Releases March 13, 2015
Releases March 13, 2015
A John Thornton / Margaret Hale Fantasy Novel
As John climbed into Nicholas’ coach, Nicholas said, “I bet we are going Lord hunting. Was not that some headline today? Have you ever heard of Miss something Hale?”
“I think her name is Margaret. This whole mystery is intriguing. I have reserved a table because I think they shall be crowded tonight.”
Nicholas laughed. He was anxious for the evening to unfold. “This feels as if we are going to the theater to watch a play. What could a noble want with anyone who lives here?”
“With our growth, it is hard to know everyone as we once did. Still . . . I think we should know if we had people of that caliber here. What do you say, Nicholas, shall he be old or young?”
“I am going to say old. If he is looking for a single woman, he’s probably reaching out to a runaway daughter.”
“I do not know about a daughter, but I am going to say old, too. A Lord doesn’t really tell you his nobility rank. Is he a Baron, an Earl? I wonder how many are in his party. Yes, I must say that I am more than a little intrigued. I am just hoping we get a chance to see him dining tonight. We might have to eat there all week,” John laughed. “I can always ask Benson to give us some details.”
“Good evening your Lordship,” Benson bowed. I have both your tables ready as requested. Please follow me.” Benson walked with his head high as the crowded dining room looked on as London’s parade of the latest fashions passed them by. “Your Lordship, can I bring you the wine menu?”
“No, thank you. Just bring us several iced bottles of your very finest champagne.” The Lord’s group consisted of three other men, assuredly guards dressed as gentlemen slid into the half circle booth. Lord Robert knew he was causing a bit of a stir in this mill town.
Benson returned, escorting three waiters with champagne in iced holders. “Can I get you anything else at this time, your Lordship?” Benson asked.
“No, we’ll eat later. I am expecting someone, I know not who, to meet me here this evening. If anyone asks for me I want you to ask them this one question. If they answer correctly, escort them to my table. My men shall then move to the adjoining table. The question you are to ask is this, ‘What was the name of the building?’ If they answer, ‘Hanover House’ bring them to my table. Thank you, Benson. That shall be all for now.”
Benson bowed his way away from the table and hurried toward the dining room entrance, wanting only himself to greet the incoming customers.
“Looks like we were both wrong, John. He’s a young one; probably as cocky as they come.”
“Have you noticed the room is full, yet there is a table beside them that is empty? It would seem to me as if they are expecting someone or wanted as much privacy as they could get in here. They have no one on the other side. Benson often offers me that table when I bring a lady here.”
“Well, do you not smell good,” Nicholas laughed and so did John.
John looked across the room, raising his eyebrows as it seemed Benson was leading Miss Leeds to the Lordship’s table. “Well, there’s something you shall not see often,” said John.
“What is it? What are you looking at? Who is that woman being introduced to the Lord?” Nicholas could hardly stutter out his questions as the curtain rose.
“That, Mr. Higgins, is Miss Leeds. This is most mysterious.”
“John, I know you must be having one over on me. Who is she really?”
“I am telling you. She is Miss Leeds. I told you have I have been there only a couple weeks ago. That is her. I wonder what she has to do with this, Miss Hale.”
It seemed the entire room had their eyes fixed on the company of his Lordship. Not many people would know who she was, but the rumor would circle the room in a hurry by someone who did. John watched passively not nearly as intent as Nicholas seemed to be. He knew his Lordship was not meeting Miss Hale and wondered why.
“Your Lordship. I am Katherine Leeds, representing Miss Margaret Hale. I am sorry to say that she was in a traumatized state when I left her today. Psychologically, and physically, she is damaged goods. You have ruined her life, I believe, your Lordship.” Katie paused, waiting for some denial or outburst, but none came.
“Miss Leeds,” Lord Robert began as he filled her glass with champagne, “I have searched a whole year to find Miss Hale. I eventually was told that she went to live with her governess that she had as a child. Is that you?”
“Yes, it is.”
You were the most difficult to track down but finally you were located in this town, although I did not know your name; only the town name. That is why I placed the ad in the newspaper, hoping to catch your or Miss Hale’s eye. I have made this search and this journey completely voluntary in order to apologize to Miss Hale. Miss Hale’s life is not the only one that I have damaged. We shall both have to live with my totally unpardonable action a year ago. With my title, it shall soon be forgotten or of little consequence by others but it shall never be forgotten by Miss Hale or by myself and never be felt of little consequence, quite the contrary. I have found it hard to live with myself knowing what I have caused. I know that Nobles get away with a lot and I shall be no exception, but it was brought home to me that very night how rude and callous a lot we are. I have vowed since that night, not to be one of the sheep. I want to rise above our hideous reputations and do right. All of that cannot start without my apology to Miss Hale.
“He sure is talking a lot to Miss Leeds,” Nicholas noted. For a while the whole room was watching them, now it is down to polite glancing. The Lord is probably used to people staring at him but Miss Leeds seems to be holding her own. She is sitting up straight and never wavers at looking straight into his eyes. It looks as if she is giving him no purchase.”
“You are right, Nicholas. She is standing firm and I must admit; I was a little intimidated when she interviewed me. If this Miss Hale asked her to intercede, she sure picked a good person. It appears the Lord is handing her a note, obviously for the missing Miss Hale. I do not know the names of all the girls that work there, but I do not remember hearing a Margaret mentioned at either time I was there.”
“Miss Leeds, I shall be here another two days. Should Miss Hale read this note,” he said, handing it over to Katie, “and feels I am sincere and could find it in her heart to meet with me, just once, I would be eternally grateful. Any word from her would be welcome.”
“Your Lordship, I personally feel that the words you have spoken to me tonight are sincere and I shall tell that to Miss Hale and give her your note. Either she or I shall contact you sometime tomorrow with whatever words that shall be said. I must admit I came her ready to do battle no matter who you were but have found a rather pathetic man looking for redemption. I hope you can be forgiven, but I do not know what is in Miss Hale’s heart and mind. If there is nothing else, I shall leave you to your dinner.”
“Yes, I believe I have explained myself, more than I had planned and there is nothing to add. Thank Miss Hale for at least allowing you to hear me out.”
His Lordship rose as Miss Leeds did and bowed to her, taking her hand and lightly kissing the top of it, in true nobility style. “Good evening, Miss Leeds.”
“Good evening, Your Lordship,” said Katie as she turned and walked away to a room full of eyes on her.
John could see that Benson was being hailed all over the room, undoubtedly being asked questions. John knew him well enough to know of his confidential nature and he would not be telling any tales. “It looks like the best part of the show is over, Nicholas. Shall we order?”
“I hope one day to find this Miss Hale and unravel this mystery that somehow weaves the madam of a sophisticated brothel into the quandary.”
As Katie was handed into her carriage by Tawl, she told him to drive around a bit until he was sure they were not being followed. Her ten minute ride turned into over an hour. She assumed it must be the newspaper people wanting something to write tomorrow. She expected her business to go up in the next week.
Lord Robert’s men returned to his table telling him that the woman he met with was a madam of a very sophisticated brothel. Somehow he felt worse hearing that. Had his actions reduced this young vibrant finishing school woman to that and impacted her life to such depths from which she could never recover, he wondered. If it had, he would restore her to a more modest and independent living state. She would want for nothing. What else could he do?
Waiting nervously for Katie to return, Margaret kept herself busy beginning her book. She felt the first chapter should be a biography of her life from birth until her arrival in a brothel. Since she was living a hardship as were many of the girls through no fault of their own, she wanted her reader to know her credentials for writing a book such as this.
Margaret heard Katie finally arrive home. Her nerves were frayed into knots. If she felt this was something sincere, really sincere, maybe she could put a lot of this behind her. She would forever have the stigma of not being innocent but the harsh violent painful memories may hopefully subside. She wanted to feel comfortable around men, but Lord Robert and her uncle did exactly the opposite. She thought she had met her first nice gentlemen in Trevor but he now seemed swept away and would never return to a damaged woman. It seemed all young men wanted to be the first in a girl’s life but hardly gave it thought when they moved on to the next challenge. Again, Margaret chastised herself for lumping all men into one.
Katie entered Margaret’s little room along with a couple girls behind her, who were not engaged at this hour. Margaret looked up at Katie trying to judge the expression on her face. There was none.
“Margaret, do you want to know of our conversation before or after you read his note to you?” Katie turned to the door to see who was clinging to the entrance and then looked back at Margaret, asking with her eyes how she felt about them listening.
“Let them stay. Tell me about his Lordship.” Margaret said with some disgust in her tone.
“Margaret, I have come to know and read people better than most. I was impressed and sorry for Lord Robert. I started out telling him how he had ruined your life and he did not deny anything. He knows full well what he’s done to your life and his. Although, his behavior shall be excused eventually, he shall never excuse himself. He wants to be a better man and a better Noble and he says that can only began with you. He has searched for you for over a year. He knows his action is unpardonable and reprehensible and he doesn’t expect forgiveness, but he would very much like to apologize to you in person. He shall be leaving the day after tomorrow. To be quite honest, and I told him so, he looks to be a pitiful man looking for redemption. I think he is quite sincere and ashamed of himself. Now . . . you read the letter and let me know what you decide.
Katie and the girls left the room, closing the door behind them. Margaret sat thinking about Katie’s words while she fiddled with the seal on the note. All her life, she had always trusted her governess and she should have no doubts now. Maybe this was her chance to get past the tragedy in her life and feel good again. She was sure this would be the only opportunity if it was sincere as Katie thought. Margaret finally snapped the impressive waxed seal and began to read.
It is hard to begin a note to apologize for the enormous impact that I have made on your life with my indefensible and unforgivable behavior that night at Hanover House. No words can be enough to tell you how sorry I am. Even though I was ‘in my cups’ and knew not what I was doing, I can take no excuse. My actions have damaged your life, and I shall have to live with that all my life as difficult as it is. That shall forever be my penance for my behavior.
I have sought you out for a year to tell you of my great sorrow for what I did to you. When I was sober enough to know all, I immediately wanted to come to you, but Trevor would not allow me near you. He was right. The timing would not have seemed sincere enough. That night, I also ruined two good friendships, lost the respect of my class mates and embarrassed my family to a high decree.
I have not been encouraged by anyone other than myself to seek you out. I shall be in Milton tomorrow and shall hope you can reconsider giving me a few private moments to speak to you personally.
Forever in your debt, L. Robert H.
A journey through hell began as our little group struggled to find the front door of the Bernard house. We stumbled through thick blackness, caused by the vile smoke and the dust of falling debris as pieces of the walls and beams began falling down around us. At one point I tripped and fell, releasing Douglas’ shirt. I could not breathe and nearly coughed my heart out, which only caused my lungs to ache even more. Douglas groped for me and I clutched his hand in a death grip. He hauled me back to my feet, shouting in my ear. “Hold on, for God’s sake! We are nearly there!” Poor darling, he was coughing and wheezing as hard as I was!
Finally, helping hands pulled us out from the entrance hall of the house, to where we had fought our way, and I found myself on hands and knees on the cobles outside, gulping down the sweet night air like a person starved.
“Oh, Margaret!” That was Elinor’s voice and I was extremely glad to hear it. “Come, my sweet, let me cover you. Here, put this around you. Are you hurt? Do you have burns?”
“No, Elinor, I think not. Where is Douglas?”
“Here, darling!” Strong arms engulfed me and squeezed me tight. “Margaret, you little fool, I swear you will be the death of me, one day! I thought I would succumb then and there! Why did you run from me to save that girl? Who is she that you were prepared to take such a risk for her?”
I looked up into his soot-streaked face and red-rimmed eyes and raked my hands through his hair, standing-on-end like that of a scarecrow. “Douglas, she is a child of Mrs Bernard and Sir Matthew,” I said, keeping my voice as level as I could. Douglas received the shock of his life.
“My father? But … you mean he fathered a child out of wedlock?” he asked incredulously.
“No, it was before he married your mother! He seemed to have – well, to have been quite a dashing young man who …”
“Who could not keep away from rich, young women! In short, he was a rake – damn and blast, but … Margaret, this girl – woman, I should say, for she must be older than me – is my sister!”
“Yes, she is. Douglas, they have kept her locked away all those years. They have secluded her from the rest of the world, simply because she was born out of wedlock and Mrs Bernard could not bear the shame to own up to her! It is appalling!”
“So she must be the ‘Bernard’s child’ …” Douglas whispered, face frozen with shock. Even in the poor light of the street lanterns, I could see how the blood had drained from his face. I was feeling exactly the same myself. The lights grew dimmer and dimmer …
Private Diary of Douglas Alexander Spencer
Watcombe Manor, August 16th 1818, ten o’clock in the morning
I have brought my Meggie home to Watcombe Manor. Here we hope to build our lives together so, when I moved her to a carriage last night, after the fire, I decided she should rest and mend here in our house.
Mrs Dashwood did everything she could to stop me. She wailed, she cursed, she screamed and wept but it all slid down and off my back like raindrops off a duck. Elinor was more subtle and very gentle. She pleaded me not to do this, pointing out that the whole of the county knew Margaret had been abducted by Bernard and would think her ravished by him. I did not listen to her. I brought my Margaret home, just the same, to Watcombe Manor, even if I had to fight off Brandon and Ferrars. They bombarded me with reasonable arguments but it left me stone cold. I am the only one from now on who is going to care for Margaret.
And now I am sitting here beside her bed, just watching her. My heart aches when I see the paleness of her lovely face. I cringe inwardly at her pretty locks, now singed and damaged where the fire touched. I cannot help myself but something seems to have shifted deep inside me. I could not protect her so I have failed her. I, who claims to love her, have let her down. I will never forgive myself.
To redeem myself – at least, a part of me – I took in the girl she risked her life for. I cannot begin to comprehend what Margaret told me last night, about the girl being my sister! I shirk away from that thought as violently as I would from a leper! No, this cannot be true.
Yet, I took the girl in, despite the fact that I owe her nothing. But I owe it to my Margaret and that is enough.
Bernard’s hand on my mouth prevented me from screaming and, along with rage, panic rose in my throat! He was determined on ravishing me! He wanted to force himself on me! Fighting with all my strength, I strained against his hands that held me pinned onto the bed. I could smell his breath and the odiousness of it choked me, just before his tongue invaded my mouth. I could not breathe. I would die.
When he ripped off my dress, I finally screamed – and sat up in bed, pounding at my attacker, sobbing, panting.
“Shhh, shhh, my darling, all is well. It was but a horrid dream. You are home, with me.”
Confused and my body hurting all over, I stared – merciful heavens – at Douglas, who was gazing into my eyes and smiling his beautiful smile. I slumped against him, clasping my arms around his neck in huge relief.
“Oh Douglas, I was so scared! He … he was …”
“Shhh, it is over now, my love. I am with you, here in our home of Watcombe. Everything is safe and fine so go to sleep, my sweet. I will stay here at your side.”
He gently pushed me back onto the mattress and pulled the covers high. However, I could not stop shaking and fresh sobs kept coming from my constricted chest. I clasped Douglas’ hand tightly as if it were a lifeline, that prevented me from slipping back into the nightmare.
“I am so cold. How can I be cold when I have been in those horrible flames?”
“Shhh, I will make you warm again, my dearest Meggie. Close your eyes, my darling.”
And then, to my infinite delight, he slipped under the covers beside me, curled his arms around me and then pulled me close to his heart. Oh, the warmth of him! It was exquisite and I gave myself completely over to this heavenly feelings. All was well. I was with the man I loved and would always love.
The cheerful voice of my maid, Becky, woke me the next morning, from a delicious dream. I felt a trifle out of sorts with her for doing so. She drew open the high window curtains in, – oh, sweet Lord – the bed chamber at Watcombe Manor destined for Douglas and me after our wedding! I had just passed the night in our marriage bed.
“Good morning, Miss Margaret! Oh, what a beautiful room this is! His Lordship ordered me to bring you breakfast in bed and, afterwards, he awaits you in his study. Oh, what a handsome man he is, Miss Margaret, and so gracious and friendly and …”
“Becky, please!” I tried to sit up but my head was pounding with a huge headache and all I could do was groan.
“Oh, miss! Are you unwell? I could put some drops of laudanum in your tea, if you want. Come, let me help you.”
It occurred to me that the young maid had learned quite a lot in a short time as she expertly helped me to sit up against freshly fluffed-up pillows. A few moments later, she handed me a cup of fragrant Indian tea and a plate with scrambled eggs, crisply fried bacon, along with a piece of toast.
“Did you prepare this, Becky? It looks delicious and so perfect!” The girl beamed and curtsied. Another thing she seemed to have mastered, I mused.
“How come you are here, Becky? Did my mother send you?”
“Oh no, miss! His Lordship pays my wages from now on. He asked Mrs Dashwood to let me go and stay with you as your chaperone until the wedding.” She pointed to a small cot behind a screen in one of the room’s corners. “His Lordship asked me last night if I would be so good as to sleep there and I did.”
So Douglas had not stayed with me through the night. I could not decide if I wanted to be angry or relieved about that. While I was savouring my excellent breakfast, I worried over Douglas’ continuing efforts to keep up appearances. Surely by now, my reputation must be completely lost, with Bernard’s abduction becoming known to all and sunder. In an impulse, I decided to hurry on with my breakfast and ablutions and afterwards I would go look for my betrothed forthwith.
The library was deserted when I burst into it, barely half an hour later. The footman, startled by my rush past him, which prevented him from opening the door for me, made hasty excuses but I cut through them.
“Where is His Lordship?”
“He has been called away, Miss. He told me to inform you he would be back by eleven.”
“Thank you – erm, Broderick, is it not?”
“Yes, Miss.” the footman bowed. I was glad I had remembered his name. It is what servants find important – to be remembered and known by name.
“Tell Mr Burroughs I will await His Lordship here and be so good as to bring me some tea, please?”
Burroughs was our newly acquired butler and he was a very punctual man. He wanted to know the whereabouts of every person under his roof, be it upper or down stairs.
“Yes, Miss.” Broderick left and closed the door behind him.
I took my time taking in the vast room where Douglas was about to spend all his free hours in the years to come. A typical masculine room it was, with bookcases filled with thousands of leather-bound volumes, deep, battered, leather chairs, a huge mahogany desk littered with ledgers and documents, and behind it a big, straight-backed chair. I came closer to the desk and picked up a piece of paper. It was a lease contract, issued to a tenant called Jonas Pickery and a cottage with the name of Blackberry Cottage. The land to go with it was about 25 acres, which seemed large for one man to work. At the same time, I realised I had not much knowledge of agricultural matters and still had a lot to learn before I would be of use to Douglas.
It was when I replaced the document that I saw a small booklet with a burgundy-coloured cover. The year 1818 printed in gold peeped from under the pile. A diary! Without thinking I picked it up, sat down in the chair and leafed through it.
Releases in November 1, 2014 UK
No US date of release
August 1944. A team of British soldiers led by a US Captain are dropped behind enemy lines in France on a mission that could shorten the war. As nothing goes according to plan, commando Sergeant Harry McBain and Captain Gabriel Jackson know they must put aside personal animosity if the mission is to succeed. Inspired by true events, Allies tells the story of friendship and survival.
Julian Ovenden, born 1975
Best known in the US as Charles Blake in Downton Abbey and a dozen years ago as the pilot / son in Foyle’s War.
A John Thornton / Margaret Hale Fantasy Novel
Katie and several of the girls, along with Margaret, were sitting having their toast, marmalade and tea when everyone heard Katie gasp.
“Oh, my God,” she paused, “listen to this.” Pausing once again to clear the crumbs from her mouth, she stared at Margaret.
“What?” asked Margaret. “What is it, Katie? Why are you looking at me that way?”
Katie started to read the newspaper item out loud. “Lord Robert Howsham . . . “
Margaret was stunned. She cast her eyes down and stared at her plate, unbelieving that rapist was trying to find her.
All eyes were on Margaret and the other girls had wandered into the room, now. “A noble Lord is looking for you, Margaret?” One of the girls asked.
Adrienne spoke up, “Margaret, we had no doubts that you were a Lady, but dear God you have a noble looking for you?”
Everyone seemed to hold their breath waiting for anything to escape from Margaret’s mouth . . . a word, a whimper . . . anything.
Katie leaned over and put her hand on Margaret’s shoulder. “Are you all right, dear? This appears to be a shock to you. I fear we cannot tell if this is a good shock or a bad one.”
Margaret did not know if she could speak about the worst day of her life or keep it just to herself. She saw her own tears drip onto her plate of toast. She had not, as yet, lifted her head to her new family.
“Margaret, please tell us something. Do you need a sedative? I have plenty here. Please child, what is it?”
Margaret finally lifted her face and looked only into Katie’s eyes. “Lord Robert was the man that raped me.”
Everyone gasped or groaned at that point. Adrienne started to spout her revenge chant again but Kat poked her in the side to shut her up.
Katie rose and went to Margaret’s chair. “C’mon dear, let us go to my office.” She turned to all the girls and said, “What you just heard is confidential. If I hear that anyone of you have discussed this outside this room, you shall be dismissed from my service.”
Margaret, feeling very unstable, wobbled to her feet and let Katie guide her to the office. She could hear all the girls start to chatter to each other as she was being led away.
Katie sat Margaret on the settee and sat beside her.
“Whatever can he want with me?” asked a confused and frightened Margaret.
“Can you tell me about the actual event and maybe I can figure out what he wants to speak to you about.” Katie noticed Margaret’s hands were trembling very badly.
Margaret threw her hands over her eyes and she began to sob louder. Katie rubbed her back and could tell that it must have been a very violent attack because Margaret was positively traumatized.
Slowly Margaret told her about the whole evening from the dance floor to the infirmary. She hiked her petticoats and showed Katie the light scars that remained.
“Oh, Margaret, I am so sorry for you. That was a horrific experience. Even though my girls, for lack of a better word, are whores, rapes have still been attempted here. They know how to get through it and lessen any damage if no one can get to their aid in time, but an innocent such as you are . . . no. It was as bad as it could be.”
Margaret pulled the newspaper from Katie’s lap and looked at the headline herself. “Why such a bold headline, Katie?”
“He’s a Noble, need you ask?”
“Why does he want to see me after a year, do you think?”
“I can think of two reasons and there may be others. He’s either come to apologize or to pay you off to keep your mouth shut about him. I do not know how he thinks that would help because it sure sounds as if enough people knew about it back then. If he’s here to apologize, it could be sincere, court required or family required. Somehow, I doubt the sincerity, but you never know. You said he was drunk, which did not lessen anything in your mind, but maybe he’s ashamed.”
“I do not want to see him, Katie.”
“I understand, dear. I shall write a note to him telling him that someone shall meet him in the Grand’s dining room at eight tonight. I shall go in your stead.”
“Do you not think we could just ignore him?”
“Yes, we could do that, but you are liable to see these headlines for the next week.”
“I see. No, I could not stand that. When I finally do get to meet people, my name would be too easily remembered if it was in the paper every day. People would want to know how I knew a Lord.
“C’mon dear. I want you to lie down and I shall give you something to help you sleep. You are quite shaken and need rest but do not need the flood of memories. I shall handle everything.”
Margaret followed Katie into her own bedchamber and waited for some semblance of calm. Down deep Margaret was mortified that he should come looking for her even with the best of intentions, but her fall from grace seemed to bother her more. She had never noticed that she felt that strongly about it before. Strong, yes, but stronger than a rape, she certainly surprised herself.
After settling Margaret, Katie went and had a brief word with the girls so they could understand the trauma to Margaret. She told them of her plan to speak with the Lord tonight, and several offered to go with her. “No, I shall go alone. Let the Milton population see who comes to see the Lord without him knowing what I do. Could one of you girls start Margaret on her interviews? Is anyone available to volunteer their spare time and keep her busy for half an hour or more?”
Katie settled at her desk to write the Lord a note.
Miss Hale has no wish to see you as you can well understand. However, I have convinced her to hear what you have to say. I shall meet you in the Milton Grand dining room at eight this evening. I am sure you shall be recognizable. You may wish to convey your words to Miss Hale through a note that I shall carry to her. I know the whole story; therefore, I shall be able to prove that I represent her.
Until this evening . . . a friend of Miss Hale.
Private Diary of Douglas Alexander Spencer
Watcombe Manor, August 15th 1818, three o’clock in the morning
Jack and I are hurrying into Torquay and to the Bernards’ town house. Thank God I found my father’s will in time in the wall panelling above the bed where Father kept his most cherished belongings. That was how I learnt about his connection with the Bernard family! Margaret must be there, she must be! A message has been sent to Brandon and the magistrate. Pray God we should arrive in time …
Dobson’s hand was crushing my arm while he dragged me through the house. We came into what I assumed was a part of the servant’s quarters because the walls were bare and painted a drab brown. This was not the ground floor yet because the stairs continued downwards, but Dobson pushed me into a side corridor and halted before one of the many doors. His mistress opened it with one of many keys on her bunch and thrust me inside.
It was a bare room without so much as a carpet or draperies on the small window. The shutters were closed. There was a narrow cot with a coarse grey blanket and rough cotton sheets, and a table and chair, both plain and without ornamental carvings. What was this? By the table sat a woman in nurse’s clothing. She wore an unadorned grey woollen dress and starched white apron and cap. She was busily mending sheets but put down her work when Mrs Bernard entered, she rose and curtsied respectfully to her.
Then, in one corner, I saw something that overwhelmed me with horror and pity alike. In a high-backed chair, hands tied to the arm rest, and her feet to the chair’s legs, was a girl. Her slumped slender body was dressed in a plain, grey cotton dress and she sat with her feet bare on the floor boards. She was sitting with her head bowed down so that I was unable to see her face. She seemed unconscious or sleeping – I could not tell. Her breathing was heavy and the front of her dress was wet with what must be drool. Instinctively I took a step toward her but Mrs Bernard roughly drew me back. The explanation of this girl came quickly – and cruelly.
“Leave it! It must not be disturbed! It is an animal, not a human being and must not be treated as one. This is what I got for trusting Matthew Spencer, for loving him, for giving myself to him! This is God’s punishment for me, doomed as I am to take care of it for the rest of my life. I must redeem myself by caring for it but why must I be the only one to pay? I never understood that …”
Her voice trailed away and she let go of my arm to stare at her daughter.
My mind was reeling under what she had just told me. This unfortunate girl was a child of Sir Matthew, Douglas’ father? I looked at Mrs Bernard and suddenly understood. Her father had been extremely wealthy and established in society. She must have been a beautiful girl; remnants of that beauty were still there in the structure of facial bones, in the form of her mouth and – most of all – her hair, now a coarse grey. How luxurious it must have been in her youth. I could easily picture a waterfall of thick, dark curls tumbling down her back and shining like a raven’s coat of feathers.
“What happened, Mrs Bernard? Why did you not marry Sir Matthew?” I asked, my voice calm. She turned to me and slowly focussed again after she abandoned her reverie of the past. “He was a rogue,” she replied, her voice listless, almost lethargic. “He went from girl to girl and not one of them could resist him. I was one of many and easily fooled by his title and looks and his suave voice, uttering sweet nothings. Of course, none of us was good enough to become Lady Watcombe. It took me too long a time to comprehend that and, when I discovered I was increasing, I did my duty and married Randolph Bernard, who was courting me at the time. God knows how long I kept him at bay before I finally gave in. I was honest to him and confessed what I had done. Good man that he was, Randolph let me keep the creature and gave it his name. But from the day it was born, he started working on the Spencers’ downfall by buying everything they coveted right from under their noses. He sealed bargains before they could and expanded his empire at the expense of theirs. Matthew Spencer tried to save his fortune by marrying that goose, Phoebe Wilkinson, and it gave him some slack for as long as she lived. But after her death, the Wilkinsons again attempted to take over.”
“But, what is wrong with your daughter, Mrs Bernard? Is she mentally incapacitated? Or deaf or blind?”
“She is Spencer’s daughter! That is enough to keep her locked up!” Mrs Bernard’s voice dripped hatred. There was such a ring of madness in her words that a dire foreboding crossed my mind. Both mother and son must be insane! I could not stand it any longer and went to kneel before the girl’s chair. Gently, I stroked one of the pale, slender hands. There was no reaction. The girl just sat bent forward and I could hear her heavy breathing and I saw her saliva drip into her lap. I slid my hand over her black and sleek hair. The nurse had left it untied and it hung on both sides of her face like a curtain.
“What is your name?” I asked. “Will you not tell me your name?” Still there was no movement from the girl but she uttered a soft whimper, which went straight to my heart.
“What are you doing?” Mrs Bernard’s shrill voice sounded. “Leave it alone, I said!”
“She must have a name, does she not?” I retorted, angry with her cold and distant ways. “Everybody has a name! Tell me!”
Mrs Bernard’s distress was obvious and she was clearly confused about my compassion. How was this possible? How could a mother not love her child, even if it was conceived out of wedlock? But it was the nurse who answered. “ Her name is Amata. She knows her name, Miss. Just you try it.” When I looked up at her, I saw that the woman was smiling at me in encouragement. She must like her patient, I thought, for she is kind to her.
“Good day to you, Amata. I am Margaret. You have a beautiful name.” I touched both of her hands now and said her name again. “Amata … the one who is loved …”
Slowly the girl lifted her head and I was caught in a gaze I recognized immediately. Amata’s blue eyes were exactly like those of her half-brother Douglas and they looked at me with fear – dreadful, bone-chilling fear – but also with subdued awareness. This poor, suppressed creature, locked away for years, certainly was not mentally disabled!
Shock overwhelmed me as I struggled to take in all the horrors this girl must have been subjected to over the long years being locked up in this room. I rose to my feet, ready to release the stinging reproaches on my lips, when the door burst open. Nicholas Bernard grabbed my arm and dragged me outside, causing Amata to shriek like a banshee.
I was dragged back to the room I already experienced . Although I was too frightened to resist when Bernard tossed me back onto the bed in the chamber with the locked windows, I could only think of that poor girl in the downstairs room. I could not comprehend why someone would do such a thing to an innocent child! It was not until I felt Bernard tug at my bodice’s buttons that I realised what he was doing.
“Nicholas, wait! Please, Nicholas, we have to talk!”
I pushed at him but his weight was already upon me. Vaguely I wondered how such a slight man could be so heavy! When his mouth was on mine, forcing my lips to open under the pressure of his tongue, I gasped and tried to turn my head aside. He wrenched my chin back and held it in an grip of iron, trusting his tongue into my mouth. There was nothing I could do, I realised. He was too strong and too determined to have his way with me. Far away downstairs, there were unusual noises as I heard crashing and thudding and breaking, but my stunned mind could not understand. Bernard’s hands were ripping open my dress and groping at my breasts. Horror washed over me when he tore aside my ruined bodice and began unfastening the front of his breeches with one hand while the other held me firmly by the neck. I felt no desire, no warmth, only horror, frightful and revolting. Tears streamed down my face as I realised I was being raped, ruined by a man that was not Douglas. Tears, so hot that they choked me … oh, how I longed for death to come and take me …
Suddenly the weight was lifted off me and I drew a deep breath when I heard a voice that was more dear to me than my own life! Douglas! He had come! I tried to sit up and my stunned eyes had trouble taking in what was happening. Douglas and Bernard were fighting, dealing each other hard punches. Although Bernard was several inches shorter than Douglas, he was also wiry but well-muscled and was holding his ground against Douglas’ blows. Bernard was also quick and agile, darting around Douglas and stinging him with hard blows which the latter took on easily before punching back. Douglas might succeed only now and then to connect with Bernard’s jaw but his blows were much stronger. The force behind them was fuelled by so fierce a rage that his eyes seemed to burn with liquid blue fire.
The fight went on for a few minutes but eventually Douglas gained the upper hand and a crushing blow put Bernard down and he did not come round again. Douglas, panting and covered with blood, turned to me. The burning rage in his eyes suddenly frightened me and, groping for the blanket to cover myself, I backed away. God! He looked as if he was going to throttle me! Someone was whimpering but it took me a while to realise it was me.
“Margaret …” Douglas kneeled beside the bed, the rage gone from his eyes. “Meggie, it is me, Douglas! Do not look at me that way, my love, please?”
“Douglas … oh, Douglas …” Suddenly I was in his arms, sobbing my heart out. I wanted to feel him, to revel in his warmth, to inhale his scent, to hear the beating of his heart. Through the fabric of his shirt, I could feel his steel hard muscles and I rubbed my face against that muscled wall of chest, crying with relief because I was finally home. “He did not … I am not …” I heard myself stutter and attempted to say the words but they would not come.
“Shhh, shhh, all is well, my darling, all is well. I have you back, thank the Lord! Never, ever, will I let you out of my sight again, I swear it! Oh, my sweet, sweet darling, I have died a thousand deaths, not knowing where you were!” He was covering me with hard kisses, on my face, my neck, my hands and I was trying to give them back to him but, when our lips finally met, his mouth was greedy and fierce! Heat shot through me when my breasts, already bared from Bernard’s attack, rubbed against Douglas’ shirt. All conscious thinking faded, all reasoning died and only desire leapt, flared up and burned with incredible heat. Now was the time to give myself to him! Now!
Through the red haze of need a very urgent voice pierced the air. “Master, ‘urry! Master, the ‘ouse is on fire! We must leave, I beg ye, master!” Jack Twinkler, I realised with shock!
Douglas was already wrapping me in the blanket, in an attempt to shield my nakedness.
“On fire? How is that possible, Jack? What has happened?”
“It was the old woman, Master! She set fire to the ‘ouse and fled, together with Bernard! Master, it started in the downstairs rooms and the stairs are already in flames! We must leave now!”
Douglas scooped me up and carried me out of the room and down the stairs. A thick, black smoke had already filled the whole staircase and all of a sudden, I was coughing.
“Cover your mouth and nose, Margaret!” Douglas shouted. I could barely hear him over the roaring of the flames. How had this fire developed so quickly? Then, as I recalled Jack’s words, a horrible thought crossed my mind.
“Douglas, the girl! We must find the girl!” I leapt out of his arms and ran down the stairs, vaguely aware of the heat and the flames, toward Amata’s room. I could barely see a hand before my stinging eyes but eventually I found the door of Amata’s room, threw it open and froze! They had abandoned her! She was still tied to that chair, screaming in heart-wrenching panic now as she was pulling and straining against her bonds! I fell to my knees and began tugging at the ropes’ knots. They were strained too hard and I could not even begin to loosen them.
I must have been screaming myself because, all of a sudden, Douglas and Jack were beside me. “Margaret, leave that! We are taking her with us, chair and all! Come on, follow us! Here, put your hand on my shirt’s tail and, for the love of God, do not let go!”