Ross Poldark

By: Winston Graham

PROLOGUE




1

JOSHUA POLDARK DIED IN MARCH 1783. IN FEBRUARY OF THAT YEAR, FEELING that his tenure was becoming short, he sent for his brother from Trenwith.

Charles came lolloping over on his great roan horse one cold grey afternoon, and Prudie Paynter, lank-haired and dark-faced and fat, showed him straight into the bedroom where Joshua lay possed up with pillows and cushions in the big box bed. Charles looked askance round the room with his small watery blue eyes at the disorder and the dirt, then lifted his coat-tails and subsided upon a wicker chair, which creaked under his weight.

“Well, Joshua.”

“Well, Charles.”

“This is a bad business.”

“Bad indeed.”

“When will you be about again, d’you think?”

“There's no telling. I fancy the churchyard will have a strong pull.”

Charles thrust out his bottom lip. He would have discounted the remark if he had not had word to the contrary. He hiccupped a little—riding always gave him the wind these days—and was heartily reassuring.

“Nonsense, man. The gout in the legs never killed nobody. It is when it gets up to the head that it is dangerous.”

“Choake tells me different, that there is other cause for the swelling. For once I misdoubt if the old fool is not right. Though in God's truth, by all appearance it is you that should be lying here, since I am but half your size.”

Charles glanced down at the landscape of black embroidered waistcoat spreading away from under his chin.

“Mine is healthy flesh. Every man puts on weight in his middle years. I would not wish to be a yard of pump water like Cousin William-Alfred.”

Joshua lifted an ironical eyebrow but said no more, and there was silence. The brothers had had little to say to each other for many years, and at this, their last meeting, small talk was not easy to find. Charles, the elder and more prosperous, who had come in for the family house and lands and most of the mining interests, head of the family and a respected figure in the county, had never quite been able to get away from a suspicion that his younger brother despised him. Joshua had always been a thorn in his flesh. Joshua had never been content to do the things expected of him: enter the Church or the Army or marry properly and leave Charles to run the district himself.

Not that Charles minded a few lapses, but there were limits and Joshua had overstepped them. The fact that he had been behaving himself for the last few years did not score out old grievances.

As for Joshua, a man with a cynical mind and few illusions, he had no complaint against life or against his brother. He had lived one to the limit and ignored the other. There was some truth in his reply to Charles's next comment of, “Why man, you’re young enough yet. Two years junior to me, and I’m fit and well. Aarf!”

Joshua said: “Two years in age, maybe, but you’ve only lived half as fast.”

Charles sucked the ebony tip of his cane and looked sidelong about the room from under heavy lids. “This damned war not settled yet. Prices soaring. Wheat seven and eight shillings a bushel. Butter ninepence a pound. Wish the copper price was the same. We’re thinking of cutting a new level at Grambler. Eighty fathom. Maybe it will defray the initial outlay, though I doubt it. Been doing much with your fields this year?”

“It was about the war that I wanted to see you,” said Joshua, struggling a little farther up the pillows and gasping for breath. “It must be only a matter of months now before the provisional peace is confirmed. Then Ross will be home and maybe I shall not be here to greet him. You’re me brother, though we’ve never hit it off so well. I want to tell you how things are and to leave you to look after things till he gets back.”

Charles took the cane from his mouth and smiled defensively. He looked as if he had been asked for a loan.

“I’ve not much time, y’ know.”

‘It won’t take much of your time. I’ve little or nothing to leave. There's a copy of my will on the table beside you. Read it at your leisure. Pearce has the original.”

Charles groped with his clumsy swollen hand and picked up a piece of parchment from the rickety three-legged table behind him.

“When did you last hear from him?” he asked. “What's to be done if he doesn’t come back?”

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