SARAH looked uncomfortable.
“I’ve heard rumours. The village girls don’t want to work there. He has trouble keeping staff.”
“That must make life hard for his mother. I got the impression that she’s an invalid.”
“I believe the poor lady has nervous troubles,” Sarah said.
“How awful for her.”
“Mrs Williams had a hysterical fit in church,” Sarah said. “It was horrible. It was as if she was reacting to the sermon my father gave that day.
“Well, if messages about honour and truth, and the consequences of having neither, make her flinch then I say she has something to hide.”
“That does sound very strange,” I agreed.
“People say that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree when it comes to her son. Be careful.”
“You need have no fear,” I promised her. I have no intention of seeking him out.”
“Good.” She looked relieved.
We had reached the part of the cliff walk where the stone steps cut away. Sarah sighed and hugged her book of poetry close to her chest.
“Charlotte and I must leave you now.”
“Won’t you join us on the beach?”
“I can’t. I must arrange the flowers for church. I hope you don’t catch the fever. Come and see us when you can.”
Mary and I waved until they were out of sight. Then, with me carefully holding Mary’s hand, we went down the steps on to the beach. It was quite a different atmosphere than the night I’d been pushed to the sand by an unseen person.
The last few steps were still slimy, though. I guided Mary around the seaweed until she hopped on to the sand with a giggle.
I was aware of a thrill at being on this forbidden beach. Neither Charles nor Lady Anne wanted me to be here.
I didn’t know why. It looked perfectly serene. The sands were neither golden nor red but somewhere in between. It was quite stony in places and I spied a few rock pools that I thought Mary might like.
It was a long, thin strand and at both ends there was a spit of land with a rocky bluff. I looked to the sea. It was well out. There was no chance of being stuck.
I could see at once that the stone steps were the only way up. Both bluffs were too craggy to climb, especially in a dress.
“Come on, Amelia!” Mary cried, running along the sand, arms flung high and her bonnet half off her head. “Come and find some shells.”
“There are shells right here,” I called after her but she wasn’t listening.
I ran, too, to keep up with her. She was mid-way along the beach before she stopped. I was panting. She held up a white scallop in triumph.
“Look at the size of this one! And there’s more of them.”
She knelt on the beach and began to gather up the shells.
I stopped and stared. Not at the scallops, but at what lay behind Mary’s small figure. I knew immediately why the lantern that night had appeared to move up the cliff before vanishing. There were caves.
Two dark entrances loomed in the white chalk of the cliff face. Whoever had come here had simply stepped up and into them. Thus the lantern had gone up, too. Like a magic trick, an illusion.
Mary was happy with her finds. She began to build a sandcastle and decorate it with pieces of shell and little pebbles.
I went across to the dark holes that gaped in the stone. The cave entrances were slimy green where the sea had entered. It was hard to see much beyond a few feet.
I shivered. How horrible to be caught by the tide. How high did the sea rise into them? How far back did they go?
Was I brave enough to venture inside to find out?
“Mary!” a man’s voice shouted.
I stumbled back from the caves, catching my heel on a rock. Charles was making his way along the beach towards us.
I tensed, ready for his anger. He’d told me plainly that the beach was out of bounds. What would he do now, finding us here?
I was ready with my excuses − although not with an apology − when Charles put up his hand to stop me. Mary was crouched over her sandcastle. She was silent, watching her father.
We both waited. The rushing sound of water as the sea swelled and crashed on to the beach was our backdrop. There was a scent of ozone and a fresh tang to the air. It ruffled Charles’s hair.
“What have you there, Mary?”
He crouched down to her level, oblivious to the fact that his fine breeches would be dampened by sand.
She lifted a pearly shell hesitantly.
“It’s a fine castle that you’ve made. I used to enjoy making these when I was your age.”
His voice was warm and casual.
I watched as Mary’s back relaxed and slowly she handed him the shell. Just as solemnly, Charles took it and placed it on top of the sandcastle.
He took up an empty horse mussel that Mary had gathered. Using it as a small trowel, he began to scoop sand and build another castle.
Seeing him, Mary, too, picked a shell and dug with it. For a while there was nothing but companionable silence.
I wasn’t needed. Not right then and there. I wandered away from father and daughter, down to the edge of the sea.
The water was liquid turquoise. It slurped and puddled on the darkened grains beneath. A few strands of seaweed lifted and lowered with the incoming tide, like black strands of hair.
It was very peaceful.
Why was Charles here? Dare I hope he’d taken my advice regarding Mary? As if he’d heard my thoughts, he called over to me.