- 25. At Bowerly Hall-25
- 26. At Bowerly Hall-26
- 27. At Bowerly Hall-27
- 28. At Bowerly Hall-28
- 29. At Bowerly Hall-29
- 30. At Bowerly Hall-30
- 31. At Bowerly Hall-31
I CHECKED that my shoes were tightly laced. It would do no good tripping on them and falling.
I looked to the two entrances, unsure which to take. It really didn’t matter. It was all chance. So I decided on the left-hand side. Here the stone was worn to smoothness on the sides and there was less slime.
With a deep, steadying breath, I climbed on to a pile of block-shaped stones and pulled myself up into the lip of the cave. With a shaking hand I retrieved a candle and struck a match to light it.
At once the darkness lifted. The warm, orange glow was strangely comforting. It dispersed some of my fear and lit my way. The floor of the cave, now that I was up and into it, was relatively flat.
In I walked. Into what, I had no idea.
Gradually the passageway sloped up. The air was much colder. The stone wall was dry to my touch. The candle flickered.
I held my breath. Please, please let the light hold. I couldn’t imagine trying to find my way back out in pitch black.
The flame wavered but stayed lit.
The ground beneath my feet began to widen. Soon I was standing in a wide chamber, most of which was in deep shadow. A single candle could not begin to fill the space with light.
I pushed it out before me, trying to see where I was.
The candlelight glinted on some objects. I moved forwards. Kneeling, I held the candle over them.
All my suspicions had been correct. Here was a treasure trove collected by the thief who had raided the county.
There were gold candlesticks, gold plate, crystal bowls and paintings. The more I roved the chamber, the more I saw.
Whoever he was, he was clever. It was an ingenious hiding place for stolen goods. Hardly anyone came to the beach. There was a much better beach, so much easier to access, further down the coast. I was sure very few people knew of the caves − yet amongst those who knew were Lady Anne and Charles.
I had been repeatedly put off from exploring the beach. What was it they were hiding?
I knew what I had to do. I didn’t know how involved the viscount and dowager viscountess were in whatever was going on. I didn’t know what Mrs Bell’s part in all of this was.
The only path I could take was to call for the constable. Then the whole mess could be sorted out by the law.
Feeling better with my decision made, I hurried as fast as possible back to the entrance. I didn’t need to explore the other entrance. Either it held more treasure or it was empty apart from nature.
Either way, the police would take charge. I had had enough of dark, draughty caves and the smell of seaweed and salt water.
I had almost reached the exit when my heart stopped in dread. A tall figure blocked the light. There was no way out except past it. And I was visible, holding my candle with its bright flame.
There was only one hope. If I ran back into the chamber, perhaps there was another way out.
“Charles? Is that you? You frightened me so!” With relief I went towards him, not stopping to ask why he was there.
Only as I reached him did the thought slide into my head. Was he the thief? Had I handed my fate to a monster?
But I didn’t truly believe that of him. My instinct was to trust him. After all, logic told me he would hardly steal from his own home…
Despite that, I couldn’t help the question on my lips.
“What are you doing here?”
“I could ask the same of you,” he replied, “but I think we both know the answer. You couldn’t leave it alone. You’re too curious for your own good.”
At that I shrank back. What did he mean?
“What is in there?” he asked. “Did you find something?”
“I’ll show you.”
It was simpler to show him than to try to explain the sheer volume of stuff hidden in the cave. I was very conscious of him behind me as I moved swiftly back the way I had come.
If he meant me harm, I had little way of defending myself. He was so much taller, so much stronger physically than me.
“You should be more careful in your activities,” Charles said sternly.
“If I had not explored the caves, we’d be none the wiser about what is going on,” I argued.
“I would have explored them. That is what I intended today.”
“Why did you think of them?”
“As I explained to you, I have my suspicions as to who the thief is. I have been pondering the mystery of where the stolen items could be. It struck me this is the only secret place around. Unless, of course, the thief sells what he steals immediately. But that is unlikely; it would be difficult to move the goods without notice.
“No, so much better to let there be a cooling-off time. Once people have forgotten the crimes, then he can prosper from them.”
“How did you know that I’d be here?”
“I didn’t. But I heard Peggy telling Mary you had gone out today and I suspected you were up to something.”
“I was not ‘up to something’,” I protested, “I was actually visiting Sarah Wyckham.”
“Ah, Miss Wyckham at the vicarage.” He chuckled at my indignation.
I smiled, too, in the dark. His good humour lit mine. We reached the chamber and I showed him what I had found.