The stillroom was at the highest peak of the residence that inhabited Geillis Duncan. The room, furnished with numerous types of drying herbs and small vessels containing various essential oils and tinctures lined the walls that surrounded me. It engulfed my senses as the mixed aromas graced my nose as I stepped deeper into the confined space. Turning my head slightly, I peered over my shoulder to watch the heavy wooden door close with a soft thud. It had been the maid, the one that had shown me up to the room in the attic had finally taken her leave from watching me. It wasn’t until after she politely asked if I required assistance while I waited for her mistress—the same one, who was currently entertaining my escort, Dougal MacKenzie, in her parlour. I had swayed my head in protest and murmured a vague form of assurance attached with a forced smile to indicate to the older woman I was fine before she left me to my own devices.
If I were honest, I couldn’t be bothered by my lack of host as I thumbed through the different jars lining the gabled sloped walls of the attic. I was savouring the absence of another humans’ presence, especially since it had become a rarity for me. The tranquil silence that preoccupied me was everything I could have wanted on this gloomy mid-morning as it was penetrated by a creak in the floorboards beneath the heel of my boots as I took another light step forwards, reading the neat script that labelled each bottle as I moved. Geillis Duncan was organised, I’d give her that, everything seemed to have it’s place, as my lips tugged upwards at the immense herbal splendour. It also appeared she wasn’t lacking for anything and had plenty to spare.
I should have foreseen that, that her shelves of the room were well stocked. Dougal wouldn’t have brought me here, with him, otherwise. At least, that’s what I had told myself. I’m sure I wasn’t the first person who came to mind when he decided to an excursion to Cranesmuir. Directing my thoughts away from Dougal and back to the stillroom. I had been well versed in the rumours that circled around Geillis Duncan. The locals of the village believed her to be a witch since she arrived out of nowhere a mere ten years earlier, at least that was my understanding from Mrs FitzGibbons. Who couldn’t wait to familiarise me everything she knew about the woman after I had informed her my plans for the day over my quick bowl of porridge that morning in the kitchen before I departed with Dougal.
The kitchen matron had advised me to be cautious of my hostess, ‘ she’s as cunnin’ as the Devil ’, were her exact words if I remembered correctly. I nodded, only half-listening as I took tiny sips of my tea. I hardly took heed to her warning. Not that I didn’t trust the judgement of the woman that had taken such good care of me. It was simply what I knew about the eighteenth century from different forms of literature. If a woman had an opinion or was slightly altered from what was considered within the normalcy of the times, she was considered a witch.
Fuck , I inwardly thought to myself while I picked up a jar, memorised by my thoughts. If I didn’t tread lightly, I myself could be faced with a witch trial.
“Those will start bleedin’,” a voice said gently, cutting threw my anxieties over witch trials and urged me to focus on the tiny blue flowers in wonderment. “Did ye know?”
“No,” I said, somewhat startled by her sudden appearance as I returned the jar back to the shelf I had taken it from. “Why would anyone want to start bleeding?”
I turned to face her as I spoke, noticing her expression soften over my ignorance before she pivoted to close the door to the stillroom. “To rid themselves of a child ye dinna want, I mean. It’ll bring on your menses but only if it’s used early.”
“As a method of terminating a pregnancy?” I asked, eying the flowers. I had never heard of such a plant while I had attended my botany and herbal medicine classes. In fact, I had subconsciously singled out that particular flower because I had never seen it before. Much like Scotland’s natural flora, which wasn’t common in England and America, it was foreign to me. “You seem to know a lot about it.”
“Aye, a bit,” Geillis answered with a small shrug to her shoulders. “The girls in the village come to me, every now and again for such things. Some even married, I suppose. They say I’m a witch.”
“I had heard that.” I nodded before a smile crept across my face. “A Sassenach and a witch.”
“What a couple of misfits we make.” She delivered a melodious laugh, as a broad smile swept her own features. “Shall we set ye up with herbs and potions?”
“That would be lovely,” I replied as my smiled turned grateful. “Thank you.”
I stepped to the side, allowing her to breeze passed me, causing my skirts to stir in her wake as she moved around the tight space of the attic. Geillis Duncan was not quite what I had anticipated; I decided as she hummed to herself while she examined the shelves before her. She paused for a moment, appearing to be lost in her own thoughts as she ran her petite right hand over the midsection of her gown, her gorgeous green eyes fixed on the containers above her head. A soft noise escaped her lips, as she snapped from her daze and shifted herself to the tips of her toes, taking hold of whatever herb she had been searching for and turned to hand the jar to me before she proceeded the next article on the list I had presented her with when I first arrived.
My hands went to work, twisting the lid of the container she had handed me, removing it and delicately setting it down to the table next to my leather bag I had abandoned when I first entered the room. I plucked several satchels of loose peppermint leaves, as the overwhelming smell danced around me and settled the pouches into a muslin bag I had obtained from Mrs FitzGibbons. Slowly, I returned the lid to the jar of peppermint, muting its fragrance, laid it back on its spot on the shelf, and then took a small step away and pivoted towards the centre table the room. Running my hands against the rough material of my new linen overskirt, I smiled softly in the direction of my host as I accepted another container from her grasp and muttered inaudible words of appreciation.
Geillis began to strike up a casual conversation with me over the various herbs she had in her stillroom and those that weren’t local to Scotland, but her husband had been able to procure for her. Half-listening, I nodded when I felt it was needed as she continued to sort me out with the items I had requested. She was the opposite of what I had imagined her to be. She was a refreshing break from the women at Leoch. She spoke her mind and wasn’t shy about it. She also knew just about everything that was happening in the village—filling me in on the frivolous gossip that had been floating around. I felt for a brief moment. I was back in my time, casually chatting with a friend than a woman from the eighteenth century.
“Do ye need oils or tinctures?” Geillis asked, as she took the mallow root from the table and replaced it to its proper place on her walls, shifting our conversations away from gossip. “Ye know how to make ’em, I’m sure. But if ye need some, that shelve will interest ye.”
“Oh, thank you.”
I eyed the different sized vials as I crossed the room. She had an overabundance, much like the collection of herbs. I scanned the different names of the oils and tinctures, most of them I knew and could easily copy. The recipe was simple, and if I had questions, I’m sure Geillis would have no objections of assisting me. I carefully reached out to a little brown coloured bottle and removed the little cork topper before I held it to my nose. It was one of two bottles without Geillis’ perfect cursive handwriting; it was blank.
Tea tree , I thought, almost in puzzlement as I shot my eyes back into the direction of my host. I held the bottle to my nose again, inhaling the scent. I had half expected it to be different when I was once more greeted with the harsh smell of the oil. Earlier, Geillis had made it a point to tell me how her husband procured her certain things that weren’t typically custom to the highlands. However, in the eighteenth century, tea tree oil wasn’t exactly custom anywhere other than Australia. At least, from the knowledge I had, perhaps I was wrong. I decided, maybe I was misinformed. It was possible that it was only commercialised in the United States until the nineteen-twenties, possibly it was earlier here. I tried to find a rational explanation to how she came into possession of this without allowing my mind to question whether or not she had passed through the stones as well. She was like me.
“Geillie,” I spoke, capturing her attention from the herbs she was pounding in her mortar. “You have two of these unmarked oils. May I have one?”
“Help ye’re self, Claire.” She said to me simply, without even batting an eye or questioning how I knew what it was. It was as if she already knew who I was. Where I was from, and quite possibly she did. However, I wasn’t about to make myself known. Especially to a woman I just met, a woman with just as many secrets apparently as I had.
“Thank you.” I smiled and recrossed the room. I slipped the brown bottle of tea tree into the muslin bag that held my satchels of herbs, along with a few other oils before placing all my new treasures into my large leather bag. “You’ve been such a help. I was nervous Mistress FitzGibbons would begin to think me a pain for stealing her herbs from the kitchens.”
Geillis soft laugh returned at my comment. “’ Tis no trouble to me. Friends help each other with herbs. Now,” she said, freeing the pestle and reached her hands away from her frame and towards mine. “Let’s have a dram and tell each other all our secrets.”
“Lead the way.” I returned her smile and nodded.
My host released one of my hands from her grasp as she turned towards the door. Allowing me just enough time to swoop the strap of my bag with my unoccupied hand and glide it over my head, so it crossed from my left should and settled on my right hip. I took small steps as I followed her away from the stillroom, feeling her hand tug my own as I glanced back once more at the room. The room held her secrets; it showed me who she might be, where she might be from. Exhaling, I issued an unsteady breath from my lips as I clutched the strap of my bag tighter. The bag that contained all of the things I hoped to keep secret from everyone in the eighteenth century.