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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.
Excerpt from Chapter One
“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.”
"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.”