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Fosse Saturday 4th June 1796, 4:00 p.m.
'It's here! Honest to God, Elly, he's as good as his word. What's wrong? Ye look like the milk's turned sour.'
I joined Gwen at the window. It was a simple cart, the freshly painted rails glinting in the sunshine, the wheels scrubbed clean, all trace of mud removed. I should have been thrilled but my mouth tightened. Not at Gwen, no never Gwen; she was my rock, my second right hand. I was being summoned, that was all. I had four gowns to finish by Monday and Gwen needed to rest.
'Ye'd best take a cushion. Pack up yer sewing – I'll finish the hems.' She stretched out, placing both hands on the small of her back.
'No, Gwen, you're not to do another stitch. You're to go home to put your feet up. That cart's too early ... I'll go when I'm ready and not before.' I put my hand on her swollen belly. 'He can't just send a cart.'
'He can and he has ... He adores ye, Elly. Ye must know that. He's done nothin' but ask after ye since the wedding.' She moved my hand so I could feel the baby kick. With a kick like that, it would be a boy; the fourth generation of shipbuilders. If it was a girl, we would teach her to sew. 'He's a good man and ready to court. He's done so well. Honest, Elly, ye're goin' up in the world.'
Was I? My stomach twisted. 'Well, I'm not ready to leave – I'll do two more hours then I'll walk to Mamm's. It's only four miles and Billy can come with me.'
I loved everything about this sewing room, part warehouse, part shop; it was so dear to me. Every drawer filled with carefully chosen ribbons and lace, every shelf stacked with high quality fabrics. I belonged here, Uncle Thomas and Tom running the boatyard, Gwen and I in the shop above. I ran down the iron steps, glancing through the arch to the boatyard beyond. It was as busy as ever. Lady Polcarrow would never allow the old sign to come down. It would stay Pengelly's Boatyard in memory of her dear father and she would see that it prospered.
The driver of the cart jumped to the cobbles. 'I'm not ready to leave,' I said, more sharply than I intended. 'Tell my mother I'll be along when I can.'
'Ye sure, Miss Liddicot? I can wait awhile ...' He seemed disappointed, all that cleaning and scrubbing to no avail. 'Only Mr Cardew was quite particular ... said I was to bring ye in Mr Hearne's best cart.' I could see now: it was not disappointment, it was anxiety.
'Tell them I'll make my own way when I'm finished.' Gwen was watching me from the large warehouse window. In my place she would have been nuzzling the pony, throwing back her mass of black hair and laughing, offering the poor man a drink, but I could not help my frown – if we did not get these gowns finished, we would not be able to start on the next three. The opening of the lock was good for business, the order book full to bursting, and we were set to make a good profit, but Gwen was getting tired, the new seamstresses were still too slow and we were in danger of falling behind.
Tom waved at me through the arch, smiling from beneath his mass of curly black hair. I loved them both so much,Tom and Gwen, so reckless, so much in love they tumbled straight into each other's arms. I could hardly believe it, my younger brother, three months married and a baby imminent. I waved back, a flicker of envy making me feel suddenly empty. What was wrong with me? I was being courted by Nathan Cardew. Nathan Cardew.
I climbed back up the steps, my heart in turmoil. 'Ye work too hard, Elowyn Liddicot,' Gwen said, putting her arm around me. 'Ye're all frowns when ye should be smiles. Most women would scratch yer eyes out for Nathan Cardew. Honest to God, ye should be jumping straight into that cart, not sending it away.'
A hot blush burned my cheeks. 'He's very handsome and very kind ... don't misunderstand me. I'd be proud to have him as my husband. It's just ...'
'Just what?' She laughed. 'Ye've got a string of men ye're not telling me about?'
'No, of course not,' I laughed back. 'It's just ... I'd have to give up working here.'
Gwen searched the heavens. 'Now I know ye're with the fairies. Give up working night and day, yer fingers so sore ye can hardly hold the needle? And fer what? So ye can sit in a parlour and have a maid bring ye tea? Ye're goin' soft in the head, Elly Liddicot. There's even rumours he's to have one of the pier houses.'
I felt strangely like crying – wonderful prospects, a life with a man who offered me so much. How stupid could I get? 'How d'you know when it's right, Gwen? How d'you know to take such a big step?'
Her arm tightened, her smile turning suddenly conspiratorial. 'It's when they kiss ye – that's when ye know. It's when ye should tell them to stop but ye want them so bad ye can't say no!' She swung me round, taking hold of my shoulders. 'Ye will let him kiss ye, won't ye, Elly?'
'Gwen, really ... I hardly know him!'
Her eyes darkened beneath her troubled brows. 'Elly, promise me ye won't go all strict and uppity. Don't put on yer airs and graces. Let him kiss ye or at the very least let him take hold of yer hand.'
* * *
The church clock struck half past eight. It was much later than I thought but the gowns were finished and I stood looking at them with a surge of pride. They were to be worn in Bath – Mrs Brockensure and her daughter would wear them at assemblies and concerts. My gowns in Bath; I could hardly believe it. Billy had swept the floor and was copying from a book, his tongue following the movement of his tightly grasped pen. 'Lady Polcarrow says I've a better hand than she had at my age.'
'I can believe that. I've nearly done. What's in the basket?'
'Raised rabbit pie an' potted crab – Mrs Munroe's put in calf's foot jelly an' there's a flagon of ale. Mrs Pengelly put in rhubarb jam an' a loaf of bread, too.'
I looked out of the window. The courtyard was already in shadow, the cobbles barely visible. I had taken too long. 'We'd best get going. Can you carry all that or shall we leave something behind?' He smiled his huge grin. 'Course I can! I'm not a child no more.'
'Any more ...' I said, grabbing my shawl.
'Honest, sometimes, ye sound just like Madame Merrick.'
'Lady Pendarvis,' I corrected again, but it was an easy mistake – even I still found it hard to call her by her proper name. 'Tell you what, we'll take the cliff path and watch the sun set – we might see dolphins.'
No, he was not a child any more. Gone was the starving, badly beaten vagrant Celia Pendarvis had found and rescued three years ago. Mrs Pengelly had brought him to Coombe House and under her nurture and care he was now a healthy thirteen-year-old who seemed to grow as we watched. No cuffs or collars to turn, just huge hems to keep pace with his long arms and hollow legs. He was nearly as tall as me and I was twenty. He grinned back at me as we locked the door, crossing the courtyard, our footsteps ringing on the empty cobbles.
We desperately needed rain. It had been uncomfortably hot for the last three weeks and the streets stank worse than ever. The town felt hot and crowded, the stench from the sewer almost unbearable. I never passed this way if I could help it, it was the wrong end of town – too many men spilling from the taverns, clutching their tankards, wiping their noses on their sleeves, hawking and spitting on the street.
'Hello, m' beauty, come make a sailor happy.'
I grabbed Billy's hand, ignoring the lewd calls, bold looks and whistles, and left the quay with its piles of drying nets and empty crates. As we climbed the steep road out of town, the air began to freshen, the scent of wild herbs replacing the stench of the sewer, and I breathed deeply, relishing the soft breeze on my face. Gwen was right, I did work too hard, but I was grateful for my skills and would never complain. I was driven, that was all. A woman needed the ability to keep herself, to have some means to feed her family – the first clenched fist and I would walk out. Across the river, the last of the sun lingered on the rooftops of Porthruan, turning the slates a fiery red. We stopped to catch our breath, watching the seagulls screech round the fishing boats moored against the quay.
'The pilchards better be good this year – God help us if it's like last year.'
'Don't swear, Billy. You know we don't like it.'
He smiled. He always smiled, unless you caught him unawares. Unawares, a haunted look would enter his eyes and your heart would break – both parents lost to him through disease and famine, the whereabouts of his brother and sister unknown. But tonight he was so happy, running quickly ahead as I followed him up the cliff path. On the horizon, the sails of the passing ships glowed pink. 'I love it up here,' he said, stretching his arms out wide. 'Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Mrs Munroe says ye mustn't look at the setting sun or ye'll go blind.'
We were on the tip of Penwartha Point, the treacherous headland with its jagged rocks pointing like teeth out of the water. I hardly dared look down but followed Billy round the headland, the breeze beginning to clear my head. I needed time to think; my temples were throbbing, a dull ache lodged behind my eyes. Mamm would be so glad to see me, yet the thought of staying with her gave me no pleasure at all and sharing a bed with Lowenna was the last thing I wanted. I should have said no.
Billy stopped suddenly and we stood in silence, staring down at the majestic sweep of Polworth Bay as it arced in front of us in a perfect semicircle. The bay faced east and was already shadowed by the surrounding cliffs; it looked strangely sinister, shrouded by dusk. Billy pointed to a black shape bobbing on the water. 'Is that a dolphin?'
I had to look carefully. 'It looks more like a log drifting on the tide.'
The bay might have lost the light but from where we stood, we could see the setting sun linger over the open sea, turning the horizon a brilliant red. It was so beautiful and I breathed in the smell of the salt, the scent of honeysuckle drifting on the air. I never took time off; weekdays and Saturdays were spent at work with Sundays taken up going to church and doing the washing and cleaning, but now everything had changed. Gwen had taken my place in Uncle Thomas's tiny cottage and I had a room in Mrs Pengelly's beautiful house. I still felt like pinching myself.
I had loved Mrs Pengelly on sight – the moment she walked into Madame Merrick's shop to ask for work. An expert seamstress and such a kind person, I loved everything about her: her soft eyes, her gentle manners, the way she smiled, teaching without criticizing, always patient and willing to go over things, again and again. I could barely hide my envy when the first seamstresses arrived in her school of needlework. I wanted to join them so much but Uncle Thomas and Tom needed me in the cottage and I had to look after them.
Kittiwakes called from their nests in the cliff side. We were at the steepest part of the climb. 'Be careful, Billy, not so fast – keep away from the edge.' He turned round, smiling at my fear.
I loved Coombe House the moment I stepped through the door. Not just my bedroom, but the beauty of Mrs Pengelly's sitting room. Everything was so delicate and refined. I loved the way we drank tea from china cups and used silver teaspoons. I loved the butter knives and dainty napkins, the etched glasses and decanters for Madeira. I loved the clock in the glass dome, the delicate vases on the mantelpiece. Best of all, I loved the way we sat together in the evenings, talking as we sewed. Mrs Pengelly and Lady Pendarvis had taught me everything – and Lady Polcarrow, of course; Mrs Pengelly's beautiful, fiery daughter, so determined all women should learn to read and write.
The cliff path was well worn and easy to follow, the mud so dry that deep cracks had formed. The stones were loose, the earth crumbling beneath our shoes. Billy was running too far ahead of me and I rounded the bend to see him standing on the highest point.
'Come and look,' he shouted, standing so fearlessly, his hands on his hips. 'Mrs Pengelly says it was the people who named the new town Porthcarrow. She said Sir James didn't want the glory.'
I edged slowly forward, standing behind him, looking down at the new harbour with its cluster of fine houses. 'That's because he's building the town for the people, not for himself.'
'But he'll get rich, won't he? Why else would he do it?'
'He wants the mines to prosper and men to have work.'
Billy's smile vanished. 'You mean men like Nathan Cardew!' He sounded bitter, turning quickly away, his arms crossed, his eyes on his boots.
'Billy ... I'll only be four miles away from Coombe House – look, we're here already. You can see the houses from here.'
He kicked a stone, sending it flying over the side, and I edged further forward, slipping my arm through his. The light was fading, dark patches of seaweed swirling round the jagged rocks below us. Billy's face was rigid, his dark brows locked in a frown. 'If ye go to Porthcarrow, I'll get work in the clay setts.'
My heart jolted. 'You'll do no such thing! You'll stay with Mrs Pengelly and learn your books. If you go anywhere near those mines Lady Pendarvis will drag you back. We all will.'
His mouth tightened, the quiver in his voice returning. 'D'you like him?'
'Nathan Cardew? I think so.'
'D'you love him?' There were tears in his eyes, his face sullen.
'I don't know,' I replied, 'but I love you, Billy Bosco.'
He remained pouting down at the sea. 'Well, I don't like him and he don't like me.'
I left his grammar unchecked. 'Of course he does. Or he soon will – just wait till he gets to know you.' Billy was my constant companion, always willing, always smiling. This sullen pout was something new.
Immediately he stiffened, pointing down to the darkening sea. 'That's not just a log. Look, Elowyn, someone's clingin' to it.' He let go of my arm, crouching down behind the gnarled branches of a hawthorn. 'Look ... there's a man clinging to it ... he's headin' straight for the rocks. We've got to do something.'CHAPTER 2
Through the fading light I could just make out the shape of a man. 'We'll never reach him ... there's no way down ... We'll have to go back and get Tom to bring his boat ... Billy, he looks dead.'
Billy stayed kneeling on the ground, peering over the edge. 'There is a way down. Over there ... See that sheep track? There's a gulley leadin' down from the ledge. We can use that.'
I looked to where he was pointing, searching the jagged cliff side with its clusters of bright flowers and wind-bent bushes. Just the smallest track was visible, criss-crossing sharply through the vegetation that clung to the rocks. 'No, Billy. Absolutely not – it's far too dangerous.'
'We can do it, honest, Elowyn. It's never as steep as it looks.'
I tried to think rationally. The sea was calm, the tide coming in. It was a warm night with very little wind. The waves were barely moving, just the strength of the tide pushing its way along the shoreline. Fear held me back, yet Billy seemed so sure. 'D'you really think there's a way down?' My heart was thumping.
'I'll know when we get there. It's worth a try.'
He grabbed my hand, leading me away from the well-worn path and across the clifftop, slowly, sure-footedly, weaving his way round the boulders as if he had done it a hundred times before. We stopped where rocks had tumbled down to the sea, the gorse clinging precariously to the side, but Billy was right, the smallest track led down between the bushes. Sheep's wool hung on the spiky thorns, droppings lay scattered in the dirt. Below us, a small shingle beach was just visible, sharp rocks stabbing the air like daggers. It was far too dangerous. 'I can't do it, Billy.'
'Yes, ye can, honest – it's easier than you think.' He sounded so sure, as if nothing could stop him. 'Just turn and face the cliff – like this. Hold the roots, not the branches ... there's no thorns then.' He grabbed a root with his right hand, digging his boot into the cracked earth. 'Do it like this – honest, it's safe.'
'How d'you know, Billy?'
'Because when ye're hungry, ye steal eggs. Seagulls nest in the gullies and there's limpets on the rocks.' He started descending the cliff, the basket slung over his shoulder, and I caught a glimpse of his former life. He never spoke of it, but that basket hung so easily across his shoulders. Three years ago, he would have filled it for his brother and sister and they would have lived another day.
I was wearing my yellow poplin. It was one of my favourite dresses but it was not my best. I never wore my best to Mamm's and I was grateful for that now. I stretched out my shawl, wrapping it round my hips and tying it tightly. Every fisherman's daughter knew how to hitch up her skirts and tuck them against her thighs. 'Don't look up, Billy, my stockings are showing.'
'I've seen stockin's before,' he shouted back. 'Just make sure yer foot holds. The stones will fall but take no heed ... just don't let go yer hand till yer foot's sure. It's not as steep as ye think.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Cornish Dressmaker"
Copyright © 2018 Nicola Pryce.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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