Dominion of Mercy
By Danial Neil
Edinburgh, 1917: Headstrong Highland lass Mary Stewart is a vibrant woman forced into the world's oldest profession in order to provide for her ailing father and younger sister in the city's Old Town. When her uncle, a well-to-do solicitor with political aspirations, thinks ... Read more
Edinburgh, 1917: Headstrong Highland lass Mary Stewart is a vibrant woman forced into the world's oldest profession in order to provide for her ailing father and younger sister in the city's Old Town. When her uncle, a well-to-do solicitor with political aspirations, thinks that her presence might impede his lofty ambitions he gives her a way out with dignity: a one-way ticket to the frontier town of Anyox, British Columbia, where nurses are needed to care for injured soldiers returning from the war.
Mary agrees to depart Scotland and leaves her sister in the care of her uncle, but finds that a past like hers is not easy to escape, and that living on the frontier has more challenges than even the darkest streets of Old Town. She must survive by her quick intelligence, but that is a quality that few women were allowed to reveal.
In his historical epic Dominion of Mercy, Danial Neil gives vivid life to the gritty world of an early twentieth-century mining town and a radiant protagonist who illuminates its dark corners with her insight, empathy, and bold spirit.
Danial Neil was born in New Westminster, British Columbia and grew up in North Delta. He began writing in his teens, journaling and writing poetry. He made a decision to be a writer in 1986 and took his first creative writing course in Langley with Alive magazine editor, Rhody Lake. While working for the City of Delta, he authored the motto, "Ours to Preserve by Hand and Heart" for the city's coat of arms in 1988. Danial worked steadily at his craft. His short story "Grace" was published in the 2003 Federation of BC Writers anthology edited by Susan Musgrave. He went on to participate in the Write Stretch Program with the Federation of BC Writers teaching free verse poetry to school children. As well participant in Word on the Street Vancouver. He won the Poetry Prize at the Surrey International Writers' Conference four times, and went on to study Creative Writing at UBC. His first published novel was The Killing Jars in 2006, and then Flight of the Dragonfly in 2009, my June in 2014, and The Trees of Calan Gray in 2015. Dominion of Mercy is his fifth published novel. He has completed twenty novels since beginning his writing journey. His prose has been called hauntingly beautiful and lyrical. His poetry and fiction articulate a close relationship with the land, its felt presence in his narrative and vision. His characters arrive like guests and leave an edible presence in a reader's experience. Danial lives in Oliver the South Okanagan of British Columbia.
They had seated me in a chair. They looked at me from across the table as if I were some spectacle, an Old Town abomination. The smell of tobacco and starch, and a certain mustiness that I did not recognize as my own. I had been kept in the jail overnight. Now outside the window, tongues of Edinburgh fog in the street. I knew what they were going to say. Such looks always proceeded a lecture. They had seemed more like sermons, truth be told, with their dire warning if I continued with my immoral ways. Such grim mouths: Chief Constable Ross of the Edinburgh Police, a matron from Magdalen Asylum, and my uncle, a solicitor for the Crown with a sudden sympathy for the wretched of Scotland. Finely dressed in his frock coat, and his bowler on the table with a fashionable cane. I was surprised to see him, an absent man most of my life. Perhaps I misjudged my circumstance there in the Torphichen Street police station. There had been the cautions. How many? I wondered now.
"Now, Miss Stewart," the chief constable began with what I was sure was the answer, "I must inform you that you have now received three cautions. And I am most certain you know what that means. "
"I wasn't counting, sir," I told him. He was a large man in a uniform that cramped his neck like a stovepipe, and I was certain that his twirling moustache consumed far too much of his time. In fact, they were all imposing figures with their loom of fat faces, my uncle included. I believed they only wished to frighten me.
"Well, our constables fortunately can count. And that deems you a common prostitute. Do you know what that means for an eighteen-year-old girl in nineteen seventeen, Miss Stewart?"
"I suppose it means you would rather I be an uncommon prostitute, sir. "
"I would rather you were not a prostitute at all. You are new to all this, I know, but you don't seem interested in changing the fortunes of your life. It is puzzling indeed why you would choose such a profession, if one could call it that. It seems you think all this rather amusing. Well, I can tell you, Miss Stewart, your options are limited. There is a war on, as you know. It has been a year since the Zeppelins dropped their bombs on our city. There were casualties, buildings damaged. I'm sure, like us all, you will never forget that night, a bomber's moon the newspapers called it. And so, the brave young men of Scotland are rushing to the ports. Now, these boys cannot be subjected to venereal disease. The khaki fever has to end. They have a war to win. The stakes are high, Miss Stewart. I feel I must be blunt with you. You leave me no choice. Mrs. McFater will speak to you now. "
The chief constable turned to the matron as my uncle sat silently, his hands folded on the table. I noticed that he hadn't looked at me squarely; instead, he merely turned slightly to the matron. She was an ill-faced woman, stout and bulging horridly in a much-too-tight suit with a rather military look to it. She wore an undersized rolled-brim hat that seemed to amplify a red face that gleamed like a September apple. She had been staring at me. Her eyes scalded me somehow. I didn't like her from the start, but it didn't seem to matter as I was about to hear my first option.
"First of all," she said, "we'll look after you proper in Glasgow. It's the least we can do. Do you know what we're about?"
I felt at such a disadvantage sitting there. I could feel it all escalate, a worsening of temperament, a mood against me, the authority that wanted to punish. But I wasn't a dafty girl at all. I knew when to speak plain and when to be shrewd. "I've heard of the Magdalen Asylum," I answered. "It's a female college of sort. Some of the girls were taken there. I haven't heard from them since, though I'm sure it's grand. "
"You will get your industrial training, my dear. You will work in the laundries. You must submit to the discipline. It'll be hard work, but you will be fed. You're a rather scrawny thing now, but you'll have some flesh soon enough. And that plain 'hoore' dress . .."
A smart girl can lose command of her tongue when the winds change and mockery rises in the throats of witches. "This is your good deed, Mrs. McFater," I said, "putting me to work as cheap labour?"
"We like to think of it as a responsibility to our country," she retorted rather sharply. "But there are certain measures that must be undertaken, Miss Stewart, an examination, before the wayward girls receive the training. "
"An initiation, you say?" My hands lifted before her emphasis. She knew how to be cruel, that one.
"You can call it what you will with your smart mouth. But first of all, you will be checked over by the men, constables with their cold hands. You have a sweet mouth and a fine figure with your brown eyes and ginger hair. And not big-boned like some of the country ladies we get. You will undergo a genital examination. They will inspect your woman parts for disease, and if you have the signs, you will be sent to hospital. And if you are free of disease you will be kept in solitary confinement for three months to be rid of the moral contagion. We'll save you from a life of shame, Miss Stewart, and at the same time restore the moral values of Scotland. That's what we'll do. Now tell me without your cheek, how does that suit you?"
"I don't have the disease, Mrs. McFater. I tell the boys to put on the rubber boots. I'm no fool. And I don't think I like you. You are here to scare me. But I will answer your question. It doesn't suit me at all. I have no interest in leaving Edinburgh. You see, my father and my sister are in need of my income. That's what it is, you know. I'm making a living. And my mother is lost at sea. How can I leave her? It will never be for the likes of you!"
"Your mouth . ..!" the matron said. She reared back.
"My greatest asset, Mrs. McFater!" I said glaring at her. I wanted to set upon her, claw and fang. I felt the muscles in my neck tighten and my heart quicken, but I stopped myself. There was something about her, how she wanted to intimidate, strike fear in those she thought beneath her.
"Please control your outbursts, Miss Stewart," the chief constable said. "This is a serious matter. Now can we continue?"
I sat back. "Yes, sir. " The chief constable stroked his moustache disconcertedly. Oh, I was more than a nuisance to him. But I knew he didn't want to send me to prison. He had daughters of his own, and he knew my story. The matron knew nothing. She was a cow. I feared her. I wanted her out of the room.
"Now, perhaps you wish to reconsider Mrs. McFater's offer. "
"No, I would not, sir," I said. I glanced to my uncle. He sat gravely, no doubt shaken by the assertions of his unmanageable niece. "I understand that the good solicitor here has possession of my last option? And if that is so, I ask that you excuse Mrs. McFater as I have declined her offer, and perhaps anything else you wish to impose upon me. "
"I'm sorry to say, Miss Stewart," he said, "but you are sadly mistaken. You are not in control of this meeting or its eventual outcome. I must inform you that you will be sent to the Magdalen Asylum, if not by an injunction from the court, by your cooperation. That will be your fate, unless . .."
"The solicitor, Mr. Calvin Stewart, your uncle, has a proposition for you. "
"Oh, Lord, I believe I'm about to faint, sir. "
"Miss Stewart, please. I strongly suggest you listen with a clear head. Your impertinence will be your undoing. It is perhaps what provoked the bruises on your face. I can only imagine the injuries you have suffered. Perhaps it was due to drunkenness, or both. If you wish to see your nineteenth birthday, then consider his corrective solution to your circumstance. "
"That's plenty of words, sir. But you confuse me. You cannot see the corrective solution for yourself. "
"Please, solicitor," he said turning to my uncle and appearing somewhat exasperated, "if you could explain to your niece, the possibilities that might sway her. I know you have given this subject considerable thought. "
"The matron . ..," I interjected without giving her a look, scowl, or otherwise. The chief constable gave her a nod and she left the room. The great huff of her.
"Yes, Chief Constable," my uncle said, "I do have a remedy of sort. " And now he looked right at me, but he couldn't hold it. I could see that it was difficult for him. His eyes jumped here and there. It was rather humorous, ruffled he was to be in my presence. "But first, Mary," he went on, "I am curious. I would like to hear what corrective solution that you think the chief constable cannot see. "
"The poverty," I said. "If the city wishes to reduce prostitution on the streets of Edinburgh, then redirect the attention you give it on jobs and better wages for the poor folks. That's all they want, to make a living for themselves. "
"Yes, I understand. But still you must cease with your occupation. That would be the place to begin, would it not?"
"You can say it, Uncle. There's no need to squirm on my account. I know you find it hard to accept that your niece is involved in a most offensive trade, but it's only a word. The chief constable has no trouble with it at all. You heard him say so. I am a common prostitute. Oh, yes, I would cease the business in a minute if I knew a better way. Did you ever consider how awful it might be to have some love-starved minger stick his crusty knob up your fanny, then punch you with his fist for your trouble? I know of such a man. "
"Mary Stewart . ..!"
"Tell me, sir," I said leaning over the table now, defiant and desperate to shock him as if my world would never be known to him otherwise, "why men have a need to rent my body at all? It seems the city is preoccupied with the women. And tell me why the sudden interest. You know very well the state of the poor. Your own brother jobless in the tenements. There with my young sister Lizzy. You haven't been around since my mother passed on. Perhaps in your mind we were decent enough back then when we had a fine home in Portobello Beach. And then my father lost a leg when he was crushed at the Leith docks. You know the story, Uncle, a steel beam fell upon him and sliced him bad, but not clean through. They couldn't save it. A stump with a bit of knee now. Hobbles about on a crutch. I'm sure he would have appreciated your interest in his daughters' welfare then. And my brothers dead on the Quintinshill train wrecks, Paul and Robbie. Going to war for our country. Half the soldiers from the Leith battalion gone. Did you share your brother's pain, sir? Expelled to waste away in a wretched flat in Old Town. Tell me what has brought you out now. Tarnished the good family name? I suppose a solicitor cannot have his ambitions with a scandalous niece about. You must have thought we had all but disappeared into the shadows of Edinburgh. Sorry to have disappointed you. So, tell me, Uncle, what do you have in mind?"
He sat for moment, and it seemed the blood had drained from his face and pooled about his neck. But a seasoned solicitor will find his composure when it's needed. "Firstly," my uncle began, restored somewhat, "I regret, indeed, the circumstances of your father. He has fallen on hard times, to say the least. I may be of some assistance to him, of course, depending on a satisfactory outcome of these proceedings. "
"You seem to think me on trial, Uncle. If guilty of your moral crimes, shall I be hanged in the Grassmarket?"
"Please restrain yourself, Mary. Such dramatics will not serve you. Try to understand that what I propose may benefit your father and sister as well. You will have time to protest my remedy if you wish. But know this: you will be leaving with Mrs. McFater before the day is through if you so choose to reject my offer. And then we will see what happens to headstrong and capricious women. "
A dreadful pall settled over the room like the fog in the street. The chief constable tapped a finger like a metronome. "Very well, Uncle," I said, accommodating now. It was a sobering moment in that humourless room of authority. It seemed they all had their rules and laws. But I must confess that there was a moment when he at last threatened to surrender me to that awful cow, that I wouldn't be able to outsmart them with my satire. I could curse and sally with the best of them. I suppose it had its place when I had to outwit a rough man roused with his demons.
My uncle mopped his brow with a handkerchief, then removed a sheet of paper from his coat pocket. He studied it briefly and then continued. "A magistrate of the Scottish Courts," he said, "a man that I have known for some time, may have unwittingly provided the solution. I was in his chambers one afternoon a few months ago when he began to tell me of his nephew. He liked to speak on matters that didn't include the law at times. I suppose it gave him a certain balance, perhaps a broader perspective on life. It seems the young man was adventurous, and keeping to that spirit, found his way to a land in the far colonies, as the judge liked to call them. British Columbia, Canada. There is a city on the north coast of that province. It is called Anyox. A strange-sounding name, derived from the natives, he told me. It is a mining town, a copper smelter, a robust settlement in the coastal forest. There is a hospital there in need of nurses, as it turns out. The city has all the amenities of a good city, schools, churches, and a tennis court to keep one fit. And there is unbounded fresh air from the sea. You can have a good home of your own. It's a prosperous port, with fortunes to be had by the willing. It just takes forbearance -- and willingness, which I am certain you have in untapped supply.
"You see, Mary, I have arranged and agreed to provide the necessary tuition at the Edinburgh Infirmary to give you a start at nursing, enough training at least for you to begin in the hospital at Anyox. I understand that you were doing well in school before your family's troubles. "
"Before my family's troubles," I said. "That doesn't sound so bad, does it, Uncle?"
"It took considerable convincing, I must say, but I believe you can succeed, Mary. That's what I'm trying to say to you. You seem rather educated, apart from your tendency to quarrel. "
"What is an education, Uncle? My father gave me a bible to read when I could no longer attend school. He thought that was what I needed. No, it was the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Scottish Enlightenment. An old volume handed down through generations of Stewarts. And the Oxford Dictionary, I read it like a disjointed novel. And every child of this country knows Treasure Island. I've read Sir Walter Scott's poems and his Ivanhoe. Then there was Joanna Baillie and her poems -- a true women of the Enlightenment. Life, you should all read it if you wish to learn a thing or two. The rest I learn every day on the street. Is that a proper education for our children? And quarrelling, Uncle, is my defence against those who wish to extinguish what I believe to be true. "
"Mary, listen to me. I'm offering you something different. I have taken the liberty of reviewing the journey. It is not unlike the journey of the many Scots immigrating to Canada every year. The nephew claimed that half the population of Anyox is Scots. You will be right at home by the sea. And there are good wages to be found, enough to send a portion home to your family if you so wish. This is an opportunity, a chance to start over on a good foot, if you do your part, Mary. I don't want to see you perish in some dark tenement, and you surely will. You must leave it all behind, change your ways. No one will know your past. You will not get another chance in Edinburgh. I took the liberty of writing to the hospital when you received your first caution. I did it out of concern. The hospital will be expecting you. "
"And my father and sister?"
"I will see that they are looked after. "
"Speak their names, Uncle Calvin. "
He looked at me with a sleepy eye, hesitated as if it were a struggle for him, as if he did not truly believe that we were kin at all. "My brother Donald, and niece Lizzy. There it is. "
"And you have not spoken to him, then?"
"No, Mary. Your father will need to hear it from you. Go to your family now. Leave your old life in your wake. Report to the infirmary in a day's time. It's all for the best. "
"I don't have a choice now, do I?"
"I believe you will choose this offer over Mrs. McFater's. "
"Tell me, what if I do not succeed at the infirmary? What if they don't like me? What if I'm not up to it?"
"Then I'm afraid you will be dealt with accordingly. So, do all that you can to succeed. I suppose, I have some trust in you. "
"Tell me one more thing, Uncle: how will you benefit from this offer? Let me guess. Your political ambitions will proceed unimpeded. "
"Of course that's it, Uncle, isn't it?"
"I don't think you are in any position to judge me, Mary. "
"I have been in many positions, Uncle, but most, I'm sure, you wouldn't approve of. Nevertheless, your motives belong to you. I feel a certain resentment to your charity when it comes with a condition, the condition that I be banished to the far reaches of the Earth. How perfect for you. However, I see no alternative. I do not want that cow of a woman to set her dumb eyes upon me ever again. It would be ill-advised for her to pass by the butcher shop on High Street. There it is. "
"Perhaps, Mary, there will be a time when you will remember this day. I pray, even if you do not wish to believe me, that good fortune will follow you, and if by chance you meet with difficulty, then may you have the strength to see it through. "
I watched my uncle as he put on his coat and hat. And then he picked up his cane from the table. I watched the subtleties of cheek and jowl, the steady eye now, the resolute mouth, a nod to the chief constable. A game they played in the name of moral reform, or perhaps something more. Good riddance.
Praise for Dominion of Mercy:
"This world is ready, and it needs more of Mary. "
~ Kathryne Cardwell, Winnipeg Free Press
"Danial Neil melds past and present, breathing life into Mary Stewart who is a survivor and force of nature. Dominion of Mercy is an historical novel for our times. "
~ Garry Ryan, award-winning author of the Detective Lane Mystery and Blackbirds Series
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