The Tenth GiftBy: Jane Johnson
“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 only 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 parlor 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 parlor, ready to berate her cousin Robert for allowing such an invasion of ne’er-do-wells. In the smoky, fire-lit room beyond, however, were three figures: not only Robert Bolitho and Thomas Samuels, as she had expected, who sat at the table, but a third man standing in the shadowed corner, leaning against the wall. He wore a dusty traveling 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 license 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 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 spriggans, 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 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 harbored 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, ma’am. I had not meant to give offense. 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.