Like a sailor to his ship, her body adjusts to the sway of the cart as it traverses each knoll and rut, and soon it seems impossible that any world outside the visible one can exist. As the moors unfold before her the sensation alters to one of an eternal road, in which the dirt spins under their wheels without allowing progress. This is only the first day, she reflects. Such a journey would seem interminable, were it not for him.
He sings quietly, fingers hooked behind his head, his feet propped up, eyes closed. The song is unfamiliar, something about a siren and a fox, and she is fairly sure he is cobbling lines of half-forgotten airs into a glorious amalgamation of nonsense. His hat is gone, flung into the chaos behind them, and each word sung leaves a mist of white hanging in the air. Oh, but her breath catches when he turns his face toward her—that straight line of his nose, the angle of his teeth within his half-open mouth, the shadow of his eyelashes on his skin when he glances down. To think this is hers.
The miles accumulate slowly. They encounter no other travelers, and glimpses of humanity—an old carriage wreck, outlying abodes of a distant village—do not serve to cross their path with any additional life. When she turns around she can see the wheel tracks on the road, two lines stretching behind them, and she wishes them invisible—they are too much like chains, cords tying them to Jamaica, a connection that will not be severed.
Speaking or silent, the time must be passed. She watches the unchanging moors; he dozes, or teases her, or smiles with pleasure at being on the move. For a brief time he whistles tunes she recognizes as though from a dream—members of Joss’s assembly sang them, and they are nothing more than harmless drinking songs, but he reverts to Yuletide carols when she tells him the association.
Writing materials are extracted from the jumble in the wagon bed and she composes a letter she will have to rewrite on a steadier surface, thanking Squire Bassat and his wife for their hospitality and assuring them of her safety. Jem gives her suggestions at intervals (“Tell him to imbibe less, unless he wants to turn red permanently. Tell him only an imbecile would employ the lout he’s made his stable manager”), all of which are ignored. He tells her the stories of his favorite personal feats of theft, each rivaling the conquest she witnessed at the fair in Launceston, turning her blood to ice or bringing her to tears of laughter intermittently. He plays idly with the ends of her hair as he speaks, twisting it around his fingers with familiarity that speaks of it as his territory.
He is careless as ever, and shows no inclination to displays of tenderness, and laughs at her when she is pert. She decides that nothing about him has changed, but as soon as she comes to a firm conclusion on the matter she questions it; surely he must be lightening as she is, the further they go from any weight lingering in the sky over the coast. The air is cold but clear; every breath in, it seems to her, brings them closer to spring.
The sun shifts into its downward arc and suddenly she remembers what might await them at the day’s end. You’d be like the rest by the time morning came, he had said in Launceston, and the memory makes her writhe inside. She does not want to number among those women, not then and not now, but here she is, heart-confessed, warming the wagon seat alongside him without a word of marriage having crossed his lips.
The last pathetic image of her aunt rises in her mind. Love initially bound Patience to her husband, and marriage chained her to him when love had gone. Perhaps, then, she should not marry Jem. But Mary respects herself too well to allow self-deception, and she spends the next three miles wondering if to make such a choice is a precaution (she will never be Patience, never, never) or merely false cavalierness in the face of a commitment he has no plans to make.
“What has you bothered?” he says casually, taking the reins away.
It could almost be early Christmas Eve again, with her watching his hands on the traces and him smiling over at her. It should be happier than Christmas Eve, she keeps thinking: the darkness of Jamaica Inn eradicated forever, the man she loves beside her; but that day had not held a single expectation, whereas now—
“Why weren’t you going to say goodbye?” She’d have never seen him again, had she not been out walking.
“I didn't have to, did I?” he retorts. “Are you going to start grumbling over that? Would you have said goodbye to me before scurrying off to Helford?”
“You know I would.”
“Just be sure to say it before you do go. I won’t appreciate a letter like that one you’ve got for the Squire.”
She does not follow his meaning, and says so.
“I'll lose you to the south eventually,” he yawns. “Sooner than later, more likely.”
“So enjoy me while you can?” she snaps.
“Yes,” he replies, surprised.
“Stupid man,” is all she says, unable to speak further for the shock of pain to her heart—the unsought confirmation that he does not love her as she does him—the knowledge she has braced herself to avoid possessing. He does not share her feelings: otherwise he would know there is no possibility of her leaving him. Not only that—does he think so little of her loyalty already? Did her efforts to save Patience show him nothing of her character? If anything, she will be the one to lose him, Jem Merlyn of the light fingers and fickle heart, vanishing whither he may without a word to someone who might care to know of his whereabouts, or safety, or miss his company.
Blind to the vista surrounding her, she stokes her anger to an irrational extreme, because the only other option is to burst into tears and she refuses to do that in front of the man who sits beside her. He whistles under his breath, a careless festival tune, the only sign he is aware of her anger the way he now keeps his hands off her.
The spectre of Patience follows her down the road, through each valley, over each rocky ridge. Her broken aunt dogs her progress, weaving through the patches of fog, a pathetic foreshadowing. Fool, fool, fool! What has she done? It is not too late. She almost stops the wagon and disembarks right there, hang the cold and distance, she’ll walk right back to the Squire’s house, she’ll walk all the way to Helford—
But oh, she loves him, even to the short hairs at the nape of his neck, and there is a hollowness that would enter her life with his absence that is darker than the grief she feels at receiving less than she gives.
Is he so ready to lose her, that he will do nothing to keep her close? How badly does he want her to stay? He is incapable of showing love, incapable of receiving it. What can she expect, she thinks furiously, from a man who lies for his living, who uses words as traps?
She mentally stops, thinks it again slowly. What can she expect, from a man who knows nothing of love but inconstancy, of negotiation? The brief glimpse he gave her of his childhood, coupled with her experience with his brother, paints a picture of oscillating moods and ready fists, wherein love was used as a trick for one’s own gain. What would she have thought of love, were she raised among people colder than the rocks that nursed them? She does not trust him either, if it comes to that; she expects him to give what he has been given, and he must know it. Of course he expects her to grow weary of his life and return to the place she aches for. Stupid of her, to think he would know how to do anything but push people away before they can disappoint him. Go on, then; turn your back on me and start walking now.
She recalls the look in his eyes when he broke into her bedroom upon seeing the bruises on her face; she remembers his oaths not to involve himself in Joss’s affairs; she remembers standing face to face with death on the tor, and the deterring crack of a gunshot through the fog. He is not his brother; and if he is not his brother, she needn't be her aunt.
The wind has rearranged his hair and she reaches over to push it out of his eyes. He straightens so that he is looking down at her, and she smiles up at him. She puts her hands up to his face and kisses him as he has often kissed her, with greed and affection and exasperation, and he returns it measure for measure.
“The sun’s risen again,” he remarks, when she leans back.
She tells him, “I do love you, and I've no plans to stop. I might have gone home to Helford, I might have chosen neighbors and respectability, but I've chosen you, you. And I am aware that you are as much a man as I am a woman, and that you do not need to hear such words, much less to express them, as I do—but I need you to hear them. Forgive me if you ever doubt me, and never doubt me."
His eyes are fixed on her as though watching for something. He says nothing in response; indeed, she hardly expects him to. They go on in silence, a comfortable return to the earlier mood of the day.
Mary turns her attention to the landscape, and sees that the cart path has shifted to follow the ridge of a hill. Below them the scattered roofs of a town sit nestled within the curve of a wide valley.
She is confused. “Are we stopping already?” The sun is in its descent, but the sky is hardly darkening.
“Not quite. But what’s a detour when we have no set destination? That reminds me.”
He clucks at the horse and draws the cart to a halt. Jumping out, he goes to the back to rummage through a chest of luggage. She crosses her arms and stares down at the town, and by the time she climbs down to see just what he is up to, he has shut the chest and is striding over to her with his hand closed around something too small to be seen.
Whatever she might have guessed he holds, she would be wrong. He opens his fist to reveal a woman’s gold ring—no slim band but a heavy, engraved thing set with small stones that shine.
“Where did you get that?” The answer comes to her even as she asks. Mrs. Bassat had complained about the disappearance of a ring of matching description just a week previously, concluding with annoyance that it must have been lost while riding.
“The Squire offered a reward for whoever caught the murderer—his murderer, he called it, the ass—but I didn’t want another of his horses, so I found something of equal value.”
She waits in patient silence for him to come to the point.
“Where there’s a town there’s a church. Where there’s a church there is a vicar, and where there is a vicar we may be married.”
“Married,” she repeats.
“If you like.” He watches her, seeing through her as he always has done, never one for façades himself. “Mary, you little fool,” he says. “Why else do you think I would take on the bother of traveling with a woman?”
She can think of plenty of reasons, but she has learned him a little after all, she realizes: she hears the words in the tightness of his grip on her hands. I want you here, I want you with me, I want you.
He hands her up into the wagon and jumps up behind her. He deftly plucks the reins from her hands and they both squint into the sun sinking toward the horizon before them. The wagon resumes its bumpy passage. They will make camp when the light is gone, beside the road in the tent he promised, and with his ring on her finger they will finish what was started Christmas Eve. She slides an arm around his back and leans her head against the back of his shoulder so that she can see the road, and it hampers his driving to have her there, she can see how it does, but he makes no complaint.