The Tenth Gift

By: Jane Johnson

“You saw your cousin this morning?”

Cat frowned. “Yes, madam.”

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. Hell 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 gray 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-paneled walls, the granite floor; the heavy, dark walnut and mahogany furniture. Cat would give her eyeteeth 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 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.

ROBERT CAME TO find her later that day. “Will you take a walk with me, Cat?” he asked.

It was four in the afternoon. Lady Harris had taken her daughters, Margaret and Alice, over to Trevailor to visit the Reverend and Mrs. Veale and, smiling, made it clear to her servant that she would have no specific duties for her to perform until they returned after dinner that evening.

Cat shaded her eyes, looking past him across the knot garden and the courtyard toward the open country beyond. Sun spangled the waters of the distant bay and made a fairy-tale castle of the Mount. High up above the hills toward Lescudjack a kestrel hovered, drifting lazily on a current of warm air in desultory pursuit of rabbit or vole. Mares’ tails were strewn across the summer sky: The weather boded fair for another day, and a soft breeze shimmered in the bright leaves of the sycamores and oaks that clothed Rosemorran’s valley. She could find no reason to refuse his offer, nor did she wish to. In truth, she found the house stifling on these hot summer days, and Robert was handsome company. She had no wish to wed him, but it did her pride no harm to be seen walking out with him. Besides, she was keen to discover exactly what it was that had been discussed in so secretive a fashion in the parlor that morning.

She transferred her gaze to her cousin. Robert was watching her much as the kestrel had been watching for its rabbit: hungrily, his keen blue eyes searching her face for every reaction. “Thank you, Robert,” she said at last, drawing out the moment. “That would be most kind. Pray wait for me here while I change.”

There was a small window halfway up the main staircase. Cat glanced out of it as she passed, only to see her cousin twisting his hat in his big hands, as if he were wringing a chicken’s neck. He jammed it on his head, took it off, stuck it in his pocket, then wiped his forehead with a large colored kerchief.

Nervous, she thought, satisfied. And well he might be, for she would never say him yea.

In her quarters, she took her time, changing out of her working dress into a pretty, full-skirted petticoat of white cotton decorated with Flemish lace. She had bought it at Penzance market with the little she had left after handing the best part of her wages to her mother. Around an overdress of blue wool, laced up the front, with a wide white linen collar, she wrapped the crewel-work shawl with its pretty tracery of twining flowers and leaves. It was a pity to spoil the delicate effect of these pastel shades with her heavy leather boots, but even Cat’s vanity could not countenance spoiling her only pair of satin slippers on a country walk. Sighing, she laced the boots tightly and dabbed a little rosewater carefully on her neck and bosom, where the sun on her skin would surely waft it to poor Rob’s nose.

He was pacing the cobbles when at last she appeared, but he had the wit not to chide her for being tardy. More sensibly, he said, “You look most becoming, Cat.”

He won a smile for that but, “Catherine,” she corrected him.

His face fell: She could almost feel the change in his expression as a tangible thing between her shoulder blades as she walked past him toward the lane that ran by the farm cottages.

“Let’s go up to Castle an Dinas,” she called back to him. “I want to blow the cobwebs out of my head.”

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