My eyes were riveted on Douglas’ suddenly ashen face, which showed the expressed shock and disbelief he was experiencing. He walked slowly toward Petite-Maman, gently took her hands in his and spoke to her in urgent French. I roughly translated their conversation on behalf of the rest of the audience. It sounded like this:
“I beg you, Ma’am, are you certain of the baby’s age?”
“I assure you, Monsieur, that the baby was approximately eight pounds in weight. The umbilical cord was wrapped around the neck and he must have died in the womb which caused the beginning of birth.”
“When was this, the birth?”
“Ten years ago, not long before Christmas.”
“So it is true …” Douglas murmured, “Christina and I met in June …”
My heart, in sudden emotion, went out to him yet I could not move or venture a gesture of comfort. Douglas’ own apparent distress proved that Christina Finney must have been very dear to his own heart since, ten years after her death, she still had so great a power over him. Not for the first time did I feel extremely jealous of the Finney girl.
Marianne’s eager voice roused me from my sombre thoughts with an alacrity that was so very much in her nature.
“Oh, it is indeed true! Dear Mr Spencer, she did deceive you then! She must have been already with child when she came to Torquay and her sole purpose was to trick some unfortunate young man into marriage, so as to give the child the benefit of his name and position.”
At this point, Christopher, her husband, interrupted her in his quiet, determined way.
“I fear, my love, that it might not have been the only reason for the Finneys’ coming to Devonshire. During my stay in Liverpool I found out that Finney was in dire straits with regard to his financial circumstances. He was in great need for funds and his creditors were closing in on him quite rapidly. Finney and his friend, Wilkinson, had invested a great deal of their money in some very insecure schemes which proved to be disastrous. Finney had lost virtually all his money while Wilkinson, whose father had just recently died, was able to survive on his newly received inheritance money. Ten years after the affair which drove Spencer from his home, however, Wilkinson found himself in equally disastrous pecuniary difficulties as his friend, yet he had managed to keep the creditors at bay by the promise of inheriting Sir Matthew’s fortune and estate. He came to live here as soon as Douglas was sent away to Jamaica. He wormed himself into the esteem of Sir Mathew, who was very distressed by the conduct of his only son.”
“Oh, oh, I cannot believe how it was possible for Sir Matthew to treat his son that way!” Marianne exclaimed, “Surely it would have been preferable to …”
Douglas’ wavering voice stopped her in mid-sentence. Fighting to hide his emotional distress – and only barely succeeding – he let his distasteful gaze travel over the assembly.
“No, I will not tolerate any disapproval of my good father. He was right in punishing me, for had I not done exactly what he most disapproved of? I had indeed seduced Christina! I had known her intimately, even if I was not the father of her child …”
His words died away in a dreadful silence and everybody sat staring at him with compassion. The silence dragged on for several minutes and, although I wanted desperately to break it, my constricted throat could not find the words I wanted to force out.
Elinor’s calm, level voice took over for me.
“Christopher, did you happen to discover who Miss Finney’s lover was, back in Liverpool?”
“No,” our brother-in-law answered, “the girl was said to be quiet and very protected. Her father always kept her in his house and in the company of close friends and family. No one I spoke with knew of any suitors.”
Again, silence engulfed the room. I was beginning to feel dizzy with weariness and tension. I realised I was not closer to Douglas as I had been since we were rescued from the underground passage. He withdrew from me whenever we were not alone.
The soft French speaking voice of Petite-Maman spoke to me and I startled.
“Mademoiselle, do you still have the letter I gave you, that day when we met on the moors?”
I was confused at first and I stared at her, not comprehending what she was talking about. Then, belatedly, I remembered and took the cream-coloured envelope with its blue ribbon and seal, from my pocket, where I had kept it ever since she gave it to me. I transferred it from skirt to skirt with each passing day and each change of clothes – it never left me. Like a talisman one does not want to be parted from. I was still unable to utter the slightest word but I handed the envelope to Douglas, who accepted it from my trembling hand. He tilted his inquiring eyebrows and looked at me.“Margaret, what is this?”
“It is for you, Monsieur Spencer, from the young lady I attended. She pressed it into my hands just before she died,” Petite-Maman said, looking forcibly into Douglas’ eyes.
“My love, will you not open it?,” I urged. “This clearly is Christina’s last message to you and she must have felt guilty …”
The words died in my throat as I watched yet again the emotions on Douglas’ countenance. He stood very upright and rigid and held the letter in his hand. He stared at it, frozen in memories of the girl who had engaged his heart for the first time so long ago. Christina Finney might have wounded Douglas by her betrayal, yet she had never lost that special place in his heart – that magical, deep touch of first love. For that, I would always hate her.
Elinor’s husband Edward suddenly stood and walked over to Douglas. He turned toward the rest of us and, in his quiet, soothing parson’s voice, addressed us.
“I think we should let matters rest for tonight. Mr Spencer, as well as our Margaret, have been through quite an ordeal. They need some peace and quiet so that they can reflect on what has been revealed here.”
“Quite right,” Christopher agreed. “Spencer, old chap, I suggest you stay here for tonight. Your room has been readied so that you can get a decent night’s sleep. Tomorrow we can attend to the most pressing matters of how to retrieve your inheritance. I have asked my lawyer, Mr Morley, to come over from Torquay and advise us on the legal issues of your late father’s will. I hope you do not find this too forthright of me?”
Douglas roused himself from a state of apathy with some difficulty, nodded and said: “No, Brandon, not at all. Thank you, Mr Ferrars, and you too, Brandon, for the suggestion of retiring to bed. I think I will give in to it.”
Without a word to me or the rest of us, he turned on his heels and motioned to Jack Twinkler to follow him out of the room.
The night breeze, wafting through the open window of my bedchamber on Delaford’s second floor, was hot and sultry. It did nothing to cool the room, beside stirring up whatever air and dust it contained. I lay on top of the covers in my flimsiest muslin nightdress, perspiring and unhappy, because I could not find sleep. No, I mused to myself, unhappy does not cover my discomfort and sleep lack. Miserable is more like the way I felt, utterly and deeply miserable, and I was at my wits’ end about how I would ever be come cheerful again.
When had my luck changed? Why does Douglas behave as he does now? Always, when there were people around, he seemed to withdraw from me. It is a very different behaviour from the one he shows me when we are alone. When we were cooped up in that horrible passage, he was a tower of strength and gentleness. He saved my life with no regard to his own personal risks. He had asked me to be his wife in such a romantic way that I still feel weak in the knees from the sheer loveliness of it. At that moment, as in all the moments we were alone, I knew that he loved me as deeply as I loved him.
But tonight, with Christina’s professing letter burning in his hand like a piece of red hot coal, Douglas looked like a stranger to me, wrapped up as he had been in memories of the girl, he gave his heart to, when he was no more than a boy. It was doubtless that he had indeed loved Christina. Worse, he still had some feelings left over for her, or perhaps regret, guilt, or bereavement. I need to find out what it was that stirred him so, if I was ever to become happy with him. I would have to prove to him the depth of my commitment.
I gave up the struggle, rose and went to the open window. I gazed into the hot August night with its deep indigo sky pierced with a myriad of star pinpricks and adorned by a waning moon. The garden of Delaford lay beneath my window. It appeared like an enchanted kingdom beckoning me to explore it. I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders and went outside through the drawing room’s French windows and onto the terrace. The slate flagstones felt cool beneath my bare feet and I slowly walked toward the smooth lawn. The grass was soft and thick and I strode over the lawn’s width toward the Home Wood. In contrast to Watcombe Manor’s neglected landscape, here there was meticulous caring of the grounds. No undergrowth or weeds disfigured this estate. I reached the wood and faced the lawn and house, hugging my shawl about me. Delaford was a lovely house and a happy one; it sheltered Christopher and Marianne and their children, my nieces, Amelia and Emily. Soon there would be a new baby and I knew how fervently, this time, Marianne was hoping for a boy.
“A penny for them …” a deep, very familiar voice behind me spoke.
Douglas was in dishabille and wore nothing but shirt and breeches – he looked devastatingly handsome. My startled gaze roamed over his tall, lean body and its broad shoulders and thin waist. His long, muscular legs ended at large, strong-boned feet. Bare feet. His were so incredibly attractive that my throat tightened as if I were back in the underground passage again and I could not breathe.
I took in the smooth triangle of chest in the V-shaped opening of his shirt, from which rose the perfect column of his neck. His face, pale in the weak moonlight, was finely chiselled – the smooth, strong bones, displaying the strength of his nose and jaw and the sensuality of his mouth. His eyes, however, were unreadable and appeared almost black in the night.
The shawl fell from my shoulders and out of my trembling hands, forming a large white triangle on the lawn’s darker shaded area. I was suddenly immersed in heat, blood coursing loudly through my veins and pounding deafeningly in my ears. Heaven help me, but I wanted him then and there. When he took a step toward me and extended a hand, I grasped it into my own, sank down onto the shawl and drew him on top of me. His long, lean body covered me completely. For the time of a heartbeat, Douglas supported himself on his elbows and gazed down on me, his eyes now a pale grey in the low, near moonless night. Once again his eyes were unreadable.
“Meggie …” he said in hoarse, almost gruff voice, his lips parting as if he needed to breathe heavily. The weight of him, even as he supported himself on his elbows, was almost too much for my slender body but I did not care. I welcomed him as it felt so good, so right. I felt the pressure of his erection against my equally aroused womanly place. My whole body suffused with heat. Urgently I raked my hands through the heavy black mass of his gorgeous hair. Instinctively my lower body came upward to press even closer to him; he uttered a low, throaty groan.
“Ah … woman, what are you doing … do you want me to ruin you here and now? If I do not get up, I will. You are so lovely, my Meg, you smell so good and your body is so soft and warm against mine …”
“I want you to love me, Douglas, here and now … I have waited so long to have you as my lover, please, do not deny me …”
Unable to suppress a sob, I drew his head down and pressed my mouth upon his.