The Tenth Gift

By: Jane Johnson



Robert stared out across the sea, his jaw set. “Are you using the book I gave you?”

“Yes. It was most kind of you to remember that I admired Lady Harris’s copy. It is most gratifying to have one of my own,” she said stiffly. “Some of the slips are very useful, and I have devised a few variations which the mistress says are exceedingly pretty.”

“Good. I am glad to hear that you are practicing your craft.”

“I mean to be a master embroiderer and join the Guild.”

Rob grinned despite himself. “And how will you do that from the depths of darkest Cornwall, Catherine? I fear geography is against you. And will you change your sex? The Broderers Guild is a guild for master embroiderers, not for little chits, be they ever so clever with a needle.”

“So you gave me the book merely to humiliate me?”

Rob took her fingers between his two huge hands. “Never, Cat, believe me. I am more than proud that you have your commission from the Countess of Salisbury.”

She pulled her hand away as if burned. “How do you know about that? It is a secret. I have been told to say nothing of it.”

“Lady Harris mentioned it—she could not contain her delight. To work the altar cloth for the Howard family’s own church is a great privilege, and that she played her part in the countess’s decision to give a Cornishwoman such a prestigious task has given her no little satisfaction.”

Cat bit her lip, coloring. “It is a great responsibility. I have never undertaken anything so large or so ambitious before—I have not even planned it out yet.”

Rob’s eyebrows shot up. “You mean to design it yourself?”

“Of course.” She glared at him, daring him to question her right to do so.

It was unheard of that a woman should take it upon herself to create her own grand design; in the natural order of things this was the place of a man. It was why he had bought her the book: to aid her work and ease her way, to enable her to copy a master’s designs. Everyone knew that women had not the capacity for abstract thought; in this, as in so much, men dictated and women followed.

He suspected, rightly, that even as Lady Harris had recommended her protégée to the countess for the task of embroidering the altar frontal, the agreement had been that Cat would be a journey-woman, working to the pattern created by one of the master embroiderers who made their living traveling among the great houses selling their designs. Unfortunately, no one had told Cat this. One day, he thought, she will overstep herself and take a great fall. He hoped he would be there to catch her when she did. “As long as you are sure,” he said quietly.

“Quite sure. But until I know I can do it, I do not want to discuss it. Let us instead talk of the blade that was laid out on our parlor table, the big, curved silver knife that you tried to cover with your hat.”

Robert caught his breath, taken by surprise. “The master said we were to discuss it with no man.”

Cat laughed. “Unless it has escaped your notice, Robert Bolitho, I am no man.” She watched him, as unblinking as her namesake.

Rob sighed. “For the Lord’s sake, don’t tell Matty or the entire county will know by sunrise,” he warned her.

Cat crossed herself, solemn at last. “On my father’s bones, I swear.”

“You know the Newlyn boat—the Constance—that went missing last week?”

She nodded. “Crew of eight, including Nan Simon’s cousin Elias? She’s come in—they’re alive and well? Nan’s been half sick with worry.”

Robert shook his head. “There’s no good news. She came drifting in through the fog to Mousehole this morning. Jack and Thom were down there, attending to … some business. They caught her bumping against the rocks outlying St. Clement’s Isle, with not a soul aboard, the sails hanging limp and the nets unused.”

Cat frowned. “But it’s been fair weather this past week. There have been no waves high enough to overturn a boat.”

“And certainly not a well-made vessel like the Constance. Thom said the sides were raked, though that might have been the rocks, but Jack swears the gunwale was split by something like a grapple.”

Cat’s eyes went wide. “And the blade?”

“Left between the planking in the bilges.”

“It looks like no blade I’ve ever seen.”

“Nor I, and I like it not.”

“What does Sir Arthur say?”

“There’s been an increase in attacks by privateers on shipping off the south coast, but up to now it’s been mainly unaccompanied merchantmen that have been struck and their cargoes taken. Nothing unusual about that, and heaven knows our own boys have been guilty of similar attacks on French and Spanish merchant ships all through the British Sea. But I cannot understand what profit there is to be made in attacking a fishing skiff.”

Cat shuddered. “Perhaps ’tis sheer mischance?”

Robert made a face. “Perhaps. But mischance does not explain the presence in the boat of a Turkish blade.”

“Turkish?”

“Truly, Cat, I can say no more without earning the master’s ire. I have already said too much. Rumors spread like wildfire in this region, and Sir Arthur is concerned that there will be widespread panic over something that may prove to be no more than an isolated incident.”

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