Wheal Prosperity Copper Mine
The granite room shook. Hissing and grinding filled the chamber. The huge machine crouching within it might crush a man into a paste of flesh and a powder of bone if it spun out of control.
Three men stared across the large pump engine at Simon Addison-Shawe, their arms folded across their chests. The men’s eyes were hard, mouths fixed in thin, severe lines.
These buggers probably think they look intimidating, Simon mused. He fought to keep from smiling. Years ago, echoing across dusty grassland, he’d heard the rhythmic pounding of Zulu warriors beating on their shields in preparation for an attack. In a dank Whitechapel alley, he’d faced down a dozen underworld toughs with nothing more than a rusty pipe for defense.
Three copper-mine managers were as threatening to Simon as three old, toothless dogs.
But they were dangerous men. Men who couldn’t be crossed without consequences, not just for himself, but hundreds of others. Being deferential didn’t come naturally to Simon, yet the success of his mission relied on it. He had a role to play. The long game, Marco called it. Almost nothing could be transformed with immediate action. It took days, weeks, sometimes months to get the job done—impatience or unwanted emotion could spell disaster for an operation.
“If you want this job, Sharpe,” one of the managers said, “show us what you can do. This pump engine hasn’t been working right for the past two days. Fix it.”
“Yes, sir,” Simon answered, tugging on his cap. He roughened his accent from its usual genteel tones, just as he’d donned the coarse but clean garments of a working man. Under the judging eyes of this tribunal, he kept his gaze directed toward the floor in a semblance of humility, though the wealth of Simon’s estate in Norfolk could buy and sell the entire village of Trewyn ten times over. The Addison-Shawes didn’t have a title, but their family name and holdings dated back to the time of the Restoration. From the moment of his birth, he’d been instilled with the knowledge that he was a gentleman.
And yet to the three managers of the Wheal Prosperity copper mine, he had to pretend to be Simon Sharpe, itinerant machinist, who could fix a water pump but knew nothing about the etiquette of a Society ball.
He immediately got to work repairing the pump. The bag of tools at his feet was his own, purchased from a dockyard machinist in London. Shiny new tools would only dispel the illusion that Simon was a laboring man. The wrench he grasped now wore a proud patina of use. As he adjusted valves and tightened fittings, he recalled the instruction about water pumps he’d received back in London prior to setting out on this mission. He’d interviewed men and read volumes of books—all to ensure that he could confidently maintain the pumps that kept the Wheal Prosperity mine from flooding. Floods were among the worst dangers a copper mine could face.
Cracks webbed across the engine’s pressure gauges, and rust crusted its bolts. Most of the machinery at the mine needed replacement, not repair.
He and the managers stood inside the wooden engine house near the mine’s shaft. Aside from the chugging of the other machinery, silence hung over the hills outside. It was working hours, which meant that most everyone was currently belowground, clawing copper from the earth. Through the small window in the engine house, Simon spotted outbuildings and chimneys dotting the landscape.
The managers—Gorley, Murton, and Ware—looked on impassively as he worked. It was imperative that Simon did this job correctly. He didn’t need the money, but he needed this job. The workers of Wheal Prosperity had never met him, not a one would recognize him or know his real name, but they needed him to get the job, too.
Several weeks earlier, a typewritten letter had found its way to the Nemesis, Unlimited, headquarters in London.
I have been informed through sundry sources that when proper justice cannot be obtained, your organization can provide it. Should this letter reach you, I urge you to investigate the Wheal Prosperity mine in Cornwall. Horrible abuses occur here, rendering the miners all but slaves. Any attempts by the miners themselves to remedy the situation have been met with the harshest of retribution. I, myself, am powerless, but perhaps Nemesis Unlimited can achieve success where others have failed. The situation here is quite desperate. I hope for all our sakes that this missive reaches you, and that you will heed this plea for help, and soon.
The letter was unsigned. They weren’t uncommon, anonymous letters like this. At least three a month arrived at headquarters. Some were just outraged ramblings about imaginary or minor offenses. But others, like the one about the mine, demanded attention.
Now it was Simon’s task to figure out what, exactly, these alleged abuses were, and, if they indeed existed, how he could stop them. Anger clouded his eyes at the thought that anyone in England, this so-called bastion of civilization and integrity, could exist in a state of near slavery. Yet he knew it happened every day, in nearly every city, town, and village.
Nemesis might not be able to create perfect equality, but its operatives fought damned hard for it.
As Simon worked, he said, “If I may ask, sirs, what happened to the man who had this job before?”
Murton—or was it Gorley? Simon couldn’t tell these mustachioed, self-satisfied men apart—answered caustically, “Never you mind that, Sharpe. All that matters is that we have ourselves a vacancy. So if you want the situation, stop talking and keep working.”
Simon ducked his head deferentially, but he caught the shared wary glances between the managers. Hello, boys. That’ll need some looking into. If they gave him the job.
Half the lights inside the engine house weren’t working, so Simon labored by the illumination coming through the window and open door. A shadow suddenly darkened the section of the pump engine on which he worked, and he glanced up to see who stood in the doorway.
The light behind the figure blocked any physical details, but the voice that came from it was assuredly female.
“How are we to eat our bread,” the woman said, “or make our pies if we haven’t any butter? I ask you, gentlemen”—she almost sneered that last word—“how?”
“What now, Miss Carr?” Gorley asked wearily.
Simon straightened as the woman stormed into the engine house. As she did, he finally caught a decent glimpse of her.
Strictly speaking, Miss Carr wasn’t beautiful. Her face was too angular, with a pointed chin and a thin nose. Her eyebrows were straight and dark. In the indistinct light of the engine house, he couldn’t determine the color of her eyes, but they seemed bright and full of fire, ringed with thick black lashes. A wide mouth offset the sharpness of her features. She’d pinned back her dark hair, but a few stray tendrils drifted across her cheeks.
She wore the sturdy dress and thick apron of a bal-maiden—one of the women who broke up the copper ore into small pieces—an ensemble far from fashionable, but it revealed her to have a slim figure with a narrow waist and gently rounded bosom. There was little that was soft about her appearance. This young woman worked, and worked hard, to earn her living. She even carried a heavy bucking iron—a flat hammer used for smashing ore into a sortable and transportable size. She gripped it tightly, not like a tool but a weapon.
Miss Carr’s shoulders were set straight and her chin tilted upright. Simon had learned, over the course of his thirty-five years, how to read people in an instant. Miss Carr was a woman to be reckoned with. She certainly had more energy and dynamism than any of the machines in the engine house.
Her gaze flicked over to Simon, back to the managers, and then to him again, lingering for the barest moment. Though her expression barely changed, a tiny furrow appeared between her brows, as if trying to puzzle out a mystery.
She cleared her throat.
Simon had honed the ability to make himself invisible—not an easy task for a man over six feet tall and burdened with a face many women had called “pretty as a new-minted coin”—but sometimes it was necessary to become as inconspicuous as possible. Valuable information could be gathered when one appeared to vanish.
He did so now, making himself proverbially disappear, moving around to another side of the engine.
It had the desired effect. Miss Carr turned away from him to face the managers.
“The butter at the company store,” she said, her voice accented with the hard rs and dropped ts of Cornwall. “It’s on the verge of going rancid.”
“But it hasn’t yet spoiled, has it?” Ware asked, condescension seeping from his words.
“In a few days, it won’t be fit to eat by man or beast,” she fired back. “It needs to be replaced. The store needs to stock fresh butter.”
“And as soon as the current supply is bought up by the villagers, it will be,” Gorley answered.
“By which point it will have made everyone sick.”
Gorley continued pedantically, “It’s simply not economical for the company store to replace almost a hundred pounds of butter just on your say-so, Miss Carr.”
Murton sighed. “This matter is closed to discussion. We have important business to deal with here, and you’re taking up our valuable time.” He pulled a brass-cased pocket watch from his waistcoat. “The mine closes for the night in fifteen minutes. Go home early.” He produced an indulgent smile.
“Go on, now.” Ware made a shooing motion with his hands.
Throwing them all a scowl, Miss Carr turned on her heel and stalked from the room. But not before sending Simon one last, speculative glance. His own curiosity stirred. He watched her as, once outside, she threw her bucking iron aside and marched with wide strides away from the mine.
Silence followed her departure.
“Termagant,” Gorley muttered.
“Virago,” added Ware.
“Pain in the arse, more like,” said Murton, and the three managers laughed.
“Begging your pardons, sirs,” Simon interjected as humbly as he could manage. “She’s got some years on her, but a fair hand can make her run smooth.”
“Are you talking about the pump engine or Alyce Carr?” Gorley chuckled at his own wit.
“Alyce Carr, sir?”
“The delightful young woman that just shrieked at us,” Ware said. “Imagine, a damned bal-maiden who thinks she can run a mine better than the professionals.” He shook his head, as though to dislodge the patently impossible idea.
Gorley fixed Simon with a piercing look. “Avoid Alyce, Sharpe. She’ll only lead you into trouble.”
“That’s assuming I get the job, sirs,” Simon noted.
All three of the managers’ brows rose at his quick response. But Simon wouldn’t obtain the position if he pretended to be a dullard. Machinists needed to be clever in order to stay on top of maintaining the equipment, or if there were ever an emergency.
Whatever the mission needed him to be, he’d play the right role. Marco, the wily, government-trained bastard, had the gift of complete transformation. No one could fault Simon for his own disguises. He’d convincingly acted as a stevedore, a wealthy French banker, an East End housebreaker, and half a dozen other personae.
His grades at Harrow had been abysmal—he saw more of the nearby village and the local girls than he did the inside of a classroom. Yet he’d shone when acting in school theatrical productions. Nobody played a better Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Seemed that he was already familiar with the idea of wanting to be someone other than an Addison-Shawe. A skill that served him, and Nemesis, well.
Simon turned the engine over and started it. The pump chugged to life with more strength than it had demonstrated before he’d worked on it. “So, am I in?”
There was a quick, muttered consultation before the managers turned back to him. “You’re in,” Gorley said.
Grinning, Simon stuck out his hand, and it was reluctantly shaken by the three men. “Thank you, sirs.”
“Payment packets are handed out every Friday,” Ware said. “You’re paid in scrip, which you can spend at the company store. It’s got everything you’ll need.”
Including nearly rancid butter. “I’ve got an ill father in Sheffield, and usually send him some of my wages. Can’t do that with scrip.”
“That’s how Wheal Prosperity is run, Sharpe,” Murton answered, not an ounce of sympathy in his voice. “Either take the offer as it stands, or apply for work somewhere else.”
Scratching his head beneath his cap, Simon pretended to debate the idea. If he truly needed a job that paid, he’d have told the managers to take the express train straight up their arses, but it was more important for him to thoroughly fathom the corruption at Wheal Prosperity—and how to end it.
“Hasn’t been a lot of work available lately,” he muttered. “No one’s hiring.” He shrugged. “My sister does piecework in Buxton, and she sends our da money, too. Guess it’s better that I should have food in my belly than for both me and my father to have nothing.” The words tasted sour as he spoke them.
“That’s the spirit, man.” Ware slapped Simon on his shoulder.
He hadn’t been in the managers’ presence above half an hour, but already he fantasized about plowing his fist into each of their faces.
They took a few moments to sign some paperwork, Simon careful to disguise his Harrow-trained penmanship.
Once that was finished, Ware said, “Head dead east from the mine, two miles, and you’ll reach the village. Once you get there, someone will point you toward the single men’s housing. Here.” He fished a small brass coin from his pocket and handed it to Simon. “That’ll pay for your meals for the week, until the next payday.”
Simon studied the coin. It had a triangular piece cut out from the center, and stamped on it were the words “Wheal Prosperity Mining Company, Five Shillings, Payable in Merchandise, Non Transferable.”
“Thank you, sirs.” He nearly gagged on the words. These men didn’t know it, but they’d just opened their doors to the agent of their destruction—offering a job and roof to dynamite.
“Work starts at seven in the morning,” Murton said. “Every minute you’re late, you’re docked, so best to be on time.”
“Yes, sirs.” He grabbed his bag of tools, tipped his hat to the men one final time, and left the engine house. A satchel containing his few belongings waited for him outside the door, and he grabbed this, too. His father would have turned purple with mortification if he’d seen his son travel with anything less than three steamer trunks full of Savile Row’s finest, but Simon had grown well used to his father’s many shades of mortification on his behalf.
He pushed thoughts of Horace Addison-Shawe from his mind, as he’d done so often, and concentrated on what needed to happen next.
First part of the job’s taken care of. Now the real work starts.
His years in the army and with Nemesis had shown him the value of gathering intelligence. He needed to know who had written that letter, for one thing. Then there was untangling the complicated web of corruption ensnaring Wheal Prosperity. And if there was any person who knew the lay of the land at this copper mine, that person was Alyce Carr.
He told himself that was the only reason he hurried to catch up with her.
* * *
Alyce strode back to the village on a path she knew as well as her own heartbeat. Generations of miners in their heavy boots had worn a track into the green hillsides. They left their legacy both beneath the earth and upon it. Just as she did. But her steps were fast, and she kicked up dust with each angry footfall. If all of the miners had walked with the same amount of fury that she felt, the path would be a trench, six feet deep.
As she walked, the conversation—or rather, lack of conversation—with the managers dug into her mind, like shards of metal.
It’s simply not economical for the company store to replace almost a hundred pounds of butter just on your say-so, Miss Carr.
“Economical, my arse,” she muttered to herself. They always had some excuse, some barely thought-out rationale. Would it make any difference to them if she was a man instead of a woman? Would they listen to her, take her grievances more seriously?
Doesn’t matter, does it? Since I’m the only one trying to make a change.
“Miss Carr! Miss Carr!”
Caught up as she was in her own roiling thoughts, she barely heard a man call her name, or the sound of boots hurrying to catch up with her.
Only when he said her name again directly behind her did she stop walking. Had to be a surface captain, ready to chastise her for leaving work early—even though she had the managers’ permission. She was just about to say so, when she turned to face the man pursuing her.
It was him. That stranger who’d been in the engine house.
“Seeing as how it’s my new home,” he said, “I was hoping you could show me the way to the village.” He didn’t sound at all winded, even though it looked like he’d been running to catch up with her. With his thumb, he pushed back the brim of his cap, revealing a thatch of wheat-blond hair.
In the engine house, she’d only had a brief glimpse of him beneath the gaslights—seeing mostly the winter blue of his eyes—but now that they were out in the sun, she could observe him more clearly.
“Got the job, then?” she asked.
“Good thing, too,” he answered. “I need the work and that pump engine needs a nursemaid.”
He wore a laboring man’s clothes, filling them with a leanly muscular body that had seen its share of work. Growing up and living among men who spent hours a day tearing ore from the ground made her no stranger to the sight of a young man in prime condition. But something about this man—the confidence with which he carried himself, the stretch of rough wool across his broad shoulders and down his long legs—made her aware of his physicality.
“Men aren’t nursemaids,” she pointed out.
He gave an affable shrug. “A friend of mine told me that the definition of a man is that he does whatever’s necessary. And if that pump engine needs me to change its nappy and rock it to sleep, then I’m the man for the job.”
She tried to concentrate on what he was saying, but her thoughts briefly scattered like startled thrushes when she got a good look at his face. Blessed saints, she didn’t know men could look like this. All clean lines, high cheekbones, and elegantly carved jawbone. His lips were thin, but the bottom lip was unexpectedly full. Someone long ago in his bloodline must have birthed an aristocrat’s bastard, for there was no denying the natural nobility in his features.
It seemed a strange contrast to the clothing he wore and his accent—which she placed somewhere around Sheffield, and not the nice parts of that city, either.
A face was just a face—nobody had power over how they looked. It didn’t matter how handsome this man was, he was only that: a man, like any other.
She pointed to the path, worn into the ground. “If you’re looking for the village, follow this for another mile and a half. It’ll take you right there.”
“Since we’re headed in the same direction,” he said with a smile, “may as well keep each other company.”
For all her bold talk, she was a woman, and not entirely immune to a handsome man’s smile.
Still, she said indifferently, “As you like.”
Setting down one of his bags, he extended a broad hand to her. She hesitated for a moment, not really wanting to touch him, but he glanced down at his hand and saw that machine grease smudged a few of his fingers. With an apologetic grimace, he wiped his hand on his trousers—drawing her attention to his thigh—and then offered her his hand again.
“Simon Sharpe,” he said. “Just got hired as a new machinist.”
It would be downright rude not to shake his hand, so she did so. The contact of palm to palm sent a fast shiver of awareness through her. “Alyce Carr,” she said, trying for a level voice. “And you’d be wise to take up your bags and find work elsewhere, Simon.” Only the managers and bosses referred to the miners and workers by their last names.
She let go of his hand and walked toward the village. He quickly fell in pace beside her.
“Wheal Prosperity’s the only mine that’s hiring right now,” he said. “Don’t have much choice in the matter.”
“There’s always emigration. Or you could try something different—like the music halls.”
“I get seasick something terrible, so crossing the ocean’s out. And as for the music halls”—his low, husky laugh trailed along the nape of her neck—“they’d only pay me not to sing and dance.” His gaze was sharp and curious as he looked at her. “You work at Wheal Prosperity, but if it’s as you’re implying, why don’t you leave?”
The managers rode by on their trap, trailing thick clouds of dust as they returned to the village, and paying her and Simon no attention. Coughing, Alyce tried to wave the dust away. Finally, it settled, the trap already a speck in the distance.
For a moment, she debated whether or not to be honest with him. There was always the possibility that he could be yet another of the owners’ snoops, hunting out agitators. But she’d never made a secret of her complaints, and she hadn’t yet been fired.
Because they know I can’t do a damned thing against them, and I’m one of their best bal-maidens. To them, I’m just a gnat. A very productive gnat.
“Can’t,” she answered bluntly. “I assume they gave you a chit to pay for your food and lodging for the week.”
“Five shillings’ worth.”
She whistled. “A princely sum. And did you read the words on the bloody thing?” She recited them from memory. The words themselves were stamped upon her very brain. “‘Payable in Merchandise, Non Transferable.’ That’s how we’re all paid now. With that damned chit.”
“And there go anyone’s hopes of saving actual money. Couldn’t even buy a train ticket to carry you to someplace new.”
A narrow stream dotted with rocks crossed the path they walked. Every so often, some enterprising person from the village thought to lay a wooden plank or two across the stream to make it easier to cross, but the planks never lasted. People rather liked skipping across the rocks—a little reminder of childhood play.
Simon nimbly jumped from rock to rock and landed on the other side of the stream with just a few strides. He set his bags down and reached out a hand for her. To help her across.
The gentlemanly gesture flummoxed her. It was so natural for everyone who lived in the village to cross the stream that no one ever thought to give anyone assistance. And she still didn’t like the idea of touching him. No, that wasn’t quite true. She didn’t like the sensations in her body caused by touching him. This man who was an utter stranger.
Ignoring his outstretched hand, she picked up her skirts and leaped from one rock to the next until she reached the other bank. There wasn’t any harm in him seeing her ankles. Her boots were nearly as stout as his. Nothing provocative about heavy, sturdy leather.
Even so, when she dropped the hem of her skirts, something like disappointment flashed in his eyes.
She continued walking, with him right beside her. “Besides, all I know is working at the mine, and everyone I’ve ever known is here. My father worked here, as did his father, and his father’s father. My brother, too. And all my foremothers were bal-maidens or took care of the babes at home. This is my life.” It surprised her, the defiance in her voice—or was it self-defense?
No, she was proud of the work she did, and the people around her. She had no pride, however, regarding the men who ran the mine. Outsiders, the lot of them.
Like this man—Simon. A complete stranger. Granted, an extraordinarily handsome stranger, but a man unknown to her. Well, she could learn a few things, too.
“Where are your people?” she asked. “Parents, siblings … wife?”
Her cheeks heated that she should ask so bold a question.
He didn’t seem to take offense. “Sister’s in Buxton, and my father’s in Sheffield. No wife.”
No reason at all for her to feel a twist of pleasure at that—none at all.
“You could’ve stayed in Sheffield,” she noted. “Plenty of work there.”
“Everyone I knew worked in the knife factories.” He shook his head. “The world’s a narrow place behind a grinding wheel. Joined the army for a spell—engineering corps. That’s how I learned the way of different machines.”
“And did you?”
He quirked an eyebrow. “Did I what?”
“Make the world less narrow?” She’d only been as far as Newquay, and then for only a half-holiday. The rest of the globe seemed a terribly fascinating, terribly big place. How lost she’d feel, out in the middle of everything with nothing but her own name to anchor herself.
“Oh, aye. India, South Africa. Fascinating places. Remind you that there’s more to life than being English.” She must have looked surprised by his answer, because he said, “Seems I’ve caught keen-witted Miss Carr by surprise.”
“Most of the men I’ve spoken to who were soldiers called those places savage or heathen. Not fascinating.”
He slanted her a smile. “All sorts of men in this world. Some don’t fit perfectly into the uniforms they’ve been given.”
She was beginning to learn that he didn’t. Looking off to the hedgerow on her right, she saw the old elm tree, its branches bent from the winds that swept down into the valley. She’d seen that tree twice a day, every day, for the whole of her life. Yet for the first time in a goodly while, the long walk from the mine to the village held something new and surprising. That something was him, with an aristo’s looks, a working man’s accent, and a philosopher’s outlook. She saw now the military bearing in the way he carried himself, posture upright, as if he hadn’t spent decades crouched in a mine but marching boldly across the globe.
“Wheal Prosperity isn’t like other mines, either,” he noted. “Most pay with actual money, not scrip. I thought that was something they only did in America, in their coal mines and logging camps.”
He may as well know the history of the place if he was determined to work there. “Ownership changed about ten years ago. The American and Australian mines drove the price of copper down. More than half the mines in Cornwall shut down. We all believed we were goners, then thought it a blessing when a new group of adventurers offered to buy the mine out.” She shook her head. “None of us knew the cost. Not until it was too late.”
Those had been terrible days. Every morning waking up with fear cold in her belly, wondering whether any of them could go on, or if they’d lose everything. She’d been afraid, truly afraid. Poverty had hovered like a thin-faced ghost over the village and the mine, as everyone had anxiously gathered on stoops and in the two taverns, waiting, waiting. Would they have a way to keep the rain off their heads? Would their children go to bed complaining about the emptiness in their bellies?
Alyce had been only fourteen at the time, and her parents had still been alive. She’d heard her father and Henry talking in low voices by the fire.
We’ve got a little money set by, Henry had said.
But not enough, my lad, her father had answered. Not enough to support all four of us.
I have to run away, Alyce had thought. One less mouth to feed. Maybe I can get work in London at a shop or in a house, and send my wages home.
The following morning, Alyce’s mother had found the pillowcase stuffed with Alyce’s meager possessions. Instead of giving her a scolding, however, Alyce’s mother had enfolded her in a hug, scented of mineral ore, chimney smoke, and warm, maternal flesh. We stay together, her mother had said. And that had been the end of that.
How happy they’d been when they’d learned the mine had been bought out. How the village had celebrated: everyone in the high street, singing, dancing. Toasting their good fortune with glasses of ale.
Now there was rancid butter in the company store, and no one would or could do anything about it.
She pushed the discouraging thoughts from her mind. She would find a way to make things right, but the how of it was something she hadn’t figured out. Yet.
“Sure this is where you want to work?” she asked Simon again. Dusk had begun to fall in a violet haze, and the lights of the village could just be seen beyond the next rise.
“Like I said, not many places hiring now, and I don’t fancy reenlisting.”
Alyce only shrugged. She’d done what she could. If Simon found himself trapped here in a cycle of poverty and debt—just like everyone else—that was his business, not hers.
They made the rest of the trip to the village in silence, for which she was grateful. Talking about the old days only reminded her of what everyone had had, and lost. Reminded her of the invisible shackles around her ankles, the same shackles binding every man, woman, and child in Trewyn. The few hours between shifts at the mine belonged to her, and she wouldn’t waste them on anger or despair.
After crossing the last hill, they reached the village. Alyce had been born in Trewyn, and had woken up and fallen asleep here every day of her life. Yet, with Simon walking beside her, she tried to see it now with a stranger’s eyes.
Houses of granite crowded the high street, with more creeping along the winding alleys leading off the main avenue. Some sported optimistic flower boxes, and a few doorways had cheerful vines of ivy twining around them. At either end of the high street stood the villages’ two pubs, quiet now since the men hadn’t yet returned from the mines, but a few old men sat outside on benches nursing their ales with a measured, deliberate pace.
No shops presented cheerful, merchandise-filled windows to the street. There used to be, but they’d gone, and had been transformed into more houses. Only one place to buy anything from mutton to muslin in Trewyn.
“You need to make any purchases,” she said, “that’s where you go.” She pointed to the company store looming at the top of the street.
“It’s one of the only wooden buildings in the village,” he noted.
That he should notice this detail surprised her. “Yet it holds the most gravity—even more than St. Piran’s.” She nodded toward their plain little church set up on the hill. A rueful smile curled her mouth. “Funny that the store stands at one of the highest points in the village, as if water—or money—should flow away from it, the way it might in nature.”
“But nature’s rules don’t apply here.”
“Everyone’s work and toil flows up into the store. Unnatural, that’s what it is.”
“There’s that scientist bloke—Darwin,” he murmured. “He said that creatures adapt to their environment, no matter how unnatural it might be, or else they don’t survive. Seems like you’ve done the same here.”
“We haven’t got any say in it.”
He cast her a glance. “You’re ignoring your own decision to endure. But that’s just what you’ve done. You made a hard choice, and stuck with it.”
She peered around the village. Trewyn wasn’t a pretty place—she’d seen illustrations and photographs of nicer villages and towns, laid out in neat grids, with public squares, subscription libraries, and tea shops. It was a village born from need, built by a people who never expected luxury or even softness from life. Not pretty, but practical.
An unexpected throb of affection beat in her chest. My home. All she’d ever really known, and, shabby as it was, she’d defend the village until the last of her blood stained the soil.
Alyce cast a quick, surreptitious glance at Simon, wondering what he saw. After all, he’d been many places, in England and abroad, places far grander than Trewyn.
Yet she didn’t see disgust, or contempt, or dismay in his eyes. Instead, he seemed to be studying all that he saw, his gaze sharply perceptive, taking note of everything. As if looking for strengths and weaknesses. As though readying himself not for a new job in a new town, but preparing for a siege.
Military habit, I suppose.
Even so, it surprised her to see how he’d changed subtly. The faintest trace of danger emanated from him, like a concealed knife. Unseen, but that didn’t lessen its potential.
A shiver danced up her spine.
“I feel as if I should offer you some kind of welcoming gift,” she said. “A pot of flowers or loaf of bread. Knitted blanket.”
The wariness in his eyes faded slightly as he smiled. “An old bachelor like me would just kill the flowers, devour the bread, and turn the blanket threadbare. But thanks for the sentiment.” He glanced up and down the high street, as if searching for something.
“What are you looking for?” she asked.
“Trying to figure out which one of these houses is yours. I expect you’ve got some kind of banner flying out front, like one of those old-time knights. Seems only right for the Champion of Trewyn.”
A shocked laugh burst from her, to be painted that way. But then, it did make a kind of sense. She seemed to be the only one in the village who regularly complained to the managers about the conditions at the mine and at the village.
Strange that Simon, who barely knew her, saw her as a guardian or knight. Strange, and flattering.
“Any particular interest in knowing where I live?” She surprised herself with the sauciness of her tone.
A corner of his mouth turned up. “I might be out taking a stroll and get lost. I’ll need someone to show me the way back.”
She frowned a little. Was he flirting with her? “It’s impossible to get lost in Trewyn. We’ve only got one street.”
“Maybe the place is more complicated than you know.”
Before she could answer, the rumble of hundreds of men’s voices and the thud of booted feet drifted into the village. She and Simon had left the mine fifteen minutes ahead of quitting time, but now the rest of the workers had caught up with them. Women’s higher tones wove through like flutes. Some laughed, relieved after the end of the long day, but most spoke in low voices, too tired to do much more. Alyce could almost identify every single person, even with her eyes closed. John Gill and his rough chuckle. Danny Pascoe, who still talked with the piping notes of a lad despite his age. Cathy Weeks, whose voice was as deep as Danny’s was thin. Henry was somewhere in the crowd, as well, but somewhere toward the back, since she didn’t hear him yet.
Alyce moved aside to give the returning workers room as they trudged up the high street, and Simon did the same. She greeted many as they passed, and took a bit of good-natured ribbing from some that she’d left work early. Dozens of curious gazes fixed on Simon, intrigued by the stranger. More than a few bal-maidens let their gazes linger for a bit longer. Alyce gave many of the curious her own silent, speaking glance, letting them know that she’d be by later to give an accounting of the newcomer. But as for making introductions—he’d have to do them on his own. She had enough to manage without becoming the unofficial welcoming committee.
From a narrow alley, three blue-uniformed constables suddenly appeared, including barrel-chested Tippet, the head of Trewyn’s constabulary. A murmur of unease rippled through the crowd. Alyce sensed Simon tensing beside her. Curious. Had he been in trouble with the law before?
Tippet and his colleagues—Oliver, heavy-jawed and small-eyed, and Freeman, nearly handsome in a unfinished kind of way—shouldered their way through the column of returning workers. They tugged two men from the throng, dragging them roughly to the side, as everyone else could only look on.
“Here, now,” Tippet said, shaking one of the men by his collar. Alyce recognized him as Joe Hocking, and the other miner was George Bevan, who grimaced as Oliver clenched his shoulder. “Did you think you’d get away with it? Think the masters are stupid, do you?”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” Joe said. Though he’d been a miner all his life, the hard work and lack of enough food had taken its toll, prematurely aging him. His whole body was thin and shrunken. In another year or two, he wouldn’t be able to go down into the pit anymore.
By contrast, Tippet was almost obscenely robust, filling out the jacket of his uniform with sturdy brawn.
Tippet smirked. “Right. ’Course you don’t.” His smirk twisted into a sneer. He flung Joe against a wall, and the older man grunted and went ashen. Joe looked like a fragile weed, clinging to the side of the building.
Tippet dug one end of his truncheon into the underside of Joe’s jaw, and the miner grimaced.
Fury roiled up inside Alyce. Tippet never wasted an opportunity to rough up the villagers, even someone who presented no physical threat, like Joe.
Men and women gathered in a semicircle, jockeying to get a view. Restless anger rumbled through the crowd, like thunder before a storm. They were closing the ten-odd feet of distance between themselves and the constables.
“Everyone, keep back,” Oliver growled.
“Not a step forward,” Freeman added. He shoved back one man who tried to edge closer.
She had to take action—help Joe and keep the crowd from turning ugly. She took a step forward, ready to push the truncheon off Joe’s neck.
Simon suddenly emerged from the throng. He tripped over the bags he carried, colliding with Tippet. Both men stumbled.
Tippet whirled around, face twisted in anger. She felt the crowd collectively hold its breath—just like her. What would Tippet do?
Then she saw the hard gleam in Simon’s eyes as he faced the constable. Tippet wasn’t the only threat, here. Simon was just as dangerous.
Copyright © 2013 by Zoë Archer