At Bowerly Hall-30

LADY ANNE was beautifully dressed, as always, when I met her at the entrance to the dining-room. She was wearing a cream gown embroidered with tiny dusky pink roses. Her hair was swept up and adorned with similar flowers, subtly woven into her braid.

Her hands fluttered nervously to her throat where a string of lustrous pearls lay.

She did not know that Bowerly Hall had been burgled. Charles felt it would be too much for his mother’s health to know.

“How is Mary? I did not have time to see her today,” Lady Anne said. “You must bring her to me tomorrow morning instead. We will have cake together.”

“I’m sure that Miss Mary will enjoy that very much. Shall I fetch her for you at eleven?”

“That will do very nicely. Now, come along, we must go in. I hear Francis being welcomed at the front door. It won’t do if we are not ready to receive him.”

The dining-room was once more set in such a way as to be a pleasure to look upon it. The fire burned brightly and the candles in the chandelier and wall sconces were lit.

Charles and Francis joined us soon afterwards. I sensed Charles’s slight tension in the way he held himself erect. He stood ramrod straight as if aware of every movement.

Francis, by contrast, sloped into the room and took his seat with barely a greeting. It was a far cry from the charming man who had graced the room last time.

Lady Anne gave a sudden faint cry.

“My dear, your poor face! What has happened?”

He raised a limp hand to stop her.

“It is nothing; you must not fret so, Aunt.”

“It is not nothing!” she protested. “You have a terrible black eye and your cheek is bruised. What have you done?”

He gazed at us all before answering with a curl of his lip.

“I had a rather unfortunate fall from my horse. There is nothing to worry about, I assure you. Now, can we talk of other matters?”

Lady Anne looked as if she’d like to say more. There was something in her expression which made me wonder how much she guessed about her nephew.

I had an inkling she knew more than she let on. She had tried to keep me from going to the beach. She had also, I remembered, been unhappy that Francis had visited Mrs Bell during his last dinner here.

“My mother is right,” Charles said. “that is rather a nasty wound to your face, old fellow. Have you had the doctor look at it?”

“What do you care?” Francis snarled. Then he blew out a breath and seemed to make an effort to smile pleasantly.

“Sorry, cousin, the pain of it is causing me to be somewhat on edge. I apologise. No, I saw no need to rouse the doctor for such a trivial accident. It looks worse than it is.”

The first course was served and none of us spoke until the butler and his footmen had withdrawn. Mrs Bell had excelled herself. There was a thin fish soup and wafer-like toast slices and it was all most delicious.

It was during the main course that Charles dropped his bombshell.

The ham was roasted to perfection and Peggy’s cut vegetables provided a tasty glazed side dish along with a mound of roasted potatoes. I doubted I’d have room for the dessert at this rate.

There was none of Francis’s lazy teasing with his aunt tonight. He contributed little to the light conversation led by Lady Anne. I did not speak much, either. My mind was too tuned to the guest and how Charles’s plan was playing out.

At last, Lady Anne ran out of suitable conversational topics. Charles stared at his plate. There was only the sound of our cutlery chinking on the china plates.

The butler came and poured more wine. A log in the fire suddenly dropped and the noise was startlingly loud.

Francis seemed oblivious to all this. There was little wrong with his appetite. He had managed to put away three helpings of Mrs Bell’s huge ham and trimmings. He was on his third glass of wine, too, and his face was increasingly ruddy.

“Ah, you may be interested to hear this,” Charles said casually, just as the silence became unbearable.

“What might that be?” Francis said, sounding uninterested.

“There is a local geological society starting up. It sounds fascinating. They are interested in all sorts of different rocks and exploring, too.”

“Really?” Francis put down his cutlery and patted his protruding stomach.

“The head of the society came to see me,” Charles went on as if there had been no interruption. “He was looking for a place to take the group as a first outing. I thought of the caves down at the beach and recommended them to him. I believe their first outing is tomorrow afternoon.”

There was a loud crack as Francis’s fork shattered the meringue on his plate. Pieces of it flew on to the tablecloth. Lady Anne looked shocked; whether at her nephew’s faux pas or at her son’s news wasn’t clear.

Francis made his excuses soon after. Lady Anne tried to persuade him to stay for an evening of cards, but he declared his weariness and a desire for an early night. His carriage was soon speeding down the driveway.

“That went well,” Charles whispered to me. “Now all we have to do is be ready.”

“You think he will go to the caves tonight?” I whispered back.

Lady Anne had retired but we were standing in the hall and there were servants tidying up and taking the dinner dishes to the kitchen.

“I’m convinced of it,” Charles said. “Meet me in an hour in the walled garden. Go quietly and don’t let yourself be seen by anyone. I want an answer tonight. If Francis has betrayed his family honour…”


Tracey Steel

Having worked on a number of magazines over the years, Tracey has found her perfect place on The Friend as she’s obsessed with reading and never goes anywhere without a book! She reads all the PF stories with a mug of tea close by and usually a bit of strong cheese too!