Read A Bouquet of Thorns Online

Authors: Tania Crosse

Tags: #Romance

A Bouquet of Thorns (23 page)

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How would he drag himself through another day, another week, another year? Ten years. All he had to look forward to was the highlight of the day, a pint of cocoa and another chunk of dry bread for supper. Good God. He really might as well be dead.

‘You, there! Your real name Collingwood?'

Seth blinked his eyes. Collingwood. He almost laughed with derision. No, his real name wasn't Collingwood at all! Perhaps he should have kept to Warrington. You had a number in the prison, not a name, so to hear it was startling. Unnerving.

He glanced distrustfully at the warder who had just been joined by another evidently bearing a message. He nodded slowly, not wanting to open his mouth and be punished for talking. Christ, he'd had enough of being punished. What the hell did they want with him now?

‘Come wi' me. Governor wants to see you.'

Oh, no. For a moment, his head swam with fear and he nearly lost his balance. It was only the felon he was working with grasping his arm that stopped him. A tide of sweat flushed through his body, and he jabbed his head in thanks. Although thanks for preventing him from falling off the scaffold was hardly deep.

His head cleared as he followed the messenger down the series of ladders to the ground, his heart crashing against his ribs. Whatever it was, he simply couldn't face it. Perhaps, after all, they had decided to send him to the Assizes to be tried for his escape and have another five years added to his sentence. If that was the case, there would be no question in his mind. Razor blades were counted in and out, but one quick, deep slash on the wrist, lengthways to open the artery, and Dr Power's skills would be hard put to save him.

The governor's office. He was almost on his knees from terror. The governor, another ex-army captain, new the previous year and not known for his compassion. Same rank as himself. God, if only they'd known. Two other strangers, one tall, broad-shouldered, distinguished. About forty. Steady, level eyes. The other small, wizened. Hooked nose in an acerbic, beady-eyed face. Seth gulped hard. This was it.

‘Collingwood, this is Captain Bradley and this is Barrister-at-law Salford. They want to re-examine your case, although heaven only knows why.'

Adam Bradley sprang forward as the convict dissolved on the floor in a dead faint.

Rose and Charles returned from London, the atmosphere between them in the private compartment so tense it could have been cut with a knife. The bruise on Rose's cheek was coming out, and she knew Florrie would question her about it. She had tripped over and knocked her face on the table, was what she would say. After all, precisely that had happened once before. Charles had raised his hand and she had slipped as she ducked away to avoid it. But this time he really had hit her, and in private, she would tell Florrie the truth.

As Rose resumed her campaign, it became easier to deceive Charles, the remorse she had felt at first fading to nothing. She did her duty as a wife, bearing it with acid resentment, and pleased each time she discovered she wasn't pregnant. She didn't want to replace Alice. Not yet, at least. And not ever really with Charles.

In the meantime, she complied sweetly with all his requests while her contempt fermented deep inside. At his request, she held a dinner party at Fencott Place for Mr and Mrs Frean and the Duchy's agent from Prince Hall. It was an opportunity to enquire about any sightings of Gospel. She spun the same story as before in case Charles overheard, but no one had seen the black beast that was part of her soul.

She accompanied Charles in the new Brougham when he checked on the powder mills, taking the opportunity to fit in an extra visit to Molly, who was growing larger and larger with her pregnancy. Rose also went with Charles when he decided to pay a visit to Foggintor and the other quarries on Walkhampton Common to satisfy himself they were not about to change over to the use of dynamite. Overall, Charles felt pleased that Rose was at last settling down to being a proper wife, and in return, he tolerated her lone rides across the moor. She always returned on time, and made no objection if he decided to accompany her.

But it was all a ruse so that she could spend time in the healing ambience at Rosebank Hall. Elizabeth always welcomed her with open arms, and Chantal – and even baby Hannah – came to look upon her as a beloved aunt. She observed with growing interest as Elizabeth taught Chantal the art of healing with herbs, and chatted with Dr William Greenwood, who was also the mine surgeon for Wheal Friendship, and was a good friend and frequent visitor to the Pencarrows.

‘Oh, look who's here!' Elizabeth greeted her one cold and frosty early-November day. ‘I'm so glad you've come!'

‘And it'll save me writing you a long letter!' Adam Bradley said with his usual strong, dependable smile.

‘How good to see you!' Rebecca chimed in, looking as radiant as ever.

‘And you, too!' Rose returned her broad smile. ‘I didn't realize you were here.'

‘Well,' Adam explained, ‘the criminal barrister I've engaged unexpectedly had a few days free and he wanted to come down and interview his client in person.'

‘Oh.' Rose could feel the blood suddenly circling nervously about her heart. ‘How . . . how was he?'

‘Not too bad, considering. Perhaps you'd better sit down.' He waited while she did so and Elizabeth poured her a cup of cocoa from the pot on the table. Adam considered for a second or two, deciding it was best not to tell her that, not being in the rudest of health, Collingwood had passed out from sheer shock, and that he was developing a worrying cough again. ‘We went over every detail of the case with him,' he went on instead, ‘and he stuck to exactly the same story. The governor was present, though, so we didn't mention anything about the army or his real name. Best not bring that in unless we have to.' He saw Rose glance anxiously across at Elizabeth and nodded his head. ‘I'm afraid I felt I must be totally honest with Mr Salford, and also with Richard and Beth.'

‘Don't worry. The secret's safe with us,' Elizabeth assured her.

‘I have, though – and with not a little persuasion and without revealing the reason why – managed to verify the army record of Captain Seth Warrington, and all is exactly as he said, which has confirmed my belief in his claims of innocence.'

‘There, I knew it! I knew he was telling the truth!'

‘Well, we've also made some progress on the main front. I managed to find the witness who had seen Seth with the victim and assumed he was robbing him. He's agreed to repeat what he said before, that he didn't witness the actual attack, and that he may have jumped to the wrong conclusion. Tracking down the elderly couple who
did
see the real assailant commit the crime and then make his escape, now that's taken a great deal longer. You can imagine why they didn't want to be involved in the first place. They were alone in the street and frightened for their own safety. But they were appalled when they learnt what had happened and are willing to testify in court.'

‘Oh, that's tremendous news, isn't it?' Rose cried.

‘Well, it is, but unfortunately Mr Salford isn't entirely convinced it's sufficient, but it's a good start. But we're not giving up yet, I assure you. Now, are you able to stay a little while and have some lunch with us?'

‘If 'tis all right with Beth, I'd love to. But I'm afraid I must leave shortly afterwards. It gets dark so early and 'tis a fair way to go. And, well, I think this had better be the last time I come, with the days getting so short.'

‘Oh, what a pity!' Elizabeth said glumly. ‘I'll really miss your visits.'

‘Not as much as I will.'

Rose sighed deeply. The farm really had acted as a salve for her bleeding heart, and she always basked in the glow of its peace and serenity. Not that it had always been so. She had learnt once before of the appalling situation Richard and Elizabeth had once faced, though she instinctively felt there existed some secret that neither of them would reveal. But she considered them her close friends and they had always shown her such kindness. Elizabeth had also revealed to her Adam and Rebecca's own tragic tale and of how Adam had lost his hand. Perhaps it was why these good people understood Rose's own anguish now and were doing their utmost to help.

It was as if her visits to Rosebank Hall had maintained her sanity, and she didn't know how she was going to survive without them. She wept openly as she allowed Honey to trot home at a leisurely pace. By the time they reached the prison, her tears had dried. The light was going from the sky and the convicts had already finished their labours for the day. Rose willed the encouraging information Adam had given her through the walls to wherever Seth was sitting in his solitary cell. But her own heart was dragging. She was dreading the long, dark winter, incarcerated with Charles at Fencott Place. She would suffocate, imagining her resentment growing to breaking point. How on earth would she survive through to the spring?

But when she thought of Seth and how he must be suffering, she felt shot through with guilt.

Seventeen

‘H
appy Christmas, Molly!'

Molly looked up and a surprised grin spread across her face as Rose's head appeared around the door to the little cottage.

‘You, too, Rose! 'Tis good to see you!'

‘No, don't get up!' Rose cried as her friend went to heave herself from the sagging armchair. ‘You stay there with your feet up. Not long to go now, eh?'

‘A week or so I reckons.' Molly shifted awkwardly. ‘I'll be that glad. I feels like a mountain, and my back aches that much! Oh, Rose, you'm soaking wet. You shouldn't have come in this.'

‘Well, I had to come and wish you a Happy Christmas. And I've got some things for the baby that Florrie knitted, and a matinee jacket that I embroidered for you. At least that were something Charles approved of my doing.' She paused, pulling a long face. ‘I know 'tis pouring, but I had to get out of the house and away from him for a while. But I mustn't stay too long. I can't leave Honey standing out in the rain.'

‘Oh, Rose, she
is
a horse!' Molly laughed aloud. ‘They'm supposed to live outside, aren't they?'

‘Maybe, but she's been bred for her colour and that could make her delicate, and she hasn't got a blanket on, of course. I couldn't bear it if she got ill. 'Twas the same . . .' She faltered for a fleeting moment and her voice cracked. ‘'Twas the same with Gospel. Oh, Molly, I wonder if I'll ever see him again.'

‘Nobody's passed on any news about him to me, I's afeared,' Molly answered quietly. ‘But a letter came for you this morning. 'Tis from Captain Bradley. I recognizes the writing. Joe were going to bring it over to you on Christmas Day as he won't get the chance afore. 'Tis over there on the table.'

Rose picked up the envelope with trembling fingers. ‘Oh, God,' she mumbled under her breath as her heart began to race. Her hand went over her mouth and her vision blurred so that Adam's neat handwriting suddenly seemed more like the ghostly efforts of someone trying to knit with fog. There had been no word from him since they had met at Rosebank Hall six weeks earlier, and a deep depression had wrapped her in its strangling fold so that she was convinced the letter must contain bad news.

‘Go on, then, read it,' Molly encouraged her gently.

Rose hesitantly opened the envelope and extracted the sheet of paper. For a few moments, the fear of what it might contain made the letters dance on the page, but slowly its meaning took root in her brain.

‘Oh, Molly,' she managed to force from her tight throat. ‘'Tis Jonas Chant.'

‘Who?' Molly's freckled brow frowned.

‘Jonas Chant. The man Seth is supposed to have robbed. Who swore 'twas Seth who attacked him.' Her voice was low and expressionless, numb with shock, and Molly put out a hand. Rose felt its pressure, and looked up to meet her friend's enquiring gaze. ‘Adam's been searching all over for him, and now suddenly he's turned up in the workhouse. 'Twas William Greenwood as found him, Richard and Beth's doctor friend. They've no medical officer at present, so William was standing in and he had to examine this new inmate. He recognized the name at once. And . . . Oh, Molly, he's dying. His liver. Drunk himself to death, William says. Won't last longer than a week, two at most. And would you believe, he's a Catholic and he's asked for the priest? And William's spoken to the priest, and he's agreed that if Chant confesses to lying about Seth, he'll try to persuade him to sign a written confession for the constable.'

She was staring at Molly, her eyes huge and blank in her white face, the pupils so wide, the blue rim of the irises had almost disappeared.

‘So . . . it could be what you've been waiting for?' Molly almost whispered.

‘Well, yes.' Rose's bloodless lips quivered. ‘But what if . . . what if he won't confess? What if he dies, and it all goes wrong? Oh, Molly, I couldn't bear it!'

‘But this doctor,' Molly quickly put in, ‘you've met him, and you trust him to do what Captain Bradley says in the letter?'

‘Oh, yes. And he's been Beth's friend since she was a child.'

‘There you are, then. Take some encouragement. I'm sure 'twill be all right. So what else does the letter say?'

Rose took a deep breath as she turned her attention back to the paper in her hand. She scanned the lines of writing quickly, turning over to read the back of the page. ‘Adam says,' she told Molly, ‘that they've had another stroke of luck. A man who was drinking at the inn that night and remembers the way Chant was behaving, and the scene he caused with Seth. And he also remembers someone else who appeared to follow Chant out into the street. Someone he actually
knows
and can identify. And this chap always wore the same clothes and never had much money, but after that evening, he was never seen in those clothes again and was never short of cash—'

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