“Dobson,” Wilkinson howled, “go back to the crypt! They are still in the passage!”
Meanwhile, I had reached the obstruction resulting from the first cave-in, about twelve to fifteen yards from the outer entrance.
“Douglas, hurry,” I shouted, “they are coming!”
It had the desired effect, for the moonlight was blotted out from the passage entrance when Wilkinson crawled in.
“Where are you, Spencer? You did not think I would forget about your father’s signet ring, I hope? Without it, the documents are no use to me. Come! Surely, by now you will understand it is a useless cause! I am the stronger man, cousin!”
“Hurry, Douglas! Hurry!” I cried again.
Although I knew all too well my ruse would be found out as soon as Wilkinson saw I was alone, it would give Douglas enough head start to flee from his devilish cousin. Wilkinson must have been taken in by my deceit because he proceeded farther into the passage.
A yellow light flared up which made me realise he had just lighted a torch. The light did not reach the place where I was, yet it forced me to cringe against the earthen wall like a frightened rabbit in a sudden spell of terror. I bit my lips because I did not want to cry out when I beheld Wilkinson, who had a torch in one hand and a firearm in the other. He crouched forward with a lot of moaning and swearing, looked up and took in the sorry situation I was in. An evil grin spread across his plump face.
“Alone, my dear? So he left you to pick up the pieces, did he not? Never mind, you will do very nicely luring him to me.”
That part of the tunnel was particularly low since it was there that I had been buried earlier on. Wilkinson had to duck so low his chin almost touched the ground. He groaned as he put forth his effort to move forward. Was that what made him lose control over his ability to move? Completely unexpectedly, his gun went off.
The sound of the firearm’s shot was deafening and shuddered sound waves rolled through the passage’s confined space. I covered my ears with my hands and closed my eyes and mouth as a cloud of dust from the collapsing ceiling washed over me. This surely must be the end; once again I resolved myself to die.
When the ringing in my ears subsided, I discovered I was still able to breathe. I forced open my stinging eyes and rubbed them. The torch, still burning, lay on the left side of the cubbyhole formed by the cave-in. On the right side, protruding from a heap of dirt, lay Wilkinson’s hand. He was still holding the gun. The rest of him was buried under the earthen debris.
I must have been in a sort of shock, for I could not move. Shaking like a leaf and cold to the bone, I was only able to press myself against a wall, my end of some open space, as far away as possible from my attacker. After a while, pinpricks of my thoughts began to trickle deep into my numbed mind. Was he still alive under the rubbish? Should I try and dig him out? I recoiled violently from that thought!
Faced with imminent death of suffocation as the oxygen ran out, I wanted to take Wilkinson with me so that he would no longer be a threat to Douglas. Eventually, they would search and find our bodies and then Douglas could destroy the documents he signed in order to save me. It was a fair trade – a life for a life. Douglas deserved to be the master of Watcombe Manor; it was his birth right.
When the torch stopped burning, I closed my eyes again – a useless gesture since I was in total darkness.
When I heard voices from somewhere above my head, I was convinced I was dreaming. A heavy pressure on my chest told me that I was still in the underground passage and that the air in my small grave was running dangerously low. It was also unbearably hot and perspiration was running down my face. Or was I weeping? Realising I must have been unconscious for some time, I did not know how much time had passed since I had been cooped up.
Voices again! One voice in particular was Douglas’ deep baritone, calling my name from above!
“Margaret, carry on, my love! Meggie, are you well? Answer me, Meggie!”
“Douglas …” I mouthed his name but it seemed my voice had disappeared. My attempt to speak was instantly punished by a pain in my chest; my lungs, deprived too long for air, started protesting.
I tried to lift my arms and push against the ceiling because, apparently, it was from there that rescue was to come. But it was to no avail, for I had no strength left in my body. Yet, when the shower of dirt that continued to fall on me finally stopped, I was able to open my gritty eyes and behold the terrified face of my beloved rake. I even managed a shaky smile but speech would not come, even though I was longing to say his name. He reached down for me and grabbed my upper arms, then slid his hands under them and pulled me up in one strong gesture.
“There, there … I have you, dearest, you are safe,” he said, his voice gruff with emotion. Burying my face against his chest, I wept uncontrollably until other hands freed my limp body from his affectionate grasp.
“Monsieur, laissez-moi examiner Mademoiselle Dashwood! Il se peut qu’elle soit blessée gravement.”
“Yes, Madame, you are right. She might be injured,” Douglas replied in French.
Petite-Maman! Thank God, I was in the gypsy’s capable hands now! Those hands were probing my body and limbs with expert fingers. She then did something very unusual. She pushed me down, straightened my body and, grabbing my arms with considerable force, threw them high above my head, causing me to cough rather violently.
“Qu’est-ce que vous faites, bon sang!” Douglas exclaimed. He was ready to throw himself upon the woman, had not Jack Twinkler withheld him. “What in the devil’s name are you doing, woman?”
“Don’t fret yerself, Guv’nor!” Jack piped. “She’s only tryin’ ter free ‘er lungs from dust and dirt! Ye should be grateful, ye know? The gypsy woman only does ‘er job!”
“Jack, dear Jack,” I thought. He had come to our rescue after all. I saw other familiar faces around me. Col. Brandon and Edward Ferrars were looking rather worried and the former, after he witnessed a long talk between Petite-Maman and Douglas, asked:
“Spencer, Margaret will be well, I hope? I cannot imagine what Mrs Dashwood would say if her baby daughter would have come to harm?”
“The gypsy says she sustained no broken bones or serious injuries. We must get her into bed as soon as possible, Brandon!”
Douglas, after glancing at Petite-Maman who nodded to affirm that I was not seriously hurt, gently picked me up and carried me to Col. Brandon’s carriage where he installed me on the bench and covered me with a blanket. He seated himself beside me for support. As the carriage began moving, I leaned back against him, marvelling in the warmth of his body as his arms encircled me. For a few moments, we let ourselves be lulled by the movements of the carriage, revelling in each other’s company.
“Is he … is he?” I tried but I could not make myself saying it.
“He died of suffocation,” Douglas said quietly. “The gypsy woman attempted to revive him to no avail.”
“I could not … I know I should have tried but … I could not …”
“Hush, my heart. Do not trouble yourself. There was nothing you could have done to save him.”
His hold tightened around me and his next words were uttered in a husky voice.
“My darling Margaret, can you ever forgive me for letting him go after you in that passage? I have been such a fool, I should have known he would search for us until the end.”
“I am to blame for that, Douglas, I lured him to me. I wanted you to escape.”
“You little fool … you could have died! Meggie, dearest, loveliest Meg, why do you always act so very rashly? I swear you will be the death of me, some day …”
By now, dawn had broken and Delaford’s driveway was golden with reflecting sunlight. A large company of people were waiting for us and at the head of them stood my mother, her arms crossed in a very determined way. Angry, no doubt.
“Listen,” I urged, “you must carry me in your arms, Douglas! I will act as if I have fainted!”
“Why, Margaret, surely …”
“Mother will try to separate us. She does not approve of you so you must appear to have come to my rescue! That is the very truth, after all!”
“We will do no such thing, Margaret,” Douglas said firmly.
When the carriage came to a stop, he alighted and offered me his hand which I reluctantly took; I threw him a furious glance. Douglas guided me toward the waiting group of servants and family – and I spotted Elinor as well – and bowed deeply to Mother.
“Mrs Dashwood, allow me to present myself. Douglas Alexander Spencer, son of the late baron Sir Matthew Watcombe. I must ask your forgiveness for appearing before you in a less than formal attire but Miss Dashwood and I have been in a spot of misfortune.”
My mother darted her eyes from me to Douglas and back. She was speechless but no longer angry. When my charming rake flashed her a dashing smile, she actually smiled back!
“Mr Spencer, I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Do not, sir, concern yourself about your attire. Col. Dashwood already informed us about the past events. Margaret, my child, come with me.”
Before Douglas released my hand, he gave it a little squeeze for encouragement.