I've asked outside, and nobody has heard of him."
Mary turned at once for the door, but the lynx-eyed man was there before her.
"If it's the dark gypsy fellow who tried to sell my partner a pony this afternoon, I can tell you about him," he said, smiling wide, and showing a row of broken teeth.
Laughter broke out from the group by the fire.
She looked from one to the other.
"What have you to say?" she said.
"He was in the company of a gentleman barely ten minutes ago," returned the lynx-eyed man, still smiling, and looking her up and down, "and with the help of some of us he was persuaded to enter a carriage that was waiting at the door.
He was inclined to resist us at first, but a look from the gentleman appeared to decide him.
No doubt you know what became of the black pony?
The price he was asking was undoubtedly high."
His remark brought forth a fresh burst of laughter from the group by the fire.
Mary stared steadily at the little lynx-eyed man.
"Do you know where he went?" she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders and pulled a mock face of pity.
"His destination is unknown to me," he said, "and I regret to say that your companion left no message of farewell.
However, it is Christmas Eve, the night is young yet, and you can see for yourself it's no weather to remain outside.
If you care to wait here until your friend chooses to return, myself and the rest of these gentlemen will be delighted to entertain you."
He laid a limp hand on her shawl.
"What a blackguard the fellow must be to desert you," he said smoothly. "Come in and rest, and forget him."
Mary turned her back on him without a word and passed out through the door once more. As it closed behind her she caught the echo of his laughter.
She stood in the deserted market square with the gusty wind and scattered showers of rain for company.
So the worst had happened, and the theft of the pony had been discovered.
There was no other explanation.
Jem had gone.
Stupidly she stared before her at the dark houses, wondering what was the punishment for theft.
Did they hang men for that as well as murder?
She felt ill in body, as though someone had beaten her, and her brain was in confusion. She could see nothing clearly, she could make no plans.
She supposed that Jem was lost to her now anyway, and she would never see him again.
The brief adventure was over.
For the moment she was stunned, and, hardly knowing that she did so, she began to walk aimlessly across the square towards the castle hill.
If she had consented to stay in Launceston this would never have happened.
They would have gone from the shelter of the doorway and found a room in the town somewhere; she would have been beside him, and they would have loved one another.
And, even if he had been caught in the morning, they would have had those hours alone.
Now that he was gone from her, mind and body cried out in bitterness and resentment, and she knew how much she had wanted him.
It was her fault that he had been taken, and she could do nothing for him.
No doubt they would hang him for this; he would die like his father before him.
The castle wall frowned down upon her, and the rain ran in rivulets beside the road.
There was no beauty left in Launceston any more; it was a grim, grey, hateful place, and every bend in the road hinted at disaster.
She stumbled along with the mizzling rain driving in her face, caring little where she went and careless of the fact that eleven long miles lay between her and her bedroom at Jamaica Inn.
If loving a man meant this pain and anguish and sickness, she wanted none of it.
It did away with sanity and composure and made havoc of courage.
She was a babbling child now when once she had been indifferent and strong.
The steep hill rose before her.
They had clattered down it in the afternoon; she remembered the gnarled tree trunk at the gap in the hedge.
Jem had whistled, and she had sung snatches of song.
Suddenly she came to her senses and faltered in her steps.
It was madness to walk any further; the road stretched like a white ribbon in front of her, and two miles of it would bring exhaustion in this wind and rain.
She turned again on the slope of the hill, with the winking lights of the town beneath her.
Someone perhaps would give her a bed for the night, or a blanket on the floor.
She had no money; they would have to trust her for payment.