Christmas was everything that Demelza had wanted. The house was festooned with holly and fragrant with the spicy tang of mulled wine. Harry and Rachel had been spending more and more time at Nampara, frequently sleeping over instead of returning to the Gatehouse, and as Demelza had predicted she had had very little to do with the preparations. Rachel had done everything, with a quiet efficiency she couldn’t fault.
Not that she minded. She had always been fond of Harriet’s daughter, and seeing the mutual joy and love between her and Harry made her very happy. And she loved nothing better than having little JayJay snuggled on her lap as she sat in her rocker before the fire.
Harriet had ridden over the day before Christmas Eve, and Clowance and Edward arrived with their girls later that afternoon. Bella and Chris bowled up in a spanking new carriage on Christmas Eve. Demelza had slept late that morning, taking her breakfast in bed, but she was up and ready to welcome her family home.
JayJay was naturally made a huge fuss of. “Hasn’t he grown?” Bella cried, scooping the baby up in the air. “He’s going to be the image of Papa.”
“Poor child,” Ross remarked dryly.
“Ah, but he has Mama’s eyes,” Clowance insisted.
“Does he get nothing of my side of the family?” Harriet protested with good humour. “I bless him with my seat on a horse – and George’s money!”
JayJay demonstrated his opinion of this by beginning to cry, and Bella quickly gave him back to Demelza. “Here – you’d better go back to your Grandma. I’m afraid I’m not very good with babies.”
Demelza took him willingly, but slanted a questioning glance up at her younger daughter. “Maybe that’s just because you haven’t had any of your own yet?” she suggested tentatively.
“Thank goodness!” Bella laughed, shaking her head. “I’m sure babies are wonderful things, but I like them much better when I can give them back. But how about you, Mama?” she added, squatting down beside the rocking chair. “How are you keeping?”
“All the better for seeing you, my lover. We read in the paper about the success of your play. ‘All London is talking about the new playwright,’ indeed!”
“Oh, it was so exciting.” Bella’s fine eyes danced. “We filled the theatre every night, and two matinées a week. To have actually written it, to have it go from a tiny little idea in my head to seeing it right there on the stage as if it was real life – it was just the best thing ever.”
“But it was real life – well, nearly,” Clowance pointed out. “The way you and Mama escaped from Paris in the middle of the night, with the French crown jewels!”
“Well, yes – but I made it a lot more dramatic than it really was,” Bella admitted. “Especially the scene at the inn. I kept in the bit with Mama and Aunt Jodie and the poker. But I completely left out my horrible little brother!”
“Hey!” Harry protested from across the room, where he was chatting with his brothers-in-law. “I heard that.”
“Well, it was quite dramatic enough for me,” Demelza insisted. “How we all got out of that alive I don’t know.”
Demelza was coaxed into going upstairs for a short nap in the afternoon. Bella and Clowance drifted into the kitchen, where Rachel was supervising the final preparations for dinner.
“Mama is really unwell, isn’t she?” Bella asked anxiously.
“Yes.” Rachel nodded. “I’m afraid so. But I think… if you don’t mind me saying… It might be best not to say anything, at least until Christmas is over. She and your Papa just want to enjoy this time.”
“Yes, you’re right,” Clowance agreed readily. “I’m so glad you’re here, Rachel - with the baby. It’s just what she needs.”
Rachel smiled with warm gratitude. “Thank you. I was a little afraid you would think I was intruding.”
“Oh, my love, not at all!” Bella darted impulsively round the table to give her sister-in-law a hug. “You’re family now. And Papa needs you as much as Mama. He’s never been one for expressing himself, but he must be feeling so bad.”
For a long moment the three women stood holding hands. “Oh… I don’t have a handkerchief,” said Clowance.
“Here.” Rachel pushed one into her hand. “Borrow mine.”
Dinner was always a noisy meal when all the family were there. There was lots of chatter and laughter as everyone caught up with everyone else’s news. And the younger ones always wanted to hear the old stories – one of the favourites was about the time Grandpa had gone to France to rescue Uncle Dwight, and had escaped from the French soldiers by climbing up a chimney.
Little Grace listened wide-eyed, hardly able to believe that her adored white-haired Grandpa could have had such adventures.
“And that’s not the best one,” Harry told her. “Tell her about your smuggling days, Papa.”
“No!” Demelza protested. “Don’t go filling the child’s head with such tales.”
“No – do tell,” Bella insisted. “I’ve never heard that one.”
“And where did you hear about it?” Ross demanded, pretending – not very successfully – to be cross.
“Billy Nanfan told me about it, years ago.” Harry grinned. “He said his grandfather helped dig the secret cache under the library floor.”
"What's a secret cache?" Grace demanded.
“A hiding place.”
"Truly?" Grace was almost beside herself, wriggling in her seat. “Can I see it?”
“We filled it in years ago,” Demelza said dampeningly. “To stop your grandfather getting into any more mischief.” The two of them exchanged a look which was all their own. “Besides, he wasn’t really smuggling himself. We just let them land their cargoes down in Nampara Cove, and bring them across our land.”
“But what about the night the excise men nearly caught you on the beach, and Mama climbed out of the bedroom window to warn you there were soldiers in the house?”
“Oh my!” Demelza put her hands to her cheeks. “Now my reputation is sunk with yours!”
“How did you get away?” Grace demanded excitedly.
“I hid in the cache, of course.” Ross smiled down at her. “It had a secret section in one side, so when the soldiers thought they’d found me, and opened the trap-door, it looked as if it was empty.”
Nothing would do then but to tell the whole story from the beginning, with every detail explained. Demelza’s part in the adventure drew particular interest. “Mama! You were so brave!” Clowance exclaimed.
“I didn’t feel it at the time. When they discovered the cache I thought I was going to faint clean away!”
“It’s perfect!” Bella declared in delight. “It’ll make a wonderful plot for my next play.”
“So long as you change the names,” Demelza insisted, laughing. “I don’t want to see your father transported to Australia at his time of life!”
As dinner and the story ended, sounds from outside heralded the arrival of the carol singers from the village.
“Shall I let them in, Sir?” Betsy asked, coming to the door.
“Yes, bring them into the hall.” Ross rose to his feet. “Shall we go and listen to them?”
Grace took hold of his hand and held it firmly. “Don’t worry, Grandpa,” she declared, gazing up at him. “I won’t let them transport you to Australia.”
“Well, thank you, my sweet. That gives me great reassurance.”
Harry leaned down close to her ear. “And if they try, you can shoot them with those ancient duelling pistols hanging on the wall in the old parlour,” he teased her. “I believe Papa always keeps them loaded.”
“Harry! If the child has nightmares tonight it will be your fault,” his wife scolded him, laughing.
“I don’t have nightmares,” the little girl insisted with dignity. “And I wouldn’t need the pistols. Papa has taught me archery, so I could use my bow and arrow.”
It was quite a feat to cram all the family into the hall along with a dozen carol singers, as well as the servants who had come to listen. The singers were from the choir at Sawle church, eight women and four men, led by old Ben Triggs.
They were well wrapped up against the night air with caps and scarves, which they took off before Ben lifted his hand and gave them the note, and they began with Mary Modr, Meke and Mylde. Then they launched into the Boar’s Head Carol, followed by All You That to Feasting and Mirth are Inclined.
Then Betsy Martin brought out the jugs of mulled wine and plates of seedy cakes, and when those had all been consumed they rounded off with the old favourite, the Wassailing Bowl, with everyone joining enthusiastically in the chorus:
Drink unto thee
Drink unto thee
With a Wassailing Bowl
We’ll Drink Unto Thee.
By the time it was finished, little Grace was having trouble pretending not to yawn, and she barely protested when her mother hustled her off to bed. “You can stay up for another half-an-hour,” she told Marianne, her older girl. “Then it’s bed for you too.”
“I think you should go up,” Ross murmured to Demelza. “It’s been a long day for you. You don’t want to be over-tired for tomorrow.” When she hesitated, he added, “I’m just going to have a last smoke, and then I’ll come up too.”
Half an hour later, when he crept into the bedroom, she seemed to be asleep. He undressed quietly and pulled on his night-robe, and snuffed out the candle as he slipped into bed beside her. She sighed without fully waking, and snuggled up against him, her body warm and soft in the darkness.
“G’night, my lover,” she murmured, the Cornish burr rich in her voice in her half-sleep.
“Goodnight, my love,” he whispered back.
If the house had been full with eleven people, the addition of the party from Trenwith made it quite a crowd. Demelza had again stayed in bed until late, coming downstairs as they were all arriving back from church to enjoy the cold collation set out by Betsy Martin.
“Do you know what I’d like to do this afternoon?” she announced. “Go down to the beach.”
“Oh yes, do let’s!” Bella agreed with her usual enthusiasm. “We always used to do that on Christmas Day when I was little.”
“It’s cold,” Ross warned, glancing at his wife.
“Nonsense – it’s really quite mild. And I’ll wrap up warm, I promise.”
So half-an-hour later, wrapped up in coats and scarves and knitted woollen caps they set off along the edge of the long field, through the gate that had long ago replaced the style, and across the narrow strip of stony sand and marram grass and down onto the beach.
A weak winter sun had chosen to bless their expedition, though the wind was cold. The sea was quite calm, a pale translucent green. The long ridges of the waves moved in slowly, the edges ruffling with a froth of white lace that rippled along them until they toppled slowly over to chase each other up the sand.
Edward and Christopher had carried down a couple of old blankets, and they laid these out on a convenient rock for Ross and Demelza to sit down and watch as the rest of the family strolled along the water’s edge towards the Dark Cliffs, two miles away.
Rachel had little JayJay wrapped onto her hip with a square of cloth, the way the miner’s wives carried their babies. Young Francis, Geoffrey Charles’ boy, was competing good naturedly with Grace in skimming stones, while their two older sisters Carla and Marianne were conversing, probably about the newest fashions, their heads close together – one Spanish dark, the other angelically fair.
Demelza sighed. “They all grow up so fast. One minute they’re chubby little toddlers with jam on their faces, then you blink… Now Geoffrey Charles is to be a grandfather.”
Ross glanced down at her in surprise. “Juana is having a child?”
She nodded. “Amadora told me. It would have been nice if she could have come down for Christmas too, but I suppose it’s right that she spends it with her husband’s family. But Geoffrey-Charles a grandfather! That little blond-haired boy who used to suck his thumb and hide in his mother’s skirts.”
“And who grew up to be one of the bravest soldiers I ever knew.”
He fell silent for a while, and Demelza glanced up at him. “What are you thinking about?”
He smiled, shaking his head. “Oh, just… how time passes. I was remembering the times I used to go out fishing off this beach as a boy, with the Daniel boys, and Zacky Martin and Will Nanfan. They’re gone now, all of them, and their sons are grandfathers too.”
Demelza chuckled with laughter. “Do you remember that time you went out net-fishing with Paul Daniel, Tom Ellery and the rest, and got caught in the vellow, and dragged old Jud out – still with his hat on and his pipe in his mouth.”
“Heavens – that was half a life-time ago.” His voice suddenly sobered. “That was the night before I first met Monk Adderley.”
“The man you killed?”
Demelza sat quiet, her mind going back – not just to that fatal duel in Hyde Park, partly over her but more, she was certain, engineered by George Warleggan. But farther back, to the night Ross had spoken of, the night he had met Monk Adderley.
George had been giving a great house-party at Trenwith – to which they, naturally, had not been invited. For reasons he had never properly explained, Ross had decided to go over and take a look, using one of the secret routes into the garden he and Francis had known so well as boys.
And he had met and spoken with Elizabeth. Which she had supposed was reason enough.
And farther back than that, to the night he had received that note from Elizabeth, announcing her marriage to George. And he had ridden off in a fury to Trenwith, and had not come back until morning.
They had skirted around all that several times, long since, though it had never quite been resolved. But the discussion with Harriet had given her a thoughts on it a different direction - and now, at last, it seemed important to bring it out of the darkness, and perhaps finally lay it to rest.
“Ross,” she began cautiously. “There’s something I want to ask you.”
“When did you first meet Elizabeth?”
Those hooded eyes narrowed. “Why are you asking about that now, after all these years?”
“It’s something I’ve often wondered about.” Her fingers clutched tightly at the blanket around her shoulders. “But I never quite… I never felt able to say.”
He sighed, and for a moment she thought he wasn’t going to answer, but then he began to speak. “We met in Truro - she was shopping with her mother. She was just sixteen, I barely twenty, and I thought she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”
Demelza sat silent, wishing she hadn’t started this. But she had, so now she had to listen.
“Her mother was in a shop, and Elizabeth had stepped out to speak to their groom. I was running – I can’t recall why.” He laughed dryly. “I always seemed to be running in those days, usually towards trouble or away from it. I almost fell over her. I tried to apologise, but I could barely get my words out. She asked if the cat had got my tongue.”
He was gazing out at the far horizon, as if gazing back into the long-distant past.
“We had but a few moment’s conversation before her mother called her into the shop. She told me she would be at an Assembly to be held the following week – the Assembly Rooms were newly built then. It wasn’t the sort of thing I’d ever have attended, but I went to have the chance to meet her again. I managed two dances with her, and took her in to supper.”
Beyond the surf, a flight of gannets were fishing, floating on the wind with their wide white wings. Demelza watched as one by one they would fold their wings back and plummet down into the water. Most of the time they caught nothing, and would emerge with a casual air, as if they hadn’t really been trying.
“The next day I rode over to Cusgarne,” Ross continued, “to be told that she was from home.” It was difficult to tell from the tone of his voice what he was thinking. “I suspect her Mother knew I would come, and packed her off out of the way. She made it very clear that while I may stand up with her daughter once or twice at the assembly rooms or a private party, she did not look favourably on me as a match – I may be a Poldark, which counted for something, but I had few expectations and my father’s reputation was to be held against me. And in truth, I was already earning a bit of a reputation myself.”
One of the gannets had finally succeeded in catching a small sand-eel in its long curved beak.
“Of course, opposition made us all the more attached.” He laughed again in self-mocking humour. “We met as often as we could over the next year or so, though never in private - Elizabeth was far too dutiful to do anything her mother may have disapproved of.”
“Where was Francis?” Demelza enquired a little warily. “How did he not know her then?”
“He was abroad. His father had sent him on the Grand Tour around Europe, with a couple of friends of his from school. Funny - I had envied him when he set off, but after I’d met Elizabeth I was glad I hadn’t gone.”
The family had reached the far end of the beach, beneath the cliffs, and were beginning to turn back as Ross continued his story.
“You know some of the rest. My father was getting annoyed that I was running up gambling debts – he threatened to refuse to pay them. So I took to smuggling, with old Hubert Trencrom – not going out on the One-And-All, just helping out with the land-party. Of course it was all a huge adventure to a lad of my age – everyone in the district was involved in the trade in one way or another, and I never gave a thought to any danger.”
“I remember you telling me you used to go out with your father sometimes, over to Guernsey.”
“Yes, but that was only in a small way, just for ourselves. But I suppose that was another reason why I never saw anything wrong in it, though I never actually told my father what I was doing. Then on our third run – or maybe it was the fourth – we were very nearly caught on the beach by the guagers.” He smiled at the remembered escapade. “There was a terrific fight, and I hit one of them and he fell down the cliff and broke his arm. Unfortunately I was recognised, and I had to confess everything to my father. He decided that it was best to get me into the Army rather than risk having me face my trial.”
“Which meant leaving Elizabeth.”
“Yes. Oh, I was more than willing to go – it seemed like an irresistible adventure to a lad of my age who had never been out of Cornwall. I went over to Cusgarne for a final time to say goodbye – they had some sort of party going on, but Elizabeth managed to slip away to the summer house to meet me. She promised that she would wait for me, and that we would marry on my return, whatever her mother said. She gave me her ring – it was a tight fit, but I got it onto my little finger.”
He shifted slightly on the rock.
“I don’t know… It was all rather foolish. We were very young – everything seems so big, so intense at that age. Maybe if her mother hadn’t been so opposed… maybe if I hadn’t gone away… Maybe our attachment would have faded naturally in time. But in all that horrible mess of the war, it became… something to hold onto, all part of my memories of home. Then I came back and found her engaged to Francis…”
Demelza watched as the family strolled back the way they had gone. His words echoed so closely what Harriet had said – maybe she had been right.
“I never really examined how I truly felt,” he went on slowly. “You don’t, when you’re young, and believe yourself to be in love. And she… sometimes she let me believe that she still loved me.”
“I always believed that she did.”
“Maybe… Yes, I suppose she did,” Ross conceded. “That was her tragedy. She tried so hard to be what she was supposed to be, but she could never quite control the dictates of her own heart.”
“It was a tragedy for those around her too,” Demelza mused sadly. “Francis the most perhaps. But even George, in a way.”
“Yes, George too. He wanted her from moment he saw her, though love to him was more the desire to own something beautiful. But I never thought she’d marry him.”
“That night, when I got her note… It was like a storm had blown up in my brain - a squall like those which roll in so fiercely from the sea. If it had been anyone but George..."
He smiled a little crookedly. "Well, maybe not Hugh Bodrugan. But George..." He sighed, shaking his head. "I think I was angry as much as anything. Angry that she was betraying Francis, after George had brought him almost to bankruptcy, conniving at his damned cousin Sanson cheating him at cards. Forcing him to close Grambler when it was still bringing in a profit – albeit a small one. Angry that after I’d sought to help her, at the expense of our own comfort and security, she’d turned to the man she knew I hated. It all got churned up with the feelings I’d once had for her, feelings that somehow I couldn’t acknowledge had faded.”
She slanted him a questioning glance. “Had they? Truly?”
“Oh yes. What I’d found with you was… altogether different. Deeper, richer, more… whole, somehow. Perhaps like the love my father had for my mother. Without you… I’d probably have been like he was after my mother died, always looking for something he could never find. But I’d found it – if only I’d had the sense to realise it.”
He looked down at his hands, memories shadowing his strong-boned face.
“What I did that night – the hurt I caused you… and indeed the hurt I caused her…” She heard the struggle in his voice - he had never found it easy to talk about what was in his heart. “After…” He stopped, and then continued. “After, I didn’t sleep. I lay awake staring at the ceiling, slowly realising that what I’d believed for so many years was what I wanted…really wasn’t what I wanted at all. Like George, in a way, I’d wanted to possess something beautiful. But it was like a… a painting, or a china figure you keep on a shelf. Even though I could admire it, could even reach out and touch it, it could never become part of me. And for that, I had very nearly thrown away something far more valuable.”
He drew in a soft breath.
“I got up and went out into the garden, and destroyed a few innocent roses. Then I got onto Darkie and galloped up over the moors, for more than an hour. Part of me just wanted to go on riding - nowhere, anywhere, away from the mess I’d made. But the one sane thought in my brain was that I couldn’t be without you – I knew I had to face what I’d done, and try to put things right. Somehow.”
“So you came home.”
He put his arm around her shoulders and took her hand in his, and laid his cheek against her hair. “Yes. I came home.”
That was how their children found them a few minutes later. “Come, Mama, it’s getting cold,” Clowance urged anxiously. “You’d better get back inside. Can you manage to climb the slope?”
“Of course,” she insisted, laughing.
But in the end she had to accept a chair-lift from Harry and Edward. They put her down a little way inside the gate, and she took Ross’s arm as they walked slowly up to the house.
As Ross had feared, the Christmas festivities seemed to have drained more of Demelza’s energy than she had left to give. She passed a restless night, coughing and a little feverish, and the next day she didn’t get out of bed at all.
Bella and Chris had to leave, and Clowance decided that the children should go home with Edward, while she stayed to help Rachel.
“Will you send for Dr Liddicoat?” she asked Ross.
He shook his head. “She doesn’t like him, and she doesn’t want to be prodded and pulled about. And in truth, I doubt there’s much he can do.”
She nodded, and took his hand, squeezing it gently. Tears were filling the corners of her eyes, but she didn’t let them fall.
The days passed very quietly. The weather remained mild. A couple of afternoons Demelza was able to get downstairs to sit by the fire in the old parlour for an hour or two, but as the New Year came in even that seemed too much for her.
Then the weather turned much colder – each morning the windows were glazed with ferns of ice, and any water left standing overnight would freeze.
Ross began to spend most of his time sitting by his wife’s bedside as she dozed fitfully, day and night becoming one. Occasionally she would stir enough to talk a little, though this became increasingly rare.
Late one evening towards the end of January he realised that she had opened her eyes and was watching him.
“Would you like a drink, my love?” he asked softly.
“A glass of port would be nice. To warm me up.”
There was a decanter on the table beside the bed, and he poured a couple of inches into a small tumbler. She sipped it, then lay back against the pillows with a sigh.
“It was a good Christmas,” she murmured at last.
“Yes. Yes, it was.”
“Do you remember that first Christmas after we were married? At Trenwith?”
“You were scared to go.”
“I thought…” She closed her eyes, seeming to lack the breath to finish the sentence.
“Instead you were a great success,” he reminded her. “The first of your many triumphs.”
She managed a laugh, though it quickly turned to a cough. “In spite of Ruth Treneglos,” she got out when the coughing was over.
Ross laughed with her. “Yes, in spite of her.”
Her eyes gleamed for a moment with their old spark. “Is it wicked to take pleasure that she grew so fat? As fat as Prudie!”
“No, not wicked at all.”
She had closed her eyes, and he thought she was sleeping again, but then she began to murmur, and he realised that it was the words of a song - the song she had sung that first Christmas. For the first verse she managed some semblance of a melody, that familiar huskiness in her voice.
I d’ pluck a red rose for my love
I d’ pluck a red rose blowing.
Love’s in my heart a-trying so to prove
What your heart’s knowing
But in the second verse her voice was fading to little more than a whisper.
I d’ prick a finger on a thorn
I d’ prick a finger bleeding.
Red is my heart a-wounded and forlorn
And your heart needing.
By then, even a whisper seemed too much effort. Ross held her hand, and softly spoke the last verse for her.
I d’ hold a finger to my tongue,
I d’ hold a finger waiting.
My heart is sore until it joins in song
Wi’ your heart mating.
Then he kissed her fingers. She didn’t open her eyes again.
Once, long ago, he had sat here by this bed, holding her hand, pleading with her to come back to him. But tonight there would be no coming back.
In the small hours of the morning her breathing grew even slower, more shallow, until the pause between each breath drew out longer and longer, and at last he knew there would be no more.
Ross sat until first grey light of dawn filtered in through the curtains. Then he snuffed out the candle and rose stiffly, and walked down the stairs to the old parlour. He sat down in his favourite armchair, opposite Demelza’s empty rocking chair, and reached for his pipe.
It was cold, and the fire had gone out. The house was quiet – none of the servants would be stirring just yet. The old clock on the mantelpiece – the one they had bought long ago to replace the one they had sold in their darkest days, when Wheal Grace was failing and they were close to bankruptcy – ticked out its measured seconds. Ramses the cat curled up on his foot.
Sitting here, time seemed to roll back on itself, as the years evaporated like morning frost. Times of watching grandchildren play and grow, times when their own Jeremy and Clowance, and even to some extent Isabella-Rose, were passing through their troubled youth. Times when friends, high-born and low, had sat around their table laughing.
Times when the deep rhythm of their love for each other had faltered for a moment, then regained itself, altered a little but ever constant. The barrel of beer over-fermenting, spilling across the floor…
Surely it was time for breakfast? Where was Demelza? There was no sound from the kitchen, where she would usually be singing as she waited for the kettle to boil to make their morning tea.
A memory snagged at the corner of his mind, half-formed. Demelza was gone…
He’d better saddle Darkie quickly and get after her. His ankle seemed much better – it gave him no trouble as he hurried out to the stables, snatching up his old tricorn hat on the way.
Darkie was happy to be out and cantering along the edge of the cliff in the sunshine – her hooves barely seemed to touch the ground. And there was Demelza, on the path to Sawle, the wind tugging at those tumbled curls, Garrick lolloping along beside her with his silly red tongue hanging out.
“Demelza,” he called as he caught up to her.
She turned, and laughed that infectious, bubbling laugh he loved so much. He held out his hand to her, and she took it, skipping up as light as a feather onto the pommel in front of him, and they rode on together along the cliff top as the sun danced on the glittering waters of Nampara Cove.
They were buried together in a quiet corner of Sawle churchyard, beneath the shade of the bent hawthorn tree, close to the grave of Ross’s parents and that of the small daughter they had lost so many years before. Their gravestone was simple. In death, Ross had shaken off the title that had never sat comfortably on his shoulders, and taken up the one he had always enjoyed.
Captain Ross Vennor Poldark
and his beloved wife Demelza