“THAT’S a long shot,” Hamilton put in.
“Not necessarily. You’d be surprised how often the most slender clue can lead to a solution.” Rudge paused. “A journey to Plymouth would be time-consuming and costly. Master Trigg, do you wish me to pursue this case?”
Gideon threw an enquiring glance at the gathered company. It was nods all round.
“Aye, Rudge. Go ahead. Us’ll never rest if us gives up now. How soon can you leave?”
“As soon as the roads become passable again,” Rudge said. “This snow has caused havoc everywhere. The London Post isn’t able to travel and the route onward to the coast will be even worse. They always get it bad in those parts.
“Rest assured, the moment my way is clear I shall head for Plymouth.”
That settled, Maisie made fresh tea and offered again the hitherto-untouched food, which Rudge fell on with relish.
After he had gone. Gideon’s stoicism deserted him.
“’Twill be a miracle if he finds her!”
Alfie went to his grandfather’s side.
“Bear up, Granfer. I’m putting my faith in Sylvester Rudge.”
“Me, too,” Hamilton said.
Maisie made a gesture with her hand.
“Please God he’s successful. I pray that Emma will be returned to us.”
“Amen to that,” Gideon endorsed heavily.
The words hung between them. Where was Emma?”
* * * *
“Please . . . where is this?” Emma’s eyes fluttered open to meet the lively nut-brown gaze of a person several years older than her – a countrywoman, by her wind-burnished cheeks and air of staunch capability.
The woman tucked a straying frizz of brown hair back into a crumpled matron’s cap and gave Emma a smile of encouragement.
“My stars, you’s with us at last! Not before time, either. Emma – it is Emma, inna it? There’s been so many names on your lips I’m all in a heap wi’ them. This is Shepherd Coles’s cottage at Peckforton. I’m Sarah Coles. My man came across you in the big snow we had. You’d come to grief and struck your head on a rock – no, dunna you touch it. Tes bound up but healing well.”
Children’s voices sounded rowdily from outside.
“Mam, is her awake? Can us see?” a small figure from the doorway pleaded.
“Not now, our Annie. Go tell Da the glad news. Take the others with you. Give us some peace.”
The excited babble faded gratifyingly into the distance. Emma moved her head, wincing as pain knifed through it, and took a tentative look around her.
She was in a cluttered house with much evidence of make-do-and-mend. Over a snapping wood fire a cauldron gave off an enticing smell of meat and herbs.
She tried to recollect what had happened.
“There was a blizzard – I couldn’t see my hand in front of me. I remember reaching out, then falling.”
“You tumbled, right enough. Clean over the edge of the quarry, you must have gone!
“My man were looking for a stray sheep with the dogs. ’Twere them found you. You took a fever – three days it’s been. But there.” A cool, dry hand felt her brow. “It has gone now.”
Emma closed her eyes again, trying to shut out the echo of those bad dreams that had come in the throes of tormented sleep. What secrets had she unwittingly disclosed?
Her head pounded painfully, laying a veil over her brain, making it impossible to think. She moistened dry lips.
“Here, have a sip o’ water.”
A strong arm supported her while she drank. The well water was cool and infinitely refreshing. Emma shut her eyes and fell instantly into a deep, healing sleep.