By 1865 the Great Western Railway had spread across Cornwall changing the face of the countryside with earthworks and viaducts. Now a new line is under construction bringing with it an army of navvies who are feared by the locals, ill-used by the railway company, and a source of amusement for bored aristocratic ladies. Two men and two women of vastly differing backgrounds are drawn together by corruption, intrigue and tragedy. In the wake of disaster each must make choices and the stakes are high.
Jane Jackson is an award-winning historical author who writes historical romances set in Cornwall during the period between the Napoleonic Wars and the Edwardian era. Containing elements of adventure and intrigue, they explore Cornish life at every level of society and are emotionally-gripping stories of courage, ambition, tragedy, and the redeeming power of love.
Local dignitaries were unanimous. The facts were plain. Navvies and decent society didn’t mix. They might be necessary to build the line, but no one – certainly not fathers, husbands, or brothers – wanted them living too close. They were like a marauding army with their drinking and brawling. They caused trouble wherever they went. And no woman was safe from their lascivious attentions.
But they had to live somewhere while they were building the new Helston to Penryn line. After intense discussions, agreement was reached. The best place for the shanty village would be out near Trewan. After all, it was reasoned, Sir Gerald Radclyff must have made a packet out of selling land to the Railway Company. It wasn’t as if the shacks and huts would be visible from his house or the surrounding park. Yes, unfortunately, this site was five miles from the railhead and supply depot, but as the line progressed, moving closer to their encampment, the navvies wouldn’t have to travel quite so far to begin the day’s work.
So the squalid shacks huddled in a fold between two hills out of sight of all except the navvies who lived in them, and their women. The aldermen and councillors congratulated themselves. All things considered, the chosen location, a few hundred yards from the route the line would take, was ideal. The river at the bottom of the valley offered an abundant supply of fresh water. True, the paths down to it were steep and lined with gorse and brambles, but in autumn blackberries were free for the picking and would surely make a welcome addition to whatever it was such people usually ate.
Of course, one couldn’t stop them coming into town. On pay-days when they had money they spent freely, mostly on beer. However, if local innkeepers were prepared to accept the risks in return for the extra cash who could blame them? Business was business.
None of them knew or cared what went on in the shanty village, or what life might be like for an eighteen-year-old girl alone in the world.
Veryan Polmear lifted the wet cloth and looked at the bloody welts on the back of the eight-year-old boy lying face down on her narrow bed. Swallowing a rage that threatened to choke her, she blinked hard. She had no right to weep. He hadn’t made a sound. He had huddled in the shadowed doorway of her hut, waiting for her to come. When at last she’d arrived, bone-weary from the day’s work and desperate for sleep, he had struggled painfully to his feet. Just for an instant she’d been tempted to send him away. Where to? No one else would take him in. She certainly couldn’t send him home. William Thomas might by now have sunk into his nightly drunken stupor, but if he hadn’t, Davy would get another beating.
So, she had held out her hand to him. Sliding his grubby little paw into it, he had turned his head away, not wanting her to see his tears as his shoulders heaved soundlessly. Now he lay on her rough grey blankets, trembling with delayed shock.
She lifted a plate from off the top of a basin by her feet. Taking a large piece of flannel from a jug of steaming water she wrung it out, opened it on her lap, scooped handfuls of soaked bread from the basin and spread it evenly over the centre of the cloth. Then, folding the edges over, she laid it gently on the broken skin, biting her lip as he flinched.
‘It’ll feel better very soon, Davy. A bread poultice is magic. It sucks out all the pain.’
He lay there, pale and unmoving. She stroked the skinny bare calf that poked out from his ragged trousers. They were far too big: hand-me-downs hacked off at the knee and left to fray by a mother too often drunk to finish any job properly. Veryan wanted to hate Bessie Thomas for her cowardice in allowing this treatment of her son. But it was difficult to hate a woman whose own bruises barely had time to fade before fresh ones replaced them.
‘Can you feel it working?’
He shifted carefully, and glanced sideways at her. ‘Did your pa ever beat you?’
She shook her head. ‘No. I was lucky. My father was a kind man.’ She remembered his laughing eyes; his rust-coloured hair several shades lighter than her own thick curls. He had swung her high in the air and called her his treasure, and she had felt warm and loved and safe.
‘Why did you run away then?’
‘What makes you think I ran away, Davy?’ He started to shrug, and his small young-old face screwed up in pain. He sniffed. ‘Dunno. I heard it somewhere. They said you must’ve run away, else what was someone like you doing on the works?’
‘My father was a soldier. He went away to fight in a place called the Crimea.’ She had missed him and longed impatiently for his return. To recall the sound of his voice and bring him closer she had read for herself the books he used to read to her: The Count of Monte Cristo, The Last of the Mohicans, Rob Roy: exciting stories, full of adventure, that he had brought to vivid life in her mind. Reading had been her only escape from her mother’s strange moods. Now books were her only friends, apart from young Davy.
Yet it hadn’t always been like this. She could remember a different life. Not clearly, for she had been very young, Davey’s age. But she could still recall a large house, with gleaming furniture and pictures and ornaments, and a garden with towering trees, drifts of fragrant flowers, and grass like bright green velvet. There had been servants too, a cook and maids, and a gardener and groom.
‘Did he kill lots of people?’
‘I don’t know, Davy. He didn’t come back. A lot of the soldiers became very ill and died before they could fight anyone.’ Her mother’s grief and rage had frightened her. Then they had left the house. So many moves. Each place poorer and dirtier than the last. So much she was unable – could not bear -to remember.
He searched her face, his eyes large and full of fear. ‘You won’t die, will you?’ he whispered.
Aching for all the hurt he’d already endured in his short life, she widened her mouth in a reassuring smile and smoothed the tangled hair back from his dirty face. ‘No, Davy. I won’t die, I promise. Now, is the magic working? Does your back feel a little bit better?’
He thought for a moment then nodded. As she continued to smooth his forehead his eyelids flickered and closed. Gazing at the small boy, she felt as if she was being torn in half. She was desperate to leave the works. But if she went, what would happen to Davy? She couldn’t take him with her, nor could she abandon him to his father’s brutality. He wasn’t her responsibility. So how was she to cut him out of her heart?