Read Crossed Bones Online

Authors: Jane Johnson

Tags: #Morocco, #Women Slaves

Crossed Bones (3 page)

Embroidery is an improbable hobby for someone as disordered as me; but it’s the very precision of it that attracts me, the illusion of control it offers. When engaged in stitching a new pattern I can’t think about anything else. Guilt, misery, longing, all flee away, leaving just the beautiful microcosm of the world in my hands, the flash of the needle, the rainbow colours of the thread, the calming exactitude of the discipline. It was the wall hanging that saved my sanity in the days following our break-up.

I returned to London a week later, somewhat restored to myself, to find my answering machine flashing crazily.
You have twenty-three new messages
, the digital voice informed me. My heart thumped. Perhaps Michael had had second thoughts about finishing the relationship, perhaps he wanted to see me. I pushed this possibility firmly away. He was a bastard, and I was well rid of him. Before I could backslide, I deleted all the messages. If there had been anything crucial, the caller would phone again, I reasoned. I knew that if I so much as heard Michael’s voice, my resolve would crumble.

I walked into the bedroom, where all was still in the disarray in which I had left it: the bed unmade, discarded clothes scattered across the room. I cleared everything away, filled the washing machine and came back to make the bed.

The book Michael had given me lay in the tangle of sheets. It weighed beautifully in my hand, its soft calfskin cover warm, as if it were still alive. I opened it at random, folding the ancient paper back with care, and was confronted by a pattern for a slip: a delicate repeated motif of a twining vine designed to be executed in blackwork, which, the author suggested,
would doe beste in a quaife or a caule
or to edge a handcarcheef
. The rest of his instructions were obscured beneath a defacing cross-hatch of pencilled markings. Annoyed, I carried the book to the bedside lamp and squinted at it under the round of golden light.

Someone had written all over the page in a tiny, archaic hand. Long
instead of
, and that sort of thing; it was hard to read and in places blotched and faded, but, from the words I could make out, it had nothing to do with embroidery at all; not unless the author had a taste for samplers themed on blood, and death. I retrieved a magnifying glass from the bureau, fetched a notebook and pencil of my own, turned to the frontispiece and began to make a sort of translation of what I had found.

This daie 27th of Maie in the yeare of Our Lord
markes the sad deth of oure kyng James, & the
th yr of the birth of hys servant Catherine Anne Tregenna & I must give thanks for that & for the gifte of this booke & plumbagoe writing sticke from my cozen Robert with which he sayes I may record my own slippes & paterns. That shall I doe but like my mystresse Lady Harrys of Kenegy I wille also keep herein my musings, for she tells mee it ys a goodly dutie & taske for the mynd to thus practiss my letters

June 1625

Matty woke her just after dawn. ‘Come down to the parlour,’ she said. ‘Jack Kellynch is down there, with Thom Samuels and your cousin Rob.’

‘Robert?’ Cat blinked, still half asleep, and struggled upright. Pale light was forcing its way past the curtains she had made from an old petticoat to hang over the draughty attic window. ‘What is Rob doing here with those rogues?’

Matty made a face. ‘Don’t say that, they’re good lads.’

The Kellynch brothers ran a pilchard boat out of Market-Jew, sometimes joining the seiners and coming back in with the tuck-net full of fish, but more often disappearing for weeks on end, no one knew where, and turning up again much richer, with sly grins and winks for the girls, flashing foreign gold. Matty sighed over Jack; Cat thought him a blackguard and a fool, if a handsome one. Thom Samuels had not even that advantage: he boasted but a single eyebrow, black and lowering, right across his forehead. She laughed. ‘Smugglers and brigands, the pair of them.’

But Matty was already out of the door. Cat heard her footsteps, heavy on the creaking boards outside, then thundering down the stairs. Sir Arthur and Lady Harris had their quarters in the quiet west wing of the house; the servants were in the east, where the noise from the adjacent farm was loudest: if Matty hadn’t woken her, then the dogs and cockerel would. She slipped out of bed. Her stiff dark-green working dress and corset were arranged over the back of the single chair, her linen stockings lying over them like a pair of empty legs. No time for all that lacing and strapping: she straightened her shift and grabbed up her shawl: a vanity, for it was her best, hand-embroidered with a cross-hatch of briar roses in fine wool.

Why was Robert here, and at such an hour? She knew that Margaret Harris had a soft spot for her cousin, and encouraged him to come to the house far more than his duties about the farm might require. With his tangled yellow hair and bright blue eyes, Rob towered over the Mistress by a good fifteen inches. He towered over most folk; Lady Harris teased him that he was descended from the giants of Carn Brea, who had dragged their captives up the hill and sacrificed them on the great flat rocks there, before stripping them of their gold and jewels, which they hid deep in the granite caves beneath. But Cat could never imagine her gentle cousin taking anyone captive, let alone beating their brains out on the stones. It was quite strange enough that he should appear in the company of Kellynch and Samuels, and at a time when the Mistress was still abed.

Curiosity piqued, she slipped her bare feet into her cold boots and headed for the stairs. She found Matty and the dairymaid, Big Grace, peering furtively through the crack in the parlour door. Male voices drifted out into the passageway, along with the sharp smell of small beer and a fug of smoke from the kitchen fire. In low tones, one of the lads said something Cat could not quite catch. The girls listened intently, straining for every word of the hushed conversation within. Grace squeezed Matty’s hand, and the two exchanged a horrified glance. Cat grinned and tiptoed across the flagstones, laying a hand on Matty’s shoulder for balance so that she too could peer into the parlour. Matty made a high-pitched yelp like a rabbit taken by a fox.

Jack Kellynch wrenched the door open. Small-boned and dark, he had the brown skin and bright eyes of the Spaniard his mother was reputed to be – taken, it was said, off a merchantman wrecked on the Manacles, along with a cargo of fortified wine, a chest of gold and silver plate, and bales of Orient silk bound for the old Queen. The silk and most of the plate had made its way to Her Majesty; but the wine had most mysteriously vanished, along with the Spanish merchant’s daughter.

‘Well, now, Matty,’ he said, giving her a hard look, ‘you should know no good comes to those who listen where they shouldn’t.’

Matty flushed a powerful red and looked at her feet, unable to frame a sentence. For her part, Big Grace could do no more than grip Matty’s arm, her eyes round and awed, her mouth hanging open. She was only thirteen, a touch simple, and tiny despite her familiar name.

Cat strode forward. ‘What are you doing here, Jack Kellynch? Matty and Grace have reason, being honestly employed in this house; but you, as far as I know, are honestly employed by no man and have no business in our parlour at break of day.’

Kellynch regarded her sardonically. ‘My business is my own and not something that should concern a Danish wench.’

Cat tossed the tawny hair that had earned her this inaccurate insult and stepped past him into the parlour, ready to berate her cousin Robert for allowing such an invasion of ne’er-do-wells. In the smoky, firelit room beyond, however, were three figures: not only Robert Bolitho and Thomas Samuels, as she had expected, who sat at the table; but also a third man standing in the shadowed corner, leaning against the wall. He wore a dusty travelling cloak, and his boots were muddy. It was only when he took a step forward and the lantern’s light fell upon him that she realized it was the Master, Sir Arthur Harris himself, his expression grim.

‘These men are here at my invitation, Catherine, bringing me information.’

Cat dropped a desperate curtsy, head spinning. ‘I beg your pardon, sir, I thought you were at the Mount – ’

‘And that gives you licence to appear half dressed in company?’

There was nothing she could say to that; so wisely she said nothing, dropping her regard just in time to catch Robert nudging a discarded hat to conceal an object that shone silver against the dark and pitted oak of the table.

When she lifted her puzzled gaze to his face, Robert gave her a fiercely eloquent look.
Go away
, the blue eyes blazed at her. For a moment she stood her ground; then, ‘Excuse me, sir,’ she muttered and fled the room.

She felt Jack Kellynch’s eyes on her back and worse, all the way up the stairs.

‘Now, then, Catherine,’ Margaret Harris said as firmly as she could, ‘my husband tells me you were indecorous this morning, appearing in full view of his companions in little more than a chemise. He has asked me to have a word with you: we want no scandal here at Kenegie; and I promised your mother that I would be as a mother to you in her stead.’

Cat’s head came up at the mention of her mother. Her father, John, a militiaman for Sir Arthur in the garrison on St Michael’s Mount, had been taken by the plague that had swept through the region two years previously, leaving Jane Tregenna and her daughter without income. It was generally whispered that Mistress Tregenna had been cursed by piskies, for since the birth of Catherine there had been no other children; Cat herself suspected there had been little love lost between her parents. Margaret Harris had offered them both positions at the house, but Jane Tregenna regarded herself as far too much a lady now to be a servant again. Instead she had taken herself off to her brother Edward’s well-appointed home in Penzance, leaving Catherine to be taken under the Mistress of Kenegie’s wing, whereby she was generously offered not only the income of a bodyservant, but more education and encouragement than any girl of her upbringing had ever been bred for. Cat knew her mother harboured wild ambitions for her; she probably had her eye on one of the Harris boys. If she lost her position at the manor, she knew she would never hear the last of Jane Tregenna’s bitter tongue.

‘My pardon, my lady. I had not meant to give offence. Matty… I heard a disturbance below and was concerned that there might be intruders.’

‘Going half naked downstairs to investigate does not seem to me the wisest course of action. Had there been ruffians down there, you would have endangered yourself and placed me, as your guardian, in a most difficult position. Do you understand that?’

Cat nodded slowly. ‘But, my lady, I was not “half naked”; I held a shawl over my shift to guard my modesty, I swear.’

The Mistress of Kenegie smiled. ‘And would that have been your best shawl, Catherine, bearing the crewel roses?’

Cat had the grace to blush. ‘It was.’

Margaret Harris appraised the girl silently. Cat was nineteen now and comely, even though her hair was that unfortunate golden-red. Her mother, Jane Tregenna, was small and dark, worn out by life’s disappointments; her dead husband had been a crabbed, brown-haired man with the small, close features of the Lizard villages (where it was well known they had gone on all fours till the crew of a foreign vessel wrecked on the coast had settled among them and improved their stature and physical development). An unlikely marriage that had been, and one that hinted at compromises made under pressure: Jane was a Coode, a proper old Cornish family: reputable, deep rooted, well respected. The Tregennas were farmers from Veryan and Tregeare; John had been a third son without even a land-living to fall back on, which was why he had signed himself up as a militiaman. Not the best prospect for a pretty girl from a decent family; and certainly there was no clue in that parentage to the provenance of Catherine’s fox-red hair and long, straight limbs. Nineteen was a dangerous age: the girl herself should be married, and soon. She had seen how her sons William and Thomas watched Catherine as she moved around the house.

‘You saw your cousin this morning?’

Cat frowned. ‘Yes, my lady.’

Margaret Harris smoothed her skirt. ‘He is a good worker, Robert. Sir Arthur has often said as much. It would not surprise me if he were to offer him the position of steward when George Parsons retires.’ She watched the girl’s face for a reaction. ‘Of course, he would be more likely to progress thus were he settled, with a family,’ she pressed.

‘Oh, Robert has a great many family hereabouts,’ Cat said airily. ‘There are Bolithos and Johns in every hamlet and farmstead from Gulval and Badger’s Cross to Alverton and Paul. He’ll never leave the area: he has not that type of ambition.’

‘That’s not quite what I meant,’ the lady said quietly. ‘He is a gentle and an able young man: not to put too fine a point on it, quite a catch for a country lass.’ She fixed Cat with her lucent grey eyes until her meaning came clear.

‘Oh.’ Cat stared at the patterned rug that stretched between them: the Turkey rug, her mistress called it. It was brightly woven, with gorgeously dyed motifs in cream and crimson and umber, and it glowed like a living thing among the dull, earth hues of the rest of the room: the wood-panelled walls, the granite floor, the heavy, dark walnut and mahogany furniture. She would give her eye-teeth for wool like that to work with. How beautiful the tapestries and embroideries of the Orient must be; how she would love to see them, but it was likely she would never be closer to such work than she was at this very moment, standing on the Turkey rug. She raised her head and looked the other woman steadily in the eye. ‘My cousin is a good man, and I am as fond of him as if he were my brother,’ she said firmly.

Lady Harris decided that it was not yet the right moment to pursue the subject; but she was determined that before the summer was out, Catherine Tregenna would be Catherine Bolitho.

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