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I had never heard of Traquair House until the spring of my thirty-eighth year. Looking back with the clarity hindsight so often brings, I now realize my oversight had more to do with fate than timing. For an ordinary tourist, the lapse wouldn't have been unusual. But I was Christina Murray. By no stretch of the imagination could I be considered an ordinary tourist.
For nearly eight hundred years the hills surrounding the Innerleithen Valley have shielded Traquair House from the world. Fifty minutes from Edinburgh, off Highway 709, between Selkirk and Peebles, the turn is easy to miss. Most travelers, intent on reaching the sites of the capital, pass by the poorly marked detour with barely a second glance. For me, there is no such excuse. For me, to have missed Traquair House borders on the absurd.
For fifteen years Gaelic antiquity has consumed my life. Even now, in moments of depression, when I seriously entertain the notion of giving it all up and opening a gourmet coffeehouse or a used bookstore, I have only to close my eyes and relive that first semester at the University of Edinburgh.
I was nineteen years old, a student in the foreign exchange program on my way to visit Holyrood House, when I stopped in at the museum on the Royal Mile. It was such a small out-of-the-way place, I didn't expect to find anything important. But Scotland, I was to learn, is filled with surprises.
Reverently I ran my hands over the protective glass containing the Scots' Covenant where the bold scrolling signatures of Montrose and Argyll leaped out at me from the aging parchment. A sword from Philiphaugh stood propped against the wall, and a well-leafed prayer book said to have been used by John Knox sat forgotten on a corner bookshelf.
Farther down the street, in the graveyard of Saint Giles Cathedral, I traced fifteenth-century death masks with trembling fingers and watched angry clouds gather above my head. For the first time I knew what it was to taste rain on the wind, to see the Grampians, gateway to the Highlands, and, in the distance, the clear light-struck waters of the Firth of Forth pooling silver blue into Leith Harbor. My eyes burned from holding back tears. The cobblestoned streets of Edinburgh welcomed me as if I had come home for the first time after a long and empty journey.
That was the beginning. After that first trip, I returned to Scotland once a year. My knowledge of British landmarks became second to none. I learned to navigate every twisting country road between Stonehenge and Dunnet Mead better than I could the streets where I was born, and my driving time from Heathrow to Edinburgh, at night without streetlights, was clocked at just under six hours.
Now, after twelve years of teaching at Boston College and five more of coursework, I was ready to begin my dissertation. My academic reputation was at its peak and my personal life just beginning to rebound from its downward spiral when Ellen Maxwell's letter arrived. The incredible realization that, in all my years of research, I'd never even heard of Scotland's oldest manor house made her invitation appealing. Someone like myself did not just overlook an eight-hundred-year-old manor house.
From the moment I climbed the gravel path to the top of the hill and looked down on Traquair House, it became my obsession. If any of it had happened differently, if the plane ticket from Ellen Maxwell's solicitor had come at another time, if Stephen and I hadn't gone through with the divorce, if I'd taken the grant or answered the summer school advertisement, the whole confusing tangle of the Maxwell-Murrays and the Stone of Scone might have remained unsolved for all eternity.
My introduction to Traquair bordered on the macabre. After a brief word of welcome, a servant ushered me up the stairs to an enormous bedroom and then disappeared. It was my first and only meeting with Lady Ellen Maxwell.
She lay still as death, stretched out under the sheets of an enormous four-poster. I moved closer to the bed, prepared for the worst. It wouldn't be the first time I had seen a corpse. There is something about the absence of life that can't be mistaken. It's the fundamental missing piece, that mysterious primal core of the human condition that no scientific laboratory or skilled mortician can successfully reproduce. The nuns at Mount Holyoake would have labeled it a spirit or, better yet, a soul. Life force is the best I could come up with. Looking down into Ellen Maxwell's face, I knew she wasn't there yet.
Beside the bed, IVs attached to tubes led to her frail wrists. A pitcher with a glass straw sat on the nightstand near a bouquet of sage and purple heather. It had all the elements of a hospital room except for the smell. It didn't smell like a sickroom. This room smelled of pine and spice and the moors near Jedburgh. Who was Ellen Maxwell and why had she summoned me, so peremptorily, to her sickbed?
I frowned and felt the skin between my eyebrows fold into accordion pleats. Consciously, I relaxed, forcing the muscles back into smoothness. Lately, since the divorce, I'd become critical of my appearance. There was nothing more damaging to a woman approaching middle age than frown lines.
The sound of soft breathing reclaimed my attention. I stared down at her face. Despite her age, vestiges of beauty still showed in her features. Her skin was smooth and paper thin. The veins in her temples stood out like blue lines against a white road map. Her hands were immaculate and surprisingly youthful, with long, thin fingers and raised oval nails. Patrician hands.
Somehow I knew that those hands had never felt the sting of cleanser against an open cut. They had never wielded a broom, scoured a pot, scrubbed a floor, or pushed a vacuum. Looking down at that haughty, aristocratic face, I felt a flash of resentment and was instantly ashamed. The poor woman was bedridden and old, and despite the fact that she had money, no one, no matter how indigent, would willingly exchange places with her.
The nurse entered the room, smiled at me, and leaned over the bed. "Lady Maxwell," she said in the precise, clipped tone of London's Mayfair district, "Miss Murray is here all the way from America to see you. Don't be stubborn now. She's been traveling a long time."
Like birds' wings, Ellen Maxwell's eyelashes fluttered against her cheeks. With great effort, the lids lifted, and eyes, foggy from their drug-induced sleep, stared up at me. Several minutes passed as she struggled to focus.
"She'll be fine now," the nurse said. "You may speak to her if you like. Only her body is paralyzed. Her mind is sharp as a tack." She nodded and patted my shoulder before leaving the room.
Ellen's dark eyes, now lucid with intelligence, moved over my face, carefully analyzing each feature. It wasn't a comfortable sensation. Never before or since have I been so calculatingly scrutinized. Feeling somewhat self-conscious, I stared out the window, allowing the old woman to look her fill. I was about to speak when the atmosphere in the room changed. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. Perplexed, I looked down at the aged face and felt the smile freeze on my lips.