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.