by Kirsten MacQuarrie
In 1810, schoolmistresses Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods sued Lady Helen Cumming Gordon for libel after she told her fellow parents and guardians that the two had been ‘bedfellows… guilty of lewd and indecent behaviour towards each other’: sending shockwaves through Edinburgh’s establishment and forcing the closure of their girls boarding school within forty-eight hours. The accusation had first been made by Lady Cumming Gordon’s granddaughter, also called Jane.
‘Does she speak English?’ He scrutinises me from behind the bench.
‘Excellent English, my Lord, given the… shade she is.’ Alas, I cannot prove it. None of the many words I might use to describe the assembly of men appraising me is remotely suitable for a court of law. Even a ‘foreigner’ like me knows that.
‘And her name is… Jane?’ Same judge. Same scepticism. I suppose the Janes he knows are not connected with India. Nor will they be my colour. English roses and even Scottish thistles are said to wilt in my homeland’s heat.
‘Named by her father, my Lord.’ Obsequious and obvious, Grandmama’s lawyer keeps his focus trained on the black-robed row of judges before us, clustered together like sullen crows obliged to perch along one rain-slicked Old Town wall. ‘Jane is the…’ His turn to be stuck for words. ‘… natural granddaughter of Lady Cumming Gordon.’
‘As dark as that?’ Lord Newton sneers, pouring out a glass of claret (his third). ‘One wonders if her mother did not spin the late Mr Cumming a tall tale…’
The old man groans. ‘I digress.’ He turns to me, pale eyes shrivelled yet somehow still leering. ‘Tell the court, Jane, what you saw on the night in question.’
‘Nights,’ I correct him instinctively. ‘There were more than one.’ His watery gaze hardens like I am a stain on an otherwise spotless scene. A black inkblot on his white page. He starts to write. ‘It happened just as Miss Munro said,’ I offer, as conciliatory as I can.
‘But I wish to hear you say it.’ His manner is that of someone used to getting what he wants. I wonder what it feels like.
‘I saw…’ The words of my statement–the words that I know are already laid out before all six judges present (one has not deigned to attend in person)–snag in my throat. The air feels stale, my mouth dry as if my tongue were furred and coated with grime. ‘I saw Miss Woods climb into bed with Miss Pirie. I heard their whispers and…’ I cannot swallow. I fear I will faint. ‘Fast breathing.’
‘And what else?’ Another judge leans forward, Lord Robertson perspiring under the crusted hairline of his crooked wig in unsavoury eagerness to hear more.
‘The…’ Disgust curdles inside me, but not because of my words. Because of myself. Because of this place. Because of that fat oily forehead, glistening grotesquely in the candlelight. ‘The bed was shaking.’
I feel Grandmama’s eyes on me. Miss Woods’s, too. Miss Pirie refuses to look at me.
‘Welcome, Jane. We’re very glad to have you with us.’ Two mistresses; one school. Best friends, they told me, together since their trainee governess days back when they were barely older than me. ‘And a decade on…’
‘Still inseparable.’ Even their manner of telling the story felt intoxicating to me. Finishing sentences, intuiting ideas, responding rhythmically to one another’s gestures as if life were a grand waltz and both women had found their perfect partner. I had never known such synchronicity. I doubted I ever would. Surely one has to belong before one can belong to another? My girlhood memories of India felt increasingly remote, radiant sunshine swamped and shadowed by dour Edinburgh grey. Yet here in the city, however long Grandmama cared to keep a roof over my head, I feared I would always be seen as a stranger.
‘Bring your bag, Jane, and I shall show you to your dormitory.’ Miss Woods walked ahead of me, her dainty steps almost like skips. She was pretty, doll-long lashes framing her emerald eyes, with a well-cared-for feel about her plump, peachy figure and luxurious blonde hair. Miss Pirie was different. Her jawline was square, an angular silhouette that made one–made me, anyway–want to draw it: tracing the uncompromising shape of that determined-set mouth along with brows too dark and full to be considered feminine. Intelligence rippled through her, cleverness embedded into that penetrating, perceptive gaze, but she was not what people here deem attractive. Neither am I. Grandmama had critiqued me mercilessly when I arrived, scanning every inch of my features to find some lingering trace of her child, whose child I was. In whose memory I had been sent for.
‘All that’s left of him,’ she had sighed, bony white fingers resting against my face. Nothing like my father’s apparently. I have only ever seen one engraving of him, a foppish fair fetlock drooping over the gaze of a weak-chinned, cravat-cosseted young man. I wonder what my mother saw in him. Not, surely, that she would die bearing his bastard.
‘I hope you come to feel at home here.’ Miss Pirie’s touch had brought me gladly back to the present. It felt strong, like the rest of her. That firm, reassuring weight of her palm on my shoulder gave a palpable comfort whose significance I could not quite articulate at the time. I realised only later it was the first physical kindness I had known since coming to Scotland. Queer as it might be, the sensation was one that I carried with me for the rest of the day, a private pleasure kept locket-like close to my heart as I endured my subsequent trials as the new girl. My main struggle was not with the lessons–opaque and near-incomprehensible though some were–but with the girls. Unlike my sums, they regrettably could not have been clearer.
‘Watch out Janet, there’s a dark shadow following you,’ warned one as I slipped shyly into line behind her companion.
‘Heard the forecast, Mary? Looks like a black cloud on the horizon.’
By bedtime, I was ready for oblivion. None was forthcoming. As our minutes in the darkened dormitory ticked towards an hour and all the other girls slept soundly (or so I thought), hazy whispers started to fill my ears. Other sounds, too, whose origins I could not imagine. The door creaked ajar only inches before a floorboard issued a half-creak, soft as breath. Then the real breathing–fast, frantic, furtive–began. Why did Miss Pirie not hear? She slept in with us, Miss Woods supposedly supervising the other dormitory, but to this night-time subterfuge, the mistresses were literally unconscious.
In my innocent, exhaustion-fogged mind, the scene seemed inconceivable. Yet here was one girl–Janet Munro, I think her name was?–having crept from her dormitory into mine, wrapping herself in the covers and arms of another–Mary, maybe?–whose bed lay beneath the windowsill. I felt guilty as I listened to them, sighs high-pitched yet ragged as if attempting to run without moving. But the girls were moving in a way, bedclothes twitching as their giggles turned to whimpers: stifled little cries that somehow did not mean stop but keep going. Silent, I turned to study Miss Pirie’s face while she slept on, unaware, in the bed beside mine. That strong jaw had softened slightly in her slumber, her top lip fluttering as if caught in a private breeze. White crescent moon slivers appeared each time her eyes rolled back on an exhale. I kept on observing her through the girls’ every groan and moan. Unable to see colour in the gloom, I wondered if my mother had looked anything like Miss Pirie.
‘Can you read?’ Across the court, I sense even the two Misses bristling at that insult by proxy.
‘Did you learn at the school?’
Aged fifteen? ‘I learned as a child, sir.’
His surprise seems genuine. ‘In India?’
‘In India.’ We could teach you things, I wish I dared tell this courtroom’s pompous parade of fools. We could teach you many things, if you would only open your small minds to learn.
‘And is India where you first came across references to these…’ a pause, permitting Lord Newton to fortify himself by imbibing yet more claret while Lord Robertson tries and fails to straighten his wig ‘…these practices?’
‘No, sir.’ I hardly needed reference after witnessing the real thing, I should say (although mid-drink, it might cause Newton to choke). Yet another of their number interjects before I can speak again.
‘What purpose does this line of questioning serve?’
‘Clarification, Lord Boyle.’ The prosecutor volunteers his answer instantly, deferential as our defence. ‘Clarification as to where this vile notion first polluted the young girl’s mind. Foreign climes, I have no doubt. The unnatural perversions she alludes to are those of which, I am happy to say, the ladies of Edinburgh are wholly innocent.’
Slowly the school holidays approached, muted murmurs of excitement building to a crescendo as the other girls gleefully readied themselves for their return journeys home. For the first time, I felt as if I could almost be one of them: bubbling over with anticipation because I, too, was getting what I wished for. Miss Pirie and Miss Woods had granted me permission to stay the summer. Grandmama seemed almost as thrilled as I was when they confirmed it. Those cold cut-from-marble features betrayed rare emotion in the form of relief, yet her undeniable gladness did not offend me. I felt it too, waves of pleasurable release rippling through me each time I re-remembered that I was soon to have a break from my classmates. No more gossiping or gloating to contend with; no more catty cruelty to leave me in tears. Instead, my endurance would be rewarded with the finest prize I could dream of. Time alone with Miss Pirie. Or almost alone.
‘Pass me my sketchbook, won’t you, Jane?’ Miss Woods had called from up ahead on our first Botanics walk as a trio, pausing to crouch in front of a full-bloom yellow rose. ‘Ah, I mean Jane Cumming! How curious that you share the same Christian name.’ From our substantial luggage for the outing–ladies, it seemed, never travelled light–I handed over her chalk pencils while she knelt before the flower. ‘Beautiful, is it not?’
Miss Pirie smiled as Miss Woods’s light fingertips darted over her blank page, reimagining the delicate bloom in glittering sweeps of stardust-fine pastel. ‘Beautiful, Marianne.’
‘What does a yellow rose symbolise?’ I asked, a little louder than intended. While mathematics continued to muddle me, our class had also started studying the ‘language of flowers,’ and I felt suddenly eager to demonstrate initiative.
Miss Pirie’s grin widened. ‘Everlasting love.’ The flower’s preliminary form captured, Miss Woods trotted girlishly back over the grass with Miss Pirie following in her wake. Unnoticed, I plucked and pocketed the rose to take back with us.
That evening, I thought (more truthfully, I feared) that my teachers would sleep in the same room, leaving me alone in a dormitory fit for six.
‘Perhaps tomorrow,’ Miss Pirie clarified, her cheeks faintly flushed even though our excursion had been hours ago. ‘For your first night alone, I had better be there to keep an eye on you.’
Despite the darkness, our shared room soon grew humid, an airless warmth building in what Scots call the ‘wee hours,’ and worsened by the fact that the window Mary usually slept beneath was stuck shut. Sighing in her slumber, Miss Pirie kicked out a restless leg from under the covers, her gossamer summer shift riding up to expose one pale, milky calf. Even through the shadows, her sheer whiteness seemed to gleam at me. Skin unseen during daylight hours. Untouched anytime, by anyone, I presumed. While I watched, Miss Pirie’s hand draped over the bed frame. Shedding my blanket, I knelt to kiss it. Kiss her.
I could have retreated. Feigned sleep. I had become adept at it, thanks to Janet and Mary. But thinking of them made memories of their noises surge back into my ears, phantom moans and smothered sighs throbbing through me in time with my rapid pulse. I heard the page-turn rustle of crisp cotton shifts being raised; that urgent flurry of fingertips between bodies as if something precious had fallen and could only together be found.
‘Mm?’ Miss Pirie remained nearer to sleep than wakefulness. Her hand spasmed, strong palm pressing into my own.
‘I love you,’ I whispered, laying the yellow rose on her pillow. ‘I love you, Jane.’ Same name. Same heart, I told myself.
‘Marianne? Marianne, my love, is that you?’
No answer. I could not answer. The silence made her come to, her senses sharpening as I slunk almost convincingly back to my own bed. Through the darkness, Miss Pirie looked startled, or rather shocked, but not at my touch or even my words. Only at my having spoken them.
‘Go back to sleep, Jane.’ Tone firm, she rolled away. The motion made the rose slip to the floor. I stared down at where it lay, translucent petals absorbed by black. ‘Queer child,’ I thought I heard Miss Pirie mutter into her pillow.
I made Janet corroborate. Blackmailed her, I mean, any guilt that might once have troubled me submerged beneath shame and the ache of my shattered heart.
‘I’m certain someone came to our dormitory from yours,’ I warned the girl, stark and solemn. ‘It was either Miss Woods or you.’ Janet trembled terribly when compelled to address the court, her wide eyes agleam with glossy tears sprung from fear. I coped much more impressively under the pressure, Grandmama’s lawyers praised me. Must be the robustness of a ‘native’, they said.
I know other, better words for myself. Spoiled. Sullied. ‘No respectable man would’ve wanted her anyway,’ I overheard one old friend try and fail to console my grandmother. The mistresses may have lost their school, but in a moment’s vicious vengeance, I have lost my virtue and my prospects, my potential, and whatever remnants of once-removed love I inherited on coming to this country. Even our esteemed judges now seem authentic in their distress, tormented by the choice my accusation has set before them. Accept that two Godly spinsters truly behaved so, or that two young ladies knew enough to concoct a lie about it. One side must be depraved and dissolute. Disgusting. A disgrace. Of course, to this pallid courtroom, I already am. Perhaps the Misses pray my skin will save theirs.
‘We have reached our verdict.’ The room should be turning to face them, but I sense eyes everywhere watching me. Without conviction–not yet anyway–I tell myself it has been worth it. At least now Jane is looking at me.
4-3, the swing vote belonging to Lord Polkemmet who declined to attend a single day of the trial, the judges found in Lady Cumming Gordon’s favour. After an 1812 review supported Miss Woods and Miss Pirie, however, the matter was taken before the House of Lords, where this ‘most extraordinary appeal’ was heard behind ‘shut doors’ due to its ‘very singular nature’. The matter was not finally dismissed until 1819 when Lady Cumming Gordon was instructed to pay damages to the schoolmistresses. She never did.
Marianne Woods moved to London, where it is believed she continued to teach. Neither Jane was heard of again.