A discreet knock on the chapel door startled them both so unexpectedly that they almost jumped apart.
“Come in,” Richard summoned, and Thornton entered in his usual dignified manner.
“Sir, you have a visitor from London, a Mr Blenkinsop. He says he is Sir Jeremy’s man of business. His Lordship is out riding so I have put Mr Blenkinsop in the drawing room. Perhaps you might want to receive him in his Lordship’s absence? He says he has extremely urgent business with Sir Jeremy.”
“Very well,” Richard recollected himself and followed his butler.
Manon trotted after them, frustrated now that she would not immediately know the contents of the parcel. When she passed the vast mirror on the second floor landing, Manon caught a glimpse of herself and halted. She appeared terribly dishevelled, and her dress was in a sorry state. She could not possibly meet a visitor in her present attire. With a sigh, she headed to her room to change.
His mother, Richard noticed with annoyance, was already in the drawing room. She was standing at the front window, wringing her hands. A fair sign that Mildred was concerned over something, although Richard had no inkling of what it might be.
A short, rotund man in his early sixties rose from the drawing room settee when Richard entered.
“Sir Richard,” the man said, bowing from the waist with something of an effort since the said waist was non-existent.
“Mr Blenkinsop,” Richard acknowledged, returning the man’s bow. “How can I help you?”
I was hoping that I could have a word with Lord Jeremy. The news I am obliged to bring him is quite upsetting.”
Mildred gave a strangled little shriek but fell silent when her son threw her a forbidding look. Richard turned his attention back to his visitor and replied, “I am truly sorry to hear that, Mr Blenkinsop. Since His Lordship has yet to return from his ride, will you join me in taking a glass of sherry? At least we could make the time pass in an agreeable manner.”
“With extreme pleasure, sir,” Mr Blenkinsop beamed.
To Richard’s relief, Mildred recalled that she was the hostess and hastened toward the liquor cabinet to serve the men their drink. She then seated herself in a chair near the window, still pulling at her hands.
The two men conversed about general topics during a pleasant quarter of an hour until the door opened to let Thornton in.
“His Lordship, Viscount Banbury, sir.”
Jeremy strode into the room, emanating a scent of horse and outdoor riding so enticingly that Richard began longing for the moment his bruised ribs would again allow him to do the same.
“Mr Blenkinsop,” Jeremy said, raising his eyebrows in mild surprise. “What brings you to faraway Hampshire this morning?”
To Richard’s surprise, the round figure of Mr Blenkinsop sank onto one knee. The man bowed his head and retrieved a small item from his waistcoat pocket, presenting it to Jeremy.
“It is a sad message I bring to you, My Lord Donbridge. I was commissioned to hand over your father’s signet ring so that you will be able to resume the duties laid upon you in this very hour. His Lordship passed away in his sleep during the night.”
Richard heard the slight intake of breath Jeremy uttered, the sole sign that the new Earl of Donbridge had indeed acknowledged the lawyer’s words.
“When did this happen, Mr Blenkinsop?” the new earl quietly asked.
“Last evening, after returning from a soirée, the earl collapsed. His physician pronounced it an apoplectic attack, my lord. His Lordship died in the night, without having regained consciousness. May I offer you my sincerest condolences?”
“Thank you, Mr Blenkinsop. You may rise to your feet. I am most obliged to you for coming to appraise me so forthwith.”
Richard stepped forward and proffered a hand. “Donbridge, I am most aggrieved upon hearing of your father’s demise. If there is anything I can do to be of assistance, please do not hesitate to tell me. It would be my honour and pleasure.”
“Thank you, Bearsham. Please ask your butler to send my valet to my chambers and tell him to start packing. I want to return to London as soon as possible.”
The baronetess’ high-pitched cry rang through the room like the wailing of a banshee.
“You are not going to leave me behind, are you? I want to accompany you, and be with you! You promised me that we would never be separated again!”
Richard froze in horror when his mother flung herself onto the earl’s chest, sobbing her heart out. He made a move towards the couple, but the Earl of Donbridge took the matter in hand. He slowly freed himself from Mildred’s clutching hands lowering them from around his neck.
“I think you know that we must part, my dear,” he said in a gentle voice. “My responsibilities are immense now. I will have to work hard to fill my late father’s shoes and preserve the earldom of Donbridge for my eldest son. We will see each other again on the London scene, I am sure. Farewell, Mildred, my dear.”
Mildred did not reply but sank into a chair, sobbing.
To be honest, Richard had been struck by the change in the new earl’s demeanour, when the realisation of his father’s demise had occurred to him. If he had been a shallow, easygoing middle-aged man before, Jeremy Lawson was now showing his true breeding. He seemed to have grown several inches, and his bearing had become regal and distinguished within mere seconds. Richard almost admired him for finally allowing his upbringing to show.
The Earl of Donbridge gracefully nodded an acknowledgement to Richard.
“My thanks for your hospitality, Sir Richard. I hope you will think of visiting me sometime in the future at Donbridge Abbey. For now, I would like to leave within the hour. My mother must have need of my comfort and assistance.”
“Of course, I understand, my lord. Just convey your wishes to my butler, and he will provide for them.”
The door opened with a click, and Manon entered, her cream-coloured muslin skirts swishing softly as she neared the earl. She dipped in a perfect curtsy and gently said, “My lord, I heard about your father’s demise, just now. Please accept my most sincere condolences.”
Richard watched in mesmerized pleasure as she took the hand Jeremy offered her once she rose from her curtsy. Manon, being as soft-hearted and compassionate as ever, pressed it in both her hands before placing a discreet kiss on the earl’s cheek.
Donbridge coloured in sudden pleasure, and his eyes grew damp.
“Thank you, dear child,” he replied. “Your compassion is most appreciated.” He swallowed, then straightened before he released Manon’s hand. He bowed to her and the baronet and left the room.
The only sounds in the room were his mother’s sobbing, and they drew Manon’s attention.
Richard caught Manon’s eyes, which were softened with tears as she walked towards his mother. She knelt before Mildred and put a comforting hand on the baronetess’ shoulder. Richard felt his heart tighten within him. She was so compassionate, his angel. She even showed true gentleness to a woman who despised her.
“Aunt Mildred,” Manon whispered, “I beg you, do not weep so. You will make yourself ill, and what would be the benefit in that? Come, you should rest for a while. I will ask the cook to prepare you some hot chocolate.”
Richard was not at all surprised when his mother jumped up from the chair, pushing at Manon who fell backwards onto the floor. His mother was not so easily pacified.
“Take your hands off me, you wretched wench! I will not be pitied by the likes of you!”
Mildred stormed out of the room while Richard helped Manon up.
“Poor woman,” his niece sympathized. “And poor Jeremy, too. I am certain he will feel the loss of your mother’s company in the days to come.”
“Do not waste your tears on Jeremy Lawson, my sweet niece,” Richard felt compelled to answer. “He is now an extremely wealthy earl in possession of a large fortune and several thriving estates. The old earl was a tyrant who took pleasure in forcing his family into submission. No one will feel the loss of him greatly, I suspect.”
“How can you say that, Uncle?” Manon turned disturbed eyes on him as if she could not believe her ears. Tears began to run slowly down her pale cheeks, yet her voice sounded stern when she spoke.
“He was a father, a husband. He must have been loved and now he will be missed, no matter how fierce his character! A father will always be missed, Uncle!”
Richard’s heart turned in his very chest at the realisation that Manon’s father, who had been taken from her only so recently, must still be causing her grief. A grief she had not yet had time to acknowledge. Manon had never spoken about her father’s death, he recalled with a pang of sorrow. She had bravely taken up the task of looking after her little brother, ignoring her own pain. On the ship to England, she had comforted Jéhan when he realised their father was dead and would never return to them. Who had comforted Manon, he mused? No one, not even he.
On an impulse, Richard obliterated the distance between them in two strides and wrapped his arms around her slender shoulders.
“Forgive me, my dear. I had forgotten your own recent bereavement. I spoke in haste.”
The moment his warmth enveloped her like a shielding cloak, Manon melted against Richard’s body, unable to resist the comfort he offered her. The memory of Papa and Maman rushed over her in a tide of pain, so fierce that her breath was cut off. That life was gone. Forever gone, and it did not signify to mourn the loss of it. She swallowed the useless tears and stepped away from Richard’s disturbing embrace.
“We cannot dwell upon what is lost, Uncle. I will always mourn Papa and after all these years, I still have grief over Maman, but I cannot allow their passing to influence the rest of my life. I shall dearly love them as long as I draw breath, because they loved me and cherished me. They gave me and Jéhan a home through the love they felt for each other. But they are gone and so is the life we led when they were still alive. We cannot go back to the past as dearly as we should wish for it.”
“Come,” Richard said, on an impulse. “There is something you must see.”
He took her hand and pulled her with him to his library where he pointed at a large frame above the mantelpiece. Manon swallowed in sudden emotion as, for the first time since Lily passed away, she saw her dear mother’s likeness.
It was breathtaking. Lily De Briers must have been but a girl barely out of the schoolroom, when the portrait was painted. She had been depicted in a standing position, dressed in her finery, and cradling her little dog. Her left foot was resting on a low stool, while the right one was hidden beneath her skirts. That slender, delicate foot was shod in a white silk stocking and a silver slipper. Peeking out as it did from under the hem of Lily’s skirt, it emphasized her youth and vulnerability. Lily’s vibrant auburn hair was spilling over her shoulders, which were slightly bared by a splendid gown of deep sea-green. The colour of the gown matched her mother’s eyes, which sparkled with a fire of their own. The artist had managed to capture that glow to perfection. This, Manon thought, was Maman, as she had been when Papa fell in love with her.
“Whenever you feel the loss, Manon, do as I do – just sit here and look at her. This is our Lily, the dearest of mothers to you, and a dearly beloved sister to me.”
Richard’s voice came from behind her, and was so near that Manon started. His breath ruffled the hair on top of her head and his warmth was clearly noticeable. Manon kept still, revelling in his being so close. He spoke again, and she listened.
“Father adored her. She was the sun in his life and in mine. I remember the time when she modelled for the portrait. It took the artist two months to finish it. Lily had to spend hours just standing there without changing position. I was five at the time and an absolute little brute. I used to peek from behind the artist’s back and make faces at her, to make her giggle and laugh, which she did, of course. The painter used to be angry with her and scold her. She always had a difficult time regaining her solemn composure after my mischief.”
“I cannot ever for the life of me picture you as a brute, Uncle. You are gentle and caring.”
She tried to keep her tone light, not wanting him to see her emotions.
“Oh, but I was a pest, niece, I assure you. All five-year-old boys invariably are. However, I tried to be a good master to Wriggles, her dog after she left. Sadly, the poor dog’s heart was broken, and it died two months later. The lucky bastard. Wished I could have died too, at that time.”
Manon could not think of anything that might console her uncle, so she kept her silence. Then her attention was drawn by another picture on the opposite wall.
“Is that our grandmother, Elizabeth?” she asked, walking over to look closer at the painting.
“Only yours, Manon. Surely you remember that your grandmother Elizabeth was my father’s first spouse. My mother was his second wife.”
“Oh, quite! I forgot. Elizabeth was as stunningly beautiful as Lily, was she not? That glorious auburn hair and those dark eyes! Are they not magnificent?”
“They certainly are,” Richard agreed.
“Maman and I seem to have inherited her hair,” Manon mused, “but not her eyes. They are dark, almost black.”
“Yours are sea-green, as were Lily’s. Since there are no green eyes in my father’s family that I know of, it must be a trait that came from Elizabeth’s. Unfortunately, I do not know your grandmother’s family since my father and Elizabeth were estranged from them long before I was born. Father never talked about the Montrose family. I only know that their seat was somewhere in Yorkshire.”
“Thank you for showing me these,” Manon said, smiling. “I had not yet found time to go find my Maman’s picture, Uncle.”
“No,” Richard chuckled, “you have been rather busy during your short stay, niece. Now, let us find out what is in that parcel my father left me. I can but wonder why he did not allow me to know its contents when he was alive.”
They repaired to Richard’s desk, where Thornton had placed the parcel. Richard cut the strings and unwrapped it. In it was a letter, several sheets thick.
Manon drew nearer to her uncle so that she was able to read it also.
Released November 17, 2017
Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy.
The young Arthur runs the back passages of Londinium with his crew, not knowing his royal lineage until he grabs Excalibur. Instantly confronted by the sword’s influence, Arthur is forced to make up his mind. Throwing in with the Resistance and an enigmatic young woman named Guinevere, he must learn to master the sword, face down his demons and unite the people to defeat the tyrant Vortigern — who murdered his parents and stole his crown — and become king.
Charlie Hunnam as King Arthur
Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey as Guinevere
Jude Law as Vortigern
Djimon Hounsou as Bedivere
Eric Bana as Uther Pendragon
Mikael Persbrandt as Kjartan
Hermione Corfield as Syren
Annabelle Wallis as Maid Maggie
Aidan Gillen as Goosefat Bill Wilson
Kingsley Ben-Adir as Wetstick
Neil Maskell as Backlack
Millie Brady as Princess Catia
Thomas Metcalfe as Supporting Mage
David Beckham as Blackleg Leader
Katie McGrath as Elsa
“That question was answered in my head about three days ago. I am going to marry John Thornton, and I am sorry that you do not approve. I owe him a long letter right now, but I think I will go tell him in person. I cannot do anything for Fred, and if I could, I could do it from Milton. Do not be surprised if you get a note from me soon that I am married. I intend to do it immediately . . . I love him that much. I am going upstairs to pack. Tell our driver, I will be ready in half an hour.” Margaret disappeared up the steps not caring what they said.
Chapter 22 (final chapter)
Warning: rated “R”
As Nicholas had predicted, John spent the days in misery. Misery that he was wrong with his behavior and horrifying misery if he was right. His life was shattered. It was nearing sundown and John was finally coming out of his drunken stupor. He felt ready to compose his letter. His house staff had left for the day so when he heard a knock on his door he knew he had to get it himself.
When he opened the door, he did not see anyone, but heard a small female voice say, “John Thornton, will you marry me?”
John stepped outside and swept Margaret over the threshold carrying her upstairs.” Did you mean right now or is tomorrow soon enough?” He asked, assured he was having a vision. He walked to his bedchamber and laid her down, then lay down beside her. Margaret was a bit stunned that he just stayed that way as if he were sleeping. Then she started to laugh. He must think he is having a vision because he’s so still. She would fix that.
Margaret slipped out of bed and quietly undressed. She lay back down and propped on her side watching his dreamy smile. She wondered what he was envisioning and what she should do next. She carefully unbuttoned his trousers at the top so she could slip her hand in. She did not need help to bring him to arousal as he was there already. Firmly grasping his manhood, she reached up and started licking his lips. He slightly parted them and she entered. She felt him thicken and his arms curl around her back and shoulders.
Margaret was stymied as to how to proceed from there. She wiggled away from him gently and started the struggle to pull off his boots. He rolled a bit as if he was about to wake. She did not want him to wake. This was too much fun. Finally bearing off all of his clothes below the waist and unbuttoning his shirt, she wondered what to do next. She devised a cunning plan, but thought it was a very good time to take a close look at his manly . . . manly what . . . accoutrement? . . . appendage? . . . thing? Thing would have to do for now. She wondered if she did not move would it go down. This would be a new adventure for her. She waited for what seemed a long time, being very still but the darn thing started waving at her. She gasped quietly, stunned. The thing seemed to have a mind of its own. It would stand straight and proud and then lean a bit, then straight again. Then it almost did a wagging motion.
She had no idea that John had always been awake and was really enjoying this game with her. He did not know how long he could hold in his laughter that was almost choking him.
Margaret was mesmerized. Next, she started to lightly poke at the thing. She eased down a little to see if the lower portion of this complex design was reacting to any of this stimulus. It did not appear to, although it looked like the two inhabitants were snuggling from the cold. Margaret stopped her poking and continued to watch. It waved a bit and then it seemed to want to topple over.
John was doing everything he could to clear his mind and allow his penis to come to rest. However, it was not easy. He kept looking down watching her fascination of the whole process that he had lived with since birth.
Margaret started whispering to herself as she continued to study John’s anatomy.” Gosh, I cannot believe all of that goes in me and still feels good. I wonder if it wiggles inside . . . probably no room.”
John was about to burst with laughter and wished she would be quiet so he could help her complete her studies. He closed his eyes and thought about work. As long as she did not touch him, he might be able to favor her with his at rest position. It was working.
Margaret inhaled in surprise.” Look at that! It is going to sleep, I imagine. Oh my gosh, look how it shrinks. My gracious, what a difference. What makes it do that? Does the air leak out somewhere?” She still whispered to herself.
Now, that it was small John expected her to start poking again. Once he was fully erect, he would throw her on her back. He did not know if he should be awake or still dreaming for that.
Margaret did not do as he anticipated but took all of him into her mouth savoring the smallness while she could.
Suddenly, Margaret heard that spellbinding voice.” God, Margaret, do not stop.” She had not planned on stopping but the smallness was rapidly disappearing.
“Was he awake?” she wondered.” Was he playing this game with her?” Margaret knew that he was responding to her when she did something. She thought if she could get him to take the initiative, then he was definitely awake. She had a very bold lustful and passionate plan. She was going to do a very unladylike thing.
As John’s manhood came to full arousal, she straddled him, sitting on his belly with his erect penis behind her. She slowly lifted his heavy arms and pinned them behind his head. Now looking at his face, she could almost see his smirk hiding. Since he had a long body and it was a stretch for her to keep his arms pinned down, she wiggled up on his chest, now moving away from his manhood. She thought she saw disappointment in his brow movement. A small crinkle appeared between his brows. Margaret took a breath for the final assault, steeled herself, and straddled him around his neck and armpits. Everything she could offer him was almost within a tongue lash. Nothing happened immediately but she did not expect it. He would be waiting for her next move, but it would not happen. The crinkle between his brows had now moved to edges of his mouth. He was holding back the smile.
Margaret just sat there. She thought she could wait him out.
With his eyes still closed, John finally said, “So, you want me to marry you?”
“Then move about an inch closer and I will think about it.”
Margaret did not obey his blatant remark but John untangled his pinned arms and pulled her forward. He supped while Margaret fell backward from weakness. All of her nerve endings crested with the intense pleasure rolling through her until her vision blurred and all around her faded away. Her release was hard and she did not want it to end.” Do not stop, John. I love what you do to me.”
John flipped her on her back and entered her. And through the throes of her orgasm, John held his control as long as he could luxuriate within her velvet sheath. As each thrust sustained her, he told himself that she was his. He watched her face in all its glory at his movements. That drove him deeper and faster until his release ripped through his body leaving him gasping and shaken.
As he opened his eyes, he saw her inevitable smile and rolled with her up on top and he onto his back. He lifted his hands to her breasts and plucked at her hard nipples.
While she sat upon him with him still inside, they looked into each other’s eyes.” I love you Margaret Hale,” John said.
“And I love you, John Thornton, but you haven’t answered my question.”
“You mean about the wiggling. Now that he’s gone down, can you feel this?” He laughed, not expecting an answer. Margaret, if I live to be a thousand, I will never forget your little expedition. I am going to have to write that down in my memoirs. And by the way, I have not completed my thesis, yet.”
“You have memoirs?” Margaret asked, feeling stunned that he actually might have written things down.
“Yes, I started them with the first visions. Being away rescuing my damsel twice, I was busy yesterday writing everything down.”
“Surely, not everything.” Margaret responded.
“Yes, everything. I was afraid that was all I would have of you for the rest of my life.” John said solemnly, looking away.
“Can we discuss that later? John, I have not packed for a visit here; I have packed to stay.”
John rose up with her still sitting on him and covered her mouth with his. He kissed her long and sensuously, thinking all the while that his dream, his vision, was right there in his arms. She was here forever.” Margaret, you have completed me. You have made me the man that I always wished to be. Yes, I will marry you and we will do it tomorrow. We will invite Nicholas and Peggy, along with Daniel and Megan as witnesses.”
Margaret started to feel his wiggle.” You know, we are going to have to give this little guy a name. I can’t keep saying thing.”
John laughed ready to flip her back on her back again.” Mr. Wiggles is ready to flex his muscles,” he smiled.
“One more thing, John.”
“Whatever you wish, my love?”
“Since you have made love to me for the last three days straight and you are about to do it again, I think we could easily have a daughter on the way!
“I love you, Margaret. Thank you for her . . . or him.” John kissed her tenderly thinking of how the shadow of his dreams had lit the light to his soul.
Two weeks passed in relative peace, so that Manon was able to go to Greenhaven to check on how Mrs Lynver fared. Pru who had gone there a few days before Manon, told her that she had secured the services of a young Cornish physician, Dr Trevellyan. Together with the staff of nurses they managed to stem the constant daily tide of sufferers to a reasonable amount.
Manon returned to Bearsham Manor on the tenth of August. She found her uncle much improved in strength and in spirits, although he was still in need of rest. After a thorough examination, she left Richard to his sleep.
Conscious of her still unabated feelings for her uncle, Manon sighed with sorrow as she closed the door of her uncle’s bedchamber behind her. It had not grown easier, this constant confrontation they were both subjected to. She had hoped it would, though. Yet after a few days away from Richard, days in which she deeply missed him, the joy of seeing him again overwhelmed Manon. Her heart had leapt with love when she saw the answering sparkle in Richard’s eyes, just moments ago. His smile had warmed her to the core, even when she recognized the pain of having to suppress their mutual forbidden feelings in his hungry gaze. How were they to bear this, she had no inkling.
On the second floor, Manon passed a large oak door which was polished to a shine in certain places by the touch of many hands. Curious to the point of excitement, she pushed against it; she had not entered this room before.
The solemn silence of a chapel met her when Manon stepped over the threshold. Her upbringing had been Roman-Catholic. The chapel’s perfectly quiet atmosphere, combined with the exquisite decoration, instantly touched her very soul.
She reverently curtsied while dipping her hand into the elegant marble shell near the door. It was filled with holy water. She made a slow sign of the cross and glanced around to admire the beautiful upholstery.
Richard woke from a short nap when the door to his room opened. His niece rushed in, and he was struck by the somewhat dishevelled state she was in. Manon’s fiery hair was coming down from its pins, and she had a smudge of dirt crossing her nose and cheeks.
“Oh, I am truly sorry, Uncle, to have woken you. Parbleu! Tête de mule, que je suis!”
She turned to leave the room, but Richard, fully awake now and intrigued, called her back.
“When you are swearing in French and calling yourself a dunderhead, then something truly upsetting must have happened, my dear. Out with it, please.”
“I wanted to show you something, but I forgot that you might be asleep. It can wait, Uncle.”
“No, it cannot. Wait for me outside, and I will call Bright to help me get dressed.”
Manon left the room with a smile on her face. So her uncle had taken her advice and allowed Bright to help him while he was convalescing.
Ten minutes later, Richard let Manon take him to the second floor chapel, but was surprised that she did so.
“The family has not used this chapel for years, Manon. The servants have their services here whenever they lack the time to go down to Bearsham Village and St Wulfram’s Church. The vicar, Mr Merryweather, has always graciously obliged me in this. I did not know you had adopted it as your own, small place of worship.”
“Mrs Briskley told me about it, but I had not found the time to visit and pray. There is something here. Come.”
Manon impetuously grabbed his hand rather and pulled him with her. Richard winced as a sharp tug reminded him of his injured ribs yet he quickly swallowed his gasp of pain.
His niece led him to the small, intricately decorated altar at the chapel’s front. It was an example of exquisite baroque craftsmanship in white, pink, and dark blue marble. Its front and upper part bore bas-reliefs, representing angels, demons, saints, and cherubs in all sizes and postures, yet the overall effect was charming and not as overly loaded as is usually the case in baroque pieces. The upper part had also a small, gilded door which concealed the tabernacle. On both sides of this door, there were two paintings, both about the size of a square foot.
“Look closely at the painting on the left, Uncle,” Manon said quietly.
Richard furrowed his brow and looked at her in complete bewilderment.
“I have known these paintings to be here as long as I can remember, Manon. The one on the right is “The Steps to Elysium” or the depiction of souls ascending into Heaven, and the other is “The Vale of Tears” or…” And suddenly, Richard grasped what his niece had wanted him to see.
He darted forward, ignoring the fiery arrow of pain piercing his back. Dizziness forced him onto his knees, and he heard Manon’s distressed cry only dimly, as if he were under water.
“I am well,” he hastened to reassure her. “It is only a passing faintness. Help me up, please.”
Once he was on his feet again, Richard acted with greater caution, grimly recalling that he had not yet his strength back. Pushing back his infuriated thoughts about his condition, he bent forward to examine the small painting to the left of the tabernacle.
It all came back to him like a high wave, breaking onto the shore. This chapel had been his father’s retreat when his wife’s harassments became too overburdening. Richard remembered that his father had often worked in here as well, seated at a small table at the back. It stood to reason that Robert de Briers must have had a place in here that was destined to hide confidential documents.
Richard’s hand went up to the gilded tabernacle door, then stopped. It must be locked, he remembered, and the key would be … where, for heaven’s sake? He abruptly realised he had no notion of its whereabouts.
“Blast!” He tried to mutter the curse under his breath, but Manon’s keen ears picked it up anyway.
“What? What is it?” she demanded, her voice rising to a pitch with frustration. “Why do you not pull the painting from its place and examine what is behind?”
“Because, my impetuous niece,” Richard patiently explained, “that is not the way to find out what is ‘behind the vale’. Which, if I may say so, is exceedingly astute of you to have figured out.”
Manon blushed so becomingly that Richard’s heart leapt with a sudden desire. Damn! When would he learn to suppress his unruly feelings for his lovely niece?
“It was not solely my doing,” she answered. “Jake and Jéhan helped me. Oh, I am so extremely curious! How will we know, then? What is this secret?”
She was almost jumping with excitement, and Richard laughed aloud at the pretty sight she presented. Hair tumbling, face flushed, and sea-green gown wrinkled and stained from her search – it made her look truly adorable.
“Well,” he replied, “I need to locate the tabernacle key, because without it, our search is over. It may very well be amongst the keys in my father’s desk. I have not yet found the time to go through all his possessions, since I had to set out for France right after his death.”
“Tabernacle keys are usually found in the vestry,” Manon said, matter-of-factly. “In a French church, there would be a special cabinet for them.”
“Let us go find out, then,” Richard replied, and preceded her to the room in question, a small, cupboard-like extension at the far left side of the chapel. It had no windows, and its sturdy door was concealed in the wall panelling. Fortunately, it was unlocked.
Richard took a candle from a holder on the altar and lighted it from the thick wax candle in the corridor which was always kept burning by Thompson. They stepped inside. Manon immediately pointed at a small wooden box fixed to the back wall.
“There! That is what I mean!”
She was right. The small but robust iron tabernacle key was easily spotted, hanging from its hook amidst its fellows, which were used to open the cabinets for books and religious garments.
“Was the chapel a Roman Catholic one?” Manon asked, a bit bemused. “All those items certainly point toward that conclusion.”
“As a matter of fact, it was,” Richard confirmed. “After Henry VIII established the Church of England, all chapels, even the private ones, had to be refurbished. My ancestor at the time instantly swore loyalty to the new religion but could not find the heart to destroy the lovely late Gothic paintings the altar had been decorated with a century earlier. He had a false front installed, with reproductions of Renaissance works. Unfortunately, a later baronet had it pulled down to replace it with that baroque-styled monstrosity. The family must have kept all the other items concealed behind the vestry door.”
“I rather love the baroque style,” Manon retorted a bit of a reproach in her tone. “It is elegant and refined, and in my country, the nobility has used it in many exquisite chateaux, townhouses and churches.”
Richard kept silent, and instead went back to the chapel to try the key. He was unexpectedly stung by Manon’s referring to France as “her country” when he had believed all along that she was beginning to feel quite at home in England. How could one not feel at home at Bearsham Manor? Even with his cold-hearted mother around when he was little, Richard had always been fond of the large barn of a house. He knew why; his father had loved and cherished him and had made him feel at home. His father had instilled pride and reverence in him, for his name, his title, and his estate. Concern and care for people who depended on him for their livelihood.
“Never forget that you are first and foremost a de Briers, Richard. A baronet who was given a community to protect, along with his title. People and families, beasts and crops, and this estate and house – they all depend on you, my son, for their well-being.” Those were words he had often heard from Robert, his father.
Manon’s little cry ripped Richard back into reality, and he hastened to put the key in the lock.
The tabernacle door opened easily on well-oiled hinges, which surprised Richard until he realised his father must have used it frequently for documents he needed to keep safe. Papers that had to be kept private and out of his mother’s sight, no doubt. Richard had no doubt that the dowager would have gotten hold of the combination to his father’s vault, even if she were not supposed to have acquired that knowledge.
“Oh! It is empty!” Manon exclaimed.
“No, wait,” Richard said and put his hand inside the small cupboard. He tapped lightly on the left side wall although he had no recollection as to how he knew to do so.
A hidden panel swung inward, and Manon held her breath when Richard extracted an item out of the secret compartment behind “The Vale of Tears”. It was a parcel, the size of a book, and wrapped in brown paper and fastened with a string.
In a bold, precise hand, the words “To my son Richard de Briers” could be read.