Mr Twinkler appeared in the doorway accompanied by a short, stocky woman of some fifty odd years old. She was wearing a frilly skirt of brightly coloured cotton, a white cotton shirt and a shawl of scarlet coloured wool. Over her long, curly brown hair she had knotted a scarf in the way that is custom with the gypsies. Her ears were pierced with thick golden rings and her arms jingled with a lot of golden bracelets from which many charm pendants hung.
“This ‘ere is Petite-Maman,” Mr Twinkler announced, mangling the name frightfully. “She don’t speak English ‘cos she’s a Frenchie. I ‘ad all the trouble in the world explaining what was goin’ on!”
“Bonjour, Madame Petite-Maman,” I smiled, “je suis Margaret Dashwood. Voici Monsieur Spencer. Il a été blessé par une balle à l’épaule. Il va falloir l’extraire. Pourriez-vous prendre soin de tout ça?”
“Bien sûr, Mademoiselle. Pourriez-vous me donner un coup de main, s’il-vous-plaît?”
Mr Twinkler’s eyes were round as teacups and he exclaimed in admiration.
“Blimey! Yer a lady for real, then, if ye speak that filthy jargon so well! Where d’ye learn that?”
“From reading and having conversations with my two sisters, Mr Twinkler, where else? Now, if you please, stand by. Petite-Maman might need you to assist her in caring for your master.”
Petite-Maman told me what she wanted to be done and I translated it for Mr Twinkler.
She asked for hot water and fresh towels and bandages. Mr Twinkler supplied two out of three, apologizing for the fact that bandages were not available in the house. I cut two towels into strips.
Mr Spencer had not interfered with any of this but his eyes had never left me while I was bustling about. When the gypsy woman began making preparations by laying out various, nasty looking instruments on a towel, his face took a slight expression of alarm.
“Miss Dashwood, what is this? Are you going to let her butcher me?”
His eyes were dancing with mischief and I could not help myself and laughed.
“Oh, come on, sir! You know as well as I do that the bullet must be removed. This woman claims she can do it so …”
“Yes, I heard her. You do understand French well, I presume?”
“Well enough, my lord. As do you.”
“I learned it on Jamaica where I spent the last ten years.”
Petite-Maman was now ready to begin her administrations and told me to tell the patient to lie very still while she worked.
“Oui, Madame, je comprends,” Mr Spencer said as he positioned himself on the bed.
The next ten minutes were very unpleasant and I had to take over Mr Twinkler’s task of holding his master down while Petite-Maman extracted the bullet from the wound. The young man suddenly turned white and fled to one of the room’s corners. At one point Mr Spencer grabbed hold of my hand and squeezed it rather forcefully as the gypsy pulled out the projectile by means of a long pincer. I could literally hear him grinding his teeth. I was feeling a bit queasy myself watching the procedure.
He nearly broke my hand a few seconds later, when Petite-Maman poured a dash of medicinal alcohol into the wound. A small rivulet of blood ran down his lips where he bit himself. I wiped the blood away.
“Miss Dashwood”, my patient said through clenched teeth as Petite-Maman bandaged the wound, “Mr Twinkler will bring you home in the curricle. Please accept my sincere thanks for your help.” His tone did not sound sincere, just hurtful.
I was stunned and also a trifle put out by the harshness of his tone because I had not expected him to dismiss me like he would have a servant! Nevertheless, I knew what prompted the remark. I had seen him weak and in pain and from what I observed of the marriages of my two sisters, it was not something a man would want a woman to witness.
“Dites-moi comment prendre soin de lui, s’il vous plait, Petite-Maman? Que dois-je faire en cas de fièvre?”
“What do you mean …? Miss Dashwood, curse it! Listen to me!”
I ignored Mister Spencer’s fervent interruptions and instead listened to the gypsy’s instructions. She said she did not think he would get feverish because he was young and strong but in case it did indeed happen, I was to call her. I thanked her and pressed a few coins into her hand; they were all the money I had in my purse. Petite-Maman seemed content with it.
“Twinkler!” a booming voice rang out.
Poor Jack nearly jumped out of his skin with his master’s outraged cry.
“Go harness the curricle and escort Miss Dashwood to Barton Cottage. Now!”
I nodded at Jack and his countenance cleared significantly.
“I will be with you in a minute,” I said to him and he and Petite-Maman left.
With as sweet a smile as I could muster – because I certainly was not in a sweet mood – I seated myself next to the bed again.
“Miss Dashwood, I must insist that you leave this house forthwith! For Heaven’s sake, why are you so cursed headstrong!”
I laid my hand on his arm to calm him when I noticed how he was working himself into a state of nervous rage.
“Mr Spencer, I will do as you requested but not before you answer this; why is it that you will not come into your title before the 22th of August? It is, after all, a very uncommon thing. You should have inherited the title right after your father’s death.”
To my surprise, he fell back onto his pillow with a hearty sigh and turned away his face. He seemed to be struggling with himself but eventually he yielded.
“Ten years ago …,” he began, then stopped.
“Yes?” I encouraged but to no avail.
“No, Miss Dashwood!”
He faced me once again, very sternly and brought forth all his defences.
“Please, leave. It is for the best.”
I had no choice but to obey.
As we were drove towards Barton Cottage, I interrogated Mr Twinkler about him and his master. Where had they been before coming back to England? These were the things I wanted to ask.
“Oh, I ‘aven’t bin anywhere but Lonnun, ma’am. Master found me starvin’ in a porch some months ago. Took me to ‘is ‘otel and fed me, then took me on as ‘is servant. Not that he’s paid me a single penny yet. I don’t mind! ‘E’s a good master and ‘e’s also fair and friendly. As long as ‘e feeds me, I’ll stay with ‘im.”
“But where has Mr Spencer been, do you know?”
“I think it was the Caribbean, ma’am. Dunno what he’s been doin’ there. Master doesn’t talk to me about ‘is personal affairs. Suits me fine. I’ll stay wi’im for the rest o’ me life, I am!”
“So you have no knowledge of what happened to him, ten years ago?”
“No, ma’am, not an inkling. Master’s from these parts of the country, that I do know. Watcombe Manor, that’s ‘is estate but ‘e ain’t no right of living there, that’s all I know.”
Watcombe Manor was unknown to me but I vowed to find out where it was. I had become very interested in Mr Spencer’s story.
“Do you not miss London, then, Mr Twinkler?”
“No, ma’am, why should I? I ‘ave no family left, they all died. I’m fifteen now and I’ve been on me own since I was ten. No, I’m stayin’ wi’ the master.”
“He calls you ‘his friend’, Mr Twinkler?”
Jack Twinkler’s narrow face lit with merriment.
“That’s why I’m stayin’ wi’ ‘im and always will, Ma’am, no matter what ‘appens.”
By that time we had reached Barton Cottage and I bid farewell to Mr Twinkler, who turned the curricle and rode away. Deep in thoughts, I climbed the shallow slope. I was deeply aware of some inner uproar in, even though I would not allow it to show outwardly. Douglas Spencer had indeed intrigued me from the very first moment because of a duality in his behaviour; a ravisher, he may have called himself but why then had he wished me away for fear about my reputation?
I was not allowed to dwell upon these disturbing reflections for my mother’s shrill voice greeted me from the sitting room as soon as I entered the cottage.
“Meg? Is that you? Where have you been, girl? Not only is it not suitable for a young lady to go dashing about the countryside on her own but it is also very ruinous for her complexion! Do you want to have the looks of a peasant girl? Do you want to look all weathered and knocked about, your beautiful skin all red or spotted with freckles?”
“Mama, Mama, calm yourself. Nothing of the sort has happened. I just took a long walk and got lost. That is why I am so late and I beg you to understand that it was not my intention when I set off this morning. Lord, but I am hungry! Is breakfast ready?”
With those last remarks I hoped to distract my mother from the fact that I was quite dishevelled and a little dirty. Yet my heart lurched within me as I suddenly discovered a large spot of red on the bodice of my dress!
“I am coming, Mama! I must wash first!”
Then I dashed up the stairs to my small bedroom under the eaves of the attic and closed the door behind me. That had been close! My mother would have had a fit if she had seen that blood!
Spencer’s blood … immediately his handsome face sprang to my mind … those fierce blue eyes, those sensual lips … Oh, stop it! Margaret Dashwood, you are being silly and shallow! Put that man out of your thoughts. He is not for you. My thoughts raced. Not for me? Why not? Because he is not suitable and way too old for you. I battled with propriety and my desires – point, counterpoint. He is also poor and you know very well how that affects one’s life, don’t you, Margaret? He is also a rake as he proclaimed himself so very well to you.
Do you not remember what that rascal Willoughby did to poor Marianne? He nearly destroyed her and that is exactly what Spencer will do if you let him come too near!
All that was true. The sensible, realistic part of me acknowledged it all too well but my foolish, romantic heart did not. My poor, love-starved heart only remembered the feeling of his warm, hard body against mine when he clung to me, so wounded and helpless.