Her Heart for a Compass short story by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and Marguerite Kaye
Enniskerry, County Wicklow, August 1876
‘Ah, there you are! I’ve a pot of tea brewing, and there’s scones hot off the griddle. Sit yourself down and tell me how your day went.’
‘Thanks, Mammy.’ Breda kissed her mother’s cheek and sat down, taking a grateful sip of tea. ‘I think young Seamus has finally turned a corner with his reading.’
‘Poor mite, such a timid wee lad. I told you, all he needed was a bit of patience and encouragement.’
‘You were right, as ever. I reckon I learned more from watching you teach my brothers and sisters to read and write, than I ever did from the formal training I’ve had. You’re a natural.’
‘Away with you! It was always my dream to be a teacher like you, but then I met your daddy and the rest is history, as they say.’
And a wretched history it was, Breda thought, for her parents had fled County Mayo during the Great Famine, only to find themselves struggling to survive in the slums of Dublin. Ten children in quick succession had taken a terrible toll on Mammy’s health, and the perils of working in a brewery had seen off Daddy and one of her brothers. It was a shamefully common tale. ‘Do you ever wish things had turned out differently?’ she asked.
‘I’d not a thought of marriage in my head, until I met your Daddy, but then he smiled at me and I knew. There,’ Mammy said sheepishly, ‘I’ve never told anyone that before. I miss him dreadfully, but I have the comfort of knowing he’s with your brother, and I’ve a lot to be thankful for in the children we were blessed with, who are all making something of themselves, and having families of their own.’
This was said with a pointed look. ‘I have a different family of sorts with every new school term,’ Breda said defensively.
‘You’re a fine looking woman, and you’ve not lacked offers. I can’t help but wonder why…’
‘Well, maybe it’s because I’ve never met anyone I wanted to give my heart to.’ Truth was, she’d never met a man who had caused her heart to flutter, far less swoon. ‘We’re happy enough though, aren’t we, just the two of us?’
‘We are, but it’s not the same as…’
A sharp rap on the door cut her mother short, allowing Breda some respite from this awkward line of questioning. But her relief was short lived when the telegram was handed over. It was addressed to her. It must be bad news. Telegrams always were.
Two Weeks Later
As the steam train screamed through a long tunnel, Breda craned her head out of the window, eager to catch her first glimpse of Edinburgh Castle. Sure enough, there it was, an imposing grey bulk, the ramparts hugging the top of the sheer, black crags. Butterflies fluttered in her tummy as she pulled the creased telegram from her pocket, reading it one last time, though she had memorised every word. It was far too late to wonder if she’d done the right thing, as the train, brakes squealing, steam belching, drew up to the platform under the canopy that covered Waverly station.
Her hands were shaking as she pulled on her gloves and picked up her travelling bag. Stepping onto the platform, her eyes smarting with the smoke, she was swept up in the stream of passengers disembarking. She tried not to panic, but this was the furthest she had ever travelled from home, and it had been a long time since she’d seen the person she hoped would be waiting to greet her. Would they even recognise each other?
She needn’t have worried. There she was, standing out from the crowd with that distinctive head of auburn hair piled elegantly high on her head, her lovely smile breaking out when she spotted Breda and immediately rushed to embrace her, heedless of the crowds and of her own dignity – for she was a married society lady now.
‘Breda! How wonderful to see you after all this time.’
‘And you, my lady,’ Breda replied, blushing, as a number of curious gazes turned their way.
‘I expect you’re ravenous. We shall have afternoon tea at the Old Waverley Hotel and have a proper catch up before I take you to the Sanctuary.’
Tea was served in the Abbotsford Room. ‘Do you remember the first time we took tea together?’ Lady Margaret asked as the waiter set out the plates of tiny sandwiches, hot scones and dainty pastries.
‘At the Shelbourne, in Dublin,’ Breda replied, smiling wryly at the memory. ‘You ordered them to pack up the leftovers and send them to Mammy.’
‘And how is your mother?’
‘She’s very well, enjoying life in the country.’
And you? Dare I ask if you are up for a new challenge?’
‘I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t seriously considering it,’ Breda replied with a strained smile. ‘I must admit, I’m feeling an awful long way from home and all I did was hop cross the Irish Sea. I can’t begin to imagine how you must have felt all those years ago, crossing the Atlantic ocean.’
‘Excited and terrified in equal measures,’ she replied promptly.
‘Weren’t you ever homesick?’
‘Frightfully, at times, but I never regretted it, Breda. I was determined to make my own way, to – to forge my own path, to challenge myself, you know?’
Breda nibbled a pastry, considering this, before nodding slowly. ‘I love teaching at the school but…’
‘There’s nothing new in it for you?’
She was forced to laugh. ‘No, there’s not.’
‘Excellent. Then if you’ve had enough to eat, let me introduce you to what could be your next challenge.’
They crossed the wide boulevard of Princes’ Street, dodging the horse-drawn trams and into the Old Town, another world entirely. It was dark here, the buildings crowded together, the cobbled streets filthy, the gutters stinking. Pale, ragged children, some of them barefoot, sat on the doorsteps, minding the littlest ones for their harried mothers, and Breda felt herself in familiar territory.
‘Dublin or Edinburgh,’ she said grimly, ‘the hard-working poor live the same wretched life.’
‘And in New York too,’ Lady Margaret agreed, equally grim. ‘Here we are.’
They came to a halt in front of a large square building. Edinburgh Children’s Sanctuary, the sign read, Free to All. The door was bright yellow, with a knocker in the shape of a bunny set at child’s height. Breda could hear shouts and laughter from the playground in the back court. ‘This is all your doing?’
‘Oh I’ve had lots of help, but I am always in need of more We have plans to expand, with new premises round the corner, and Morag is in dire need of a trustworthy pair of hands to help her. I do hope you’ll agree to join us. I have refrained from saying too much about you, only that you are extremely capable and vastly experienced.’ Lady Margaret pushed open the door. ‘Morag! We’re here.’
Breda followed her into the brightly-painted lobby. Tall, spindly, beak-nosed, fifty-something, is how she’d pictured Miss Morag McInroy, so she assumed that the young woman with pale-blue eyes and fair hair must be one of the young mothers.
‘Miss Murphy?’ She held out her hand.
Stunned, Breda took it. ‘Miss McInroy?’
‘Call me Morag. It’s a pleasure to meet you.’
‘And you,’ she replied. Her mother had been right once again. Morag smiled at her, and Breda knew.