Gradually, Emily began to realise that she was finally alone in the property. She hurriedly scurried down the long oak-panelled corridor, her mind already racing ahead. Seeing the door ajar, she felt nervous excitement at possibly finding out what was behind it. Hopefully, that may lead to understanding why it was always kept locked. Outside the door she unwittingly hesitated, but reminded herself that it was only a door which was slightly ajar! She told herself that there was nothing to be afraid of, but she had been warned so many times that she must never enter this particular room. She was shaking with fear, but was determined to uncover the mystery that was hidden behind the door.
With all her weight, she pushed it and, as the heavy door swung open, she glanced back nervously down the corridor to ensure that there was no-one behind her. The open door revealed a room which was much smaller than most of the others in the house. There were so many different rooms in this large old country mansion, all of them quite bleak and uninviting. Even to an outsider, it would have been quite obvious that there was no love in this house.
With feelings of fear and trepidation, Emily ventured through the door. As she uneasily glanced around, she became aware of the unpleasant smell of damp and mould. Almost instantly, her eyes were drawn to a large old wooden chest which was pushed against the wall, straight ahead, on the left of the rectangular sash window, comprising of nine panes of Crown glass. The glass was dirty, as were the faded and torn burgundy velvet curtains. Suddenly, Emily caught sight of the large brass key in the lock of the chest and she quickly dashed across and turned the key. Her heart was racing. She had been told repeatedly that she must never enter this room, under any circumstances, but her curiosity had got the better of her. With bated breath and eager anticipation, she carefully lifted the lid. Inside, the chest was empty, save for a scarf, a small knife and a handwritten letter. With her heart racing, she opened the note and began to read.
She had already recognised the familiar handwriting. It was the strong and flamboyant style of her darling Simon. Instantly, her eyes began brimming with tears, which made the precious words blurred and difficult to read. As she struggled to see clearly, she could feel her heart pounding frantically, as if it would jump out of her chest. She could hardly breathe and she began to feel quite faint. With knees buckling, she sat down shakily on the small, wooden three legged stool underneath the window and began blinking furiously to clear her eyes. It was definitely his scarf: the one that he’d been wearing just before he disappeared, and that was certainly his knife lying at the bottom of the chest. Was he still alive? Oh, how she had agonised desperately about his sudden disappearance, but how come his possessions were here at all? She felt so confused. This was her husband’s chest, which he must have hidden and locked away in this unused room. She just couldn’t make any sense out of what she was seeing. Slowly, she began to understand why this room was always kept locked. She didn’t know what secrets she had expected to find inside, but it certainly wasn’t anything like this! Did this mean that her husband had known all along about her liaison with Simon? Her mind was in a whirl and she felt physically sick with fear.
“My dearest Emily” the note began “Unfortunately, time is not on my side, so I must write quickly. Your husband has found out about our relationship. The physical threats against me are of no importance, but I have no doubt that you are in great danger whilst ever I remain in England. I cannot bear to think that my continued presence here could add to your peril, so I have no choice but to flee the country as quickly as I can. Europe is still unsettled, but now that Bonaparte has been defeated it should be safe enough to travel. I must close now, my dearest, as Duncan’s men are right behind me. There are no words to express my love for you. I will always love you and I will be in touch soon. Don’t be afraid, my darling, I will find a way for us to be together. Take care and God bless – your adoring Simon”.
The note was dated 19th June 1848 – that was just over two months ago. What on earth had transpired since then? What did he mean when he said that Duncan’s men were right behind him? Was her husband responsible for his disappearance and why had Duncan held on to this precious note all this time?
She felt the blood drain from her face. She knew that her husband could be cruel, but how could he so unmercifully hound her lover out of the country? She had never suspected that he had any inkling about her affair. The note raised more questions than answers. If Duncan already knew about her affair, how he must have been gloating all this time, knowing that she would be frantic with worry. All he would have cared about would have been his pride. He would not have been able to bear any derision or pity from his peers across the county. His sole preoccupation would have been ensuring that his reputation had not been sullied by a wayward and adulterous wife over whom he so obviously had no control. Emily was petrified of his vile temper. What was he planning for her?
This was yet one more example of Duncan’s need to control everyone and everything. He had turned out to be the exact opposite of what she had wished for in a husband. His overbearing manner; his indifference to her feelings; his cruelty; and lack of pity were gradually destroying her.
What on earth was she to do? A woman in her position would find no support whatsoever from anyone. Even her parents would consider her actions deplorable. How on earth could she possibly leave her husband? Where would she go? She had no money of her own and no protector. If she absconded, she would be destitute, with her reputation in tatters. She could run away to join her lover, but where was he? Why had she not heard from him?
Just then, she heard Saladin’s hooves clatter up to the front of the house. As her husband shouted to one of the servants for assistance to dismount, she started to panic as she realised that she simply just could not be found in this room. She hastily put back the note, along with her lover’s scarf and knife, silently closed the lid and turned the key in the lock. As quietly and speedily as she could, Emily put back the wooden stool under the window and tiptoed out of the room.
There had been no time to investigate the mysterious items against the far wall. She had the impression that there was at least another large chest underneath some rather dirty dust sheets, and who knew what dark secrets that contained? Emily realised that she had no time to waste, so she dismissed such thoughts from her mind in her frantic effort to escape discovery.
She left the door slightly ajar, just as she had found it. Her heart was in her mouth and beads of perspiration were starting to form on her forehead. Her legs felt like lead as she fled down the grand oak staircase to the withdrawing room. Had she been careful enough? Had she left any trace of her presence in the room?
She took several deep breaths, whilst patting her hair straight in the large gilded mirror over the fireplace. She composed herself as best she could and then turned to greet Duncan. This attempt at normality made her want to scream, but she knew that she must keep up the pretence until she could think straight. She mustn’t give Duncan any reason whatsoever to suspect that she had entered his secret room and discovered the hidden chest.
“You must be ready for some refreshment after your ride” Emily uttered, in as normal a voice as she could possibly muster. “Shall I ring for some tea?”