Invitation to a Cornish Christmas
Excerpt from The Captain’s Christmas Proposal
Porth Karrek, Cornwall, November 1822
It was still dark when Emily Faulkner left her rented cottage on the estates of Karrek House, which sat on a bluff headland above the small fishing port after which it was named, the high cliffs and narrow entrance providing a safe harbour from the rough Cornish seas. Last night’s sky had offered the prospect of a brief respite from the winter storms which had been raging interminably, and she was eager to take advantage of any break in the weather. She hated these bleak winter days which kept her indoors and restricted her ability to work, since the intricate nature of the tasks involved in producing her only source of income required natural light.
The permanently lowering skies which had so far defined November were one of the many aspects of life in Cornwall she hadn’t anticipated when she’d fled here, back in April. Yet Porth Karrek was an ideal bolthole. Snuggled into a small inlet on the rugged South Cornwall coast, about four miles from the larger port of Penzance and a day’s travel from Truro, the regional capital, it was a world away from London. The perfect place to disappear from view, which was what she had craved.
Her cottage stood on the periphery of the estate, in an exposed position, the low drystone wall which formed the boundary of her tiny garden providing little protection from the elements. The briny prevailing wind which blew in from the English Channel made gardening a challenge, just as Jago Bligh, the surly estate manager, had predicted. The cottage itself was almost impossible to keep warm, as the wind howled through every nook and cranny of the floorboards and window frames – something else Mr Bligh had pointed out when she had first viewed it. Emily had thought it odd at the time that he seemed so intent on discouraging her from taking up residence when it was obvious that the place had been lying empty for some time, but she reckoned now that her crime had simply been her lack of Cornish heritage. Like the proud Highlanders of her mother’s native Lewis, the Cornish considered themselves a nation apart, isolated from the rest of Britain, with their own traditions and way of life – which, needless to say they considered vastly superior to any other.
Emily, Mr Bligh had made clear, would be a grudgingly tolerated outsider, and once again he’d been proved right, but this too had suited her. Back in April, with her life in tatters, she had been happy to close the door of her cottage, turn her back on the world and lick her wounds. Weeks passed, and she had been barely conscious of life outside, spending the days at her workbench or tending her sparse garden, cursing the day she met Andrew McFarlane, and re-living every moment since she had, wondering if at any point she could have avoided her fate. If she hadn’t been so blinded by her feelings for him, might she have spotted the signs before it was too late? A painful and ultimately pointless waste of time those weeks of recrimination had been, for she couldn’t undo the past. All she could do was wipe the slate clean and start again.
Spring had passed, and summer was making an early appearance in June when Emily began to emerge from the dark cloud she had been under since her world had collapsed around her at the start of the year. She had awoken just after dawn one morning to vibrant blue skies. In the garden, the earth was warm beneath her bare feet, the rows of vegetables which had appeared on the point of dying, had blossomed, seemingly overnight. The air had been heavy with the tang of salt, and when she had made her way down to Karrek Sands, the sea was turquoise, sparkling, the waves gentle, the rhythmic swish as they broke on the beach no longer a warning but an invitation.
She hadn’t intended to swim, but she’d been unable to resist, wary at first of the undertow, the unfamiliar currents and her own neglected muscles. But the skills honed by years of swimming in with wild seas off Lewis had not deserted her. The familiar sensation of being cocooned in water soothed her. Pitting herself against the tow and pull of the waves invigorated her, cleared her mind, and made her look anew at her life, forcing her to admit that she had been living under a cloud of fear for most of last year. Now the worst had happened and she had nothing more to lose, she need no longer be afraid.
She took to the sea every day after that, in the early mornings when Karrek Sands were deserted, unaware that she had an audience until the two fascinated local children plucked up the courage to speak to her, so utterly strange it was to them, to see anyone swimming. Teaching them to swim, watching their initial fear turning to sheer joy as they grew in confidence had been a real pleasure, a balm to the raw pain caused by the humiliating and devastating nature of Andrew’s revelations, if a bittersweet one. She missed their company at summer’s end, when they returned to school.
Now, more than half a year after arriving in Cornwall, Emily had come to love her wild, rugged adopted home. She was mentally scarred but her heart was no longer bleeding. She had struck up no friendships with the villagers, but the hostility and suspicion which had greeted her arrival in Porth Karrek had given way to bland indifference. Emily was lonely but content.
The November storms forced her to settle for a paddle in the shallows, which is what she intended to do today. The narrow strip of her front garden led onto the main path which wound its way up to the gates of Karrek House – though it would be more accurate to say gate posts, for the gates themselves were long gone, only the vacant gatekeeper’s cottage an indication that they had once functioned. From here the path forked. The broader path led through the estate cottages to St Piran’s church, which stood guard at the top of steep Budoc Lane, the hub of Porth Karrek village, which lead down to the harbour. But it was the lesser-used path Emily took, which cut across the grassy headland to a point above the beach.
Grey dawn had given way to a fair morning. There were hints of pale blue sky peeking through the cloud, though how long it would last was another matter. The wind buffeted her skirts, sending her cloak flying out behind her as she hurried along, enjoying the salty breeze on her face, even though it made her eyes stream. Breathless but exhilarated, she arrived at the clifftop where the path narrowed significantly, cut like a staircase into the cliffs. Intent on keeping her footing, she didn’t notice the solitary figure until she had reached the sands.
She felt an illogical spasm of resentment. Who was trespassing on her private domain? The man was standing at the water’s edge with his back to her, and she knew even from this distance that he was a stranger. Yet there was something in his confident stance, feet planted firmly in the sands, shoulders set, back straight, that gave her the strong impression that he belonged here.
He appeared to be staring out at the outcrop of rocks known as The Beasts, the serrated tips of which were only just visible at low tide. For the rest of the time, The Beasts lurked just below the surface, waiting to trap the unwary sailor headed for the sanctuary of Porth Karrek harbour – or, if you listened to Jago Bligh, de facto harbourmaster, to ensure that only a native Porth Karrek boat might tie up there.
The male figure was standing stock still, as yet unaware of her presence. She could not ignore him. She could either abandon her paddle, take a chance on the weather holding and return later, or she could walk down to the water’s edge, bid him good morning, then leave him to his own devices. Shielding her eyes to gaze out at the horizon, Emily could see the first signs of clouds gathering. It wasn’t worth holding off and the tide, in any case, would be against her later. If she stood here prevaricating for much longer, he would eventually spot her and assume she’d been spying on him.
For goodness sake, she had as much right to be here as he did! Perching on a rock, Emily took off her boots and unrolled her stockings. The sand was firm and damp. She set her bare feet down, closing her eyes in bliss at the feel of the soft, golden grains oozing between her toes. Tucking her stockings into her boots and placing them behind a rock, she made her way down the sands towards the lone figure. The waves were lapping just short of the tips of his brogues, though the sea was creeping ever closer now that the tide was on the turn.
He must have sensed her presence rather than heard her approach, muffled by the roar of the surf further out, for he turned around while she was still a few steps from him. He was dressed in a wide-skirted brown coat and buckskin breeches, thick woollen stockings and brogues. It was rough country garb, though not coarsely made, for his coat fitted perfectly across his shoulders, and he wore underneath it not only a white linen shirt and neckcloth but a waistcoat of fine wool. Country garb, made by a city tailor, and certainly not purchased from Chegwin’s store by the harbour. His skin was deeply tanned, with a fretwork of lines at the corners of his eyes as if he spent part of every day squinting at the horizon. His blue-black and slightly too-long-for-current-fashion hair was tousled by the wind. The stubble which was not quite a beard, not quite simply a matter of him having forgotten to shave, was the same coal black colour.
His smile dawned slowly as she approached, the nascent beard accentuating the fulness of his bottom lip, the whiteness of his teeth, and Emily’s insides responded in a positive lurch of attraction. He was not handsome, he was far too striking to be considered handsome, too unkempt – no, not unkempt, and not wild but – untamed, that was it.
‘Good morning.’ His voice was low but cultured, with no trace of the lilting Cornish accent.
‘Good morning.’ His eyes were hazel. He really did have a most beguiling smile. Emily smiled back. ‘It’s a lovely fresh day, isn’t it?’
The man nodded at the massing bank of cloud on the horizon. ‘For the moment. Allow myself to introduce myself. Captain Treeve Penhaligon.’