CHAPTER NINE

 

As summer ended, Demelza’s cough returned – it had never really gone away, but in the warmer weather it had been quieter. But by November she could conceal it from Ross no longer, and he insisted on calling in Dr Liddicoat again.

     He listened carefully to her chest, and tapped it a few times. “There are signs of a lung fever,” he announced sagely. “The percussion on the right side is distinctly dull. I shall prescribe a decoction of Barberry and Yellow Root with ginger – that will both lower the infection and help her sleep. I will also leave a recipe for a special broth. The diet should be reduced in meat, and the patient should be kept warm, with no excitement.”

     “Thank you, doctor,” Ross responded as he saw him out of the front door. In truth, he had no more faith in him than he had had in old Tom Choake, but at least he didn’t have that old quack’s irritating habit of saying “we” instead of “I”. If only he could have called on Dwight…

     “What did he say?” Demelza enquired as Ross came back into the parlour.

     “Early nights and lots of broth.”

     “I can hardly wait.”

 

But as the weeks passed there was little improvement. Harry and Rachel and little JayJay came over from the Gatehouse every day, and Harriet was a frequent visitor. Ross encountered her one day in the middle of December, alighting from her horse as he arrived in the gig from a trip to Truro.

     “Hello there.”

     “Hello to you.” She handed over her reins to Billy Carter, the stable-boy. “I’ve just popped over to see the invalid. How is she?”

     Ross’s eyes darkened as he swung down from the gig. “No better. I’ve written to Bella and Clowance to be sure they come down for Christmas.”

     She took his arm with the tenderness of a long-standing friend. “My dear, you fear it’s as bad as that?”

     “I don’t know. She’s been so rarely ill, but this time…”

     They walked into the old parlour, where Demelza was sitting in her rocking chair before the fire, crocheting a little jacket for JayJay. Ross bent to kiss her forehead, then put another piece of coal on the fire.

     “Harriet! How nice of you to come over – and in this cold weather, too.”

     “Not at all – it’s really quite mild, after all that snow we had last winter.”

     “Sit down. Will you take tea? Ross, how about you?”

     “Later. I need to walk up to the mine office, but I’ll be no more than half-an-hour.” He slanted a quick glance at Harriet, reading her thoughts. It was less than a week since she had last called, but even in that short time Demelza was looking more frail, her cheeks flushed against her pale skin, her eyes huge in the fine structure of her face.

     She had always refused to let him have her portrait painted, but she had consented to have a miniature done when they were last in Paris. It hung now in the Library, and the contrast with that and how she looked now was so painful that he avoided going into the room.

     Harriet smiled brightly and sat down on the velvet-covered settee. “Well, my dear, how are you feeling?”

     “Oh, not so bad, apart from this silly cough. I thought you’d be out with the Carnbarrow today?”

     “We went out yesterday. I must say, I’d always dismissed the north of the county as hunting country, but we’ve already had some very lively runs this season.”

     “I’m that glad you chose to move over here.” Demelza laid aside her crochet and rang the bell for Betsy to fetch the tea. “When you was in Truro it was hard to see much of you, and Cardew was even worse.”

     Harriet rolled her fine eyes. “Oh, Truro - I was more than happy to leave. I swear it gets noisier and smellier by the day. Ursula loves it, of course – she wouldn’t be anywhere that wasn’t close to her beloved bank. And as for Cardew - my dear, I couldn’t have been more delighted than when it was sold. Why ever would I want to be rattling around in thirty bedrooms? Especially since my dear husband saw fit to leave me no more than a competence to exist on.”

     Demelza laughed – she knew full well that George had left Harriet very well provided for, even by her demanding standards.

     But the laugh turned into a fit of coughing that seemed to rattle her thin frame as if there had been an underground explosion. When it was over she was careful to conceal her blood-stained handkerchief from her friend’s sharp eyes.

     “But you know,” Harriet mused, continuing the conversation as if nothing had happened – for which Demelza was grateful - “in an odd sort of way I miss old George.”

     “Well, you were married to him for twenty years.”

     “Heavens, yes!” Harriet rolled her fine eyes. “Twice as long as I was married to dear Toby.”

     “Did you ever love him?” Demelza asked, curious.

     “I adored him! Oh, you mean George.” Harriet laughed mischievously. “You know, maybe I did, a little. I think I was destined to marry men I would clash horns with. Anything else would have been deadly dull. As to whether he ever loved me…”

     “You doubted it?”

     “I always doubted it. Oh, he wanted me, though he always hated the way his baser desires could over-rule his reason. And he was terribly proud of being married to the sister of a Duke, even though that side of the family had virtually disowned me. But there was always a spectre haunting the place.”

     “Elizabeth.” Demelza spoke the name quietly, as if afraid of conjuring a ghost.

     “Elizabeth.” Harriet’s well-made mouth twisted into a wry smile. “He idolised her. Her room at Cardew was never touched – it was like a shrine to her, her hair brushes still on the dressing table where she had last laid them down, her silk nightgown over the back of a chair.”

     “I never knew that.”

     A tap on the door heralded Betsy with the tea tray, which she set down on the small table beside Demelza’s rocking chair.

     “It’s odd to think of George being… like that,” she continued when Betsy was gone.

     “Oh, men are strange creatures.” Harriet shrugged her elegant shoulders in careless dismissal, and leaned across without fuss to pour the tea as she saw Demelza struggling slightly to lift the pot. “They always want that which they cannot have.”

     “He was married to her,” Demelza pointed out.

     “But he always knew that he could never hold her heart.”

     “No…” Demelza knew too well who had held Elizabeth’s heart.

     Harriet reached over and squeezed Demelza’s hand. “My love, I know the old stories.” She laughed with a touch of wry self-mockery. “As you said, I was married to George for twenty years, and you may be sure that I set myself to discreetly learn all I could about my rival.”

     “Oh…?” Demelza glanced up at her friend in surprise.

     “Of course I did. It wasn’t difficult. I wheedled a great deal out of Verity – though bless her, she was very loyal. Frequently there was more to be learned from what she didn’t say than what she did say. She told me about how Elizabeth and Ross had thought themselves in love when they were very young, before he went off to war in America.”

     Demelza had turned her gaze to the flickering flames of the fire. It was painful to revisit these old hurts, hurts that had been buried for so long. The oldest and most tangled of the knots in the golden thread.

     “Ross was twenty when they met,” she murmured. “Older by three years than I was when I married him.”

     “But girls grow up so much sooner than boys. For a young man of that age…” Harriet shook her head. “You know, I can’t help thinking that if he’d never gone away, if he’d stayed here, it was as likely as not that it would have faded away as that kind of calf-love is wont to do.”

     “I think it was more than calf-love,” Demelza argued. Strange – there seemed to be a faint scent of bluebells, though there were none in the room. It wasn’t even the season for them yet.

     Harriet raised her eyebrows in question. “Have you never asked yourself why, if she was so important to him, did he go?” she challenged. “Why he let himself be parted from her? Not knowing for how long he would be gone, or even if he would ever return?”

     “Well, because… Well, he had gambling debts.” Demelza frowned, stumbling over the explanation. “And he'd been in trouble with the excise men.”

     “Phoo!” Harriet waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Who doesn’t have gambling debts? And he was the son of a gentleman – any trouble with the excise men could all have been dealt with without it even going to trial. He went because, being Ross, he was looking for adventure, and that was more to him than ever she was.”

     Demelza took a sip of her tea. Ramses, their cat, had strolled into the room, and jumped up onto her lap. She let him settle, stroking his soft grey fur.

     “Ross is like a lot of strong men,” Harriet went on firmly. “He has a rather foolish romantic streak in him. Being so far away, and stuck in the middle of an ugly war, he built on his memories, making more of them, until they became some kind of idealised dream. Then coming home to find her about to marry Francis… Men, you see? They always want the thing they can’t have. And you know how obstinate he can be. Believing himself to be desperately in love with her, he wouldn’t easily give up the illusion.”

     “And it helped, of course, that she was so very beautiful, and such a fine lady.” Demelza’s voice still held an echo of the old jealousy, the bitter resentment.

     “Perhaps. But you know, my dear, if they had married I doubt he would ever have been as happy with her as he has been with you.”

     Demelza stared at her, startled. “You think not?”

     “I strongly suspect it. Caroline told me a great deal about her. You know, she’s a woman of excellent sense.”

     “She didn’t really know Elizabeth that well,” Demelza objected.

     “She knew her well enough – and as an accredited beauty herself, she understood her well enough. Elizabeth was a woman who needed to be admired. Oh, I’m sure she had many fine qualities,” she insisted as Demelza opened her mouth to protest. “But that need for admiration, for adoration… It’s the downfall of many beautiful women.”

     Demelza said nothing.

     “She was an only child, remember – her parents doted on her, she was the centre of their world. A beautiful girl, growing up with such attention, would learn to expect it from all she met.” Her smile was a little crooked. “But they also brought her up to be the very pattern-card of refinement and gentility. From an early age she was drilled into the understanding of the kind of life she should expect, the kind of marriage she should expect.”

     “How can you know that?” Demelza protested.

     “I know it because it’s exactly the way I was brought up. But I kicked over the traces – Elizabeth never had that strength. Falling in love with Ross – and I believe she really did love him – was her one act of rebellion.”

     “Then she should have married him,” Demelza asserted with a contrarian spurt of anger.

     Harriet shook her head. “For a young woman like her, it would have been unthinkable to go against her parents’ wishes. And her mother, at least, strongly disapproved of Ross – Verity told me that. She would never have allowed it.”

     Demelza laughed dryly. “You know, there are times when I’m glad I wasn’t born to the gentry. All that concern with money and blood lines – it don’t… doesn’t mean anything when two people truly love each other.”

     “I won’t disagree with you,” Harriet responded. “Though you must admit, even among the mining families, if the parents don’t approve it’s difficult for a couple to wed.”

     Demelza nodded thoughtfully. “Well… Yes, I suppose that’s true enough,” she conceded. “But if she loved Ross, why did she choose to marry Francis?”

     “Because it was expected of her to marry. Girls of that class - my class - of society simply do not stay single, unless they have no dowry and look like the back end of a horse. Francis would have been considered extremely eligible – someone her mother would have pushed her to accept.”

     “And Francis adored her,” Demelza acknowledged.

     “Yes – so Verity told me.  And to be fair to her, I would think that, being the kind of person she was, she was able to persuade herself that she loved him – at least at first. But when Ross came home… Well, I’m sure Francis was a very charming young man - but really, he wouldn’t come well out of the comparison, would he?”

     “No…”

     “In a way, I feel quite sorry for her,” Harriet mused. “Married to Francis, but loving Ross. It must have been terribly important to her to know that she still had at least a part of his heart. And as she saw that slipping away, she tried all the harder to hold onto it. Caroline told me of a conversation she overheard – it was at a dinner party, the first time she had met Elizabeth.”

     “A dinner party…?” Demelza struggled to reach back into the deepest recesses of her memory. “Judas, that would have been the night we thought her engagement to Unwin Trevaunance was to be announced.”

     And before they had gone down to dinner, there had been more warmth between her and Ross than there had been for some while. Then at dinner he had been seated next to Elizabeth, while she had watched them from her place further down the long table.

     And on the way home, she had sensed some trouble in him…

     “Of course it’s not uncommon in what calls itself Society for married people to set up flirtations, even have affairs. But that conversation was… Caroline felt it was something more than that. She said there was a kind of desperation in it – the desperation of a woman who knew that she was losing the game, and was playing her last card.”

     Demelza was silent for a long moment. “I thought then… for a long time I thought he would leave me, and go to her. Even when Francis was alive, I thought she would leave him so they could be together.”

     “Francis thought the same thing,” Harriet said softly. “And he was jealous. And that destroyed their marriage, and drove him to almost destroy himself with drinking and gambling and loose women. It was the same with George – though in his case it resulted in an unreasoning, obsessive hatred of Ross.”

     “They already hated each other, long before she married George.” Demelza smiled suddenly. “Did you know Ross once threw him down the stairs? It happened in Truro – oh, many years ago. I was afeared for a while that there would be trouble, but Ross said that George wouldn’t wish to be made to look even more of a fool.”

     Harriet burst out laughing. “Oh, that I would have loved to see!”

     “Ross s-said it was because he took a d-dislike to his neck-cloth!” Demelza managed between whoops – which resulted in another coughing fit. When it had subsided, she asked more seriously, “But why do you think that if… if Ross and Elizabeth had married, they couldn’t have been happy?”

     “It was in their natures.” Harriet spoke with assurance. “All that gentility, that refinement of taste… He put her on a pedestal. But Ross needs more than beauty and refined conversation to hold him – he needs someone who can match his spirit, his fire.”

     Demelza nodded slowly. Harriet’s perception had often startled her – and she couldn’t argue with her assessment of Ross. There had always been something… restless in him, a need to take risks, a rejection of the respectable life of the county squireen - or even a Member of Parliament.

     “So after a while, Elizabeth wouldn’t have been enough for him,” Harriet went on. “Though I doubt he would have recognised that he was wanting from her something which she didn't have to give. He would have become discontented with the kind of life which she would have expected him to lead – the country gentleman, hunting, farming his acres, going to assemblies and polite parties with his neighbours. She would never have understood the way he sees the world, his genuine concern for ordinary people... Oh, she would always have been appropriately charitable, but Ross always went far beyond that. She would have tried to make him over, to have him conform to the standards and behaviour of his class.”

     Demelza laughed softly, reminiscently. “An impossible task.”

     “Exactly. And as she felt her pedestal crumbling beneath her feet, she would have fought all the harder to be always the centre of his attention - and would have succeeded only in driving him further away.  And he in turn would have grown ever more resentful, and fought against her ties. And in the end, what love there was between them would have turned to bitterness and gall, their marriage a trap for both of them.”

     Demelza sat in silence for a while, her fingers running through Ramses' warm fur, thinking over what Harriet had said. “But you know, it was often the same with me,” she mused. “If life went along too quiet for a while he would become restless. And then I’d know that he would soon be off again after some new venture - a new lode of copper, or off up to London, or even some trip abroad.”

     “Yes. But you recognised that need in him - the need to always be doing. You understood him, shared his values, and you let him have his head. And in doing so, you remained always the centre of his world. Always.”

     Demelza smiled pallidly. “I may not be so for much longer. And perhaps..." She glanced across at her friend, "when I’m gone, he may marry again.”

     Harriet laughed, shaking her head. “That he won’t. You underestimate yourself, Demelza. That man has been with you for more than fifty years. What he has with you he would never find with anyone else – he wouldn’t even want to try. And if you have any expectations of me in that regard,” she added trenchantly, “you are much mistaken. I've buried two husbands, and have no wish for a third - I find myself very content with being my own mistress. And as for Ross - we are in too many ways too similar, and in too many ways too different. I love him dearly as a friend, and believe he feels the same for me. Why hazard such a valuable friendship for the sake of so paltry a thing as matrimony?”

     A tap on the door heralded Betsy Martin with an enquiry about supper, and by unspoken consent they turned the conversation to a more neutral subject – though Demelza had stored it away to consider later.  

     Ross came back from the mine office to find them discussing the latest news of the young Queen Victoria, and whether she would choose to marry Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg or Prince Alexander of the Netherlands.

     “I’d like to think she’d take Alexander,” Harriet remarked. “He seems to have quite a sense of humour.”

     “Didn’t Geoffrey Charles know his father in the Peninsula?” Demelza enquired of Ross.

     “Yes – in fact I met him briefly myself. He was a very popular officer – easy-going, but not lacking in courage. He did very well at Quatre-Bras, just before the main battle. If the son is anything like the father, he would be a good choice.”

     Harriet was persuaded to stay for supper, and then rode home with Billy Carter for escort. Ross poured a glass of brandy for himself, and one of port for Demelza, then settled down in front of the fire with his book as she continued with her crochet.

     It was the kind of peaceful evening he loved. The only sounds were the creaking of the old house settling down for the night, the crackling of the fire, the distant sound of the wind and the sea.

     “I hope the weather will be a little better at Christmas this year,” Demelza remarked. “It will be nice to have all the family here.”

     “It won’t be too much for you?”

     “Of course not.” She laughed. “I doubt I shall be allowed to do much anyway. I shall be banished from my own kitchen.”

     “Quite right. You’ve earned the rest.”

     “Time enough to rest when I’m dead.”

     Ross felt her words like a knife into his heart. He had known, of course, but while it had remained unsaid he had been able to pretend. “Demelza…” His voice caught in his throat. “Don’t…”

     She smiled sadly. “Oh Ross. We both know that this… this thing,” she patted her chest, “isn’t going to go away. We’ll have this Christmas, which is what I want. But after that…”

     She put her crochet down, and came across to him, easing herself a little stiffly to the floor at his feet and laying her head in his lap as she had done so often down the years. He stroked her hair, letting his fingers tangle in the long silky curls, silver and gold in the dancing light of the fire. Christmas...

     He put his hand up to his eyes and found that they were wet.