The Legend Of Wychwood Manor – Episode 2

Characters from the serial, standing in front of Wychwood Manor.
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Picking up her skirts, she sped along the corridor to her room and shut the door, thinking herself safe from discovery.

But when she carried up the delicate broth Cook had prepared for the invalid, Papa looked at her with a question in his eyes.

“Was that you I heard out on the landing?” he said.

Belle had never lied to her father. She nodded, feeling ashamed.

He frowned.

“How much did you hear?”

“I . . . I heard him say you’d killed your mother, but surely that can’t be true?”

Her father gave a heavy sigh.

“There is some ground for his accusation, but I’ll leave you to judge for yourself, dear Belle. You must have heard of the Demoiselle?”

Belle thought for a moment.

“Wasn’t that the ruby King Charles gave our ancestor Edward Fortescue as a reward after he helped the King escape to France? The one that got lost?”

“That’s right, my darling. The Demoiselle was a beautiful thing, a ruby the size of a pigeon’s egg.

“Though some whispered it was cursed and that was why King Charles was eager to be rid of it.

“Certainly, it brought bad luck to our family. Jocasta, Edward’s wife, was the first.

“She went mad after he died and would roam the house and surrounding countryside weeping.

“Then Rosa, their only daughter, died of childbed fever, and William, Edward’s favourite grandson, was killed in a duel over a gambling debt.

“But still the Fortescues clung to the Demoiselle. We would have died rather than let it go.

“I saw the ruby very rarely. It only came out on special occasions and only my father knew where it was kept.

“It was pure accident that my brother and I discovered its hiding place.

“A famous jeweller had come to value it, but Gerard and I, growing bored of adult talk, decided to make a den under the bed in our parents’ room, even though it was strictly out of bounds.

“We lay as still as mice when our father came in, fearing a thrashing.

“When he went back downstairs, I was desperate to do likewise, but Gerard was buzzing with excitement and seemed obsessed by the fireplace, prodding and pressing every raised surface.

“I only understood when a dark cubbyhole magically appeared and Gerard pulled out a soft leather drawstring bag, spilling the contents into his hand.

“In his palm, staring up at me, the sunlight making its fiery heart glow redder than any fire, I saw the Demoiselle.”

A shadow passed over Papa’s face.

“I believe the stories about that jewel, Belle.

“It did possess some sort of power that made men lust after it, and treachery and murder follow in its wake.

“We were only boys, but it drew us, too.

“We decided to keep it overnight and put it back in the morning before the household was awake.

“We stayed up late, taking turns to hold it.

“That was our undoing, for we overslept and woke to uproar. My father had discovered the ruby was missing.

“We should have told him then, but we were too ashamed. Gerard said Father must never find out it was us.

“He opened the bedroom window and told me to shin down the drainpipe and hide it because I was lighter.

“Meanwhile, he joined the hunt and told everyone I wasn’t with him because I was ill.

“‘Make sure nobody sees you and go straight to bed as soon as you get back,’ he said.

“When he saw how badly I was shaking, he pushed me and told me to pull myself together, that we’d return the Demoiselle as soon as it was safe.”

A racking cough shook Belle’s father, leaving the handkerchief he held to his mouth spotted with blood.

“Papa, rest now,” Belle implored, but he shook his head.

“Let me finish, Belle. I should have told you long ago, but I feared you might think less of me.”

Belle bent her head to kiss his hand.

“Foolish Papa. As if I ever could.”

Her father stroked her coppery hair.

“Darling child. Well, you know already that our plan failed.

“I ran, heart hammering and legs aching, until I stumbled on a grove of old gnarled pines growing on a sandy ridge, pitted with holes, the perfect hiding place for the Demoiselle.

“I felt a glow of pride as I pushed the bag deep into a crevice, marking the entrance with a little cairn of stones.

“The next part is just a blur for, unfortunately, our pretence became real.

“I was deathly sick, and it was a whole fortnight before I was strong enough to take Gerard to recover the jewel, only to find that the cairn of stones had vanished.

“We searched for days but, in the end, we had to face the truth – the Demoiselle was gone.

“And then my poor mother caught the fever, worn out with the stress of losing the Demoiselle and fearing she might lose me.

“We laid her to rest a month from the day we first handled that jewel.”

“Poor Papa. But why should Gerard blame you? Losing the Demoiselle was an accident.

“It wasn’t your fault your mother fell ill.”

“I’m not so sure,” her father said sadly.

“What if I’d taken the jewel to our parents instead of running off to hide it in the woods?

“If I’d been stronger or Gerard weaker, my mother might have lived.”

To be continued…

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