The day did not improve. The hunt for Robert Kittow proved fruitless – no-one in the town had seen him, no one could offer the slightest explanation for his disappearance.
Ross and Harry interviewed the rest of the workers one-by-one – Ross had grown weary of the task, and sat to one side as Harry dealt with it. But by the middle of the afternoon they had both reached the conclusion that it was a complete waste of time.
Drake had returned from Loveday’s with nothing to report except that the women were understandably much distressed. “Loveday had got herself into a taking, believing Robert had acquired a mistress, which is why she said nothing.”
“Surely she couldn’t seriously think that?” Harry objected.
Drake shook his head. “Who knows how a woman’s mind works? We have done our best to keep the children from all the upset. Wenna is staying with her for this evening.”
Ross nodded. “I think that’s for the best. And perhaps you should be with them. Harry and I will take our dinner at the Swan.”
Drake looked grateful. “Are you sure?”
“Of course. If you hear anything, send us word.”
Before they left he gave instructions to Mably that all the workers were to receive an extra shilling’s pay in consideration of their willingness to act as watchmen, and Dan Couch to receive twice that.
“Of course the advantage to this arrangement,” Harry remarked cheerfully as they walked along Fore Street towards the inn, “is that we can have a jug of ale with our dinner. Uncle Drake is my favourite uncle – if you count that Geoffrey Charles is really not my uncle but some kind of cousin. But that Methody thing about not touching strong drink – that’s really not for me.”
Ross grinned at him. “Then you can buy the ale.”
The Swan was a comfortable inn, always busy but never too crowded. The landlord knew Ross well, and remembered Harry from when he was a schoolboy, visiting the boatyard with his father. “And so you’re married now, with a son of your own? My, how the years do fly.”
Ross and Harry ordered their dinner and went to sit down in a quiet corner.
“Mmm.” Harry sank a large gulp of his beer. “I was ready for this. It’s been a bad day.”
Ross leaned back against the upholstered bench and closed his eyes for a moment. It had indeed been a bad day, and they were no closer to finding out what had happened.
Yet a little to his surprise he found that, in spite of the unpleasantness of the day’s circumstances, he felt a certain contentment in spending this time with his son. Away from the domesticity of home, the presence – however welcome – of the women, he had been able to recognise him as a grown man, a father himself. And he had been impressed by him – by his intelligent grasp of what needed to be done, his calm authority when it was needed.
He was proud of him.
The landlord wasn’t long in bringing their dinner. By unspoken consent they did not discuss the business of the day while they ate, instead speculating on the impact of the recent works along the river bank.
“I don’t think it’s going to work as they hope,” said Harry. “It’s changed the way the river flows. If they get one decent storm, it could create a serious flood.”
“They could be a lot better off if the Burgesses would co-operate with each other. This division between East and West Looe is no longer helpful. It’s effectively one town.”
“I’m not sure they could be persuaded to see it that way. They’re too fond of their own dignities.”
Ross laughed satirically. “It was ever thus!”
They had finished their dinner and were contemplating the virtues of an apple pie when there came the sound of a loud quarrel from over by the bar. Someone was demanding that the landlord serve him a noggin of gin, and mark it up on his slate. This the landlord was clearly disinclined to do.
“Get out of here, Clem Vigus. I’ve told ‘ee afore, many a time, there’s no more drink for ee unless ee pay on the nail.”
“Ee think I ain’t got the money?” the customer demanded belligerently. “I’ll have the money tomorrow – more than enough money. I’ll buy everyone in this place a drink tomorrow, see if I don’t.”
“Ais, well that’s tomorrow, so we’ll see,” the landlord countered. “Ee’ll get nothing tonight unless ee have the coin.”
Ross had drawn back sharply into the shadow of the corner. Harry glanced at him in surprise.
“Clem Vigus,” Ross explained in a quiet voice. “He’s the grandson of old Nick Vigus, who used to live in Mellin. Nothing but trouble, and his son and his grandson take after him. I didn’t know he was hanging around down here.”
The quarrel had come to a noisy end with Clem Vigus slamming his fist on the bar and then stomping out. Ross rose to his feet.
“Come on. This could be worth looking into.”
It was beginning to grow dark, and there were few people about. Vigus was some way ahead of them, walking with the distinctive shuffling step of a man who had served a prison sentence with hard labour on the treadmill.
They followed him as he turned away from the river and struck up the hill and out of town. He had soon left the houses behind, taking to a rough track beneath the overhanding trees in the deepening dusk. There was little moonlight, but the stars were bright, helping them keep him in sight.
They had been walking for about ten minutes when Harry nudged his father, and pointed to a fresh wheel-rut at the side of the track.
Ross nodded. He was beginning to feel some discomfort from his ankle, but in his hurry he had left his walking stick behind at the inn. And what was worse, he had left his pistols on the table next to his bed back at Drake’s cottage.
But to his relief they did not have to walk much farther. Ahead of them Vigus suddenly disappeared from the track. Approaching cautiously, they found that he had entered an old woodman’s shack, almost derelict.
They eased up silently to the shuttered window. There were voices from within – two of them. Ross didn’t recognise either of them as belonging to Drake’s son-in-law. The glow of a candle shed some light, and through a crack in the shutters he could see two men sitting at a rough table – one was Vigus, the other unknown.
Harry touched his arm and signalled with hand gestures that he would go to look around the back of the building. Ross nodded, and Harry disappeared without a sound around the corner.
Ross waited, trying to hear what the two voices were saying. They appeared to be waiting for someone – the someone who was to buy their haul? The unknown man sounded agitated.
“I told ee I’d have no truck with murder. Ee can get hanged for that.”
“On’y if ee get caught. And we ain’t gonna get caught, see?”
“Well, I aint doing it, an’ that’s an end to it. Ee said we’d wait till she got here – she’ll decide what to do.”
Ross frowned. A woman was involved? He eased closer to the window again and peered through the crack. On the table where the two men were sitting were a couple of thick candles and the remains of a supper of bread and cheese.
And a pistol.
For the second time he cursed himself for leaving his own pistols behind. So much for being prepared for any eventuality. This could be difficult. He stepped back – and felt a sudden sharp stab of pain as his ankle twisted beneath him.
He grunted as he fell heavily to the ground, winded. Before he could pull himself up there was a scraping of chairs and a scuffle from the shack, and the two men erupted through the door. Vigus was holding the pistol in his hand.
“Well, dang me – we’ve got a prowler.” Vigus had a laugh as ugly as his face. “Danged busy-body poking his nose around. Wot you doing here, old feller? Eh? Come on, on yer feet.”
“Wait…” Ross had spotted a shadow moving silently around the far side of the shack. “My leg… I’ve hurt my leg.” He made as much fuss as possible trying to rise to his feet, not minding their smirking grins. So long as they were watching him…
The shadow moved swiftly. Vigus was felled with a single blow to the side of his head. Harry ducked as the other man swung wildly and missed. His fist struck him in the stomach with a blow like a pile driver, followed by an uppercut to the jaw which sent him sprawling on the ground beside his mate.
Ross scuttled across the ground to grab the pistol. “Nicely done,” he said, a note of pride in his voice.
Harry laughed. “At least I learned something useful at Oxford. Even if it was in the boxing club rather than the lecture hall.” He held out his hand to help Ross to his feet. “Are you hurt, Papa?”
“It could have been worse.” He winced as he put his weight on his ankle. “Not a word of this to your mother.”
One of the men was stirring, and Harry hit him again, almost casually. “We’d better tie these two up. There’s some rope on the wagon – it’s round the back, still loaded with our timber.”
He was gone for just a few seconds, returning with a coil of rope, and quickly had the two men bound hand and foot. “We’d best get them inside,” Ross said. “I heard them say someone would be coming. We should gag them, too.”
The two men were coming round, to find themselves dumped like sacks of potatoes in the corner of the shack. As Harry looked around for something to use as a gag, there came a muffled grunting from a room at the back of the shack.
Ross snatched up one of the candles and followed Harry. The room was little more than a lean-to. There was a lumpy straw mattress on the floor, and what had looked at first like a bundle of rags was a man, bound at the wrists and ankles, with a sack over his head.
Harry hurried to release him. As he pulled off the sack, Ross instantly recognised the square, stolid face of Robert Kittow.
As soon as Harry had cut him loose he sat up stiffly. “Oh, thank you, thank you.” He dragged in a deep, gasping breath. Ross could see that his face was pale and glistening with sweat, though the evening wasn’t particularly warm. “Thank God you’re here. It’s been a nightmare.”
“Are you all right? Have you any injuries?”
“No - I don’t think so, just my head. They hit me – knocked me out.”
“That seems to be a habit of theirs.”
He looked up at them, blinking in the candlelight. “Ross? Ross Poldark? What… How did you get here?”
“I’ll explain in a moment. Can you stand?”
“Yes – yes, I think so.”
He was a little unsteady on his feet, so Harry helped him totter through into the other room, where he sat down heavily at the table.
“Are you hungry?” asked Ross, taking the other chair.
Kittow nodded. “I haven’t eaten since last night.”
“Then help yourself. You might as well have their supper, since they’ve treated you so badly.”
From the corner there were loud but ineffective protests as Harry tore up the sacking to make gags for his captives. Kittow seized on a hunk of cheese and bit into it like a starving man.
“There’s ale too, if you don’t mind sharing their jugs.”
“I’ll not be fussy…” His face suddenly contorted, and he doubled up. “Excuse me, I just… I must go…” He hurried unsteadily to the door.
“Keep an eye on him,” Ross said to his son.
“You don’t believe him?”
“I do - but it won’t hurt to be careful. Besides, he may be ill – that’s a nasty bruise on his head, and it seems those two were none too gentle with him.”
But Kittow was back in two minutes. “Ah… I’m sorry. But I do feel better for that.”
“Do you feel ready to tell us what happened?” asked Ross.
Kittow sat down at the table again and took another bite of his former captors’ supper. He was already beginning to look a little better. He took a long draught of the ale, and pointed at Vigus.
“That man. His name is Clem Vigus. A couple of months ago he came down to the boatyard looking for a job. He seemed to be a strong young man, so I put him on for a month’s trial as a general labourer. But he was too often late or didn’t even come in to work at all, so I had to let him go.”
Vigus grunted aggressively through his gag.
“A couple of nights ago,” Kittow went on, “I was on my way back from a town meeting, and I saw him hanging around near the yard. It was late, almost ten o’clock. I had stayed after the meeting to talk to some of my colleagues about the possibility of building a new bridge – the old one is no longer wide enough for the needs of the town.”
“You saw Vigus near the yard?” Ross prompted to draw him back to the main topic.
“Yes.” He nodded. “Of course I wondered what he could be doing there, where he had no business to be. Especially at that time of night, and with all the thefts we’ve had recently. Anyway, I waited and watched him for a while, but nothing happened. But I was still suspicious, so the next night I went down at the same time to check – and he was there again.”
“Why didn’t you tell Drake?”
“I… felt in some measure responsible, since it was I who had hired him. And also… I had no clear proof. I was reluctant to accuse an innocent man.”
Ross considered that. It was in keeping with what he knew of the man – conscientious, deeply religious, and having shown no previous signs of possessing the imagination to make up such a story. “Very well – carry on.”
“Well, I had made up my mind to it that I would watch just one more night, which was last night. And there he was. So again I concealed myself in a doorway. And then… well, I must have been struck over the head. I know nothing more – I woke to find myself as you saw me.”
“So that’s how they got your keys?” asked Harry.
“Oh no – those I had left safe at home in my strongbox. I believe, from what I overheard, that they had keys. I can only surmise that when he worked for us, Vigus had access to them and somehow was able to copy them.”
“That would be easy enough,” Harry said. “You make an impression in a wax tablet, and that creates a mould for the new key.”
Ross sent him a sidelong glance. “Is that something else you learned at Oxford?”
Harry didn’t even look sheepish. “Well, they did lock the gates damnably early.”
“Search them for the keys,” said Ross. “We need to be quick now – their accomplices may be here at any minute.”
Harry and Kittow set to the task – Kittow with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm. He found the keys in the pocket of Vigus’s breeches, and gave them to Ross. He examined them by the light of the candle. They did indeed look new – they would be useful evidence for the magistrates to see.
It was only a few moments later when the sound of horses’ hooves could be heard approaching. Ross checked the priming on the pistol, and handed it to Harry. “Take this and go round the back way,” he said. “Kittow, move your chair back a little from the light.”
He moved his own chair back, and snuffed out all but one of the candles. They waited as the horses came to a halt outside the door. Two people dismounted and stepped into the shack.
The first was a woman, quite plump, wearing a pea-green velvet riding habit and a tall hat with a rather extravagant feather. She was followed by a tall, thin man, slightly stooped as if always apologising for himself.
As the woman moved into the light, Ross studied her face with a frown. There was something faintly familiar about her.
“Vigus?” she demanded, peering at Ross. A grunt from the corner alerted her, and she spun round. “What…?”
She turned and took a step towards the door, but Harry had appeared there, his wide shoulders blocking it, the pistol in his hand.
She recovered swiftly, drawing herself up like an indignant hen. “What is the meaning of this?” she demanded. “Ambushing innocent travellers…”
“Rowella,” her companion pleaded. “It’s no good.”
Ross frowned as the cogs of ancient memory began turning in his brain. Rowella… “Rowella Chynoweth?” he queried.
“Solway.” She turned on her pathetic husband. “Why did you have to open your mouth, you great dolt?”
“I’m sorry, my dear…”
“I’m afraid he’s right, Mrs.Solway. It’s no good. I suspect your unpleasant friends here in the corner will be more than willing to confess everything to the magistrates to save their own necks. Now, it’s getting dark, so let’s get back to town. I’m sure they’ll find some nice comfortable beds for you in the goal.”
“So off we rode back into town.” Harry was regaling the dinner table at Nampara with the tale – heavily edited, at Ross’s warning, so as not to worry Demelza. “None of us fancied riding side-saddle, so we let Rowella ride her own horse – though she wasn’t too pleased at being tied to the saddle. She was kicking up a storm all the way. Poor old Arthur and the other two we dumped on the wagon – it can’t have been too comfortable for them, bouncing around on the timber over that nice rough track.”
“So what happened when you got back to town?” Harriet had ridden over to visit this afternoon and had refused to budge until she had heard the whole story.
“Kittow went off to knock up the parish constable, and we tucked them all in nice and cosy in the town goal. The next morning they were up before the magistrates, and we saw them packed off to Launceston to await the next assizes.”
“Will you have to go?” asked Demelza with a sidelong glance at Ross.
“No.” He smiled at her. “With Harry and Kittow as witnesses they won’t need me.”
She nodded, satisfied.
“And this Rowella is Morwenna’s sister?” Harriet asked. “That must have been quite a shock for her. What did she say?”
“She didn’t say a word,” said Ross. “I gather there’s little love lost between them.”
“They seemed quite close at one time,” said Demelza. “At least during Wenna’s first marriage, to that horrible vicar. What was his name, Ross?”
“That’s it. He always reminded me of a fat toad. For a vicar, he always dressed in the height of fashion. And he was so self-important. He was related to some friend of the Prince Regent, as he would remind everyone at any opportunity.”
“Conon Godolphin. That was why old George was keen to push Morwenna into marrying him. He thought the connection might help boost his parliamentary career, but I’m afraid he was sadly disappointed.”
Harriet laughed her deep, almost masculine laugh. “Ah, how typically George.”
“Anyway, Rowella went to stay with them for a while, to help care for Ossie’s two older girls by his first marriage,” Demelza went on. “But they fell out – I never knew why, Morwenna would never speak about it. I don’t think they’ve spoken since, and that must be… what, almost forty years.”
“Apparently Rowella has shown up at their door from time to time, pleading poverty and asking for money,” Ross said. “Morwenna has always refused to see her, but Drake has usually given her something.”
“How typically Drake!” Demelza said, laughing. “But of course it would just encourage her.”
“And yet she had the cheek to complain, when Papa scolded her, that it was all Morwenna’s fault that she had been reduced to such straits,” said Harry indignantly, “because she had done nothing to help her.”
Betsy Martin had come in to take the plates for the main course. “Shall I bring in the pie now?” she asked.
Demelza nodded. “Yes please, Betsy.”
Yesterday she and Rachel had spent a pleasant afternoon gathering blackberries, and today they had made jam, saving a few to bake into an apple pie. It was always a firm favourite.
“Mmm.” Harriet sighed with pleasure. “This is delicious.”
Rachel smiled. “Thank you, Mama.”
Harriet’s eyes widened in astonishment. “You made it?”
Rachel laughed. “Don’t sound so surprised. Demelza’s been teaching me to cook.”
“What do you think will happen to them?” Demelza asked Ross, returning to the main topic of conversation.
“It’s hard to say. Vigus and his companion will be charged with theft and the two assaults. I suspect Vigus at least has done time before. It’s most likely they’ll be sentenced to transportation. As for Rowella and Arthur – they’re rather too old for transportation, so it will probably be a prison sentence for them. Whether Arthur will survive it I don’t know – he looks a pretty poor specimen.”
Harry laughed. “I should think it would be a holiday for him, to be away from his wife. He’s already served a life sentence with her!”
“Truly, you’ll not go to Launceston?”
“Truly, I’ll not go to Launceston.”
Ross yawned contentedly. It was good to be back in his own bed, with his wife warm beside him. He had spent a large part of his life travelling – to America, to Europe, even once to Peru. Somehow he had acquired a reputation as the one to send when there was a particularly knotty problem to be unpicked, whether in the military field or anything to do with mines and minerals. And he had been happy enough to accept - always restless, always looking for adventure.
But no more. He was home now, and home he would stay. Harry was taking more responsibility for the farm and the mines, and seemed to enjoy it.
It was odd to contemplate that his son was now older than he had been when he had first come home from America, so full of hope, to find his house full of filth and straw and roosting hens, his fields choked with weeds, the apples in his orchard mouldering on the ground among the dead leaves.
And his father’s old servants, Jud and Prudie, dead drunk and snoring in the box bed - in that same room where they had eaten their dinner earlier this evening.
That first night this room had been icy cold and damp, the old straw in the mattress smelling of heaven knew what. He had attempted to light a fire, but eventually had given it up as a bad job, and had turned in to sleep in all his clothes, including his travelling cloak.
It had been a bleak time, with winter approaching – long dark evenings when the walls had seemed to close in around him and he had cared little for the shabbiness of the furniture or the torn curtains.
What a transformation the years had seen. And it had begun in such a small way - with jugs filled with wild flowers gathered by the wild girl who had worked in his kitchen.
Even in those early days, untutored, she had had good taste. Those little bouquets had had an artistry about them. He had never been quite sure when they had first begun to appear – he probably hadn’t noticed them at first, paying little attention to his surroundings.
Then they had been there, and he had grown used to seeing them, sometimes even taking a mild pleasure in the mix of shapes and colours, the sweet fragrances that had chased the last of the mouldy smells from the room.
Then he had begun to notice other things – the gleam of polish on the table, the curtains mended and hanging in a new way. Such small things. But like the tiny green shoots that lay hidden beneath the ground through the winter frosts, they had been the first signs that his own long, bleak winter was ending. That warmth and love were creeping into his life, carried in the slender, capable hands of the woman lying beside him now.
“You’re not yet asleep?”
“No. I’m savouring the pleasure of lying again in my own bed.”
“And I’m savouring the pleasure of having you lying here beside me. You were gone longer than I expected.”
“I did warn you not to expect me back soon.”
“You said Saturday. Today is Tuesday.”
He laughed, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close against him. “You never let me get away with anything. We had to stay an extra day to lay the information before the magistrates.”
“That makes Sunday.”
“And then we stayed the night again in St.Austell on the way back. And Truro.”
She lifted her head and pushed back the curls that were falling over her eyes. “You stayed in Truro? You had business there again?”
“No, my love. I was just tired. You were right, it is a long ride. I’m afraid you’re going to have to accept that you are married to an old man.”
She laughed softly, and kissed his chin. “Not so old.” She laid back on the pillow. “Well, since we are making confessions, I have one of my own.”
He propped himself up on his elbow and looked down at her. “Oh…?”
“I thought I’d best tell you before someone else does. While you were away, I had two days in bed. Oh, it was nothing serious,” she forestalled him. “Just a bit of a cold.”
“It’s not like you to take to your bed for a bit of a cold.”
“Well I’m not so young either. But it didn’t last long. I just have a little bit of a cough still.” Before he could probe any further, she picked up his hand and examined the graze on his palm. “What happened?”
“It was nothing.”
“And your coat looked as if it had been through a hedge.”
“I tripped on a step. It was nothing.” He turned and snuffed out the candle. “Go to sleep.”
“All right.” She snuggled into the crook of his arm. “I’ll ask Harry.”
“He won’t tell you.”
“I thought there was nothing to tell.”
“You should have been a lawyer.”
He dropped a kiss on the top of her head. He was home. Though he had been away for little more than a week, he had missed her. Missed the clean scent of her hair, the downy softness of her cheek against his, the familiar, loved curves of her body beside his own.
Yes – home he would stay.