The Tenth Gift

By: Jane Johnson

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 black-work that 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 crosshatch of penciled 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 f’s for s’s 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 1625 markes the sad deth of oure kyng James, & the 19th 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 Kenegie I wille also keep herein my musings, for she tells mee it is a goodly dutie & taske for the mynd to thus practiss my letters …



June 1625

MATTY WOKE HER JUST AFTER DAWN. “COME down to the parlor,” 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 drafty 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 crosshatch 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 parlor 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 girls 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 parlor. 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.

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