Of course, it was abundantly clear to me I could no longer deal with this on my own. Douglas, my Douglas, was missing! A multitude of scary, horrible images popped up in my mind of him lying injured somewhere ,or worse, dead!
“Jack,” I urged, “come with me! We must seek help, we cannot do this alone anymore.”
About half an hour later, I burst into Delaford’s library, Jack in tow. I startled Colonel Brandon, who was quietly working behind his desk. Marianne, who was reclining on the settee while sewing baby sheets, gasped in surprise.
“Forgive my impulsiveness but I need your help! Colonel, I am at a loss at what to do! Douglas Spencer has gone missing for more than a week and I am so very concerned about him!”
My loud outbursts also alarmed Mother and Elinor who came running from the morning room. Elinor, my practical, level-headed older sister, took matters in hand with her usual efficiency.
“Margaret, calm down! Mother, take a seat! Marianne, stay where you are and, for God’s sake, let us all keep a cool head! Now, Margaret, what is this all about? Please, make an attempt in being clear and succinct?”
Drawing a deep breath, I straightened my shoulders, closed my eyes and then started my narration of Douglas and me right from the beginning. Mother knew nothing about all this and several times she gasped violently during my tale but she did not interrupt me until I finished.
“Margaret, my dear, this is all most disconcerting and also most inappropriate! This man certainly has not behaved as a gentleman when he endeavoured to hold you, kiss you and reject you all in one gesture. I do fervently hope you have not formed an attachment to him for I do not see anything good coming from this.”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, Mama!” Marianne burst out, “She loves him! Surely even you must understand that!”
Mother’s face grew even more alarmed at her impulsive remark. Fortunately, Elinor intervened.
“There is no need for emotional uproar, please? Mother, do not upset Margaret further with useless preaches about propriety. She has behaved like a genuine lady in all this and has used her brains much more than her heart. It has also become quite clear to me that Mr Spencer has feelings for Margaret and that he is showing considerable respect for her by urging her to be cautious about her reputation.”
She now turned to me, her face showed deep earnest.
“Meggie, as matters stand presently you cannot marry Douglas Spencer. I am sure you understand as much?”
“No, I do not! Why, for Heaven’s sake, can I not?”
Tears of rage and frustration wetted my face and I made no attempt to stop them as I felt drowned in complete despair. Obviously, my family was not prepared to help me in my hour of need! My hands flew to my face and I wept like a child, unable to stop myself.
Colonel Brandon was the one who took matters into hand.
“Ladies, would you please leave it to me to try and help Margaret? Kindly leave us, I need to have a conversation with her and your presence here is upsetting her too much already.”
They must have obeyed him for when I lifted my tear-streaked face again I noticed the colonel and I were alone. He rose from his chair, handed me his handkerchief and patiently waited until I had cleaned up my face before seating himself next to me on the settee.
“Margaret, you know about my unfortunate affairs of the heart when I was a young man, don’t you?”
I nodded, searching for words yet not finding them.
“About Eliza, the girl I fell in love with but was not allowed to court because she had no fortune. I was only nineteen then and, if my father had not whisked me away into His Majesty’s Army, I would have eloped with her. I would have done the same thing as my friend Douglas, and where would I have ended then? I would have had no money, no prospects and a wife and child to support. My point , dear Margaret, is that we all tend to do irrational things for love when we are too young to make the right judgements.”
“Yet, colonel, you were deeply affected by what happened to Eliza, so deeply that you searched for her for years! Even after you found her dying in a workhouse, you committed yourself to provide for her daughter Beth in so thorough a way that you even tracked the rapist Willoughby who impregnated her!”
“Yes, and a good thing I did for it was that same rascal Willoughby who seduced my beloved Marianne and would have ruined her in the same way, had I not intervened!”
“I am sorry, sir, but it was not you that saved Marianne from Willoughby! He did that himself by marrying the rich Miss Grey, thus alienating himself from my sister. You did bring her back to life, first by rescuing her from the moors in a rainstorm, then by healing her emotionally after her sickness. Yet, who has healed you, colonel, after Eliza? Who stood by you in those horrible years of longing for her?”
Col. Christopher Brandon’s face had grown very white and his soft hazel eyes were wide with grief. I laid a hand on his in an attempt to soften my previous harsh words.
“Forgive me, sir, I was very rude. It is none of my business.”
He smiled, a bit sadly, before continuing.
“No, Margaret, you are right. I have been nursing my pain entirely on my own which makes me a fair judge of how Douglas must have felt when he was shipped off to Jamaica without seeing his Christina again. He was in an even worse situation than I was because he was the father of …”
“No, no, colonel, he was not! I had not reached that part of the narrative because of Mother’s outburst but listen to what I discovered today. Jack, where is Jack? I need him to …”
“Elinor has taken him to the kitchen, I believe. It is the boy you brought with you that you are talking of, I presume?”
“Yes, his name is Jack Twinkler and he is Douglas’ friend and acts as his servant as well. I must have him with us to help me explain …”
“Margaret, please, calm yourself and slowly explain it to me yourself. What have you found out?”
I obliged in a long, somewhat undisciplined tale. The colonel drew a deep breath, after I was finished and said. “So Douglas is innocent? But who, then, was the father of Christina’s child?”
Col. Brandon and I had a long conversation with Jack after we located him in the kitchen. He was enjoying a large plate of Cook’s excellent shepherd’s pie. Poor Jack looked like he needed it, he seemed even thinner than before. We learned quite a lot from Jack, information we did not know before.
He explained that Douglas returned to England in late February of that year 1818, after family lawyers informed him of his father’s demise. Those same gentlemen explained to him the stipulations of his father’s will, now common knowledge to all of us. The consequences of that will were dire, for Douglas was left in uncertainty since he was not the full heir to his father’s legacy – until he married. Therefore, he could not sell nor buy any property, nor have access to his father’s money. Douglas was, to keep it short, completely powerless to do anything except to try and find a bride.
According to Jack, he had looked for a suitable mate all over the London scene for the good part of two months without results. Each London mama of unmarried daughters was well informed about him and his past. He was instantly barred from most of the London homes and parties.
“I wonder,” Colonel Brandon said in a pensive tone, “who informed the London ton of Douglas’ past. Certainly not his lawyers for they could be barred for breach of trust.”
I was thinking along the same lines myself. Someone who was very close to Douglas must have spilled the beans on him and I had an inkling as to whom it might have been. It could only have been his own cousin, Phineas Wilkinson.