Dearest, loveliest Meg – Part Fourteen

Margaret_001

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

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.

Dearest, loveliest Meg – Part Thirteen

Margaret_001

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Of course, it was abundantly clear to me I could no longer deal with this on my own. Douglas, my Douglas, was missing! A multitude of scary, horrible images popped up in my mind of him lying injured somewhere ,or worse, dead!

“Jack,” I urged, “come with me! We must seek help, we cannot do this alone anymore.”

About half an hour later, I burst into Delaford’s library, Jack in tow. I startled Colonel Brandon, who was quietly working behind his desk. Marianne, who was reclining on the settee while sewing baby sheets, gasped in surprise.

“Forgive my impulsiveness but I need your help! Colonel, I am at a loss at what to do! Douglas Spencer has gone missing for more than a week and I am so very concerned about him!”

My loud outbursts also alarmed Mother and Elinor who came running from the morning room. Elinor, my practical, level-headed older sister, took matters in hand with her usual efficiency.

“Margaret, calm down! Mother, take a seat! Marianne, stay where you are and, for God’s sake, let us all keep a cool head! Now, Margaret, what is this all about? Please, make an attempt in being clear and succinct?”

Drawing a deep breath, I straightened my shoulders, closed my eyes and then started my narration of Douglas and me right from the beginning. Mother knew nothing about all this and several times she gasped violently during my tale but she did not interrupt me until I finished.

“Margaret, my dear, this is all most disconcerting and also most inappropriate! This man certainly has not behaved as a gentleman when he endeavoured to hold you, kiss you and reject you all in one gesture. I do fervently hope you have not formed an attachment to him for I do not see anything good coming from this.”

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, Mama!” Marianne burst out, “She loves him! Surely even you must understand that!”

Mother’s face grew even more alarmed at her impulsive remark. Fortunately, Elinor intervened.

“There is no need for emotional uproar, please? Mother, do not upset Margaret further with useless preaches about propriety. She has behaved like a genuine lady in all this and has used her brains much more than her heart. It has also become quite clear to me that Mr Spencer has feelings for Margaret and that he is showing considerable respect for her by urging her to be cautious about her reputation.”

She now turned to me, her face showed deep earnest.

“Meggie, as matters stand presently you cannot marry Douglas Spencer. I am sure you understand as much?”

“No, I do not! Why, for Heaven’s sake, can I not?”

 

Tears of rage and frustration wetted my face and I made no attempt to stop them as I felt drowned in complete despair. Obviously, my family was not prepared to help me in my hour of need! My hands flew to my face and I wept like a child, unable to stop myself.

Colonel Brandon was the one who took matters into hand.

“Ladies, would you please leave it to me to try and help Margaret? Kindly leave us, I need to have a conversation with her and your presence here is upsetting her too much already.”

They must have obeyed him for when I lifted my tear-streaked face again I noticed the colonel and I  were alone. He rose from his chair, handed me his handkerchief and patiently waited until I had cleaned up my face before seating himself next to me on the settee.

“Margaret, you know about my unfortunate affairs of the heart when I was a young man, don’t you?”

I nodded, searching for words yet not finding them.

“About Eliza, the girl I fell in love with but was not allowed to court because she had no fortune. I was only nineteen then and, if my father had not whisked me away into His Majesty’s Army, I would have eloped with her. I would have done the same thing as my friend Douglas, and where would I have ended then? I would have had no money, no prospects and a wife and child to support. My point , dear Margaret, is that we all tend to do irrational things for love when we are too young to make the right judgements.”

“Yet, colonel, you were deeply affected by what happened to Eliza, so deeply that you searched for her for years! Even after you found her dying in a workhouse, you committed yourself to provide for her daughter Beth in so thorough a way that you even tracked the rapist Willoughby who impregnated her!”

“Yes, and a good thing I did for it was that same rascal Willoughby who seduced my beloved Marianne and would have ruined her in the same way, had I not intervened!”

“I am sorry, sir, but it was not you that saved Marianne from Willoughby! He did that himself by marrying the rich Miss Grey, thus alienating himself from my sister. You did bring her back to life, first by rescuing her from the moors in a rainstorm, then by healing her emotionally after her sickness. Yet, who has healed you, colonel, after Eliza? Who stood by you in those horrible years of longing for her?”

 

Col. Christopher Brandon’s face had grown very white and his soft hazel eyes were wide with grief. I laid a hand on his in an attempt to soften my previous harsh words.

“Forgive me, sir, I was very rude. It is none of my business.”

He smiled, a bit sadly, before continuing.

“No, Margaret, you are right. I have been nursing my pain entirely on my own which makes me a fair judge of how Douglas must have felt when he was shipped off to Jamaica without seeing his Christina again. He was in an even worse situation than I was because he was the father of …”

“No, no, colonel, he was not! I had not reached that part of the narrative because of Mother’s outburst but listen to what I discovered today. Jack, where is Jack? I need him to …”

“Elinor has taken him  to the kitchen, I believe. It is the boy you brought with you that you are talking of, I presume?”

“Yes, his name is Jack Twinkler and he is Douglas’ friend and acts as his servant as well. I must have him with us to help me explain …”

“Margaret, please, calm yourself and slowly explain it to me yourself. What have you found out?”

I obliged in a long, somewhat undisciplined tale. The colonel drew a deep breath, after I was finished and said. “So Douglas is innocent? But who, then, was the father of Christina’s child?”

 

Col. Brandon and I had a long conversation with Jack after we located him in the kitchen. He was enjoying a large plate of Cook’s excellent shepherd’s pie. Poor Jack looked like he needed it, he seemed even thinner than before. We learned quite a lot from Jack, information we did not know before.

He explained that Douglas returned to England in late February of that year 1818, after family lawyers informed him of his father’s demise. Those same gentlemen explained to him the stipulations of his father’s will, now common knowledge to all of us. The consequences of that will were dire, for Douglas was left in uncertainty since he was not the full heir to his father’s legacy  – until he married. Therefore, he could not sell nor buy any property, nor have access to his father’s money. Douglas was, to keep it short, completely powerless to do anything except to try and find a bride.

According to Jack, he had looked for a suitable mate all over the London scene for the good part of two months without results. Each London mama of unmarried daughters was well informed about him and his past. He was instantly barred from most of the London homes and parties.

“I wonder,” Colonel Brandon said in a pensive tone, “who informed the London ton of Douglas’ past. Certainly not his lawyers for they could be barred for breach of trust.”

I was thinking along the same lines myself. Someone who was very close to Douglas must have spilled the beans on him and I had an inkling as to whom it might have been. It could only have been his own cousin, Phineas Wilkinson.

 

 

 

 

 

Dearest, loveliest Meg – Part Twelve

Margaret_001

 

Chapter Twelve

 

I could not resist taking a longer route home since all those startling disclosures of Mrs Jennings had left me quite restless. What lay hidden in them I did not know yet but I was determined to find out. I was sure it contained the truth about Douglas’ dealings with Christina Finney.

Without noticing I had wandered onto the moors and was now approaching the stone circle where I found Douglas’ horse Dragon – the day he had been shot. I dismounted and tethered my mare to one of the standing stones. The day was rapidly growing hot again and I let myself down in the large shadow of a stone and rested my back against it.

The silence was absolute and welcoming, too. A morning in the company of Mrs Jennings has that effect on people. She was very overbearing and yet the information she gave me could prove to be of use. I thought it of particular importance that Christina Finney’s father had been bankrupt when he came down to Devonshire. He had been in search of a rich husband for her but had probably not informed Sir Matthew about his financial situation. Had Douglas known that?

I needed to speak with him, urgently so, and decided I must quickly go to Torquay.

 

I was about to mount into the saddle when a soft voice made me turn around first.

“Bonjour, Mademoiselle Marguerite.”

“Petite-Maman! Comment allez-vous?”

It was indeed the gypsy woman who addressed me and with an earnest gravity I had not seen the first time we met.

“Je vais bien, Mademoiselle, merci. Est-ce que vous avez des nouvelles de Monsieur Spencer?”

I replied by telling her that the only news I had about Douglas was that he seemed to have recovered well enough from the bullet wound. I insisted on thanking her again for her help.

The gypsy woman seemed perturbed in some way so I decided I wanted to know what it was that upset her.

The following conversation ensued between us:

“Have you seen him recently, Mademoiselle?” was her next question.

“No,” I replied with hesitation, “not for a fortnight. Why?”

Petite-Maman wrung her hands in the gesture of despair.

“What? What is it? Has something happened to Douglas? You have to tell me! Please, tell me!”

The gypsy woman hastened to explain she had not seen him either but that she feared he might be in mortal danger.

“Petite-Maman, please, why are you saying that?” I begged, as I tried to calm down the panic that was rising in my chest.

“Venez, Mademoiselle, vite. Il y a quelque chose que vous devez voir … There is something you have to see …”

With that, she swung herself onto my horse’s back and helped me up behind her. Then we rode at a neck-breaking gallop as my mare hit her full stride. I held on to the gypsy’s waist for dear life as we raced over the moors. I should have known any gypsy was good with horses and could ride like a cavalry man.

 

Before long, we penetrated the woods and reached a tiny, rather ramshackle cottage but with a surprisingly neat herb garden. Petite-Maman nimbly leapt from the saddle and hurried inside, leaving up to me to tie my horse.

“Ecoutez-moi attentivement, Mademoiselle!”

She pointed to a chair beside the rough wooden table and I sank down on it, watching her while she went to a cupboard and started rummaging through it.

“Petite-Maman, I beg you! Please tell me that Douglas is alright? Have you heard something, anything from him?”

“No, nothing, but you have to listen to me, Mademoiselle. You have to listen very carefully but first, answer this question: Est-ce que vous l’aimez? Do you love him?”

Oui, je l’aime de tout mon coeur! Yes, with all my heart!

Her deep set eyes scrutinized me. She looked me in the face and probed my very heart abut I did not waver. How could I waver when I was not seeing her but instead saw only the face of my beloved rake, my Douglas.

“Vous m’avez convaincue. You have persuaded me, Mademoiselle, and I shall tell you what I know.”

 

My heart missed several beats as I listened to Petite-Maman’s story.

“Ten years ago I was summoned to the bedside of a young girl in the process of childbirth by a gentleman who claimed to be her father. The birth took place at an obscure little hotel in Torquay. This amazed me for the father seemed to be a wealthy man and the girl’s nightgown was of silk and the finest Brussels lace. He did not tell me his name but instructed me to assist the girl in her confinement. He said his daughter was six months pregnant. He left me alone with the girl; she could not have been more than seventeen years of age.”

“What was her name, Petite-Maman? Did she reveal it to you?”

“Christina Finney.”

 

I swear my heart stopped for a moment.

“The baby was in breech position and the birth was very difficult,” the gypsy explained. “The mother was bleeding profusely and I was not able to stop it. The baby was stillborn yet full term.”

My breathing was not fully adequate as I took in all these new facts.

“While the girl was slowly dying, she told me to look in her reticule and extract a document from it. I did as I was told for she was very adamant. I held her hand in mine and stroked her wet, golden hair while she faded away – quietly but inexorably. Her last words I shall never forget.”

“What were they?” I breathed.

“She said ‘Ask Douglas to forgive me’.  I have been searching for this Douglas since the day she died and now I’m convinced it must be Monsieur Spencer. The poor girl did entrust a letter to me, a letter I was to give him.”

The gypsy’s hand held a small, cream-coloured envelope, sealed with blue wax, with the ends tied by a lavender-coloured ribbon. Instinctively, I reached towards it but stopped. I had no right reading it.

“Have you been to Mr Spencer’s house in Torquay?” I asked and when she shook her head, I wrote down the address on a scrap of paper.

“No, Mademoiselle, you must take it. I have implicit faith in you and that you will give it to Mr Spencer. You love him very much, do you not?”

“Yes … yes, I do …”

I took the letter from her and tucked it in my skirt pocket, under my kerchief.

“Petite-Maman, you said something about the baby, that it was full term. Are you absolutely certain it was? Christina’s father said she was only six month pregnant.”

“He must have been wrong, Mademoiselle. The baby was a boy, eight pounds in weight. It must have died in the womb because the umbilical cord  was wrapped around his neck. Yet it was fully developed, Mademoiselle.”

So Christina had already been with child when she came to Watcombe Manor.

I thanked Petite-Maman and left for Torquay immediately. I simply had to see Douglas since there were too many things I had to tell him. Yet, when I arrived at the house near the port, only Jack Twinkler was there to receive me. He had not seen his master for more than a week and was very concerned about him.

 

 

 

 

Dearest, loveliest Meg – Part Eleven

Margaret_001

Chapter Eleven

 

July dragged to an end when, one morning, I had to admit I had achieved little more than a kiss in my relationship with Douglas. Granted, that kiss had been divine and the memory of it still had the power of thrilling me deeply but it had also awakened a larger need in me, a need that could not be stilled by kisses only.  Yet there was little I could do to unite me with my beloved Douglas.

My daily rides now took me to Torquay and the house near the port where he and Jack were living. I was hoping to have another conversation about my future with Douglas and to convince him as yet of the necessity of marrying me. My hopes were dashed, time after time, for Douglas was never there. Jack always had to disappoint me about where he had gone to because he did not know himself. It seemed Douglas stayed away from home until late or did not return at all for several days, never even offering a shred of explanation to his friend. So I was forced to exercise patience while I made Jack promise me to keep me informed.

 

Mother and I were still at Delaford while Elinor and Edward had returned to their own home. Edward had the living of the Delaford parish so Elinor came over as frequently as she could, mainly to support Marianne who was now suffering from heat exertion in those last weeks of her pregnancy. Elinor and I did our best to make her take an afternoon nap every day. We also persuaded her to a morning promenade, a physical benefit for our sister.

I was suffering too, albeit not from a physical ailment. Since there was no immediate cure for my heartache, I devoted myself to the task of finding out what I could about Douglas’ past, in the hope of discovering proof of Christina’s flirtations with other young gentlemen. Mrs Jennings and Sir John Middleton of Barton Hall were the first sources I consulted with.

 

Barton Hall was some ten miles from Delaford so I used my usual placid mare to get there. I found Sir John and his mother-in-law taking their breakfast in the morning room. The large French windows were open to let the fresh air penetrate the room and chase the sultriness of the July night.

“Good gracious, child!” Mrs Jennings exclaimed when I burst into the room with my usual exuberance. “Did you leave Delaford in the middle of the night that you are already here? What happened? Something wrong at Colonel Brandon’s home?”

“No, not at all, Mrs Jennings. Good morning, Ma’am, Sir John. I am looking for some information and very determined to acquire it.”

I was well aware of the fact that the two of them were eternally bored, since nothing ever occurred at Barton Hall. It was no surprise to me that they were instantly  interested in whatever matter I was looking for.

“Sit down, Margaret, sit down! How may we help you, dear?” Mrs Jennings said in a warm and welcoming tone.

I had thought long and hard how to achieve my goal without raising suspicions as to my motive so I was prepared.

“You know of my interest in history and genealogy, Mrs Jennings, it has always been a favourite topic of mine. Devonshire has become a home to our family so I decided to write a book about its gentility and the families and their estates. It seemed best to start here with Barton Hall, the Delaford estate and a few others. Sir John, I was wondering if you would allow me to use your excellent library?”

“Of course, my dear,” he said. His voice had a hint of pride. “ Come and browse as much as you like.”

 

Comfortably seated behind a huge desk in Sir John’s enormous library, I was soon engrossed with a book volume that contained a list of Devonshire landowners. For a while at least, I had to keep up the pretence that I was working on something but what I really wanted was for Mrs Jennings to give way to her insatiable curiosity so that she would come and join me. After barely five minutes, there was a knock on the door and she entered when I bade her to do so.

“My dear Meg,” she twittered in her usual cheerful manner, “how is your dear family? It has been quite a time since we were all together. You must tell me everything!”

Indulging in her need for gossip, I obliged for a good quarter of an hour and afterwards turned the conversation to another subject as unobtrusively as I could, a subject even closer to my own heart. I asked her about the Spencer family.

“Of course, I remember Sir Matthew Spencer,” Mrs Jennings said. “He was a real gentleman, well-bred, wealthy, very proper and … boring. He was always rambling on for hours about righteous behaviour and ‘Noblesse Oblige’ and how different standards had become since his own youth.”

She giggled which startled me a bit.

“Except … in his own youth, he had been rather something of a Corinthian!”

“He was?” I gasped, in genuine surprise, “Sir Matthew was a ladies’ man?”

“Oh, yes! I remember one particular ball when he made quite a serious pass at me. Had I not already been engaged to Mr Jennings, well, … I don’t know what I would have done! Such a handsome, charming young fellow, he was!”

“What caused him to turn sour?”

“The death of his beloved Phoebe in childbirth. They were the handsomest couple of that season, so well-suited and so in love! Phoebe Watcombe, née Wilkinson, was a lively, well-educated and very pretty young woman when she met Sir Matthew. It was love at first sight and Sir Matthew worshipped her. It broke his heart when she died, leaving him to raise their son on his own.”

When she had to stop to draw breath, I managed to get a word in.

“Wilkinson? Doug … erm, Sir Matthew’s wife was a Wilkinson? The same family from Liverpool that Mr Phineas Wilkinson came from?”

“Yes! Did you not know? Phoebe was Phineas’ aunt! She was much younger than her brother Harold who married Sir Matthew’s sister Mary. Mary was fifteen years Sir Matthew’s senior, and the latter was born long after Sir Bartholomew had given up the hope of having a son and heir. Poor Mary was lucky she married a rich Liverpool manufacturer. Her father stripped her of her inheritance once Matthew was born. Quite a nasty thing to do if you ask me, but then that is the way of the world, my dear!”

My head was spinning from all these new titbits I gathered just now! Douglas and Wilkinson were more entwined than I had thought them to be.

I forced my attention back to Mrs Jennings who had not stopped talking, not even for a second.

“I must admit Sir Matthew raised the boy well. Young Douglas lacked for nothing; he had the best teachers, went to Eton College and was in his second year at Cambridge when it all went awry for him. Or, rather, when he ruined it all by forcing himself on Christina Finney.”

Mrs Jennings seemed to enjoy reminiscing about Douglas’ past. I swallowed back a reprimand but with difficulty.

“What kind of person was she? Did you know her, Mrs Jennings?”

“Well, what did you expect of her, child! Young, pretty, lively and foolish, like all seventeen-year-old girls! Her father was a business acquaintance of Harold Wilkinson, who was Sir Matthew’s brother-in-law. Soon it became clear to everyone that he was looking for a husband for his daughter. She was considered a catch; her father was said to be worth 12.000 a year! Only after her death in childbirth did we learn Mr Finney had been on the brink of bankruptcy and that Sir Matthew’s wealth would have put a stop to that. We never heard from him after the girl’s death.”

“What a sad story! Did the child die too?”

“Yes, a little boy. I always wondered what Sir Matthew would have done, should the child have lived. He was so blinded by rage when he found out about his son’s affair that he sent Douglas away to his cousin on Jamaica. It all happened extremely quickly and the boy was not allowed to speak up for himself.”

This time I did not take up Douglas’ defence, as I had done before. Mrs Jennings was too quick-witted by half.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dearest, loveliest Meg – Part Ten

Margaret_001

 

Chapter Ten

Oddly enough, I no longer felt depressed after I heard Colonel Brandon’s story. Instead, a new hope sprang and that I must go at once to find Douglas and talk to him. I had a right to hear his version of his past as well. He had better give me a well-founded reason not to marry me before I would give up trying to convince him to do so.

The next morning I again took my mare and rode to Douglas’ house, this time without Johnny or anyone else. I simply could not believe Douglas would have left Mr Twinkler behind, since he had been taking care of him from the moment he found the youth starving on his London doorstep. As usual, I was right. I found Twinkler in the house, busy with packing up his master’s belongings into two large portmanteaus. He was violently startled when I burst into the master bedroom.

“Miss? ‘Ow did yer … that is, why yer ‘ere? Guv’nor ain’t ‘ere, you know?”

I advanced on him so rashly he backed away with a guilty look in his eyes.

“Jack Twinkler, I am most irritated with you! How is it that you failed to inform me about your wretched master’s last foolish action? I thought you were my friend! Have I not proved that I am also a friend of your master’s? I cared for him when he was injured, did I not?”

“Yeah … yeah, Miss Dashwood, ye did but … it’s the guv’nor ‘oo swore me into silence about ‘is whereabouts! ‘E don’t want ye to know as ‘e cares about yer reputation an’ the likes, Miss!”

“You must tell me where you are staying, Jack! I have to talk with him!”

Jack was in a serious dilemma, I could see that. After a while, though, he seemed to give in.

“Well, if y’ insist, Miss, I suppose I could tell yer. Now, mind, ye did not ‘ear it from me, should ‘e ever ask!”

“No, no, I promise. But Jack, earlier you said you did not know anything about Mr Spencer’s past. Somehow, I do not believe that. You must have heard the gossip about him which could be different from what I learnt. So, pray, tell me.”

Jack shrugged and went on with his work while he was narrating.

“The old Lord must ‘ave been a grumbling piece of a sanctimonious bore, Miss. ‘E was always rambling on about ‘onour and dignity and the family name. No wonder ‘is son was lookin’ for a bit of fun wi’ the ladies, though, from what I’ve ‘eard, ‘e was a good lad altogether! They all liked ‘im, men and women alike and nobody that knew ‘im could believe what ‘appened wi’ the young lady. Said it was not something they think ‘e’d do! But, there ye are, Miss. Whenever a bright young thing takes an interest in ye, even the best of young men can fall into their pit. From what I ‘eard about Miss Christina Finney, she wasn’t one to say no to the young men either!”

“Do you mean she was a bit of a Cyprian, Jack?”

“Right ‘o, Miss, she was the most shameless flirt at the Torquay balls.”

“But she was only seventeen!”

“Aye! And already ‘ad a reputation when she came ter stay at the Manor! Seemed she ‘ad been at it in Liverpool too. That’s why ‘er father brought ‘er down from there. A lot of the Torquay tabby cats were gossipin’ away about ‘ow she behaved at balls, if you know what I mean, Miss.”

“Yes, I do, Jack. Sorry I pounced on you so rudely.”

“Don’t ye worry about it, Miss. Now, let me get ye that address on a piece of paper and …”

 

“No!” The word cracked like a whip and I whirled around to face him. Douglas was standing in the doorway, his bearing very rigid and forbidding and the tone in which he addressed Jack was cold.

“Go and prepare the curricle, Jack. We are leaving soon.”

The young man hastened out of the room, leaving me alone to deal with Douglas. He was livid, his face dead white and his mouth set in a thin line of intense disapproval. I knew I must hold my ground, so I trusted my chin upwards and straightened my shoulders.

“I have a bone to pick with you, Douglas Spencer!” I challenged him. “Why have you run away like a coward instead of fighting like the man I took you for?”

He covered the space between us in two long strides and suddenly towered over me but he deliberately did not touch me. His eyes bore into me in a frightening way.

“You endeavour to try the patient of a saint, Margaret Dashwood, but you will not force marriage upon me! If I am to be leg-shackled, I prefer to pick the woman myself and in my own time, thank you! Now, will you leave my house and never return? I have enough issues without you complicating my miserable life.”

There was something in his eyes that moved me to the core, a deep, desperate loneliness that he was fervently trying to subdue by being rude to me.

“Tell me about Christina Finney!” I demanded sternly, “I have a right to know.”

“Ah!” His heartfelt groan of irritation was accompanied by a movement of pure powerlessness as he threw his arms up. I laid my hands on his chest in a pleading gesture.

“I simply cannot believe that you would overpower a young, innocent girl, Douglas. You are not like that. ”

He gripped me by the shoulders and groaned.

“You do not know me, Margaret. I did … oh, God! Will you not leave me alone? Why do you persist in making it so difficult for me?”

“It is your own doing if I do not know you, Douglas! Tell me how it was between you and that girl. Tell me everything. How did you meet? Was she not from the North?”

With a sigh, Douglas let himself down into a chair and I did the same.

“Jeremy Finney came to Watcombe Manor at the request of my father who wanted him to invest in the estate. The deal was they would try and establish new agricultural techniques in order to increase yields and raise profits. I was with them when they talked but my mind was not in it. Instead, all I could think of was the pretty Miss Christina, who had come with Mr Finney. She was his only daughter and heir and she was … she was like a ray of sunshine to me; beautiful, lively, full of joy. From the start, we got on extremely well together. We enjoyed long rides on the estate, outings to Torquay, balls and parties. Of course, she was a success! Every young unmarried gentleman wanted to bask in her brilliant light and, just like me, they were all enchanted by her.”

“So she liked to hold court, then?”

“Of course, she did. What would be more natural?”

“She was only seventeen at the time. Had she been brought out yet?”

That seemed to astonish Douglas very much.

“No, I do not think so. Her father was still planning her season when they came to Watcombe Manor.”

“When I was seventeen I was extremely shy, Douglas. I would not have known what to do if a gentleman should address me, let alone treat me like I was something out of the ordinary. It seems to me that Miss Finney was already much accustomed to the ways of Society, even at her tender age.”

“I must stop you there, Margaret. Christina was not the villain in this piece, I was. I was the one incapable of restraint when it was expected.”

“So, when and where did this … event take place, then?”

All of a sudden, Douglas’ face turned beet red and my heart lurched with a bolt of tenderness for him. Was it possible for a man, thought a rake, to feel so ashamed by an action that took place in his youth?

“Well?” I pressed, watching him grow reluctant.

“In the stables … after we came back from a ride. It was a hot, sultry afternoon and we … we took care of the horses first. I accidently spilled water on Christina’s dress and …”

The memory seemed to choke him and I felt a stab of genuine jealousy for Christina Finney to have bewitched Douglas so hard.

“And …” I finished the sentence for him, “she looked very fetching in her clinging garments and you lost your head.”

“Yes!”

He abruptly rose from his chair and stalked to the window where he leaned his face against the glass.

I did not speak as I understood he was extremely upset by the memories of that episode. I, however, considered Christina Finney to be the luckiest woman on earth since she was able to unleash that kind of feelings in Douglas.

“Are you satisfied now? Was this what you wanted, Margaret, for me to bear my soul like that?”

I refused to be provoked and instead inquired in a level voice:

“Did she try to stop you when you … ?”

In exasperation, he whirled around.

“You never give up, do you? No, of course not! She loved me, you know! She wanted this as much as I did!”

“Yet she claimed afterwards that you forced yourself upon her. That does not sound like love to me.” I sounded threatening despite myself.

“She was young and confused, frightened maybe. Her father would have harassed her to know the baby’s father.”

“Are you certain it was yours? She might have had other lovers. What about her life before she came to Torquay? Maybe she had a love interest, perhaps back in Liverpool?”

Douglas’ reaction was far from what I expected. He turned so pale I thought he would faint. His hands clenched, and his whole body seemed to stiffen as if he readied himself for a blow. A faraway stare in his eyes told me that he had become aware of the possibility Christina cheated on him. Waiting in sudden anxiety I watched him, again experiencing jealousy towards the girl whom he had loved so long ago. I loved him right then and there. Would my love have the power to make him forget Christina?

“It was all so long ago,” Douglas said with a sudden shrug. “I was very blind at the time and would not have noticed if others caught her attention.”

“It may be from long ago, Douglas, but it is still haunting you. You need to give your life a turn for the better. Marry me and retrieve your estate. It is your rightful place in life.”

He looked me in the face again, cold and detached.

“I have no rightful place, Meg. Unless I uncover the truth about Christina, I will be an outcast. Forget me, sweet Meggie. There is no future for us.”

The use of that abbreviation of my name went right to my heart and I acted upon it.

He would have gone through the door if I had not barred the way and stopped him by pushing hard against his chest using both my hands.

“Look me in the eye and repeat that, Douglas Spencer!”

Standing on the tip of my toes, relinquishing all pride, I flung my arms around his neck and said, “Say it. Say that you do not love me and never did and …”

His mouth was on mine even before I had a chance to finish that sentence. I had never been kissed before so I did not know what to expect. A bolt of lightning pierced my body, scorching a path from head to toe when his hard lips crushed mine. His arms encircled me like a vice, my breasts painfully meeting  the steel wall of his chest. A spilt second later his tongue invaded my mouth, exploring it with a hunger that equally frightened and delighted me. I only wanted to press my body closer to his and run my hands through the silkiness of his hair. I longed to abandon myself completely to him. I could feel the reaction of Douglas’ body as he deepened our kiss. My own response made my head spin with a need I never knew existed within me. God in Heaven ..!

With a grunt, Douglas threw me upon the bed where I lay like a wounded bird, panting and aching all over. Slowly as my vision cleared I found myself alone in the room. Douglas was gone.

“Douglas!” My cry of despair rang in my ears and echoed in the empty room. I bolted out into the courtyard where I saw my rake swing himself onto Dragon’s back. He disappeared in a cloud of dust, oblivious of my pleading shouts to return.

For a few moments, I felt nothing but despair and loss as I crumbled to the yard’s dusty surface. Sobs raked through my chest until rage for what he had done to me overcame them; he had invited me to Heaven and in the space of mere minutes banned me from it.

Jack Twinkler came to offer me comfort but he became the obvious recipient of my fury and I grabbed him by the lapels of his coat.

“Where are you hiding yourselves, Jack? Tell me now and do not try and deceive me!”

 

 

 

Dearest, loveliest Meg – Part Nine

Margaret_001 Chapter Nine

I had no wish to confront the colonel after I heard that appalling news. Alone in my room, after the family had retired for the night, I sat in a high-backed chair, unable to find sleep. I was utterly miserable and also furious at Douglas. It was crystal-clear that he would not consent in marrying me and that my carefully laid-out plan held no lure for him. I would have to reconsider my future actions if I was to succeed in making him my husband. Oh yes, Douglas and I were going to be husband and wife, for that was my most ardent wish! I loved him and a life without him was simply unthinkable! The door opened quite unexpectedly as my two sisters came in to sit beside me. “Dearest Meggie,” Marianne said softly, “I know how you must feel. Elinor and I came to offer you our support as we are all too well aware of your distress.” Elinor sweetly smiled at me and pressed my hand. “Well,” I sighed, “thank you, sweethearts. But you know me, I will weather this. As usual I have …” “Meg …” Elinor interrupted me quite determinedly and I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “Dearest Meg, you must tell us all that has transpired since you met this Douglas Spencer. Marianne and I have shamelessly neglected you since we married and left you alone with Mama. You must have been very lonely, dearest …” Dear Elinor, I thought. Somehow she is convinced that she can make me forget about Douglas simply by pouring my heart out. I knew I must make my story as genuine as I could and to make it a true declaration of my feelings towards Douglas. I swallowed and began my story of how we met on the moors after Douglas was shot. I told my sisters about his spirit, his wit and his temper. But also about the way he sent me home as soon as Petite-Maman and his manservant Twinkler took care of him. Then I recounted what had happened with Mr Wilkinson. Marianne cringed with horror but Elinor was furious. Only then it occurred to me that I had not recounted these events to anyone before except Douglas. However, it did feel good to do so, even if it upset my sisters. I hastened to continue, with me ending up in Douglas’ garden and the way he treated me. What I recalled the most, was how considerate and sweet he had been. Then, at one point, I had such a desperate aching for Douglas that I could not but realise I might have lost him for good – now that he had disappeared from me. “Oh, damn and blast, Elinor!” I exclaimed. “How could he do this to me? I explained it so meticulously to him; he needed a wife so that he could become Lord Watcombe and retrieve his father’s fortune. He would have the estate back and I would be free of that dreadful Mr Wilkinson and John and their sly, underhand ways and … oh, Marianne, Elinor, can you not see how merry we would be, Douglas and I? We would have so much fun! I could help him with the estate and we would have children, a boy and a girl and … and …” There was no air left to breathe … the silence was comforting after the roaring in my ears had stopped. When I managed to compose myself again, Elinor and Marianne were still there and my strong eldest sister very quietly said, “You must not lose heart, dear Meg. Remember what a difficult time Marianne and I have gone through. After Edward left us at Norland Park, I still harboured a slight bit of hope that he would return and declare his love to me. That hope went dead when I heard what Lucy Steele had to tell me about her secret engagement to Edward. Oh, Margaret, I then thought I would die of grief but I did not. People do not die of a broken heart, Margaret.” “Meggie,” Marianne chimed in, “do you recall how it was for me? All the precious time I wasted on pining over that scoundrel Willoughby, while all along there was my darling Christopher, who adored me beyond everything! What a goose I have been! No, sweet thing, you must keep up your courage!” I smiled through the mist of tears as I indeed recalled the tale of my sisters’ love stories. “Sense and sensibility …” I whispered and what would I be called, I mused. Naiveté? Stupidity? Rashness? Marianne’s cheerful voice broke through my black reflections. “I have an idea! We must talk to Christopher. He will know what to do.” She grabbed me by the arm and dragged me with her to Colonel Brandon’s study. We startled the poor man, who had been working on estate ledgers. “Marianne, my love, what is it? Are you unwell? Margaret?” “No, darling, I am fine but Margaret is not. We must find a way to bring this dreadful business to a good end. Tell us all there is to know about Douglas Spencer.” Elinor too had entered by now, so we installed ourselves into the worn leather seats of Christopher’s study and directed our attentive faces towards him. The poor colonel had no choice but to surrender. “Although Douglas Spencer was a few years my junior, we nevertheless were good friends. He was an engaging young man at that time. Intelligent and well-educated, he showed a large interest in his father’s estate. He had several new agricultural techniques in mind in order to approve the yields of field labour. His father was very pleased with Douglas’ attempts and they enjoyed their long talks and combined farming efforts greatly. At one time, Sir Matthew decided to ask one of his business acquaintances from Liverpool to come and spend some time at Watcombe Manor. He wanted him to invest money into the estate. The gentleman, Mr Jeremy Finney, arrived in the company of his seventeen-year-old daughter, Christina. Poor Douglas was instantly besotted by her and no wonder: she was stunningly beautiful with her abundance of silvery fair curls and her cornflower blue eyes. She was also charming and sweet, and not only to Douglas. I have met her at several parties and balls and she shamelessly played with the affections of any gentleman that came within range. Douglas suffered horribly and I tried to make him see reason but to no avail. Where Christina Finney was concerned my highly intelligent friend behaved like a bacon-brained idiot.” The colonel stopped to take breath and turned a sad face towards me before continuing. “So, Margaret, it was of no surprise to me when the scandal broke out – it was generally known Douglas raped the girl. I was shocked but could very well understand him. The Cyprian chit had played his emotions a bit too much.” There was nothing I could comment about this story and I felt even more miserable. If even his best friend thought badly about Douglas, how then was I to defend him?

Dearest, loveliest Meg – Part Eight

Margaret_001

Chapter Eight

Douglas’ small house seemed deserted as I came nearer to it, yet I heard the sound of someone chopping wood in the back. As I turned the corner, a most unforeseen picture presented itself to my slightly dazed eyes – the wood chopper was not Jack Twinkler as I wrongly presumed but his master. The day was hot and the sun blazed down on his shirtless torso, emphasizing his muscular strength to an utmost advantage. He was working with gusto and concentration, displaying the joy he must be experiencing from good, honest manual work. The shoulder wound appeared to have healed nicely, only showing a dark red scab where the hole had been. His muscles stretched in a normal way each time he rose his left arm. The view was a most satisfying image. It sent my heart racing. I ventured to take a slow step towards Douglas but ended up startling him.  He hastily threw on his shirt. His eyes burned into mine, his brow furrowed.

“Miss Dashwood! Confound it but have you no brains at all? What is the meaning of this, sneaking up on a fellow when he is in no fit state to receive visitors? Go round to the front at once and knock for Twinkler to let you into the study!”

Stifling my delighted giggling, I hastened to obey. The ten minutes it took for Douglas to make himself presentable provided me ample time to prepare my speech and be ready when he entered the study. He was  dressed exquisitely in a blue superfine coat and light grey breeches.

“Well, Miss Dashwood? I thought I made it sufficiently clear that I did not wish to compromise you any further but it seems I have been mistaken. What do you want from me?”

His blue eyes blazed fire at me in a most outraged scowl, but I was not afraid.

“Your injury seems to have healed very nicely, Mr Spencer. So is it wise to work yourself into exhaustion?”

I could hear him grind his teeth in exasperation. I had to stifle a smile quickly.

“Thank you for your concern, Miss Dashwood, but do not exert my patience any longer or I will throw you out of here. What are you doing here?”

Oh my! He was indeed furious!

“I have come to make you a business proposition, Mr Spencer, one of which I am convinced will serve us both to perfection.”

This time my eyes were burning into his.

 

 

Douglas’ eyebrows rose in mock scepticism, yet I detected a hint of admiration in his tone of voice as well.

“For sure, you never cease to amaze me, my dainty damsel. A business proposition, no less. Pray, enlighten me, I am most curious to know.”

A vivid ripple of pleasure soared through my heart when I heard Douglas address me with the endearment he used after we first met. He seemed mesmerized by what I had to say but I, on the other hand, had to swallow before I found the courage to continue.

“It is very simple, Mr Spencer,” I replied, my voice only slightly wavering. “You are in need of a wife and I of a husband. Let us join in matrimony and both our problems will vanish.”

A sharp intake of breath was Douglas’ sole reaction to my words. In his eyes I could not read any emotion; shock overbore them. Was the prospect of making me his wife so upsetting, then? Quickly blinking back sudden tears, I challenged, “Well? You are no coward, I hope, nor a man who acts in an uncivil way. You do see the advantages to such a scheme, do you not? At least give me some reply, one way or other!”

“My dear Miss Dashwood, either you are very naive or you have gone insane, all of a sudden. You must have learned what the gossip mongers are telling you about me by now, in that I brought shame to my family and to that of a young girl I courted ten years ago.”

“Very well, I will speak bluntly as this seems necessary to convince you, Mr Spencer. Yes, lately, your dealings with Miss Christina Finney have been laid out to me in detail when I attended a soirée at Barton Hall. Everybody in Devonshire’s society is fully informed about you.”

I deliberately stopped speaking, better to fathom the effect of my words on Douglas. He paled but that was all. “As a consequence, you have no prospects at all of marrying a girl from a respectable family,” I went on.  “No father will allow you to court his daughter, Mr Spencer. Yet, you are sorely in need to be lawfully wedded before your thirtieth birthday in order to claim your title and estate. I believe that is on August the 22th next, is it not?”

“Yes, I can very well see that you are indeed fully informed, my dainty damsel. I gather you are then offering your hand in marriage to help me recover my possessions?”

“Precisely!” I exclaimed eagerly. “Can you not understand what a good match it would be? You become Lord Watcombe and I will be saved from a husband like your cousin and all his caddish manners and rude behaviour.”

“Ah! And what makes you think my manners will not prove to be equally caddish, my beauty? I do have exactly that reputation, have I not?”

His eyes were gleaming with mischief and mockery. I had to brace myself from recoiling when he suddenly took a step towards me.

“No,” I said softly, “no, I cannot ever be intimidated by you, Mr Spencer, since you had ample occasion of ravishing me, yet you did not even touch me. Instead, you were very gentle and rather comforting when I needed it the most.”

In a spur of brazenness I laid a hand on his arm, ignoring Douglas’ involuntary shudder of surprise.

“Is the prospect of having me for a wife so repellent to you, then?”

Tearing himself free, Douglas shouted, “Lord in Heaven, Margaret, you cannot do this! You will condemn yourself to a life of misery and contempt! Can you not even comprehend that?”

He spun away from me and covered his face with trembling hands.

“You have not answered my question, Douglas. Do I repel you so that you would not have me for a wife? I know I am no diamond of the first water but …”

“No!” His voice rang out with anger and his eyes were sheer blue fire. “Do not play that game with me, Margaret Dashwood!”

He gripped me by the shoulders and dragged me in front of a mirror, that was placed above the fireplace. He spun me around so that I was forced to look at my own reflection.

“Do not pretend that you are not the most charming, most beautiful girl that has ever walked this earth, nor the sweetest, loveliest one! No, I am in no way repelled by you, my darling Margaret! Quite the contrary, in fact …”

He bent his head and brushed my neck with one, very light kiss. To me it had the effect of a burning! I closed my eyes, eager to shut out every other impression but that kiss. I could feel Douglas’ hands fall from my shoulders when he stepped back. It left a cold spot on my flesh and an ache in my heart. Once again I had to brace myself.

“That settles it, then!” My eyes blazed into his. “We will make a well-matched couple, Douglas Spencer. Of that I am convinced to the extreme. I shall leave now, my groom is waiting for me. Will you come to Delaford tomorrow and ask my mother for my hand?”

He did not answer nor did he give me a single sign of acquiescence. Yet, he did not say otherwise either.

 

Johnny was waiting for me as agreed and we headed for Delaford. We had just rounded the first bend when I saw a man on horseback standing beside the road, as if waiting for us. It was Colonel Brandon. He pulled up beside me and, addressing the groom, said softly, “Go ahead, Johnny.”

The boy obeyed and rode away while the colonel adjusted his steed’s pace to that of my placidly plodding mare. For a few moments we just walked our horses in silence but then he spoke in an even voice.

“Some ten years ago, I fell in love with a girl deemed unsuitable a match for me. I am sure you know that story, Margaret, so I will not repeat it.”

Searching my memory, I recalled that the colonel lost track of the girl when she gave herself to a scoundrel. She died in childbirth in the workhouse after her lover abandoned her. Col. Brandon placed her baby daughter in the care of a farmer and his wife. Many people in the shire thought him the father of the child, which was not true. The colonel, for whom the girl was the only person left of his beloved, had never been bothered by those rumours. His protégé had also been seduced at the age of fifteen by a ruffian with the name of Willoughby. It was the same man that nearly managed to seduce my sister Marianne. Colonel Brandon was hurt twice by the same man, which made a very moving and such a sad story.

“At that time, a good friend of mine also had his first romance go awry,” the colonel continued in a casual tone. “The young lady became pregnant and my friend was whisked away to Jamaica by his father. The girl accused my friend of raping her. She later died in childbirth as did the child.”

“Douglas Spencer was your friend? But … you must know far better than anyone what really happened? You must tell me!”

Christopher Brandon’s tone was unusually full of reproaches as he retorted swiftly.

“Why did you not tell us you met him, Margaret? Why do you visit him secretly?”

“My personal life is no one’s business but my own!”

I heard the harshness of my own voice but could not hide it. A quick glance at the colonel’s face showed me I had made a mistake.

“I am sorry, Margaret, and you are right, of course. But please try to understand it is merely a great concern for you that prompted my questions.”

“No, I too am sorry, sir. I am afraid temper is one of my many flaws and Mother is always scolding me for it. Temper is all I have to make a stand in life, is it not?”

To my utmost surprise, the colonel burst out in laughter, which left me with vexation again.

The colonel saw it and hastily said. “Margaret, I do not mean to vex you in any way, please believe me, but you remind me so of Marianne with her sparkling impulsiveness and her refreshing spirit!”

“Oh …” I blurted out, unable to say something more intelligent, “I see …”

After a while Colonel Brandon again surprised me.“So … what is your opinion on Spencer?”

I was speechless, more so that apart from confessing my love for Douglas, there was nothing I was able to say  about him. All of a sudden it dawned on me that I did not really know anything about Douglas’ former life – his interests, his character or other matters generally known.

“Touché, sir, Douglas is a stranger to me. Is that what you wanted me to acknowledge?”

He did not reply but smiled very sweetly at me, which, in a strange way, was very comforting.

“How well did you know our Marianne when you proposed to her, Col. Brandon?”

“I loved her,” was the quiet answer.

“I love Douglas Spencer,” I said equally quiet, “and we are going to be married.”

Nothing more was said before we reached Delaford.

 

At dinner time, Colonel Brandon was absent from table as he was away on an errand or so Marianne said. I felt disappointed because I had wanted him to be present when I made my announcement. I waited until after the meal when we were all together for coffee. Marianne reclined on the settee with her feet on a hassock. Elinor and Edward sat beside her and Mother, dainty and discreet, lifted her little finger as she drank her coffee. Seeing us all gathered like that made me feel a pang of regret for having to disturb their peace. It could not wait, however. My family had to have a chance to prepare for the changes that were inevitably coming.

“I have met someone who has become very dear to me, lately,” I said briskly, as was my nature.

An absolute silence accompanied the stares of … what? Horror? Fear? Distaste?

“Well, it was bound to happen sometime!” I exclaimed, trying to sound apologetic.

My most sensible elder sister, Elinor, was the first to gather her wits.

“Who is it, Margaret? Someone we know?”

“His name is Douglas Spencer,” I replied, never one to prevaricate.

This time it was indeed horror I saw in the eyes of those I loved, a split second before my mother gave a shrill, very piercing cry. She threw her hands to her mouth and sat trembling like a leaf in a brisk wind. Her face was white as a sheet.

“Allow me to explain,” I demanded. “I met Douglas a few weeks ago while I was taking one of my daily walks on the moor. He had been shot and was in need of assistance. I treated him as best as I could. After I  had escorted him to his house, his servant took over and I returned home. Nothing inappropriate, dear Mama, has transpired between us.”

Instead of reassuring her, this seemed only to add to Mother’s distress. She burst out in tears as she always did when something occurred that she had no control over. As always, it left me angered because it robbed me of any power to console her.

Oddly enough, it was Marianne that came to my assistance.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Mama! Let her continue. Why do you have to always cry and carry on so?”

Mother instantly stopped and stared at her with hurt pride.

“I am to marry him,” I declared boldly whereupon I could have slapped myself for saying it when it only added to the general distress. However, it was the only thing I could or wanted to say.

All were struggling to speak when Colonel Brandon suddenly entered, looking very tired and cold despite the mild summer evening. Marianne gave a small gasp.

“Christopher, you seem exhausted. I will ring for your supper this instant.”

But the colonel looked at me with sympathy.

“Margaret, can I have a word with you in my study, please?”

“If you are attempting to spare us her news, darling,” Marianne said dryly, “you are too late. We already know about Mr Spencer.”

The colonel, however, was not amused.

“I fear you are in for a shock, Margaret,” he announced. “Douglas Spencer has left his house and not even his servant knows of his present whereabouts.”