Colonel Brandon, with whom I shared my suspicion of Wilkinson, departed for Liverpool the next day; he was determined to inquire more about the Wilkinson family. The previous evening we informed my mother and sisters of what we had learnt so far. Mother had been weeping softly into her lace handkerchief the whole time and, afterwards, she followed me into my room.
“Margaret, Margaret, what am I to do with you, have you no sense at all, girl? No shame? It seems you have thrown yourself at this … this despicable person and now you have dragged the colonel into this. And he is needed at our Marianne’s side in her last and difficult days, too! It is not to be suffered!”
I was very tired and did not want to argue with her. My legs were actually shaking when I sank onto a chair.
“Mother, I have done nothing to be ashamed of. I love Douglas with all my heart and I want to be his wife more than anything I have ever wanted. Right this moment I do not know where he is and it frightens me to the point of panic. I beg you to leave me alone, please? I need to think, to gather my thoughts.” I was not entirely sure if I was angry with Mother or myself.
The door opened again and Elinor entered. She gently took Mother’s arm and spoke.
“Mama, our little one needs comforting, not scolding. Whatever will occur within the following days will be hard on Meg because she loves Mr Spencer. If she fails to become his wife, she will be very distressed. We must be prepared to stand by her with all the love we can give her.”
“Thank you, Elinor,” I replied but my voice was distant and unsteady.
Mother seemed to reconsider her attitude for she nodded, planted a peck on my cheek and left the room. Elinor did not. She sat down in the chair next to mine and took my hand.
“Poor little one, you have gone through quite a hard time, have you not? Do not yet despair, Meggie. Things can change over the few hours to come.”
“Oh, Elinor, you have not heard the worst of it! Mother is right; I completely disgraced myself in front of Douglas. I threw myself at him, proposed marriage to him and he refused me! It sounded like the perfect way to end his troubles and mine but he did not want to hear about it.”
“Darling Meg, surely you can see why? He wants to protect you from gossip and shame. You know what Society will do if you marry him after so short an acquaintance. They will accuse him of having done the same atrocity to you as to Christina Finney. They will say he married you because you might be pregnant. Your marriage will be a stained one and you and Douglas will be shunned.”
“I do not care what they think! I just want to be with Douglas!”
I knew I pleaded a hopeless cause but did not care.
“Meg, you might not care but Douglas does! He loves you, Meggie, surely you must acknowledge that! He is avoiding you at all costs lest he succumbs when he is close to you. That is maybe why he has gone into hiding.”
Elinor was speaking the truth, of course. Yet the truth never at all comforts a person in distress.
When Colonel Brandon had not returned by the end of the day, I began pacing up and down the parlour like a caged lion. He warned us that his investigation might take more than one day but I had hoped against all odds he would have been back by now.
“Margaret,” Mother urged, “stop upsetting us all with your endless pacing. Marianne is getting nervous enough as it is with her baby due in a few weeks. Sit down!”
Her voice rose to the pitch of irritation I knew all too well but she was right about Marianne. My frail younger sister had the pale face of a ghost and her big blue eyes widened with worry.
“I am so sorry, Marianne, please, forgive me. Maybe it is best that I retire early as I am in no fit state to be pleasant company.”
I left for my bed chamber and readied myself for yet another sleepless night but when I was about to climb the stairs, a voice hissed at me from the direction of the servants’ quarter and I turned to see Jack Twinkler. He beckoned me to follow him through the green baize door into a now deserted kitchen. I remembered he was staying at Delaford as well since the colonel had asked him to. He had been helping in the stables just to make himself useful.
“What is it, Jack? Have you any news for me? Have you heard from Douglas?”
“No, miss, but there are things I reckon yer ought to know.”
We sat down on the bench at the big table like two conspirators.
“Miss, I make it my business to look after the master’s things even when ‘e’s not here to see for ‘isself! So I went to the ‘ouse in Torquay an’ ev’rythin was okay. I also went to the country ‘ouse which was also okay ‘xcept for one thing – I found Dragon in the garden, munchin’ away at the lawn!”
“Dragon? Douglas’ horse? Was Douglas there, too? Was he alright?”
“No, no, that’s just it, miss! ‘E wasn’t! Only the ‘orse an’ that’s not right, not right at all! Dragon was still wearin’ ‘is saddle and reins and ‘e was sweaty all over, like ‘e’d been galloping for a long time. ‘E was also ravenous with hunger and thirst. ‘Ad a ‘ell of a job cleanin’, dryin’ and feedin’ ‘im, and I brought ‘im back wi’ me to Delaford, I did.”
Jack drummed the table top with his forefinger and continued, “I tell ye, miss, this ain’t right! Somethin’ ‘s ‘appened to the guv’nor, somethin’ really bad! That ‘orse ‘d never leave ‘is side for the world! Either the guv’nor is lying somewhere wounded or either the ‘orse was left somewhere on ‘is own. After all, the guv’nor is gone missin for a week and the state that ‘orse was in might well confirm that!”
“Jack,” I urged, “what did Douglas say he was planning to do when he left the house? Where was he going to?”
“’E did say nothin’, miss, even when I begged ‘im to! So today, after I’d cared for Dragon, I searched through the papers on the guv’nor’s desk. Found not that much but ‘ere, I think you ought to see this!”
He handed me a small, slim notebook with a black leather cover. I took it from him, realizing I had underestimated this clever youth.
“Jack, I am impressed and also humbled. I did not know you could read!”
“Yeah, the guv’nor ‘as been teaching me from the first days he took me in and says I’m really good at it. I’ve been doin’ some work for ‘im these last few weeks, that’s why I knew what I was looking for.”
With trembling hands I started leafing through the notebook and soon, a lot of pieces began to fall into places. Douglas had been investigating the finances of the Wilkinson businesses in Liverpool. The notebook contained the results of his findings. Profit or loss figures were neatly listed in a strong, large handwriting. Wilkinson’s cotton manufactory had been suffering severe losses over the past year. Douglas had also added several newspaper clippings, even one from London which announced the mill’s bankruptcy. It seemed Douglas had been preparing a file against his cousin Phineas Wilkinson, proving his distrust.
I returned the notebook to Jack and laid out my plan to him. Poor Jack’s honest face turned pale with apprehension when I finished.