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.