MISS THORNE, will you join us? Have you ever had the delight of creating your own stately house?”
“I’m not sure that I have,” I said, “but I should very much like to live in a castle with high towers and seashell gates.”
“Ah, then you must become an expert builder of such a place. Perhaps Mary will share her secrets with you. She has made a fine palace with a seaweed moat.”
Mary swelled with pride. I noticed she flicked little glances at her father as they played together.
I hid a smile. This was good for her. Very good. Her little face glowed with all the attention.
She was a very different girl from the wan figure who had greeted my arrival. I was pleased. Peggy and I had worked hard to feed her well.
I had tried, too, to present her with interesting lessons to stimulate her enthusiasm, but nothing could help the child flourish as much as attention from her parent.
I was pleased with Charles as well. Despite his protests that Mary didn’t need him, something I had said had penetrated.
Above us, the entrances to the caves gaped. Charles had not mentioned them. Neither had I. Mary had no interest in them. It was as if they simply weren’t there.
A suspicion rose in my mind. What if Charles was here to distract me from exploring the caves?
Was Charles here not for Mary’s sake, but to block me?
Hot on the heels of these emotions, came another thought, hot and sharp as a flying arrow. What was in those caves? What was Charles trying to hide?
“Amelia, look, my palace is finished! Isn’t it lovely?” Mary cried.
I forced my mind to focus on the sand creations and leave the buzz of speculation behind.
“It’s marvellous, well done! Can you show me how to make a bridge like yours over the moat?”
Confidently, Mary leaned over to shape me a bridge. Charles caught my eye above her head and smiled.
My traitorous heart beat faster. Whatever suspicions I had about him, he had an effect on me. I should be glad that he was spending time with Mary, whatever the motivation for it.
A grey gull cut the air with its piercing call. It circled above us before flying gracefully out to sea. A sudden wind rose up, bringing goose bumps to my skin.
“I think it’s time we went back,” I said to her.
“No, no!” She shook her head with determination. “I want to stay here. Please,
“You’re cold,” I said firmly. “I don’t want you to catch a chill or bring the fever down on you. Come along now.”
I looked to her father for support but Charles was staring at the sand, his gaze unfocused. His brow was white and beaded with sweat.
As I watched, he rose unsteadily and groaned.
“Are you quite well, your Lordship?” I said.
“I don’t feel so good. Quite suddenly. I must go back to the house. A seat…”
He staggered against me and I held him. His body was hard and heavy for he was much taller than me.
A searing heat came from him and I realised he had the fever. I managed to keep him upright.
“Lean on me, and I will help you back to the house.”
It was a long way up to the path above. Somehow Charles was going to have to climb the steps himself. I would go behind in case he fell.
“Mary, I need you to go first. Your father can follow you. Make sure you walk carefully and keep well away from the edge. Can you do that for me?” She nodded again.
For a moment her serious little face reminded me of Charles. Yes, she had her mother’s colouring and prettiness but there was steel there, too. She was going to be a remarkable woman one day, I thought.
We reached the bottom step, Mary treading lightly over the seaweed to the relative safety of the second step.
“Good,” I said. “Now, keep well in so that you’re touching the earth on the left. Never leave it. Should you slip…”
My voice faded. What might happen didn’t bear imagining.
Mary stepped up once more. Now it was Charles’s turn. He was mumbling to himself. It was unclear whether he heard me.
“Now, your Lordship, you must take care and climb up slowly. Follow Mary and I will come behind you.”
He lurched up the step. I breathed in deeply. He had not fallen. There was hope for the rest of the way.
I tugged at his sleeve, trying to make him lean in to the cliff as I had ordered Mary to do. If he swung the other way, I had no way of stopping him falling off.
Thankfully, he seemed to understand this. I saw him use all his strength to climb upwards.
The sweat poured off him, his hair wet with it, his face chalky white. With grim determination he kept going.
How we made it back to Bowerly, I cannot now describe. We met no-one along the way. There were no gardeners in the walled garden to cry for help to.
“Well done,” I said to Mary as we reached the doors, “I could not have done this without you.”
I meant it. Mary looked pleased with my praise but worried about her father. She had not stopped holding his hand since we reached the clifftop. It comforted him.
I guided Charles into the cool interior and on to a chair. He dropped his head to his hands as if it was too heavy to hold up. Peggy came running and stopped when she saw her master in such a state.
“He’s got the fever,” I said. “We must get him upstairs and into his rooms.”