Two weeks passed in relative peace, so that Manon was able to go to Greenhaven to check on how Mrs Lynver fared. Pru who had gone there a few days before Manon, told her that she had secured the services of a young Cornish physician, Dr Trevellyan. Together with the staff of nurses they managed to stem the constant daily tide of sufferers to a reasonable amount.
Manon returned to Bearsham Manor on the tenth of August. She found her uncle much improved in strength and in spirits, although he was still in need of rest. After a thorough examination, she left Richard to his sleep.
Conscious of her still unabated feelings for her uncle, Manon sighed with sorrow as she closed the door of her uncle’s bedchamber behind her. It had not grown easier, this constant confrontation they were both subjected to. She had hoped it would, though. Yet after a few days away from Richard, days in which she deeply missed him, the joy of seeing him again overwhelmed Manon. Her heart had leapt with love when she saw the answering sparkle in Richard’s eyes, just moments ago. His smile had warmed her to the core, even when she recognized the pain of having to suppress their mutual forbidden feelings in his hungry gaze. How were they to bear this, she had no inkling.
On the second floor, Manon passed a large oak door which was polished to a shine in certain places by the touch of many hands. Curious to the point of excitement, she pushed against it; she had not entered this room before.
The solemn silence of a chapel met her when Manon stepped over the threshold. Her upbringing had been Roman-Catholic. The chapel’s perfectly quiet atmosphere, combined with the exquisite decoration, instantly touched her very soul.
She reverently curtsied while dipping her hand into the elegant marble shell near the door. It was filled with holy water. She made a slow sign of the cross and glanced around to admire the beautiful upholstery.
Richard woke from a short nap when the door to his room opened. His niece rushed in, and he was struck by the somewhat dishevelled state she was in. Manon’s fiery hair was coming down from its pins, and she had a smudge of dirt crossing her nose and cheeks.
“Oh, I am truly sorry, Uncle, to have woken you. Parbleu! Tête de mule, que je suis!”
She turned to leave the room, but Richard, fully awake now and intrigued, called her back.
“When you are swearing in French and calling yourself a dunderhead, then something truly upsetting must have happened, my dear. Out with it, please.”
“I wanted to show you something, but I forgot that you might be asleep. It can wait, Uncle.”
“No, it cannot. Wait for me outside, and I will call Bright to help me get dressed.”
Manon left the room with a smile on her face. So her uncle had taken her advice and allowed Bright to help him while he was convalescing.
Ten minutes later, Richard let Manon take him to the second floor chapel, but was surprised that she did so.
“The family has not used this chapel for years, Manon. The servants have their services here whenever they lack the time to go down to Bearsham Village and St Wulfram’s Church. The vicar, Mr Merryweather, has always graciously obliged me in this. I did not know you had adopted it as your own, small place of worship.”
“Mrs Briskley told me about it, but I had not found the time to visit and pray. There is something here. Come.”
Manon impetuously grabbed his hand rather and pulled him with her. Richard winced as a sharp tug reminded him of his injured ribs yet he quickly swallowed his gasp of pain.
His niece led him to the small, intricately decorated altar at the chapel’s front. It was an example of exquisite baroque craftsmanship in white, pink, and dark blue marble. Its front and upper part bore bas-reliefs, representing angels, demons, saints, and cherubs in all sizes and postures, yet the overall effect was charming and not as overly loaded as is usually the case in baroque pieces. The upper part had also a small, gilded door which concealed the tabernacle. On both sides of this door, there were two paintings, both about the size of a square foot.
“Look closely at the painting on the left, Uncle,” Manon said quietly.
Richard furrowed his brow and looked at her in complete bewilderment.
“I have known these paintings to be here as long as I can remember, Manon. The one on the right is “The Steps to Elysium” or the depiction of souls ascending into Heaven, and the other is “The Vale of Tears” or…” And suddenly, Richard grasped what his niece had wanted him to see.
He darted forward, ignoring the fiery arrow of pain piercing his back. Dizziness forced him onto his knees, and he heard Manon’s distressed cry only dimly, as if he were under water.
“I am well,” he hastened to reassure her. “It is only a passing faintness. Help me up, please.”
Once he was on his feet again, Richard acted with greater caution, grimly recalling that he had not yet his strength back. Pushing back his infuriated thoughts about his condition, he bent forward to examine the small painting to the left of the tabernacle.
It all came back to him like a high wave, breaking onto the shore. This chapel had been his father’s retreat when his wife’s harassments became too overburdening. Richard remembered that his father had often worked in here as well, seated at a small table at the back. It stood to reason that Robert de Briers must have had a place in here that was destined to hide confidential documents.
Richard’s hand went up to the gilded tabernacle door, then stopped. It must be locked, he remembered, and the key would be … where, for heaven’s sake? He abruptly realised he had no notion of its whereabouts.
“Blast!” He tried to mutter the curse under his breath, but Manon’s keen ears picked it up anyway.
“What? What is it?” she demanded, her voice rising to a pitch with frustration. “Why do you not pull the painting from its place and examine what is behind?”
“Because, my impetuous niece,” Richard patiently explained, “that is not the way to find out what is ‘behind the vale’. Which, if I may say so, is exceedingly astute of you to have figured out.”
Manon blushed so becomingly that Richard’s heart leapt with a sudden desire. Damn! When would he learn to suppress his unruly feelings for his lovely niece?
“It was not solely my doing,” she answered. “Jake and Jéhan helped me. Oh, I am so extremely curious! How will we know, then? What is this secret?”
She was almost jumping with excitement, and Richard laughed aloud at the pretty sight she presented. Hair tumbling, face flushed, and sea-green gown wrinkled and stained from her search – it made her look truly adorable.
“Well,” he replied, “I need to locate the tabernacle key, because without it, our search is over. It may very well be amongst the keys in my father’s desk. I have not yet found the time to go through all his possessions, since I had to set out for France right after his death.”
“Tabernacle keys are usually found in the vestry,” Manon said, matter-of-factly. “In a French church, there would be a special cabinet for them.”
“Let us go find out, then,” Richard replied, and preceded her to the room in question, a small, cupboard-like extension at the far left side of the chapel. It had no windows, and its sturdy door was concealed in the wall panelling. Fortunately, it was unlocked.
Richard took a candle from a holder on the altar and lighted it from the thick wax candle in the corridor which was always kept burning by Thompson. They stepped inside. Manon immediately pointed at a small wooden box fixed to the back wall.
“There! That is what I mean!”
She was right. The small but robust iron tabernacle key was easily spotted, hanging from its hook amidst its fellows, which were used to open the cabinets for books and religious garments.
“Was the chapel a Roman Catholic one?” Manon asked, a bit bemused. “All those items certainly point toward that conclusion.”
“As a matter of fact, it was,” Richard confirmed. “After Henry VIII established the Church of England, all chapels, even the private ones, had to be refurbished. My ancestor at the time instantly swore loyalty to the new religion but could not find the heart to destroy the lovely late Gothic paintings the altar had been decorated with a century earlier. He had a false front installed, with reproductions of Renaissance works. Unfortunately, a later baronet had it pulled down to replace it with that baroque-styled monstrosity. The family must have kept all the other items concealed behind the vestry door.”
“I rather love the baroque style,” Manon retorted a bit of a reproach in her tone. “It is elegant and refined, and in my country, the nobility has used it in many exquisite chateaux, townhouses and churches.”
Richard kept silent, and instead went back to the chapel to try the key. He was unexpectedly stung by Manon’s referring to France as “her country” when he had believed all along that she was beginning to feel quite at home in England. How could one not feel at home at Bearsham Manor? Even with his cold-hearted mother around when he was little, Richard had always been fond of the large barn of a house. He knew why; his father had loved and cherished him and had made him feel at home. His father had instilled pride and reverence in him, for his name, his title, and his estate. Concern and care for people who depended on him for their livelihood.
“Never forget that you are first and foremost a de Briers, Richard. A baronet who was given a community to protect, along with his title. People and families, beasts and crops, and this estate and house – they all depend on you, my son, for their well-being.” Those were words he had often heard from Robert, his father.
Manon’s little cry ripped Richard back into reality, and he hastened to put the key in the lock.
The tabernacle door opened easily on well-oiled hinges, which surprised Richard until he realised his father must have used it frequently for documents he needed to keep safe. Papers that had to be kept private and out of his mother’s sight, no doubt. Richard had no doubt that the dowager would have gotten hold of the combination to his father’s vault, even if she were not supposed to have acquired that knowledge.
“Oh! It is empty!” Manon exclaimed.
“No, wait,” Richard said and put his hand inside the small cupboard. He tapped lightly on the left side wall although he had no recollection as to how he knew to do so.
A hidden panel swung inward, and Manon held her breath when Richard extracted an item out of the secret compartment behind “The Vale of Tears”. It was a parcel, the size of a book, and wrapped in brown paper and fastened with a string.
In a bold, precise hand, the words “To my son Richard de Briers” could be read.