There were few places to cross the Tamar out of Cornwall unless you rode well to the north. Jason chose the old stone bridge near Launceston. It was pleasant riding through the green, leafy Devon countryside with the sun warm on his shoulders and the freedom of the open road in his heart.
He managed to sell Jarrod’s horse and saddle to a group of gypsies he met up with near Lifton – he didn’t get quite the price they were worth, but he had needed a buyer who wouldn’t ask too many awkward questions.
At least now he had a handful of guineas to jangle reassuringly in his pocket, enough to last him for a few weeks of good suppers and comfortable beds at the better quality inns. But a cautious voice in his head warned him to husband his resources. The life of a Gentleman of the Road wasn’t what it had once been. The pickings were thin, and the risks high.
The spread of turnpikes and toll roads meant that many of the roads were better maintained, which had encouraged the building of faster stagecoaches – and even if they didn’t go bowling past at too fast a pace to be halted, as like as not the coachman would be armed with one of the new percussion pistols.
And even the private coaches were rarely worth the risk, even if he was able to stop one. People rarely carried much in cash nowadays – they preferred to make use of the damned banks when they wanted to move their money around. And even if they were carrying cash it was more often than not in bank notes rather than gold, and bank notes were rather too easy to trace.
Fortunately it wasn’t too difficult to find places where he could stay a night or two without having to pay for room and board, and as a bonus could enjoy a romp in a cosy barn with a pretty farm-wench – or even the farmer’s wife if her husband happened to be conveniently away from home.
And if that pleasure wasn’t available, he wasn’t averse to sleeping under the stars on these balmy summer nights. He mostly stayed away from the main roads and larger villages – he was too well known in some quarters, and he didn’t care to risk inviting undue interest.
In this meandering way it took him almost a month to reach Bedminster Down, where he could look across the River Avon towards the bustling city of Bristol, with its busy docks and sprawling slums.
Somewhere down there he had a wife and two fine sons. But it had been the best part of five years since he had seen them – he couldn’t be sure of a warm welcome. Besides, it could take him a while to find them amid all those teeming masses, and meanwhile he risked being found himself by his creditors. He had no wish to end up in debtors’ prison.
It was not without a twinge of guilt that he turned away, but it couldn’t be helped.
The good weather lasted well into September. Jason wandered for a while into the pleasant rolling countryside north of Bristol and up as far as Tewkesbury and Worcester.
He wasn’t so familiar with this area, so he spent a little time scouting it out, finding the best cross-country routes away from the coach roads, checking for the best – and most discreet – inns.
Once or twice he tried a little flirtation with a pretty farmer’s wife, but either the women in this area were less free in their ways than those further south and west, or he was losing his knack. He had an uncomfortable feeling it was the latter – perhaps he shouldn’t have gone so close to Bristol and reminded himself of the wife he had so unjustifiably betrayed.
But summer had to end at last. And however beautiful the scenery as the trees began to don their autumn colours, it couldn’t make up for the colder nights, when sleeping under a hedge meant the damp seeping into your clothes, or the discomfort of cheap lodging houses where the bedbugs ate better than he did.
He even considered resorting to housebreaking, but he couldn’t quite bring himself that low. Maybe he’d have to get an honest job.
Then – as he had known he must sooner or later – he had a lucky strike. Riding around a bend in the road somewhere near Wadborough, he came upon a small private coach which had run a wheel into the ditch.
The coachman was fully occupied trying to coax the frightened and uncooperative horses to pull together, and didn’t even notice as Jason approached.
He looked up, startled and alarmed to find himself gazing down the barrel of a pistol. He glanced instinctively towards his own pistol, which he had neglectfully left on his seat.
Jason shook his head. “Ye don’t want to try that, not if ye enjoys living.” He nudged his horse closer and picked up the pistol. “I’d oblige ye to open the door.”
The poor man looked for a moment as if he was going to make a stance, but the occupant of the coach was more helpful, flinging the door open. “What is it now, Lepping?” he demanded petulantly. “I have to be in… Oh…”
“Good day to ye,” Jason greeted him with the exaggerated politeness he always adopted – partly to allay the panic which could result in a dangerously unpredictable reaction on the part of his victims, and partly because it simply amused him to play out the role of a Gentleman of the Road.
“What the… This is outrageous. How dare you? Lepping, how could you let this happen?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the unfortunate coachman pleaded humbly. “I was trying to manage the horses, and…”
“I don’t want to hear your excuses. You’ll be put off without a reference as soon as we reach Cirencester.”
Jason regarded the man in the coach with positive dislike. He was almost as round as he was short, with a large red nose set in a ruddy face which suggested a fondness for rich food and too much port.
“I’m sure ye did yer best, Lepping,” he remarked kindly to the unfortunate coachman. “Now sur, I’ll trouble ye to hand over yer purse.”
“I’ll do no such thing,” the fat man blustered. “It’s an outrage.”
Jason sighed and shook his head wearily as if scolding a recalcitrant child. “I didn’t offer ye an alternative,” he warned, waving his pistol.
“You scoundrel. Robbing decent people of their hard-earned money. Well, I’m telling you, you don’t frighten me…”
Jason quickly weighed up the odds. It was broad daylight, he was on an unfamiliar road, and trouble could come riding round the bend as unexpectedly as he had himself.
But on the other hand, a private coach and the opulence of the man’s waistcoat promised that there could be at least some decent pickings, and he was running short of the readies.
He made up his mind. “Oh, I don’t have time for this.” He fired a shot into the carriage. It hit the squabs exactly where he had intended, a good couple of hands-breadths from the fat man’s shoulder, but he squealed as if he had been hit.
At least it had the desired effect. Fumbling under his coat, the fat man pulled out a brown leather satchel and held it out.
“Lepping, if ye please,” Jason said, indicating to the coachman to pass him the satchel. It felt satisfyingly heavy, and jingled when he shook it. He slung it over his saddle, and bowed in mocking salute. “I thank ye, gentlemen. Good day to ye.”
He could almost have cheered aloud as he rode away.
Like his father, he had always been a great believer in his own good fortune, and time and again his optimism had been rewarded. Just think of that last daring raid to France, all those years ago
First there had been the luck of coming across that chaloupe on its way back from America, well-laden with all kinds of valuable goods, easy to sell. Then when a French frigate had come upon them while they were boarding, their own boat, the Adolphus, had been able to get clean away into the mist.
And though he himself had been captured and locked up in a stinking fish-cellar, his father had come to rescue him, just as he had known he would. And so they had come home to glory with their rich prize – and only just in time, as the end of the war would have made such an escapade illegal.
Of course his father had…
Something hit him hard on the left arm, just above the elbow. A rock? But who could have thrown it? And when he put his hand up, he found his sleeve torn and already wet with blood.
Glancing back over his shoulder he saw the coachman standing in the middle of the road, reloading a rifle. It clearly wasn’t the moment to wait around marvelling at the accuracy of the shot over such a distance – surely close to four hundred yards?
Spurring his horse he rode away fast, cursing the high hedges that enclosed the road and prevented him from turning aside.
He must have ridden at least a mile when he came at last to a crossroads. With a sigh of relief he turned left – for some reason, pursuers always seemed to turn right. He galloped on for another couple of miles, taking a few more turns which would lead him as far as possible from any pursuit.
It was hot; there were bees buzzing around his head, and he had a powerful thirst. The initial numbness in his arm had worn off, and it was becoming quite painful, but at least the bleeding had slowed and the wound was only seeping now. It seemed to be no more than a deep graze, damaging the muscle but not touching the bone.
He would need to find somewhere to stop soon, to try to patch himself up as best he could. A barn, for preference – he didn’t care to enter an inn, nor even a farmhouse, with such a suspicious injury. He could rest up for the night, and in the morning he would feel much better.
And he had money now – plenty of money. Gold sovereigns, as he had found when he had thrust his hand into the satchel. The injury was no more than an inconvenience – he was young and fit, he would soon recover.
It was growing dark when he found what he was looking for – a large barn, isolated and silent. In the distance, over a hill, he could just make out a thread of smoke – likely from a farmhouse chimney. But no one would be coming out here before dawn.
He slid down from the saddle, grunting slightly at the pain in his arm. There was a pump and a water-trough at the side of the barn. He eased off his coat and shirt, and examined the damage. It really didn’t look too bad.
Ripping the torn sleeve from his shirt, he used it to make a pad. It was difficult to work the pump with one arm, but he managed it. Soaking the pad he cleaned away as much of the blood as he could, then wrung out most of the water and laid it over the wound, binding it in place with the other sleeve torn from his shirt.
His horse had wandered over to take a drink from the trough, and he took a drink himself, then washed his face. He had a little bread and cheese in his pocket, left over from his last meal – fortunately he wasn’t very hungry. Then he took the satchel and slung it over his good shoulder, and went to have a look in the barn.
It was just after the harvest so there was plenty of good clean straw to sleep on. There was also an old moleskin coat hanging on a nail behind the door – it was well worn in places and a little frayed, but it would do to replace his own torn one.
He had plenty of money – tomorrow he would find the nearest town and buy himself a new one, a good one, the latest style. And a new pair of boots – the ones he was wearing had seen better days.
He brought his horse inside and closed the door, and then settled down comfortably to sleep. He had got off all right after all.
He woke suddenly to the sound of voices outside, the clatter of horses’ hooves. Someone had dragged open the barn door and sunlight was streaming in, dazzling him as he opened his eyes. He had slept much later than he had intended.
He struggled to sit up, but he had forgotten his injured arm – as he put his weight on it, a sharp stab of pain and a wave of dizziness washed over him. When he could see straight again he found himself confronted by three men with pistols.
“On yer feet.”
For a moment he weighed up the chances of grabbing for his own pistol, and the one he had purloined from that damned sharpshooting coachman. But that didn’t seem like the best option for the moment. He wasn’t quite at his best – and there were three of them.
No, he’d bide his time - a better opportunity was bound to turn up. Besides, even if the worst came to the worst, they didn’t hang you for highway robbery these days.
He’d seen a man hang once, a long time ago, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. A most undignified death, however much bravado the condemned man put on as they led him to the rope. Choking and red-faced, tongue all sticking out, legs pumping as if trying to run away. And more often than not, as he had heard, his bowels emptying in a stinking mess.
No, that wouldn’t be for him, he reflected as he got to his feet and cautiously raised his hands. First he’d try to get away – a bit of carelessness of a guard, or one who could be bribed. It was a shame old Jarrod wasn’t around, he’d have got him out of this.
Or there was transportation.
He paused in the doorway of the barn and looked around, breathing in deeply. September was coming to an end in a blaze of glory, the sun shining golden on the stubble in the harvested fields, the sky as blue as could be.
But winter was coming. Maybe a few weeks in a nice dry cell wouldn’t be so bad after all. It was just a pity to have lost his prize – all those lovely gold sovereigns. But they had been a windfall after all – he was no worse off than he had been before.
“Alright, alright,” he grumbled as one of his captors nudged him towards the farm-cart they had evidently borrowed to carry him off to goal. “Easy, see? I ain’t trying to get away – I got winged in me arm.”
Transportation. Now that didn’t seem too bad. A clever man could make an opportunity out of it. Australia. He’d heard from sailors in Bristol that it was a fine place, always sunny. That would suit him very nicely
So long as that stupid fat little man from the coach didn’t start bleating to the court that he’d tried to kill him. As if he’d have missed that shot if he’d intended to kill him, as any jury would see.
Nay, they’d never convict him on that.
He lay back against the side of the cart, closing his eyes and lifting his face to the sun. Australia, eh? It looked like he could get off all right after all.
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.
Ross had gone with Harry up to the china clay pit at the southern end of Nampara Combe. These past few years he had grown very close to his son. He had feared, when he and Demelza had taken the decision to send the boy to Oxford, that he would be reluctant to return home afterwards.
But Harry had a passionate love for Cornwall, and he had mining as deep in his blood as his father did. He loved nothing more than scrambling around underground with Billy Nanfan or Mark Carter, almost sniffing for a likely trace of copper or tin. And he had an instinct for it, finding several workable lodes while still in his teens.
It had been while exploring for a new vein of tin that they had found the china clay. A kind of decomposed granite, known locally as growan, it had been mined in abundance in the south of the county, around St Austell, for the past eighty years or more. It was rarer here in the north, but some had been found on Bodmin Moor.
Traces of the stuff had sometimes been found in Wheal Grace in his father’s day, when it had been regarded as waste, or sometimes been sold cheaply for making bricks and fireboxes. Then an apothecary called Cookworthy had found a way to use it in making fine porcelain, as good as any from China, and suddenly the demand for it had soared, as had the price. Fine and velvety, it had been called White Gold.
Unlike the copper and tin they mined at Wheal Leisure, it was extracted by the open-cast method. A great circular pit had been dug, funnelling down to a floor some fifteen fathoms deep. Above it a leat had been run from the Mellingey stream to direct the water down onto the greyish rock, to turn it into a slurry which was sluiced down into the settling pits below, where the attle of mica and sand would be drained out, and the pure china clay could begin to dry.
Father and son stood at the edge of the pit, watching the activity below. Files of men were climbing steps cut into the sloping side, carrying the partly-dried blocks up to the reeders above to finish drying out.
“That’s nearly the last of the summer saving,” Harry said. “These are the pans we filled in July.”
Ross nodded. “How much deeper do you think it will go?”
“A fair bit. Some of the beds over to St Austell are deeper than fifty fathoms. The problem is piling the attle and stent. There’s five or more tons of it to every ton of pure clay. I thought to drop some of it down the old mine workings, but it isn’t really practical.”
Ross glanced up at the growing hill of pale rubble a short distance beyond the pit. “Well, there’s space enough – the soil here is too barren for farming. It’s a shame nothing will grow on the tip - not even grass. But at least it’s screened from the house by the trees. How many of the workers will we be able to keep on over the winter?”
“All of the men, and most of the women. I’m thinking to set up a horse whim over there.” He pointed to the far side of the pit. “As we’re digging deeper, the labour of bringing up the blocks becomes harder. With a bucket and tackle it will be much quicker. And as the pit widens, we can use the men to open another sluice, increasing production.”
Ross was silent for a while. Long ago, he had had a similar discussion with his elder son, about the Wheal Leisure mine. At that time the tall, wide-shouldered young man who now stood at his side had been a bright, boisterous toddler, and he had expressed to Demelza a fear that he would never feel as close to him as he was to Jeremy.
Instead, it had been almost the reverse. For much of Jeremy’s boyhood he had been absent. More conscientious than most about his duties as a Member of Parliament, he had often been in London or off on some mission abroad.
But he had resigned his seat when Harry was just five years old, which had given him much more time to spend at home with his family. And so he had been able to teach him to ride his first horse, to row and sail, to fish, and to shoot straight.
And Harry, with his mother’s brilliant smile and his easy air of being somehow special, could always charm the birds out of the trees.
“There’s something I need to discuss with you,” said Ross.
Harry glanced at him sharply, picking up the serious note in his voice. “Yes Papa?”
Ross looked up at the sky, where a missel thrush was singing its fluting song. “You know of the Trust Fund I set up with the legacy from old Hubert Trencrom?”
“The one that pays for the alms houses down in Sawle? Of course.”
Ross nodded. “I have a notion to name you and Geoffrey Charles as co-trustees with me. I’ve been thinking of it for a while – to ensure… continuity.” He smiled suddenly. “It’s time you showed me that the money I spent on sending you up to Oxford wasn’t wasted.”
Harry laughed a little uncertainly. “Well, if you think I’m able, I should be more than pleased. The mine and the clay-pit almost run themselves now, and I have been considering what else I could do to be useful.”
“It would certainly be useful, and if I didn’t think you were able, I wouldn’t have suggested it.” Ross turned, and they began to walk together back through the copse of trees which sheltered the house from the clay workings. “When we were in London I spoke with your Aunt Caroline about a plan she has for Killewarren. It’s early days yet, and I haven’t mentioned it to your mother – talking of Caroline upsets her, and she’s had enough stress lately.”
Harry nodded. “Have you spoken to…?”
“Cap'n Ross, Cap'n Ross…” It was Betsy Martin, their housekeeper, panting up the slope to meet them.
“What is it?” Ross demanded sharply, seeing the distress on her wide face.
He broke into a rapid stride, cursing his lame ankle. Harry raced ahead, reaching the house before him, and he found him standing helplessly in the doorway of the old parlour. Demelza was collapsed at the table, her head resting on her arms, great sobs shaking her slim frame.
“My love…” He touched a gentle hand to her shoulder. “What is it?”
Without lifting her head, she handed him the letter she had been crushing in her fist. He scanned it at a glance. From Tamsin, Andrew Blamey’s wife. Verity had had another fall, and had died before even the doctor had arrived.
“We should have gone,” Demelza wept. “It’s no great distance, with the new roads. We could have gone so easily. There was never any danger going that way. Now we can only go to her funeral.”
Ross sat down heavily on the chair beside her, brushing his hand over his eyes. Verity – sweet little Verity. His dear cousin. Verity, who had helped him through those drear early months when he had returned from America all those years ago to a life in ruins. Who had helped Demelza find her feet as the wife of one of the landowning minor gentry of the county.
Verity, whose own romance had been conducted right here in this parlour – a romance which had later dealt a painful blow to his own marriage and almost destroyed his relationship with his cousin Francis.
Demelza reached out her hand without lifting her head, her long slender fingers twining with his.
So, we are all growing older, he reflected, gazing into the flickering flames of the fire. Verity had been… what, just about two years older than himself? And the price of growing older is that we have to lose so many of the people we love.
Some, it was true, had been gone many years – Jeremy, and baby Julia, their precious first-born. Francis, drowning so pointlessly in an over-enthusiastic hunt for copper. And Elizabeth.
And one day, inevitably, the day would come when either he or Demelza would go, and leave the other behind.
He felt a hot lump in his throat, making it difficult to breathe. Was it selfish to hope that, being some ten years older, in the natural way of things he would go first?
To walk into the house and know that it was empty of her presence, to wake alone in their bed, knowing that the whole day would pass without the sound of her voice, without a fleeting glimpse of a slim shoulder as she vanished through a doorway, without glancing out of the window to see her tenderly caring for her garden...
He couldn’t bear to think of it.
It was a bleak funeral. The sky was a stormy grey, and the wind whipped the cold rain so that it seemed to come from every quarter. Even beneath the shelter of her umbrella, Demelza could feel the damp seeping into her as she stood at the graveside, and by the time they got home she was feeling thoroughly chilled.
A good fire of Welsh sea coal awaited them in the parlour, and Betsy Martin had hot soup ready for them – Harry and Rachel had come to the funeral with them, and stayed for supper. The meal was eaten in virtual silence – nobody had the heart for conversation.
Demelza went early to bed, but Ross stayed down in the parlour for a while chatting with Harry and Rachel before they left to walk back to the Gatehouse, which they had made into a cosy home for themselves. Then he sat with a pipe, contemplating the flames of the fire and listening to the rain battering against the window – and beyond that, the distant roar of the sea.
Opposite him the rocking chair made for Demelza by her youngest brother, Drake, moved slightly in a random draft. The cushion she had lately begun to place behind her back was crumpled into her shape.
Leaning back in his own chair, he closed his eyes. So, now he was the last of his generation of Poldarks. Verity… They had been closer than cousins as children – she had been more like a sister, a friend.
Just two years older than he and Francis, she had been their little mother, warning them not to try to jump over the Mellingey stream, scolding them for climbing the apple trees, sobbing in fear as she had watched them scrambling up the cliffs along Hendrawna Beach.
And sitting quietly with him on the rocks up by Damsel Point when he was ten years old, and could no longer bear to be in the house where his mother lay dying. Saying not a word as he had struggled manfully not to let the tears roll down his cheeks.
Then when she was seventeen, longing to go to the Assemblies in Truro, and her father Charles laughing at the very thought of sturdy, sallow little Verity dancing the gavotte. ‘Why do you want to go there to sit by the wall and watch ‘em all. Aarf!’ he had bellowed in his unthinkingly cruel way. ‘Better stay home here, where you can be useful.’
But in the end, she had won. She had married Andrew Blamey, in defiance of her family and all society’s objections, and had had many long and happy years with him in their pretty cottage in Flushing.
And a son – though something of a worry in his youth, now a prominent figure in the Packet Service, captain of his own ship. He and Demelza had sailed with him to New York, back in ’26, when they had gone to attend the celebrations to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He had been impressed then by the way he had been able to command the respect of his crew, without resorting to bullying.
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed eleven, and Ross tapped out his pipe, put the guard before the fire, and blew out the candles. At one time, on winter nights like this when the wind blew from the north-east, they would keep the fire going down here in the parlour all night rather than light one in their bedroom, because the wind would just blow the smoke back down the chimney.
But he had had that dealt with a dozen or more years ago, when they had begun building the new wing onto the house, with its fine front door that they rarely used, and the bright parlour and large dining room that were really only for guests, like the wide front staircase and the extra bedrooms above.
Now he climbed the narrow back stairs, with their familiar creak, to the room where he had slept for as long as he could remember, that he had shared with Demelza for almost fifty years.
She was already asleep, her breathing a little hoarse. She rarely caught colds, but it seemed she would be in for one this time.
Stripping off his clothes and pulling on his linen nightshirt he clambered in beside her, careful not to wake her, and sat back against the pillows, one finger idly twirling in a long curling strand of her silver hair.
He was sad to lose Verity, but he couldn’t be sad for her life. And it was Demelza who had brought about the change in her fortunes, bringing her together with Blamey. Demelza who, knowing her for so short a time, had understood her heart so much more clearly than he, who had known her all his life.
Demelza who had insisted that love was more important than anything else – than copper mines and family name and all the nasty gossip in the world. And she had been right, as she so often was – guided by an instinct he rarely understood but had learned early in their marriage to trust.
There had been times when he was younger when he had felt the need to hold onto every moment of happiness, fearing that they would be too fleeting and may not come again. Maybe the result of losing his mother at an age when he was just old enough to most acutely feel her loss – and losing his little brother the following year.
And that fear had seemed justified when he had returned from his military adventures to find that his precious Elizabeth had deserted him for his cousin.
But for many years now he had come to recognise that happiness was always there for him, if only he had the sense to reach for it. It had swung on a chance meeting at Redruth Fair, when some impulse had caused him to rescue a dirty little street urchin and her even dirtier dog, and bring them home to Nampara.
Why dwell on what was lost to history? He had his home, his wife, his children and grandchildren. And there was still life, a future. Harry and Rachel had tonight confided a secret, a hope – still a little soon to be sure, but something to help counter the sadness of the day.
He would tell Demelza tomorrow – by then she might be ready to share the excitement. He smiled down at her as she lay sleeping beside him. “Goodnight, my love,” he murmured, lifting the blankets a little closer over her shoulders.