- 24. At Bowerly Hall-24
- 25. At Bowerly Hall-25
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- 28. At Bowerly Hall-28
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- 30. At Bowerly Hall-30
I WALKED across the meadows and down the lane to the vicarage. The leaves lay scattered under my feet like a russet carpet. The branches of the trees were starkly bare. A mist hung low over the ground and I smelled the first mushrooms that sprouted round the tree trunks.
Sarah welcomed me with a warm hug.
“I’m so glad to see you,” she said. “Come in, let me take your bonnet and coat. Will you take tea or chocolate?”
“How is everyone at Bowerly? I’ve been so worried about you all.”
“I’m glad to say that everybody is improving nicely. His Lordship is better and Mary was lucky and escaped the fever. She has a head cold but it’s not too bad. The servants are all on the mend, too, Peggy tells me. She seems to know all that is happening in the house.”
“A lot is happening, so I hear.” Sarah frowned.
“You heard about the thief, then?”
“Yes, indeed. Viscount Bowerly came here to confer with my father. I don’t know what was said but Father told me of the break-in. I do wish whoever it is was caught. I can hardly sleep easily at night because of it.”
“Your father thinks it unlikely that the vicarage will be targeted,” I reminded her.
“I know, it’s silly of me. I let my imagination run riot.”
The tea and biscuits arrived and we talked of lighter matters. I had the sense that Sarah had more to tell me. She was fidgety. Sometimes she stopped mid-sentence as if she’d drifted in her thoughts. At last, I could take it no more.
“Sarah, what is it? There is something on your mind. Will you not share it with me?”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Yes, it is.”
Her eyes shone with sudden excitement.
“James has asked to speak to Father tonight after dinner. I… I think he will ask for my hand in marriage.”
“That is wonderful news!” I said, delighted for my friend. “He is a lucky man to capture your heart.”
“He most certainly has captured my heart.” She sighed happily. “But he is the kindest, gentlest man I have ever met, so I am actually the lucky one.”
There was true love speaking. Sarah looked so pretty, flushed with emotion as she talked about James.
How lovely to be in love and have that love returned. How reassuring it must be to find your soulmate in this world.
I was not jealous of Sarah, how could I be when I wanted the best for my friend? But a little part of me asked whether I would ever be so blessed.
It was unlikely. Governesses were, of course, spinsters. It was not work for married women. My future was likely to be that of teaching and maybe companionship for ladies.
The shadow of the poorhouse was ever present on the horizon but I prayed it would never come to that. However, I would be dependent on the goodwill of my employers over the years to come and could never lose that sense of slight anxiety.
But it was with a glad heart that I congratulated Sarah and we spent the next hour happily discussing wedding plans, dresses, food and other details of the celebrations to come.
“I hope I haven’t been too forward in all this,” Sarah said at one point. “What if James is going to speak to Father on a completely different topic?”
“You cannot have misjudged him so,” I reassured her. “You must trust in yourself and in your beloved James. Tomorrow, you must let me know how it all went.”
We had a most pleasant time together until mid-afternoon when I took my leave. I didn’t want to be too late getting to the caves. Dusk came ever earlier as autumn progressed. The last thing I wanted was to be caught on that beach in the darkness with the tide coming in.
I checked that the candles and matches were still in my bag, then waved goodbye to Sarah. I retraced my steps from the vicarage until I was standing high up on the edge of the meadow at the white stone steps. My heart beat faster in anticipation of adventure. I was convinced there were answers to be found in the caves.
There wasn’t a soul about, either on the meadows or on the beach below. The sky had lowered to a dull grey and the wind had whipped up sea foam that scattered across the sand as I walked on it.
A few gulls cried mournfully as they sailed high above. I stood on a seashell and heard it crunch. Then I was there… standing directly outside the cave entrances.
I glanced out towards the sea. The tide was far out and the beach stretched in width and length in all its sandy glory.
Now, I stared up at the two black holes before me. The green slime coating the stone disgusted me. Somehow I had to climb into one of them. It took me a moment to gather my courage.
I reminded myself how far I had come in life. I had started as a shy, quiet girl content to live in Chelmley Wood with Father. Circumstances beyond my control meant I had been torn from that life.
I had survived London. I had survived Uncle Timothy and Aunt Lucy’s lack of love and cold home. I had made a life for myself at Bowerly Hall. There were Mary, Peggy and Sarah for company. Dare I include Charles in my circle of friends? Perhaps.
In some ways he was still an unknown quantity. Just I thought I knew him he’d draw away, aloof. I had to remember he was a viscount and therefore out of reach to me. Yet in his softer moments I felt closer to him than to anyone else.
Enough, I chided. None of that was helping me to get inside the caves.