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A rush torch was burning smokily through the mists when the light carriage creaked to a halt before the door of the Nag's Head. The pony in the shafts stood with drooping head as the driver descended, swathed in a greatcoat, his head wrapped in a scarf against the chill of an October night.
The gloomy taproom seemed not much warmer, in spite of the embers of a peat fire glowing fitfully on the hearth. At least, the short figure made no move to unwind the comforter that concealed his face. The room was empty except for one man sitting in a dark corner facing the door, who looked up when the door opened. The newcomer approached him.
"Captain Cleeve?" he enquired uncertainly.
"No names!" hissed the captain with venom. His appearance was unremarkable until one noticed the coldness of his grey eyes and the implacable set of his mouth. The short man shivered and withdrew a step.
Instantly the captain's hand shot out, seized his wrist in an iron grip, and forced him to sit on the rough bench.
"It's too late now," the soft, dangerous voice continued. "You sent for me, now it's for me to decide. Tell me what you have to offer, and you had better hope it is worth my while."
The other shivered again. The captain poured a mug of mulled ale from the jug on the table and shoved it toward him. As he raised it to sip, the muffler slipped from his face.
The captain was momentarily taken aback, but a brief scrutiny seemed to reassure him.
"Talk," he growled.
His expression of contempt deepened during the exposition that followed, but at the end he did not reject it out of hand.
"It could be done," he said thoughtfully, "if your information is accurate.I have sufficient contacts in Cornwall to carry out the plan as you suggest. I daresay you know what to expect should there be any hitch due to prevarication on your part."
The mulled ale did not seem to have warmed the other, for he shivered once more.
"My man will be in touch with you," he muttered, stumbling hurriedly to his feet. The captain rose and bowed ironically as he fumbled with his scarf. "It will work, I know it will work," he assured him feverishly, and made his escape.
The captain sat over his ale, a grim smile on his face, until the tavern's landlord sidled into the room.
"The Ge'men 've used my place afore, though Jamaica Inn's more to their liking seemingly, but I niver knowed..." he stammered. "Waren't thet...?"
"Landlord, you saw and heard nothing and no one." The captain drew on his leather gloves in a way that seemed to fascinate the innkeeper.
"Law' no, zir," he gabbled, "I ain't niver peached to a Preventive yet nor'mnot like to. Ye'll be leaving now, zir? I'll saddle yer horse, zir. Please to come this way, zir." He scuttled out.
The captain followed.
"Letty," said Lady Ruth, "I am going down to the village to see Walter. Will you not walk with me?"
"Every Tuesday you go off and leave me all alone," answered Lady Laetitia petulantly. "St Teath is much too far to walk, and anyway, Walter Vane is a silly little man. I cannot imagine what you see in him."
"Pray, do not speak so of my betrothed, my dear. Walter has a good heart and a great deal of learning. Why, what should we do with our time if he did not lend us these books?"
"Sermons and histories, dull as ditchwater! I should like to read some novels."
"Letty, you know that Walter cannot approve of novels. He is a man of the cloth, remember."
"How can I forget? Godfrey disapproves amazingly of your marrying a mere curate. It is really quite ineligible for the sister of an earl."
"We will not discuss that, if you please. Come, join me for the walk. It is a beautiful day, and you may come part of the way and then return."
"I know, Ruth! I shall ask Godfrey if we may take the gig. Will may drive us, I'm sure he has nothing better to do." The volatile eighteen-year-old danced out of the shabby room in search of her brother, leaving her sober elder sister to follow with a sigh.
Ruth was fairly certain that the gig would not be forthcoming, on one pretext or another. Lord Penderric seemed less and less willing to satisfy Letty's whims, even when they would cost him nothing. Like their father, he had always been parsimonious, but lately his behaviour had grown positively erratic, she thought sadly, and even Laetitia had noticed how bad-tempered he was becoming, though his temper was rarely directed at her.
As she entered the library on Letty's heels, Ruth looked round in astonishment at the bare shelves.
"Godfrey!" she exclaimed, "you surely cannot have sold all the books? Is that what was in the packages Will has been carrying to Launceston these days past?"
"Don't fuss, Ruth," Letty broke in crossly. "I'm sure if Godfrey has sold all that fusty Latin and Greek it is a good thing, and I hope he has got a good price. Godfrey, dearest, I am sadly in need of a new gown," she coaxed.
Godfrey ignored her, staring unpleasantly at Ruth.
"So, sister mine, you object?" he enquired in a smooth voice, which abruptly changed to a near shriek as he continued. "Always interfering, you always know best! Well, if you insist on marrying that penniless curate, I shall give you nothing--nothing, do you hear?"
"Mama left me ten thousand pounds, and there is nothing you can do about it, Godfrey, as you well know." Ruth spoke quietly, though her heart was hammering in her chest. "You do not wish me to remain here. Surely you understand that it is a great object with me to leave this house, whatever the circumstances. I am going to the village now. Come, Letty."
She turned and left the room, then realised that her sister was not following. She found she was trembling from head to foot, and leaned against the wall to recover her composure. Through the open door she heard Letty's bell-like tones.
"Let me use the gig, Godfrey, to go to St Teath with Ruth. I vow I have not left the house this age."
Lord Penderric's reply was inaudible.
"Well, I'm sure I cannot guess what you need Will for. It is very unreasonable in you not to let him drive us. I shall not go then." She flounced out of the room and stalked off down the stone-flagged corridor.
Ruth pulled herself together and started after her sister to soothe her. Then she rebelled. She loved her sister dearly, but when thwarted, Letty could be thoroughly unpleasant. Outside, the sun was shining, though it was hard to tell through the grimy windows of Penderric Castle. Walter, her only escape, was in the village not three miles away. Letty might stew in her own juice for a few hours, she decided.
As she went to fetch her pelisse, Ruth thought back over the recent conversations. There was nothing new to be gleaned from them. She could not wholly disagree with Letty's view of her husband-to-be, but her own description was equally valid, and surely anything must be better than to live in a mouldering castle on a dank moorland waste with a brother who manifestly, and increasingly vocally, disliked her.
Descending the granite staircase, which still retained some wisps of carpeting, Ruth went over the figures again. Walter had forty pounds a year as his stipend, and another twenty in private income. With her ten thousand invested at three percent, that would be three hundred and sixty a year, even before he received a living of his own. From her present penniless perspective, it seemed like riches indeed, certainly enough to take Letty away from their brother's influence, where her temperand conduct must surely improve. Perhaps she herself might even have a little pin money, enough to buy a ribbon now and then, though perhaps a parson's wife ought not to think of such frivolity.
She slipped out of a side door so as not to disturb Tremaine. The surly butler, his equally cross-grained wife, the manservant Will, and a maid were all that remained of a staff that had been dwindling ever since she could remember. Her father had never hired a new servant to replaceone who left, and her brother, in the four years since he had inherited the title, had dismissed most of the rest. Her mind shied away from the contemplation of the terrible events of four years ago, and she determined to enjoy her walk, a brief enough respite from her cares.
Ignoring the long-neglected gardens through which she picked her way, Ruth raised her eyes to the north, where Bodmin Moor swept up in fold after fold to the tor of Brown Willy. It was scarce even a hill in comparison with the Welsh mountains, for instance, but the knowledge did not spoil its grandeur for her. She had only been to the top once--with its treacherous marshes and shakily balanced granite boulders, it was not considered a walk fit for a female--yet she remembered how she had breathlessly reached the topmost stone, had sat down to weep, and had been captured by the sight of mile after mile of rolling moor fading in the far west to a twinkle that she knew to be the sea. How distant and unreachable it had seemed! She had been nine then, barely out of the nursery, and that had been the day her mother died.
Oh dear, she thought guiltily, I am indulging myself again. Walter did not believe in dwelling on sad memories, and as his betrothed she must strive to set her mind on improving the present. And it could certainly be improved. She looked distastefully at the tumbled stone walls which lined the weed-grown cart track. When her father was alive, his tenants had put up with a deal of neglect, but it was Godfrey who had ceased to repair the walls. With no way to enclose their sheep, all but one of the tenants had packed their bags and moved to greener pastures.
Ruth wondered if she should visit the one remaining inhabited farm. She knew it was only her old nurse's loyalty that kept the Penallens from leaving. Young Davy did not dare to cross his mother, but he bitterly resented staying, and she felt guilty every time she went nearthe place. Of course, she felt equally guilty if she stayed away--and Annie Penallen was the only person who ever cheered her up. It was not far out of her way.
As she turned up the sheep track that led to the farm, there was a clatter of hooves behind her, and Will cantered by on the pony. Was he off to Launceston again?
Young Davy, aged forty, met her at the entrance to the farmyard.
"Morning, my lady," he greeted her jovially. "Th'owld 'oman'll be happy to zee you." Noting her surprise, he laughed and waved his arm at a wagon in the yard, which was being loaded with household goods by a pair of perspiring youths. "Us be leaving at last. Yer brother's done throw us out, the best thing nor he ever done for us. Her's within."
He swung the gate open and bowed her through. The boys, grinning bashfully, touched their forelocks as she made her way into the neat but dilapidated cottage.
"Annie," she cried, "is it true you're going?"
"'Tis, indeedy," confirmed her nurse grimly. "Zairy, take yer head out o' thet chest a minute and pop on the kettle. Ye'll take a drop o' tea, dearie? I was niver so flambustigated in me life as when Young Davy tell me what his lordship said. Us be a bit late wi' rent, but then he niver put a penny in the land, no more nor yer pa, God rest his zoul, and he'll not be finding another fool to take his farm. It's sorry I'll be to leave you, dearie, only ye'll be a-wed to the Reverend and out o' this place in two shakes of a lamb's tail, and ye won't be needing owld Annie no more."
"Annie, I shall always need you! Where are you going?"
"Us be off to furrin parts. My young boy Ted, Davy's brother, is in a good way o' business over to Plymouth, bin at us ferever to join him. Don't 'e cry, dear. Yer Mr Vane'll take care o' you, ye'll zee, and ye'll not miss a zilly owld 'oman. Nor Hell nor High Water could of tore me away ifn it'd meant leaving you ter thet man. Now drink yer tea, lovie, and cheer up."
Ruth forced herself to composure.
"Thank you, Sarah," she said to Young Davy's wife. "I expect the boys are excited to be travelling?"
"That they be, my lady," answered the woman decidedly, "as be us all." A baleful look from her mother-in-law silenced her.
Suddenly Ruth felt suffocated in the narrow room. She finished her tea hurriedly, kissed and hugged her deserting ally in silence, and stepped through the open door.
"Little snip of a thing!" Sarah's words followed her. "All these years..."
Inexplicably her heart lightened as she walked on. Annie was right. Walter loved her and would take care of her, and if she could not love him, she could respect him and help in his life's work. She was no "little snip" to him.
The sun shone bright on late-flowering heather and golden gorse, and invisible in the blue depths above her, a lark sang. The world was bright and full of hope. The last mile to St Teath vanished beneath her feet.
Walter Vane was in the vestry of the little granite church. The village of St Teath was too small to rate a full-time vicar, even had Lord Penderric been willing to support one, so he came weekly from Camelford to minister to the spiritual needs of the parishioners. Those needs seemed to be few, for he had managed during his visits to get to know Lady Ruth well enough to propose to her; he rarely spent less than two or three hours in her company before riding back to his snug lodgings.
As he watched his beloved enter the church, Mr Vane thought to himself, not for the first time, that it was a pity that she had not more "presence." That was how he put it to himself, for it would have been highly unseemly in a man of God to wish for a pretty wife, and being somewhat below middle height himself, he could not bemoan her lack of inches.
Originally attracted to her by pity, Mr Vane had found himself regarded as a fount of knowledge, an epitome of the Christian virtues. Ruth had had few acquaintances with whom to compare him, and with those he could not but compare favorably. She was, besides,simply grateful for his kindly interest, a trait she had not met with, except in the untutored and uncritical Annie, since her mother's death.
It cannot be said that Mr Vane was unaware of the material advantages of marriage with the daughter of an earl, who would moreover bring a dowry of ten thousand pounds. Such considerations, he was sure, would not have influenced him had he not felt a sincere devotion to her. However, it was gratifying to reflect that "to him that hath shall be given," as the Scriptures put it. A curate with four hundred a year and a wife of noble birth might expect to be invited to spread his ministry beyond the obscure Cornish villages, and Mr Vane was ready to heed the call.
Beaming with satisfaction and delight, Mr Vane welcomed his betrothed with a chaste kiss upon the fingertips.
"My dear, you are looking remarkably well," he offered.
"Walter, it is glorious outside. Could we not take a short stroll?"
"What can you be thinking of, Ruth?" he chided gently. "I must be at all times available to my parishioners. I could not possibly justify leaving the church until it is time for luncheon."
"But Walter, we so rarely have days like this at this time of year. Only for half an hour, I beg of you. It is chilly in here."
"You must allow me to know best, my dear. Let me place my cloak about your shoulders, and you will feel warmer. Come now, is not that better?"
"Thank you," she said submissively. He was her only anchor; she was suddenly terrified of giving offence.
In spite of her capitulation, Mr Vane thought it well to read her a brief homily on duty and obedience, laying particular stress on the hierarchy of parents, husband, king, and God--to all of whom both obligations were owed. Ruth suppressed her rebellious mood and listened in patience.
They then discussed the books he had lent her on his last visit. His comments were as always judicious, weighty, and carefully considered, and if his views were uniformly conservative, Ruth was unfamiliar with any others. Even so, she was beginning to be a little irked by his pedantic condescension, though she was not certain what was causing her restlessness, when he pulled out his silver watch.
"Why, my dear Ruth," he said with a deprecatory smile, "our debate has been so interesting that we have quite passed the usual hour of our mutual repast. Should you wish, my love, to eat al fresco? I confess myself unable to see the harm in an occasional indulgence of the sort?"
Touched by his solicitude, Ruth eagerly agreed.
"There is a bench outside the inn that I have often thought appears exceptionally comfortable," she proposed.
"Lady Ruth!" he exclaimed, shocked. "Can I believe my ears? It must be considered totally ineligible for a gently bred female to be seen in the vicinity of a common alehouse. Do not I always fetch our modest meal to you? Only the most absolute ignorance of the world can excuse such a proposal!"
Cowed, Ruth waited for him in the church porch, and they sat in its shade, almost as chill as the interior, to consume their bread and cheese and cider.
Even so, it was a pleasanter meal than she would have had at home. Mr Vane forgave her faux pas and discoursed knowledgeably on the ways of the Fashionable World and the sights of London, with both of which he had an admittedly meagre acquaintance. She ventured to ask a question or two about his travels to the Lake District and the Welsh Mountains, and was rewarded with a promise that they should take a bridal trip "at least into Gloucestershire," where he had relatives they might stay with.
"It is indeed a pity," he continued severely, "that his lordship, your brother, has not seen fit to keep in touch with the other branches of your own family."
"My uncle writes every Christmas," pointed out Ruth. "Indeed, I believe he wrote a fortnight since to recommend a young man who is visiting Cornwall. It is evident that he has not been to Penderric Castle for decades or he'd not expect Godfrey to open his doors to a stranger," she added with asperity, and then dejectedly, "When I turned eighteen he offered to accommodate me for a season in London, but papa did not think the expense justifiable."
While they were talking, clouds had approached from the west. Meeting higher ground, they enveloped it in a heavy fog. Ruth jumped up in alarm.
"Walter, I must hurry home before the mist grows any thicker. The track is well marked, but it is near an hour's walk."
"You shall ride Dapple, my dear, and I will lead him. You cannot go alone in this."
"But I have not ridden a horse in ten years."
"He is a quiet pony, you will come to no harm. I shall then return here and claim a bed from one of my flock. I'll not be expected in Camelford in this weather. Come, Ruth."
The moorland track seemed sinister in the all-pervading mist, and Ruth noticed that her betrothed, walking ahead, started visibly every time a sheep bleated or a pile of granite boulders loomed suddenly beside them. They reached the point, not a mile from the castle, where the track branched left toward Brown Willy.
"Walter," called Ruth, "you must go back now. I am almost home now, and you might easily miss your way here if you come farther."
"If you are quite sure," he agreed, stepping back to her, "I daresay it would be wise. Keep my cloak, my dear. Your dress is very thin, and your pelisse not much thicker."
"Thank you, you are very kind. It was so warm when I set out, but you'd think I would know the weather's tricks by now. It was foolish of me."
Mr Vane helped her down from Dapple's sturdy back, mounted in her place, and set off with a wave. Warmed by his consideration as much as by his cloak, Ruth watched him out of sight, then turned to her own upward path.
The fog was patchy now and blowing around her. The track wasclear in front for fifty feet, while to either side she could scarcely see the crumbling wall. Five minutes' walk brought a group of ancient stones looming on her right, then the damp greyness closed in all about her.
A stone clattered behind her as though beneath a hurrying foot. Telling herself not to be silly, Ruth swung round nervously and peered into the mists. A heavy cloth descended suddenly over her head and strong arms grasped her roughly about the waist. Strugglingfor breath, she kicked as hard as she was able. There was a grunt.
"Her been't no bigger nor a minnow, but a game one zhure enough," said a muffled voice. "Us'd better put her out or her'll cause problems."
"Not too hard then," cautioned another voice, which seemed to advance and recede in a most curious fashion. "Her be gentry, not zome thick-skulled tavern wench."
Head whirling, Ruth wanted to explain that she did notintend to cause problems, she simply wished to breathe. An unseen cudgel fell, her mind exploded, and she sank into merciful darkness.
Posted December 16, 2010
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