Elys’s face changed from a shy girl’s pink-cheeked expression to a radiant smile. Her voice was cautious but warm. “Tis not an argument I have but a wish that you care for me and my kin as you do your aunt. In that you would make me happy and I would rejoice in keeping your heart within mine as your wife.”
These words would forever be remembered. I had struggled with my proposal for I did not wish to walk with Elys for any period of time but marry her as soon as possible. We had been living in Condurrow House as master and housekeeper for five years and knew each other well enough. But as she spoke I knew she loved me with true intent, and I must admit feeling the emotion of the moment. Despite the problems of the mine, I was determined to announce my intentions to marry and celebrate with the village.
From that moment on I saw and appreciated Elys in a more appreciative way. Her being much younger than myself, I admit to taking on a more protective role in our relationship rather than that of a hopeful suitor, regardless of the mature way she had nursed my aunt and turned the house into a bright and loving home.
For me, her decision to accept my hand in marriage was more important than the mine or the coaling quay or indeed anything else that filled my life at the moment. Captain Pumblewood had the flooding at the bottom of the new development under control, and a new tunnel was underway. Despite the cost of this and loss of production, I was confident my investors would rally round, and the new quay construction would get under way once I had taken on more labour.
I decided that once we were married, I would take Elys to London and buy her a wardrobe of clothes fit for a lady of the upper county circles. In the meantime, I left my aunt in the hands of Jessie, a trusted friend of Elys and of older age who had agreed to take over Ely's position as housekeeper. Elys and I, lost in love’s embrace, walked slowly, hand in hand back to the village and her parent's cottage.
It was several days later after my engagement and the celebrations had taken place, that a second near-fatal accident happened. The pump that drew water from the mine had been working non-stop while the affected development was being back-filled to plug the water seepage. Generally, the pump would be rested overnight and fired an hour before the morning shift to drain excess water before the miners arrived.
As the boilerman started the pump after the furnace had heated water in the condenser to produce steam pressure, there was a loud bang and one end of one of the reciprocating arms that turned the large pump wheel, came away from its bearings and crashed to the ground. With great fortune, neither the boilerman or the stoker were near the arm. As it had been one of the replacements I had included in the repairs to the mine when I took over, it remained unbroken and needed all the men to raise it back into position in order to be attached back into place. It was another two hours of lost production and Pumblewood had a word of caution for me.
“I be thinking, sir, that maybe we should have a watchman of a night for I fear there are foul tricks afoot.”
His eyes looked into mine, and I knew we were of the same opinion. It had been a little over a week since Tomas Treleaven and his dandy nephew had arrived to make an offer for the mine. With knowledge of his scandalous business practices, it was easy to think he might be involved in sabotaging the mine in order to buy me out and acquire the contract to build the coal quay.
“Get a trusted man,” I said, away from the men. “Perhaps someone who has run foul of Treleaven and cannot be bribed to be asleep if others come calling in the night.”
“Aye, leave it to me, sir,” replied Pumblewood. “I know such a man and he’ll be in our pay tonight.”
I left Pumblewood, and as though fate were agreeing with me, a carriage carrying Treleaven drove into the yard. Maybe it might have been my imagination, but I am sure I saw a moment of surprise on his face as he stepped down to greet me. No sooner had we shook hands before he came quickly and with much relish to the reason for his visit.
“Arthur, I see you are not pumping well today.” He pulled a pocket watch from his waistcoat pocket and flicked the dial cover open. “Over two hours since shift started. Tell me, has there been an accident? Do you require assistance?”
We both turned to look at a group of men leaving the pumphouse. A cloud of steam rose from the stack and with a loud groan, the large wheel between the reciprocating wooden beams began to move slowly. A cheer went up from the men as they gathered their tools and made for the mine.
“No,” I replied. “We are back to work, and the men will toil extra tonight to make up the time.”
Treleaven pulled gently at my sleeve, and we faced each other. “Arthur, did you think on my offer of three thousand guineas – a very generous offer if I may say, considering your position which I must and do say, seems to be getting worse. It would be no disgrace for you to sell and retire from the business. Indeed, since taking on this inheritance and considering your lack of engineering skills, you have achieved nothing far short of a miracle.” His face contorted into a sly grin that showed his true character and intent.
“Marrying one so young as Elys, you would do well to keep her close. After all, there’s none so vulnerable as a pretty young wife left to her own devises while a hard working husband spends too many hours away from their bed. I’m sure your time would be better spent producing a family rather than a bucket of ore.”
He winked suggestively, and as he did so, I noticed a large protruding wart growing on his eyelid. In all, he was to my thinking, a man devoid of good features and of salacious mind. He was, indeed, a man not to be trusted. I put to mind his unseemly comments about my Elys and ignored his line of conversation.
“I thought I had made my position fairly clear, sir, but since you have come calling on me, I can tell you with certainty that your offer is not one I wish to consider.” I waved a hand in the direction of the boilerhouse. “As you can see, we are working again, and although the fact is that my labour is stretched, I still have faith that production will meet the goals I have set.”
Treleaven pursed his thin lips and looked to the ground with a slight shake of the head. “And what of the new quay? Will you be able to meet the deadline set for its completion? I wonder, Arthur, if these unfortunate accidents are a result of your enthusiasm creating a devil-may-care attitude as you rush to please the Association. One can understand your excitement but a more experienced businessman, knowledgeable in the mining industry and with a steady hand, would be better suited to the task.” He paused and placed a hand on my arm. “I make no suggestion you are not capable but would warn you that too much haste can be the cause of accidents, particularly where the inexperienced are concerned. Perhaps you should think on that.”
For a moment I was tempted to reply angrily at his insults but knew I would be reacting in a way that he expected. It was also clear that a veiled warning was hidden in his rhetoric. Pumblewood was right. The man was dangerous. As he mounted his carriage, he bade me farewell.
“I know you to be a sensible man, Arthur. When you have had time to think on my offer I will be happy to talk again. Take care to curb that enthusiasm, sir. I would hate to hear that you were injured in any way. Mining is a dangerous business.”
As Treleaven’s carriage left, Pumblewood drove past him in our two-horse general goods cart we used for supplies and pulled up beside me. Next to him sat an old man I can only describe as disheveled and in poor health. Without a cap, his grey knotted hair hung loose about the shoulders of a worn jacket, ripped about the bottom hem and holed in several places. His dark blue trousers were, I could see, a size too big and were tied about the waist with a length of twine. As they climbed from the wagon, I was surprised to see he only had one leg. A rough wooden stump protruded from a shortened trouser leg.
“This be Wells Penbirthy and a trusted man you will find him.” Pumblewood rested a hand on the man’s shoulder. “If you could manage one penny a night, sir, no better man have you for the job.”
“If he’s as good as you say, Pumblewood, I’ll pay him one and one half pennies a night.”
I offered my hand to Penbirthy and looked into the man’s eyes and saw the haunting look of a lost soul. Sad hazel eyes sunken into a gaunt and shallow sickly face told a story of some inner torment that had troubled him for some time. His calloused hand and long fingers that were thin to the bone gripped mine vice-like as we shook. Not knowing his story, I felt an urge to pity him and gave him a warm smile.
“Thank you, sir,” he lisped. “I needs the work as you might see but don’t judge me by the cloth on me back. I have been a good worker and honest too. I am like this from me accident some years ago.”
Elys had made a meal of hot soup and bannocks and wrapped a thick blanket around the pot. There was also an old jacket and trousers with braces. I had related my meeting and impressions of Penbirthy to her over dinner and told her I would visit him that night to hear his story for I would not rest until my mind was at ease. Her family in mining, she knew the man’s hardships and would not let me leave until I carried our gifts for his comfort. Her simple act of kindness showed not only her love for me but for those less fortunate than herself. I truly loved her.
I reached the mine a little after eight o’clock. The glow from a small brazier fire by the side of Pumblewood’s hut office flickered in the occasional breeze and sparks from burning wood flew into the air as the fire crackled loudly. There was only one drive down into the yard where visitors could come or a steep face of scrub and rocks that were dangerous to climb down in the dark of night. It was easy to keep an eye on the drive and scrub from the one position but Pumblewood had insisted that the watchman should be outside the hut for fear of not seeing clear through the windows or falling asleep. A chair had been put outside and a make-shift canopy of canvas sail stretched and hung to one side of the hut. In bad weather, it would provide shelter enough and a windbreak.
“Good evening, Wells,” I greeted. “My betrothed has made a supper for you and sent some clothes and a warm blanket. I trust you will find all to your liking.”
Wells held the rolled blanket for a moment, and as he raised his head to speak, I saw a tear forming in one eye.
“This be the kindest act in such a while,” he said. “Please, sir, and be sure to tell your betrothed I am beholdin to her. God bless her, sir – God bless her.”
I sat for a while, watching Wells sip the soup until he had done before asking him to relate his situation. After pulling the blanket about his shoulders, we both warmed by the brazier while he told me his story.
“Born of good blood, I was, sir, and proud of it. Me father worked the Pendarvin Mine up on the north coast and managed it well. Mother was a good woman – died of consumption when I was two years into work at ten years old. Was a hard time for us, what with grievin and looking to ourselves for food and house. Then good fortune came to us. The owner’s wife came a-callin one day after her dear husband, our owner, had passed with a failin heart. She knew me father and her dearest were close men for many a year and offered the works to my father as long as she received a pension for the rest of her life.” Wells produced a clay from his pocket and a pinch of tobacco from a small snuff box. Lighting the pipe, he continued as he smoked.
“It were just two years on when father died from the soot desiese, and so I ran the mine mysel. That’s when Treleaven started buyin up the property hereabouts. He made an offer to me, but I was not for sellin. In the memory of me father and mother and because of promise to pension Mrs. Duggen, the old owner’s wife, I refused. Treleaven had me banker call in a loan and then sent in his men to the mine. They uncoupled an ore skip and sent it down the main working, knowing I was fixing the rail line. The skip ran into me, and that’s how I did this.” He tapped the wooden leg.
“When I was pulled to the surface, Treleaven was standin at entrance, makin a speech on mine safety to those who wanted to hear him. Was the moment I learned of the man’s treachery. He was and is the Devil himsel, sir – the Devil himsel. He took the mine and paid me a pittance and when I entreated him on behalf of Mrs. Duggen he had me horsewhipped out of his yard. Poor Mrs. Duggen died soon after without home or chattels to her name.”
I watched Well’s hands clench tightly and knew the man had more than a score to settle and indeed was the right man for the job. I also felt deeply for him. As a man once settled with money and property, the blow to his pride and self-respect must have been hard to bear. Treleaven did indeed have a lot to answer for and it determined me that come what may I would never accept any offer for a mine I had worked my heart and soul for.
“I have to tell you, sir,” added Wells, “Treleaven was a regular visitor to your mine and a great friend of your Uncle Silas.” He paused and blew a stream of smoke up into the air. “Aye, sir, those were two bastards together if ever there were.”