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Authors: Winston Graham

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BOOK: Demelza
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A Novel of Cornwall

by Winston Graham





THERE COULD HAVE been prophecy in the storm that blew up at the time of Julia's birth.

May month was not a time for heavy gales, but the climate of Cornwall is capricious as any child ever born. It had been a kindly enough spring, as kindly as the summer and winter that had gone before it; mild, soft, comfortable weather; and the land was already heavy with green things. Then May broke rainy and gusty, and the blossom suffered here and there and the hay leaned about looking for support.

On the night of the fifteenth Demelza felt her first pains. Even then for a while she gripped the bedpost and thought the matter all round before she said anything. All along she had viewed the coming ordeal with a calm and philosophical mind and had never troubled Ross with false alarms. She did not want to begin so late. Last evening she had been out in her beloved garden, digging round the young plants; then as it was going dark she had found a disgruntled hedgehog and had played with him, trying to persuade him to take some bread and milk, and had only come in reluctantly as the sky clouded and it went cold.

This now - this thing in the middle of the night - might yet be only the result of getting overtired.

But when it began to feel as if someone was kneeling on her backbone and trying to break it, she knew it was not. She touched Ross's arm and he woke instantly.


'I think,' she said, 'I think you will have to fetch Prudie.'

He sat up. 'Why? What is it?'

'I have a pain.'

'Where? Do you mean…'

'I have a pain,' she said primly. 'I think twould be as well to fetch Prudie.'

He climbed quickly out of bed, and she listened to the scratch of flint and steel. After a moment the tinder caught and he lit a candle. The room flickered into view: heavy teak beams, the curtain over the door moving gently in the breeze, the low window seat hung with pink grogram, her shoes as she had kicked them off, one wooden sole upmost, Joshua's spyglass, Ross's pipe, Ross's book and a fly crawling.

He looked at her and at once knew the truth. She smiled a pallid apology. He went across to the table by the door and poured her a glass of brandy.

'Drink this. I will send Jud for Dr Choake.' He began to pull on his clothes, anyhow.

'No, no, Ross; do not send yet. It is the middle of the night. He will be asleep.'

Whether Thomas Choake should be called in to her had been a dissension between them for some weeks. Demelza could not forget that twelve months ago she had been a maidservant and that Choake, though only a physician, owned a small estate which, even if it had been bought with his wife's money, put him on a level from which the likes of her would be seen as unimportant chattels. That was until Ross married her. Since then she had grown to her position. She could put on a show of refinement and good manners, and not at all a bad show at that; but a doctor was different. A doctor caught one at a disadvantage. If the pain was bad she would almost certainly swear in the old way she had learned from her father, not a few genteel 'damn mes' and 'by Gods,' as anyone might excuse from a lady in trouble. To have a baby and be forced to act genteel at the same time was more than Demelza could look forward to. Besides, she didn't want a man about. It wasn't decent. Her cousin-in-law Elizabeth, had had him, but Elizabeth was an aristocrat born and bred, they looked at things different. She would far rather have had old Aunt Betsy Triggs from Mellin, who sold pilchards and was a rare strong hand when it came to babies.

But Ross was the more determined and he had had his way. She was not unprepared for his curt, 'Then he shall be woke,' as he left the room.

'Ross!' She called him back. For the moment the pain had gone.

'Yes?' His strong, scarred, introspective face was half lit by the candle. The up growing dark hair was ruffled and hardly showed its hint of copper. His shirt was open at the throat. This man…aristocrat of them all, she thought... this man, so reserved and reserving, with whom she had shared rare intimacy.

'Would you?' she said. 'Before you go.'

He came back to the bed. The emergency had come on him so quickly in sleep that he had had no time yet to feel anything but alarm that her time was here and relief that it might soon be over. As he kissed her he saw the moisture on her face and a worm of fear and compassion moved in him. He took her face in his hands, pushed back the black hair and stared a moment into the dark eyes of his young wife. They were not dancing and mischievous as they so often were, but there was no fear in them.

'I'll be back. In a moment I'll be back.'

She made a gesture of dissent. 'Don't come back, Ross. Go and tell Prudie, that's all. I'd rather - you didn't see me like this.'

'And what of Verity? You specially wanted Verity here.'

'Tell her in the morning. Tisn't fair to bring her out in the night air. Send for her in the morning.'

He kissed her again.

'Tell me that you love me, Ross,' she said.

He looked at her in surprise. 'You know I do!'

'And say you don't love Elizabeth.'

'And I don't love Elizabeth.'

What else was he to say when he did not know the truth himself? He was not a man who spoke his inmost feelings easily, but now he saw himself powerless to help her, and only words of his and not actions would give her aid.

'Nothing else matters but you,' he said. 'Remember that. All my relatives and friends - and Elizabeth, and this house and the mine... I'd throw them in the dust and you know it - and you know it. If you don't know it, then all these months I've failed and no words I can give you now will make it otherwise. I love you, Demelza, and we've had such happiness. And we're going to have it again. Take hold of that, my sweet. Hold it and keep it, for no one else can.'

'I'll hold it, Ross,' she said, content because the words had come.

He kissed her again and turned and lit more candles; took up one and went quickly out of the room, the hot grease running over his hand. The wind had dropped since yesterday; there was only a breeze. He did not know the time, but it felt about two.

He pushed open the door on the other side of the landing and went across to the bedroom where Jud and Prudie slept. The ill-fitting bedroom door opened with a long squeak which merged into Prudie's slow rasping snore. He grunted in disgust, for the hot close sweaty smell offended his nose. The night air might be dangerous, but they could surely open the window during the day and let this stink out.

He went across and parted the curtains and shook Jud by the shoulder.

Jud's two great teeth showed like gravestones. He shook again, violently. Jud's nightcap came off and a spot of the candle grease fell on his bald patch. Jud woke. He began to curse; then he saw who it was and sat up rubbing his head.

'What's amiss?'

'Demelza is ill.' How call her anything but Demelza to a man who had been here when she came as a tattered waif of thirteen? 'I want you to go for Dr Choake at once. And wake Prudie. She will be wanted too.'

'What's amiss with her?'

'Her pains have begun.'

'Oh, that. I thought ee said she were ill.' Jud frowned at the piece of cooling tallow he had found on his head. 'Prudie and me could manage that. Prudie d'know all that sort of panjandle. Tedn a 'and thing to learn. Why, there's always such a dido about en I never can conceit. Tedn mind, but once you've gotten the knack…'

'Get up.'

Jud came out of bed, knowing the tone, and they woke Prudie. Her shiny face peered through its tangle of greasy black hair as she wiped her nose on a corner of her night rail.

'Aw, my dear, I'll see to the mite. Poor maid.' She began to fasten a pair of filthy stays over her shift. 'I d'know how twas with my mother. She telled me how twas when I was on the brew. Shifted I 'ad. Moved I 'ad. Twas a cruel chronic thing, they said. A weak, ailing little mouse, an' nobody believed I'd see the christening pot…'

'Go to her as soon as you can,' Ross said. 'I'll get Darkie from stables. You won't want her saddled.'

'Mebbe I can ride bare-ridged that far,' Jud said grudgingly. 'Though if once you d'make a slip in the dark, like as not you're pitched off on your 'ead, and then snap goes yer neck and where are you?'

Ross ran down the stairs. On his way out he looked in at the new clock they had bought for the parlour. It wanted ten minutes to three. Dawn would not be long. Things were so much worse by candlelight.

In the stable he delayed to saddle Darkie, telling his fumbling fingers that every woman went through this: it became a commonplace of existence, pregnancies following each other like the summer seasons. He would see Jud safely off, if the fool slipped he might be hours. He would have gone himself if he could have trusted the Paynters alone with Demelza.

At the front of the house Jud was fastening his breeches under the lilac tree.

'Don't know as I shall rightly see me way,' he said. 'Dark as a blathering sack, tis. By rights I should 'ave a lantern on a pole. A long pole as I can 'old out…'

'Get up or you'll have the pole across your head.'

Jud mounted. 'What's to say as he won't come?'

'Bring him,' said Ross, and gave Darkie a slap across the haunches.

When Jud turned in at the gates of Fernmore, the house of Thomas Choake, he observed disdainfully that the building was little more than a farmhouse, though they put on airs as if it was Blenheim. He got down and rat-tatted at the door. The house was surrounded by big pine trees, and rooks and jackdaws were already awake, flying round in circles and being noisy. Jud raised his head and sniffed. All yesterday they'd been unsettled at Nampara. At the seventh knock a window screeched above the door, and a nightcap appeared like a cuckoo out of a clock.

'Well, man, well, man! What is it? What's the damnation noise?'

Jud knew by the voice and eyebrows that he had flushed the right bird.

'Cap'n Poldark sent me for to fetch ee,' he said, mumbling. 'Dem - um - Mistress Poldark's took bad and they d'need you.'

'What Mistress Poldark, man? What Mistress Poldark?'

'Mistress Demelza Poldark. Over to Nampara. 'Er that be going to have 'er first.'

'Well, what's wrong? Didn't they say what was to do?'

'Ais. Tes her time.'

'Nonsense, fellow. I saw her last week and I told Captain Poldark that there would be nothing until June. Go tell them I stand by that opinion.'

The window slammed.

Jud Paynter was a man much interested in the malign indifference of man and providence to his own needs, and interested in not much else; but sometimes an accident roused him for other ends. This was one of the accidents. From feeling disgruntled at the simpering softness of Demelza and the misplaced harshness of Ross in turning him out on a bitter May morning without so much as a tot of rum, he came to reflect that Ross was his master and Demelza one of his own kind.

Three minutes later Dr Choake put out his head again. 'What is it, man? You'll have the door down!'

'I was telled to fetch you.'

'You insolent fellow! I'll have you thrashed for this!'

'Where's yer 'orse? I'll 'ave him out while you put yer drawers on.'

The surgeon withdrew. Polly Choake's lisping voice could be heard in the background, and once her fluffy head passed the window. They were in consultation.

Then Choake called down coldly: 'You must wait, fellow. We shall be with you in ten minutes.'

Jud was sufficiently alive to the surgeon's peculiarities to know that by this Choake meant only himself.

Twenty-one minutes later, in icy silence, they set off. The rooks were still flying in circles and cawing, and at Sawle Church there was a great noise. Day was breaking. Streaks of watered green showed in the north-east, and the sky where the sun would rise was a bold pale orange behind the black ribs of the night. A wild sunrise and a strangely quiet one. After the winds of the last days the calm was profound. As they passed Grambler Mine they overtook a party of bal-maidens singing as they walked to work, their shrill fresh voices as sweet and young as the morning. Jud noticed that Will Nanfan's sheep were all gathered together in the most sheltered corner of the field.

Reflection on the quiet ride salved some of Dr Choake's annoyance, for when they reached Nampara he did not complain, but greeted Ross stiffly and lumbered upstairs. There he found that the alarm was not a false one. He sat with Demelza for half an hour telling her to be brave and that there was nothing to be frightened of. Then, because she seemed constrained and was sweating a lot, he suspected a touch of fever and bled her to be on the safe side. This made her feel very ill, a result which pleased him for it proved, he said, that a toxic condition had existed and his treatment had brought on a normal and desirable intermission of the fever. If she took an infusion of bark once an hour it would prevent a renewal. Then he went home to breakfast.

Ross had been swilling himself under the pump trying to wash away the megrims of the night, and when he came through the house and saw a thickset figure riding up the valley he called sharply to Jinny Carter, who came every day to work in the house and had just arrived.

BOOK: Demelza
7.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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