RUDGE lost no time in heading out there, keeping to tracks in the snow made by other travellers. It was slow journeying and the church clock was striking midday as he rode into the surprisingly empty inn yard.
“Ho, there. Anyone home?” he hollered, dismounting stiffly.
The back door of the inn opened to reveal a tow-headed youth gorging on a large wedge of pie of some description. He came shambling across to Rudge.
“See to my horse, will you, lad. Give him a feed.”
“Oats is one shilling extra,” the lad said, spewing pastry crumbs as he spoke.
“So be it. Is the master about?”
“Aye. In the taproom.”
He jerked a thumb in that direction and took the horse, clopping off towards the stables.
After an excellent meal of veal pie and pickles, washed down by strong ale, Rudge again presented the miniature and asked his questions.
Bertram Cotterill gave a nod.
“Aye, that’s Emmie all right.”
Rudge did not miss the shifty look in the man’s eye.
“She worked here?”
“For a short while, aye.”
“Could you be more specific? Was she a reliable servant?”
“Us thought so. Then she upped and left.”
Rudge fixed the landlord with a steely gaze over the rim of his tankard.
“Did she give a reason?”
“No, and I didna ask. What is this, any road? Has Emmie done summat?”
“Emma Trigg has gone missing. I’m investigating her disappearance on behalf of her family.” Rudge swigged down the last of his ale.
“One more thing, landlord,” he said mildly. “Do you recall whether it was snowing when Emma left this establishment?”
“Dunno. It might have been flurrying a bit.”
“And she still went? Even though the weather looked bad?”
Bertram Cotterill shrugged.
“’Twere up to her, wunna it? Now, sir, I must be off. There’s no stage with the road south being snowbound, but I still have work to do.”
“I, too, shall be making tracks. My thanks, landlord.”
Rudge slapped down his payment for his own and his horse’s repast and left the inn.
* * * *
A cold and foggy dusk had gathered by the time a knock sounded on the door of the house on Saddler’s Row.
Maisie sprang in agitation to her feet.
“That’ll be him. I’ll fetch him in.”
For once, the shop had closed early. Everyone was gathered in the little-used drawing-room. A fire had been lit and Rudge, bringing with him a waft of the wintry outdoors, went straight to the hearth to warm his chilled hands.
“Sir, you must be ready for some refreshment. Will you take some tea?”
“I’ll not say no, mistress,” Rudge said gratefully.
Seated by the fire with a steaming cup of tea, a platter of beef sandwiches and another of cake on the low table between them all, Rudge launched into a review of the day.
“The landlord of the Swan wasn’t giving anything away. Coming out, I bumped into a servant girl and had a word with her. I suspect she knew more than she was letting on. Likely she’d been primed to hold her tongue.”
Gideon Trigg cleared his throat noisily.
“You didn’t believe what the landlord said?”
“No, sir, I did not. I’ve been in this line of work too long not to know evasion when I see it. To my mind, your niece was dismissed for some reason. Likely she was turned out in that bad snowfall we had.”
Maisie clutched at her throat in dismay.
“No-one could have survived that,” Alfie muttered.
Hamilton gave a troubled murmur of agreement.
“We don’t know that for sure,” Gideon said staunchly. “Hast any more news, Rudge?”
“None, sir, though I have thoughts on the matter. What of your granddaughter’s relatives on her mama’s side? The Dawnes of Mollington. Could she have gone to them for refuge?”
Maisie shook her head.
“She was very young when her mama passed on. Too young to know about her background and I, well, my father and I thought the least said the better.”
“So she doesn’t know who they are? I see. Well, that eliminates that line of enquiry for now. What of her natural sire? He was a seaman. Was his ship a merchant vessel or military?”
“We cannot say for sure,” Maisie said. “The story was that he was a midshipman working his ticket to the Americas, but that could just be hearsay. I can supply the name of the ship. It was the Lady Grey.”
Rudge was listening attentively.
“Would he have sailed from Plymouth?”
“Very likely,” Gideon Trigg said. “Verity visited Plymouth quite a bit. Her people had relatives there. That’ll be where she met him – the bounder!”
“We don’t know that for certain, sir. Better to give a suspect the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise,” Rudge said mildly.
He turned again to Maisie.
“Mistress Catchpole, you say your niece was made aware of her true papa only minutes before she left. She could have headed south in the vain hope of finding out about him.”