Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Nine

Chapter Twenty-Nine

A discreet knock on the chapel door startled them both so unexpectedly that they almost jumped apart.

“Come in,” Richard summoned, and Thornton entered in his usual dignified manner.

“Sir, you have a visitor from London, a Mr Blenkinsop. He says he is Sir Jeremy’s man of business. His Lordship is out riding so I have put Mr Blenkinsop in the drawing room. Perhaps you might want to receive him in his Lordship’s absence? He says he has extremely urgent business with Sir Jeremy.”

“Very well,” Richard recollected himself and followed his butler.

Manon trotted after them, frustrated now that she would not immediately know the contents of the parcel. When she passed the vast mirror on the second floor landing, Manon caught a glimpse of herself and halted. She appeared terribly dishevelled, and her dress was in a sorry state. She could not possibly meet a visitor in her present attire. With a sigh, she headed to her room to change.

 

His mother, Richard noticed with annoyance, was already in the drawing room. She was standing at the front window, wringing her hands. A fair sign that Mildred was concerned over something, although Richard had no inkling of what it might be.

A short, rotund man in his early sixties rose from the drawing room settee when Richard entered.

“Sir Richard,” the man said, bowing from the waist with something of an effort since the said waist was non-existent.

“Mr Blenkinsop,” Richard acknowledged, returning the man’s bow. “How can I help you?”

“I was hoping that I could have a word with Lord Jeremy. The news I am obliged to bring him is quite upsetting.”

Mildred gave a strangled little shriek but fell silent when her son threw her a forbidding look. Richard turned his attention back to his visitor and replied, “I am truly sorry to hear that, Mr Blenkinsop. Since His Lordship has yet to return from his ride, will you join me in taking a glass of sherry? At least we could make the time pass in an agreeable manner.”

“With extreme pleasure, sir,” Mr Blenkinsop beamed.

To Richard’s relief, Mildred recalled that she was the hostess and hastened toward the liquor cabinet to serve the men their drink. She then seated herself in a chair near the window, still pulling at her hands.

The two men conversed about general topics during a pleasant quarter of an hour until the door opened to let Thornton in.

“His Lordship, Viscount Banbury, sir.”

Jeremy strode into the room, emanating a scent of horse and outdoor riding so enticingly that Richard began longing for the moment his bruised ribs would again allow him to do the same.

“Mr Blenkinsop,” Jeremy said, raising his eyebrows in mild surprise. “What brings you to faraway Hampshire this morning?”

To Richard’s surprise, the round figure of Mr Blenkinsop sank onto one knee. The man bowed his head and retrieved a small item from his waistcoat pocket, presenting it to Jeremy.

“It is a sad message I bring to you, My Lord Donbridge. I was commissioned to hand over your father’s signet ring so that you will be able to resume the duties laid upon you in this very hour. His Lordship passed away in his sleep during the night.”

Richard heard the slight intake of breath Jeremy uttered, the sole sign that the new Earl of Donbridge had indeed acknowledged the lawyer’s words.

“When did this happen, Mr Blenkinsop?” the new earl quietly asked.

“Last evening, after returning from a soirée, the earl collapsed. His physician pronounced it an apoplectic attack, my lord. His Lordship died in the night, without having regained consciousness. May I offer you my sincerest condolences?”

“Thank you, Mr Blenkinsop. You may rise to your feet. I am most obliged to you for coming to appraise me so forthwith.”

Richard stepped forward and proffered a hand. “Donbridge, I am most aggrieved upon hearing of your father’s demise. If there is anything I can do to be of assistance, please do not hesitate to tell me. It would be my honour and pleasure.”

“Thank you, Bearsham. Please ask your butler to send my valet to my chambers and tell him to start packing. I want to return to London as soon as possible.”

“Jeremy!”

The baronetess’ high-pitched cry rang through the room like the wailing of a banshee.

“You are not going to leave me behind, are you? I want to accompany you, and be with you! You promised me that we would never be separated again!”

Richard froze in horror when his mother flung herself onto the earl’s chest, sobbing her heart out. He made a move towards the couple, but the Earl of Donbridge took the matter in hand. He slowly freed himself from Mildred’s clutching hands lowering them from around his neck.

“I think you know that we must part, my dear,” he said in a gentle voice. “My responsibilities are immense now. I will have to work hard to fill my late father’s shoes and preserve the earldom of Donbridge for my eldest son. We will see each other again on the London scene, I am sure. Farewell, Mildred, my dear.”

Mildred did not reply but sank into a chair, sobbing.

To be honest, Richard had been struck by the change in the new earl’s demeanour, when the realisation of his father’s demise had occurred to him. If he had been a shallow, easy-going, middle-aged man before, Jeremy Lawson was now showing his true breeding. He seemed to have grown several inches, and his bearing had become regal and distinguished within mere seconds. Richard almost admired him for finally allowing his upbringing to show.

The Earl of Donbridge gracefully nodded an acknowledgement to Richard.

“My thanks for your hospitality, Sir Richard. I hope you will think of visiting me sometime in the future at Donbridge Abbey.  For now, I would like to leave within the hour. My mother must have need of my comfort and assistance.”

“Of course, I understand, my lord. Just convey your wishes to my butler, and he will provide for them.”

 

The door opened with a click, and Manon entered, her cream-coloured muslin skirts swishing softly as she neared the earl. She dipped in a perfect curtsy and gently said, “My lord, I heard about your father’s demise, just now. Please accept my most sincere condolences.”

Richard watched in mesmerized pleasure as she took the hand Jeremy offered her once she rose from her curtsy. Manon, being as soft-hearted and compassionate as ever, pressed it in both her hands before placing a discreet kiss on the earl’s cheek.

Donbridge coloured in sudden pleasure, and his eyes grew damp.

“Thank you, dear child,” he replied. “Your compassion is most appreciated.” He swallowed, then straightened before he released Manon’s hand. He bowed to her and the baronet and left the room.

The only sounds in the room were his mother’s sobbing, and they drew Manon’s attention.

Richard caught Manon’s eyes, which were softened with tears as she walked towards his mother. She knelt before Mildred and put a comforting hand on the baronetess’ shoulder.  Richard felt his heart tighten within him. She was so compassionate, his angel. She even showed true gentleness to a woman who despised her.

“Aunt Mildred,” Manon whispered, “I beg you, do not weep so. You will make yourself ill, and what would be the benefit in that? Come, you should rest for a while. I will ask the cook to prepare you some hot chocolate.”

Richard was not at all surprised when his mother jumped up from the chair, pushing at Manon who fell backwards onto the floor. His mother was not so easily pacified.

“Take your hands off me, you wretched wench! I will not be pitied by the likes of you!”

Mildred stormed out of the room while Richard helped Manon up.

“Poor woman,” his niece sympathized. “And poor Jeremy, too. I am certain he will feel the loss of your mother’s company in the days to come.”

“Do not waste your tears on Jeremy Lawson, my sweet niece,” Richard felt compelled to answer. “He is now an extremely wealthy earl in possession of a large fortune and several thriving estates. The old earl was a tyrant who took pleasure in forcing his family into submission. No one will feel the loss of him greatly, I suspect.”

“How can you say that, Uncle?” Manon turned disturbed eyes on him as if she could not believe her ears. Tears began to run slowly down her pale cheeks, yet her voice sounded stern when she spoke.

“He was a father, a husband. He must have been loved and now he will be missed, no matter how fierce his character! A father will always be missed, Uncle!”

Richard’s heart turned in his very chest at the realisation that Manon’s father, who had been taken from her only so recently, must still be causing her grief. A grief she had not yet had time to  acknowledge. Manon had never spoken about her father’s death, he recalled with a pang of sorrow. She had bravely taken up the task of looking after her little brother, ignoring her own pain. On the ship to England, she had comforted Jéhan when he realised their father was dead and would never return to them. Who had comforted Manon, he mused? No one, not even Richard himself.

On an impulse, Richard obliterated the distance between them in two strides and wrapped his arms around her slender shoulders.

“Forgive me, my dear. I had forgotten your own recent bereavement. I spoke in haste.”

The moment his warmth enveloped her like a shielding cloak, Manon melted against Richard’s body, unable to resist the comfort he offered her. The memory of Papa and Maman rushed over her in a tide of pain, so fierce that her breath was cut off. That life was gone. Forever gone, and it did not signify to mourn the loss of it. She swallowed the useless tears and stepped away from Richard’s disturbing embrace.

“We cannot dwell upon what is lost, Uncle. I will always mourn Papa and after all these years, I still have grief over Maman, but I cannot allow their passing to influence the rest of my life. I shall dearly love them as long as I draw breath, because they loved me and cherished me. They gave me and Jéhan a home through the love they felt for each other. But they are gone and so is the life we led when they were still alive. We cannot go back to the past as dearly as we should wish for it.”

“Come,” Richard said, on an impulse. “There is something you must see.”

He took her hand and pulled her with him to his library where he pointed at a large frame above the mantelpiece. Manon swallowed in sudden emotion as, for the first time since Lily passed away, she saw her dear mother’s likeness.

It was breath-taking. Lily De Briers must have been but a girl barely out of the schoolroom, when the portrait was painted. She had been depicted in a standing position, dressed in her finery, and cradling her little dog. Her left foot was resting on a low stool, while the right one was hidden beneath her skirts. That slender, delicate foot was shod in a white silk stocking and a silver slipper. Peeking out as it did from under the hem of Lily’s skirt, it emphasized her youth and vulnerability. Lily’s vibrant auburn hair was spilling over her shoulders, which were slightly bared by a splendid gown of deep sea-green. The colour of the gown matched her mother’s eyes, which sparkled with a fire of their own. The artist had managed to capture that glow to perfection. This, Manon thought, was Maman, as she had been when Papa fell in love with her.

“Whenever you feel the loss, Manon, do as I do – just sit here and look at her. This is our Lily, the dearest of mothers to you, and a dearly beloved sister to me.”

Richard’s voice came from behind her, and was so near that Manon started. His breath ruffled the hair on top of her head and his warmth was clearly noticeable. Manon kept still, revelling in his being so close. He spoke again, and she listened.

“Father adored her. She was the sun in his life and in mine. I remember the time when she modelled for the portrait. It took the artist two months to finish it. Lily had to spend hours just standing there without changing position. I was five at the time and an absolute little brute. I used to peek from behind the artist’s back and make faces at her, to make her giggle and laugh, which she did, of course. The painter used to be angry with her and scolded her. She always had a difficult time regaining her solemn composure after my mischief.”

“I cannot ever for the life of me picture you as a brute, Uncle. You are gentle and caring.”

She tried to keep her tone light, not wanting him to see her emotions.

“Oh, but I was a pest, niece, I assure you. All five-year-old boys invariably are. However, I tried to be a good master to Wriggles, her dog after she left. Sadly, the poor dog’s heart was broken, and it died two months later. The lucky bastard. Wished I could have died too, at that time.”

Manon could not think of anything that might console her uncle, so she kept her silence. Then her attention was drawn by another picture on the opposite wall.

“Is that our grandmother, Elizabeth?” she asked, walking over to look closer at the painting.

“Only yours, Manon. Surely you remember that your grandmother Elizabeth was my father’s first spouse. My mother was his second wife.”

“Oh, quite! I forgot. Elizabeth was as stunningly beautiful as Lily, was she not? That glorious auburn hair and those dark eyes! Are they not magnificent?”

“They certainly are,” Richard agreed.

Maman and I seem to have inherited her hair,” Manon mused, “but not her eyes. They are dark,  almost black.”

“Yours are sea-green, as were Lily’s. Since there are no green eyes in my father’s family that I know of, it must be a trait that came from Elizabeth’s. Unfortunately, I do not know your grandmother’s family since my father and Elizabeth were estranged from them long before I was born. Father never talked about the Montrose family. I only know that their seat was somewhere in Yorkshire.”

“Thank you for showing me these,” Manon said, smiling. “I had not yet found time to go find my Maman’s picture, Uncle.”

“No,” Richard chuckled, “you have been rather busy during your short stay, niece. Now, let us find out what is in that parcel my father left me. I can but wonder why he did not allow me to know its contents when he was alive.”

They repaired to Richard’s desk, where Thornton had placed the parcel. Richard cut the strings and unwrapped it. In it was a letter, several sheets thick.

Manon drew nearer to her uncle so that she was able to read it also.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Eight

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 had seen 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 artwork. 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 like 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. And also concern and care for the 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.

“Oh!”

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.

 

 

Hearts Adrift – Part Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Seven

“Whoohoo!” Jéhan’s cry of delight instantly brought his sister back to reality.

“Hush, mon chou! It is a secret. No one must know we are searching for the treasure yet.”

Jéhan’s eyes shone with delight. There was nothing her little brother loved more than to play hide-and-seek or pirates-and-villains.

Jake Davies was scrutinizing Manon in a puzzled way. He had been a London street urchin until he was rescued from starvation by Richard’s father. Playing hide-and-seek had been essential to staying alive in the grimy rookeries of London. However, he had a hard time imagining what Manon needed to be secretive about.

Manon caught his gaze and smiled.

“We must have a council of war,” she whispered. “We need to plan our strategy. Listen to what we shall do.”

The three of them went to sit at Jéhan’s desk. Manon pulled a sheet of paper from the top drawer and began writing down a word.

“Veil,” Jéhan correctly read. He had begun learning his letters under Jake’s tutelage and was making fast progress.

“What about it, miss?” Jake asked in surprise.

“             What does it mean?” Jéhan piped in surprise.

“The French word is voile,” Manon said, “but that is not the point. What I want to know is, what images does that word evoke for you? Say all that comes into your mind.”

Une soeur! Nuns wear a veil!” Jéhan cried, radiating enthusiasm as only a little child could.

“Exactly!” Manon exclaimed and wrote down the word.

“Ladies wear veils when in mourning or when they marry,” Jake offered.

“Splendid!”

“I like eating veil!” Jéhan proffered. His sister and Jake stared at him in surprise until Jake said, “ Oh! You mean veal, erm, let me see, what is the French word?”

Veau,” Manon translated.

“Yes, that is it,” Jéhan said. “Sorry, Manon, I was wrong.”

“Not to worry, sweetheart.”

“Yes,” Jake mused, “but what if we considered homonyms, as well? V-E-I-L and V-A-L-E sound the same, but they are not!”

“Vale…” Manon thought hard, letting the word roll over her tongue.

“What does it mean?” Jéhan asked, for the second time.

Vallée, or valley,” his sister explained.

“That does not make sense,” Jake muttered. “Which vale? There are vales aplenty in the English countryside.” Then he said in a puzzled tone, “What is the meaning of all this, miss?”

Manon took a deep breath and began to explain the real story behind the treasure hunt.

 

Mildred de Briers reclined on the drawing room’s settee with satisfaction emanating from her countenance.

“Jeremy, I have finally acquired the means to mould my son to my wishes. When I threaten him with the disclosure of his incestuous love for his niece, he will have no choice but to increase my allowance. Richard will endeavour to spare the chit that particular shame and disaster,” the dowager tittered.

It was not a beautiful sound, Jeremy mused.

Jeremy Lawson was a pragmatic man. Over the years, his relationship with Mildred had proved an agreeable arrangement. His marriage to the timid and docile Mary Breckenridge was one of convenience and had only provided him with wealth. Mary was reluctant to accept his ardent attentions yet too afraid of his flaring temper to deny him. She endured his touch with pious stoicism only to run into her chapel afterwards and pray. To Mary, marital relations were a means to gain a place among the saints through martyrdom. Fortunately for Jeremy, his handsome looks and skills in the bedchamber had never left him wanting for lovers among the ladies of the ton. However, Mildred de Briers was the one he had always preferred over all others.

Lately, however, matters had begun to degenerate. Mildred was no longer pleasing him the way she used to. She constantly whined about her son being a miser and about not having enough blunt. Jeremy did not envy Richard de Briers. Having to cope with an unreasonable, irate creature like Mildred was always hard. Having such a woman for a mother must be hellish.

So Jeremy wanted to return to London, fervently so. He was bored with the whole farce at Bearsham Manor. Let Mildred fight her own battles, he thought. Jeremy had had enough of them.

“My dear Millie,” he drawled, careful not to reveal his doubts, “it seems to me that you are underestimating the man. Richard de Briers, as I know him, will not easily succumb to threats. You should also be more circumspect about him. His retaliation, should he have a chance to exercise revenge on you, will be fierce. I suggest that you change tack and try to win his affection instead.”

“Ha!” Mildred huffed. “That would never work! Richard knows I hate him as much as I did his father. The feeling is extremely mutual, Jeremy. Only my son’s sense of honour keeps him from banishing me from the estate. God forbid that he would do so, because I would waste away with boredom. And so, now that I hold a powerful weapon against my stubborn son, I intend to use it.”

Jeremy kept his further musings to himself since it was fruitless to go against Mildred when she was in this particular state of mind. He planned to prepare his escape, though, should the need arise.

 

Richard was furious. Since the moment he had regained consciousness, he had cursed the abominable weakness in which he found himself. Never before in his life had he felt so helpless and so dependent on the assistance of others to see to his most vital needs, such as food, personal hygiene, and healing treatment. He was only too grateful that the last one was being taken care of by his skilled niece instead of by the quack his mother had summoned in the first hours after his fall.

The thought brought Richard back to the problem of his mother, the bane of his life – and her lover, Jeremy Lawson.

Since boyhood, Richard had been confronted with society bucks circling around his beautiful mother like moths around a flame. At one time, he had been convinced that they stole his mother’s affection from him. He had hated the whole lot of them but at the same time had been powerless to do anything about them. It had wounded his soul, and he recalled all too well the countless nights that he had cried himself to sleep. Until the age of eight, the age at which he had been sent to Eton, and thus had been removed from his mother’s entourage, Richard had thought that, in spite of her indifference towards him, Mildred indeed loved him in some small measure. He had convinced himself that his mother, being as lovely as she was, had a right to have men fluttering around her. That he, a troublesome little whippersnapper, had no right to intrude upon her court and her life. He had fervently hoped that his mother would come to show her love for him if only he respected her right to amuse herself. He had hoped that she would cease her neglect of him, her only son when she saw how he worshipped her from afar.

That vision had been brutally shattered when one day, he came home after term earlier than was his habit. Lucian’s father had brought him and Lucian home in their carriage because the family had planned on a journey to Scotland. He and Lucian had been granted the beginning of their summer break three days early. How well he remembered that disastrous day. He had been fourteen and already tall, with muscles beginning to form on his arms and torso.

Richard had jumped from the carriage as soon as a footman opened the door. He had shouted a greeting to Thornton who had welcomed him even if the butler appeared somewhat surprised. In joyful excitement, Richard had run into his father’s study and had stood rooted to the spot, staring at the scene that had played out before his horrified eyes.

Mildred de Briers, shrieking like a fishmonger’s wife, had been pummelling his father’s chest in absolute rage. Richard could still see the insanity that had been on her beautiful face while she had scratched his father’s cheeks until they were covered with bloody streaks. It had most frightfully shocked him. Yet what had appalled Richard even more was the fact that his strong, brave father had not even winced at his wife’s behaviour. Robert de Briers stood there unmoving, like a rock in the surf, his face stoic and indifferent.

Something had snapped in Richard. Like an arrow from a bow, he had flown towards his mother and torn her away from Robert, throwing her onto the floor in the process. From his own mouth, words had begun to flow, words Richard never thought he knew at all.

“Stop it, you miserable bitch!”

Even more words were forming in his enraged soul until his father slapped him across the face. Only once, but it had stung like fire.

“Apologize to your mother at once,” Robert de Briers had ordered, and his voice had barely risen above normal. He fixed his son with a severe stare that brooked no argument.

Richard had swallowed and opened his mouth to protest, but the steady, commanding stare in his father’s brown eyes had killed the words forming in his mind.

“I am sorry, Mother,” Richard had uttered between clenched teeth, his eyes on the floor, and his cheeks in flames.

“That is not nearly enough,” the cold voice of Robert had sounded. “Look your mother in the eyes when you offer her your regret.”

It had been almost impossible for Richard to do as his father asked, yet the imperturbable gaze in the baronet’s eyes did not vanish until he had done so.

“I truly regret my words, Mother. Please forgive me.”

Then Richard had forced his eyes to meet his mother’s and was instantly appalled by the hatred that shone in them. By then, she was on her feet again, even though neither Richard nor Robert had offered a hand to help her. She had spit upon the floor and turned to leave the room.

Shocked beyond comprehension, Richard had helplessly turned to his father for support. Robert had not appeared to be moved at all. He stood in the middle of the room, his hands on his back and his face streaked with blood. Yet his voice was as calm as ever.

“That was extremely rude of you, my son. You are forbidden to behave like that to the woman who birthed you. If you ever do that again, I shall punish you beyond measure. Do you understand, Richard?”

“Yes, father,” Richard had stammered, mortified both by his own behaviour and his father’s reaction.

“Go to your room and do not show yourself again today. Tomorrow, I might perhaps be able to summon the patience to speak to you again.”

It had taken years before Richard understood why his father had punished him; Robert de Briers had been an honourable man who had wished to install respect for his elders in his only son.

At fourteen, it had been a blow, however. Richard had cried himself to sleep once more that evening. For the last time ever.

 

It was long past luncheon by the time the treasure hunters had inspected every picture, from the tiniest one to the largest, that graced the walls of Bearsham Manor. They had started with the portraits, which was the most logical way to start. Most of them had women with veils in them. Those pictures that could be lifted or moved to the side had been closely investigated, of course. Then they had proceeded with the ones representing outdoor scenes. Almost every single one of them featured a valley. And in those “vales” there were women with “veils” as well.

Now it was mid-afternoon, and Jake, Jéhan and Manon found themselves back in Jéhan’s quarters. They were dirty, tired, and famished, as well as utterly discouraged. They had no idea what they were looking for, what size it was, or if “treasure” also meant also coin and jewels.

“I give up,” Jéhan declared. “Maybe there is no treasure ‘behind the “veil” or “vale” or whatever, Manon.”

“You could be right, my angel,” Manon replied. She felt dispirited to the extreme and was in sore need of a wash. “Jake will call for your nanny so that you can clean yourself up, and have a bite to eat.”

“Finally!” Jéhan muttered, which made his sister laugh.

Manon left the two to their afternoon activities and headed for her chambers. She knew from Bright that her uncle was sleeping so she had time to attend to matters concerning Greenhaven. When Pru joined her shortly thereafter, the two women worked diligently on their project.

 

 

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