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.”