We were completely out of breath, Douglas and I, by the time we managed to pull the massive stone block aside. It showed a small entrance to a dug-out passage, shored-up by wooden planking which did not seem at all sturdy.
“By Jove!” Douglas wheezed, “It seemed much larger when I was ten!”
I do not know how but I found some breath and laughed weakly.
Soon we were crawling through a pipe that was so low and narrow we were forced to go single file. Douglas went first and I followed.
“Mind you stay close to me, Miss Dashwood,” he said. “This torch is not going to last much longer and we do not want to lose each other. Here, hold this.” He removed his belt, trusted one end into my hand and took the other himself.
The going was difficult as the passageway floor was bumpy and littered with cave-in debris. At least the passage was straight. Soon our progress came to an end when we reached a solid wall of earth where the tunnel roof and walls had collapsed.
“Damnation!” Douglas hissed and tried to sit up but could not because the ceiling was barely three feet high. He only managed to lay on his side and I noticed his face was grey under the torch light. He was covered in streaks of dirt and perspiration and undoubtedly I looked the same. I realised we were both too exhausted to continue our laborious journey. Although I was aching to touch him and have him touch me, I did not dare to move toward him; I was no longer sure of Douglas’ feelings for me, after he was forced into signing those dreadfully final estate documents. However, my mind was in such turmoil about the recent revelations about Wilkinson that I could not stay silent.
“Mr Spencer, would you please consent in telling me what has transpired this past week? I … we have been seriously concerned about you when we learnt that you had disappeared.”
“I might as well tell you, Miss Dashwood, since I know all too well you will not stop harassing me about it! It must have certainly occurred to you that my cousin is not, to say the least, an agreeable man. We never got along well but the difference in our ages could have been the cause for that, since Phineas was already a grown man of twenty-two by the time I was born. Although I cannot recall having done him any wrong, he always showed an aversion to my person and has forever treated me with contempt. Yet never had I imagined that he hated me so much that he wants me dead all these years .”
“Oh, no, you are mistaken!” I said vehemently. “It does not signify whether you are dead or alive, Mr Spencer. All he wants is your property, your title and your money! Surely you must see this clearly now your premature return to England is what urged him into action. He never expected you to turn up before your thirtieth birthday, the day on which he would become the legal owner of your father’s wealth, unless you married. He has been plotting to kill you since that moment and nearly succeeded when he shot you on the moors.”
“Yes,” Douglas replied, raking a hand through his hair and mussing it even more. “I think that is sufficiently clear, although I fail to see why he had to go to such lengths to accomplish his goal. He would have gotten his wish soon enough, since I had no prospects of marrying before August 22nd.”
“There are a number of unexplained parameters in this case, Mr Spencer. Col. Brandon, who suspects financial difficulties are at the base of them, has gone to Liverpool to sort them out. We might be able to find prove of Wilkinson’s premeditation to your downfall and death.”
“Ah … well, my dear Miss Dashwood, if we do not succeed in getting out of here, that would be of no use, would it?”
He rose onto his knees but wavered and shook his head to dispel some dizziness.
“We should go back,” I urged. “You do not look well at all, Mr Spencer.”
“No, confound it! We will dug ourselves out of this rat hole or die trying!”
With that, he started digging with the help of a piece of wood he picked up from the floor. I followed his example by shoving the earth he had removed behind me. We managed to proceed for about ten feet when it happened – the ceiling came crashing down on my head and dirt filled my mouth and nose.
Strangely enough, I felt no fear at all. It was like a warm blanket covering me on a cold winter night, except that there was no air to breathe. I would soon be gasping for air so I abandoned myself to the warm darkness of death in which I had fallen.
Suddenly I felt a forceful slapping on my back which caused me to cough hard.
“Excellent! Keep coughing and do not forget to breathe!” I heard a voice say and found myself lying on my side, draped over Douglas’ arm while he was trying to make me spit out the dirt I had swallowed. I threw up violently and then gasped for air, wheezing like an old woman and feeling nauseated. After a few moments, just as I began feeling better, I realised Douglas was caressing my neck and shoulders with gentle, soothing strokes.
“There, there, my darling … better now?”
“Yes,” I croaked, “how did I get here? I thought I was buried for good.”
Since I was much shorter than Douglas, I managed to sit and was able to lean my back against the passage wall. Only then I saw we were still buried, more or less, for we were in a kind of cubbyhole between two barriers of earth. Fortunately our makeshift torch was still burning.
“You were still clutching my belt,” Douglas replied, “so I was able to pull you out. Are you well, Meggie?”
“Ah, we are back on first name terms, I see. That is a true relief, since I have been living under the impression that we were no longer friends because of your return to formality.”
“Will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?”
The situation was ridiculously hopeless. I was half lying, half sitting, against the wall. Douglas lay propped up on his elbow, his head half a foot from mine. For the first in a long time, I looked Douglas in the face, but was at a loss for words. He tried to flash me a smile but it was a shaky one at best.
“Well, Meg, that is what you wanted, is it not? You needed me to say it aloud so I graciously obliged.”
“And here, here of all places, you are actually asking me to leg-shackle you? Me half choked and you half starved?”
His arm went up and he drew me to him, hard and swift. His mouth was equally hard and so demanding I was aroused in two seconds. I pressed against his iron chest; my body crushed against his – I was lost! Suddenly I remembered I wore no corset under my breeches and shirt, just a thin chemise, which caused our bodies to touch more intimately. Douglas must have noticed it too for his hands stroked me in various places. A devastating desire for him threatened to overwhelm me. When, finally, we had to come apart to draw breath, we were in a black, stifling darkness because the torch had gone out.
“My God, my loveliest Meggie! Will you give me an answer before we both perish here? I love you, for God’s sake, as I always have since the first moment I set eyes on you.”
“If you can free us from this hell, Douglas Spencer, I will be your wife. You have my answer. Now let us get digging again before the air runs out in this confined space.”
With desperate tenacity we tried to dig through one side of the cubbyhole. I could feel my hands bleeding from the effort but in the darkness could not see them. In my recollection this was the worst experience that had ever happened to me in my whole life and the whole time I was terrified the ceiling would collapse and bury us both alive. The only way to bring this off with success was to shut our mind off from the horrible consequences and keep shoving and passing the earth from the front to the back of this impossibly small space we crawled into. We were forced into coughing and wheezing from the lack of oxygen, while we performed in deep suffocating darkness.
I was becoming dizzy and light-headed and so worn out that I was working like an automaton, no longer capable of doing anything except shoving the earth behind me as Douglas passed it to me. Then with a jolt, the wall of earth collapsed and cool, fresh air rushed into what could have been our temporary grave. Douglas burst through the hole and dragged me with him. Gasping for air, I lay on top of him and did nothing more than just gulp in that wonderful, clean night air.
After a while I became aware of Douglas’ hands caressing my derrière, chuckling as he did so. “You know, Miss Dashwood, I find the image of you in breeches and coat a very thrilling one. To my delight, I found out you are not wearing your corset. It is a most wonderful feeling, your body beneath those breeches.” His wonderful smile had returned, causing my heart to stutter. I brushed the hair from his dirty face and kissed him, an act which seemed to please him very much, judging by the reaction of his body.
“Why have you tortured me for so long, Douglas Spencer? Why did it take you almost to the point of death before you fully accepted me?”
With a sigh, Douglas sat up and embraced me while I was still sitting on his lap.
“My dear heart, in that dreadful moment when I realised I could lose you forever, only one thing seemed to be the right one to do. I had to have you in my life, forever, for as long as we both shall live.”
“So if I had been buried alive sooner, you would have asked me sooner?”
I started to laugh but stopped when I saw his earnest face.
“No, my love, you are mistaken. I have said it many times already but I will say it many times again until you realise it – I have loved you since the moment I saw you. I ultimately resigned myself to have you for my wife when Dobson’s blade was on your throat. That was when I gave in, Margaret, when I was on the verge of losing you.”
He took my face between his hands and, in the light of the full moon, his eyes shone dark and deep.
“My darling Meggie, here I am, with no fortune or property. I have no idea how we are going to make a living but I promise you I will find a solution.”
“We will find a solution together, Douglas. We will be together and that signifies it all.” Tears welled up in my eyes and I had no desire to stop their flow.
Lost in our kiss, we did not immediately hear the voices until they were upon us. Douglas, whose hearing was keener than mine, suddenly pulled me down beside him. An angry, all too well-known voice rang nearby.
“Search, you stupid oaf! They must be here somewhere! I must find them and kill them!”
It was Wilkinson and his accomplice! I could see them clearly now, firearm in hand, only twenty yards away. For some reason, they must have gone back to the crypt. Douglas’ voice was a breathless whisper in my ear.
“Hide yourself in the passage, my love. I will try and distract them and then you must go for help.”
“Douglas, no …”
“Please, my darling, do as I ask. Run from here as quick as you can. I could not bear to have you killed, my love. Promise me you will run?”
“Very well, I promise.”
Douglas waited until I had backward crawled into the hole so that I would be able to come out swiftly when the time was right. He then began stealing to the left in the opposite direction of our attackers, on hand and feet and keeping low to the ground. I watched him disappear into the thick undergrowth and my heart inexorably sank. To my right I could now see Wilkinson, shoving tree branches aside, but where was Dobson? Slowly it dawned on me that I might have a good chance of luring Wilkinson away from Douglas if I could make him believe that we were still in the passage. I had to do it! I could not bear that Douglas might be caught again and most certainly killed.
When Wilkinson was almost upon me, I rose from the hole, screamed, and threw myself back into the tunnel’s gaping darkness.