Chapter Twenty One

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We returned to the farm at Pebble Deeping and found Martha in a state of some distress. She sat in the kitchen, tucked up tight to the table with her elbows planted on the top and her face buried in her hands.

She had finished crying recently; perhaps when she heard us returning and clattering through the farmhouse's flagstoned hall. She looked up as I entered the kitchen slightly ahead of Ty. Seeing us walk through the door, she jumped out of her chair and turned away from us and set about busying herself at the sink, a hand wiping at her face.

"Martha?" I said, suddenly my worries and anxieties regarding the previous events of the day were washed away by the trickle of her tears.

She said nothing but stifled a sniffle, still busy at the sink and ostentatiously washing last-night's dishes. Ty had entered the kitchen behind me; he looked at Martha's back and saw her shoulders gently shaking with fresh sobs. Catching my eye he raised a quizzical brow. I shrugged. He frowned and nodded violently towards Martha.

"I'll get some tea on." He said to no-one in particular and left to get some firewood for the hearth. I crossed the kitchen to Martha, who still had her back to me, and placed my hand on her shoulder.

"What's wrong Martha?" I asked softly.

"Nothing," she replied, her voice cracked.

I took her gently by the waist and turned her away from the sink. She looked up at me, her eyes wide and verdant green, liquid with tears. Her eyelashes were clumped and her cheeks streaked. The strand of hair that was usually tucked behind her ear was plastered wetly to her cheek.

"OK. I have a problem..." Tears welled in her eyes again and I embraced her. She clung to me like a limpet for a few seconds, squeezing the air from my chest. She was stronger than she looked.

Martha broke away from me, regaining herself a little, and wiped her eyes again. I sat her down at the table and took a chair opposite.

"Why don't you tell me what's wrong? We'll see what we can do," I said with my best soothing voice.

"How was I to know?" She said. "If they had sent a letter, I could have sorted it out. Paid the money..." 

I had a sinking feeling that this was not a little problem.

"What money?" I asked. 

Martha's cheeks coloured and her eyes dropped to the table, where her fingers fidgeted absently.

"My father had not paid the insurance premium on the cottage for the last six months." She didn't look up, staring instead at her fingers as they wriggled across the table.

"Oh." Was all I could manage. That was not good.

"So... the policy is void. Everything I have was..." She stopped. Gone my mind finished her sentence. Wiped out in an inferno started by God-knows-who.

"I know it's hard Martha, but you can buy more things eventually. At least you are safe," I said. 

She looked up at me as if I had just relieved myself into her favourite hat.

"My father's work... Years. My work! All gone..." She fell silent again, I could see her mind churning, struggling to come to a decision.

"It's not just the money, or the work," she said finally.

"Oh?" I said. On impulse, I reached across the table and took both of her hands in mine; holding them gently to stop them dancing like drunk spiders. She looked across the table at me.

"No... The police said they had evidence to suggest that the fire was started deliberately. It was arson." Her voice wavered again. Fear.

"No!" I said, trying to act as surprised as possible given the day I had already had.

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