CHAPTER THREE

Ross dutifully attended the House of Lords to take his part in the consideration of the Prisoner’s Counsel Bill, as he had promised. Demelza chose not to go – she had been on a couple of previous occasions to watch from the Visitor’s Gallery at the back, but apart from her first visit when Ross had taken his seat she had found it all rather tedious, as Ross had warned her she would.

     She had been very impressed on that first visit – that was before the dreadful fire which had caused so much damage. They had called it the Lesser Hall, though it had been so vast and lofty she had thought that must be some kind of joke. Ross had told her it had once been a banqueting hall.

     It had certainly been grand, with its great canopied throne for when the King was in attendance, its huge chandeliers with their hundreds of candles swinging from the high ceiling, and the vivid tapestries of the Spanish Armada on the walls.

     And she had enjoyed all the ceremonial - Ross in his scarlet cloak with its white and gold bands, entering in procession with his two sponsors, presenting his Writ of Summons to the Lord Chancellor, putting his hat on and taking it off again and reciting the Oath of Allegiance in a firm, clear voice.

     She had almost burst with pride – though she had known he would be thinking it all so much nonsense.

     On this occasion the debate about the Prisoners’ Counsel Bill took three days, and Ross came back to Caroline’s each evening exasperated with the whole procedure.

     “Back and forth, back and forth. You think you have agreement, and then someone comes up with another objection, or the Commons quibble over a detail,” he complained to Demelza as they lay in bed on the third night.

     “But it’s all agreed now?”

     “It’s gone back to the Commons again. It’s to be hoped it can be done with before the end of the session.”

     “Shall we need to stay that long?”

     He slid his arm around her shoulder. “Edward’s returning to Bremhill for a couple of weeks, and I thought to go with him. Then if it’s necessary for me to return it will be much easier to do so, and you can stay with Clowance if you choose.”

     “That would be nice.” She snugged comfortably against him. “Maybe Caroline will come for a while, too.”

     And so it was arranged.

 

     They had stayed frequently at Bremhill since Clowance’s marriage to Edward, but it was still a source of wonderment to Demelza that her daughter lived in such a fine house, and was the sister-in-law of a Marquess.

     Her family certainly covered the social scale, she reflected as she sat at the dressing table in the lovely bedroom she and Ross usually occupied when they came to visit, with its view over the well-kept gardens. Some of her younger brothers and her nephews were still miners, as her father had been.

     A miner’s daughter. Scrabbling in the gutters for food, beaten regularly with a strap across her back when her father came home drunk. Until a fancy to go to Redruth Fair in her brother’s ragged clothes had resulted in a chance meeting which had changed her life forever.

     And what a life it had been. Those early days had been a struggle, before Ross’s mines had started to pay. And even after, there had been sunshine and storms enough. But through it all - through the times when other people, other loves, other cares, had almost come between them - had run a fine golden thread, binding them together.

     She glanced across at the bed, where he had tossed his shirt before changing into a fresh one to go down to dinner, and a small, fond smile curved her mouth. She knew every crease that would be in it from where he had worn it, knew the faint lingering scent of him that would cling to the fine cambric.

     All those small intimacies, accumulated over so many years… It was those things which Caroline must miss of Dwight. Each day she counted herself fortunate that she still had Ross at her side. Though of course time could not be held still, and in the end the day would come…

     With a small sigh she pushed that thought aside. Crossing to the bed she picked up the shirt, folding it more neatly and laying it over the back of a chair, and then followed him down to dinner.

 

They stayed for a little over two weeks, then Ross and Edward were summoned back to London, and Caroline went with them. Demelza had promised herself that she wouldn’t cry on saying goodbye to her friend, not knowing when or even if she would see her again, but as the coach disappeared down the drive she couldn’t hold the tears back any longer.

     “Oh, Mama!” Clowance hugged her. “Don’t cry.”

     “I’m sorry.” She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “It’s just… I said goodbye to her last year, and that was hard, and it was so good to see her again. But saying goodbye a second time seems harder still.”

     “You’ll see her again. You may go up to London again, or she may come back to Cornwall.”

     “Yes. Maybe. But it’s so far. That was always the best and the worst of Cornwall – it’s so far from everywhere else.”

     They both laughed together as they walked back into the house. From somewhere came the sound of a piano being tortured, and Clowance rolled her eyes. “Grace, practicing her scales! Sadly she lacks her Aunt Bella’s musical talent.”

     Demelza smiled pallidly as she glanced around at the gracious hall, with its gleaming wood panelling and fine paintings on the walls. “This is such a lovely house.”

     “Isn’t it? Edward’s thought of moving the stables to extend the west wing, but I’m not sure – I don’t think I want to change anything.”

     Demelza studied her daughter’s face. “Clowance, can I ask you something?” she ventured.

     “Of course.”

     “I mean… you don’t have to answer me if you’d leifer not, but… Do you think you made the right choice? In marrying Edward, I mean.”

     Clowance stared at her for a moment, and then burst out laughing. “Oh, Mama – have you been fretting about that all these years? Yes – yes, emphatically yes, I made the right choice.” She took both her mother’s hands in hers. “Oh, I know it must have seemed… The things I said, after Stephen died. But if it hadn’t been for my marriage to Stephen, I don’t think I could have appreciated Edward as I do. It’s been a very different kind of love – much calmer, more secure. I can trust him, and respect him, as… sometimes I couldn’t quite with Stephen.”

     Demelza’s eyes asked a question, but Clowance shook her head.

     “It’s all done and past – I don’t wish to drag it out again. But shall I tell you why I chose Edward? It was his eyes. He has always a smile in his eyes. You see, though Ben and Phillip both loved me truly, they were both so… intense, so serious. And I wanted fun. Maybe at first I wasn’t quite sure if I loved him, but do you remember once telling me that love could grow? Well, with Edward I had a feeling that love would have room to grow. And it has. Believe me when I say that my love for Edward, and his for me, is as deep and true as any love ever was.”

 

Ross and Edward returned to Bremhill a week later, glad to leave the business of Parliament behind but pleased with the outcome of their efforts. Two days later Ross and Demelza boarded Edward’s travelling carriage again to set off at last for home.

     It was two hundred miles, and the road wasn’t good, though it helped to be in such a well-sprung vehicle, and drawn by four good horses. They planned to lay the last night at Bodmin, leaving them just half-a-day’s travel to the wild north coast of Cornwall and their beloved Nampara.

     After a cold nuncheon at Launceston they were due to set off at three o’clock for the drive across the bleak moor, but were delayed for over an hour when one of the traces became tangled as the horses were being put to, and on being untangled was found to be torn, and had to be replaced.

     At last they were on their way again. Demelza leaned back against the squabs with a sigh. Apart from the comfort of the soft upholstery and efficient springing, the other advantage of travelling by private coach was the chance to be alone, just the two of them, with no other demands on their attention.

     For a while she gazed out of the window at the bare, windswept landscape stretching out wide on each side to meet the horizon. Raw outcrops of grey granite rose against the sky-line, and noisy little brooks had to be forded where they crossed the road.

     “Well, it’s been a pleasant trip – but I shall be glad to be home,” she remarked at last.

     “You enjoyed it?”

     “It was lovely to see Bella’s play. And to see Caroline again. You’ll never believe it – old Unwin Trevaunance has been sniffing around her again!”

     “Trevaunance?” Ross laughed. “Great heavens, the man must be eighty if he’s a day!”

     “Eighty-one, Caroline said. But you must admit, he’s been very steadfast in his hopes for her. And he no longer needs her money to finance his political ambitions.”

     Ross smiled wryly. “I remember that first time I visited her in Hatton Gardens, when I dragged her back almost by force to see Dwight. There were times, in those early days of their marriage, when I wondered if I’d done either of them a favour.”

     Demelza slanted him a questioning look. “I always thought she’d have had you, if she had seen you first.”

     He smiled with a trace of the old arrogance which was really half teasing. “…Maybe she would.”

     “And would you?” Demelza persisted stubbornly. “Have had her? If she had seen you first? Or… later?”

     A fleeting memory of another journey home from London passed through Ross’s mind. Just he and Caroline together. And one night at an inn when they had both acknowledged their sexual interest in each other – and had both reaffirmed their commitment to their respective partners.

     “I’m not going to deny that I found her attractive,” he acknowledged judiciously. “She had a certain kind of way with her that always felt like… a challenge.”

     “And Harriet?” Demelza felt a certain frustration with herself. Always there were those little tangles in their golden thread, and sometimes she couldn’t stop herself picking at them - as if to see whether, if they unravelled, the thread would be broken.

     Ross laughed, shaking his head. “Now you’re being nonsensical.”

     “But would you?”

     He sighed, indulging her. “Again, the spark was there. But never enough to ignite a flame. And just as at Caroline’s side stood my best friend, at Harriet’s side stood my worst enemy.”

     He reached across the small space between them and took her hand.

     “And there was a more important reason – much more important. Before them both stood you. I betrayed you once, and almost lost the most important thing in my life – your love. I was never going to put that at risk again.”

     She tilted her head and smiled up at him, that warm smile that still had the power to entrance him after all these years. He knew that behind the apparent contentment of her life as his wife and the mother of his children she still sometimes felt the need for reassurance.

     Those early years, when he had thought he still loved Elizabeth – and maybe in a way he had – had left their scars. The day after he had first taken her into his bed, and she had come into the old parlour with a bunch of bluebells she had gathered, to find Elizabeth there…

     But maybe it was those very shadows which had somehow fed their love for each other, kept it always precious to both of them. And the times of danger, when for good reasons or bad he had put his life at risk. Or the two times deeply seared into his memory when her life had been at risk – once from the putrid throat, when they had lost little Julia, and once from a madman who had already killed who knew how many women.

     “What was George like when you were all at school together?”

     He slanted her a look of surprise. “George? Why do you ask?”

     “I was just… wondering. Where the bad feeling between you began. I know you were never really friends with him, though Francis was. Did he have any other friends?”

     “Not really. Oh, he was never bullied, as such. Francis was the one who was bullied.”

     “Francis?”

     “Yes. Mainly by John Treneglos, and his brother Richard. John was a couple of years older than us, and always a bit of a thug. So of course I would get drawn in, and there’d be a fight. And somehow I was always the one who got into trouble over it,” he added with a reminiscent laugh.

      “And nothing much changed as you grew older,” she teased him. “Always you were in some brangle or another.”

     “True. And often enough with George. As to your question…” He frowned, thinking himself back over the years, trying to be fair to both himself and George. “I don’t know what it was. Somehow… he always tried too hard. He was always the best dressed, with a smart new uniform every term, his shoes always of the best leather – and always ready to tell us how much they’d cost. And he was always a bit thin-skinned, quick to resent any perceived slight - even when none was meant or even issued.”

     “But Francis liked him?”

     “I don’t know – at least I wouldn't say liked. But Francis was ever a gentle soul, and… I think he felt a little sorry for him. And George attached himself to Francis as a way of wheedling himself into our group. But you know what boys can be like. When we picked teams for sports, no-one ever picked him until the last, when there was no-one else left. And when we were off to get into mischief, somehow no-one ever bothered to tell him what was afoot.”

     “While you were always in the centre of it.”

     “When it came to mischief, certainly.” He laughed reminiscently. “One time we got hold of a drove of sows, and rode them down Princes Street. Old Halse was apoplectic. He had his birch across my backside for that. Indeed, he had his birch across my backside most every week!”

     “How galling it must have been for him, that time you stood up in court for poor Jim Carter, not to be able to do the same.”

     “He certainly indulged himself by giving me a lecture. It felt quite like the old days…”

     Suddenly the coach lurched to a stop, the horses’ hooves scrabbling on the road. Demelza had almost tumbled from her seat, but Ross caught her arm and lifted her back up beside him. She cried out in shock as the door was wrenched open and a man’s head appeared, covered by a scarf which concealed all but his eyes.

     “Yer purse.” His voice was rough, thickly accented, and he was waving a pistol in Ross’s face. “Come on, white-head, quick.”

     “Ross – give it to him,” Demelza pleaded in a ragged whisper.

     “You may have it,” Ross snarled coldly taking the old pouch from his pocket and tossing it at the highwayman, who caught it awkwardly, still gripping his pistol. “It’s your misfortune that you’ve stopped us on our way home - the leather is probably worth more than the few coins left inside.”

     The gimlet eyes above the face-scarf glinted as they glanced around the inside of the coach. “Ye've got a strong-box?” he demanded. He spotted it under the seat and reached forward to grab it – but it was chained to the body work of the coach. “I’ll trouble ee for the key.”

     Demelza, stiff with panic, nudged Ross as he seemed reluctant to hand it over. That gaunt face was set, the eyes hooded, but he took the key from his pocket. The highwayman snatched it and fitted it into the box, his movements jerky as he seized the velvet bag inside. Demelza’s diamonds – but after all, they were only diamonds.  

     “Hurry, man,” came a voice from outside the coach. “It’s still daylight.”

     “And them pearls ye’re wearing, ma’am – I’ll be having them if ee please.”

     Demelza could hardly breathe. Her fingers felt all thumbs as she reached for the clasp and unfastened the necklace. But then his eyes lit on the slim gold band around the third finger of her left hand.

     “That too,” he growled, pointing.

     Instinctively she drew her hand back, but he snatched at it. “No!” She struggled to push him off. “That’s my wedding ring.”

     He raised his hand to hit her around the head, but Ross pushed her aside. At the same moment there was a deafening bang, almost in her ear. She screamed as the man fell back, a red gout of blood spreading from a gaping hole in his throat as he sprawled half out of the coach.

     A thin trail of smoke issued from the pistol in Ross’s hand.

     Another man appeared in the door, still mounted on his horse, his face also half-covered. He pointed his pistol straight at Ross as he glanced briefly down at his companion.

     “Ye oughtened to have done that.” His tone was cool, but all the more menacing for that. “Ye could just have handed over the readies nice and easy. Good partners are hard to find.”

     “He was trying to take my wife’s wedding ring,” Ross returned on a note of icy disdain. “I couldn’t allow that.”

     The man leaned forward, peering into the coach, and suddenly he laughed. “Well I’ll be danged - Captain Poldark!”

     He pulled down his scarf, and Demelza stared at him. There was something vaguely familiar about his face…

     “Jason Carrington – none other,” he introduced himself boldly. “My father was married to yer daughter Clowance.”

     “I remember you,” Ross acknowledged, his voice stiff. “We met but a few times. At Stephen’s funeral, and then a few times after in Penryn.”

     “I’d not forget ye, sir, though it’s been nigh on twenty year. That scar still identifies ye.”

     Demelza sat in stunned silence, staring from one man to the other as they calmly conversed over the body of the dead highwayman. Had they both gone mad?

     “Well, this is an unfortunate meeting,” Jason remarked. “For old Jarrod, at least.” He reached over and pulled the body of his companion unceremoniously out of the door and let it fall to the roadside. “Ye’re quick with a pistol, sir, for all yer white hair.”

     “Old instincts never die, I suppose. But how have you come down to this, Jason? A common highwayman?”

     “Oh, not so common.” Jason’s grin was so very much like his father’s. “In fact it’s just an occasional recourse when times are rough – a better alternative than to starve, I think ye’ll grant.”

     “I thought you were in business.”

     “Aye, that I was, for a while. I can’t complain – yer lass did more than fair by me after father died. I tried a bit of trading here and there. But the best days were gone – no chance for privateering with the war with the Frenchies over, and little enough for smuggling neither.”

     “Well, this isn’t a good business to be in. The workhouse at least is better than the gallows.”

     “That’s a matter of opinion.” He sounded just like his father, too, with that same arrogant, slightly prickly manner. “But I regret that I cannot linger here in conversation,” he added, as formally polite as if taking his leave in their best parlour. “The summer months are a damned nuisance, being light so late. And ye’d best be on yer way to get home afore dark. I apologise for delaying ye.”

     He lifted one hand in a kind of salute, then slammed the door of the carriage shut and called out to the driver to whip up the horses. This he did with alacrity. The coach sprang forward, leaving the rider, an empty horse, and the corpse on the ground receding swiftly into the gathering dusk.

     Demelza had forgotten to breathe during the brief exchange. Now she drew in a great shuddering gasp of air, almost choking, and fell into Ross’s arms, clinging to him, her slim body wracked with sobs.

     “Judas! Judas! I thought he was going to kill you.”

     “So did I,” Ross conceded wryly. “It was probably a foolish thing to do, at my age. But that ring has been on your finger since I put it there almost fifty years ago.”

     She held up her hand, looking at the thin gold band – it was so much a part of her that she rarely even noticed it. “Such a small thing to die for.”

     “As he said, that’s a matter of opinion.”

     “And you killed him.” She felt suddenly sick. “You killed him.”

     “It was likely only anticipating the hangman.” He found that he too was shaking slightly, his hand unsteady as he slid the pistol back into the holster concealed between the seat and the bodywork of the coach.

     The action had been instinctive. It seemed that the old impulse to violence had not mellowed with the passing years – it had lingered there beneath the cloak of respectability that wealth and an aristocratic title had lain on his shoulders.

     He had killed more than a few men in his life, though mostly when in uniform, and mostly with a rifle. There was only one he had shot with a pistol, one chilly autumn morning in Hyde Park in the closing weeks of the old century, with the leaves wet underfoot and the smell of woodsmoke in the air, and in the distance the chime of a church-bell. It was a memory that had never left him.

     “Oh Ross.” Demelza shook her head, fumbling for her handkerchief. “Jason… I couldn’t believe it when I saw him. It’s so sad that he’s come to that. Clowance would be so upset.”

     “There’s no need for her to know.” He bent to pick up the booty the robber had left on the floor. “It’s best that she doesn’t.”

     “But the coach… The blood…” It was smeared across the floor and splattered on the seats.

     “It will mostly clean up,” he assured her. “I’ll instruct her coachmen not to give too many details when they get home.” He lifted the hatch in the roof of the carriage. “Is everyone alright out there?”

     “Yes Sir. Do you wish to stop, Sir?”

     “No – get on into town as quickly as you can.”

     “I wish we could get home tonight,” Demelza sighed. “Back to Nampara. I’m never going to leave it again.”

     He drew her back into his arms, and she sobbed quietly against his shoulder as he stroked a soothing hand down over her silver hair - it had fallen from the ribbon she had tied around it, and it tumbled in a mass of unruly curls just as it had that day when he had found her at Redruth Fair, a lifetime ago.

 

Demelza had been more shaken by their misadventure than she had cared to admit even to Ross. But he knew her well enough that he had no need to be told, and it pained him to see her light so dimmed.

     He missed the energy in her step as she pottered around the house, missed the murmured songs which had never been far from her lips. Even Harry and Rachel’s safe return from their Italian trip couldn’t lift her spirits.

     The visit to Verity was mentioned a few times, but somehow firm plans were never made. And then in the last week of October a letter came.