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Porthruan Monday 24th June 1793
'No, Mother. Never! I'd rather salt pilchards all my life than marry that man. Mr Tregellas is corrupt and dangerous. I'm sure he tricked Father into bankruptcy ... and you expect me to marry him?'
Flinching from my tone, Mother avoided my eyes. She had changed so much in the last year. Always so proud and hardworking, she was now fragile as a sparrow; her dress, with its invisible mending and reworked seams, drab and worn. She had aged, too, for her forty-five years. But it was her expression of resignation that frightened me – she was like a spring with no recoil.
'We can make do,' I said more gently, guilty I had shouted so fiercely. 'My bookkeeping's bringing in some money and your sewing's paying the rent. We're managing well enough – we can go on as we are. There's no need for me to marry – least of all William Tregellas!'
Despite the warmth of the June sun shining so brilliantly outside, the parlour was cold and musty, the small, leaded window seeming to block, rather than admit any light. It was sparse and cheerless with dark patches of damp showing brown against the lime-washed walls. Two high-backed chairs faced the empty grate and a dresser stood crammed against the wall. I knelt by Mother's feet, taking hold of both her hands. They were worn and rough, her fingertips reddened by excessive sewing. 'I'll take care of you, Mother – we'll be alright.'
'I wish it was that easy,' she said. 'Since your father died, Mr Tregellas's been very kind to us. We couldn't get Poor Relief and I didn't know what would become of us.' She began fumbling for her handkerchief. 'I told you Mrs Cousins let us have this cottage cheap, but it wasn't true.' She held her handkerchief against her mouth, as if to stop her words.
'Don't tell me Mr Tregellas's been paying our rent! Don't tell me you've accepted money from that man!'
Her shoulders sagged. 'I thought 'twould only be for a short while ...' She hesitated, as if too scared to go on, '... but that's not all. There was no public gift for your father's burial – Mr Tregellas paid for it all.'
'What else could I do?' The tears she was holding back now began to flow freely. 'Would you have your father rot with vagabonds? Lie alongside some stranger in a pauper's grave? What choice did I have? Mr Tregellas is a kind man and he's been good to us – he wants to help but you're too set against him to see any good in him. And ...' Her voice turned strangely flat, ' ... over the past year, he's grown that fond of you ... and he doesn't want to wait any longer.'
I felt dizzy, sick, the walls of the room crushing against me as the unpalatable truth began to dawn: I was being bought by one and sold by the other, as surely as if I was a slave on the market block. 'What arrangements have you made, Mother? I take it you have made arrangements?'
My fury made Mother wince. 'Rosehannon, think what he's offering – a position in society, a steady income ... servants. He's a respectable timber merchant and he's that taken with you – it would secure your future.' Her face took on a look of longing. 'And we'd go back to Coombe House – to where your father always wanted us to live – instead of scratching a living in this damp cottage. Your father would want that.'
'Father? Approve of me marrying the man who cheated him?' I could not believe my ears. I missed Father desperately and needed his counsel so badly. Mr Tregellas had been manipulating Mother, I could see that now. He had been drawing her in like a fish on a line until he could land his catch – only, I was the catch. Bile rose in my throat. 'Perhaps you should marry him, Mother – after all, he's nearer your age than mine!'
'You know very well it's not an older woman he wants.'
'He disgusts me and I'll not marry him. And that's all there is to it.' I lifted my skirts, striding angrily to the door.
Mother's voice followed me across the room. 'That's not quite all there is to it,' she said slowly. 'He's given us until your twenty-first birthday – then he wants his answer ... or he'll call in his loan.'
'But that's in three weeks' time!'
'I know,' she said, staring at the empty grate.
I thought I would faint. The room was spinning round me, pressing in on me. I needed to breathe the air that gave me courage. I am born of Cornwall, born from generations of fishermen and boat-builders. The wind is my breath – the sea is my blood. I draw my strength from the remorseless gales that lash our coast, the waves that pound our rocks, the gulls that scream, the wind that howls. I needed to escape the close confines of that hateful cottage.
The door to the scullery was open. Wiping her hands on her apron, Jenna left the dough she was making, following me out to the sunshine. She had heard everything, of course. No need to press her ear against the crack in the parlour door, for we had spoken loudly enough. Strands of blonde hair were escaping from under her mobcap and flour dusted her cheeks. With eyebrows raised and mouth pursed, she whistled in disbelief.
'What?' I said, pushing past her, scattering the hens in my anger.
'Will ye marry Mr Tregellas?'
'No! Of course not!'
She took my arm, leading me across the yard. The stone step behind the back gate was far enough away, but near enough if Mother wanted either of us. Over the last year we had found ourselves sitting on it, more often than not, and it had borne witness to our growing friendship. Instinctively we made our way there, the warmth of the sun beginning to take the chill from my heart. 'Here,' she whispered, her hand diving under her apron, 'these might help.'
Her dimples deepened. Wrapped inside a cloth were two apple dumplings. She handed me one and without another word, I took a bite. It was delicious – the suet light and fluffy, the apple juicy and tart. Licking our fingers, we leant against the gate, gazing across the grass to the cliff's edge. A soft sea breeze blew against our faces, rippling the grass in front of us. Behind us, our neighbour's gate began banging on its last hinge.
Jenna was three years my junior and had been our maid for seven years. I'm sure she only stayed with us because she held Mother in such high esteem. We hardly paid her and the fact she remained with us was a miracle as anyone else would have left long ago.
'It's a trap, Jenna. Nothing but a trap.'
'Then ye have to find someone else.'
Her words annoyed me. 'Why? Why's marriage the only answer?
Why should my future depend on marriage?'
'Ye must marry ... and quick too ...' Her voice became coaxing, her eyes pleading. 'With yer looks, ye could get any man ye want. Ye just needs smile ... flatter them ... pretend to be stupid.'
'I don't see why I should pretend to be stupid just to please someone who is.'
Reproach crept into her voice. 'Have ye never wondered why ye've so few admirers? They're that scared of ye – that's why. Yer politics and wild thoughts do scare them off. Ye're beautiful and clever but ye must let go yer anger – honest, ye'd get anyone. Men are simple creatures, for all their wealth and position. Any woman can get a man ...'
'Yes. As long as she isn't fussy!'
Jenna's frown deepened. Glancing up at the sky, she peered over to the next-door yard. 'That wind's freshening – I'll see to Mrs Tregony's wash. Her pains have started and she'll not get that lot in.'
The south-westerly was indeed picking up, wispy mares' tails blowing across the sky with a speed that heralded a storm. The clothes were already flapping on the line. Where was I to find enough money to repay our debt? My bookkeeping was too sporadic, Mother's new job would not pay enough and we could expect no credit – that was for certain. Mr Tregellas had been Father's main creditor. In lieu of payment, he had been handed our old house, handed the lease of Father's boatyard, and had stepped straight into Father's shoes. Just like that. He had everything. Absolutely everything. Let go my anger? Jenna had no idea.
Everything about Mr Tregellas screamed treachery. I had no evidence, I just knew him to be scheming – his trap for Mother proof enough of that. I tried to think rationally. I knew I needed to discredit him, but what could I do? What would a man do? I needed evidence he cheated Father, anything at all that would hold up in court and free us from this debt.
Jenna began unpegging Mrs Tregony's washing, her apron blowing in the wind. 'They do say at Coombe House Mr Tregellas keeps everything ship- shape – not like yer father, bless his soul. His papers were always a terrible muddle, but Mrs Munroe says Mr Tregellas keeps everything in neat, tidy piles. She do say ...' Her words were lost as she turned her back, but I was no longer listening. My mind was whirling. She had folded Mr Tregony's clothes and an idea was beginning to take shape.
If I disguised myself as a man, I could row across the river, walk unhindered through the streets of Fosse and break into our old house. I would search the study. Any proof, no matter how small, must surely be concealed among all those neat piles. I knew the house like the back of my hand and I knew Father's old study better than anywhere.
'Jenna, go to your mother and pick up a set of your brother's clothes – anything you can get hold of. Quickly, before he gets back from the fields.'
Jenna's hands went straight to her hips. Swinging round, she faced me with that look I knew so well. 'Why'd I do that?' she said.
'Because I say so ... and don't tell anyone.'
'Why'd you want me brother's clothes?'
'Just get them, Jenna. Please?'
We had lived in Porthruan for over a year. Our cottage was one of a row of houses rising steeply from the harbour's edge. For nearly sixty years, their thick stone walls and slate roofs had huddled together, resolutely defying the vagaries of our weather. I hated the damp, the smell of rot, but at least the upstairs room was divided in two and I had to be grateful for that. I pressed my ear against the wooden partition separating our rooms and could just make out Mother's steady breathing. She was asleep.
It was past eleven o'clock. I was dressed carefully. My borrowed clothes chafed my legs and the heavy boots were several sizes too big, but glancing in the mirror, I felt reassured. With my height in my favour and my hair pinned beneath the cap, I would pass very well for a man. The house was quiet, the dark night perfect for concealment. Too many eyes would be watching the road so I would skirt the back of the cottages and take the cliff path.
I crossed the yard, quietly shutting the gate. The clouds were black and heavy with rain, the wind fiercer than I thought. It seemed so much further in the dark and even knowing the path as well as I did, it was hard not to stumble in the pitch black.
Down to my left, the sea pounded the rocks. Across the river mouth, the lights of Fosse glowed in the dark. Lanterns burnt on the ships in the harbour and I could just make out the distinctive rig of HMS Thistle which had put in to port for minor repairs. My stomach tightened. Our yard should have been doing those repairs – not Nickels. Father had fought the Corporation tooth and nail for that commission, but now Nickels had our contract, William Tregellas had our yard, and Father lay dead in his grave.
The wind was whipping my coat, tugging my collar. I hunched against its force, jamming my cap further down my forehead, my sense of disappointment deepening with every step. I knew I ought to turn back. It would be madness to row the river in such a gale, yet to turn back would be to give up too easily. Besides, if I could only get Father's boat from its hiding place, I would, at least, have accomplished something. The cliff fell steeply to my left with little, or no, protection but my eyes were becoming accustomed to the dark and I began to feel more confident. To stay safe, I would keep close to the hedge.
The path began to narrow, thorns catching on my jacket. A weathered oak, struck more than once by lightning and blown eastward by the prevailing wind, loomed in front of me, obscuring the path. In daylight the exposed roots were never a problem, but at night they snaked in front of me in uneven coils and I slowed my pace, choosing my steps with greater care.
From out of nowhere, my arm was grabbed from behind, my elbow wrenched forcibly against my back. I tried to twist, pull away, but a searing pain shot up my arm, stopping me in my tracks. I could not break free. Someone was jolting me forward, his fierce grip pushing me towards the tree. Almost at once I was forced against the trunk, my cheek pressing painfully against the rough bark. 'Thought you'd catch me?' whispered a voice in my ear.
'Let me go!' I yelled, my arm burning.
'You're going nowhere – not 'til you say who sent you.' The power of his hold left no doubt of my captor's strength. The more I struggled, the firmer I was held.
'Nobody sent me. Let me go, you're hurting me.'
His grip loosened. He spun me round, once more pinning my arms behind my back. The clouds thinned and a shaft of moonlight lit the darkness. The steel of his dagger glinted in the half-light and I held my breath, too petrified to move. 'Not quite what you seem,' he said, the tip of his dagger slowly sliding under my cap. 'Calm your terror. I'll not hurt you an' I'd not have frightened you had I known you're a woman.' He flicked his dagger and my cap flew to the ground. Released from its hold, my hair cascaded round my shoulders.
Once again black clouds plunged us into darkness, but not before I had seen he was a sailor. His waistcoat and breeches were dark, his boots muddied. He was wearing a loose-sleeved shirt which filled in the wind. Around his head he wore a scarf, fastened in a knot. Hanging from his belt was a leather pouch. He let go of my arm and, relieved to be free, I turned to face the wind, hoping to bring some order to my hair.
From the direction of the river mouth, I caught the sound of angry shouts and dogs barking. The barking was vicious, the shouts instinctively dangerous, full of menace. My assailant had heard them too. He stood straining his ears in the direction of the sound.
'They've caught my trail! Go – afore the dogs get here. They're ferocious beasts an' their blood's up – they'll attack on sight. Run!' His voice was low, urgent.
Turning his back, he reached into the base of the tree and I could just make out a coil of rope hidden among the gnarled roots. He secured one end to a sturdy root and I watched him pick up the coil and start edging towards the cliff, clearly intending to tie the rope around the tree. This was madness. I knew the tree well. Recent landslips had left the roots dangerously exposed, the ground was loose, the drop perilously steep. If he slipped, he would fall to certain death.
The men's voices were getting louder, more distinct. They sounded as if they were already at the blockhouse, heading up the cliff path and would soon reach the top. I knew I should run but something held me back. The sailor must be fleeing from the navy, or escaping the king's shilling. Perhaps he had been caught smuggling. Either way, I baulked at the flogging that awaited him. I had no faith in the justice of our system, but even less faith in the justice of an angry mob. And who was I to judge him guilty?
'Stop!' I shouted, peering at him through the darkness.
'I told you to go – those dogs'll tear you apart.'
'No. Wait!' I had to shout as the wind was blowing my words away. 'It's too dangerous to go round that side. The cliff's loose – the ground will give way. Stay there. Wait for me. I'll catch the rope. You can throw it to me.'
I worked my way round the tree until I was opposite him. The wind caught my hair, rain streaked my face. Down to my left, waves crashed against the rocks but I saw little in the darkness. 'Ready!' I said. He threw the rope. I heard it lash against the tree but could not reach it. 'Throw it again,' I shouted. I heard a thud and grabbed. The rope was rough and slippery but I gripped it firmly, pulling it securely against my chest.
Quick as lightning, he was at my side. With the rope round the trunk, he took hold of the end, twisting it into a bowline with strong, swift movements, pulling it firmly to test its strength. There was no doubt it would hold his weight. The voices were getting louder, the lanterns swaying to the rhythm of people running fast. The dogs would be ahead of them and soon approaching but I stood, too appalled to run. I could not believe the sailor was about to descend the cliff.
'Go! For the love of God, go!' he commanded. 'Take the path so your scent mixes with other trails. Run! It's my trail they're following – the dogs should stop. But run, don't stop!'
A wave of fear brought me to my senses and I stumbled blindly through the darkness, my cumbersome boots causing me to trip. As I picked myself up, a shaft of moonlight shone through the parted clouds and I glanced back, bracing myself to see the sailor begin his dangerous descent. He had not moved. He was crouching on the ground, watching me, his black eyes staring into mine. Our eyes locked in an unsmiling stare.
Excerpted from "Pengelly's Daughter"
Copyright © 2016 Nicola Pryce.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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