The Penwyth Bride (The Witch's Daughter Book 1) (8 page)

BOOK: The Penwyth Bride (The Witch's Daughter Book 1)
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“It was once very beautiful, wasn’t it?”

“Aye. It were.”

A powerful longing surged in me. I wanted to drop to my knees right then and there and begin to clear away the tangles from the tender shoots poking defiantly through the debris.

“I thought as much,” the old man said, nodding approvingly as I gazed about. “You come each day and set the place to right. It’s been waiting for ye.”

I hardly heard him. In my mind I could see cream-white lovage and sky blue Folk’s glove rimming a bed of orache in its extravagant flaming orange, and from somewhere secret something told me that I would be able to coax samphire to grow wildly in this soil.

“Don’t worry about Mr. Roger now, miss. He’ll not bother wi’ee for long.”

“Why should he bother with me at all?”

The old man continued as if he hadn’t heard my nettled reply, which he hadn’t.

“Eh, he’ll not bother with anyone much longer. There’s been a womb quickened where there should not be, and someone meddling where he should not.” Old eyes, slightly daft, focused blearily on me. “But your womb never will hold a child, will it, mistress?”

“What?”

“Nay, for ‘ee’s been Marked.”

My mouth felt stiff, and I could form no reply.

“You take the garden. Take it and make life grow in Cornish dirt. It be the only hope left to ye.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

A great to-do was raised when I finally straggled inside the Hermitage.

“Good God!” Lady Penwyth cried when she spied me limping into the kitchen where she was supervising the sorting of feathers from a heap of freshly-plucked geese. “
What has happened to you
?”

“I got lost,” I said weakly.

Three kitchen maids, their faces splattered with blood from cleaning the birds, stared at me with enormous eyes.

Lady Penwyth’s brows snapped together. “And where is my daughter?”

“She . . . that is . . . I’m most dreadfully tired. May I go up?”

Exclamations were made over my sodden hair, muddy ankles, and pale face. I was quickly ushered upstairs, where I was informed Jenny would be sent up immediately to attend me.

“I will not ask you
yet
how you got into this state, Miss Eames, but be assured I will have the tale from you when you’ve recovered. Oh dear, and you’ve lost your pretty bonnet.”

Two white lines ran the corners of Lady Penwyth’s mouth. “This will not do at all,” she hissed.

With that she bustled out of my chamber, calling for Jenny.

Carefully I removed my slippers and set them to one side, loath to let mud crumble on the carpet. I longed to sit and ease my foot--the cramps were beginning to shiver up my leg-- but I did not want to ruin the needlepoint cushion. The only comfort sustaining me was the knowledge that Susannah’s mother was not fooled by my weak assurances; but it was a cold comfort. I had wanted friendship, but her actions clearly warned me off seeking it from Susannah Penwyth.

At last a tap came at the door. I opened it to Nanny, bearing a steaming kettle and some soft cloths.

“Oh, miss, ’ee’s a sight,” she said.

“Where is Jenny?” I asked as Nanny poured hot water into a washbasin until it was half full. Surreptitiously I added cool water from the jug on the nightstand.

The maid went to work untying the stays to my stomacher so that I could not read her expression. “She’s back down at the cottage, tending her sick sister,” came the careful reply.

“Oh.”

“I bain’t no lady’s maid though,” Nanny muttered.

“That’s all right. I’ve never had a lady’s maid.”

I smiled at her to show that I did not hold her at fault. Even after this soothing remark, Nanny remained petrified at doing the wrong thing, constantly asking if this or that suited me until I wanted to scream. It took ages to strip my wet frock away with clucks over the rusty mud splotching the skirt, and Nanny could not hold back a gasp of horror when she pulled off my stocking to reveal my clubfoot.

Finally I was cleaned and put into a dry chemise and petticoat, with my weak foot soaking in a basin. Nanny attempted to run a comb through my matted hair, bringing tears to my eyes.

“Never see such a tangle, miss, o‘course your hair be curlier than most.”

“The sea-damp air has been most uncongenial, I am afraid.”

“Eh?”

“Never mind, Nanny. May I have more hot water for my foot?”

The steaming warmth seeped into the taut sinews of my ankle, and I sighed. Nanny fussed around my dressing table, but I could see that all the poor girl was doing was reordering my hairbrushes and oddments in a nervous cover for doing some real service. Gently I hinted that she should take out fresh stockings from the drawer.

“Nanny,” I said, massaging my foot, “who is the old gardener that works by the dairy barn?”

“Old gardener, miss? Don’t know what you mean. All the boys here be youngish, ‘cept for the head gardener, and he must be about thirty year on. Is that who ye means?”

I frowned, making a business of tucking the tie of my waist pocketpurse out of the way of the basin. “There must be an old gardener on the property. He was a little deaf, and hunched with age. I met him myself, out by the dairy barn . . . near the walled garden.”

Nanny had been regarding me anxiously. Then her face cleared.

“Ah, ye means old Tom Pyder! I had forgotten him. He’s not really a gardener for Hermitage, miss, though he do come here from time-to-time. Been doing that for as long as folk can remember, and Sir Grover don’t like to humble a man of his years, so he let him continue on, like in the old days. Tom Pyder belongs to Lyhalis folk.”

“Lyhalis? Mr. Roger Penwyth’s property?”

“I mean the village of Lyhalis, not Mr. Roger’s great house. The village runs close to the sea, under the cliffs. Never mind Tom Pyder, mistress, if he be talking his strange talk. All the folk from Lyhalis are mazed.”

“Tom talks nonsense, does he?”

“Aye, but he always were a bit daft. Me mam says that he were born with the caul about him.”

I wound the end of the pocketpurse lace tight about my finger. To be born with a caul--the membrane from the womb that somehow remained unbroken as the babe passed through the mother’s birth canal--was a sign of second-sight. In the North, no one admits to an infant being born with the caul, at least, those mothers and midwives who wanted their infants to live. In Cornwall, it seemed, the caul presaged nothing more sinister than a sign of madness.

Nanny continued. “Old Tom’s twin brother Jem still works up at Lyhalis House, and between the two they keep the tradition of bringing the glean from Lyhalis’ hothouse to the Hermitage. Mistress, though, never sets out the blooms in
her
part of house. She has them brought to the kitchen. Oh, big they be, and rare, miss, and sometimes the scents . . . fair go to your head, they smell so sweet.”

“They sound wonderful.”

“They are. Where did ye say you saw Old Tom?”

“By the walled garden.”

Nanny pursed her plump lips. “That be strange.”

“Why?”

The girl shifted her shoulders. “That old garden isn’t used anymore, that’s all. It’s too far from the house, and Mistress insisted that her new Frenchie garden be laid close by. I heard Sir Grover say next year he was going to pull down the wall and put the field to the plough.”

“Oh no, he can’t do that!”

Nanny stared at me.

I colored. “From the little I saw, there were some rare plants growing there, and beautiful ones, too. They would only need a little care to bring them to life.”

Nanny’s eyes dropped back to the petticoat she had picked up. “Time’s change, miss. Is that all you need me for, miss?”

“Yes. I think I’ll rest now.”

“Eh?”

“You may go.”

“Yes, mistress. I’ll do my best with your frock, miss, but t’peaty waters be most hard to move from cloth.”

“I know you shall.” I closed my eyes in dismissal, and eventually I heard the door close, leaving me with nothing but Pretty Peter’s sympathetic chirping, and my own unquiet thoughts.

###

I took supper in my room, cockleshell soup with a creamy cheese spread over a surprisingly coarse brown bread, and went to bed early. The morning came swiftly, with sharp light cleared of sea mists.

It woke me out of a dream, and as I blinked owlishly into the daylight I found that my mind still tangled by the dream’s shreds: I was flying, with that open, delirious sensation of filling my lungs with stars, and I wheeled and circled Tol-Pedn-Penwith like one of the rooks.

My insides twisted unpleasantly. If any of the godly had seen me up there--

I bit my lip as I lay in bed, trying to ignore the murmurs of the land shifting from night to day. The buzz was always there, a muted undertone to my life, but since yesterday the voices now seemed a bit . . . stronger.

It was late morn before I made my way downstairs. My foot ached abominably and I dawdled over my dressing, the erstwhile Jenny absent again from her duty. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever see the maid, though I was well used to dressing myself save a hand from a passing servant to tie my laces.

Pondering whether I should mention Jenny’s neglect to Lady Penwyth or leave well enough alone, I stumbled straight into Susannah.

“Good morning, Miss Eames,” she said, and held the door open to the parlour, where I could see her mother moving within. “I heard of your sad adventure yesterday. You should not have wandered away from me. I was quite distracted with worry.”

I gaped at her.

“The moors are a dangerous place to strangers. Pray do not do so again, for I would never forgive myself if you had come to harm.”

Susannah’s face showed nothing but sympathetic concern.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Lady Penwyth approach, her lips compressed in a thin line. “You should have been more careful, Susannah. You know how easy it is to get lost on the moors; the mists come down too swiftly sometime. I should discourage wandering, Miss Eames, if that is indeed what happened.”

Lady Penwyth’s eyes, as hard as sable marbles, measured us both.

I flicked my own to Susannah, and saw something flare in the back of hers.

“I promise I have learned my lesson,” I said carefully. “I will not wander out on the moor again alone.”

Susannah’s shoulders relaxed. I knew, with the instinct of the weak under the thrall of a bully, better than to blurt the truth to Lady Penwyth.

“Indeed.” Lady Penwyth’s penciled eyebrow rose, but she said nothing more on the subject. “What the two of you need today is an afternoon indoors. Sewing, I think, will be just the thing to settle jangled nerves.”

“Sewing!” Susannah’s composed face dissolved into dismay. “But I wanted to take the new colt out on a lunge-line.”

“Leave the colt to Damon; it’s his animal anyway,” her mother answered.

“It is of no account to me,” I said quickly, alarmed at the prospect of spending another afternoon with Susannah.

“Nonsense. A dose of female activity will do Susannah no harm for once. The two of you may have the sunroom. The light is good in there. Susannah, show Miss Eames the contents of your sewing basket.”

“Yes, Mama. Come on then.”

She stomped away, and I followed her with dragging step. Lady Penwyth’s intervention prevented me from exploring the walled garden. My insides felt unsettled, and within beat an unnatural urgency to be outside.

The thought made me pause at the sideboard, despite Susannah’s quick step, to take a cupful of water. I was always thirsty these days, as if trying to fill up a void.

As I gulped the recently drawn well-water, fresh and still cool, I reflected that had I been able to sneak away to the ruined garden, I might have met Tom Pyder again. The old gardener would have long years of gardening secrets that I might coax from him, carefully. One had to be cautious when dealing with the caul-born. And I had grown curious about the exotic flora that his twin tended, in a hothouse at Lyhalis.

The sunroom was pleasantly lit by windows on three sides that could be opened to catch the shifting winds from any direction. Susannah plumped herself down on the window seat, and jerked her sewing basket open. I sat in a lattice-backed cane chair as far from her as was polite.

She withdrew a mangled sampler from the basket, and threw the rest at me. “You may take what you like, I don’t care much about it. Sewing is such a bore. Oh, why is Mama so heartless! I’ve just got the colt ready to try a bit.” Viciously she stabbed her needle into the linen.

“You like to ride?” I said, uninterested in the answer as I reached for the basket rolling at my feet.

“Lord yes. It’s far more interesting than being cooped up with--than being cooped up.”

“Yes.” I agreed with her on that point, for I would much rather be in the garden than enduring her laments, but again, I also enjoyed simple indoor pursuits like needlework.

I opened the birchwood lid of the basket. Tangled skeins of embroidery floss jumbled together, and loose needles ran through the threads like prickly thorns. Gingerly I picked out a piece of grubby unworked linen from the hazardous mess.

BOOK: The Penwyth Bride (The Witch's Daughter Book 1)
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