BAXTER was bent and wheezing, and had a thin leathery face and the glint of humour in his rheumy old eyes.
Rudge, explaining his mission, took the ostler to a tavern on the waterfront, and with the man’s tongue suitably loosened by strong cider he learned all he could about the young Verity Dawne.
“Like sunshine after rain, she were. Folk fell at her feet and I were no exception. Loved the horses, she did. Right from being a young maid she’d come seeking me out in the stables. ‘Saddle up, Baxter,’ she’d say. ‘Let’s go for a gallop’.”
“What of the young man?” Rudge asked at last.
“The sailor? Ah, I were wondering when that’d crop up. I gave Miss Verity my word not to say anything, but she’s gone now. Any road, happen she’d thank me if this helps her liddel maid.
“They met at a midsummer ball and kept up a secret correspondence after Miss Verity went back home. Doan’ ask me how she managed it. This were Miss Verity. She had a way of getting round folks.”
Baxter took another swig of his drink. Rudge indicated to the girl to bring another flagon.
“So they kept in touch over the winter months and resumed their acquaintance when Verity came south again for that last summer?”
“Thaas about it. Mind you, he’d have been away at sea in between times. He were back when she arrived in June, though. Up with the lark she were, riding out of town to meet him, me following at a discreet distance.”
“Was she not aware of the danger of such a liaison?”
“D’you think I didn’t warn her? She laughed! ‘Don’t be so stuffy, Baxter,’ she’d say. Crazed with love for him, she were. Happy as the day is long.”
The flagon arrived. Rudge refilled the man’s emptying tankard.
“Did you ever meet him?”
“Eh? No. I only had glimpses. He seemed a fine upstanding young fellow to me. The sort a man would be proud to see his daughter wed to.”
“He was an officer in the Royal Navy?”
“Wouldn’t say that. ’Twere a cargo ship he sailed off in on that last voyage. The Lady Grey, bound for the Americas with bales of cloth from Yorkshire and other cargo. ’Tis said she never arrived at port.”
“So I believe. How was Verity after he had sailed?”
“Proper downcast. ’Twere the only time I ever saw her weep, as if she sensed she’d not see him again. Doan’ get me wrong. He were no bounder, nothing like that. Liddel things her let slip, well, he seemed a respectable sort. She wore his ring on a strip o’ ribbon round her neck. Diamonds and rubies – a family piece, she said it was.”
“Well connected, then. There was clearly talk of a union between them,” Rudge said thoughtfully.
“Must have been. A bonnie couple they’d have made, too.”
Silence fell, into which intruded the talk and laughter of the crowded taproom.
“I don’t suppose you have the fellow’s name?” Rudge asked.
“Ah, there you have me.” The seamy face puckered in thought. “I never was one for remembering names. Something like Guidman or Goodbone, it were. Any more liquor in the pot?”
Rudge reached for the flagon. The lead that had looked so promising was threatening to pall. Before he left for Chester, however, he would visit the harbour authorities and try to trace the ship from their records.
There were also other avenues to pursue. He had a mind to look up Emma’s girlhood friend, Alice Courtney. An interview with the lass purported to be outside his jurisdiction, but there were always ways and means . . .
As the two men were speaking, a silent figure in a dim corner, feasting alone on the house speciality of fish pie and crusty bread, watched them attentively. His meal finished, he rose and left the tavern.