe? The desperation—”
Mr. Larsen grasped the rail and looked gravely across the row of lifting bowsprits to the largest yacht, the Morgan-le-Fey, which rode complacently in their midst. It had led the flotilla through the Erie Canal and belonged to the Wizard, he had told her, who would be their host for the evening. “There’s panic in the heart of every man out there, young lady,” he said eventually, then pulled out and consulted a pocket watch, its heavy gold chain stretched tight across his corpulent chest, adding, “except in whatever organ provides that function in the Wizard.”
She heard her father laugh. “And I don’t see panic in the eyes of Niels Larsen either, thank God,” he remarked, tipping his head back and blowing blue cigar smoke into the night sky before rising to join them.
“But the money to build the Exposition,” Evelyn insisted, “and these yachts, and the clothes, and the jewels— Where did the money come from, and where did it go?”
“That, my dear,” replied the banker, “is what they are asking themselves.”
And then, without warning, the quiet of the evening was torn apart by a mighty whoosh and the gunfire-crackle of fireworks as a dozen rockets shot into the sky from the bow of the Morgan-le-Fey, blazing trails of light through the blackness. An appreciative sigh spread across the water, and those who had languished on aft decks rose as if called to worship, and within minutes the first of the launches set out.
“The supplicants go to entreat, and the hungry to feast . . .” her father murmured beside her, but panic was choking her senses. At the first salvo she had gone rigid, gripping the deck rail, her eyes screwed shut, her heart had stalled, but it now began to race and her breath came in shallow pants. She forced her eyes open again and stared out across the water, fighting a rising nausea and focussing on the dark shapes of the launches as they cut through the yachts’ reflections, heading for the Morgan-le-Fey. And as the night sky exploded with starbursts and rockets, the air grew heavy with the smell of cordite.
She still felt shaken half an hour later when she was handed up out of the launch onto the deck of the Morgan-le-Fey, flinching as the last of the rockets blazed above her. They were amongst the last guests to arrive, doubtless gaining some mysterious advantage thereby, and the deck of the yacht was already thronged with people…