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?
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.”
I plunged through the rose garden of Watcombe Manor and I did not have the slightest notion where I was running to nor had I time to reflect upon it. I just ran as fast as I could. The most urgent thing was to create a great distance between me and that horrible man. It was not before I twisted my ankle and rolled headlong down a slope that I wondered where I was.
I was in a wood and my body ached all over. I saw that my bodice was ripped open and that one of my breasts had escaped my chemise. Flushed with shame I hastily restored my appearance. A violent wave of nausea churned my stomach as I recalled the touch of that beast’s fat hand on my breast. Thank God no one witnessed my shame and humiliation!
Wiping away the foolish tears on my face, I strove to restore my shattered wits.
Where was I? I forced myself onto my feet and winced as a sharp pain shot through my right ankle. I would have to endure the pain because I had to try and return to Barton Cottage without delay; I would inform my hellish half-brother I would not, under any circumstances, marry his disgusting friend! I started hobbling down the slope and deeper into the woods.
I do not know how many minutes I doggedly ploughed on but I just persevered with stubborn determination, although I had become hungry and tired. Eventually the trees thinned and I came out of the woods and onto a gently sloping pasture. To my immense joy there was a house at the bottom of it, a house I knew! I ignored my fatigued state and quickly ran towards it. My injured ankle gave way again and once more I found myself rolling down the slope, unable to stop myself.
It was a weird experience for, as I was sliding and rolling into the direction of the house, I could see the French terrace windows had been thrown open. A man stepped out onto the terrace and shouted something, but I was screaming with fright and could not hear him. Had he not hastened up the slope towards me, I would have crashed into the garden wall and more than likely badly hurt myself. The man caught me and slowed my downhill descent by flinging his arms around my body and holding me tightly. My rush was stopped. I was dizzy with pain. I rested my head against a warm, solid chest, inhaling an all too familiar scent of leather and woody soap. I looked up at my rescuer and found I was in the arms of my beloved rake …
“Well, Miss Dashwood, it seems that we are again destined to meet each other under unusual circumstances, does it not? What in the devil’s name are you doing here, all alone and at nightfall?”
I hastily sat upright, my cheeks burning with embarrassment. Douglas’ eyes, blue fire in the sun’s dying light, widened suddenly and his mouth curved into his wicked grin. I followed his gaze down my body and gasped! My breast … !
As I raised my head, unable to move in my height of shame, Spencer’s hand slowly came up. With only the slightest of touches, he gingerly took my chemise and gently drew it up to cover me. I held my breath and gave a small, shuddering sob. With the back of his fingers he brushed my cheek and smiled at me so sweetly I felt my heart melt.
“What has happened to you, my dainty damsel ?”, he asked softly. “That was no ordinary walk in the woods, was it?”
I fiercely shook my head, lacking the courage, as well as the breath, to speak. By now, I was weeping and I was furious at myself for doing it! Yet, I could not stop …
Douglas did not move at all nor did he touch me. I was in a half lying, half sitting position and felt like a ragdoll. I looked like one too. After a while I stopped crying, finally recapturing my composure again. Douglas then rose, offered me his hand and drew me to my feet.
“Come, Miss Dashwood,” he said, “let me offer you some refreshment. You are looking very much like you could use it.”
I was very grateful Douglas did not try to comfort me but, instead, led me into his study and indicated that I should sit down on the worn leather couch. My shame continued to burn and I did not wish to indulge myself further or melt far too readily into his arms, but that was precisely what I wished to do – most fervently.
When Twinkler was summoned, Douglas told him to show me to an upstairs room and give me some fresh clothing so that I could tidy myself a bit. Twinkler brought me to a bedroom and opened the large cupboard it contained.
“ ‘Ere, miss, this should do very well,” he said with a friendly grin on his face as he handed me a long, dark red woollen coat. I thanked him and he left.
A little while later I entered the study again, feeling much better now that I regained some fragment of decency. Douglas was standing in front of the French windows and turned when he heard me. He waited until I was sitting on the edge of a sofa before he sank into a chair on the opposite side of a low table. He then crossed his fingers under his chin and rested his elbows on his knees. I opened my mouth to speak but he silenced me with a slight shake of the head.
“No, my dainty damsel, do not say a thing. You need to compose yourself. You are distressed. We will wait for Twinkler to bring us some tea and then you will tell me what has happened.”
As I looked at him from across the table, I saw him as the image of strength, composure and compassion. I loved him for that. No, I just loved him, without the merest hint of a doubt. He was a rake, dangerous and seductive, but I loved him because he showed me no unnecessary pity. He just made me feel strong again.
Half an hour later, I was done telling Douglas about my unpleasantness with Wilkinson. I felt drained and giddy with exhaustion but also very relieved. The fragrant Indian tea was most welcome. My rake listened to me without interruption; he was outwardly calm but his eyes burned with mounting fury as my tale unwound. When I was done talking, he took a deep breath and leaned back in his seat.
His voice was a level monotone when he spoke.
“It seems very clear to me, my dear Miss Dashwood, that there is only one vitally important thing I can do for you. I must get you back at Barton Cottage as soon as possible without anyone knowing you were here.”
I stared at him in consternation for a few moments, hurt by the remote expression on his face and the coolness of his tone. It suddenly dawned on me that I must not let him notice my distress. All at once something was very clear to me; Douglas Spencer would not tolerate a new stain on his already ruined reputation. Should people hear of my short stay at Douglas’ house without a chaperon, he would have to fully take the blame and marry me. On the other hand, I would be brand as damaged goods and we would be banned from society, even after our marriage.
I rose and was relieved to find my voice steady.
“Very well, Mr Spencer, I would be very obliged if you would instruct Mr Twinkler to bring me home. I thank you for your help and I must ask for your forgiveness for inconveniencing you with my troubles. Goodnight, sir.”
He did not stop me when I walked out of the room, still limping slightly on my injured ankle.
Barton Cottage was in a downright uproar when I limped in, dirty and dishevelled, but not wearing Douglas’ coat anymore; I did not want anyone to know about my acquaintance with him.
Mother gave a shrill cry when she saw me.
“Margaret, for the love of God, what has happened to you, child? Where have you been ? What …”
Elinor, who was supporting Mother’s limp form on the settee, gently interrupted her.
“Now, Mama, give Margaret a bit of time to recover herself.”
Several things seemed to happen all at once. Marianne hastened towards me and put her arm around me while Edward pushed a chair forward for me. Once I was duly seated, Colonel Brandon knelt beside me and pressed a glass of sherry into my hand.
“Here, Miss Margaret, take a sip of this, a small one, mind! We would not want you to choke on it.”
After I had done what he asked, I looked around.
“Where is John? Is he still here?”
Colonel Brandon was the one who answered.
“He seems to have left in a hurry, Miss Margaret, after he received a message from a livered footman. Your maid did not asked from whence he came but can I presume it has a connection with what happened to you?”
“Yes, Colonel, I think this footman was from Watcombe Manor and the message must have concerned me. I was obliged to leave it rather precipitously, I am afraid.”
Mother startled everyone by yet another wailing cry while throwing up her arms.
“But Margaret, why? For once, could you not behave like the well-bred young lady that you are? This is not to be endured and Mr Wilkinson will be most vexed! Colonel Brandon, we must go without delay and apologize to him!”
“No, Mother!” I had forced my voice into a normal but very firm speech and it had the desired result; everybody was staring at me in shock. I was on my feet, faced everyone and straightened my back in an attempt to show a resolution I heartily felt.
“I will not accept an offer from Mr Wilkinson. I left his house on my own accord and free will, refusing to be driven in his curricle. My walk home just took me longer than foreseen and I am very tired so I will take myself off to bed at once.”
Offering no further explanation I took my leave and no one acted against it.
The next day Colonel Brandon took us all in at his estate of Delaford and stated that Marianne was concerned about Mother. Poor Mama was indeed in uproar and could not stop complaining. I was thankful for that since I was not feeling at all well myself. My ankle still hurt, though I attempted not to show discomfort for fear Mother would want me to explain how I had gotten it hurt. A few days of pampering and rest should see me right, I reckoned.
By the time July was half, I was completely recovered and ready to make new plans.
Indeed, a new and daring scheme had formed in my mind, which would, I hoped, solve the most of my problems. They were clear, those troubles of mine. I must contract a marriage with a gentleman of fortune. I knew of such a candidate, though he seemed reluctant to commit himself.
Therefore it was of the utmost importance that I contrived to win Douglas over.
One morning at breakfast, I asked Colonel Brandon if I might borrow a horse from his stables and go for a ride. Mother was not with us for she was not well enough to leave her room. The rest of my family looked at me with guarded glances.
“Dearest,” Elinor began, “is it wise to make such an outing on your own? I wish you to take a groom, lest you come into trouble.”
I readily acquiesced and she said no more. Of course, I had no intention of doing exactly what they were proposing. The presence of a groom did not suit me at all on the journey I bore in my mind. However, at least, I took the precaution of asking Johnny, the youngest groom, to accompany me on a part of my journey. I left the boy in the woods near Douglas’ house with the two horses, but not so close that he could actually see the house. Pressing a few coins into his hand, I explained I had an errand to do and would be back in half an hour.
Next morning, all three of us set off for the estate of John’s acquaintance.
I was very curious to know where it was and what it was called. He had not even told me the name of the man, stating it would not mean nothing to me since I had never seen him.
Imagine my surprise when the carriage took us to the small village of Watcombe, near Torquay. We passed through the village and rode into a curved, upward-going track. We turned several bends, which lead us up a gentle slope and between impossibly green pastures, strewn with granite boulders. After one last turn, the most captivating sight unrolled before my eyes.
Set in the palm of what looked like a giant hand of green was an elegant manor house in Elizabethan style, not too large but exquisitely proportioned. The facade’s buff coloured stone appeared golden in rays of the morning sun; the lawn spread to its front in shades of emerald.
I may not yet have met the owner but, for certain, I loved his house already. Hope sprang in my heart that it might not be that bad after all. A man in possession of such loveliness could never be anything but kind and pleasant. Yes, I am ashamed to confess that those were the thoughts I harboured, although I know now how immature and childishly naive my thoughts were.
We alighted from our carriage and were led into a splendid hall of royal proportions, all white and gold, and the floor a chest board of white and black marble.
A few moments later the lord of the manor entered the hall and my spirits plummeted in disappointment. He was a man of middle height, sturdily built and with a puffed, bleak face. He was at least fifty years old!
While I struggled to keep calm, John pressed the outstretched hand of the man and turned toward us.
“Stepmama, Margaret, allow me to present my good friend, Mr Phineas Wilkinson of Watcombe Manor. Phineas, old boy, this is Mrs Dashwood and her daughter Margaret.”
I extended my hand to the man, all the while attempting to still the uproar of thoughts in my shocked mind.
This man was Douglas Spencer’s cousin and he would inherit my new-found friend’s money, title and estate if the latter did not manage to marry within the month. Watcombe Manor was Spencer’s house and home! No wonder I loved it instantly …
We were invited to take tea in one of the magnificent parlours. I had to force myself to answer Wilkinson when he spoke to me but only then, as John had insisted. Young ladies were not supposed to have an opinion, let alone express them. I hated to be subdued and shy because that is not who I am. Yet I decided to play the game John had proposed so that I could learn more about the man he was trying to force on me. We did not stay long but agreed that Wilkinson would collect me next week to take me for a drive.
July had come in a blaze of hot, airless days and oppressively sultry nights.
Our stuffy little cottage seemed even more joyless than ever so it was with all the more delight that I took my early morning daily walks. However, my steps did not take me to the moors and my circle of stones anymore. Instead, I found myself wandering towards Mr Spencer’s house, keeping well out of sight, of course, as it behoved a well-bred young lady.
The trees surrounding the dwelling provided me with enough protection so as not to be seen, and also as a well-craved-for shade from the blazing sun. I was working on a sketch of the house, which I found very pleasant, despite its shabby appearance. While I was drawing, my thoughts wandered.
Eight years ago, Elinor and Marianne had been in the same situation I now found myself in. Marianne entangled herself in a hopeless love affair with John Willoughby, a careless, selfish young man, who abandoned her for a wealthy heiress at the first occasion, leaving Marianne broken-hearted. It was Colonel Brandon who saved her, not only by rescuing her from the moors on a nightly rainstorm but also by healing her emotions through the sheer force of his genuine love.
Elinor and Edward had fallen in love at first sight, but Edward’s arrogant and cold mother tried to separate them by using his former attachment to Lucy Steele as a means to drive a wedge between them. Edward, who had loathed himself for falling out of love with Lucy, had stayed away from Elinor in shame. My strong eldest sister hid her broken heart well and devoted herself to us, caring for us with all her heart. Edward had not come back before he had been certain of Lucy’s new attachment to his brother Robert whom she married soon thereafter. I am sure I have never seen a woman so happy as Elinor when Edward proposed to her.
When the pencil in my hand stilled, I was looking at Douglas’ home with sudden longing. That was, of course, very foolish but I could not help myself. I would give my life, right then, if I could have been there with him. Reminiscing over my sisters’ romances had made it all too clear for me – I was in love with Douglas.
It was – and I coolly acknowledged this – foolish to the extreme for I had no hope of gaining anything but heartbreak. Douglas was a rake, a ravisher and an outcast of decent society. These facts were generally known yet much about him still remained uncovered.
Why had Douglas returned to England? If he meant to find a bride and recover his estate, why had he waited so long? According to Jack Twinkler, Douglas rented the house in late April after a two-month stay in London.
Then there was the disturbing fact that he had acquired a gunshot wound, which was not at all a common event. People did not get shot unless they had a sworn enemy or were attacked by highwaymen. Douglas had never offered me an explanation for his injury. But then, we had not really had one single serious conversation, had we? He had been too busy charming me and I had been a willing subject of his attractive charm.
On top of that, I suddenly realised something that unsettled me by the sheer plausibility of it; he might have attempted to attract me on purpose, to catch a naive, unsuspecting girl into marrying him. This would fulfil the conditions of his father’s will and would reclaim his title and fortune. The blood in my veins ran cold with the vileness of my own thoughts, but there it was. I had to face reality because, as a girl without any financial aspirations to speak of, I knew I must make my own future.
It was all good, solid reasoning except for one small bit – Douglas had not acted a rake when we met. Apart from the one time on the moor when he clutched me into his grasp, he had been adamant about my reputation remaining unscathed. He had all but chased me from his house.
Then there was Jack Twinkler. Saving a street urchin from starvation was a charitable deed, unless one did it to make ill use of a child afterwards. Yet Jack, who owned not a single penny while staying with Douglas, albeit receiving food and shelter, did not want to leave him and spoke in friendly tones about him.
All these thoughts troubled me during the week, before Mr Wilkinson was due to take me out. Yet I had to rid myself of these thoughts if I was to be in a fit state of mind for my outing. It would not do at all to show distress. Mr Wilkinson seemed kind and, although I did not find him in the least attractive, I knew I must force myself to know him a little better.
So when he drew up before the cottage I seated myself demurely next to the man on the curricle’s couch. I took care not to touch him. Nevertheless, I could not avoid the pressure of his fat thigh against my own, nor his hand on mine. I tried to free myself but he only gripped me harder.
“Ah, my dear, I find modesty is such a fine quality in a young lady. Do not be afraid of me, Margaret. It will all turn out splendidly, my dear.”
I was beginning to feel uneasy by this familiar behaviour, yet I braced myself to go through this day. That way I would give Mr Wilkinson his chance to show me what kind of man he was. Somewhere in the back of my mind I repeated over and over that this was Douglas’ cousin. He must have some merits.
We drove over narrow country roads in the direction of Torquay for ten minutes. I suddenly saw a familiar side road which branched off the one we were taking. That stretch of sandy track led to Douglas’ house, I was sure of it! Longing struck me like a bolt of lightning and I was aching to jump off the curricle and run to the house and to him. I had so much to ask him, to tell him, even though he rejected me. I believed we could still be friends, couldn’t we?
But, of course, I did not jump out. I remained the prudent and demure lady.
I let myself be driven to Watcombe Manor, some three miles ahead, and allowed Mr Wilkinson to hand me down.
“My dear,” he said in a suave voice, “let me show you the house. It is very grand, as you can see.”
I did not want him to do that but could not in truth find a reason to refuse. We walked through the downstairs parlours, the library, the ball room, and the drawing and morning rooms. They were all equally lovely.
“Did you design the decorations yourself, sir?” I asked, not that I was really interested but I had to find something to distract my host’s attention from my figure and face. He was literally undressing me with his lascivious stares, which unnerved me greatly. Was this the ‘gentleman’ my half-brother had chosen for me?
“Oh no, my dear, that must have been the work of the previous Lady Watcombe, some thirty years ago. She barely had the time to finish the furnishings before she died in childbirth. Her husband, Lord Matthew, was very devoted to her and forbade that anything should be changed in the house. Now that I am in possession of the manor, I will start making new arrangements. I was hoping that you would advise me in this.”
Not in a million years, I thought. I shuddered at the idea of doing away with the lovely, bright colours and the elegant furniture. So Douglas’ mother died giving birth to him. How sad …
We were now in an exquisite little room with French windows, leading to the rose garden. It was absolutely divine … its walls were a soft pink and the floor was a very pale parquet. A bookcase occupied one wall and I wandered to it. The shelves were laden with all my favourite books and poetry anthologies. This could have been my dream room …
My reveries were abruptly disturbed when Mr Wilkinson’s arm grabbed me around the waist!
I startled and tried to free myself but it was no good. He pressed me against his bulging stomach and began kissing my neck and face with his thick, slobbery lips.
“Mr Wilkinson,” I cried, pushing to back him off but to no avail, “I do not care for such behaviour, sir! Be so good as to unhand me this instant!”
He only sneered in a very unpleasant way.
“Cannot a man kiss his betrothed then, my lovely? You will become my wife soon and I do not intend to make do without the physical pleasures of our union.”
I gave him a great shove and managed to push him onto a settee where he lay sprawled panting and coughing like a beached whale.
“I will never be your wife, sir, let this be very clear! I loathe your despicable manners and do not care to be manhandled against my will! Now, be so kind as to drive me back to Barton Cottage at once!”
With a swiftness I had not thought possible for such a rotund man, Wilkinson was on his feet and the next moment I was again imprisoned in his disgusting embrace.
“Well, my dear, I have many ways to convince you otherwise …”
Suddenly his drooling mouth was upon mine and I gagged in drowning nausea. Then his hand was in my bodice, gripping my breast and squeezing it. I struggled and fought but it was utterly futile! He was too strong for me. When the sound of ripping cloth pierced through the haze of horror surrounding me, I reacted. I raised my knee and kicked him in a very vulnerable place.
Wilkinson yelped, let go of me and sank onto his knees. I did not waste precious time but lunged for the French windows, threw them open, leaped out and fled.
Three weeks later, Mama and I were to dine with Sir John Middleton and Mrs Jennings at Barton Park. Sir John’s carriage came up to fetch us at seven and Mama was her cheerful self again as always when she was about to be in good company. And good company it was.
We were welcomed by Sir John and his mother-in-law, Mrs Jennings, who are without a doubt the most cheerful people I have ever met.
“Oh, my darlings!,” Mrs Jennings exclaimed. “How lovely to see you again and how shamefully long it has been since you were last here! How well you are looking, my dear Mrs Dashwood! And, oh, my darling Meg, you are becoming even more beautiful than your two sisters, I dare say!”
She covered us with kisses and ushered us inside the parlour where we found the rest of our family. Elinor sprang to her feet as soon as we set foot into the room and embraced us fondly.
“Mama! Margaret! How are you? It has been so long!”
Next we were hugged by Edward who inspected me with inquiring eyes.
“Upon my word, Margaret, but you have even grown more beguiling than the last time I saw you! How do you manage, my dear, to do so?”
“Oh, Edward, you are teasing me. Now, where is Marianne?”
My youngest sister was waving at me from the settee upon which she was sitting. Marianne was seven months pregnant and she was often tired.
“I am sorry, darling, but I am feeling a bit under the weather. This pregnancy seems to be much harder to bear than when I was expecting the girls.”
“Marianne, I am sorry to hear that. Now, you must not care a bit about staying on the settee. I am sure we will all forgive you in your present state.”
I hugged Marianne and gave the colonel a hand. Even after all these years I was still a bit shy in the presence of the stern and serious man, though he had never given me the slightest hint of anything but kindness. He was, however, much more formal in his dealings with me than Edward was.
“Margaret, I can only second my brother-in-law in his praise of you. You are looking very beautiful, my dear.”
I must confess, the evening proceeded in a bit of boredom as we drank champagne and later as we dined in the splendid dining room. The conversation rippled on about uninteresting topics of tenants and estate matters. As a result I was very glad when we all retreated to the parlour for coffee. Mrs Jennings began indulging her incorrigible need for gossiping.
“Now, my dears,” she said, a mischievous glint in her eye, “have you heard the latest news about Watcombe Manor?”
I almost choked on my coffee but managed to preserve my dignity in the nick of time, pretending to have a sudden cough. When I looked up again, I saw Colonel Brandon’s eyes scrutinizing me closely. Yet, when I smiled sweetly at him, he gave me a friendly nod of the head.
“Well, you will all be surprised, I’m sure!”, Mrs Jennings went on. “Imagine, the prodigal son has returned to England and is living in this very same county of Devonshire, as we speak!”
“Who are you talking about?”, I asked in what I hope was a guileless voice.
They all stared at me but then Elinor exclaimed, “Of course, Margaret cannot know. She was but thirteen when we moved here. Remember, Mother, we only learned about the Spencer family ourselves a few months after our arrival.”
Marianne chimed in.
“Yes, Meg, you were too young then to discuss this with you. Sir Bartholomew Spencer, the grandfather of the present and presumed heir, laid down a strange claim in his will. Darling, will you take it from here?”
She looked at her husband who went on with the story.
“It was stated in Sir Bartholomew’s will that any heir to his estate should be of irreproachable behaviour, without so much as a stain of debauchery to his character. His son, Sir Matthew, had nothing to be blamed for. His grandson, Douglas, however, did a terrible thing.”
While my heart suddenly plummeted within my chest, I avidly listened to Sir John Middleton, who took up the story with relish.
“Douglas Spencer was but nineteen years old when he seduced the seventeen year old daughter of a business acquaintance of his father. The girl soon became with child and, when interrogated, declared young Spencer raped her. Sir Matthew was furious and banished his son to stay with a relative somewhere in the Caribbean – Jamaica, if I am correct. He did not cut his son out of his will, though. If young Spencer takes a wife before he reaches his thirtieth birthday – which Sir Matthew regarded as a sign that he would have redeemed himself – then the estate and the money would befall to Douglas. Otherwise, the estate comes to Phineas Wilkinson, Douglas’s cousin, and the child of Mary, Sir Matthew’s sister. She married Harold Wilkinson, a wealthy Liverpool manufacturer.”
“Ah!,” exclaimed Mrs Jennings, “but what decent mother would have her daughter marry a rake like Douglas Spencer, I ask you? So, my dears, I expect the chances of young Douglas to retrieve his estate are quite nonexistent!”
All nodded agreement but I burst out, “What a cruel, unpleasant man Sir Matthew must have been, to condemn his only son to such a wretched future!”
Seven faces rigid with shock stared at me, and I realised I must explain my impulsive remark at once.
“Well, yes, can none of you see why? A young, inexperienced boy behaves very foolishly and is banished from his home and future for it. Should not Sir Matthew have been more lenient? The poor boy was only nineteen, after all!”
Mother was the first to regain her wits.
“Margaret Dashwood, that was an utterly unladylike outcry if I ever witnessed one. Youth is no excuse for behaving like a rake and a ravisher. Sir Matthew had every right to act as dictated by the stipulations of Sir Bartholomew’s will.”
I fervently wanted to defend Douglas Spencer and opened my mouth to do so, but Colonel Brandon’s distressed gaze caught my eye.
“I am afraid, my dear Margaret, that matters were not that simple. The girl Spencer raped, Christina Finney, died in childbirth and, although Douglas Spencer cannot be charged with killing her in the strict sense of the word, he is nevertheless considered her murderer by all members of Devonshire’s Society.”
In the days that followed, I was besieged with conflicting feelings about Douglas Spencer as again I found myself in a dilemma over what I heard from Mrs Jennings and Colonel Brandon on the one hand and Mr Spencer’s attitude of concern toward me on the other hand.
I had no chance to mope about what might have happened, should Douglas Spencer have been a better person. More urgent daily matters of ever returning troubles kept me busy and … extremely concerned.
Mother and I were pitifully poor. We were living on her yearly allowance of five hundred pounds and this was not nearly enough to keep us in good sustenance. If I were alone, I would have managed.
My needs were few. I had my books and my sketching and I did not crave for dresses and baubles since I did not participate in society events. But Mother was another matter altogether.
She still contrived in spending money on the silliest things, mostly items she had no need of at all! Whenever she ventured into Torquay, which was the largest city in our neighbourhood, she always came home laden with dresses, coats, shoes and bonnets. All clothing items she purchased she did not need since she, too, never went into society. As a result, I was forever recalculating our spending and searching for new ways of saving money.
I was breaking my head over how to keep our household afloat. We could have asked my sisters for financial support, not at all inappropriate, since they knew all too well what it meant to be poor. But Mother was absolutely abhorred by the thought! She most fervently forbade me to even mention our plight to Elinor or Marianne. She threatened to have a nervous breakdown if she was forced to endure their pity. She was a Dashwood. She had a name to be proud of and she would not stoop to ask charity from her own daughters.
So, because I was in real despair, I did a terrible thing. I wrote to my half brother, John Dashwood of Norland Park.
Father had been widowed for several years when he married Mother. John was his son from his first marriage and had left Norwood Park to marry the wealthy Fanny Ferrars shortly after I was born. Elinor’s husband, Edward, was Fanny’s brother, and I had never met two siblings who were more the opposite as these two were. Edward was kind, generous, shy and compassionate; Fanny was … none of those things. I knew very well she would not take it kindly if she learned about my appeal to John, but he was the only person I could turn to. I also knew that John would find a solution since he was most anxious not to be bothered with our problems and would seek to discard himself from them as soon as possible. Yes, he would find something …
He came within three days after I sent him my letter.
Since I had urged him not to mention our pecuniary needs to Mother, he merely subjected himself to her extravagant demonstrations of joy in seeing him after so long a time. It had been almost five years since the last time he visited.
John took me apart without Mother’s knowing as soon as he had the opportunity. He whispered into my ear that he found the perfect solution to our problems.
“Allow me, dear Meg, to explain this to your mother, and you will see that I have figured it all out very neatly.”
Perhaps it was due to my state of emotional misery, or to my utter weariness after several nights of insomnia fretting over Douglas Spencer, but I had no dire forebodings of what John’s proposal could be. I should have known better. I should have remembered what a despicable person he was.
We installed ourselves in the small sitting room of the cottage; its shabby furnishings underlined all too well the pathetic situation of our finances. The carpet and hangings were threadbare and faded, the chairs and sofa sagging, and the cupboards and tables were scratched and worn-out. Mother and I were used to it but I saw John’s disapproval glance go around the room, noting every detail of our poverty. No doubt he wanted to memorize what he saw so he could inform his wife Fanny of it, and then they could congratulate themselves they had not shared their richness with us, for fear it would go to waste into this bottomless pit of ours.
“Well, my dears,” John began, clearing his throat, “I have a very fine proposition for you. Step-mama, I know how much you love your daughters and how eagerly you want them to make good marriages. It is needless to point out how Elinor and Marianne have already succeeded in this endeavour.”
He fastidiously sipped the tea I poured him earlier and went on.
“I have a dear friend and business acquaintance who is in need of a bride of good and proper breeding. He is of excellent fortune, some 7500 pound a year. He lives on his own estate, not far from here, in this same county of Devonshire. I told him about my lovely sister Margaret, and he is eager to make her acquaintance. Would you agree in accompanying me tomorrow to his estate, dear Meg?”
My mother gasped in delight and clasped her hands in joy but I, on the other hand, could not believe my ears. My vain, arrogant, stupid brother was arranging a marriage for me? How could he? If he had only the slightest idea as to how I felt, he would know I would never agree to such a bargain.
“No!” I shouted loudly so no one misunderstood my stance.
Throwing the word into my brother’s face had been a mistake. I saw John’s eyes harden while his mouth became one thin line of utter disapproval. To me it seemed that John’s mouth was always expressing his disapproval of something or other!
“My dear Margaret,” he sneered, “may I point out to you that it is a great honour, to be sought out by a decent gentleman in order to become his wife? Must I make it clear to you that you have as good as no expectations of contracting a good marriage? You don’t have any property or wealth and you are, as you well know, already twenty-one years old. In a year or two you will be ‘on the shelf’ with no chance of finding a decent husband in this godforsaken part of the world.”
Mother also chimed in.
“Meg, I beg of you to go with John to this wealthy gentleman tomorrow and learn to know who he is. It is, as John indicates, a very fortunate opportunity. You could at least make an effort getting to know him.”
In my mother’s eyes, tears were already gleaming. I knew what would come now. She would start crying and wailing until she had wrought herself into a state of nervous breakdown. For days she would not speak to me and she would treat me like a criminal.
So I agreed to do what John asked.
That night, I was haunted by dreams of Douglas Spencer but they were very blurry and confusing. I could not see him clearly or read his face as he held me in his arms. I begged him to love me but he pushed me away, no matter how I cried or flung myself at him. Bathing in perspiration, I gasped when I woke, my heart pounding with ache.
That was the only thing that remained from the dream – the hot, desperate ache.
Mr Twinkler appeared in the doorway accompanied by a short, stocky woman of some fifty odd years old. She was wearing a frilly skirt of brightly coloured cotton, a white cotton shirt and a shawl of scarlet coloured wool. Over her long, curly brown hair she had knotted a scarf in the way that is custom with the gypsies. Her ears were pierced with thick golden rings and her arms jingled with a lot of golden bracelets from which many charm pendants hung.
“This ‘ere is Petite-Maman,” Mr Twinkler announced, mangling the name frightfully. “She don’t speak English ‘cos she’s a Frenchie. I ‘ad all the trouble in the world explaining what was goin’ on!”
“Bonjour, Madame Petite-Maman,” I smiled, “je suis Margaret Dashwood. Voici Monsieur Spencer. Il a été blessé par une balle à l’épaule. Il va falloir l’extraire. Pourriez-vous prendre soin de tout ça?”
“Bien sûr, Mademoiselle. Pourriez-vous me donner un coup de main, s’il-vous-plaît?”
Mr Twinkler’s eyes were round as teacups and he exclaimed in admiration.
“Blimey! Yer a lady for real, then, if ye speak that filthy jargon so well! Where d’ye learn that?”
“From reading and having conversations with my two sisters, Mr Twinkler, where else? Now, if you please, stand by. Petite-Maman might need you to assist her in caring for your master.”
Petite-Maman told me what she wanted to be done and I translated it for Mr Twinkler.
She asked for hot water and fresh towels and bandages. Mr Twinkler supplied two out of three, apologizing for the fact that bandages were not available in the house. I cut two towels into strips.
Mr Spencer had not interfered with any of this but his eyes had never left me while I was bustling about. When the gypsy woman began making preparations by laying out various, nasty looking instruments on a towel, his face took a slight expression of alarm.
“Miss Dashwood, what is this? Are you going to let her butcher me?”
His eyes were dancing with mischief and I could not help myself and laughed.
“Oh, come on, sir! You know as well as I do that the bullet must be removed. This woman claims she can do it so …”
“Yes, I heard her. You do understand French well, I presume?”
“Well enough, my lord. As do you.”
“I learned it on Jamaica where I spent the last ten years.”
Petite-Maman was now ready to begin her administrations and told me to tell the patient to lie very still while she worked.
“Oui, Madame, je comprends,” Mr Spencer said as he positioned himself on the bed.
The next ten minutes were very unpleasant and I had to take over Mr Twinkler’s task of holding his master down while Petite-Maman extracted the bullet from the wound. The young man suddenly turned white and fled to one of the room’s corners. At one point Mr Spencer grabbed hold of my hand and squeezed it rather forcefully as the gypsy pulled out the projectile by means of a long pincer. I could literally hear him grinding his teeth. I was feeling a bit queasy myself watching the procedure.
He nearly broke my hand a few seconds later, when Petite-Maman poured a dash of medicinal alcohol into the wound. A small rivulet of blood ran down his lips where he bit himself. I wiped the blood away.
“Miss Dashwood”, my patient said through clenched teeth as Petite-Maman bandaged the wound, “Mr Twinkler will bring you home in the curricle. Please accept my sincere thanks for your help.” His tone did not sound sincere, just hurtful.
I was stunned and also a trifle put out by the harshness of his tone because I had not expected him to dismiss me like he would have a servant! Nevertheless, I knew what prompted the remark. I had seen him weak and in pain and from what I observed of the marriages of my two sisters, it was not something a man would want a woman to witness.
“Dites-moi comment prendre soin de lui, s’il vous plait, Petite-Maman? Que dois-je faire en cas de fièvre?”
“What do you mean …? Miss Dashwood, curse it! Listen to me!”
I ignored Mister Spencer’s fervent interruptions and instead listened to the gypsy’s instructions. She said she did not think he would get feverish because he was young and strong but in case it did indeed happen, I was to call her. I thanked her and pressed a few coins into her hand; they were all the money I had in my purse. Petite-Maman seemed content with it.
“Twinkler!” a booming voice rang out.
Poor Jack nearly jumped out of his skin with his master’s outraged cry.
“Go harness the curricle and escort Miss Dashwood to Barton Cottage. Now!”
I nodded at Jack and his countenance cleared significantly.
“I will be with you in a minute,” I said to him and he and Petite-Maman left.
With as sweet a smile as I could muster – because I certainly was not in a sweet mood – I seated myself next to the bed again.
“Miss Dashwood, I must insist that you leave this house forthwith! For Heaven’s sake, why are you so cursed headstrong!”
I laid my hand on his arm to calm him when I noticed how he was working himself into a state of nervous rage.
“Mr Spencer, I will do as you requested but not before you answer this; why is it that you will not come into your title before the 22th of August? It is, after all, a very uncommon thing. You should have inherited the title right after your father’s death.”
To my surprise, he fell back onto his pillow with a hearty sigh and turned away his face. He seemed to be struggling with himself but eventually he yielded.
“Ten years ago …,” he began, then stopped.
“Yes?” I encouraged but to no avail.
“No, Miss Dashwood!”
He faced me once again, very sternly and brought forth all his defences.
“Please, leave. It is for the best.”
I had no choice but to obey.
As we were drove towards Barton Cottage, I interrogated Mr Twinkler about him and his master. Where had they been before coming back to England? These were the things I wanted to ask.
“Oh, I ‘aven’t bin anywhere but Lonnun, ma’am. Master found me starvin’ in a porch some months ago. Took me to ‘is ‘otel and fed me, then took me on as ‘is servant. Not that he’s paid me a single penny yet. I don’t mind! ‘E’s a good master and ‘e’s also fair and friendly. As long as ‘e feeds me, I’ll stay with ‘im.”
“But where has Mr Spencer been, do you know?”
“I think it was the Caribbean, ma’am. Dunno what he’s been doin’ there. Master doesn’t talk to me about ‘is personal affairs. Suits me fine. I’ll stay wi’im for the rest o’ me life, I am!”
“So you have no knowledge of what happened to him, ten years ago?”
“No, ma’am, not an inkling. Master’s from these parts of the country, that I do know. Watcombe Manor, that’s ‘is estate but ‘e ain’t no right of living there, that’s all I know.”
Watcombe Manor was unknown to me but I vowed to find out where it was. I had become very interested in Mr Spencer’s story.
“Do you not miss London, then, Mr Twinkler?”
“No, ma’am, why should I? I ‘ave no family left, they all died. I’m fifteen now and I’ve been on me own since I was ten. No, I’m stayin’ wi’ the master.”
“He calls you ‘his friend’, Mr Twinkler?”
Jack Twinkler’s narrow face lit with merriment.
“That’s why I’m stayin’ wi’ ‘im and always will, Ma’am, no matter what ‘appens.”
By that time we had reached Barton Cottage and I bid farewell to Mr Twinkler, who turned the curricle and rode away. Deep in thoughts, I climbed the shallow slope. I was deeply aware of some inner uproar in, even though I would not allow it to show outwardly. Douglas Spencer had indeed intrigued me from the very first moment because of a duality in his behaviour; a ravisher, he may have called himself but why then had he wished me away for fear about my reputation?
I was not allowed to dwell upon these disturbing reflections for my mother’s shrill voice greeted me from the sitting room as soon as I entered the cottage.
“Meg? Is that you? Where have you been, girl? Not only is it not suitable for a young lady to go dashing about the countryside on her own but it is also very ruinous for her complexion! Do you want to have the looks of a peasant girl? Do you want to look all weathered and knocked about, your beautiful skin all red or spotted with freckles?”
“Mama, Mama, calm yourself. Nothing of the sort has happened. I just took a long walk and got lost. That is why I am so late and I beg you to understand that it was not my intention when I set off this morning. Lord, but I am hungry! Is breakfast ready?”
With those last remarks I hoped to distract my mother from the fact that I was quite dishevelled and a little dirty. Yet my heart lurched within me as I suddenly discovered a large spot of red on the bodice of my dress!
“I am coming, Mama! I must wash first!”
Then I dashed up the stairs to my small bedroom under the eaves of the attic and closed the door behind me. That had been close! My mother would have had a fit if she had seen that blood!
Spencer’s blood … immediately his handsome face sprang to my mind … those fierce blue eyes, those sensual lips … Oh, stop it! Margaret Dashwood, you are being silly and shallow! Put that man out of your thoughts. He is not for you. My thoughts raced. Not for me? Why not? Because he is not suitable and way too old for you. I battled with propriety and my desires – point, counterpoint. He is also poor and you know very well how that affects one’s life, don’t you, Margaret? He is also a rake as he proclaimed himself so very well to you.
Do you not remember what that rascal Willoughby did to poor Marianne? He nearly destroyed her and that is exactly what Spencer will do if you let him come too near!
All that was true. The sensible, realistic part of me acknowledged it all too well but my foolish, romantic heart did not. My poor, love-starved heart only remembered the feeling of his warm, hard body against mine when he clung to me, so wounded and helpless.
I was surprised when a hint of undisguised sorrow shadowed Mr Spencer’s eyes yet his mouth stretched in a wicked grin.
“I am not in the habit of confessing my crimes to innocent young ladies, Miss Dashwood. You will soon be hearing all the gossip there is about me. Now, help me into the saddle. I must return home and not keep you any longer.”
Suppressing my heartfelt anger, I took hold of his arm with both hands.
“And I am not in the habit of listening to gossip, Mr Spencer! Please do me the favour of answering my question! What is this reputation of yours?” Despite a feeling of tension I looked directly into his eyes. I got my answer right then and there, when he pulled free his arm and used it to grab me in the waist. The same wicked grin was still on his face as he drew me very close, his mouth only inches from mine.
“I am a ravisher, my dainty damsel, and you are very close to being ravished …” His eyes burned into me. My reaction was instinctive. I shoved him hard and he fell full force against Dragon’s tall frame. The horse, however, did not budge, and Spencer’s injured shoulder took the full brunt of the blow. I saw his face grow white, and he slid to the ground gasping in pain.
What had I done? Reproaching myself I knelt beside him.
“Oh, I am sorry! Please, forgive me, Mr Spencer! Come, let me help you up again!” I put my arms around him in a futile attempt to lift him.
“No, Miss Dashwood, it is I who must beg you to forgive me. That was very rude of me and you were right to defend yourself.” For the first time he did look remorseful.
“We have to get you safe, Mr Spencer. Here, step onto this boulder. I will help and put you into the saddle.”
We failed several times but, eventually, we managed to get Mr Spencer back in the saddle. His face was ashen. I could see he was in no state to ride Dragon on his own so I swung myself up on Dragon’s back and situated myself in front of him.
“Sir, hold on to my waist with your uninjured arm. I will take you to Barton Cottage,” I said, turning to look back at him.
“No … please, no! That would be … most unwise. Just … get moving to the north and … I will tell you where to go …” he urged in a voice hoarse with pain.
I kicked Dragon into a walk, and for half an hour we kept going north.
“I fear, my dainty damsel, you must keep me entertained or otherwise, I shall not remain conscious. Pray, tell me somewhat more about you. I find you very interesting,” Mr Spencer’s voice croaked and I grew anxious, so I obliged.
“Very well, sir. Our Marianne is the wife of Colonel Christopher Brandon. She lives at Delaford with her family and her youngest daughter Emily is my goddaughter. She is two and her sister Amelia is five. Marianne is expecting her third child in early fall. My eldest sister, Elinor, married Edward Ferrars, who is now parson at the Delaford parish. They do not have children yet.”
We came onto a narrow country path, which led us over the rim of a hill. We must be nearing Torquay, I thought, but this part of the shire was unknown to me. To my growing dismay Mr Spencer’s health seemed to become worse, and it dawned on me that he had not spoken a word for a long time. His head was lying heavily on my shoulder and his breathing was ragged.
“Sir! Mr Spencer, say something!” I gently nudged him a few times to prevent him from fainting.
“Sir, do not lose consciousness! We are not yet there. Are we going into the right direction?” I asked urgently.
“Yes …” His breath was shallow, laboured.
“Breathe, sir! Do you want me to stop for a while so that you can rest?”
I grew more anxious by the minute! If he was to fall off the horse again, it might well kill him.
To my infinite relief, he replied in a hoarse voice, “No … go on, you are doing very nicely … we are almost there, give Dragon the free rein …”
I clung to the saddle’s pommel for dear life when Mr Spencer’s arm pressed harder around my waist. The moor had given way to a small wood, and our path was winding through it. Just as I despaired on ever getting to Spencer’s house, Dragon rounded a bend in the road. A clearing appeared to our front, and I saw a small house set against the gentle slope of the hill. Dragon walked through an open gate and into a tiny courtyard, left untidy with overgrowing weeds.
The house itself was in the same state of disrepair but it was nevertheless very charming with its light red brick facade, small, shutter-framed windows and dark brown tiled roof. The woodwork, however, was in sore need of painting, though.
Suddenly the front door was flung open and a tall, gangly youth of some fifteen years came running out.
“Blimey! ‘Ere now, what’s ‘appened to the guvnor? ‘Oo are you?” he shouted in a strong cockney accent.
I dismounted with dignity and faced him with a stern stare. “I am Miss Dashwood of Barton Cottage. Be so good as to help your master, sir! He is injured, and I think it best if you would send for a physician.”
Spencer chose this moment to slide down from the horse and, between the young chap and myself, we barely managed to prevent him from crashing down onto the gravel.
“We must put him to bed,” I urged. “Call for a footman!”
“A what? We don’t ‘ave any of ‘em out ‘ere, lady! It’s just me! You ‘elp me, seems yer doin’ a great job already!”
The youth – he said his name was Twinkler – did not waste anymore time but shoved a shoulder under one of his master’s and clamped a firm hand around Mr Spencer’s waist. I helped him by supporting the man, who was now unconscious, as best as I could. We made our way to the master’s bedroom, which was located on the house’s ground floor. I was greatly thankful for that. There we let our patient down onto his bed, whereupon Mr Twinkler got him out of his boots and coat while I loosened his collar.
“Ye said yer wanted a physician, miss, but I don’t know of one ‘ere abouts. There’s a gypsy woman that dwells not far from ‘ere an’ ‘as knowledge of ‘erbs an’ sicknesses the like. Shall I fetch her?”
“Yes, Mr Twinkler, that is fine. I will stay with Mr Spencer.” I turned and looked at the injured man; he seemed to rest comfortably, despite the bullet wound.
Thus I was left alone with my new acquaintance. The impropriety of it all was staring me in the face but there was nothing I could do about it. Mr Spencer’s condition seemed too precarious to leave him unguarded. His shoulder bandage was soaked with blood and drops of perspiration formed on his ashen face. The only thing I could do was wipe them away with a clean cloth I found upon inspecting the chest of drawers beside the bed. My patient opened his eyes, they were moist which indicated the beginning of fever.
“Miss Dashwood … you are still here? You should not be … you must go home. You are compromising yourself if you stay without being no longer needed.”
With his low, raspy voice he tried to emphasize his plea yet the plea in his eyes belied the curtness of his tone.
“You must leave that decision to me, sir. I am old and wise enough to make it for myself.” Again I felt defiant. A naughty grin curved the large mouth as Mr Spencer scoffed, “Is that so? How old are you, then?”
“Twenty-one, since last May.”
“Remarkable … I would not have given you more than sixteen …”
“You are teasing me, sir. Now, lie still. All that bustling about has opened your wound. Let me see what I can do.”
Gently I loosened the blood-soaked bandage but, despite my cautious gestures, I inflicted pain on Mr Spencer. Yet not a word of reproach nor a cry of pain passed his lips. He lay there with closed eyes while I examined the wound.
I had read quite a number of books on medicine so I knew the bullet would have to be removed, the damaged blood vessel had to be cauterized, and the wound sewed shut. The patient could not properly heal otherwise. Of course, I had neither the skills nor the proper instruments for such a task, but I could attempt to reduce the bleeding until the servant returned with the healing woman.
“I am very curious about Mr Twinkler, sir. He could not have been in your service for long, he seems so young,” I said in a casual tone while I worked on him.
“Twinkler is my friend, Miss Dashwood, not my servant. He followed me from London of his own free will. His real name is Jack but I named him Twinkler because of his bright green eyes. They remind me of stars.”
“Just Jack? No surname?”
“No. Jack was one of the many orphans London is crowded with. His mother was a …”
He stopped himself and turned his head away.
“A prostitute? You need not be embarrassed, sir. I have done my share of reading and I know of the existence of such unfortunate women.”
My patient stared at me with stunned eyes.
“Extraordinary …”, he murmured, “Miss Dashwood, you do know, I hope, that it is very improper for a young woman of your class to have this sort of conversation with me?”
“Mr Spencer, who is ever to know we had such a conversation? If you do not tell, I will not either. La, your wound has stopped bleeding. I will bandage it.”
Mr Spencer watched me with curious interest and it made me feel a trifle uneasy.
“Do you not care about your reputation, Miss Dashwood? So far, you have violated every rule of propriety. You have been alone with an unmarried man and you have touched him, intimately, to say the least. You have even entered his home without being chaperoned and at the moment, you are at his bed site. If this becomes public, you will be ruined beyond repair, my dainty damsel.” A slight but intimidating smile broke on his lips.
The words had come out in a very impudent, taunting tone, but that was not what disturbed me. It was his smile that did – a wicked, almost cruel smile – that infuriated me most. I could feel my cheeks burn with anger, yet I checked myself, although with difficulty. Giving Spencer the satisfaction of seeing me lose my temper would only prove the veracity of his words.
“Mr Spencer,” I retaliated, but with dignity, “I thank you for your concern but I would like you to understand to the fullest that I am an independent woman, with a mind of my own. If you should know the circumstances I am faced with, you would find me well suited in dealing with any difficulty that arises.”
His black eyebrows rose with what looked like appreciation.
“Well said, Miss Dashwood! Pray, enlighten me about those circumstances, if you do not deem it too impudent of me.”
“It is impudent but I do not care. After my father died, we were left in dire financial circumstances. My mother was forced to leave the estate to my half-brother John and his family, and it was a cruel blow to her already weak health. She was used to the opulence of Norwood Park and has been in low spirits since then. We had to resign ourselves to being very frugal, though this proved to be hard on Mother. After my sisters married, seven years ago in the summer of 1811, Mother and I got the full benefit of the 500 pounds from Fathers’ will on which we lived. But, as you will be well aware of, my lord, that is not at all a substantial sum. My task is to keep Mother from spending it on frivolous items in order to have something left for food and coal.”
Mr Spencer chuckled, his eyes sparkling.
“Frugal, hey? I know that feeling well enough, my dainty damsel. It is how I have been living for the past ten years. It seems we are both poor as church mice, then. I lost my baronetcy of Watcombe to my cousin after I made some bad mistakes in my ill-spent youth.”
It was my turn to chuckle.
“Poor and titled! That is even worse, My Lord Watcombe!”
“No, Miss Dashwood, you have it wrong. I might not even come into the title before August 22th of this year …”
At that moment we were interrupted by the opening of the bed room door.