Elinor, my trustworthy sister, took matters in hand in her usual sensible way. I was whisked away by two maids and brought to my room where they assisted me in bathing and changing into my nightdress. I felt suddenly very worn out and had no objection when Elinor instructed me to bed. I had one plea to her, however, before I was ready to surrender to sleep.
“Please, Elinor, make sure Douglas is cared for. He saved my life, several times in fact, and I could not bear to see him slighted by mother.”
“I will do my best, dearest, but now you must rest.”
Lovingly, she drew up the sheets and stroked my hair. I smiled at her and said.
“Thank you, Elinor, for supporting me when I needed it the most. Without your sisterly support I might have given up on Douglas long before.”
Did Elinor’s face freeze or did I imagine it in the drowsy state I was in?
“Rest now, Margaret.”
When I woke up, it was early afternoon. Fully refreshed and very hungry, I jumped out of bed, dressed, and ran down Delaford’s wide staircase to find Douglas. The only person I found was Mother, sitting in the drawing room and working on her needlework. She told me the colonel was out on business and Marianne was resting, the date of her giving birth coming nearer. Elinor had gone back to Edward, and the parsonage and Mr Spencer had gone home.
“Gone home? Mother, that is not possible! He was wounded and exhausted!” I said in exasperation.
“His servant went for his carriage and took him away to Watcombe Manor, I presume, where he can take up quarters now that his cousin is dead. Margaret, I hope you do realise it is only for the best? If it became known what transpired yesterday, you would be irreparably ruined. You have been behaving extremely foolish, child, running into danger like that. You not only jeopardized your reputation but also your life!”
A horrible thought dawned on me and I could not keep myself from voicing it.
“Douglas has asked you for my hand in marriage, I presume?”
“Yes,” Mother answered, her lips pursed in a primly way, “or rather Mr Spencer did inform me of his intension to wed you. He did not ask me, he just told me.”
“Well, after all, I am indeed of age. He does not need your permission to make me his wife, Mother.”
“He was quite emphatic in his pointing this out to me, Margaret. It did not put me in a generous disposition toward him. I assure you his behaviour was not that of a gentleman or of good breeding.”
I had to suppress a smile when I imagined the course of their conversation. Douglas in his usual forthright manner of explaining – telling Mother that we were to be married. Mother’s rising indignation and increasing sense knowing she was outwitted. However, Mother had one ace up her sleeve and said. “When I realised he would not give in and set you free, I appealed to his conscience. I pointed out that he still had the reputation of having raped that poor girl ten years ago and that, if he really loved you, he must not bestow upon you the suspicion of marrying him because he took advantage of you.”
For a moment I was simply speechless with rage, not only with Mother for digging a trap for Douglas, but also with Douglas himself for acting as if he were truly guilty of an act he did not commit. With an effort, I managed enough control to keep silent and, instead, thought hard how to repair this new damage to my wedding plans.
It was fairly clear that I would have to prove to my disillusioned mother that the man I was in love with was worthy of my love.
Slipping out of the house, I ventured for the stables where I found my favourite little groom mucking out one of the boxes.
“Johnny, would you do something for me, please? I need you to run two errands, right now.”
“Yes, miss, what are they?”
After I explained to the young groom what I needed him to do I went to find Christopher, whom I had seen entering his study a while before.
“Good morning, Margaret,” he greeted me. “I trust you are feeling better today? You do know Douglas Spencer has returned to Watcombe Manor, yes?”
“Yes, Christopher, and I want to consult you on that matter.”
At that moment the door opened to let Marianne in. She was looking well that morning, though she was suffering from her growing pregnancy, causing her much pain to her lower back. She had gotten into a habit of supporting it with both her hands whenever she got up from a seated position.
“My love, come and sit,” her husband said as he rose to meet her. “You know you should not be on your feet too long.”
“Now, Margaret,” Marianne began as she lowered herself onto the settee, “what is it that you need to discuss with Christopher? Something to do with Douglas Spencer, I have no doubt?”
“Yes, and with Mother too. She has played a mean trick on me, Marianne. With her usual obsession for propriety, she has succeeded in driving Douglas away by appealing to his love for me and pointing out he still has not freed himself from the suspicion of rape. She is very aware of the fact that Douglas is still feeling guilty about Christina Finney and she used his deep love for me to force him away. I believe she wants me to be suspicious in that he indeed raped her. So there is but one thing I can do – I have to exonerate him once and for all from the consequences of his one-time encounter with the wretched Liverpool witch.”
Marianne shook her pretty head in disbelief. “Mother … I am sure she does indeed mean well but she has a strange way of showing it. She has absolutely no insight into men’s nature. Do you remember how she encouraged me to be with that ruffian Willoughby, who charmed her even more than he did me? That man was not worthy of her admiration, yet she did not see it. Nor did I, for that matter. Enough said about that, I think. However, Douglas is a good man but not to Mother. Once she heard the gossip that was bringing him down, she did not look any further and judges him wrongly. How will you proceed in convincing her otherwise, dearest?”
With a smile of satisfaction, I meticulously laid it out for my sister and her husband.
That very same night I managed to assemble all persons concerned in the drawing room: Elinor and Edward, Marianne and her husband, Mother, and a very shy Petite-Maman, to whom Johnny had brought my written note. The clever stable lad had coaxed her to come to Delaford with him, a difficulty I had foreseen would arise as soon as she learnt what she was needed for. The only one who did not turn up, was my Douglas, who sent Jack Twinkler to apologize for him.
“The guv’nor says ‘e’s not well, miss. Begs ye to forgive ‘im but ‘e’s sticking to ‘is bed ternight!”
I squeezed Jack’s arm in great concern for that might just have been true!
“Oh, Jack, is he sick? What is wrong with him? Does he have a fever?”
“Nah, miss! It’s just ‘im bein’ stubborn. Says ‘e’s not right fer yer, says ‘e doesn’t want ter be yer downfall an’ all! I scolded ‘im but ‘e just doens’t want ter listen!”
“Well,” I sighed, “there is no point gathering here without him. He is the key person to this mystery.”
I raised my voice to draw the assembly’s attention and they all turned expectantly to me. Mother had a suspicious look in her eyes but I ignored it and looked at the gathered people.
“Jack tells me his master will not join us here tonight so I am afraid we have gathered to no avail since Douglas is the reason I asked you to come. We might as well …”
I was interrupted by the door being opened rather forcibly – Douglas stalked into the room, wearing a guarded expression on his handsome face.
“Ah, Spencer!” Christopher exclaimed, “you made it after all! Take a seat, old chap. Our Margaret, once she has made up her mind, is very determined to have her way.”
Douglas nodded a greeting to the persons assembled and strode toward me.
“Do excuse us for a moment,” he said firmly and staring earnestly at the assembly. He then took my elbow and drew me with him into the hall.
“Margaret, I hope you know what you are doing. Your mother is very much against our marriage, claiming you will …”
“Douglas, if you have second thoughts about our marriage, then do not beat around the bush! Tell me this instant before I make a fool of myself trying to exonerate you. I would rather not make the effort, in that case.”
“Exonerate me? And how would you succeed in that, my love? You weren’t even living here when all this happened!”
“You did not answer my question, Douglas.”
A multitude of emotions played on that beloved face and my heart hurt for him. For so long Douglas had been an outcast – he could not bring himself to believe in a good outcome any longer. He gripped me by the upper arms and hissed:
“Damned, Meg, you know what I want! Marrying you is my heart’s desire, my life’s blood! Nothing would make me happier, but your mother certainly has a point.”
“Do you trust me, Douglas?”
“With my life, you know that, Meg!”
“Then, sit down and leave it all to me.”
His mouth was on mine in a brief, hard kiss, and then I heard my mother’s gasp of surprise! Unfortunately, the door had been left open and our embrace had been witnessed by all. Douglas, releasing me, whispered in my ear. “Your mother is going to be a handful, is she not?”
“Yes,” I said softly, “but we will not let her. Have you noticed she did not seemed perturbed by your swear word yet balked when you kissed me?”
“You little witch!” Douglas grinned and kissed me again. Mother was beside herself then
“Margaret Dashwood, I insist you behave appropriately as is suitable for a young lady of good breeding. And you, Mr Spencer, will refrain from acting the rake you most certainly are!”
“Oh, Mama, stop it! Do you not see they are in love?”
That was Marianne, the kindest of souls, who never raised her voice – and surely not to Mother – except where emotions were involved!
The latter stared at her with offended pride but Elinor, sensible as ever, laid a calming hand on hers and shook her head in admonishment. To my surprise, Mother yielded with a graceful nod.
Douglas and I came back into the room and I cleared my throat before commencing my story.
“After we met on the moors, Douglas and I did not set off well at first. I was convinced he was a dangerous rake, a notion he all too well enforced by acting the part to perfection. However, after I heard part of his story from various sources, I offered to contract a marriage of convenience with him. After my wretched experience with Phineas Wilkinson, I saw no other way of protecting myself from my half-brother’s troublesome meddling. Douglas behaved like the man of honour he is by refusing me but the inevitable had already taken place. We had formed a mutual attachment for each other and …”
“Margaret!” the mocking voice of my beloved interrupted me. “Can you not simply say that we fell in love? You do like expressing yourself somewhat elaborately, do you not?”
He wrapped his arm around my shoulder, drew me to him and continued:
“Margaret is right. We love each other deeply but there is the stain of rape on my character to be reckoned with. Mrs Dashwood, I am fully aware of the fact that I cannot make Margaret my wife without removing it. So we …”
“ … are going to prove that Douglas was not the father of Christina Finney’s child!” I exclaimed hastily and cutting Douglas off. I was prevented from going on further with my story by the united cry of stupefaction from the assembly, including Douglas.
Quickly, before they would all recover from their surprise, I went to Petite-Maman and drew her beside me in front of our audience.
“Racontez tout ce que vous m’avez dit, il y a quelques jours, s’il vous plait? Je traduirai.”
“There is … not a need, Mademoiselle. I … know … to speak … a bit of the English …”
That was enough to make me utter a gasp of surprise but the gypsy closed her eyes for a better concentration and started her story.
“Before ten years, I was working as a … merde, je ne connais pas le mot exacte … a woman for helping les mamans accoucher?”
“A midwife?” Douglas offered.
She nodded vehemently.
“Yes, a midwife! I was asked to help a young woman in Torquay with the accouchement. Her father was en panique because she was having the baby too soon. I was surprised that there was personne d’autre que moi. I was alone there and they were rich people, so that was not normal. Pas de docteur Anglais, vous comprenez? She had a little boy but he came de travers … I do not know the word …”
She clicked with her fingers impatiently.
“A breech delivery,” Douglas supplied.
“Yes, yes, but that was not the only thing surprenant … erm … not normal: the baby was big, pas prémature, vous comprenez?”
“Full term …” Douglas whispered, fully aware of what it meant, but Petite-Maman hastened to continue.
“La pauvre petite, a lot of blood and I could not save her. Her name, she said, was Christina Finney. Before she died, she gave me a letter and said: ‘Ask Douglas to forgive me’.”