Mary Merlyn rose before the sun. She passed through the frigid yard, which was lit with a buttery incandescence by the three-quarter moon of January, and into the shed, warm and redolent with the homely smells and whickerings of sleepy animals. Here she milked the cow and fed and watered the mare and the mule. She covered the pail of milk with a cloth and left it inside the door so it would stay warm while she went to the henhouse. The hens had laid a bounty, enough to fill her apron: there would be eggs for breakfast this morning. She brought the eggs and the milk into the kitchen, carried in wood, uncovered the spark she'd left in the stove and blew it into a fire. She saved back two eggs and two cups of milk, skimmed off a bit of cream, and took the rest into the cold-pantry.
When she came outside again the bowl of the sky was pinking in the east, a delicate blue creeping up from the edges. There was only a thin scrim of cloud visible: the day would be fine, and cold. A good day for washing, Mary thought. She ought to start breakfast; but first she walked past the shed and the fence that walled off the kitchen garden, through the gate in the hedgerow and out into the field that separated the outbuildings from the river. The earth was humped and barren now, frozen, but soon enough it would be rich and dark, and soon after that furred with delicate green, then golden with wheat.
Mary stopped at the field's edge. She didn't walk so much these days, without the wide moors to draw her out or a monstrous uncle to avoid. There was enough to do around the farm, and she preferred work to the contemplation that walking invited.
Beyond the field lay a short, steep bank of winter-brown grass and the river itself, glinting in the light from the rising sun like a lady's silver necklace beneath a russet cloak. Mary regarded the tranquil scene and, quiet in her mind, felt something like contentment.
She stood a few moments, then turned back. It was past time the rest of the house was up.
The cottage was small and snug: two rooms and kitchen downstairs and a third under the eaves, reached by a ladder that could be drawn up. It was this ladder Mary climbed now. She could have stood at the bottom and called; but she was conscious of the way time marched forward on swift, strong legs. It wouldn't be forever that she'd be able to creep into the little bed and curl herself around the small body under the quilt.
"Wakey, wakey," she whispered into her daughter's ear. "Time to have your breakfast and earn your keep. You've slept half the morning away, my love." That she had certainly said those very words into a different ear, in a different time, hardly bore reflection.
Betsy giggled as Mary tickled her, then burrowed into her chest. "Mamma, it's cold."
"It's warm in the kitchen, and I've an egg for your breakfast."
The girl lifted her head. "You haven't fed the chickens yet, have you?" She loved to scatter the grain and watch them peck at it.
"No, the chickens are as lazy as you. You can do that after you've eaten."
Betsy sighed and wriggled, nerving herself up, then flung the covers off all at once. She dressed while Mary went downstairs, and descended the ladder still rubbing her eyes.
"The eggs are nearly boiled," Mary said. "Make us some tea, will you, and there's bread and cream."
They sat to their breakfast with an appetite. Betsy was six, nearly seven, but despite her childish prattle she often seemed to Mary more companion than offspring. This was what came of growing up with just the two of them in the house, Mary supposed. Some might think it a queer manner of bringing up a girl, but Mary had pulled in harness with her own mother and didn't know any different.
Betsy had inherited her mother's constitution, and some of her industriousness (though prone to daydreaming, she learned any task she was set to with a will). Her dark hair curled as Mary's did, and she had the same blue-gray eyes; but her mouth was like her father's. So too her hands, which had emerged from baby chubbiness to long-fingered grace, unusually strong and dextrous for a child's. Part of Mary delighted in how pretty they were, as she delighted in every hair on Betsy's head. But another part wished her daughter possessed the blocky hands of the Yellans.
After breakfast Betsy went into the now sun-filled yard to give the chickens their grain, then helped Mary draw the wash-water from the well. She went round the house collecting their clothes and linen while Mary heated the water and carried it outside. They scrubbed side by side, but Betsy was still too short and too impatient to be anything but hopeless at hanging them to dry. She would tread the corners of sheets and the hems of dresses into the dirt, so Mary bade her lead the cow to pasture while she hung the clothes herself.
The farm was not large or remote. The tall stone house of their closest neighbors, the Loys, could be glimpsed across the fields and hedgerows, and the village was no more than half an hour's walk even on Betsy's short legs. Next year she would begin at the village school, but already she knew her letters and would spend evenings puzzling out the words in an old reader.
The road wound gently by, curving as if to make room for the little house, the opposite of the straight white slash that shot past Jamaica Inn. Like a wound on the earth, that road had been, and the inn a cancer. Mary never wished to know what had befallen it: whether it had a new owner, whether candlelight danced upon its walls and laughter cheered its rooms. It was ungrateful of her to wish for the destruction of the Bassats' property, when they had treated her with such kindness. But in her heart she hoped Jamaica Inn had caught fire and burned to the ground.
The situation of her cottage, the way the road curved and swerved through the trees and hedges, meant she could not discern a visitor until he was practically on the doorstep. Uninvited guests were few. The astute seeker of employment or charity would make for the more prosperous Loy farm, and the area was settled enough that Mary felt safe despite her and Betsy's supposed defenselessness. So when she saw the shape of a man on horseback from the tail of her eye, she did not even turn her head to examine him until he had rounded the house and was nearly upon her.
She startled, then wheeled around, ready to seize the washtub full of cold gray water and throw it in the intruder's face, or lacking that, the eyes of his horse: a poor weapon, but the only one she had to hand. Then she stopped.
She gave the man a long look and said, "You ought to go to the door when you come to a woman's house, Jem Merlyn. You came near to having a bath in dirty wash-water."
He did not remove his hat, but tipped the brim back a little and smiled down at her, his teeth a white flash in his tanned face. "A bath wouldn't come amiss, Mary Yellan. I've ridden a long way."
Seven and a half years it had been since she'd last set eyes on Jem, and he didn't look as though he'd washed more than a few times since then. His collar was stained with sweat, his fingernails black. Mary made him remove his boots, which were caked in dried mud, before he came into the kitchen. She could smell him across the table, sour sweat and old dirt ground into the weave of his clothes.
She made them a cup of tea while she began the lengthy process of heating water for the washtub she'd had him carry into the kitchen. For her a quick going over did most days, but she'd give away the mule if any part of Jem had seen soap and water inside of a month. He needed a good soak, and his clothes, though most likely ruined, could use a washing as well.
He had a fine horse, though. Jem always did.
"So where did you get that gelding keeping company with Missie in the barn?" she asked. "I don't suppose black is his original color."
"Oh, it is," Jem said carelessly. "He had white stockings before, though, and a star on his brow."
"And now he's dark as midnight all over."
"Don't worry," Jem said, "I didn't steal him from anywhere nearby. God's sake, Mary, haven't you got any food about? My stomach's eating itself."
"I don't usually have my dinner for another hour," Mary said pitilessly, but got out bread and butter and served him. He ate as though he hadn't done so in a while; but he was not completely without manners, his fingers nimble as he cut himself another chunk from the loaf and spread it with butter.
She studied him from under her eyelashes. Beneath the dirt, the uncut hair and unshaved beard, he looked much the same as the last time she'd seen him. Under a beating summer sun up in Lichfield they'd been, with her about to get on the coach going south. He had new lines about his eyes and mouth, but the features themselves remained neat and firm, the eyes clear. His shoulders were straight, still bearing the load of itinerancy as though it were nothing heavier than a bundle of feathers.
She wondered what changes seven and a half years had wrought upon her in his eyes. That space of time had brought motherhood and seasons of hard work under the sun and rain and wind: nothing that would improve a woman's beauty, and she didn't consider she'd had much to begin with, apart from the bloom of girlhood. She pushed the concern away: it was useless to pine for lost youth. As useless, she thought, as pining for lost love.
Did a small, still face ever haunt Jem Merlyn's dreams? Probably not. Her own dreams had not been so haunted for a year or more, and as for the things she'd gone through at Jamaica Inn—all swept away, so she thought, in the brightness and toil of her life in Helford. It seemed like a nightmare someone else had dreamt.
"How do you find me, Mary Yellan?" Jem asked. "Am I still as lovely as the day we parted?"
Finishing her tea, she rose from the table. "I can't see under all that dirt. Your bath'll be ready; give me your clothes and I'll wash them while you soak." She was doing a quick mental calculation. Betsy liked to stay in the pasture, taking along a crust of bread and doing God knew what while the cow cropped grass peacefully nearby. Mary was trying to break her of this habit by giving her afternoon chores, but today she was glad of her daughter's indolence. While it was too much to hope for that Jem would leave before he got his dinner, with any luck he'd be gone by the time Betsy came home for the evening meal.
He had no shyness about him. He stripped off as bold as you please, laughing when Mary turned her eyes away from his nakedness, and slid into the water with a sigh of pleasure that bordered on obscene. "I haven't had a bath like this since that inn at Wolverhampton," he said. "Remember that room, Mary? Now, that was comfort. Feather-bed a mile wide."
She was unable to hold back her smile. "You enjoy yourself," she said, and took a pail of heated water into the yard to see what she could do about his clothes.
While she plunged them into the soapy water she thought, here I am again, playing housemaid to a man who has never stopped at any house for long. The thought angered her and she pushed it away. Anger was a waste of time. The wash-water went black before she'd finished his shirt, so she hung it to dry and took a bucketful from the well into the kitchen to heat for his breeches. Jem was whistling to himself, his foot propped on the edge of the tub so he could scrub between his toes, which had shed their gray film of dirt and once again taken on a fleshly pink.
"I think both of us could just fit in this washtub," he said. "How about it, Mary?"
"Not likely. That water already looks like it came out of a gutter."
Jem took the rejection with equanimity, picking up his tuneless whistle again. Mary watched the pot of water on the fire as though her eyes could increase its temperature.
"I asked after you in the village," he said. "That's how I found your farm."
Mary wondered what the villagers had made of Jem, how they would surmise the filthy tramp on his expensive horse had made the acquaintance of Mary Merlyn.
"I'm surprised no one's taken my name from you yet. I expected to see you with a husband and a clutch of pink-cheeked little cherubs."
If that were true, he wouldn't have come. Her third summer back in the valley a farmer from Manaccan had tried to court her; it had felt like a farce, and she hadn't encouraged him. "I'm all right on my own," she said, a little sharply.
"The ring's gone. Did you have a lean winter and sell it?"
She shook her head. "I put it away. It got in my way when I was working." She hadn't wanted its shine dulled, filth caked between the stones.
"I wouldn't blame you if you'd got what you could for it."
"I hope you weren't thinking of staying," she told him abruptly. "I'm a widow, if you ask my neighbors."
"So you did kill me off, then," he said with a grin, which faded when it elicited no answering smile from her. "That's easily got around. Say I'm your husband's brother come to stay, or a cousin. That'll dampen their gossip."
"Gossip isn't the thing that worries me." she made herself hold his gaze until his eyes slid away, across the room. It didn't take so long a time as it felt. She took the hot water outside, and scrubbed so hard she nearly tore one of his socks in half.
Jem finished his bath and sat wrapped in a blanket while his clothes dried, quieter than he had been. He barely said two words through the dinner Mary served of cold ham and cheese. "Cat got your tongue?" she asked at length.
"You've done well for yourself," he said. "It makes me glad to see it."
His voice was soft, and she could see he was contemplative; this plucked up a feeling of sympathy in her. Jem Merlyn was not the sort of man to regret his choices in life, but everyone has moments in which they miss the things they've lost.
"It's a quiet life, but there's plenty for me to do. I like it here."
Jem busied himself with breaking up a bit of bread on his plate. His hands drew Mary's eye. Long-fingered and graceful, they moved crumbs about like coins in a sleight of hand. His face did not wear that expression of faint amusement it so often did, and he seemed almost at a loss for words: as though there were were something he wished to say but couldn't bring himself to.
"And you, Jem? How have you done?"
He lowered his head, perhaps at the gentleness in her voice, but when he raised it again his eyes were as bold as ever. "Oh, I traveled all through the north country and into Scotland. Worked my way to Edinburgh. What a city, Mary! You should see it. I didn't spend more than a few days there, though. Too many people, and money went as fast as if I'd a hole in my pocket. Do you know, I almost went to America a couple of years ago. I was within a hairsbreadth of buying a ticket, but something told me not to, and a month later I read in the paper that the ship had sunk off the coast of Ireland."
"Lucky for you that you weren't on it."
"I don't think America would have suited me anyway. From everything I hear, the country's fuller of blackguards than Australia."
She wished she could be pert with him, and smile, and ask whether he'd acquired any more wives on his travels. But the effort of talking to him was wringing her out. She felt her teeth on edge, her fingernails scoring her palms. It had always used to be so easy between them; even when they fought he could disarm her with a joke and make her feel foolish for being out of temper with him, but now every word felt carved out of granite. She got to her feet and began to clear up the dinner things.
"Have you got any ale?" Jem asked. "I know spirits are too much to ask, but I could do with something a bit stronger than tea."
"I don't keep ale in the house, nor wine neither."
"Not even for guests?"
"I don't often have guests. So you're a drinking man now, are you?"
He shrugged his shoulders under the blanket. "A glass of ale now and then's hardly called drinking."
Mary didn't really believe Jem had succumbed to the drink, as his brother had. Every sign pointed against it: he looked hale and healthy, even more so now he was clean and shaved, his jawline firm and his body as lean and strong as ever. Yet she felt an urge to be unkind, to plague him and point out his flaws. It was time he was going. The light through the window was already less brilliant, the sun making for its early wintertime bed in the round hills to the west. "I'll see if your clothes are dry," she said.
They were dry enough to put on, though still damp and crisp with cold. Mary handed them over and walked out onto the porch before Jem could fling off the blanket in front of her. In a moment he followed, wearing his jacket but having left his greatcoat and leather bag inside. Mary sighed; she had hoped Jem would leave on his own, and not force her to turn him out. It wasn't that she didn't want him; she had the opposite problem.
She heard him clear his throat. "They said in the village there's a child lives here with you."
"Yes, my daughter Elizabeth. Betsy."
"Where is she now?"
"In the pasture, or the forest thereabouts. She'll run wild the livelong day if I let her."
"Sounds like someone else we know, doesn't it?" Jem forced a laugh. When Mary said nothing he walked over to one of the wooden posts that held up the roof of the porch, prising a long splinter out of it with his fingernail. His mouth was pursed, his brows a deep furrow over his eyes.
"She's a good girl," Mary said softly.
"Of course she is; she's got a good mother." He left off picking at the wood and gazed out across the yard, toward the river. "I gather you don't wish I should meet her."
"No, it's all right. It's better this way, since I can't stay." There was an echo of mockery in his voice, but his face when he turned was solemn. "It's time I was off. I'll just get my things," he said, and stalked by Mary to the door, passing within an inch but not touching her.
Mary had said that very thing to herself not long before, but the expected rush of relief did not come. Instead she felt desolation settle upon her like a wet blanket. She had been content with her life: the little joys of watching her daughter grow, tending the farm, participating in the life of the village. The hard work that made sleep come easily every night. But the thought of it continuing as it had, never changing except for Betsy and herself getting older, all at once seemed intolerable.
Jem came out in his long coat, carrying his bag, and strode off the porch and into the barn without stopping. Mary walked into the middle of the yard, uncertain. She listened to him speaking softly to his horse, the jingle of bridle and squeak of leather as he made adjustments and pulled himself into the saddle. The gelding's hooves clopped on packed dirt as Jem rode him out at a walk. In a moment he would be on the road, around the curve and out of Mary's reach.
He paused before her, pulling his hat down over his eyes to keep out the slanting rays of the sun, and looked down at her in a way that made her want to touch her hair and ensure it wasn't falling down. "Thank you for your hospitality," he said.
"I'm glad to see you looking so well," she returned, just as formally.
He nodded. "Goodbye, Mary." And he nudged the horse's sides with his heels.
Mary stood in the yard and watched him go, the sun behind him making a rough centaur of himself and his horse. "Jem Merlyn!" she called, just before he reached the road. "Come back."
He did, more swiftly than he had gone. Mary reached up to him. "Give me your hand, and let's be friends."
He slid down from the saddle. There was something alight in his eyes: maybe hope, maybe just a desire to see what would happen next. "Friends," he repeated, with the hint of a question in his voice.
She gave him a thin smile. "What else would I be with the cousin of my husband?"
On the moors dusk had swept in like a storm, but in the Helford valley it stole over the land by degrees, gentle even in winter. Mary had time to do her evening chores before it grew dim enough that she expected Betsy back.
She put Jem to work as well. She wasn't running an inn or a charity home: if he was going to stay, he'd make himself useful. By the end of the afternoon he'd mended a loose shutter and replaced some rotted wood where the rain had come into the kitchen. The evening was mild for January, so the two of them sat on the porch while he smoked his pipe and told her more about his adventures.
The sound of a bell—the bell the cow wore tied round her neck—made him break off mid-sentence. Mary sensed rather than saw his body tense, his gaze sharpen, as the gate opened and Betsy drove the cow through. She wondered if he were examining the girl for his own features.
Betsy's eyes penetrated the shadows of the porch and narrowed in curiosity. "Bring Elsie into the shed first," Mary called, and though Betsy kept her gaze fastened upon their visitor, she obeyed.
Mary felt on more solid ground now that the child was here to provide a focus of attention and conversation, and was glad now that Jem had stayed to meet her. "So that's Betsy," she said, smiling fondly.
Jem spoke in a low voice. "What have you told her about her father?"
Mary had been ready for the question, but not for the scowl that darkened Jem's face when she answered it. "The same thing I told her about her brother. That he died before she was born."
Their first baby had come early, before they'd had the chance to find a burrow in which to spend its initial weeks of life. They'd been lucky even to find a midwife in the closest village, but she could do nothing: the child never cried, nor drew a single breath. He emerged tiny, perfect in every detail, and silent. Mary had not felt him move for some time before his birth; the midwife said most likely he'd been dead for days. This information caused a feeling of horror in Mary, both that she had unknowingly carried such within her and that she had not known what the stillness meant.
Physically, she had recovered quickly. She was young, after all, and strong. But the horror stayed with her. And when, after a space of months, she found herself once again feeling sick and dizzy and out of sorts, she had told Jem that this baby would not be born by the roadside, but at home in Helford.
Their outward reactions to their son's birth and death had been opposite. Mary had withdrawn, becoming silent and what Jem called humorless, while he barely seemed to remember it most days. He laughed and joked entirely too much for her nerves to stand. Slowly, unacknowledged, a hedge had grown up between them. So when Jem declared himself opposed to settling down—"I'm no farmer, any more than I was the day you met me, Mary," he said, with what seemed to her callous disregard for her fears—she had decided to go south without him.
And now she had the farm, and Betsy, and her quiet life. It was a good life; she knew every day that she'd done the right thing.
Betsy ran out of the shed with her little mouth already formed for questioning. "This is your father's cousin Jem," Mary said. "They grew up together, and he's come to stay for a little while." She had decided Betsy would get no more explanation than that, at least for the time being.
"Wasn't Father's name Jem, too?" Betsy asked.
"Yes it was," Jem spoke up. "And closer than twins we were, when we weren't beating the tar out of each other." He grinned at Mary's sidelong look.
"Your horse is very pretty," Betsy said. "He has made friends with Missie, and they have their heads alongside each other in their stalls."
"Old Chief always was a civil fellow," Jem said, as though he had known the gelding since he was foaled and was intimately acquainted with his personality. "That reminds me, I've brought you something in my saddlebag." He got to his feet and strode into the barn, coming out a moment later with a small object which he gave to Betsy.
It was a little wooden boat, rather roughly carved, but with a mast and a scrap of muslin for a sail. Betsy's eyes grew round. "I'll sail it on the stream tomorrow," she said breathlessly. "Thank you, cousin!" She attacked Jem round the waist with one of the fierce and abrupt embraces children may give those with whom they feel some unexplained affinity, even when the subject be a near stranger.
Startled, Jem threw his arms in the air. Mary, biting back laughter, said, "Go and wash your face and hands for supper." The memory of the look on Jem's face would cause her to smile to herself in unguarded moments over the next few days.
"That was a pretty thank-you she made me," Jem said when Betsy had run off. "Does she give hugs and kisses to everyone she meets?"
"Not usually, though I've raised her to show gratitude where it's warranted."
"I made that ship for a boy. I don't know why I thought she'd be one."
"Sometimes I wonder myself," Mary said.
They went in and ate the rabbit stew Mary had cooked with carrots and potatoes, sopping it up with bread, and then Mary took Betsy upstairs. Nothing would do but that the boat should sit beside her bed, so it would be the first thing she saw when she awoke.
Jem was smirking when Mary climbed down the ladder. "Still rock her to sleep like a babe, do you?"
This Mary ignored: she thought Jem had precious little room to comment upon her mothering. "I'll give you some blankets," she said. Her idea was that Jem would make himself a bed on the sofa in the cottage's largest room, but he followed her to her little bedroom off the kitchen, where she was taking blankets out of the wardrobe.
"So I'm to sleep in your parlor?"
Weariness and the strain of the day made her sharp. "Where did you think? It's that or the shed."
"We may never have stood up in church together, Mary, but you're my wife in every other sense."
"A fine husband you are, Jem, who leaves his wife and child to fend for themselves the better part of a decade."
She had meant the words to sting, but he only laughed.
"I can't argue with you there. But you've done all right despite me, haven't you? I daresay your neighbors would be shocked if you told them you'd once stuck to the side of a horse-thief. All right, have it your own way. I'll sleep on the sofa until you want me in your bed, and be grateful for the house-room."
She had to bite the insides of her cheeks to keep from shouting that she'd never want him. She was afraid of waking Betsy; and afraid to be caught in such an obvious lie.
The three of them settled into a routine of sorts. Mary asked Jem to refrain from stealing, or selling his horse to one of the locals, but apart from that she made little infringement upon his movements. He rode out for several hours most days, exploring the area, he said. He did not take on any of the daily chores of the farm, but did complete the repairs Mary had been putting off, and when he came back from his rides it was often with a rabbit across his saddle.
Two weeks of this produced in Mary a creeping curiosity. Why did he stay? It was clear he had no business to bring him to Helford, which had been one of her wilder surmises. It seemed out of character for Jem to have traveled five hundred miles merely to see her and Betsy; even more out of character, once he had seen them, for him to remain at the farm. Yet he did remain, day in and day out, and behaved as if he'd be perfectly content to do so until the day of judgment. He did not make any advances towards Mary after the first night, though they fell into a pattern of joking with each other which, while not quite ribald, had an undercurrent that was far from innocent. It added a spice to Mary's days that had been missing. Despite the protections she tried to set in place within herself, she knew she would be sorry when he left.
If Mary would be sorry, Betsy would be inconsolable. She had fallen immediately and violently in love with the man she called cousin, and worshiped him above anyone else she'd met in her short life. For his part, Jem tolerated her incessant questions and dogging at his heels with good grace. He brought her little presents—a hair ribbon, a piece of tree root the river had smoothed into a shape like a bird—and amused her by tying blades of grass into knots or blowing smoke-rings. Mary was not sure whether she should put a stop to this or allow Betsy to enjoy the relationship while she could, knowing it would be all the more painful when the inevitable rupture came.
One afternoon she came into the yard to see Jem helping Betsy into Chief's saddle. Betsy had been riding the mare since she could walk, of course, but always bareback, and Missie was old and gentle and seemed to know intuitively where her rider would want to go. Betsy's feet didn't even reach the stirrups; still she sat confidently, clutching the reins and grinning all over herself.
"Don't jerk them, now," Jem said, loosening her hold. "Just keep a bit of tension on unless you want to stop or turn, and he'll respond to a small movement." He stroked the horse's neck, saying something into its twitching ear that Mary didn't catch. "Now, give him your heels; not a kick, but hard enough that he knows you mean it."
Mary watched as Betsy rode the gelding round the yard, first with Jem walking at his head and then alone. "Not bad," Jem said, backing out of the circle the horse was treading. It was cold, and the mud had frozen into hard ridges. "She's good with him," he said to Mary, coming to stand by her. "She'll have a way with horses if she's anything like her father, God rest him." At this last he quirked one side of his mouth, and she could not help laughing.
"I suppose you'll have her stealing them next."
"There are worse ways to make a living. And think of the stories! A girl horse-thief."
"Thank you, but no. Betsy may be a bit wild, but she'll grow up respectable if I've anything to say about it."
"Yes, I'm sure she'll be a light of the county, and find a perfectly stultifying husband to build her little kingdom with."
"You may be as sarcastic as you like. But would you really have her be a rover? Given your views of women and their abilities, I should think you'd want her put away as safely as possible."
"I haven't any say, though, have I?" He spoke carelessly, but caught Mary's eye and held it, and she could not read him; whether he cared or not, and how much.
Chief had broken into a trot. "Don't let him run away with you," Jem called. "Pull back a little on the reins."
"But I want to go faster," Betsy said.
"One thing at a time." Jem walked into the yard and caught Chief's bridle so that he stopped. "That's enough for today."
He put down Betsy's protests with rather less patience than he had shown her before, and once she had dismounted he pulled himself into the saddle and rode off without another word.
He was gone two hours, and when he came back he dropped into a kitchen chair and tossed a little bag onto the table, a bag that clinked with the sound of coin. "That's for Betsy," he said. "For her upkeep or dowry or whatever you want to do with it. There'll be more."
Betsy herself had gone off to pasture the cow and sail her wooden ship, and Mary was glad; she had the idea Jem would have said the same even if she'd been in the room. Slowly she picked up the bag and, loosening its drawstring, dropped two gold sovereigns and a number of smaller coins into her hand. "Where did you get this?"
"Here and there," Jem said. "Most of it was owed me from a favor I did them up at Trelowarren."
A horrid suspicion fell over her that Jem had bamboozled the Vyvyan family somehow, and it would come back on her. "What favor?"
"I helped them with a horse that was giving them an interesting time. The stable master told me to come back next week; they'll be starting to break the new hunters. What did you think, that I'd stolen it? If I were going to do that, it'd be a deal more than two pounds, I'll tell you that much."
She dropped the coins back into the bag and pulled the drawstring tight. "Won't you be needing the money?" Her heart was beating in her throat; this was the closest she'd come to mentioning his leaving since she'd said he could stay.
"What for? It would only run through my fingers, that much hasn't changed. Better for it to go to good use."
"Thank you," she said stiffly. It was odd, how she felt less easy with him now that he'd made this gesture.
"It's nothing," he answered, but his cheeks were flushed.
She went on preparing supper. "Do you know, this place isn't so bad," Jem said after they'd been silent for several minutes. "Your cheek isn't as close on your neighbor's jowl as I'd supposed it would be."
"No, we don't spend much time talking about the size of each other's potatoes here." Mary smiled as she thought of the words he'd once said to her with such antipathy. "I decided to live somewhere I could be quiet when I chose. You want that, you know, as you get older."
"If you say so. I've never claimed to have the faintest idea what any woman wants."
"You talk like we're a different species. Women are human beings just like men are, Jem, and we want what any human wants: kinship with our fellow-beings, safety for ourselves and the ones we love, and a flash of beauty every now and then."
"That isn't what a man wants. He wants adventure, and the opportunity to prove himself."
"But life can't be all violence and variety. You must come to rest some time."
"Don't you ever miss traveling, Mary?" He was looking down, cleaning his fingernails with the point of his knife, but she sensed his ears prick in expectation. What would he do if she said she didn't miss traveling, but she did miss him?
She was saved from having to answer by the bang of the kitchen door as Betsy came in. "You're very late," she snapped, though Betsy was hardly any later than usual. "Go wash your hands, and lay the table." The girl's mouth came together to form a line, and she did what Mary bade her in a sulking silence which set the tone for the meal. At the end of it they did the evening chores and went to bed without much further talk.
Mary woke with the weighty sense that something would be decided today, for good or ill. She could not have said why she felt this way, but there was an undeniable tension in the air.
Jem didn't seem to feel it. He whistled as he made his morning ablutions and was jaunty at breakfast. It was the day before market day, and as it was winter Mary had not gone for some weeks. Half the day would be taken up with preparing the goods and loading the cart for the next morning. Mary had thought Jem might help, but he put her out of sorts by riding off directly after the morning meal.
"Where are you going?" she asked, not bothering to hide her displeasure.
"Here and there," he said without mystery, his whole manner proclaiming it was none of her business where he went. Mary felt put in her place, and spent the forenoon trying to keep herself from sniping at Betsy: a task made harder by the girl's ceaseless chatter about the magnificent cousin Jem. Apparently he had promised that she should have her own side-saddle, if not a pony. "Is he going to live with us forever, Mamma?" Betsy asked, and this question more than anything else she could have said put Mary's teeth on edge. "Shouldn't he have his own room, then, and his own bed?"
"He'll stay as long as he wants to stay, and not a minute longer." Mary was not in a mood to sweeten her answers, and she saw immediately on Betsy's face the bitter effect of this one. They were in the cold-pantry, bringing out cheeses to be packed, and Mary put down the one she held and reached out to stroke Betsy's hair. "You'll have to prepare yourself for him to leave one day," she said gently, "probably sooner rather than later." She had hoped not to have to discuss the failings of men with her daughter before the girl even came up to her shoulder.
Betsy's face screwed into a furious scowl. "You're wrong," she said. "He won't leave us. We're the only family he's got." And with that, she slammed out of the pantry and the house.
Mary ate her dinner alone. This was not unusual, since Jem was often out at midday, but today she felt his absence keenly. She seemed to sense him pulling away, packing up his thoughts if not his possessions. No, Betsy was the one who was wrong, to all of their sorrow: Jem would leave them. Family didn't mean the same thing to him as it did to other people.
The sound of Chief's hooves on the thawing mud of the yard made Mary straighten, and her mouth press into a line. Minutes later Jem sauntered into the kitchen.
"Take off your boots. They're all over mud," she said, without looking at him.
"Why? It's not as if the floor's clean."
He was right—Mary and Betsy had been tracking in dirt from the shed and yard all morning—but Jem pointing it out only annoyed her more. "If you're going to leave me to do all the work myself, you might at least not make more of it."
"Did Betsy skip off on you? I passed her in the forest; she gave me the same black look you're giving me now. I wouldn't expect her home before supper. Peas in a pod, the two of you are. Never mind, you'll be happier once you hear what I've been doing."
"I don't care what you've been doing. It's nothing to do with me." Mary's cheeks felt hot, and even though she'd spent the morning wishing Jem were near, her skin crawled with the need to be out from under his eyes. She shot to her feet and went out to the well for a bucket of water to wash the kitchen floor.
When she returned Jem was still standing in the middle of the floor, grinning. "You're a sight," he said, "with your cheeks pink, and your hair half fallen down. You look like you did when I first met you, that day at Jamaica Inn."
"That might be a fond memory for you, but not for me. Oh, why can't you get out of my way!" She was ready to push him bodily out the door.
"A flash in your eye and sharp words on your tongue, as well. You've ripped me up one side and down the other; shall I turn round so you can have a clean swipe at the back of me? Come, Mary, put away your claws. You've no call to scratch me, not when we both know how I used to make you purr." He caught her hand in his, brought it to his lips, and kissed the palm.
She jerked away. "Don't be disgusting." She could still feel the touch on her hand, searing as a brand, and she clenched her fist as if to squeeze the feeling out of existence. The look in his eyes whipped her into a fury that was all the sharper for knowing what fueled it.
"When did you turn into a prude?" He laughed, and the heat in his gaze went away, leaving only the teasing. That was his power over her: he had always been able to take or leave the animal part of their relationship, the part that drew Mary in and held her; or at least he was better than her at pretending he could. Sometimes she had wondered how much of it was his pride. In the dark, in the rented cottages and hired rooms and pallets made by the roadside, had occurred the moments in which Jem gave her the closest thing he had to tenderness.
And now she wanted it again. She wanted him. But she couldn't abide the thought of having and then losing him all over again. She couldn't leave, and he wouldn't stay.
"This isn't a game." Her voice came out low and choked with emotion, and the mirth went out of his eyes like the snuffing of a candle. "You've been gone twice the time and more we were together. You could have come here years ago. I wanted you to."
He waited to see whether she had any more to say. His face was solemn, almost sad, if Jem ever looked sad. Finally he said, "Well, I'm here now, aren't I?"
She examined her feelings in a way she hadn't dared to since he'd first put his shadow on the road before her house. She'd imagined his arrival so many times, in the years before Betsy had reached the age of reason. In her bed at night she had fought and fought to hold off the hope that he would come, but finally she had given up, telling herself stories of him sauntering into the yard one day with that tuneless whistle on his lips, his hat propped on the back of his head. The story went different ways depending on her mood. Sometimes she smiled and joked with him as he approached, as though they'd never parted; sometimes she was cold to him at first and made him win her. Sometimes Betsy would be playing in the dust of the yard at her feet and Jem would sweep the child up in his arms, both of them laughing in delight. But these were just fancies. She had always known, deep down, that they wouldn't come true. And at the bottom of herself she found a hard coal of certainty that to accept him would be to court disaster and heartbreak. She had changed and he had not, and that was the beginning and the end of it.
She looked beyond his waiting face, and went to open the door and stand in the threshold, the air from outside almost mild on her hot cheeks. She could hear the faint lowing of the cow Betsy had left behind in the shed, and the even fainter rush of the Helford: the river she had longed to see for all the years she'd been away from it, and which for her meant home.
Without looking back at him she said, "You're too late, Jem Merlyn."
She heard the thump of his boots on the flags of the kitchen floor. She would not let him touch her, nor would she watch him walk past her and away. She stepped through the door, off the porch, and struck out towards the river.
She walked along the riverbank for an hour or more, getting thoroughly chilled. When she returned to the house she half expected to find him gone, along with his stolen horse and grimy leather bag, but he was in the yard with Betsy. The girl sat on Chief's back and she and Jem were both laughing as if someone had just told a capital joke.
"Mamma!" Betsy gigged the horse forward like she'd been riding him for years. "Cousin Jem's going to take me riding tomorrow. I have to ride Missie, but he'll let me and Chief canter in the field."
"Tomorrow's market day," Mary reminded her.
"Sunday, then," Jem said.
"Not until after church." Mary's tone was mild. Her walk had calmed the storm inside her, though she wondered whether this were merely the eye of it. "Cousin Jem may be a heathen, but we are not," she said over Betsy's inevitable protests. "Now, come in and help me with supper."
After they had eaten and Betsy had gone to bed, Jem came and leaned in the kitchen doorway. Mary could feel him watching her as she cleaned the dishes; she could smell the smoke from his pipe.
At length he said, "I'd have come sooner if I loved you less, Mary Yellan."
Mary gave no response, and after a moment she looked up and he was gone.
She heard the suck of his boots in the mud outside but not the opening of the barn door, and soon his footsteps faded away. He did not return before she went to bed. Never mind, she thought. It was no business of hers where he spent his time or who with, and yet it took her a long time to fall asleep.
When she opened her eyes it was almost dawn, with gray light filtering in the window. Usually on market day they got their start an hour before the sun rose. She sprang up in a panic and hurried to the base of the ladder. "Betsy!" she cried. "Betsy, get up! We're late."
A disgruntled mutter came from behind her. She whirled and saw Jem curled on the sofa, the blanket pulled up around his ears.
"I'm sorry to disturb your beauty-sleep," she said, laughing. He didn't answer: he was already snoring again.
She and Betsy were soon on their way, but they needn't have hurried. The road was so thick with mud they would have been late to market in any case. It was an unprofitable day, with one noteworthy occurrence. As they were setting up their stall, she saw her friend Susan Keller and waved; Susan had her own stall to set up, so Mary expected a wave back and be done with it, but the other woman hurried across the square.
"Hello," she said, and they went through the pleasantries and the news Susan felt it her duty to impart. She was a droll, comfortable woman of forty-five or so; a widow, though unlike Mary she had two sons and two daughters to help her on her farm in Mawgan. She had adopted Mary as a friend partly in honor of their shared marital status, and notwithstanding her love of gossip, she possessed a kind heart.
"So where are you keeping this cousin I've heard so much about?" Susan asked finally. "I was hoping to have a look at him."
Of course people wondered about Jem. Mary had put about the agreed-upon biography, that he was her late husband's cousin come from the north, but naturally they'd think there was more to the story. For the first time she felt the neighborliness of the area to be a nuisance. She laughed, however, and replied, "He's not much to look at, and I'm not keeping him; he's keeping himself, upon my sofa. I doubt he's opened his eyes yet today."
"Funny, I'd heard he was working up at the big house. A friend of my Sally's is a housemaid there, you know, and apparently there's been quite a talking about who he is and whether he's single." She laid one finger on her chin and gave Mary an arch look.
"He is, as far as I know," said Mary, which made Susan laugh. "But I hadn't heard of him doing more than helping to break a horse they were having trouble with."
"He's not applying for the groom's place that's come open, then? Oh, never mind, I must have heard wrong. My dear, you look perfectly flummoxed."
Mary had gone still with confusion. It wasn't like Jem to take any employment where he'd have to answer to someone besides himself. Was this some trick, to further his criminal activities? Was he putting himself in position to assess the local horseflesh? But she must not leap to conclusions.
"If he's not looking for work, then how long is he staying?" Susan asked.
Mary turned to arrange her wares on the counter, affecting a resigned unconcern. "As long as he wants to, I suppose. I can't turn him out, for the sake of my husband."
Susan clucked and shook her head in sympathy. "Even after they're dead, we're still doing things for them."
Mary and Betsy left Helston early enough that there was still some light in the sky when they turned in at her gate. Jem was gone, his horse's stall empty, and an unacknowledged disappointment overhung mother and daughter as they unloaded the cart and did their evening chores.
Betsy's eyes were already falling shut as Mary climbed up the ladder to tuck her in: it had been a long day for a small girl. "Good night, Mamma," she said, with a face-splitting yawn. "Will you tell cousin Jem good night when he comes in?"
"Of course. Sleep well, my love."
Mary drooped with fatigue as she undressed for bed. But the moment she lay down her eyes popped open as though they were on strings, and her thoughts raced along a hundred courses, none of them reassuring. What was Jem about? Was he going for a permanent place at Trelowarren? Did he mean to stay, then, and become an honest man, or was he running some kind of double game? If he was he would be caught eventually, and disgrace himself and her. She'd have to leave, and to do that again would tear the heart from her.
But what if he truly did wish to make his home here, with her and Betsy? Mary couldn't let herself believe that, not after all the times he'd told her he would settle down when they buried him in the ground. And yet hope, like a resilient shoot poking through the frozen earth, persisted.
She heard hoofbeats in the yard and the opening of the shed door, and made up her mind before Jem came into the house. She could not go on in uncertainty. She would ask him directly, and make him give some account of his plans, and she would do it tonight.
When he entered the kitchen she was waiting for him at the table with her shawl drawn around her shoulders. He did not seem surprised to see her, and only said, "Hello, you're up late." He had a bottle in one hand, and he went to the cupboard like he owned it and got out two cups. "Will you have some wine with me?"
"I don't drink," Mary said.
"Just a drop. That's all I've had, and I only want one more. You're looking at me, Mary, but I swear I'm not drunk."
"You're not sober, either."
"I'm perfectly in-between. It's not a bad place to be, do you know that?"
"I wouldn't have any way of knowing."
"No, you wouldn't, would you?" He sat across from her, giving her a look that was half affection and half perplexity, and poured them each a measure. The wine looked dark and cool, with a sheen like liquid silk. "Do I sound like my brother when I ask you to drink?"
Mary closed her eyes. It was the first time since Jem had come to the farm that any mention of Joss Merlyn had passed between them, and for a moment it brought back that time in a rush, even with all the years that had passed. "No," she said, but her voice shook.
"Of course I do," Jem said mildly. "You don't have to lie to me, Mary. I know I'm more like him every day. You're not frightened of me again, are you?"
She wasn't; at least not in the physical sense. Despite her suspicions, she did not think Jem had gone beyond roguishness into true malevolence. Her emotional safety was another matter entirely. When they had traveled together Mary had learned to hide any anxiety about the future from him. He laughed at it, or else became cross, but either way he did not understand it. To him everything was temporary, and it was both disagreeable and useless to wish otherwise. Indifference was his place of strength: he gave up his stake in the outcome of events, and if pain came instead of pleasure, that too would pass.
Mary could no longer be indifferent, but she would not be weak before him. She took up the cup and drained it.
He shouted laughter and slapped the tabletop in approval. "Hush," Mary snapped, "you'll wake Betsy." The wine tasted sour in her mouth, and she wanted a drink of water to wash it down with, but Jem had already emptied his own cup and refilled both.
"There's more, in case you're thirsty again. Now, this is something! I could never get you to drink with me before."
"That's because I'm not a degenerate, Jem."
He laughed again, softer this time. "Nor am I, which is the reason we're drinking wine and not brandy, and why we've only got the one bottle. No five-day drunks for us, my dear."
"Where did you get this?"
"Do you really want to know?"
She had to laugh. "I suppose not." She could already feel the wine working in her, a sort of unwinding in her jaw and at the base of her spine. She'd never drunk more than the thimbleful the vicar poured out at communion. She sipped again, and this time it tasted better; it seemed to dissolve into her tongue.
"So, to what do I owe the honor? You looked very determined when I came in."
Mary took a breath. "What are you doing here, Jem?"
"I'm having a drink with a friend."
"Are you thinking to stay on here? Because if you are—"
"Well, that's down to you, isn't it? It's your house, after all."
They looked at each other coolly, and Jem drank.
"Have you applied for a place at Trelowarren?"
"Maybe I have. And maybe they've offered it to me. What do you think, Mary, shall I take it?" He smiled, and his tone was light, but his eyes watched her carefully.
"They've offered you a position with no reference?"
"Squire Bassat was glad enough to write me one, when I looked in on him at North Hill on my way south. I thought it might come in useful, and all I needed to do was start talking about settling at Trewartha again and the letter was as good as in my hand. It seems he likes his neighborhood better without any Merlyns in it."
This was a surprise: not that Jem had prevailed upon Mr. Bassat for a favor, but that he had visited that area at all. Mary had made for the coast as soon as she could on her own southward journey, and would have gone many more miles out of her way to avoid the sight of Jamaica Inn. She thought of asking about the place. Had he seen it, and did people live there or only ghosts? Better not to: better to concentrate on the matter at hand.
"If you go to work for the Vyvyans, will you treat the job seriously, and do an honest man's work?"
"Or will I use it for thievery? I've no plans to do so, and you can believe that or not, as you like. I'll treat this job as seriously as I treat anything else, Mary, which is to say not very."
"I need more than that from you," she said slowly. "I don't want to be abandoned again. I don't deserve it, and Betsy doesn't either."
"Abandoned! Rather dramatic choice of words, don't you think? If I remember right, you left me, not the other way round."
"What was I to do, when you refused even to entertain the idea of settling? I just wanted a little safety, but you were determined to go on as you'd always done. You pretend to be so easy-going, Jem Merlyn, but you're unyielding as a mountain when the mood takes you. All that matters to you is your independence; the rest of us can go hang for all you care!" Her face was hot. She rose, going to stand by the window. It was shuttered for the night, but a draft snuck in to cool her skin.
"I went to see the place once, where he's buried."
Mary turned in surprise; she had forgotten the name of the village where she'd given birth, and considered the lapse a mercy.
Jem took out his pipe. "The little wooden marker we put there, it's gone now, but I remembered where." He tapped a bit of ash out onto the table and began to fill the bowl with tobacco, lingering over the task. "I call it hard, that they'd stick him in the back of the churchyard with the thieves and paupers, just because he never got the chance to be baptized."
Mary's throat burned. "John," she said. "John was what we were going to call a boy."
"Were we? I'd forgotten."
How strange, the patchwork their memories made when laid together. For her part, she had no recollection of the churchyard or the poor monument Jem spoke of.
"Mary, he would have died even if we'd been in a place like this."
"So you say."
"There was no accident. The cart didn't overturn, you weren't trodden upon by a horse. One day the baby was alive and the next it was dead. That's it."
"Yes. He died, and Betsy is alive and healthy."
"And tomorrow she could fall in the river. Things happen, and you can do nothing about it, so you may as well not live in fear."
"It's not living in fear to want my children to have a home. Just because you didn't like yours when you were a lad doesn't mean you should dismiss the idea as a bad one. Were you planning to rove all the rest of your days?" She caught herself and smiled bitterly. "What am I saying? You've never thought a minute ahead in your life." That had been charming enough when all she wanted was escape and forgetfulness, but now Jem's shiftlessness was a liability. However much she loved him, this essential failing formed an obstacle to their happiness as impassable as the marsh where he'd grown up.
Jem laid aside his pipe unlit and got up, coming toward her. "What do you think I came here for, Mary?"
She lifted a shoulder and dropped it. "I don't know. Maybe you tried selling another horse back to its owner, and this time you didn't have a murderer to feed to the magistrate when you were caught."
"You jump straight to the assumption that I'm running from justice."
"I assume you're running from something."
"You don't think I might have been going toward something instead of away? You can't believe a man like me could change his ways?"
Mary sighed. "I'm not blind. You turn up at my farm wearing a month's filth and riding a stolen horse. That's not how a man goes a-courting, at least not any man I'd take serious."
"Fair enough," Jem said, "so I had to come south in a hurry. But if all I wanted was a hidey-hole, I could have stopped at Trewartha. I've thought of you every day of the last seven and a half years, Mary Yellan." This made her laugh in spite of herself, and he gave a little smile in answer. "Well, at least every week."
"So tell me, then, Jem Merlyn. Why did you come here?"
"To look at your pretty face, and kiss it again if you'd let me," he answered without hesitation, and disappointment stabbed through her. She looked away but he reached out and turned her chin to face him. "And to see if you needed my help."
Sudden tears pricked the backs of her eyelids, and she wrenched her chin from his hand and turned her back to him before they could spill over. "I don't."
"That I can see. But I thought you wanted to be my friend."
She wiped her eyes angrily. "Your friend! How could I have thought we could be friends? We can't."
"Oh, Mary." His voice was low and gentle. "I could have told you that." And then he had turned her and was kissing her, and she melted into his hands that combed through her hair and stroked the back of her neck. A little whimpering sound came from her throat. The slightest hint of tenderness from him, softness—it undid her so.
His fingers, his long graceful fingers, were deft at the buttons of her nightgown, and all she wanted was his hands on her. Just this once, she thought, as her hands moved on their own to open his shirt. They could love each other again, and that would last her the rest of her days.
"You see, you do want me," he said. "You can have me, Mary; I'm yours."
It was the words he left unspoken that broke her fever and awakened her. She pulled away from him. "For how long? Will you be like your father then, and go and come as you please, and beat me when the welcome's not warm enough to suit you?"
"Be fair, Mary. I should try to do better than that."
"Oh, you'll try! Such a bargain you offer me!" Part of her still longed to accept crumbs as being better than nothing. But no, she would sit at the table and partake of the feast; it must be that or starve. "You're wrong if you think I've nothing better to do than await your pleasure."
"What were you doing before?" He shrugged his shoulders with that provoking assurance, and the worst of it was that he was right. She hadn't married, hadn't moved on; she'd made a life for herself, but it was really only half a life.
He took her face between his hands and looked seriously into her eyes. "I'll go right now if you tell me to, and I won't worry you again. You can have your quiet life back, free of complications—is that what you want?"
"You know it's not. It's easier for you, Jem; you could ride out of here with a song on your lips, and have forgotten me before you reached the bend in the road. Me, I'll never be free of you. Stay or go, you'll be part of me as long as I live." Once she had resented this and fought hard against it, so hard she'd almost gotten herself killed. But now she could laugh and accept it as the way things were.
He laughed too. "You little fool, do you really think I could forget you? Believe me, I've tried." He kissed her, gently and deliberately, and kept kissing her until her resistance had all dissolved, her arms wound around his neck. Then he lifted her, and carried her into her room, and closed the door behind them.
In the morning Jem rode off with no word of where he was bound. This had been his wont over the preceding weeks, but nevertheless Mary felt the prick of disappointment. Nothing had changed, after all.
She laughed at herself. What had she expected, that he would shave and walk to the village with her and Betsy, to sit in the pew beside them in church? Love still made a fool of her, but today she could not be unhappy about it.
In church she felt herself to be the recipient of several curious looks and a few knowing ones. Whether this was partly due to her own consciousness of sin she could not say; but matters in her house could not go on as they had been. It was hardly unusual for people to take in relatives, but Mary was a widow alone with a small daughter, and she had felt some small suspicion hanging about her ever since she returned to Helford. Jamaica Inn—and her adventures with Jem after—had broadened her, marked her in a way that others could sense even if they could not see.
Usually Mary felt refreshed by the little quotidian interactions with her neighbors and the vicar, who remained as comfortingly mundane as ever. But today her perception of their judgment, whether real or imagined, put her on edge. Betsy seemed to sense that she was irritable, and stayed quiet on the walk home, and as they approached the cottage put her little hand into Mary's as if to give her strength.
Jem was in the yard with the horses. Both were saddled, Missie with a side-saddle that looked well used but functional, and Betsy lunged forward, shouting in excitement.
Mary held her back. "Go and change," she said. "After that you can ride as much as you like." Betsy ran into the house.
Mary stepped forward to stroke Missie's neck while Jem made some adjustment to the mare's saddle. "I didn't steal it, if you were wondering," he said.
"Ah, but you were. I know you're afraid I'll bring shame on you, and you're not wrong to worry. Blood will tell, they say."
"I don't believe that," Mary said. "You're nothing like your father or your brother."
"You didn't know my father, and God damn it, Mary, I can be a scoundrel without being like Joss. I won't promise I'll never disappoint you; but I can tell you that for months, maybe a year, wherever I go my feet have wanted only to turn south. I wonder how Mary Yellan does, I've thought to myself, and then I've answered myself that you didn't want me breaking in upon you, upsetting whatever you've built. And yet the next day—the next hour—here's the thought again. Let's go and look in on Mary. I've met some women in my life, but you're the only one who keeps coming back into my head. I can't help but think there's some reason for that.
"And now I'm here, and my feet don't want to go anywhere at all." He sounded almost angry, and Mary felt too stunned to reply.
The door slammed open and Betsy ran out, her hair streaming behind her, and climbed onto Chief's back quick as a monkey. There she waited, grinning, for Jem's reaction. He turned, saw her, and staggered back with his mouth open in feigned shock, then gave an elaborate shrug of his shoulders and made as if to mount Missie. This elicited a stream of giggles from Betsy.
Jem gave her a hangdog look. "You ungrateful wretch, you're not really going to force me to ride side-saddle, are you?"
Betsy appeared to think a moment; then she shook her head, climbed down, and allowed Jem to help her into the side-saddle.
"I suppose your villagers will be scandalized by the sight of us out riding on Sunday," Jem said to Mary, easy again as he pulled himself onto Chief's back. "They probably think we ought to spend the whole of the day in reflection and prayer, but I call that a terrible waste of fine weather."
"You've got the wrong idea about them," Mary said. "People here aren't like that."
"No, I know. I've met most of them, and they've been nothing but kind. It's damned strange, Mary, having my name mean something good to people. I suppose I have you to thank for that; but it will take some getting used to."
With that he rode off with Betsy and Missie in his wake, leaving Mary in the yard feeling as churned up as the mud under the horses' hooves.
At supper that night Betsy chattered about the ride so that no one else could get a word in, which was almost a relief to Mary. But when she came down from putting Betsy to bed, Jem was in the kitchen, tamping down the tobacco in his pipe. Mary was starting to become used to the idea that he wasn't going away.
"How about it, then," he said. "Was last night an aberration, and I'm to be banished to the sofa again?" He slouched into his chair as though it made no matter to him one way or the other, but by now Mary knew this was just his way. In answer she walked around him, took the pipe from his hand and set it on the table, and nestled into his lap.
"We'll have to be married, you know," she said.
She could feel his shrug in the arms draped over her. "You know my thoughts on that. We're together because we decide to be, not because of some words we say in front of a parson. But if that means something to you, then I won't say no."
Mary smiled. Falling in love had not made her into a romantic, and she had never entertained any fancies that Jem would lay aside his blunt practicality for her sake. If this was his proposal, it was more than good enough for her.
She twisted around so that she could reach up and kiss him. "I expected you to put up more of a fight," she said. "You must be getting soft in your old age."
It was harvest time and farm women, unlike ladies, could not indulge in the luxury of being in a delicate condition. Mary went into the fields and worked right alongside her neighbors.
She was aware of the irony: she had refused to live upon the seat of a cart the last time she was pregnant, yet absorbed the risk of hard labor now. It wasn't as if no allowances were made. Her friends bade her rest when the sun was high, and Betsy was kept running back and forth with drinking water. Mary monitored the movements of the baby inside her (it stilled when she was working, as though the motion rocked it to sleep) and saw the doctor every few weeks, but the peaks of terror did not seem so high and jagged as they had when she'd carried Betsy. It was having a home, she thought, that gave her peace. A place she belonged to and that belonged to her, and a person.
Even if Jem had been kept late at work, his things were in the house and Mary could feel his presence. Sometimes she would sit after Betsy had gone to bed, watching the fire burn down and absorbing the comforting picture her home made. Here were the hooks on the wall, bearing three cloaks side by side. Here were his Sunday boots by the door, his second-favorite pipe on the mantel. He was messy, leaving dishes on the table and crumbs on the floor, but she could never be angry with him for long. That much hadn't changed.
Mary's friends had received the news of their marriage with approbation and a marked lack of surprise. In Helford the name of Merlyn had not the taint of ignominy it carried up-country, and people accepted her new husband as they did her; Jem said this made it easier to stay honest, as they did not automatically expect him to be otherwise. For him, Mary knew, honesty was a relative term. But if he did engage in small subterfuges, he was subtle enough not to be caught. He had quickly become indispensable to the stable-master at Trelowarren, and would most likely move into the man's place when he retired in a few years. His work occasionally took him off for days at a time, to visit the horse-market in one of the bigger towns or take a mare to be bred, and at first this gave Mary some anxiety. But he brought back little gifts for Betsy, and sometimes for Mary. He thought of them, then, while he was gone, and Mary learned to trust that he would return.
Once she asked Jem outright if he was happy, or if the urge to rove had come back on him.
"It does all the time," he replied, so cheerful and matter-of-fact that Mary wondered if he'd heard her correctly. "When work's aggravating or Betsy's being impossible. The thought comes, like an itch: I could swing my leg over the back of a horse and be shut of all this in ten minutes. I think about going out on the road again, and it sounds like a good enough idea; except then I wouldn't have the pleasure of seeing Betsy grow up, or coming home to you. And at my time of life, that seems like it's worth more than anything that's out there."
"I'm afraid the worst has happened, then," Mary said. "You've been domesticated."
"And me so young," he replied sadly, and then he laughed and kissed her.