Blog Page



Deception By Proxy. Ch. 27: Time is the Great Healer

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

Early the next morning, William saw his mason and carpenter sent off with instructions to do what they might at Underby, and to do as good a job of it as they could, giving no thought to expense. They were to consult with Thomas, and were given funds enough, and to spare, to do anything that they might need to do. He also spent much of his free time with his man of business and learned that not only was the Brooklands estate in good hands, but that it had been thriving as long as Gossett had been allowed free rein with the decisions that were needed.

Sophia, occasionally was able to intercept William in his plans, and might even expect to be taken up on his horse, as she had been at Underby, and to go on a tour of the estate with the two gentlemen. She was happy to listen to them herself and to see what there was to see.

Gossett had not known what to expect from this new owner. Some of the tales that he had heard of him in his absence, were not at all promising, but he soon had reason to feel more optimistic. Master William seemed to have a steady head on his shoulders, was happy to listen and to learn, and even asked some reasonable and searching questions that showed he understood far more than he might disclose. It was also clear that he had no intention of changing anything until he fully understood everything and even then seemed happy to place his trust in his manager, much as his father and mother had done. After viewing the return of the prodigal son with some apprehension, he soon began to realize that he was dealing with an intelligent man who would deal with him fairly and seemed pleased at the current state of affairs and was easily able to tell him so.

William also learned that almost all of the hay was in to the outer barns or had been stacked up into hayricks. As men became available from the urgent business of harvesting the hay crop, and as the season advanced, most of that stored outside as Ricks, in the need to see it protected from the frequent, wet weather, would be brought in to the home barns for storage and use over winter. It was a late year for haying. At least three weeks late. He learned that there had been some concern that they might not be able to get all that had been planned to get, but the weather had begun to cooperate for once, and the final fields were even then being cut, and the other crops being placed into clamps or brought into storage.

He also took the opportunity of taking the ladies out with him in a carriage, on those few fine days, to give them a break from being cooped up too close to the main house, though they found nothing to complain about. Charlotte had access to more paper and charcoals and even hard graphite-core pencils than she had ever dreamed of, and set herself up in the conservatory if it promised rain, or in the garden to draw trees, or the mansion, or barns; for the vistas leant themselves better to being captured than anywhere around their property at Underby. On those rare occasions when Sophia was unable to go out with William, she could generally be found in the library.

The other ladies—Elizabeth, Annis, and Mrs. Barristow—spent most of their days together in gentle conversation or moving through the extensive gardens or the hothouse, where Elizabeth learned more of what had transpired that fateful day that had brought William to Underby and what had happened since then. She listened carefully and began to see more in everything described to her, than her narrators might have thought possible.

One fine day, there had been an excursion to pick the last of the abundant brambles in the edge of the wood and of the hazelnuts along the hedgerow. Promise of a bramble-apple pie and of making bramble jam and bramble jelly figured largely in their being able to brave the vicious thorns on the bushes, though Sophia did manage to get herself tangled, and needed to have William wade into the middle of them to extricate her with no more than a few minor scratches to her hands and cheek but some damage to his own flesh and clothing, amidst some laughter.

After an hour of good picking, they had filled their baskets and could then relax over the picnic that William had had the foresight to bring. They sat on the edge of an old sandpit that William remembered being the home of a family of foxes for some years. He mentioned that if they were to stay quiet, that they might even see one, though did not expect it, and was surprised to find that they soon had the pleasure of watching a mother fox appear from a nearby den followed by her three grown cubs and to watch her playing with them. They even saw the male fox bring in a dead rabbit for them to play with while they learned what it meant to find food for themselves, rather than continuously nursing from their mother, for she was in process of weaning them away from herself. It had been disturbing to watch two of the larger cubs playing tug of war over the carcass until it was ripped into two pieces, with smaller parts of it quickly carried off by the other cub to feast upon, for at that point the ladies tended to become disgusted and to lose interest in the display of nature as red in tooth and claw as it could be. As long as the watchers were silent, the mother fox cautiously tolerated them but did not trust them far. Where there were humans, then dogs were never far behind, though the foxhunt had never been fond of the Devane estate, as it was more likely a place to lose a fox than to find one in all of the thickets and bramble patches, which were unfriendly to both dogs and horses and riders, as much as they protected rabbits and foxes and even deer.

After their picnic, they had set too, to pick hazelnuts while avoiding the nettles that also seemed to fill the margins of the hedgerow.

William pointed out other things of interest to Sophia. “Look.” He pointed up into the sky. “See those wispy long thin clouds high in the sky? They are called mare’s tails. When you see those, you know that the weather is about to change and probably for the worse on the next day. ‘In nature’s infinite book of secrecy, a little I can read.’ At least that is how Shakespeare described something of it.”

On those rainy days or where the wind was strong and the weather cool, the ladies remained in the house and pored over maps or played the harpsichord or just read while William was rarely in the house at all, even in the worst weather, but usually took himself off for some hours. They learned from Elizabeth that he was probably off at the dock getting his ship, the Seamew ready, now that he was back, but ready for what, she seemed loath to say, though they knew he probably intended to go across to France and take up smuggling again.

 

One morning, Annis had found William asleep in the kitchen chair with Sophia curled up with him. He was tired, for he had been out most of the previous night and the one before that too, and that, after working in the fields alongside his men, to try and get another lot of hay in, and she suspected Sophia had not been in her bed either but had watched for him to return.

She took the opportunity to sit at the kitchen table and watched them as she ate a slice of heavily buttered hot bread, fresh out of the oven with some of the bramble jam that her mother had made up.

She kept silent and watched as Sophia woke up and reached out to feel the hairs on William’s heavy eyebrows and those that Annis—when she last shaved him—may have missed under his jawbone. She investigated a long scar, just in his hair line, that he refused to say anything of, and then a small cut on his chin from a sharp branch on one of their hazelnut outings; and intent, it seemed on waking him up, she kissed it better. By then, he was half awake. Sophia had no shyness or embarrassment over any of it. Oh, the innocence of children. Had she been able, Annis would have swapped places with her sister in the twinkling of an eye.

When Sophia saw that he was awake, she smoothed her hand over his rough cheek. “I am so glad I do not have to shave, William.”

He laughed. “So am I.” He rasped her delicate cheeks with his whiskers and elicited some mild complaints of discomfort as well as squirming and laughter.

“At least you never will need to. But then I haven’t needed to shave myself for some time now.”

“No, William, Annis seems happy to do it for you.”

“Yes, she does, doesn’t she? I am happy to let her, for she is so gentle and considerate and does such a good job of it too, and never a nick worth speaking of, or a word of complaint. Perhaps I should plead to be shaved twice a day. I should go and find her and ask to be shaved now, for it is more than even a full day.”

“You stayed out all night again, so you have only yourself to blame. But surely your hand is healed by now, and you could shave yourself, for you use it to work in the fields. I have watched you.”

“Of course, it is. I keep the bandage on it for a very good reason, called, malingering. It healed some time ago, but I can malinger so well and put up a great fuss over how slow it is healing, that she has not yet discovered it and won’t as long as I wear this. Don’t tell her, will you?”

“I promise to say nothing, William.”

“Good.” He noticed a slight noise over at the table as Annis decided to draw their attention by clearing her throat. “But I see I am mistaken. I am all undone. She has discovered it. We have an audience at the kitchen table. Annis. You have been sitting there the entire time and overhearing my candid confession to Sophia. Tarnation!”

“Yes, sir,” Annis spoke up. “I would say that you have been found out.” (But nothing she did not already know for herself.)

“Ouch. Ouch. Watch out for my hand, Sophia. I think I was mistaken about it being quite healed.”

“Too late, sir. The damage has been done.”

“But, Annis, my eyesight is still not as it should be after walking into those doors, else I would easily have seen you at the table, so I shall still plead that I will need your help to shave.”

“Malingerer.” She smiled at him, happy to find that he seemed to enjoy everything she did almost as much as she did. “But the plea about your eyesight might just save you from the fate you deserve.” She tried to look severe but could not hide her smile. She would have been disappointed had she not continued to shave him. She looked forward to that little adventure as much as he seemed to, with increasingly mischievous little liberties that might seem accidental, but were not, and there was always a kiss that followed it. Progression for there seemed inevitable, but she was never sure just where it would go.

“Thank you.” He smiled at her. She was not sure that he had not seen her, and was just having fun anyway to see how she might respond.

 

Everything that had gone on over the last few days between William and Annis had been watched and noted by both Mrs. Barristow and William’s sister. They frequently exchanged knowing glances. Sophia was well aware of everything too. She rarely left William’s side and could see more, and understood more, than the others might have guessed.

Mrs. Barristow was the one most relieved, as she readily confessed to Elizabeth. “I cannot think what we would have done in the last few weeks without him with us. It does not bear thinking upon.”

She blew her nose and tried to hold back her emotions at recent memories that still gave her nightmares. “He is a brother to my daughters and a son that I never had.”

Elizabeth had been well aware for some time that he was far from being a brotherly figure with Annis. The mother could see it too but was not about to discuss that too openly, having so recently buried the daughter he had married. What a predicament. Elizabeth’s heart went out to her brother and to Annis and was noticeably pleased with what she saw beginning to unfold for them both. It would be the making of him in so many ways. He had changed already, however, and very much for the better. It was a pity their mother and even their godmother were not here to see.


Deception by Proxy. Ch 26: Brooklands.

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

“We entered the gates fully ten minutes ago, Mama, and all I can see are oak and chestnut trees, and a few elms. I still have seen no sign of a house.”

Her mother smiled. She had anticipated this. “Patience, Charlotte, we are almost there. I told you it was a large property.”

She was interrupted by her youngest daughter. “Mama. Look.” Sophia pointed. She was the first to see the Mansion of Brooklands nestled in among the trees and surrounded by acres of lawns and flower beds. She and Charlotte, who were facing the horses, seemed almost as excited as each other. “Oh, Mama, it is magnificent. Such a large, white house. Why, there must be hundreds of rooms. It must be easy to get lost in it. So this is where William lives and where we are all to stay?”

“Yes, we are. There are more than fifty rooms my dear, perhaps even as many as a hundred all told, so William says, and I have been in most of them at one time or another when his mother lived here. William is now the master of it all.”

‘As was briefly just short time ago’ , was the thought that entranced her

Sophia was bouncing with excitement. “More rooms than at Underby, and undoubtedly all larger too. I hope I shall be allowed to explore them. I do not know how many rooms we had, for I did not count them, but I shall do so in my head before I fall asleep tonight. Oh, Captain Cat would have enjoyed it too, but I was not allowed to bring him.” She sounded disappointed.

“Cats need to stay in an area they are familiar with, my dear. The rats and mice do not take a holiday at Underby just because we are absent for a while.”

“Yes. I suppose so.”

Annis had held her mother’s hand on first seeing the property, and her mother noticed her clasp tighten in some surprise, though she had become more attentive to everything about her as she also took in the extent of the massive estate, for it really had been ten minutes since they had bowled into the driveway. The horses had not only kept up their gentle clip but may also have increased it, sensing that they were about to find comfortable shelter and food before they would be returning to Underby with Thomas.

Annis looked at her mother with a strange look on her face. “Having lived in such a fine place, he must have found it confining to have lived with us as long as he has, for our house is small by comparison. He must have many servants, so why would he occupy himself almost as a common laborer might as he did when he was helping Thomas?”

Her mother smiled. She had expected there to be some considerable surprise at what was displayed before them. She spoke so that only Annis might hear her easily. “You will find out eventually, if you have not already, that William is a different kind of man than the usual run-of-the-mill wealthy landowner. He is not so proud that he will ignore a plea for help or refuse to pitch in to help-out where there is a real need as he did for us. Don’t forget that he came to us from the continent and the hardships of war. I doubt that Underby presented anything like hardship for him by comparison to that, no matter how he may have lived as a boy and a youth.” She paused for a moment before she continued. “Another thing you and your sisters need to learn is that a house, even a grand mansion, is not a home without children, and love, and those in it we can love.”

She held her daughter’s hand and patted it. “I fear he had a difficult childhood. His father was a strict naval man. His mother was a nervous wreck while he was growing up. She still can be if things become confusing for her. I like to think that we showed him that we welcomed him into our home, despite all of the difficulties we had, and he appreciated that more than anyone else might. Before you take me to task for not telling you more about him, I did not have the time or the inclination for I had greater concerns, but I did assure you that I did know more of him than you might give me credit for, except you chose not to believe me.”

“But where is William?” Charlotte was looking around to see where he might be. “He was following us.”

“Once we entered the gates, he took a shortcut, my dear, and has arrived ahead of us to give notice of our arrival, I expect.”

 

William had indeed arrived some minutes ahead of them and was even then being greeted by a servant who well remembered him.

“Master William.” William took the older man’s hand and took in the pleasantly surprised look on his face.

“We saw someone approaching, sir, but did not know it would be you. There is also a carriage following you and another cart some way behind that too. I assume they are of your party?”

“Yes, they are, Jerome. But we have a minute or two before they arrive. Too little time to catch up, but we will do that later. I am so glad to see that you are still here. But then I have only been away five years, and though it seems a lifetime considering where I have been, I suppose it is not so long. I expected to see you in the London house, but then my mother is in Bath, and I thought you might have accompanied her there even.”

Yes, sir, I am still here. I did not accompany your mother. She decided that I should stay here and keep everything in order until she was able to return, or you did, and to look after your sister when she was here, and she is here now. We—that is, your sister—expected you last week or even earlier, and the next we heard, was of your marriage and then your unfortunate loss, and all at the same time. Too much going on, and too fast.”

“Yes. Bad news always travels fast. As for the carriage and cart, they belong to my late wife’s family and are carrying them and their luggage. They will be residing with us for some time. Three delightful ladies and a young girl who will set the place on its ear much as I used to, I think.”

A stable hand saw to the horse and mule after receiving the usual cautions about stabling arrangements. William and the butler moved over toward the house together, reminiscing in the brief moments they might have until the carriage arrived, and Jerome would then meet the new guests.

“Your father’s death hit your mother hard, sir, and she did not feel she could stay here in such a large house with no one to talk to or socialize with, being so far from London. She and Lady Seymour have picked up their association once more.” He did not give any indication of approving of that. “She needed to be distracted, and with friends and other people about her, and to relax better than she might here. Your sister visits her often wherever she is, except that she can’t stand Bath.”

“And you say that Elizabeth is still here?”

“Yes, sir. She might be aware of your arrival by now. Excuse me, sir, I need to assist the ladies.” They both moved out to meet the carriage.

William greeted them all as though he had not seen them for a week or more. “Welcome to Brooklands, Ma’am. You must please feel free to make yourselves at home, and we will see to getting you settled in, once I learn the state of affairs with our unexpected arrival. I think Elizabeth may be aware of our having arrived, so she should also join us shortly.”

He turned back to Jerome. “I know we look under the weather and may even smell of smoke, but we had to quit Underby because of a fire—little damage, fortunately—and may not have been able to repair the minor deficiencies in ourselves as we might have liked.”

Jerome led the way into the house, carrying some of the luggage, followed by William and his guests, who relinquished their coats and bonnets to one of the servant girls, who had been called upon unexpectedly and still had some flour on her apron.

“I am sorry that we have all descended upon you unexpectedly like this, Jerome, but I felt it the best course of action. If we are short on staff for the moment, and I am sure that we must be, then the three girls might share one of the larger bedrooms for this day anyway, and we can get them settled in their own tomorrow.”

Jerome helped Mrs. Barristow out of her coat, as the girls got rid of their own or helped each other. “I’ll get the housekeeper to see to it, sir. She is still in the house and did not yet head out as she had planned. She will be mightily pleased to see you, Master William.”

“And I, her…but I would rather not spoil her outing.”

“She won’t care about that, sir. I know she has much to talk to you about, for as I say, you were expected some time ago. She has been looking for you to arrive any time, and then got news of other things delaying you.” He noticed a bandage on William’s hand and had earlier noticed a raised bruise upon his forehead. He also saw that the older lady of the party needed assistance by one of daughters to move about on her stick. It may not have been so light an issue as Master William made of it, but then they all seemed healthy enough otherwise.

“No serious injuries, I hope, sir?” He noticed that William had helped the older lady to a chair in the hall to take the weight off her foot. She was obviously favoring it and probably should get it into hot water. He made a mental note to see that a bowl of hot water was brought to her as soon as it might be arranged, and then perhaps a visit to the special bath downstairs that his father had seen constructed to ease his own discomforts in his last year or two.”

“Some minor cuts and scrapes, but Mrs. Barristow has a sore ankle where it was twisted during her escape. The doctor said that she will need to rest it for a day or so, and we don’t need another doctor to fuss about us. I am not used to giving orders here Jerome, and I would hate to be too brusque with anyone, being used as I am to rough army manners, so I will leave everything for you to organize.”

William was relaxed enough in his own setting that he did not seem to notice that he had a rapt audience, where everything he said was being listened to and absorbed carefully. He treated his butler as though he were a close childhood friend. But then why would he apologize for any possible brusqueness of manner and offending servants when he had never shown either brusqueness or impatience with anyone at Underby, except the Thackerays? But they didn’t count.

“I do hope Mrs. Gordon will not feel too put upon too quickly. We still have a cook, do we? Mother didn’t take everyone else off with her, did she?”

“We still have Mrs. Abernethy, sir. She was soon made aware of everyone’s arrival even as you rode up, and we could see a carriage behind you. We are shorthanded for the moment, but I can send into the village for whatever we might need, and we can soon have other help within an hour or so.”

“Obviously, there will be five more for dinner. We require nothing special and will eat downstairs without any formality as I am sure Elizabeth does. No need for any other table staff. None of us was able to eat much of anything today yet. I recall that soup or cold cuts were always available. Fresh bread and cheese sounds good at this moment after our journey, so we can probably best help ourselves in the kitchen if we will not be underfoot. Mrs. Abernethy is quite capable of putting us out if we become a nuisance.” Jerome agreed with him there. Mrs. Abernethy ruled her domain with a kindly but iron hand. “I am not used to the formality that father insisted upon, so I do not expect all of that faradiddle and such, or dining in style, and I never did like it.”

“That might be the best plan for the moment, sir. But you were never underfoot, for you used to do that often enough yourself when you were a lad, and cook always made sure you had enough food.”

William well remembered her kindness to him. “Yes, she did, and yes I did tend to get it for myself when no one else was there, and can again. I never did like being waited upon.”

“Please, ladies, I had the freedom of your house and your unstinting hospitality, so now I can offer mine. At least I think it is now mine. We seem to be short of servants at the moment, so we may have to fend for ourselves. Wander about as you will and explore, for I fear that food may be delayed unless we help ourselves, which I think is the best plan, so I will show you where the kitchen is first, though I am sure hot water will be provided in short order when we require it.”

The two youngest girls needed no further invitation to explore such a large house with so many promising adventures and things to see, but headed out.

“We still have Pilmore, do we?”

“Yes, sir. He is seeing to the garden wall at the moment.”

“And what about Armitage?”

“No, sir, he is with your mother in London. We have a new carpenter now, and a good one too. He is re-enforcing a rafter up in the attic, or if he has finished that, is replacing a window in the stable. He always has something to do somewhere and knows his job well.”

“Good. I will need to see them both when it might be convenient. Probably after they have eaten their own lunch. I have some challenging work for them. You should do what you need to do, Jerome, with us descending upon you suddenly as we did, and ignore us for the most part. I will see to getting us downstairs and looked after.” He looked about himself to refresh some older memories. “My, but it is good to be home.” He recognized some of those memories beginning to come to the fore again—a slight crack in the window over the door and the wood chip missing from the hall table when his father had thrown something at him as he fled laughing, out of the door.

“It is good to have you home too, sir.”

Annis attracted his attention. She seemed overawed by it all. “If you will tell us what room my mother will be in, William, I will help her upstairs. I think she would prefer to lie down before she does anything else, and I can wait upon her. It has been a hectic few hours—even days—for her as well as for all of us.”

“That is thoughtful of you, Annis, but as for you helping your mother to get upstairs, I have a better plan. We shall all go downstairs. I think that can be accomplished more easily and with less discomfort for your mother, and I know, at least it might still be there. There is a comfortable chair down there that your mother can sit back in and relax by the fire with us, and it will certainly be warm. I slept in it enough myself when I wished to avoid a tongue lashing or more painful punishment from my father, which was often. I used to live in the kitchen when I was a boy and even made myself useful from time to time, so the servants and cook may not completely despair when so many of us appear down there.

“If you do not object Ma’am, I will carry you.” He stooped, and as Mrs. Barristow put her arm about his neck, he lifted her and carried her into the hallway and then off along it and down the stairs to the kitchen and scullery, to be met by old familiar smells of cooking and of recently baked bread and the gentle aroma of a rack of herbs, freshly-picked, drying-off in one corner.

 

An older lady dropped some cutlery into the sink when she saw him and wiped her hands on her apron to dry them off. Once he had deposited Mrs. Barristow in what he regarded as the most comfortable chair in the house, she walked quickly over to greet him.

“Oh, I knew it was you I saw riding, for no one else would dare take a shortcut over the lawns.” She threw herself into his arms and kissed him unashamedly as the tears rolled down her cheeks. It was not the restrained greeting one might have expected from a servant to a master, but more that of a mother to a son.

He returned her affection without reservation and kissed her unashamedly on the cheeks as he lifted her off her feet and then held her close as he looked at her. “Mrs. Abernethy. You have not changed but are just as I remembered you. Ah, the wondrous memories. I missed you cruelly, especially your cooking. You kept me alive all of these years. I dreamed of it all of the time I was on the Peninsula, for we were half starved most of the time, eating things I dare not describe to anyone, and not sure what half of it was anyway. I swear it was the thought of returning to your kitchen that kept me going and that brought me home again.”

She was not impressed by any tales of hardship considering what she could see of him. “Ye great lout. You don’t look half starved. Not the way you can throw me around like a spring chicken. Now put me down, I still have bread and pies to see to. We missed you too, Master William, sir. Though we often heard of what you were doing.” She recalled her words. “Oh, sir, I am sorry, I forgot….”

“No apologies, Mrs. Abernethy. Now, I know that I am home. My name is William or, tha’ great lout will do. I have not changed, and I am glad to see that you have not either. I have had my fill of pompous formality and want none of it. I shall be offended if you call me sir, too many times. have not changed. I am the same man that went away, despite the changes here in the interim.”

The two missing girls had appeared behind them. Annis and her mother had silently looked on, surprised by the outpouring of such affection for the prodigal son if various hints he had let drop of the events that had seen him sent away were true, and they probably were. Sophia was busy paying attention to a cat by the fire. Charlotte was hungrily looking at a pot simmering upon the large stove and filling the air with a delightful aroma.

William noticed cook looking inquiringly at the other ladies that had invaded her kitchen.

“Oh yes. I had better introduce everyone before my manners totally desert me. This lady is my most favorite cook in the whole world.” He kissed her. “She is Mrs. Abernethy, or Cook. She was a second mother to me and used to give me a rare scold when I stole her cooking, though she didn’t really mind. This is Mrs. Barristow, my mother-in-law, whom you already have met, though I doubt that you know her daughters.”

He looked suddenly thoughtful. “My sisters-in-law now.” He introduced each in turn with a gentle and even flattering description, and then mentioned that the youngest daughter Sophia had gone again, but from the sounds of it, she had discovered the harpsichord.

“They will be staying with us for as long as they wish and certainly for the next week or more until repairs are done at Underby, their own home. We will help ourselves to food, if you do not mind? You will have your hands full with dinner I expect, and the usual things you do, and we do not expect anything special that we cannot get for ourselves. The room situation will be sorted out soon enough, and then we can get luggage unpacked and everyone cleaned up and changed and settled.”

He looked about. “I half expected Elizabeth to have joined us by now.”

“She saw you arrive from the garden and rushed off in a panic to change, even as I took that ham down. She was put out that you had not warned us of your arrival to have allowed us to have been better organized.”

“I couldn’t, or I would have done.”

At that moment, a tall young lady, older than William, breezed through the doorway. “William. You wretch. I knew I would find you down here where the food was.”

“Speak of the devil. Elizabeth.” His actions belied his questionable greeting, for he swept her into his arms and kissed her too.

“Devil indeed if you do not have a letter for me, or I am likely to injure you more grievously.” She could see his bandaged hand and his bruised forehead.

“All in good time, my dear. I knew what your priorities would be. You may ignore me as you think only of a stupid old letter, but you must not ignore our guests.”

“I suppose not.” She was obviously well known to all of the ladies and greeted them all and hugged them as though they were family even, which did not surprise him, considering what he had learned of the friendship that seemed to have long existed between her and all of the girls, including Mrs. Barristow.

Within seconds, the kitchen had become a hive of activity, with the three girls (Sophia had returned yet again.) actually putting on smocks over their dresses and helping out to prepare a luncheon for them all. Far from being offended by any of it, with so many invading her kitchen, Mrs. Abernethy began to be pleasantly astonished at how readily the girls and everyone seemed to blend in so well and did not scorn to make themselves useful. She also watched the gentle interchanges between all of them and realized that there was more to be told here, than she might have heard at a distance, bereavement or not.

William saw two plates of food disappear out of the door for Thomas and Ned to dine upon before they returned to Underby with the carriage and cart.

Elizabeth took him to task. “There is a smell of smoke about you. What have you been doing now? Oh I do hope it is not serious.” Her eyes flashed to the girls and then to Mrs. Barristow sitting in the kitchen chair with her feet up. She began to notice little details that had escaped her up until then.

“Bad enough, Elizabeth.” Mrs. Barristow had watched the exchange for a few seconds with considerable pleasure as she watched both the reception that William was getting, and especially the way in which Annis was viewing it too. They were all well enough known to his sister that there might be no hesitation about entering the conversation or even feeling settled in almost immediately, despite the imposing size of the house or it’s overwhelming magnificence.

“But fortunately not too serious, my dear. There was some smoke and fire damage to our home this morning but, thanks to your brother, we are all safe and sound.”

His referring to Underby as ‘our home,’ did not escape her. “So, Sir-knight-to-the-rescue once more, I see.” Her eyes were misted with unrestrained pleasure at seeing him again. “An ingrained habit with you and from which you never manage to walk away without some souvenir of it.” She glanced again at his bandaged hand and the bruising to his forehead. “If only our godmother might see you as I do and as you really are.”

“Don’t put me on that pedestal, Elizabeth. You know what the Greeks said of that, or was it the Romans? Putting them the higher that they might fall the further or the harder, and there are those who intend to bring it all about one way or another; our godmother among them.”

“Yes, I got your letter about that. Oh never mind that, come here, you foolish boy.” She hugged him again. “It is so, so good to see you after all of these years. We waited expectantly forever for that heart-skipping hoof-beat with news of your being wounded, or worse, dead. Fortunately it never came.”

“Admit it, Elizabeth. You were more concerned for news of John than of me.”

“And why should I not be concerned for my husband as well as my brother? You have been avoiding and evading me, you naughty boy. I waited at Mama’s for days, and you did not come with news that I wanted, for you did not come at all. Then I went to Cousin George’s for a couple of days and still you did not come, and he had commitments elsewhere, in France, so I had to come here. I knew you would get here eventually. But then I got your news and could not leave. Another day however, and I would have set out for Underby. I am only just up and about after a dreadful cold, or I would have been at Underby a week ago.

“I couldn’t settle anywhere, William. It was quite a shock to hear that you were married. Oh William. Mama has been plotting it ever since you left, but with never a hope of bringing it about and look at what you did within hours of your arrival. Marrying as you did and not letting me know so that I might be there, but then you couldn’t, could you? You were even married to my best friend too, as we had hoped you would.” There was a sad look on her face. “But not as we had planned or with the desirability of you both getting to know each other as one expects. Poor Bella. Poor William.” She brushed a hair from his face and winced at his yellowing bruise.

“Such a tragic loss, for I was friends with Bella for so many years, and I would have been there in a trice had I been able. Had she lived, she would have made you a wonderful wife, and you would have got on so well together, except you knew nothing of her, and she was learning more of you from me. But this is far too sad and upsetting at the moment and I am sure we all need to get our minds back into other, more pleasant things. Does anything uneventful or pedestrian ever happen in your life, William? You seemed to bounce from one escapade to the next all the time you were growing up, with never any dullness in between that I could detect, and now you are doing the same again.”

She mentioned the other things about him that she had already noticed but need to know more about. “I suppose you have a perfectly good and innocent-sounding explanation as to why your hand is bandaged and your face is as bruised and cut as it is?” She valiantly tried to get the conversation and thought away from the recent tragedy. She would speak of it more privately to William when the others were not there to be so upset by such a tender subject so recently put behind them.

“No, Elizabeth. It’s nothing. I got cut getting out of a broken window and walking into some awkward, uncooperative doors.” He dismissed it with a wave of his hand.

“Oh, is that all. Just the usual things then. But you have been home all of ten minutes and you have studiously managed to avoid telling me what I wanted to hear, and you know what that is. What news of John?”

“Who?”

She playfully struck at him while laughing and crying at the same time as the others looked on in amused amazement at the easy familiarity that existed between them and the freedom she was taking with her brother. This was a side to her they had not seen before and a more relaxed brother too than they might have expected. But then without brothers themselves, it was all strange, for he had not behaved that way with them, except perhaps for Sophia.

“Oh, him. John. My companion at arms for the last two years. You showed great restraint in not bearding me immediately you walked in upon us, but then you did immediately accost me, didn’t you, until I reminded you that our guests come first.” He smiled at her. “Yes, Elizabeth, he is as in love with you as ever, I would say. No. I am wrong. More in love with you than ever. He sends you his love, of course. I caught him on many evenings staring into the campfire, and I could speak to him and get no response at all, for it was easy to see where his mind was, and it was not with me or with our predicament.”

As they spoke, and with some help from Mrs. Abernethy who let the two girls know where everything was to be found, food had been laid out on the kitchen table for them, by the two elder Barristow girls, with the instructions to everyone to begin helping themselves.

“Is he well? He is as likely to avoid telling me anything that might cause me concern, as you were. Too tight-lipped, the both of you.”

‘Of course he is well. You would soon have learned otherwise by now. I gave him my blessing for your marriage by the way.” He looked at her strangely.

“Thank you. But as we are already married, to the devil with your blessing, for I don’t need it any more than you needed mine.”

“No you don’t, do you? Not now. Does Mama know?”

“No. None of it. I could not tell her for fear of her response at the suddenness of it. I will allow her to make preparations for a proper wedding when he gets back, and I will have told her most of it by then. If she ever comes back from Bath.”

“Best keep it that way, Elizabeth. John was a few days behind me, I think, for I got the last sloop ship out while he was still doing some organizing. He should land anytime, if he has not already.”

“We should call a truce, William. The girls have laid out a wonderful luncheon for us, and we should not let it go to waste, though I see that it won’t.” She watched as everyone helped themselves, with Annis serving her mother. The ladies were eating well by then, but William only picked at the food, for he had more important things on his mind. They were all happy to eat and listen to the interchange between brother and sister. That alone, and the obviously easy relationship between him and the servants, especially with Mrs. Abernethy, told them so much more of their benefactor than they might ever learn in any other way.

After satisfying their immediate needs, they helped tidy things away, and then the girls left William and his sister to themselves, as they gradually drifted off into other parts of the house to explore their new environment. Only Mrs. Barristow remained, and she was ready to fall asleep, it seemed, after the turmoil they had all gone through.

William looked at her in his favorite chair. “Good. It’s about time she rested.”

He turned back to his sister. “You owe me, Elizabeth. You have no idea how difficult it was to keep that husband of yours alive for you for these last two years. He had no thought of safety nor sense, and led me into the worst possible scrapes and into the thick of battle when my instinct was to go in the opposite direction with all possible haste. It had worked so well for me for the previous three years.”

“Fiddle. He said the same of you in his letters. Neither of you were so well decorated for shirking your duty, though Winthorpe worked his vicious ways against you both for a while. Fortunately, only a short while, until more reliable voices were heard to relieve our anxiety.”

“But I thought I had intercepted all of his letters to you, Elizabeth. As well as yours to him. They were too damned distracting. He was a dull dog and moping to death if he did not get a letter from you every week.” He patted his pocket and extracted something. “No. Only the one.”

She tried to snatch if from his hand, but he was quicker than she was and held it away from her.

“William. It is not fair to torment me.” She spoke gently, but he could see tears lurking.

“Here, my love. He entrusted it to me to give to you personally when I first saw you, but you have led me a merry dance.”

“Thank you, William.”

She gave him a swift kiss on his cheek and a hefty but friendly smack on his rear. She tucked it into her dress. “I shall read it later, in private. I take it Mama still does not know you are home?”

“I don’t know. She must by now. I met up with Uncle David just after I rode away from the house. He said that she was still rusticating in Bath. However, I would not be surprised if she may not have guessed that you were married by now with all of those letters John wrote you and with her undoubtedly itching to read them. Uncle David may be married by now too, from what he said. Come to think of it, from what I heard from Horace, when I was in London a few days ago on a lightning visit to the lawyers, I think mother may have seen some of John’s letters to you that you left behind on your last visit to her and before she left for Bath.”

“Oh dear.” Elizabeth knew that she had misplaced them somewhere. “So now she shall blame us both for disrupting her nerves. I knew I had lost them somewhere. Then she is keeping away from us both and feeling quite angry with me too.”

“I would say that you have nothing to worry about. She has had time to consider how she must behave properly to him or risk losing you. I will tell her that myself when I see her, for he saved my life more than once. However, that may not endear him to Mama.”

“William. That is not true. She was as concerned for you as I was. No, I am wrong, she was more concerned for you, though she had but one to worry about while I had two. She will know you are returned by now and I am sure that she is undoubtedly recovering well.”

“Probably. I hope so. But not if she gets any letters from our godmother to stir her up. Despite that slight negligence on John’s part about that marriage thing, without consulting her, she will still deal with him graciously, I think.”

“I expect so. She was as afraid of losing you as I was about you both, and fretted about you all of the time. She does love you, you know?”

“I know. As I love her, but like most sons, I could not show it for fear of being thought too soft and a mother’s boy. She is my mother, but I led her a merry dance. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. It did with me. Perhaps she believes better of me than she used to. I think I may not have appreciated how much of a burden I must have been for her.”

“You didn’t, but you are now in a position to make up for it and let her see that you love her.”

“Yes, I do know it. But boys are not so open with their love as girls can be at that age. In fact, they strive to deny any such weakness, and yet, I am discovering that it is actually a powerful and endearing trait, and that just a little consideration and thoughtfulness with the gentler sex gains such immense rewards.”

She had seen the truth of that for herself over the last few minutes, as the ladies had been attentive to everything said, and they had all been curious about William in this new setting, but in the nicest way. “About time you recognized that, William. I’ve been telling you for long enough.”

“I know, Elizabeth, but I was not listening. I was a sore trial for her as well as you. I am sorry for that. But Mama could not understand me any better than I could understand her, and especially when she dissolved into tears when she often did. I think I can make a better job of it now. I shall try to make up for my deficiencies and confess my love for her when I see her. She will be relieved to have succeeded with both of us, and so soon and unexpectedly. Though in my case, I had rather it had come to a better conclusion. Married and then a widower in the blink of an eye. I must also thank you for your letters warning me about the various plots that Mama seemed to be hatching around me. She has been matchmaking for me behind my back ever since I left, and I could not understand why.”

His eyes flickered to Mrs. Barristow. “I realize that I have no secrets now from anyone, but we should still be cautious.” William took his sister’s hand and kissed it. “So, what will happen when Mama finds out that we are both married, do you think? She will be hurt and immensely disappointed to find two of her…her only two children married, and she was unaware of both marriages. She will return to Bath instantly and never speak to us again.”

Elizabeth chuckled. “She couldn’t easily be present at mine for it was a spur of the moment thing in Lisbon, but at least, John and I had a week together before everything was assembled for war. I don’t think Mama missed me from England even. I never dared tell her.”

“Well, she certainly could not have been aware of mine either, not at the time, for that was a complete surprise for me too. I only learned of it about an hour before it happened. Do you think she will wash her hands of us both?”

“No. For we will both of us celebrate proper church weddings when John returns. She will now be able to dream of grandchildren again, for she constantly roasted me about my lack of suitors. If only she had known.”

“You are forgetting something, my dear. I am a widower.”

“Oh, William. I am sorry. Yes I had forgotten. But you are still young. Your life did not end. From what I have seen, you will marry again eventually, and I suspect, sooner than you might think.” She looked at him in a way that suggested she knew more than he might have believed.

“Be careful, Elizabeth. I hope you are right, but I am not out of the woods yet. There are great difficulties ahead of me still.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. So my eyes and instincts did not deceive me after all. Two marriages for both of us. That must be some kind of a family record when it happens.”

His voice dropped. “I suppose I should see all of this tragedy differently, for there are still three—well, two—eligible daughters, and even Mrs. Barristow herself is available.”

Elizabeth knew what she had seen. There was only the one daughter—the one marriageable daughter that is—that captivated him, and his feelings there, were returned. Yes, there would indeed be difficulties considering what had already happened.

“I am sure we will manage to think of something to set the tongues a-wagging. I have a reputation with our godmother to maintain.” He looked across and checked that Mrs. Barristow was indeed resting. She was even breathing quite heavily. “Exhausted. Just as well.”

He smiled at his sister, and they quietly got up from the table and walked out along the corridor to the stairs. “She will be all right for an hour or so, and there is always someone in and out of the kitchen to keep an eye on her until we return.”

He took his sister’s arm and threaded it through his own. They strolled to the stairs and climbed them to the main level of the house. “I was heading well away from London. Our godmother had summoned me for a meeting with her, and against the popular recommendations of everyone, you included, I decided, in a moment of rash bravado, to take the bull by the horns and see what she wanted. I was in one of my more rebellious moods, and was feeling brave and decided to get it out of the way. But I was damned if I was going to let any hint of her dictatorial ways and stigmatizing views of me creep into my first day home, so I resolved to say as little as I might. I am not sure I succeeded in that plan, so you will undoubtedly be regaled with some new vicious gossip involving me, I expect. But let us go out into the garden. It is a fine day. But mostly we should be out of the house so that we can talk more easily.” He looked about. “Those girls are everywhere and into everything. They miss nothing. They are wonderful. I did not realize that younger sisters might be so interesting.”

“Wonderful? Interesting? This does not sound like you, William. You have matured and changed.”

“I have been away from women too long, Elizabeth, especially such assured and mature young ladies, and beautiful too. All of them. The Spanish and Portuguese ladies are beautiful enough, but the society was thin and not welcoming to any of us foreigners.”

They strolled together arm-in-arm about the flowerbeds. “Why did I not have younger sisters too? I did not realize such young ladies could be so entertaining or even interesting and so damnably tormenting in their ways, and attractive. No, Elizabeth, I have not suddenly lost my mind. Or have I? One was somewhere close by earlier and perhaps not deliberately eavesdropping, but they tuck themselves away and read or write and sketch, and before you know it, all of them know your innermost secrets. They read my journal too when I was not there and even saw some of my own sketches of them and the war.”

His sister was satisfied just to listen to him. He had changed and for the better.

“They know everything you do from morning ’til night, for they watch me so closely. I am sure it will be the same here. Quite unnerving, but then I seem to have become a stable male presence in their suddenly disrupted lives. Quite a strange role for me. The only time you know for sure where any one of them is, is when they are rattling away on the harpsichord or the piano forte, or is arguing with her sisters about something or is sitting where you can see her.”

“So what was it that got you out to Underby, William?”

“The usual. A plea directed at me and that I could not refuse. I was at George’s, relaxing for the first time in five years, when I got a letter out of the blue, and I got dragged into this plot quite without seeing where it might lead, thinking I was helping cousin George. I even married. But then you know that. Willingly too. I could not believe what was happening to me, and I am sure that no one else who knew me might either. When I realized what had happened and how things had happened….” He paused and decided to not elaborate on too much. “Gradually, I began to see that there was a strangely deceptive twist to it all that I may tell you about later, and I could not just rush away and abandon them. Besides, I found the family needed me, and by then, of course, they were growing more and more interesting, and I needed them too.”

Elizabeth decided not to comment upon his use of those words—interesting (again) and wonderful as well as entertaining—to describe her friends. She had seen as much for herself. He seemed as much at ease with them as he was with her.

“Will I survive? I am not so sure. Oh dear. I see Jerome is looking for me, so I think he may have me meeting with our carpenter and mason as I requested; or Gossett. Why don’t you check in on Mrs. Barristow, my dear, if you don’t mind, and I will return shortly.”

Deception By Proxy. Ch. 25. Change of Plans, And Preparations.

Wednesday, May 9th, 2018

William and Thomas conducted an extensive evaluation of that end of the house where the most damage had been done, and were both of the opinion that some considerable effort would be involved in making the necessary basic repairs. William was also of the opinion that if one went to the trouble to bring masons and carpenters in, that they should see what they might be able to do to correct decades, if not a hundred years of gradually deteriorating floors, walls, and windows that had been worked upon piecemeal as the need became evident. Those earlier repair efforts had never really addressed deeper-seated problems but had merely covered them up. The roof also needed attention as some of the timbers there had relaxed more than was desirable. A larger need for focused effort was now all too obvious.

William went searching for Mrs. Barristow when he had formulated his own ideas as to what was needed and how it should be done. He found her in the washhouse with Molly, trying to deal with a mound of smoke-damaged clothing and bedding materials. They obviously did not waste any time bemoaning their suddenly changed state.

“Mrs. Barristow, I think it would be difficult to assume that we can just pick up where we were last evening and continue to live here, for there is now the need for some long overdue work to bring it all back as it should be.” She listened to what he was saying, with a sinking heart. “If you do not mind, I can easily see to that work going forward. In the meantime, we can all of us remove to my property, Brooklands, if you do not object, until repairs have been made here.”

She began to see things more optimistically at that, for there would undoubtedly be other good things come out of such a relocation as a complete family, but she said nothing.

“If we were to stay here, we would only be severely underfoot and in their way of that effort. Without us to look after, the servants would also be able to concentrate on what needs to be done rather than be fussing about us and our needs. My home is about an hour’s drive from here, and we can stay there until the renovations are completed. I am not sure how long they may take, but I doubt that so many of us being here would help that effort to go forward.”

She listened to him as he explained what was likely to be needed and how it would benefit from being thoroughly inspected and gone over by someone who knew what they were doing. “I could also send my late father’s carpenters and masons over to see to what needs to be done and to get on with it, as they have a lot of experience in renovating such structures and doing it with expedition. From what I saw, there is nothing that cannot be fixed and done better than before.”

She was obviously not averse to any of what he suggested. “You would do all of this for us, sir, on top of what you have already done?” She sounded surprised but then realized that she really should not be, for when had he ever responded in any way that was not entirely in their best interests?

“Willingly, Ma’am. I have even begun to feel that Underby is as much home to me as anywhere. I am also finding that I would like to be of help to a family that seems to have unreservedly invited me into its own existence. I would like to be able to repay that in some measure if you do not object?”

What he suggested was not at all unwelcome, for it might mean that they would all be able to remain together for longer, and time was on her side with at least one thing she wanted to see unfold. “Why would I object to such a sensible suggestion? Though you have more than amply repaid us in every way with everything that you have done for us to distract us and protect us all. You are right. We would probably be in the way if we were to stay.”

It fitted in quite well with other personal and intimate progressions she had gradually been privileged to observe between William and Annis over the last few days and even more obviously in just the last few hours.

He was relieved that she so readily accepted his suggestion. “Over the last week or more I have never felt so useful or welcomed or contented as I have been in being here and being of assistance, despite the initial tragedy that drew me here. Besides, my own family appears to have forgotten I exist, apart from my sister.”

She put a hand on his arm. “By accident, William, not by intent I am sure, and they would soon have expected you to return to your own home. Now you can, but with an entourage of helpless and dependant women. Your mother and sister were both excited at the prospect of having you come home, and we have diverted you from that for too long now. But I must go and let the girls know. They will be happy for the adventure and to be relieved of having to deal with this, as I will be. I am sure that Mrs. Rogers and Molly will be equally happy if we were to go too, for their workload will be suddenly lightened in one direction at least.”

Within minutes of finding out this plan—a solution to their immediate difficulties—the fire was forgotten, and the girls were excitedly packing what they might need. The old staircase had been dismantled almost immediately, and a ladder had replaced it to the upper floor so that whatever they might need could be passed down to be packed away if it were not too smoke-damaged.

William went off to find Thomas to let him know what he planned on doing and letting him know that sometime later that day or perhaps within a day or so, his own men would arrive with instructions to do whatever needed to be done. His suggestions, help, and even direction would be most useful in that way, for he would know where wood or other building materials might be locally available and at what price, and which local craftsmen had skill enough to be able to contribute in a meaningful way to the effort. His familiarity with the house and its vagaries would also come in useful, for they would be under his direction if it were needed.

It soon became clear, as the steadily increasing pile of trunks and boxes mounted outside of the house, that they would need a separate cart to transport them.

Annis approached him. “You appear to have solved yet another problem for us, William. But if we are to travel to your home soon, then I would not like you to present an appearance that might suggest that we had neglected you or treated you so roughly. If you do not object, I should shave you now before we change into our travelling clothes, or you may present less of an appearance than might be desirable on your own estate, along with all of your cuts and bruises and bumps. They will wonder what we might have done to you to have inflicted such injuries, and that would not allow us to appear in such a good light at first, as we should.”

He smiled at her. “I don’t think you have much to worry about, Annis. More likely they will recognize the return of someone who seemed to be forever in such dire straits, so I doubt they would find it in any way out of the ordinary and would not judge you adversely for it in any case.”

“And if you do not object or panic at the thought, you would not suffer from having your hair cut too. I told you that I would do it for you.” She smiled at him in a way that he was pleased to see, considering how bedraggled, miserable, wet, and even hopeless, they had all been just a short time earlier.

She misinterpreted the look on his face. “Oh, do not fear, I used to cut my father’s hair and even my sisters’ too, and I did not do so bad a job of it. However, Sophia seems to be unable to sit still for long enough for me to finish it, so do not rush to judgment of my skill based upon her appearance, though I see Charlotte was able to correct what I missed.”

He smiled and rubbed his chin, feeling the stubble. “Yes, I fear I do not present even the superficial appearance of a gentleman at the moment. I don’t feel like one, for I have also to wash more of the grime, and smell of smoke off me and out of my hair and will need to change into something better. But a shave first would be a good plan. I shall be happy in that case, Annis, to submit to your wielding the razor and scissors about me, for I am not in a fit state to do it for myself.” He held up his bandaged hand.

“I think I am beginning to recover nicely, except for this tender egg upon my forehead, and I am less light-headed than I was, but I dare not shave with my left.” He looked about, taking in the changes that had already been started. “Besides, there is little more that needs to be seen too here now. Thomas and others can do a better job of it, than I might. All of the baggage seems to be piling up nicely, and it will soon be time to put the horses too. Everyone else except us seems to be well enough dressed already to travel. They will soon be impatient to go with us ready or not. Where will you have me sit for you?”

“We can go into the parlor at the far end of the house where we all changed. We will be out of everyone’s way, and the sun will shine nicely in there to give me light.”

She took him by the arm and led him off through the kitchen and into the end parlor that was used by the servants. At her instruction, he moved a chair over into the window area while she saw to getting hot water, towels, soap, and the razor that her father had used to shave himself.

She sat him down, and then, self-consciously unbuttoned the top part of his shirt and moved it away from his neck, folding it under and out of the way. She blushed as she touched him in such a closely familiar way and felt his eyes upon her. As she caught his glance, she saw that he was smiling at her shyness, and caused her to blush more, for she had never attended so closely to any man before other than her father, and she found it strangely exciting. She worked up a lather in her father’s shaving cup and liberally applied the soap over his face and neck. She put the brush aside and then picked up the razor and sat down on the window embrasure in front of him. “You will need to come forward with your chair and bring your legs to either side of mine to get close enough.”

He did so and then leaned forward toward her placing his hands upon her waist at first, as she held his head steady with one hand and stretched the skin with her thumb while she began to shave him.

He studied her face as she concentrated on the delicate act of shaving him while not cutting him.

She was conscious of his legs pressing on either side of hers and of his hands now resting gently upon her legs but decided to say nothing. She found it strangely pleasurable and welcome that he could touch her in that familiar way. They could not easily have done it any other way.

“You are making me nervous, sir.” She looked at him, almost severely, with a gentle blush upon her cheeks. Her heart was pounding too, and sure that he might be able to hear it.

“How so? Am I being too familiar?” He took his hands from her legs.

“Not that.” She stopped shaving him, and her eyes met his in a look of censure. She found he was smiling at her in a disturbing way. “You are staring at me, and I may become unnerved enough to become careless. I would not like to cut you.”

“Yes, I am staring. I am sorry, but I cannot help myself, for you are directly in front of me and so close, and you are in control of where my head is to be positioned. I cannot avoid looking at you with you so close to me, and I need to rest my hands somewhere. Besides, you are far too beautiful to ignore.”

She blushed at that outrageously forward compliment. She knew that at this moment in time, he was being mostly truthful with her but decided to respond in a lighthearted manner. “Is this how you deal with all young ladies you rescue?”

“I have not been in the habit of rescuing any so far since my return, other than you and your sisters and mother and before that…no matter.” He continued to stare into her eyes. You have the clearest brown eyes—yes, brown eyes with little flecks of yellow in them and the longest, most delicate eyelashes that I had not noticed before. Your eyebrows are….”

“Too thick and heavy for my taste.”

“But not for mine.” He slowly reached up and traced one with his finger. She did not pull away or comment upon it. “They are in keeping with the rest of your features—striking, intense, straightforward; as befits your no-nonsense personality, but they are also more wonderfully feminine and even more delicate and intriguing than I should admit to you. Not thick. Nothing like mine.” He was right. His were thicker and heavier, but then he was a man. “You are also smiling more than you did, so your thoughts are more happy now, rather than dwelling on what has just gone on around us, and I like that, for it causes a small dimple here.” He touched her cheek. “Your lips… are most… kissable.” He sighed. “But then we already knew that, when I have given in to temptation on several occasions now. But I had better not dwell on those as I would like. But oh. how I would like to dwell on them.”

She took his hands and replaced them on her legs where they had been. “I think your hands are safer here and likely to be less disturbing to me.”

He could see that she seemed confused and unsure of what he was thinking about in his present relaxed and expansively pleasant and dreamlike mood. “If you prefer it, I will close my eyes yet again in what may be a delicate situation and not discompose you with unseemly compliments that might be taken amiss or be suspect, to interfere further with your concentration.”

She smiled pleasantly “You do not need to close your eyes now. You were right. I was smiling, absentmindedly I think. My thoughts were more agreeable and pleasant than I might have expected them to be after what we just came through and faced with such polished dissimulation from you. Yet we are all safe and unharmed, thanks to you yet again. Circumstances have certainly changed our lives in so many ways and not in quite as bad a direction as they seemed to have been headed, and so easily couldhave done. But no, I should not commandyou not to look at me, even so closely, and noticing such things as you do. It is disturbing and intense, but strangely pleasurable—though I know that I should not admit to that, I think—for you say the nicest things to go with it, and you even sounded sincere about it too.”

“I am sincere, Annis.”

“I believe you, William.” She looked directly into his eyes and he could see that she did. “No, I shall have to get used to it, I expect. I hope that does not sound too vain. Besides, you pay outrageous compliments that any woman would be happy to hear, even if they are not entirely true.”

“They are all true,” he protested. “I can add to them if you wish?”

She continued shaving him but did not deter him from continuing his analytical process, though his mind was off in another direction by then.

“Now why did I not meet you five years ago? If I had, my mother and father would never have been able to send me abroad without my returning immediately.”

She flashed a glance at him and saw that he had a somber look in his eyes and was all seriousness itself and was not behaving flippantly with her. “Just as well we did not, William. I was only sixteen then and not as I am now, but you wouldhave fallen in love with Bella as was intended. Perhaps there would even have been children running about the place to play with Sophia.”

“Yes. What a strangely haunting and pleasurable thought—what might have been. I am sure any of my family looking in on me now would be unable to believe any of what I am either saying or dreaming. Contemplating children? But that did not happen five years ago. Instead, I was sent off.”

They were not pleasant memories for him, but he soon recalled the present, and where he was, and what was happening to him. “I have difficulty believing that you would be any less beautiful or less poised or mature even at sixteen. I think I would like to have met you then.”

“I do not feel mature, even now. I still am sometimes stupid where….” She paused and looked at him, remembering vividly her extreme anger with him just two days ago.

“Do not be concerned, Annis. I may be a poor kind of gentleman, but I am still cognizant of what is expected of me no matter how I may test those boundaries from time to time in moments of weakness.”

“I meant…about other things.”

He appeared not to have heard her. “We all are stupid at times. I am noted for it. In fact, I seem to do at least one stupid thing every single day, so I usually try to get it out of the way before anyone else is out of bed to see it and relate it to the world.”

She laughed. “I do not think we have seen any evidence of any of thatsince you have been here. Far from it. You have been supportive of us all and protective, though it took me some time to recognize that. Had you not been here this morning, I am not sure how we might have fared.”

She looked at him directly at that moment, and he began to feel how she might be thinking from the way her eyes shone onto him with great tenderness, even promise, and undoubtedly gratitude. He began to feel excited himself, and the blood to race in his veins and pound in his head, at what he saw openly revealed there in her look for some moments before she averted her eyes from his equally intense look. She had looked upon him that same way by the trough as she treated his minor injuries. He had liked it then. He liked it more now. He found he had to close his eyes for a moment or two or risk reaching out to touch and caress her and perhaps of offending her. Yet he had taken greater liberties with her just yesterday, and he was still here and was still being smiled upon.

“I will now need you to hold still and to stretch your upper lip for me as I get under your nose.” She put her hand under his chin to lift his head and then unconsciously stretched her own upper lip in the same way as she concentrated on doing that delicate operation without cutting him as he continued to look into her eyes and upon her face. He could not help smiling at her intense concentration. His hands were now on her waist once more as he sat more upright and leaned closer into her. His hands were trembling. He hoped she might not notice, but she did, and thought she might know why. She had learned much of this man in the last few days and was well aware that she excited him in ways that she had not thought possible in any man.

She inspected what she had done and then lifted his chin higher to get at the difficult to reach hairs under that and down onto his neck as she carefully began to maneuver the razor.

“And now I suggest we do not become argumentative, or that you distract me more than you are doing already, for I have your life just a whisker away—so to speak—from being ended.”

“Then I shall remain silent and not provoke you with asking for a kiss to dispel my pain.” He spoke as she tilted his head even further but did not break his mischievous gaze from her.

“William.” She hesitated at his outrageous remark and then smiled at him before she continued to wield the razor carefully and with intense concentration down his neck and under his chin, well aware of his eyes on her face.

“There. All done.” She closed the razor and wiped the soap off his face with a damp cloth and then dried it with a towel.

“I would like to thank you for doing that for me. You were gentle and thorough.”

“You would like to thank me? How?” She already suspected how and was not about to object.

He had a mischievous look on his face and had his hands on her waist now to hold her still. She knew exactly what he intended and did not draw back from it. He leaned over and kissed her on the lips.

She blushed red as her eyes opened wide, despite knowing what would unfold. But it had been a different kind of kiss than the one she had expected. It had not been brief but had lingered gently, and had been neither brotherly nor stolen unexpectedly. It had been a lover’s kiss—tender, warm, and long. Though she had known what he intended, she was still taken by surprise at the difference that it had upon her, for she felt some alarm at the new and heightened sensations suddenly coursing through her veins and unnerving her from her usual composed state. She accidentally knocked over the shaving cup, which she had placed on the table beside her. She had not felt quite that way when he had earlier kissed her, though they had been briefer and more brotherly kisses—at least that was how shehad regarded them, though thinking back upon it, she had no idea what a brotherly kiss might feel like, yet they had all been quite pleasant. That last kiss, however, had seemed different. Very different. The difference, she began to realize, was in herself and not in anything he had done differently, though it had been a longer kiss. She began to blush uncontrollably and to feel suddenly overheated and agitated. She chuckled nervously at the changes she began to feel within herself.

“If you do things like that, William, I will be so unnerved as to be unable to cut your hair.”

He spoke softly as he looked into her face and eyes. “I would like to do much more than that, Annis.” He remembered where he was, and that he must behave himself. “Alas, that is my hard-earned and scurrilous reputation speaking and beginning to surface again. You bring out the best in me and also the worst. You have the most kissable lips that a man might ever encounter in his entire life, and I would like to kiss you again.”

“Oh.” She did not pull back but waited and even seemed to encourage him.

“But I must not.” His head sank to her shoulder and then lifted again as he looked into her eyes with a look almost of apology for his tormenting dereliction and admission.

She felt a momentary spasm of disappointment. He seemed sad.

“It appears that there is far too much trust placed in me by all of you, so I must be a gentleman, when I have never felt less like being a gentleman in my whole life than at this one moment. Despite the need to be more of a gentleman at this time than I think I have ever been before.”

He looked at her with a puzzled look on his face and smiled wryly. “I hope that made more sense to you than it might have done. I must put the safety and welfare of others and of one other especially, before my own selfish passions and desires.”

She found his mood to be strangely sober and serious and, at the same time, intriguing and not at all unwelcome or even threatening to her safety. This was an entirely new William to her, though he had been that way, the day before. Thought of that previous interlude excited her even more now than it had then.

“Oh. Why could I not have met you years ago?” He sighed but then was surprised by her leaning into him and returning his kiss and dwelling there for a few moments herself, looking deeply into his eyes before she retreated to get the scissors to start on his hair. He sat back, surprised himself, at the sudden turn of events.

She was conscious that he watched every move that she made, and now, she did not mind it in the slightest. She felt as though she were walking on air and was being openly admired—perhaps even loved—in a way that she had never experienced before, and she liked the feeling. She was also suddenly conscious again of her woman’s body—it’s intoxicating power over this man and the interest he showed in everything about her when he was watching her. She was suddenly more happy and contented than she had ever been in her life before, despite their recent tragic losses, and began to recognize why.

But there was also a sobering part to it all, hovering like a large thundercloud creeping up over the horizon. It was all happening far too soon and far too quickly. There were so many things he did not know and so many difficulties that she could not tell him about just yet. So many difficulties. Among them there was that horrible letter to grapple with. Thatwould need to cleared out of the way somehow, with all of those dreadful allegations of outrageous events spoken of and referred to. It could not all be a lie, and yet, the man sitting in front of her was nothing like the person portrayed in that letter. Just a few days ago, she had believed only the worst of him and was quite ready to shoot him if it would have protected her family from what she believed of him.

And all of the time, he had sought only to protect them from their real enemies. He had also saved all of their lives, she was convinced of that, with no thought of danger to himself. If there had been the luxury of time to allow everything to unfold more slowly, there would not have been so many things so poorly understood or done so clumsily or with such little consideration for their after effects. She suddenly felt nauseated at the thoughts she had. She was also overwhelmed for a moment by great sadness, ready to break down into tears, but held those emotions at bay and even managed to smile at him from behind a sudden haze of tears.

He did not understand her mood, but accepted that it was tied up with the broader circumstances of the last few days. He doubted he would ever be able to understand the ever-changing moods of women. One just had to accept and to forgive them, no matter what.

 

Neither of them seemed aware that both Charlotte and her mother had seen into the servants’ parlor as they had walked about the herb garden, her mother leaning on Charlotte’s arm and walking with the aid of a stick. They had both of them, by accident of timing and position, seen the gentle interchange and even the exchange of kisses, and they had paused briefly.

“He was looking at her the same way before, Mama, even as she looked after his hand at the trough and neither of them dressed properly nor fully covered. Those wet things clung to them both revealingly I thought. It was almost as though Annis had nothing covering her, and then him…there…rather obvious. They seemed to think that there was no one else looking on, but we all were.”

“I saw it too, my dear. There was little that could have been done about it, and there was nothing wrong in that. There was no one else at that moment as far as they were concerned. As for not dressed properly, we were all of us in our nightclothes at that moment, though ours were dry. Of course we were not dressed properly. He had just pulled us all out of a flaming house where we might still be but for him. We may not have been as well covered as we might have liked, but he did not care for that and neither did we at the time. At least Annis had her priorities correct, no matter how revealing the situation might have been, for he was as ill covered as the rest of us, and she did not care, but looked after him as she should.”

“There, you saw it too, as I did. They were sitting close together and her with her legs over the top of his at first, and they were touching each other’s heads and faces and who knows what else, in a familiar way. She also had her nightdress up above her knees and wide open at the neck, for all the difference that made, considering what she had already revealed, and was leaning into him. What he did not see where he was sitting. For even I could see, and I was further away. He was sitting almost the same way, and… he left no doubt to anyone, including Annis, that he was a mature man. Well, I shall say no more. I shall sketch it all from memory and surprise everyone.”

“You should not, my dear. This is not usual of you, Charlotte, to be so prudish. Of course he is a man. He cannot help that any more than your father could, and you saw himthat way often enough when you blundered in on us as you often did, and William had no choice about how he was dressed in that wet covering any more than we did. Why, you used to breeze about the house andthe yard completely naked when you were little less than Sophia’s age if the mood took you, and there were no men about other than your father. Sometimes even if there were too, on occasion, for your uncle was there at times. You had no shyness then. We used to laugh about it, for it was all innocent enough. You seem to have forgotten that, but I haven’t. I am just glad that Sophia did not find out about it and decide to emulate you in that broader way. Though even if she did, I doubt that William would be put out by it.”

“He isn’t now, and she does that. She often parades about without a stitch of clothing in his presence when she is getting herself ready for bed. Annis is not six years old Mama but twenty-one, and she is well developed in a way that is likely to attract any man, for I notice that they all seem to gravitate to that kind of thing. And the more that is on display and advertised, the stronger the attraction as Jennifer Bishop last spring demonstrated at the village ball, and found out to her cost where that can lead. And I have seen others admiring Annis that way too, for her breasts are…well, they are more prominent even than Jenny Bishop’s. William is not immune to it either, for he often admires her in that way and was staring intently at her and down her nightdress as she knelt before him.”

“You were mistaken there, my dear. I think his thoughts were elsewhere, with all of his hurts.” She knew that they probably had not been. “In any case, there is nothing wrong with being admired in that way by certain men; by one man; one special man. Beauty of the kind that she seems now to be becoming aware of late in her life, though I am glad of that, should be admired. A young woman is fortunate if she has those advantages of a good face and figure, delightful complexion, and good sense. Annis has all—most—of those, I am glad to say.” Her thoughts became less charitable. “So do you normally. I do not know what has come over you at this time.” She began to wonder if Charlotte was not suffering from a touch of jealousy.

“As for William, he seems mature well beyond his years and well able to handle such minor deficiencies in stride, I expect, without betraying anything improper, even at such an awkward moment. I doubt there are many things that would embarrass him. Not even the dress you have on at this moment either, miss, which shows more of you than it might, although it is not one you would normally choose to wear.”

Her daughter blushed. “Well I know he wouldn’t be embarrassed, for he wasn’t. Not the way he was looking at her as they sat together, nor she at him either, and able to see everything of each other, so who knows what they may have been up to earlier, for he seems to have no shyness about ill-clad women or girls.”

“You do not know anything of the kind Charlotte, and it is unkind in you to say so.”

“Perhaps, Mama. Yes, I know I should not say that, for he had no thought for himself in doing those things he did. But I know what I have seen. He had been here no more than just a few days when Sophia insisted that he be allowed to help Annis and I bathe her. I expected he would gracefully decline, but he didn’t. We could not refuse without creating a stir from Sophia and putting ourselves in a lesser light, regardless of how improper it was. He regarded it as a rare privilege, it seems. He was good about it and not at all embarrassed, as we both expected he would be at first and then tactfully withdraw in embarrassment. But he was not at all embarrassed. I think both Annis and I were both more embarrassed than he was, for there she was busy looking for freckles all over her body and pointing them out proudly to him, no matter where they were. Precocious child! We nearly died of embarrassment ourselves at the little wretch while he just smiled at us as though he knew what we were going through.”

“Yes, Annis told me of that, and you were there too, if I recall. I had a laugh about it, and how I might laugh about anything at all at such a time as that seems unusual.”

“Then what did she do but catch him in his bath in the washhouse and decided to help him too, for she boasted of it afterward at the supper table and broadcast to the house that he had no freckles anywhere on his body that she could see, for boys are rarely kissed by fairies. But that it was difficult to decide because he had so much hair on his legs and everywhere.”

“No!” Her mother had not heard of that episode.

“Yes. He didn’t even blush, but took more of the potatoes and just smiled as he usually does.”

“We must be thankful that there were not more detailed revelations after that. But how did you know of any of that, Miss? Unless you were spying on him yourself.”

“I was sketching, and I followed Sophia’s voice and then stayed out of sight. But he does have a lot of hair.”

“There. You spied on him too. I hope he does not find that out. The poor man deserves some privacy or he will regret being welcomed into our family. That was improper of you. As for Sophia…at that age there is no false modesty or even shyness once they get to know you. Fortunately, she has no shyness that way for she saw her father and me both without clothing often enough, as you all did, and I doubt that William is any different. Though I do hope she is careful about what she might disclose about that. But if I did not know you better, my girl, I might almost think you were jealous. Since when did you become prudish, for you are sounding more that way than I ever might have thought possible? We did not raise you that way. You never were before, skittering about the house half dressed yesterday before breakfast and even in front of William too, and at your age. You showed enough of yourself at that moment, never mind criticizing Annis under more needful circumstances, though he managed to ignore you.”

“Mama, I am not jealous. Honestly. I am not a prude either, but I did not know William was sitting there. I had seen him ride off earlier on some errand, and I did not know he had returned. I did ignore him. I had to. He ignored me, for he had to. What could he have said? What could Ihave said? I was not about to attract attention to myself by rushing off clutching my clothing to me and making a fuss, for I was still well enough covered.” (She hadn’t been, but he appeared not to notice her, though he certainly had.) “I don’t think he even noticed, for he had eyes only for Annis, like now.” She sounded disappointed. “However, I cannot think of him as a brother, for I know as little of him as anyone does, and I doubt I can see him as a father figure either. He is too close to my own age for that. I shall reserve judgment. I don’t yet know how I see him, though I do not think that he is a danger to us, as I know Annis first feared when she read that letter.”

Her mother did not need to ask what letter she referred to.

“And I do not judge him poorly either, Mama. I like William, and yet how fickle men can be, it seems, with their emotions, for he married Bella just a few days ago.”

Her mother turned on her. “Fickle?He is nothing of the kind. Do not think such nonsense. Well, I suppose we cannot avoid such discussions forever, no matter how painful they still are.”

Charlotte regretted saying what she had said and raising that other specter once more.

“No, Charlotte. Had he known Bella for some years before they were married, I would also worry, I think, over this sudden display of…partiality toward Annis. But he did not. He is as much a stranger to all of us as we must be to him, but a suddenly appreciated and much valued stranger who deserves a place in all of our hearts. If he has fallen in love with Annis and she with him, and I think he has—though you shall not repeat that to anyone—what kind of a foolish mother would I be to find fault with thatafter what has happened to us? It is not as though he were firmly married to Bella in the usual way. It was more a marriage of convenience for us and inconvenience to him, and too soon ended, unfortunately, or who knows what might have been possible?”

She cautioned her daughter. “Now Charlotte, you shall say nothing of this to anyone of what I disclosed to you about any of this or what we have seen. I doubt that we will lose William now. At least, I think I now dare to hope not. I think he has found at least one good reason to want to stay close to us. Despite our recent tragic losses, I begin to feel hope again at last. It is a feeling I had not expected to ever experience again for some considerable time.”

“You are right, Mama. I think she is in love with him too, and I did not think that possible even just a day or so ago considering what she had said of him.” She strolled along beside her mother. “Then what can be done about it, Mama? I feel sorry for them both, especially if he is sincere, for he is a recent widower.”

“He is sincere.” Her mother sounded convinced of it. “There is also nothing that I can do about it. Nothing you can do either except stay out of their way. Annis is of age. But he is also a man, and probably inclined to rush things forward as they will if given any encouragement—fortunately—if she gives him any, and I think she may just have done so. Though I have seen no sign of it getting out of hand just yet as it probably will if we stay back and out of sight. Men have little patience with courtship or niceties of that kind—your father didn’t—but always wanted to rush the gate once I first pointed the way for him. Once they find out what it is they want there can sometimes be no stopping them if there is any—even the slightest encouragement.” She sighed at that memory.

“When I first noticed how he looked at her—really looked at her—I was so much shook up that I almost dropped my cup. He did not see me watching him, fortunately, but he could not take his eyes off her. I didspill it onto myself, and it was hot. That was in the parlor on the second evening he was here and after dinner. His eyes followed her everywhere. She was conscious of it but did not like it at the time, for she had determined to take him in dislike. She accepts, and likes it well enough now I think, for she is certainly conscious of it. It took her long enough, however. She caught him once or twice admiring her those first few days. All he did was to smile at her, and she blushed as red as a beet and even scowled at him once. I could have boxed her ears over that.

“I could not believe what I was seeing so soon after welcoming him into our midst, for he looked at her as your father first looked at me—enough to set all the alarm bells ringing as though no one else was in the entire room, and I assure you that there were at least sixty people there. I was lost at that moment, and so was he. I never thought to see that again. My heart can almost sing again.” Her eyes misted over. “Come, we should not pry. I almost think I feel jubilant enough to…to hope again. But no, I must take care. We shall not spy upon them.”

“Yes, Mama, you should be careful. The doctor told you not to walk and to take care for a few days.”

“But I will take you to task on one thing, Charlotte. If you think that he should not pay attention to Annis because he married Bella, you would be wrong to do so. He did not know anything of Bella, even as he married her, but it had to be done for our sake, or so we believed. Oh, I hope we did the right thing there.”

The strolled further afield. “But we are in mourning, Mama. William did marry Bella, and then was made a widower within an hour of that. I do not see how anyone can easily overcome all of that and thenturn his affection as he seems to have done—even if he did not know Bella at all—onto her younger sister. Or so soon.”

“Oh, Charlotte, my love. Hush. Now you are being foolish. There was no affection of that kind to return my dear, for he did not know even the first thing about Bella or even of her existence until he walked through the door on that first night. But that was not his fault, nor anyone else’s, but a cruel trick of fate. Love does not work to a schedule either, so get that out of your head. When it strikes, it strikes.”

It had struck. She knew that.

“We may be in mourning, but life does not stop or is delayed because of someone’s passing. They will be well remembered by us for the rest of our lives. Besides, William could have been married to any one of you at that moment, and it would have been the same thing to him. He was helping us out of a difficult situation, that was all. A situation that actually did not even exist, but we knew none of that until later, for it took the efforts of Mr. Diebold to tell us that. Yet without that, I would not have tried to find him that night, he would not have come and would not be here now, and we….” She shook her head, disturbed by those thoughts. “No, I shall not think further about any of that. Providence.

“But yes, the situation is strange in the way it unfolded. Perhaps I should dig out those Tarot cards again. They started most of it going. Perhaps with the loss of Bella….” She kept the rest of her thoughts to herself, but sometimes, tragedies themselves could have unexpectedly happy outcomes. She could not easily explain what fate had conspired to saddle them with, but this most recent outcome of it was something she had seen with her own eyes, and it had surprised her in an unexpectedly pleasant and comforting way. “No matter. Love conquers all, my dear. They will find a way, I expect, and I shall neither judge them nor say anything about what we have just seen and neither shall you.”

“No, Mama. But perhaps Annis does not know what….”

“She has more than an inkling of it. I could see that much, for she was not indifferent to him or pulling away. She may not know the full import of it yet. But she soon will. He will show her soon enough. I think she already knows more about William and men generally, and what moves them along, than I might have given her credit for, from what we both of us saw of her by the trough just some moments ago, tempting him as she was, and writ clear all over her face. She will know how to deal with him and how to respond. At least I hope so. We brought her up properly and gave her good values. I just hope she knows enough to dispense with all of that and put them firmly off to one side when the moment is right.”

“Mama! What do you mean?” Her daughter laughed nervously and sounded amazed at what her mother was suggesting.

“Well, if a woman does not know that sometimes she must sometimes be the aggressor and take the lead, how can she expect to succeed in anything she sets her heart upon? Some men can be so tied up with trying to be proper gentlemen that they are obtuse to an extreme degree, and unbelievably slow at times for fear of hurting us or even frightening us off entirely. There are times when they can be so frustratingly proper when it is least needed, and they need to be led and shown, though not too obviously. They can also be too fast at others and in need of slowing down, but that is more difficult to do and must be done with care. However, in such matters of the heart, they must believe that they are the instigators. Men think they are the stronger sex, but they are not.” Her eyes sparkled with recollection of her own memories.

“A clever woman can take advantage of any man, no matter the circumstance. She just has recognize the power she has over him, and to decide when and how to do so. Mark my words. The same will happen to you one day. But leave William out of your plans.”

“He is not in my plans, Mama, for I have none yet.”

Deception By Proxy. Ch 24. We Are Forever in Your Debt.

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018

William was having such a wonderful dream in serene surroundings with peaceful and charming young women, rather than his usual fare of fighting old battles afresh and losing them in some frustrating way that made no sense and was contrary to what he had experienced.

A feeling of sudden panic gripped him when he awoke to find his room gradually filling with smoke from the corridor beyond, for he always left his door open. There was the smell of smoldering wood.

He threw the bed covers to one side and rushed out, shouting to warn the house of the danger, staying as low as he could to avoid the thicker blanket of smoke in the upper part of the corridor.

Within seconds, there were raised voices from other parts of the house and various sounds of confusion and even of panic amidst the smoke.

There was coughing from the master bedroom, close to that end of the house in which the problem seemed to have begun. He did not bother to knock but burst in to find Mrs. Barristow on the floor and crawling toward him and gasping for air. He grabbed her along with a sheet, which he threw over her, and carried her off to the head of the stairs, where she struggled and fought to return for her daughters. “My children. My children.” He realized she would not submit to be put outside with her children still trapped within. “I will see to them, Ma’am. Please just let me get you out into the yard for safety.”

She had no intention of being saved with her children still in the house. He chose not to argue with her but carried her off resolutely to find Thomas and the other servants—all awake by then and in the yard. “You will need to hold her here, Thomas, or we will create a worse problem, and I do not need to find that she has re-entered the house. She might be difficult to find. I will see to the others better if I do not have to worry about her.”

“Yes, sir. One of the stable lads is off raising the alarm nearby and toward the village for assistance. It looks like it is in the ceiling area and toward that end of the house, for the downstairs is still free of smoke, though I can see some glimmer of flames there, so it won’t stay that way for long. I’ll see what I can get organized.”

“Better if you see to Mrs. Barristow here first. People are the most important thing.”

“Aye, reckon your right there.”

“I’ll get everyone out. Just the three girls I hope, unless they came out and are somewhere else?”

“No one else is out here yet, sir. No one had time just yet.”

Some water was already being thrown in downstairs through a broken window where the fire appeared to have started and was still growing.

He ran back upstairs to rescue the two younger daughters before they might panic and lose themselves in the house, for it was easy to lose one’s orientation in smoke, or do something foolish like trying to get themselves out and losing direction. Easily done, he knew.

He did not notice that Mrs. Barristow had broken free of the servants’ restraining hands and had rushed back in behind him, followed closely by Thomas and two others, grabbing at her arms and nightdress as she desperately fought them off. As they mounted the stairs behind him, the entire flimsy structure collapsed under their combined weight.

William was on the top landing when she started after him and did not see the stairway give way. For by then, he was just about up to the girls’ room.

Mrs. Barristow was knocked senseless by her fall with the stairs, and the servants were able to carry her out into the fresh air. By then, more men were arriving with buckets and ladders. Fortunately, there was plenty of water flowing in the stream after all the recent rains.

William entered the girls bedroom, relieved to see them huddled under the covers and easily found. He lifted Charlotte into his arms and spoke to Sophia, telling her to take hold of him around his neck and to hang on. They were both coughing and fighting for breath, but Sophia had enough wit to be able to hang onto him. He readjusted his hold on Charlotte to include Sophia’s legs against him, trapped by her sister’s legs and headed for the stairs. He was having difficulty himself now as the smoke was getting steadily thicker, and he would not be able to move quickly, or move at all if he dropped to the less smoky air near the floor. He was thankful to notice that there were no obvious flames to contend with. He became aware of the problem with the stairs before he blundered blindly over the empty space where they had once stood. He put Sophia down at the edge of where the stairs had been and then set Charlotte on her feet. “I want you both to sit on the edge here, and then I will be able to reach you.” He watched them follow his instructions as he climbed over the edge and down onto the remains of the wreckage beneath and out of the smoke. Once he had a firm footing, awkward in his bare feet, he reached up, and Sophia took hold of his outreached arms and slid into them as he turned and set her where she could hold onto part of the remaining banister, and then turned back for Charlotte. She slid to the edge and then fell forward into his arms where he caught her and held her securely. Once onto the even floor at the edge of where the stairs had been, he turned and picked Sophia up in his other arm and carried both of them outside.

In a way, it was a blessing the stairs had gone, else Mrs. Barristow would have followed him in. He could see her sitting off in the dim morning light at the edge of the lawn and being tended to by Mrs. Rogers, as she looked eagerly for her girls to appear from the house. He dropped the two girls off with her, noticing that Annis was now the only one missing.

“Is Annis out yet, Thomas?” He spoke to him as they formed a human chain to fill and transfer buckets of water to throw onto the flames that were still visible in the downstairs parlor.

“No, sir. Just Mrs. Barristow and the two younger girls now. She is the only one left. Up there, that side of the house, sir.” He pointed. “No one else went in or came out but you.”

He knew where to go. “Make sure no one follows me.”

By then, more men were arriving with buckets and were putting a ladder up to an upper window where the fire and smoke seemed thickest now and had broken in a window to gain access to that level to throw water in upon the fire There was no one residing in that part of the house to worry about.

He quickly returned to the trough, emptied a bucket of cold water over himself, and wet down the sheet that he had picked up with Mrs. Barristow, threw it across his shoulder, and then headed back in to climb up onto the upper floor. He forgot how low the door was and almost knocked himself out as he walked into the lintel in the dark. He swore at his own stupidity, feeling suddenly sick and dizzy. He put the pain aside, climbing easily to the upper floor again. The smoke was thicker now, and he could feel some warmth coming at him.

He entered Annis’s room and was surprised to find that she was not there, though the bed covers were in disarray and a water jug recently knocked over. Where she had been lying was warm to his touch. He called her name and looked about carefully to see that she was not hiding out of the way of the smoke. The room was empty. He left that room and closed the door to limit the spread of any flames as far as it was possible to do so.

Staying below as much of the smoke as he could, he could see no one else in the corridor. He shouted again. The thick pall of smoke was still hanging and drifting above his head, but there was no obvious increase in the heat coming along the corridor from where the fire seemed to have started. He rechecked the master bedroom. That was empty too, so he left that and closed that door too. He shouted Annis’s name again. There was a faint noise and the sound of coughing from the girls’ bedroom that he had recently left. He moved to check that room again and walked into an open closet door before he got there. Through blurry eyes and a curtain of pain following on from his first encounter with the downstairs doorway, he could see a vague shape near the window and coughing in the smoke. Annis had gone looking for her sisters, intent on seeing the other girls out, and was now overcome herself. She was sitting in a tight bundle on the floor and had covered her mouth and eyes with the neck of her nightdress to protect her ability to breathe, but she would soon be overcome if she stayed where she was.

He immediately draped the wet sheet over them both and pulled her fully to the floor where the air was clearer. She began to recover her breathing under the damp sheet.

“William.” She grabbed his arm. Her breath caught in her throat as she spoke into his ear.

“The girls? Mama? I do not know where they are.” She was oblivious to all else around them. Her only concern was for her sisters and their mother.

“They are all safe now. We are the last.” He kicked the door closed to block off a thicker billowing of smoke that had suddenly started to fill the corridor. We shall stay on the floor as we are, where the smoke is less thick for the moment, and crawl to the window. I will see to us getting out. Courage, my dear. I have been in worse predicaments than this.”

“William.” She stopped him and looked up at him. “if we cannot get out of here then….” She sobbed, and held on to him and looked pleadingly up at him as she kissed him almost desperately in the dim light filtering in through the lower part of the window.

He smiled at her, noticing she had moved her nightdress out of the way on her body, and was shyly beginning on his, lifting it up from him, and moving closer to him. He knew what she intended would happen between them, and was surprised.

He kissed her. “I am flattered and tempted, as I think you know, but there is really no need for such a sacrifice yet, my dear. We shall get out. I have seen no flames so far, nor felt quite the heat that there normally is with a raging fire. It all seems to be only thick smoke so far, so if we stay close to the floor and avoid the smoke as much as possible, there is no reason we cannot get out. If you let go of me, my dear, and not hold onto me so tightly, I will see to us getting out.”

“Oh.” He felt her reluctantly let go of him. She lifted the neck of her nightdress back over her mouth and nose and breathed through its folds to keep as much of the smoke from her lungs as possible. He moved away from her as she watched him drape the wet sheet further over her and pull her to the window along the floor. He took a deep breath then stood up and poked the windows and frame out with the chair from beside the bed, feeling a rush of cooler clear air in upon them, and then he pushed the mattress from the bed through the opening to clear off glass and wood fragments and dropped it out so that they would have something to cushion their fall and protect them from the glass outside on the ground.

“The captain! The captain!” Annis was holding his arm and speaking with difficulty to him. “Hiding in the corner there. He must have been with them.”

He had not seen the cat earlier. He left her and crawled over to the corner through the thin smoke near the floor and scooped up the cat. He was thankful that he had shut the door, or the cat might have gone off in a panic into the rest of the house and might never have been found alive. He was tempted to drop it out of the window but decided against it. He was not sure how it might fare.

Annis opened the sheet up from around herself as she took it from him, holding it firmly for fear it might break free by grasping the fur at the neck as a mother cat might. It settled uneasily with wild and darting eyes, between her breasts, and was obviously ready to head off in a total panic if she were to let it go, yet was trusting enough not to use its claws to escape and lacerate her thinly covered body where she held it to her. William wrapped them both securely in the sheet once more so that the cat could not escape and then covered Annis’s head and hair and pulled her closer to the window. Had the cat not been there, he could have put her over his shoulder and made short work of getting out, but this was more difficult.

He noticed, as the air cleared, that he was beginning to feel nauseated from the combined pain in his head and the effects of the smoke. His forehead felt like it was split. Damn fool walking into two doors like that!

“I will get you to the window and onto the sill, then I want you to take a hold of my arm as tightly as you can above the elbow, and do not let go. I will need my other hand free to hold on to the frame and get us both outside and to safety. Tell me if I am hurting you.”

He bunched up the sheet to trap her securely, trying not to trap her skin or the cat in his grasp, and held it tightly in his fist as she, for her part, held onto his upper arm with one of her own through a gap that was left, and the other hand comforting and holding the cat which had settled uneasily. He picked her up. In that position, he leaned out with her clear of the window. He then let go of her with one hand while she continued holding his arm above the elbow. He held onto the lower part of the window frame with his other hand. Once his upper body and his burden were out of the window, he allowed himself to step out over the sill, followed by his leg from inside the room. Her weight pulled him out, as he knew it would, but he maintained his hold on the window frame to stop them both from falling while being cautious of getting cut by any remaining glass in the frame.

She sensed the desperate strength that lay in his arm as he held her and before she could lose her grip, though he would not lose his on her. He maneuvered himself out of the window to hang down the outside of the building and then dropped the short distance to the ground and onto the mattress. They slowly fell over together as he quickly lowered her to the ground without dropping her. She let go of him and clambered unsteadily to her feet as the cat escaped and ran off into the lessening dark. He steadied her from falling over again as she grasped him tightly in some relief at being out of the smoke-filled room.

He leaned back against the building for a few seconds to be sure of not losing his balance again as he fought for some clear breaths of air. His hand, with which he had held onto the window frame, was sore. He stood up, gathering her back up into his arms as he let the sheet fall away from her, and they stood together, relieved to be out of it all. She seemed unable to let him go for the moment, so they stood embracing each other for some little time until they recovered, oblivious to everything that might be going on around them in the dim light. She staggered as he let her go for a brief moment before holding her steady again. When she had recovered, he wrapped the wet sheet close about her again, picked her up into his arms and walked off around the corner of the building and into the main yard—a hive of activity at that moment. He placed her on the grass at the edge of the drive with her mother and sisters. Only then did he remove the sodden sheet from about her. Mrs. Barristow sat back down in sudden relief that all of her daughters were now safely with her and gathered them close to her.

William could see possibly ten or more people there, bringing buckets of water to bear inside the house downstairs, with another on a ladder up to an upper floor window and dealing with whatever might be visible there. He began to help with the task of filling buckets with water, to put out the fire, but there was little to do that had not already been done, and his help was not needed. There were others close by, who would also keep an eye on the nearby structures if any sparks began to fly. He still could not see any obvious flames.

Thomas met him and spoke, taking in the superficial injuries to his head and hand. “It is good to see everyone is out. It seems to be mostly confined to the downstairs in the wall next to the chimney, and with more men arriving, we stand a good chance of getting ahead of it. With any luck, it may have been nothing more than a bad chimney fire that dropped burning fragments onto the floor. Perhaps even a bird’s nest falling down the chimney. It must have been smoldering for some time before it caught fire.”

It took almost a further ten minutes and a lot of water to be sure that they could save the structure. Most of the fire damage had been confined to just two rooms, one downstairs and the other directly above it, with some damage to ceiling and walls. The fire had smoldered for long enough to give everyone time to get out before it began to erupt further, and by then, there were enough people from the nearby village to lend a hand and get water onto the situation.

Once there were men inside to receive buckets of water that could be better used effectively, their reports indicated that damage seemed to be confined mostly to the chimney surrounds and from smoke which was rapidly clearing.

“That was a lucky escape, sir.” Thomas stood beside him.

“Yes, it was.”

“Squire brought all of his men over when they saw the glow of a fire from the top of the chimney and through a window where there should have been none, and then smoke starting to get thicker and heavier. Never thought I’d live to see the day hemight be of help to this family, but without him, we may not have got ahead of it so easily. They got on top of it fast enough. I think they’ve gone now except for a couple of men and the squire himself. I told ’em we could keep an eye on everything now, though how we’ll go forward from this for a while, I do not know. But we will. Quite a mess to clean up and repairs to make. I doubt anyone could live here easily for a while, for there’ll be a devil of a mess from smoke and a little bit of water damage to clean up.”

He took a closer look at William. “You’ve got an awful bump raised on your forehead, sir.”

“Yes. I blundered into too many things in the smoke. I had to break out of a window at the back with Annis. When the smoke clears better, as it soon will, we can put a ladder up where the staircase was and can get in there to get enough clothing to get everyone more warmly dressed. It seems like most of the worst effect is from smoke. Thank God everyone got out, including the Captain. We can all get ourselves settled in that wing of the house that is untouched by any of this and decide how best to go forward.”

“Aye, sir, you could. But I doubt anyone could sleep for a while after something like that on top of all of the rest of it. I know I couldn’t. But then it’s almost full daylight anyway. I suspect it will take some good men a while to do repairs here, for the beams might need to be replaced—they were already weak with age and beetles boring into them—as well as those windows we broke to get water in and the one you broke to get out. It wouldn’t surprise me if the whole chimney needs to be rebuilt too, for I would be surprised if it was not a soot fire that started the whole thing going. And I would not trust it after that without needed work, for the masonry may be rotten with age too. The years are not kind to buildings or people.”

“We were lucky, Thomas. It could have been much worse. I’ll go and thank the squire and his men for their timely and most-welcome help before they go, and then see what I can do to help out with the human element now. Quite a shakeup to go through a fire like that and, fortunately, no one too badly injured.”

“Mrs. Barristow has a twisted ankle out of it. It’s all I can say for injuries apart from your head. When that staircase let go, she came down hard and fainted at the pain, but at least it stopped her following you as was her intent, and getting into harm’s way again and creating a bigger problem. The girls are all right and so is Annis too from what I can see.”

William turned away and checked up on the ladies. They were all grouped together in their nightclothes, though one of the scullery maids had managed to retrieve some coats, and he saw Mrs. Barristow and the girls had been draped in those before he went off in search of the squire, whom he greeted with thanks enough to warm the older man’s heart.

“Well what are neighbors for, sir, if not to help out at such a time and glad to do so? I’ll leave some of my men close by to keep an eye on things too, for it looks like you’ll have your hands full for a while.”

“Thank you.” William returned to the small group in the driveway and could hear sounds of human activity in the upstairs of the house to ensure that the fire was truly out, with other sounds from the servant’s end of the house, where there had been no damage at all and where a stove was now sending smoke from its legitimate chimney.

“William, you are all sooty.”

“Yes, Sophia, I am.” He put his hand upon her head.

“And there is blood on your hand. Again. There is even a bump growing on your forehead and some blood there too.”

“Not too much damage then for what we managed to do, and the cat may have scratched me in his panic. Well, if that is the extent of our injuries; a twisted ankle and a small cut, bumps, scrapes and bruises, and some smoke damage to our persons, then we can count ourselves lucky. I can see that you and Charlotte are not too badly off, for you were out quite soon.”

She threw her arms around his waist, caring nothing for his relative state of undress and held him close, taking him quite by surprise and then pulled his head down and planted a kiss on his cheek as she snuggled her head into his shoulder and then kissed the raising bump on his head. He held her there.

“Thank you. Mama says you deserve a big hug for all of that, but I thought a kiss was better.” She suggested he pick her up so that she might kiss and hug him again, and properly. He did so. “Well then, young lady, a kiss and a hug are entirely appropriate and always welcomed from you.”

“And me.” Charlotte came over to him and thanked him with a hug around his waist as she held him close. She seemed to have lost her shyness around him after that.

“William.” Mrs. Barristow had hobbled over, leaning on a stick that had been furnished for her. She also took his head into her hands as she looked deep into his eyes and then folded him into her matronly arms, neither caring that she was but as poorly dressed as they all were, in nothing but nightclothes, and draped by a coat.

“I think truly that providence did bring you to us.” Her eyes were wet with tears. “Where would we now be without you being here? I dare not consider. Too much has happened about us of a dreadful nature, and yet, you have been a pillar of strength to all of us throughout and saved us from who knows what?” She saw a carriage stop in the lane outside of the driveway. “Ah. I see the doctor has come at last. Please, sir, see to Annis. She seems to have been affected by this more than the rest of us if that is possible.”

“Yes, Ma’am, I shall do so.” He walked over to Annis who was now sitting on the edge of the trough, where she had been washing her hands and drinking to ease her throat from inhaling some of the acrid smoke.

“And what about you, Miss?” He spoke as he touched her face. She was still clearing her throat and looking the worse for wear, with her hair askew, though they all had hair like that. There was a scared look still in her eyes. “What might I do to help you?” He smoothed the hair from her face.

She was sobbing almost out of control at their escape and captured his hand to kiss it tenderly. “I think you deserve a hug and a kiss from me too, sir, but not just at this moment if you do not mind. I am still shaking.” She reached up and held onto his other hand too, trembling and close to tears.

He knelt before her and leaned into her to see into her face. She pulled him closer and held him tightly between her knees. He looked into her eyes with far more showing in his own than might have been expected upon such a short acquaintance, but then they had grown disturbingly close over the last two days. “That was brave of you, Annis, to go looking for your sisters like that.”

She responded quietly and with a hoarseness to her voice as she looked at him. “I would preferably have lost myself in that fire before any of them, especially after our last misfortunes, and might have, but for you. But you… thank you.” Her eyes said more than she could put into words.

He knew the feeling, but it did not surprise him, for it had been his own exactly. “You would even have been prepared to shoot a villain like me too at one time, I do not doubt, and for the same protective reason.”

She appeared not to have heard him. “Will Mama and the others be all right?”

“I believe so. The doctor has just arrived and is seeing to your mother even now, and he can pass judgment about her twisted ankle. It does not seem to be any worse injured, so Thomas tells me. Cuts, scrapes, bruises, and twists. If that is the full extent of it then we were lucky.”

“We were lucky youwere here to give us warning and to get us out. For you did, didn’t you? You got us all out. Mama too. I am glad I did not shoot you now.”

“So am I. Fortunately it seems to have been more smoke than fire, and it is mostly out now, so I am afraid I did very little. We still have a home.”

We?He smiled at his considering it his own home now. “I think you would all have been safe in any case, even if smoke blackened and hoarse with it all.”

“No. Without your warning I don’t think it would have finished as it did, for it would not have been discovered so quickly, and the fire would have been worse, and there may have been no recovery from that. I overheard Thomas saying as much to Mama.”

His head sank momentarily onto her lap as a sudden dizzy moment overcame him. She held his head there and supported him as it seemed he might fall over.

He soon raised his head. “I am sorry. I felt dizzy for a moment.” He sat back hard onto the ground in front of her, still unsteady as he tried to support himself and closed his eyes against the pain as she leaned forward and held his upper arm, concern for him written all over her face.

She looked closely at him. “But Sophia was right. You do have a bloody hand and a horrendous bump raising above your eyes. No wonder you almost fell. Oh. Why did I not see it before? The skin is even split. Here we are thinking only of ourselves, and you are injured yet again on our behalf. You also cut yourself on the window getting me and the Captain out. Well we are both already damp and grubby, so it can make little difference now. No, do not try to get up. If you have got over your dizzy spell, you can sit there while I bathe your brow and rinse off your hand, and you can hold onto me for support. There is light enough now to see what I need to do. We should get the doctor to see to you too when he has finished with Mama, for you seem as badly injured as anyone, if not the worst.”

She sat herself on the ground in front of him with her legs over the top of his and her knees on either side of him to give him support. She gave no thought to how their wet nightclothes were clinging closely to them both, nor how indecorous their position might appear to others, and pulled his head down toward her, placed his free hand upon her shoulder to give him more support, and then picked up his bloody hand and dabbed at its lacerated palm with a cloth dampened in the trough overflow, keeping away from the open cut as she did so.

“We do not have any hot water at the moment to wash it off better I am afraid, though there soon will be, and then I shall see that there is no wood or glass in it and get you bound up until the doctor can see to it.”

She reached out and retrieved a basket of wrappings, which had been placed within reach for her use by Sophia, and changed her position to kneel before him. She moved closer into him, not caring how anything might look to others, and sat back on her heels as she took his hand and put it into her lap. She looked it over carefully and dabbed at it. She saw that he had his eyes closed, probably against the pain from his head. “It is a nasty little gash, but I do not see wood or glass in it.” She then surprised him by putting his hand up to her mouth and letting her tongue touch the wound several times and then licking at it as she looked into his face. His eyes were open now. He flinched at the personal, even intimate aspect of it initially. “No. There is no glass there, or I would have felt it with my tongue. That is the way Mama is able to feel for such things if they cannot be seen. It may sting at first. I hope it does not shock you.” She licked at it again.

“Nothing would surprise me now…other than the change in myself over the last two weeks.”

His comment was not clear to her.

“I am also beginning to feel better, though I will have a bump the size of a goose egg on my brow soon if I do not have one already.” He touched gingerly at his forehead. “Ouch.” He smiled at her and was surprised to find her blushing as she completely refused to avert her eyes from his intense gaze but even returned it. They were sitting far too close together, close enough to feel the heat from each other’s legs and even bodies and were not at all suitably dressed for any of this, but they had no choice and neither cared what it might look like to others under the circumstances.

She bandaged him and then tied his hand up.

She then surprised him as had her sisters as she reached out and took his head into her hands and pulled him into her, avoiding that tender and swollen part of his forehead and hugged him to her breast as the tears ran down her face and then kissed him on his cheek.

“I can do little for that bump other than to bathe it with cold water. That might help.” She wet down another cloth and then proceeded to wipe around his forehead, staying clear of the raised bruise and the split skin in the middle of it.

She noticed the stubble on his face and had felt it earlier as he had brushed his cheek with her own. “I think we still have a home, so I can think of other things now. You will need to shave soon, William, and with your right hand out of commission and your other injuries, I shall be pleased to do that service for you if you will not object, but only when there is suitable opportunity, and I see that you also need your hair to be cut. We have been neglecting you dreadfully. I used to cut my father’s hair, and I shaved him once or twice when he could not.”

“Thank you. I fear that I would be likely to cut my throat if I tried to shave with my left, and as unsteady as I am likely to be for a while, but there is no hurry. We can deal with those things after we are able to decide what needs to be done to give us a home back. I doubt society is missing my carelessly coifed or un-groomed presence any.”

She struggled to her feet and then helped him rise also. He was still unsteady.

Thomas approached. “We’ve got your clothes ready, Miss, and others for your sisters. They were in the closet or drawers and do not smell obviously of smoke. There was also some still drying in the washhouse, so that’s clean too. They will be properly aired out in but a few minutes, I would say, for there is a good fire going in the stove now. After that, Mrs. Rogers says you can all change out of your damp nightclothes in the summer kitchen before you catch a death of cold, and she would like you there now to get out of this morning dampness and off the wet grass.

“We are bringing your clothes down too, sir. Your room escaped most of the smoke. The main damage seems to be to the parlor and the dining room and some of the upstairs rooms where the smoke seemed thickest. The rest is water damage and a few windows gone, but that other end of the house and the back wing is just a little bit smoky.”

Annis took him by the arm. “Come, William. You are shivering as we are. You need to get yourself dried out in a warm kitchen too.”

“But I should not, if you and the girls will be changing.”

“What. Suddenly shy sir? You are not generally shy. I have seen you watching us in that way. You are as cold and as wet as we are, so the need is there. Besides, as you earlier said, you are now family. I think you have persuaded me of that now by your unselfish acts. We will trust you to close your eyes again.”

“Trust. A dangerous sentiment that, and no fun at all.”

“Yes, I see you are recovering.” Annis took his hand. “I doubt that they will care overmuch after what you did for them. Well, Sophia won’t, nor Charlotte either, and why should I care after… and what I was prepared to do?” she blushed. “We would none of us be here but for you. Besides, I will have you by the stove to get warm, for you are shivering too, and you will be facing away from everyone.”

She led him into the kitchen, where there was a large stove radiating heat into the furthest corners of the small room and sat him by the stove, throwing out its heat. He heard them changing behind him. He sat there with his eyes closed, not from any sense of protecting anyone’s modesty, but as it tended to alleviate some of his own personal discomfort which, fortunately, was beginning to lessen as he became warmer.

 

After the girls had left and the doctor had seen to him and given a few words of praise to Annis’s handiwork, which he felt he could not improve upon except for the application of some powder, which stung as it bit into the wounds, William washed in the basin of warm water left for him and dressed slowly and thoughtfully. He turned over various possibilities in his mind before he pulled on his boots and went off into the morning air to inspect the damage to the house as he could see in daylight. Inside, the damage was not extensive, confined as it was to part of one wing. Thomas was right about beams needing to be replaced and the chimney rebuilt. It seemed likely that the floor and other parts would benefit from being repaired and replaced too. It would not harm to do a thorough inspection from top to bottom, but that could come later. The house would be a mess for some time and would need several days of cleaning and repair where the family had lived, though the servants’ quarters had not been damaged.

He knew what he would suggest to Mrs. Barristow. If she agreed, then the servants could continue living here and doing what they would normally have been involved with to keep the animals looked after and the garden and house tended to, but with fewer persons to look after if the family were not there. The diminution in their labor from that, would be more than made up for by the suddenly augmented wash load that they had inherited and the need to clean up and down, and inside and out, more extensively. Major repairs were also needed, for it was an old house that had settled in some strange ways over the years, which was one reason why the stairs had collapsed. He would see to that himself too.

Deception by Proxy. Ch. 23: Difficult Questions, and Foundations of a New Relationship.

Friday, April 27th, 2018

“How are you feeling now?” William smiled at her. Only a few minutes had passed since his major dereliction in finding her naked and helping her, but in his own mind and hers, he hoped, they had turned to a new page.

He was pleased to notice that she was able to smile at him too, and was seemingly able to put the other matter of a few minutes earlier behind her. She was not too angry with him, but did perhaps give the impression of being puzzled and even confused over what she had just learned. It seemed he might be forgiven, though he knew he did not deserve to be. He was relieved far more than words might be able to express.

She thought for a while. “Rested now, content. But also…chastened after the last few days. As well as confused; much better than I did, thanks to you. Refreshed.” She did not mention other feelings that she was still grappling with, or continue with her disjointed recollections.

“Good.”

“Will you sit with me for a while, please?”

His eyes seemed to thank her for not banishing him. “Dare I assume that you feel you can trust me after my recent behavior of just a few moments ago? I am sure that I do not deserve your trust after that.” He was smiling at the awkward truth of what he said, yet his eyes were pleading with her this time, rather than challenging. “But yes, I would like to sit with you if you can forgive me for my earlier behavior.”

She realized with sudden surprise that he was the one that seemed vulnerable now, as her mother had said, and even uncertain of the ground he was on. She wondered if perhaps she should not be the one asking him for forgiveness for believing only ill of him for so long, and still not sure what to believe about some things concerning his character, if not his commendable behavior on their behalf. “I think I can trust you a little. Perhaps more than a little. Though I do not know why. I began to fear the worst at first and that I was about to pay the price for not having trusted you as Mama does and for believing only the worst of you. But you did not take vengeful advantage of me in…that way, or despise me for not making a more forceful objection of your presence, as I had feared, though your presence was….”

“Yes, it was, wasn’t it? Outrageous, ungentlemanly, and worse. I deserve no mercy, no gentle consideration from you, and will submit to any penalty or penance you demand of me. Why would you think I might despise you for not objecting, for you did object. I think I am more afraid of you despising mefor being so forward myself and so heedless of your modesty. Be gentle, Annis. You now have the power to hurt me far more than you might realize.”

She did not know how to respond to that surprising comment, and let a few moments elapse before she spoke. “I would never despise you now William. Not after what you have unselfishly done for us.” She could not meet his eyes as she said that. “When you entered my room and….” She struggled to make sense of what had happened. “But then I am dressed now and in my bed, and my mother and sisters are within calling distance.” She smiled sadly.

“Thank you. A little trust is all I deserve, and I am glad of that crumb even. But that was why I came up here, to keep you company until you decided to rest or sleep. I had no other motive. I was concerned for you.”

She recognized that he spoke the truth, but he was ill at ease with himself and seemed to be feeling guilty over his previous actions. It was a reassuring sign and gave her more confidence than she might have felt in finding out more about him than she had so far gleaned and—as it turned out—wrongly, about it. “I have been wrong about you.”

“Most people are. But you? Not so far wrong, Annis.”

“Yes, I admit I have been wrong about you, and now we need to talk if you do not mind. But first things first…the easier questions, for I need to know you better than I do. You do owe me that much. If you do not mind?” She recognized that she was on solid ground with him at this moment.

“I seem to recall you said something to me while we were at the inn, and I was recovering. You said something of you ‘almost’ being on your best behavior. There seems to be an admission of earlier lapses than the one which we have just put behind us.”

“I confess that there were. So you did notice? I wondered if you might let me get away with that, without bringing me to account. Yes, I seem to make far too many little slips like that, don’t I? I am such a shambling kind of disreputable fellow that I found I needed to test various boundaries and limits with someone who seemed to hold me in reservation, if not downright disregard. I wonder why I don’t have that same trouble with Sophia?” He was pleased to see her smile. A good sign. “You are right, we need to talk now that you are able to see me in a more kindly light, I hope, and can demand a full account from me of various bits and pieces of my scandalous behavior. There is much that I would like to say, though I must slow myself down, or I might frighten you almost as much as I did just now. Myself too. We have progressed such a long way, in such a short time.”

He drew his mind back to the moments at the inn. “I am surprised that you recall that careless comment earlier. I thought it had sailed by too easily while we were at the inn, and I had hoped that more recent and more…inconsiderate behavior may have overlain or eclipsed all memory of that earlier dereliction. You have an inconveniently retentive memory for the likes of me. Obviously, I must confess my inability to fully control myself with you, for I must admit that I did steal a kiss after I had lifted you from your horse onto mine. But then that is how we rogues tend to behave.”

“That, and ambush ill-clad—disrobed—young ladies in their bedrooms and refuse to leave when they ask you to.” She surprised herself by daring to recall that, and even speak of it so openly.

“Exactly right.” He laughed. “But there was only one of you. You were not ill clad. You were unclad, and a sore temptation for a moment or two until I came to my senses and realized what I stood to lose if I did cause you to despise me by any inappropriate action. As if my being there at that moment, were not.”

She let that confession slide by but liked what she was hearing. “But you mentioned that earlier kiss, and I think I recall that.” She blushed. “You seem to lose control often, and yet you don’t, in truth. Everything is done with a purpose. You also steal a lot of kisses when you think I might not notice, or even when I might, for you stole several just a few moments ago. Why did you do that?” She looked at him again, in a way that he found unsettling.

“The earlier kiss when I moved you to my horse?”

She nodded.

“Confession time again.” He drew a deep breath. “I felt a moment of…great tenderness and concern for you at that moment, but then I have always felt like that toward you, indeed, to all of you.”

“Oh.”

He smiled at her as she digested that confession.

She looked up at him. “And yet, I do not think that a rogue might feel either tenderness or concern for his intended victim.”

“You were not a victim Annis. You were, you are, someone I feel a great deal of…” he hesitated as he searched for the word, “…regard for.” He could say nothing more without betraying more of himself.

She decided not to pursue that any further. There were more important questions to get out of the way while he seemed to be in the expansive and gentle mood he was in. “Why did you stay with us, William?” She looked at him closely, but he did not rush to an answer. Perhaps he found it too difficult to answer easily. “You had no need to. Yet you did stay with us all here, despite everything and when I did not think you either would, or should, for I tried to hint you away.”

“Yes, you did, didn’t you?” He decided to be careful in what he might choose to say. She was quite capable at this moment of seeing completely through him if he were too careless with his words. “You were off-putting and cold toward me, I thought. How fortunate that I have such a thick skin and cannot be hinted off or did not run off like a scolded cur. I stayed to help, at least for a few days, where I could. I hope you are not forgetting that I married your sister. There were some things that obviously needed to be done after that, and I could see that you were all otherwise caught up in a hurtful situation. You all needed to be distracted if possible. My heart went out to all of you. I could not desert you all in your time of need even when faced with a determined effort from you to oppose my staying, for some reason.” He chuckled gently. “You seemed to know me far too well. Besides, I still needed to know far more of the lady I had recently married and of the most unusual, and wonderful family that so calmly accepted me without question and so trustingly, despite my well-known reputation. Most of them anyway.”

She fidgeted over that gentle observation, and she colored as her eyes flashed to his face once more, and he instantly regretted making it. He strove to recover. “You were wise to be cautious. I did not expect to be made welcome when there were so many attractive and nubile young ladies present—even your mother, who most needed my support—and all so vulnerable to the likes of me after all of the trouble I had caused in earlier years, and the hell…well, that was all in my recent past. I was not so far removed from the memories and realities of that violence, that I began to wonder if the reality was that the battlefield had actually claimed me, and I was now in a pleasant dream.”

She liked the way his attention seemed to be focused upon her. “I do not think you deserve that sad reputation that you hint at, William, and yet…there were times when you confirmed all of my worst beliefs in you until I learned more of what had really happened with Thackeray and then his father. Despite what I mistakenly assumed, you have behaved with great consideration and propriety—mostly—with all of us, including me, until….”

“But I recovered, remember, and reverted back to my true character, shambling fellow that I am. Mostly, is the key word. You did notice that my halo had slipped by the time we needed to visit the inn when I first kissed you then, and it took a further nudge just a few minutes ago when I found that I was powerless to leave when confronted by such mature and poised, if alarmed…and alarming beauty.”

Her eyes sparkled, and she blushed but did not take him to task for referring to what he had said should be forgotten. Neither of them would be likely to ever forget it.

“Also, there was a challenge laid out for me, with three beautiful young daughters and a more mature yet still beautiful lady thrown close to me, and all of you actually needing my worthless presence in a moment of great sorrow, even though it may not have been immediately welcomed or obvious. I found it to be captivating and intriguing. Besides, I have a bad reputation to maintain, or face being drummed out of the Rogues Club. I could not rush off with such delightful temptation around me, for you are all so beautiful, each in her own charming way, and so much in need of protection.” He sighed. “Alas, mostly from individuals like me.”

“I think you are flattering us too outrageously and giving yourself too little credit. However, I am glad you did not leave us.”

He said nothing for a moment but digested that comment with some pleasure, as he could see the sincerity in her shy glance at having dared to admit that.

“So am I. Now.”

She let that sail by, but could not easily ignore that he was looking at her intently and in a remarkably disturbing way. She felt sure that he might be able to hear her heart beating and must surely be able to see how flushed she suddenly was.

She recovered her composure with difficulty. “So we were a challenge?”

“Yes. I think it’s fair to say that. However, to my great disappointment and devastating loss of confidence when faced with so much opportunity laid out before me for the taking, I did not seem to be universally liked or trusted, especially by you or Charlotte, who made a point of staying out of my way most of the time. Very wise of her. Most unusual for me to see, for I am such a likeable, gentle, well-mannered fellow as you know, and as I continually demonstrate. Sophia recognized it fast enough. All of you should have been striving to encourage me to stay, and in the most embarrassing and flattering way. But then, if you had, I would have been truly lost, and…I may not have behaved as I ought.”

“I think you would have.”

“I am gratified that you think so well of me after my recent lapse. Yes, I think I would have behaved myself too. At least I would always try. The alternative—your censure and feeling betrayed by me and then openly despising me—would be devastating to me now.”

He was being truthful, despite all of the wrong-headed thoughts she had harbored of him and the accusations she would have leveled at him had she been able to burst into the parlor while he met with the elder Thackeray. She liked those words of confession. Fortunately, he did not know how they affected her own feelings.

“Your mother accepted me easily enough, but then I have that effect on more mature and less cautious ladies, who do not know enough to feel threatened by me.”

“Or who know you better than you might know yourself, and place little store by vicious gossip? Unlike her immature daughter.”

“Perhaps. But there is nothing immature about you, Annis. Not from what I saw, nor from what I know of you in your gentle dealings with me when I did not deserve them. You are a woman, and a beautiful one.”

She blushed. “You know what I meant.”

“Yes, I did know. I think your mother may have been unwise enough, or should I perhaps contradict myself and say, prescient enough, to believe my sister’s high opinions of me rather than those of others. Elizabeth is obviously defensive of my reputation and character as well as confused about me—obviously—and does not believe so ill of me as others do. However, now I have a true challenge laid out before me—to rise above my hard-won disastrous reputation and prove that I am worthy of a misplaced belief in the nobleness of my character than a belief in what is said of me. It may be beyond me, but I will try.”

She smiled at his attempted levity. She had every faith that he would succeed.

He sat back, feeling more relaxed and sure of his position. “I am sure that you have noticed that Sophia was quite easy to confuse, and has had difficulty tearing herself away from me.” He looked around suddenly. “I wonder where she is, by the way? She has never neglected me for this long before.” He shrugged. “No matter. I had come to the realization that I have that effect on young children it seems, though I have just found that out, for I have never been around them before for any length of time. I always found them to be wearing and far too able to see completely through me. I find the sudden arousal of family feeling within me to be interesting and gratifying. Sobering too, for I hear that children can be so hard to impress. Now I must work hard to impress those a little older. I am finding that I am sadly out of practice.”

“It did not seem that way to me. But Sophia likes you. She even demands a kiss of you before she goes to sleep now and after you have read to her, and she spends far more time with you than she now does with us.”

“Yes, I wish you all would do so—demand a goodnight kiss of me. But Sophia is quite a scheming little girl and far too observant of those things she should not observe, and sneaks up and gets too close when one least expects it. As I did with you earlier. I like her too. I am looking forward to the time when all of her sisters demand a similar kiss before sleeping. It is the older ones that are more difficult. Charlotte will be a greater challenge.”

“How so? She does not hold you in disregard. None of us do now.”

“She is still too cautious and unwise to the ways of men like me, but sharp, and is not sure what to make of me just yet, though I could be mistaken. I think she is guarded of what she sees and believes, and is not yet entirely trusting. Ah well, her defenses will soon crumble when she falls in love with me as all ladies are destined to do.” He noticed she was smiling at his boast.

“Well, most of them.” He cleared his throat in embarrassment. “Some of them.” He smiled at her as he had to backtrack on his all-encompassing boast. “I do not read her to sleep, so a kiss will be more difficult. But then I find I do not wish to kiss her so much, except in a protective and avuncular way to comfort her, for she is still sad and then there is—was—another that is kissable too.”

She remained silent. She knew that he was referring to her, for he was looking intently at her as he said that.

“She seemed to dislike me intensely when I first came here—probably still should, considering how I behave around her while striving to ingratiate myself with everyone—and tried to ensure that I did not stay. It was worrisome to find that someone so young could read my character so well. Even took to carrying a pistol to guard against me wandering at night and possibly blundering into her bedroom, with undoubtedly dreadful intentions, and would have had no hesitation in using it, I think, so I didn’t blunder as I would have liked. My own pistol too.” He feigned shock at that thought. “Could I have been so madly protective as to work against myself? How lucky I am that she did not have it by her that first night. Or just a few minutes ago.” It had been close by. “I did not think she could have found out about me so well, so soon, for I never would admit to any weakness of character with any of you, and I hoped that by the time you found out about the real me, it would be too late.”

“I think we now know you better than the portrait you seem to want to paint of yourself. Besides, you have not blundered into any of our bedrooms again after that first time.”

“Really? Except for just a few minutes ago. I shall struggle to decide whether you are relieved or disappointed over that. But then, I do not like to be shot. It is a painful experience.”

“And yet you stole a kiss from her, from me, when I was vulnerable. When we were out together. You were not supposed to take advantage of me like that. That was underhanded.”

“But I must protest in my own defense that it was mostly a brotherly kind of kiss. I really was not taking advantage of you as I wanted to.”

“It was nothing of the kind.” His later comment had slipped by her.

“No, perhaps not. I must admit that I was relieved that Thomas was not on hand to observe or object or come to your aid as he would have done. But I am being honest. I was concerned. I did not know that you were not one of these ladies who swooned to order. My kiss told me what I needed to know.”

“Which was?”

“That you were indeed prostrated, for you did not struggle to protest or complain loudly or strike out at me as you should have and as I expected if you had not been in quite the difficulties you seemed to be in. I could think of no other way to provoke a response if you had not been as ill as you seemed. Either that, or perhaps you had planned it, but then that would be a dangerous thing to do with a man like me, for I would have detected that too.”

“So I have become aware. So that was why you kissed me then—to gauge the level of my ability to respond. So it was almost a brotherly kind of kiss and nothing else. I think I can forgive that.” She almost felt disappointed. “So you thought I may have been scheming in some way. I am not such a dissembler, nor would I be so heedless of the danger I might put myself in by encouraging you. But I was not sure what to think either. I think I may have been wrong about you in almost every way that I could have been wrong.” She looked up at him, but he was looking away at that moment.

“I would like to think so, considering what I heard of your initial impression. But in what way might you have been wrong? That I am worse than you thought, or better?”

“I am not sure. Probably more devious, underhanded, and scheming, considering….”

“Yes, I probably am, as recent events have demonstrated all too clearly. I wondered who might shoot me first. You, or Thackeray. No matter. There, my character has been stripped bare even down to the bone. But then, the rogue in me has almost achieved his purpose. If I can win over the least trusting of you all and meet with her alone, in her bedroom no less, and her in only a thin nightdress between us—that other does not count, as I am a gentleman—of sorts—and I dare not admit to it and as I had my eyes mostly closed—then surely I can achieve anything I set my heart upon.”

“And what might that be?” She did not mind his speaking out so candidly. She liked his present mood.

“My, you are reckless to encourage me in this way. You should not ask, and I dare not say just yet. You would probably…no. You would certainly be critical of me. It is too soon after all of the….” he smiled at her, “…I am even surprised at myself. My mother and even my sister would also be outraged. I would have to return to the continent. I promise that you will be the first one I will tell, and then you can deal with me accordingly, and as severely as will be merited. Do not ask any more of me. I have said more than I intended to say already.”

He had told her almost everything she might have needed to know. She began to wonder how it might be possible to have him stay with them all for longer. Perhaps a lot longer. She no longer wished him to leave, but dare not tell him that, as she would have liked.

She took something off her bedside table and handed it to him. “Charlotte decided that you should have this, William.” She passed over Mr. Thackeray’s watch and watched as he turned it over in his hands. “No engraving on the outside.” She watched as he popped the cover and then released an inner one. After a few seconds, his eyes flashed to hers. “Nor inside either. Did you or your sister open it?”

“No. I do not believe so. Why?” She looked up at him, seeking an explanation.

“It is…It is an unusual kind of watch.” He wound it and set the movement into action.

She took it from his hands before he could close it or keep it from her and looked at it. A puzzled frown grew upon her face, and then she blushed profusely at the small naked portraits, in considerably exaggerated detail, moving together on the face of the watch. She looked at it with widening eyes and reddening cheeks for a few seconds and then dropped it on the covers but said nothing.

“Oh dear. Exactly. Going at it like ferrets aren’t they?” He scooped it up and closed it before putting it back down.

She laughed nervously, and was wide eyed at his outspoken description of what they were doing—going at it like fer—. “I think my uncle even had one, not quite as explicit or as disturbing. I glimpsed it once fleetingly, though I was not supposed to know about that. It may still be in the back of the desk drawer.”

“Yes. Another erotic watch. I saw it. It is still there.”

The silence continued for a few moments as she recovered her composure. She cleared her throat and could feel him smiling at her at the discomfort caused to her seeing that watch and its small inter-acting figures. She changed the subject. “Until recently, I was determined, and had the ammunition, to see and believe only the worst of you since you arrived, and I have had to repeatedly reverse myself, for you behaved in only the most considerate and protective way, though it took time to see beyond the first impression that you created. Even just a few moments ago, though you should not have stayed as you did.”

“I tried to leave without alerting you to my presence, but I was discovered when I clumsily backed into the door.” He saw a new struggle taking place in her eyes and her thoughts as she built up the courage to ask him more and was wondering what she might decide to ask next.

“I…may I ask you some things that I might not dare to ask anyone else, while we are both in this outspoken and candidly honest mood, and without serious barriers between us?”

“That sounds dangerous, Annis. For me. Have we really come that far, you and I?” He answered his own question. “Yes, we have, haven’t we, and in such a short time. So I am not to be shown the door as I began to fear, but am to be asked questions that you dare not ask another one. What things might you dare to ask, I wonder? I am now nervous. I heard you have that reputation of not sidestepping controversial and sometimes risqué discussion. Perhaps I am unlikely to cause you more disturbed feelings than I already did, or you me, but I would not care to gamble on that. You are also outspoken and have more force of character; more than almost any woman I have come across, perhaps including my own sister who is notorious for her ability to speak out, and even in earthy matters when needed. Your mother warned me. Did you once really engage in political argument on an earlier visit with the younger Thackeray as your mother said?” He was trying to sidetrack her from what she had seemed all too ready to ask. He wished she had not seen that dreadful watch.

“Yes, I did. My father told me that if I wanted to find anything out, I must be direct and ask without any round-about-ness. Thackeray was the wrong one to enter into a discussion with, however, as he regarded all women as needing to find their subservient place in their primping and preening, their crocheting and flower arrangements, their idle drawing room gossiping, and other less intellectual pastimes, and sticking in it, and he told me so. He said that to hide the obvious fact that he did not know anything about the subject I wished to open, for he seemed woefully uninformed, and it was obvious to us both. I told him so. He was severely discomposed by that, and he was gone the next day when Father insisted he leave after he had been tempted to wander more than he should. I don’t think that you are that way, for you listen politely to my mother and even patiently to Charlotte and Sophia and never seem to disagree with them or any of us.”

“Perhaps I am more cautious about laying my ignorance out before others. I am sure your father did not expect you to argue politics with someone you did not know well.”

“No, he did not. But he and I did from time to time. Not so much argue, as discuss. He did not ridicule or put me down for anything I said, or interrupt to correct me or try to shut me up as other men might. He listened politely and seemed to value what I had to say. Of course, I was frequently wrong, but then so could he be.”

“As we all can be. As for being a polite and patient listener, I always was that. I found that I learned the most when I spoke the least. I was also less likely to reveal my often complete and utter ignorance of any subject.” The silence extended for a few moments.

“William?”

“Yes, my dear?” He responded before he had thought about it and even took her hand. She was obviously startled by his endearing words but did not remove her hand from his, or pull back.

“You are evading my attempt at an earlier question.”

“Yes. I am trying to. I am suddenly nervous for some reason. But I did not think that there was a question. I think I heard a statement. We have already made great progress—too much progress—in some ways. I would hate to jeopardize that hard-won ground if you throw more difficulties in my way, especially in discussing politics. I have had to maneuver over some rough ground already today.”

“I do not wish to discuss politics or military tactics with you but something else.”

“Yes, I was afraid of that.”

“Liar.”

“There.” He smiled at her new outspokenness. “That is more like the Annis I have come to know.”

He was pleased to see that she did not apologize for that deserved remark. “You were deliberately trying to avoid my questions. I have not encountered anything yet that might cause you to be afraid. Not even; especially not even, a naked young lady standing before you, whether it be me or even Sophia.”

“Sophia does not count. I did not and do not terrify her. Nor she me.” She looked at him, finding his comment to be quite strange. Why would he be terrified of a naked female? “Though she also asks some ferociously difficult questions and is quite capable of putting me to the blush.”

“Yes. She does that to me too at times, and I am her sister. I saw no embarrassment in you whatsoever at anything she asked you, even in front of the rest of us. How you could maintain your composure when she was striving so hard to show you every last one of her freckles…wherever they might be, so that you could confirm them and count them for her…? Well. Charlotte and I did not know where to put ourselves.”

“I know.’ He smiled as he recalled that. “It was delightful to watch you both blush and squirm, recalling where your own freckles might be at that moment.”

Yes, he had enjoyed that; she could see it now. She continued. “You may have been surprised and taken aback, even discomposed, but afraid? I do not think so. You were far too relaxed and assured.

“When you came in upon me earlier, I was not terrified. Well not much. Not for long. I was shocked. There is a big difference.” At least he had not been offended or disgusted with her at her lack of strong hysterical outrage and protest that she recognized would have been the expected response of almost any other young lady caught in such a situation by a gentleman. Though any other gentleman would also have immediately apologized profusely and left in acute embarrassment, and they both would have been assailed by shame and horror for long afterward at the probable repercussions. He did not display any such guilt or remorse over it and nor did she feel any either. His response had been entirely unexpected, but she soon recognized that it had not been threatening, and she had not been truly concerned for her safety beyond those first few seconds.

“Ouch. But I can assure you that I was neither relaxed nor at ease with the situation. Quite the opposite. But then why would I be embarrassed by Sophia, for she does that quite often when she insists that I get her ready for bed or dress her or bathe her, as I seem to be called upon to do quite often of late? I am amazed that I do not mind doing any of that either, but feel extremely privileged. She has not yet learned to be shy of me, which I find so charming. Now if only her sisters….”

Annis interrupted his thought. “All of which she insists upon shamelessly, the little wretch. It is not proper, but as no one will be likely to discuss it outside of this house, it does not count. But I was not speaking of Sophia, and you know it. I know that I should not ask…but I think that I may trust you to be honest with me as we seem to have accepted you as a valued part of this family, considering what you have done and risked for us. I think we may have gone beyond certain limitations in discussion as well as greater caution in behavior in some ways.”

He responded quite forcefully. “Oh no, we haven’t. Not as we might have. There are still behavioral limitations, but I think they took a severe drubbing when you dared to return my kiss and threw the moral responsibility for my actions back upon me as you did. Most clever of you to throw me into complete disarray, and to confound and disarm me in that way.” He watched her expression. “I am sorry. I interrupted you.”

“Yes.” She hesitated still to breach that subject she had started to ask. She took a deep breath.

“William?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you for coming to rescue us as you did and so calmly submitting to marrying Bella. Mama might have gone mad, without you coming to us. You did not see her before you arrived. She was frantic and almost hysterical. We would all have been depressed forever. We would have been overrun by the Thackerays and probably turned out on some legal nicety known only to lawyers of the kind that we seem to have trusted unwisely.”

She continued in a low voice, unable to mask her sadness. “For what it might mean to you, I think you and Bella would have been well suited. She would tolerate no nonsense, as our mother would not, once she knew what she wanted.” Her eyes had misted over. “What might have been? I shall not be cheated like that, for I think now that you would have been well suited together. Better to have loved and lost—yes, even in the lustful manner displayed on that watch, and even with all of its dangers to a woman—than never to have loved, in that case.”

“I think Shakespeare was referring to love, not lust as you say. That is again, a dangerous admission to make to such as I. But all of that was a statement of the circumstances again. I did not detect a question there. That is the second time you have probably thought better of asking me something.”

She blushed and looked at him. “When two people find that they seem to be suited to each other, must marriage enter into it?”

He laughed at her daring. “It should. But no. Not always, though it is often expected and prepared for. Sometimes, it cannot happen, where they are already married to others. But that is also dangerous ground to venture upon with the likes of me at this time.”

“Thomas and Molly are in love, and yet they do not marry. When they go off to the market together in the cart, they sit close together, and I have seen them hold hands. When he helps her down from her seat, they linger together, and even kissed once when they thought no one might see.”

“But you did.”

“Yes. We did. They had forgotten that we had ridden behind them in the cart into market that day. I think that what they have is a love worth having, and yet, I suspect—I know—that they are also warm for each other in that other way too, though they are difficult to encounter that way, for they know we…we saw them in the hay once, making love…they were so tender with each other and loving. I know we should not have watched, but we…we were curious, as well as shocked and quite over-awed by what we saw, and what they did.” She blushed at her daring admission of that. It was a difficult subject for her to confess. “Yet they are not married, though they have known each other for many years. They were like our parents, who certainly loved each other deeply, and yet, there seemed to be a lustful side to it all too, for there was a good deal of excitement and caressing, and gentle laughter.”

He felt privileged that she might already be comfortable enough in his presence to be able to relate such deeply personal and private things.

She continued, unaware of his thoughts. “You did not know Arabella even for a day. How would you know that she could be the one you might love in that way?”

“I didn’t. I couldn’t. I had never even met her. I knew nothing of her at all. I married her because it was necessary at the time to solve a greater problem that you all seemed to be facing.” He decided to be more expansive. “One hopes that between intelligent people of similar interests and aspirations, that love will follow on from their marriage if they do not know each other beforehand, as with some arranged marriages, but I do not think that that is love. It gets it all the wrong way around. Love should come first before marriage, though a general attraction generally precedes them both. But then had it seemed that she would live, such a step would not have been countenanced by either your mother or me without us getting to know each other better first. One has to wait and see if love might develop between the two of them after that first meeting. Sometimes it will, as it did with my sister and her husband before they were married, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

“And have you ever fallen in love and encountered…? I should not ask.”

“Yes, I have. But I refuse to disclose any more than that, and yes, you should not ask, for I am not sure I dare answer you any further so early…we are getting too close to some revelations of a personal nature.” He cast his eyes ceiling-ward and spoke under his breath. “As if the rest of what we were discussing was not of that kind. For it is.” He returned to the moment. “I am amazed at myself. But yes, my dear, love should prevail. It tends to be more lasting, whereas lust is of the moment and may be fleeting. At least that—a lasting love—is what one’s parents hope for their daughters. Love and marriage should come before any of that other, for children have a habit of sometimes appearing when one least wants them too.”

She listened attentively, recognizing that she had asked more than she should have done and had even risked him refusing to discuss any such thing with her, and even deciding—perhaps—that he should not stay in such an iniquitous situation where a young female dare to ask such shocking things. Yet he hadn’t refused to answer anything yet.

Quite unexpectedly, he continued along a similar vein. She had been quite candid with him in relating their observing Thomas and Molly. He decided that he should be at least equally candid. “Males are also given more freedom than females are. It is expected that a man should approach marriage with some experience of…of that other. With sons, it is expected, that as part of their male characteristics and baser impulses and instincts that they will, as they say, sow-their-wild-oats with some appropriate, and understanding, and obliging female, usually one who is older and wiser and who is not so particular or needful about protecting her sterling reputation. But such behavior must be conducted out of sight, far from society’s gaze and revelation and preferably without ones relatives or society finding out about it. All, in secret and in confidence. It is also expected that there will be no repercussions for the family, with distraught young ladies appearing at the door and with an infant in arms enquiring after their son. That would be quite embarrassing.”

“And did you?—sow your wild oats?”

“My, we are being inquisitive. And brave as well as foolhardy.” He took a deep breath. “Yes, I did. But there were no repercussions.”

“Can you tell me?”

He tried to look surprised and shocked at her question, though he obviously was neither. “What will you not dare to ask?”

“I am sorry. It is too much of me to expect to learn of that, but how else might I learn of…any of that if we do not observe, or if no one is prepared to tell me? And there is no one else that I might dare to ask now.”

“Yes. Personal questions like that, are best asked of a father or of a husband. However….” He took a deep breath as he considered how to deal with it. “You will certainly judge me ill, yet I will tell you, though I am not sure how I dare do so. He did know, but could not explain it to her just yet.

“My first encounter was with an accommodating, obliging, and precocious servant girl, who was a few years older than I—I was fourteen—and she was discreet about it, I am pleased to say, for we managed to hide it for a long time. Some years. In fact, I do not think my mother found out about it until it was all discovered at the end, though my sister knew. She seemed to know everything about me. And please let us leave it there, for it was a long time ago. I do not regret any of it, but others did judge me ill, though neither of us was harmed by it, and, as I said, there were no repercussions running around later. My mother still has her on her staff.”

“And were you in love with her?”

“No, I wasn’t.” He knew what was coming.

“So that was lust, and not love?”

“Yes. I suppose I must admit that, but it is not quite that bad. Youth is driven along by lust. Love, is a more mature experience. We were neither of us harmed by the experience. Quite the contrary I would say.”

She found his confessions interesting, and dared to ask more. “Did you first approach her, or did she you?”

He sensed she would not let it go until she knew it all. “She approached me. Cleverly too. I should say she deliberately tempted me, as a beautiful and well-developed young woman might, in seeming innocence. But she was far from innocent. She knew exactly what she was doing—as some women seem to know by instinct—where I didn’t. I was helping her to lift a heavy bucket of water from the well. She had on a loose-fitting dress, which she knew revealed quite a lot of her to this wide-eyed youth, as she leaned forward opposite me. I remember that she was smiling at me and was well aware of my focused attention into the front of her dress.” His eyes flickered for a moment to Annis’s low cut nightdress and smiled at what he saw. She noticed his look but did not feel discomforted or embarrassed by it, nor did she try to cover herself better – too late for that, but smiled at his attention to her.

“I was suddenly unnerved, and we spilt water on ourselves. I think she did it deliberately for she was behaving quite provocatively and laughing as well. She was quite concerned about that, fearing trouble from my mother—or so she said—and needed to see me dried off, and herself too. We went out of sight and she proceeded to undress me. Of course, it rapidly got out of hand, just as she intended, and we both undressed. That was our first excited and unrestrained encounter of many.”

“Like ferrets?”

He looked at her with some surprise. “Yes, like ferrets.”

“So she was the lustful one.”

“I wouldn’t say that. But not far from it. Yes. She was lustful, she knew what it was all about, where I was unsure, but it was a mutual feeling and I was more than ready and more than her match in that department, for I often sought her out if she did not seek me, which she often did. We soon learned how to go about it with the least notice being taken.”

“So it really was mutual?”

“Yes, it was. The standards expected of men are so different from those expected of women. I am sure that it all seems so hypocritical, for it is. Men always seem to believe that they should wed a virgin, whereas it is expected that a man will have had several escapades by the time he gets married. Settles him down, so they say.”

“Does it?”

What would she not dare to ask next? “No. It doesn’t.” He was emphatic about that. “It usually does quite the reverse if he is denied a continuing and fulfilling relationship of that kind. It tends to fire him up more than is good for anyone and makes him more conscious and alive, and even more aggressive to the fairer sex, not less.”

She blushed delightfully. “Oh dear. I fear I am not a lady, for ladies do not discuss such risqué subjects, do they?”

“No. They don’t. Nor do gentlemen respond to those kinds of question quite so openly. Nor do ladies tolerate such discussions or even instigate them. Usually, within the family setting, they do sometimes manage to discuss such things but only in private. As this is a family setting I think, and we do have privacy, we might be forgiven. But then you are still a lady, just as I think of myself as a gentleman, though I have different standards than others of that breed. You are just not as shy as others are and are the more interesting because of it.” He looked down at her and met her eyes. He smiled at her and continued with his thoughts. He resisted, with some difficulty, the impulse to kiss her.

“Do you not find it remarkable that though you and I, barely having known each other for something more than a week even, are having this exceptionally personal and risqué conversation as though we had known each other for years—our entire lives even? I am sure that if your mother were aware of it, she would be aghast and would show me the door, even unaware of my earlier dreadful behavior with you, and I would have to leave.”

“Perhaps. But she does not know of this, just as she will not find out the other.”

“Just as well. I would hate to think that we were being watched or overheard, though I have had the feeling for some time that I am being watched.”

She looked at him with an enigmatic smile. “You are. It is difficult to avoid being watched with Sophia and Charlotte about. And I have a reputation for not shying away from embarrassing topics as you now know. But I do not know who else I might ask, for I was too embarrassed to approach my father for those particularly burning questions I needed to have answered. Mama tries to tell us things from time to time but always avoids the more detailed and interesting aspects and necessary explanations.

She continued with the earlier topic. “And do you have those feelings and impulses? Yes, you obviously must, for you did confess them. Was that Deirdre, you were telling me about?”

He was surprised again. “How did you hear about her? I do not recall mentioning her name.” He chuckled nervously. “Elizabeth. What did she not tell you about me? Yes, that was Deirdre. I am surprised Elizabeth did not warn you never to be alone with me. It is not safe for me to be so close to an attractive and encouraging female that I find so disturbingly attractive.”

She blushed at the compliment. “I think I noticed. You seemed out of breath and flustered when you encountered me dishabille once you lost concern for my bruising, as you soon did, and were more interested in other things…in bathing and kissing me.”

“Was I? Yes, I was, wasn’t I? It seems to be part of our instinct and drive. A man, after a certain age, is always attracted to a beautiful young lady. I always seemed to be. I cannot suppress my feelings easily, though I try to control mine rather than have them control me, but the temptations are difficult to deny and fight off at times when the passions, temptations, and provocations are great.”

She fell silent for some moments. “Thank you. I think you answered my questions quite well.” She put her hand over his at that moment. “I think you might be a gentleman after all for dealing gently with me and my truly difficult questions. I think I found out what I needed to know. I also learned more about you than I think I deserve to know.”

He was not sure he liked the sound of that. “There, you see, I am working my way behind your defenses and am obviously succeeding in my devious purpose with you, while hiding my disreputable intentions from all of you. But I think that I should keep your mind and mine from dwelling on such unwholesome thoughts by reading to you.” He picked the open book from the bedside table and began to read from it.

She yawned. “You should sit up here, William.” She moved over to make room. “The light is not good there, for you are facing the window and the sun is low in the sky.”

“You are being daring, Annis, after our earlier adventure and after our far too revealing and detailed conversation concerning personal intimacies, lust, and love-making. However, I should point out that for me to do so would not be proper. You are in a becoming but insubstantial nightdress and have your reputation to protect from encroaching lustful males like me. I am possibly the most disreputable member of that clan. I have no such reputation to lose don’t forget, but you have. Besides, your mother or one of your sisters may come in and catch us.”

“Is that the only thing stopping you? Fear of being discovered reading to me up here beside me, as lightly dressed as I am? For I don’t think you give a fig about propriety or not shocking anyone.” Her voice dropped. “You have seen me in less, remember?” It was his turn to be discomforted. “You speak of reputation too easily William. Hang proper. I am discovering more about life and about myself at this moment than I might ever have known had you not arrived when you did, and upset our precarious world even more than it was. I know what I want of life, and I do not wish to be robbed prematurely of anything, as Bella was. Perhaps that was why I would not give up so easily on finding out those things that I asked. I really did need to know. I am also twenty-one years old and of age to make up my own mind and decide my own actions.” She looked far off as she internally analyzed those words and the thoughts that went with them. “Although that is frightening also, and perhaps I am frightening myself over some things I am learning about myself, and you. I would not want for you to despise me for not defending myself, my honor, better than…than I did earlier.”

“We already covered that. There is not the remotest possibility of that happening, my dear. Unfortunately, we are both vulnerable at this moment, it seems. Those are also not quite the sentiments that a lightly clad young lady should state so forcibly to a man she has invited to sit on her bed after the nature of the conversation we have just had. But I fear that you and they do not know me just yet, no matter how much they or you may think you do, so I must at least not try to prove their guardedly positive opinions of me to be devastatingly incorrect…if I can avoid it, when faced by so much temptation. Even after some years of being close together, some persons still do not really know each other as well as we seem to, even now.”

“That would be truly sad, I think.” She sighed. “With others, even a few days can achieve the same thing. Perhaps even a single glance as with Romeo and Juliet. Love and lust again.”

“That was a play and not about real people.”

“And yet it could have been, and possibly was. My mother is a real person. That is how she fell in love with my father.”

She patted the bed beside her. “You do not need to be shy, you know?” She was challenging him. Oh how their roles had been so suddenly reversed.

He left his chair beside the bed and clambered up beside her, leaning against the headboard. He was in his stocking feet. The light from the window, now more behind him, was better.

She leaned in against him. He picked up the book from the coverlet and began reading to her again.

After a few moments of listening to him read, she reached over and took his hand and then moved further under the covers, snuggling beside him, with his hand against her cheek. With her face pushing into the side of his leg and feeling his warmth, she closed her eyes.

He liked the newfound feeling of trust that she seemed to have in him, despite coming precariously close to losing it, but was not sure he was up to dealing with it as he knew he must. She suddenly knew too much about him, and far more than he should be comfortable with, but at the same time, he found that he was feeling contented. “Well, my fortune has risen in the world.”

She looked up at him. “Thank you for not leaving us when you might have, as I think I wanted at first with all that was going on and…that other…personal things. But that was before I knew you.”

He thought he might know about—that other—either the violent way he dealt with Thackeray, his revelations of his own weaknesses and failings, or his godmother’s likely cautioning of them all about his rakish exploits and execrable character. Perhaps all of them. “You do not know me at all, Annis. But I promise that none of you will ever regret my presence here. I probably should have left when I had the chance, considering the far too revealing conversation we have just had. The situation is far too dangerous in every way, especially for me—a confirmed bachelor, which I once was but no longer—and undoubtedly, for you too. But then I promised your father I would protect you and not desert you. Now what else did I foolishly promise him concerning my unrestrained behavior with his beautiful and vulnerable daughters?”

“My father? You did?” She was instantly attentive and looked up at him with suddenly bright eyes. “I did not know that. I wondered what he might have said or discussed with you, for Mama would not tell me with all that was going on. Thank you for telling me that. It makes so much difference if he trusted you. Now I do know that I can too.”

“Yes. I did make that promise. He may have trusted me, though I do not know why. Something about knowing my father, for he did not know me. You should still not trust me, however. I do know why you should not and so do you if you think about it. Unfortunately, I am likely to cause a good deal of trouble for everyone before I do leave.”

“You’ve already done that. But in what ways is the situation too dangerous and what trouble? Surely you do not mean the Thackerays still?”

“No. Hang the Thackerays. You have a new and bigger threat looming up over the horizon. I was speaking of me.”

Her mother had been impatient the same way, with her misunderstanding of the same subject just a short time earlier. He meant himself. Her mother had also meant William too.

He continued. “Did everything we discuss roll off you like water off a duck’s back? I am the one that is far too dangerous for all of you, for I am a confirmed rogue, a libertine, and a philanderer, if not worse, as I am sure our godmother let you all know, and am extremely violent, as you are now well aware. But only with other men, never with women. At least not on this side of the channel. But the temptations? I may not be able to survive them. Damn! I am too well known by all of you. I have a bad reputation to uphold, or they will drum me out of the club of disreputable scoundrels.”

“I thought it was the Rogues Club.”

“That one too. You are all interesting young ladies. Your mother too, and all of you far too trusting and vulnerable as I insinuate myself into your innermost sanctums. I didn’t realize such delights, being in the company of so many young women—to be trusted when I do not deserve to be trusted—might ever torment me or come my way as it did. I don’t think I will be able to leave so easily at all.” He sighed. “You know, I think there is only one of your bedrooms that I have not been in.”

She gently hit him on the leg.

“I think I feel as the rooster must feel—let loose in the hen house and not sure where to begin.”

She laughed at his metaphor. “You don’t fool me, sir. I don’t think you would take advantage of any of us quite so casually. Not now.”

There was no responding to that.

He had set her off again. “I was afraid that you had betrayed us not so long ago when I overheard you with the elder Thackeray. But you have had enough opportunity by now to have learned enough of us and to have usurped everything and put us all out several times over.”

“Yes, I know. But unfortunately, I listened to my conscience, which has been my constant and pestiferously-confining companion for the last few years. Besides, you now have my pistol and, unfortunately, I showed you how to use it. I needed to find out that it was not in reach before I put any foot too wrong. I must tread carefully and be more cautious and patient and strike when the opportunity is there or risk being shot or turned out of the house.”

“You did not do so—strike and take outrageous advantage of me—this afternoon after I became faint. I think a far better opportunity was there just a few minutes ago when I was so vulnerable, and everyone was out in the garden.”

“The opportunity may have been there, as you say, but I was not so far lost that I desired to commit complete destruction of myself, although I intended to take advantage of you at the inn, I would have done, except the Landlord recognized you, so I could not plead that my wife had fainted as I thought I might, and suggest that we needed a private room immediately.” He looked down at her and smiled. There was a strange look in his eyes.

“Outrageous. But you had no such intention.”

“Oh really? How do you know that?”

“I told you. I was not totally unconscious of what was happening or what you did. I could still hear what was said, and my thinking was clear enough.”

“So you were not totally unaware of what was happening? I thought you were. You gave no indication of being aware of anything.”

“No. I did not mind your kiss—that was not outrageous or passionate in a way to cause me any concern. You kissed me on the neck, if I recall. You were holding me tightly at the time, hence my bruises, and I think you had a worried look on your face. When I saw that, I trusted you, despite that minor liberty. I was concerned at first, of course, wondering if you might seek to be revenged upon me for my behavior of the previous day, and then, when I saw that revenge did not seem to be on your mind at that moment, I was mostly curious. You were at a loss for a short time. I did not shoot you then. Then just a few minutes ago…I am not sure what I felt, though I think I….”

“Better stop there, my dear. You trusted me. You were curious? Dangerous admissions, for they will almost certainly invite another similar trespass when the opportunity is presented, as it is now, I think, with me perched on your bed beside you. I can assure you, however, that if ever any such thing is considered, it will not be because of any thought of revenge. I am a poor specimen, I know, but I am not that poor. But your gun was trapped in your pocket at that moment against me, so I knew I was safe. My kiss at that moment was actually giving you notice of my future disreputable intentions toward you, including another kiss and others after that too, so be warned.”

“I have been warned, though you do that with Sophia and with Mother too.” She turned her face up toward him as though challenging him to kiss her. “I would not object at this moment, William.”

“But I would, and you should too. You should not tempt me so mercilessly. I am only a weak man when faced with such revealing opportunities. The kisses I give Sophia are brotherly protective kisses, and the one—just one kiss—I planted on the top of your mothers head was a comforting kiss. She needed to be held at the time. But you…there is a difference. You should not tempt me in this way, for you and I are about the same age, and I find you…I am no better than Samson confronted with his Delilah, and you should not behave like some siren temptress. The temptations are more than enough to bear most of the time for me, but I do not need to lose your trust in quite that way. I came too close to that as it was.”

She chuckled. “And now I know even more about you. I think it was providence that brought you to us. I don’t think any of us want you to leave now.”

“Then I shall stay, permanently, and you will never be rid of me, and serve you right. We shall set the countryside ablaze with rumors of riotous, licentious behavior and outrageously bawdy goings-on, even to eclipse those of the Regent and Byron combined. I shall resolve to behave worse than any Thackeray ever could. They will say worse of me than Lady Lamb ever said of Byron—that he was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Though I already do behave badly. But providence? Perhaps. When I first got your mother’s letter, I almost was gone in the other direction, for that was my first inclination, which I suppressed. For once, I ignored my instinct to run.”

He became thoughtful for a few moments. “I am glad of that. Though it seems that there were some powerful ladies working behind the scenes here to either see it would come about somehow, or would not. I am not sure either side succeeded quite as they intended. They certainly could not have known what my response would be. Nor I of myself.

“But where is your gun now? If it is not easily within reach, I may be tempted to ravish you.”

“It is nowhere within reach at this moment, William. I do think I would like that.” He felt her snuggle more deeply beside him and turn her face up, inviting a kiss.

He did not respond to that dangerous offer, but continued to read for a few minutes and then she piped up again.

“William”

“Yes, Annis.”

She sensed the trepidation in his voice, wondering what kind of shocking question she might now ask. “How is it that you can stay here with us as you have? Surely you must have a life somewhere else waiting for you?”

He was relieved to find the conversation taking a less embarrassing and threatening turn. “Yes, there is. But it has done without me for twenty-five years. It can continue that way.”

He read further, only to be interrupted yet again.

“William?” He stopped reading and waited. “Do you have any special woman in your life?”

He smiled. “Very searching questions. They seem to bubble to the surface every so often. You are courageous to ask them of me.”

“Well, I felt I had to be courageous somehow, and now was as good a time to continue as we started while you are still here and feeling as you do. I have never been able to ask such personal questions of anyone before without embarrassing both them and me, and not getting a suitable answer, and never a male like you. But I feel that I can ask you, and I am not sure why. I am sorry. I would like to know more about you.”

“I am sure that you will, and might very well regret it. But considering that I am thrown into the role of protector and stand-in for a brother, and I did marry your sister, then I would say that you do have the right to ask as you have done already, along with some risqué kind of questions. But I reserve the right not to answer. However, I shall answer you.” He took a deep breath. “About a special woman in my life? I had just two until a short while ago—my mother and my sister. Though I am not sure that I let my mother know it. I must remedy that. Then I had three—with your sister, whom I married. Now, after losing her, I find I have six of them, and all in the space of a few days. My cup do indeed runneth over, though there is a certain sadness to it too.”

“But is there any one of them more special than the rest? Oh. I should not be asking that, for Bella was that one, I think, even though you never did know her as we did, nor as a husband ought, might…of his wife.” Her words tailed off as she sensed she was getting out of her depth again.”

“Yes. She was special to me. She became that way when I married her, if for no other reason. You were going to tell me about her, remember?” He tried to nudge the conversation into safer directions.

“Yes, I was.” She moved herself up more beside him and pulled the covers around herself. “On the dresser there. Charlotte left me her drawings earlier. That is her latest book that she started about a year ago. Please bring them over, and I will show them to you. She will not mind.”

He sat beside her again, and she opened the large book as she showed them to him, and provided a description as she turned the pages. It was filled with drawings of her and her sisters, with Charlotte throwing in a self-portrait from time to time, showing off a new gown or bonnet, and she also inserted herself into group portraits that she drew from memory.

“She just needs to see something, look at it for a few seconds, and then she can reproduce it faithfully.”

“My sister too?” He saw Elizabeth drawn faithfully there.

“Oh yes. She spent many days and weeks with us while her husband John was with you. She was—is, very much in love.”

He looked sharply at her. With Elizabeth practically living here, no wonder her mother knew so much about him. But Annis’s mind was elsewhere. She continued. “She was great friends with Bella. When she was here, they were inseparable.” She turned a page. “Here is Bella just two months ago. She has a parasol and is in the garden with Mama.”

“The family resemblance is obvious. She was quite tall.”

“Almost as tall as you, William, but then so am I. She was happy on that particular day.”

She continued to turn the pages and continued to give descriptive explanations as each drawing came up. The last ones included some of him. He was sitting in the window embrasure downstairs writing in his journal. He had not noticed Charlotte observing him from across the hallway. She must have been sitting at the table in the other room and watching him through the doorway from the shadows.

Another was of him sleeping and must have been done in the early morning before he was awake. He did not know how that might have been achieved for he was a light sleeper. There was also the cat on the foot of the bed, stretched out, and oblivious to it all.

 

“Oh. You are showing him Charlotte’s drawings.”

She looked up as William continued turning the pages. “Yes, Sophia, I am. How long have you been standing there watching? What did you overhear?”

“Only a minute or so. Charlotte said I should go and see that everything was all right, for you both had gone silent for far too long and your voices had dropped. She said that those were bad signs and dangerous. She also said that when the children go quiet, they must be up to something. But you are not children, and I do not see why she said that, for you all tell me often enough that silence is golden, not dangerous.”

“It depends upon the reason for the silence.”

“Oh. But I do not understand.”

“As it was Charlotte that sent you up here to spy on us, and you have now seen that we are not up to any kind of mischief, you should ask Charlotte, when you go to report on us.”

They both laughed as she went off downstairs again.

“See. Even my own sisters keep an eye on us. I hope she did not overhear our earlier conversation.”

“Yes, for they—you—know all about me it seems.”

“Oh! You were not supposed to go quite that far in the book.” She seemed alarmed, and was blushing.

She took the book from him and closed it firmly.

He had fleetingly seen other risqué drawings, including one of him sitting in the copper bathtub. The one doing the drawing had obviously been behind the door leading up to the upper floor at that end of the house, and probably looking at him through gaps in the door that closed it off. He’d wondered about that. There were other candid and detailed drawings of him after that one. He would say nothing of those but decided that he should have listened more closely to Mrs. Barristow when she warned him that her daughters knew everything that was going on around the house. He would take better care over his bathing arrangements in future, considering that Sophia had even blundered in on him the last time and insisted on helping him get bathed, dried, and dressed just as he did with her, so he could not complain or hurt her feelings by suggesting that she should not be there. She had been entirely unperturbed and only mildly curious about his nakedness and other things she would undoubtedly ask about some other time. It seemed that nothing was secret from these ladies and that they knew far more of life and what went on between the sexes than one might assume.

“You are not such an ogre after all, are you? I don’t think you are a threat to any of us, as Thackeray would have been, and as I first feared.

“It depends who you listen to. I am biding my time for a better opportunity. Some think I am every bit as bad as it is possible to be.”

“Thank you for today. Had you not been there….”

He took her hand. “Then you would not have gone anywhere and certainly not so far afield as we did. I should not have done that, and you would not have come to grief quite so badly. So, you see, I am to blame for it all.”

“But then I would not have been kissed either.”

“I don’t know about that. The temptation is always there, even now. But then I would also have been robbed of….” He stopped his thoughts in their tracks. “But please do not broadcast it about that I did that, or others may clamor for a similar treatment.” He smiled at her. “But then Sophia may come in again if all goes too quiet, so I cannot oblige you at this particular moment.”

She yawned again, snuggled against his leg again still holding his hand, and seemed to fall asleep almost immediately. He took the opportunity to turn the pages of the sketch book and took in many more of the drawings she had been loath for him to see. Many were of Annis herself, with others of him, and most of them were candid drawings that left little to the imagination. He smiled, closed the book and stood up gently, so as not to disturb her, and put the book back on the dresser. After straightening the covers up about her neck, he leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

The words he whispered in her ear were inaudible to anyone else, but she was almost asleep and obviously did not consciously hear them.

She mumbled something unintelligible and settled again.

He leaned over and this time kissed her on the lips, eliciting no response other than a deep sigh and a gentle turning of her head to make it easier for him. She seemed to want to linger over it, so he did, and then retreated quietly.

As he left, he saw Sophia go in and go to her, and then return.

“Too quiet again, eh?”

She nodded. She had been standing in the doorway and had seen him kiss her. “Mama says dinner will be late; not for another hour, so we can let her sleep ’till then.” She took his hand and led him downstairs.

“I will show you an Eskimo kiss after you have read to me and even a butterfly kiss too.”

“Oh. Good. Then I can practice them on everyone. I had better start with Captain Cat. He would like that I think, and it will be safer for me. He does not know my secrets, and he especially does not have my pistol.”

Deception By Proxy. Ch 22: A Revealing Encounter

Wednesday, April 18th, 2018

It did not take long for her mother to appear downstairs. The other girls had gone into the scullery and were busying themselves helping with the evening meal.

“I think she is not as bad as I might have feared, thanks to you, William. She should be abed by now. She is in need of your company before she falls asleep. Take pity on her, she has had to make some severe re-evaluations of you and of herself in the last day or so.”

“I know. I’ve been doing that of myself too.”

He walked quietly in upon her in his stocking feet and was surprised to see her standing on a towel in front of her wash basin, facing the window with her back to him, completely devoid of clothing and washing herself. The evening sun shone full upon her and showed her in her mirror as a fully mature and well-developed young woman. The startling and unexpected vision quite took his breath away and confused him. He took in his breath to mutter an apology and to remove himself from the room, but then he saw that she had her eyes closed with the glare of the sun in her face and the words died even as they were about to be spoken.

She moved the cloth across her body, unaware that she was being watched. She was devastatingly beautiful in her natural state. Her full breasts gently, and hypnotically moved with her actions. She was lost in thought, unaware of his presence. He knew he should leave as quietly as he had entered. He had not been expected so soon after her mother had appeared downstairs. He remained where he was, against his better judgment, entranced by such a vision of exciting loveliness that he had never before seen quite so clearly revealed in any woman.

She was still not aware that he had entered her room. She seemed deep in thought as she wielded a wet cloth across her upper body and tried to reach her back and shoulders but seemed not entirely able to do so, for she gasped and groaned at some sudden pain and flinched, almost dropping her cloth as she tried to reach to her shoulders and upper back. He realized for the second time that he should not be here at that moment but discovered that he was rooted to the floor at this sudden stunningly-beautiful apparition that was entirely unaware of his presence and that left his mouth dry, with the blood pounding in his ears. He found that he could not immediately leave. He took in as much of her as he could see in the mirror and of her back, and felt both nervous and alarmed at how she might feel when she recognized that he was here and watching her so intently. He should leave.

He noticed then that there was a large bruise on her back and another on the back of her arm and yet another on her upper leg. All of which possibly contributed to her discomfort.

His earlier concerns returned, and he backed toward the door and blundered into the edge of it, almost closing it so that he could no longer retreat, and betraying his presence in no uncertain way.

She froze in horror and tensed, with her arms reflexively raising to cover as much of her breasts as she might. She seemed confused and alarmed in that one instant of time as she opened her eyes wide and saw him standing there watching her in the mirror.

He could not escape easily now that he had been seen. He decided to brazen it through and not comment upon the obvious, standing before him. “I hope I did not cause those bruises.” He surprised himself at his calmly-outrageous audacity in daring to speak to her at such a moment and not immediately leaving the bedroom as had been his original intent.

Her eyes opened wider as she watched him behind her in the mirror and took in his unexpected presence and the almost closed door. She brought her hands tighter across her breasts and blushed in her embarrassment, unable to speak or say anything at that moment. Her eyes revealed her near panic at his unexpected presence close behind her, wondering what his intentions might be.

“William! Whatever are you doing here? You should not be here to see me like this.” Was he about to be revenged upon her in the worst possible way for her untrusting behavior of him over the last few days? The look on his face was not one of anger, however, nor one that might cause her immediate dread, but she could not easily be reassured about why he was here.

He remained calm, though he did not feel it. “Your mother told me to come up, Annis. I am sorry to have blundered in on you like this.”

“You should not be here. You must leave. What did Mama say? She should not have sent you up here so soon, for I decided to bathe. You should have knocked. A gentleman would have knocked.” She spoke softly but with deep feeling as she stared at him intensely in the mirror. She had two bright spots of red upon her cheeks. He hoped that she might turn to face him in her confusion, but she didn’t. Modesty prevailed, yet she was discomposed with him and almost certainly even angry at his intrusion.

She had not become hysterical and insist he immediately leave as he had at first expected, though she was not easy with his presence. How could she be? He smiled at her confusion and felt overwhelmed by a sudden rush of tender feeling for her but did not betray any uncertainty or embarrassment himself. He recognized that he was walking on dangerous ground and must tread carefully if that were still a possibility. He spoke gently. “Then I am excused, Annis, for I am certainly not a gentleman in far too many ways as I think you have suspected for some time, and as my behavior has already shown on several occasions. I lost most of my sense of moral values and what few virtues I may have had while I was abroad. They were doing me little good anyway and would have soon got me killed.”

She was clearly alarmed but said nothing more.

He walked over to her and before she might further object, gently took the cloth from her hand resting at her shoulder and dribbling water down her back before she knew what he planned and left her in no doubt what he was about to do as he tenderly washed her neck and then her back where she had been unable to reach. She might protest further but could see that he was not about to leave. She was helpless to do anything except remain immobile. She could not fight him from her room without revealing too much of herself, or attracting others to her predicament.

She could not scream at him or insist that he immediately leave, for he was not about to pay her any attention in that way. But then she did not immediately fear for herself at that moment either.

He saw her more clearly now in her mirror and was not able to tear his eyes away. Her arms, defensively crossed over her obvious bosoms, did not cover her fully, and there were other areas of similar deep interest to him that his eyes were drawn momentarily to.

She knew that he was scrutinizing her in her naked entirety, and though deeply embarrassed, was surprised to feel that she was not too angry at him but had become resigned to it. She might even deserve his contempt, and yet, he betrayed no such suggestion of punishing her for her earlier distrust. However, she did not feel too threatened by his presence even with her as naked as she was but was more annoyed with her mother for putting her in this position. She was drained of anger over the last few days anyway, having been shown to have been wrong on so many fronts about him.

“William. You must leave. Please.”

He ignored her softly uttered plea. “Did I cause these bruises on your back and your arm and leg?”

She swallowed her fear, frustration, and anger. Revenge did not seem to be on his mind. He seemed to be in a strangely gentle mood, and unconcerned by her obvious fears. Her eyes flashed to his. “Yes. I bruise easily. I think when you grabbed me to stop me falling and then took me across to your saddle I may have got those. And I pulled a muscle too, using that sidesaddle, for I am not used to it, and that limits my movement.”

“I could see you were uncomfortable.”

“But you must not be here, William.” She was emphatic about that. She had done everything in her power to try to hint him away, without any effect. He was even smiling at her, and there was that mischievous look on his face.

“Yes, I know that I should not be here, but I am, and I want to be here at this moment. You are so exceedingly beautiful, far more beautiful than I might ever have imagined, and I cannot escape now and would not choose to. But this bruising upon your arms and back. I am a clumsy brute at times and do not know my own strength.” He sounded angry with himself. “I would not have hurt you for the world.”

She digested that comment. She did not regard herself as beautiful. Why was he being almost apologetic when she was the one who had done him the most harm by what she had believed of him? He should still be angry with her. She recognized that she had a strange and unnerving power to attract his attention, and in a kindly way, but was not sure why. Of course, she knew that a poorly clad woman invited the wrong kind of attention from most men, for her mother had told her often enough to protect her modesty at all times, and that men had a strange fascination for a mature and well-formed woman and everything about them, especially when they were unclothed, and she should be careful never to be alone with any of them if she could avoid it. But she did not know why it might be so, for she could defend her own honor if the need arose. She was strong. She could not see any attraction in her own body and did not regard herself as beautiful in that way. Her hips were bigger than she liked, compared to those of boys and men, and her body was too soft and not able to do those things that a man might do. Her breasts were a major aggravation to her and seemed to attract the wrong kind of attention most of the time when she had attended the occasional ball in the village.

Men were different, she knew that. She had grown used to their being stronger and better coordinated in many ways, and they did not have breasts to get in the way of whatever they might choose to do. She had noticed that as she had watched William shaving on that first morning stripped to the waist, and had found him interesting to watch. It had been a strange recognition for her, but she had been curious. The cold water had not bothered him nor had he been concerned that anyone might see him as undressed as he was. He had large shoulders and was well shaped with obvious muscles where she, herself, seemed to have none. She had only ever seen her father shave and had even helped him bathe in the past when he had been injured, but that had not been the same. She would never have lingered long enough to watch her father once her first curiosity had been satisfied, nor to have noticed those other things about him that she had noticed about William.

Her eyes rose to William’s face, watching him in the mirror as he washed her. She did not feel he should be trusted. She knew so little of him still, and yet she seemed to know everything about him, with too much of it so confusing and awkward. He seemed to be looking at her with some concern rather than with any other awkward emotion. She recognized—hoped—that he was probably not about to trespass further than he should, which had been her first fear, though his presence at this time was entirely outrageous and far beyond what might be tolerated. “Sir, you should not see me like this.” She was distraught and almost in tears. “I know what it might seem like, but I did not encourage you and I did not plan this.”

He spoke gently. “Please do not be afraid, Annis. I do not think any such thing. I know you did not plan this. Nor did I. A simple mistake. But I am here now, and I would rather be here than anywhere else on this earth. My name is William, remember? But why should I not see you like this? There is nothing to be ashamed of. Nor afraid of. Surely you know me enough to know that I do not present a serious threat to any of your family. Nor to you, though the temptations around you are unbearable.

“You are an extraordinarily beautiful young lady, and I am a man who appreciates beauty without overstepping certain limits, though that might be difficult to believe, considering my reputation. I must confess that I have long wanted to see you like this. To me, you are a very interesting and mature young lady. Besides, I am now family, am I not?” He recognized that his argument would sound flat and unconvincing, despite her mother having suggested that he was. He was certainly not family in that sense.

She was angry with him and blushing profusely yet spoke quietly so they she might not attract the attention of others. “It is not the same. You know it is not the same. Oh why will you not leave? You are nothing like my sisters, for indeed, you are a man. And not only should you not be here at this moment, even if you were a brother, and you are not that, but you should also not look at me so intently.”

He continued to wield the cloth on her back. “You are right. It is not the same. I am nothing like your sisters I am glad to say, though not because…. You know what I mean. You are a far too intoxicating sight for the likes of me, as I suspect you are now aware, and I would rather not be denied this vision of beauty.” She could sense the truth of that statement in the intensity of his glance. “But I will not further betray the precarious trust that I realize I am now in danger of losing. We are both adults. I am still in control of my own actions, and you need not fear that I shall overstep them further than I already have by being here. You are right that I should not see you, so I shall not see you. Please do not be too upset. I do not pose an immediate threat to you. I shall close my eyes, if I can, but I shall wash you, as you cannot reach your back properly without some discomfort, or raise your arms high enough to do what you need to do. I can at least save you from that. I would like to do so if you do not object.”

She did object, but he was ignoring her. She resigned herself to say nothing, realizing that he was not going to leave; and though he really should not be there at all, he was, and she began to recognize the disturbing effect she was having upon him. His hand had trembled as he touched her at the shoulder as his gentle words had similarly affected her once she had got over her first rush of panic. She would never dare to admit it, but at this moment she was not afraid of him being here and actually even seemed to welcome his gentle words and his strangely admiring presence.

She recalled her mother’s frank admissions earlier and of suggestions of her own emotions getting out of control. Could she be so much her mother’s daughter that she might stand here and not scream in panic or at least object more forcefully?

“As I do not hear any great complaint or further protest over my ill-timed presence, then I will take it that you do not object, and would like me to help you.”

She saw his eyes were tight closed and she began to relax. “I said no such thing. I do object. I also fear any protest I might make would fall on deaf ears in your present mood, and I have asked you to leave several times and you have ignored me.”

“There. You do know me.” Still with his eyes closed, and with his hand touching lightly on her shoulder, he washed her back and shoulders where he had seen she could not easily reach. “If you have not noticed, I have now closed my eyes and shall keep them closed until you tell me I may open them.” He felt her begin to relax more. Undoubtedly, she was watching his face in her mirror to see that he did not still look at her. She did not entirely trust him not to peek and kept her arms where they were, but he seemed resolved that he would not betray her trust at that moment.

“I think I must seem like a…a shameful… disreputable… to allow you to stay in this way without making a greater fuss than I am.”

“I think nothing of the kind, Annis. You did make a great fuss, which I ignored. I, on the other hand, feel a privileged scallywag. If you were a woman of that stripe, and there is nothing wrong with them either, then neither of us would have our eyes closed. We would both be devoid of clothing, and she would also be washing me as I would be washing her, but neither of us, so gently with each other, or with such gentle consideration.”

“I do not think that that is a topic for polite conversation, sir.”

“No, it isn’t. But you raised the issue, not I. I should let you know that you had no choice in my presence at his moment, and you did try to encourage me to leave, but I wouldn’t. So that is what you must protest if anyone comes in on us. But they won’t. The blame is all mine. I do not judge you ill for this. Quite the contrary. I think I shall be forever in your debt for treating me so well when I do not deserve it.”

He was relieved to find that she did not shrink from his touch or complain further at his complete lack of decorum at being there when he should not be considering that she was now standing before him in a relatively unprotesting manner compared to her first momentary panic when he first betrayed his presence. It was all so wrong, and so unexpected.

She watched him as he continued to bathe her. It seemed so wondrously strange and delightful to feel that she excited this man in such a way, despite the outrageousness of his presence.

“Not only do I not deserve to be here like this, but I also think I am lucky that your pistol is not so close at hand.”

She was surprised at his attempt at levity. She had forgotten his pistol, lying to the edge of the dresser and within reach if she chose to retrieve it. But then what? Would she shoot him? She doubted that, now.

“Yes, you are. But I doubt I could so easily shoot you now anyway.” She watched his face in her mirror as he laughed at that unwise admission and saw that his eyes were still closed, though she recalled that he had waited for some time before doing so, as he had seemed intent on observing her in every embarrassing detail before he did so. She could do nothing about it. There had been no escape. She had been disturbed by his sudden and intense scrutiny, for she did not regard herself as particularly beautiful but had not found it displeasing or threatening for some reason that she began to recognize. She did not feel that he had taken advantage of her, and she certainly did not feel violated in any way by his presence or his actions.

She was puzzled to recognize that she had seemed to want his closer attention in that way, as he had when they were close to the inn, as a sign that he had forgiven her for her previous ill-feeling misjudgment of him, but she had not actually taken any steps to try and achieve it and possibly giving the wrong impression of herself. Of being too forward.

“But what will we do if my mother and sisters come in and find me like this and with me not complaining and objecting as I know I should?” The possibility was a cause of some concern to her, though did not seem to be for him.

“You did complain and object, but I ignored you. I am glad that you are resigned to my staying and are not now complaining too much. Besides, they all seemed to be on their way out of the house to gather roses to brighten up the parlor as I came up here, and have abandoned you to my ministrations, so you need not fear that anyone will come in for the moment. Besides, your bedroom door is mostly closed, so you must let me continue to wash you.”

She realized that he was not about to leave her, and besides, it felt so good that he was able to reach where she had not been able to with her stiff arm and sore back, both of which caused her pain as she had tried to reach behind herself, or indeed to move at all. He reached around her with both arms—a moment of panic did overwhelm her then—yet his eyes were still closed. She felt him breathe onto her shoulder and into her hair at the back of her head as he rinsed off the cloth and put more soap on it, and then, before he continued with his task, he gently kissed her on the neck. She stiffened but did not seem to object in any strenuous way to that gentle trespass, though it did startle her, as he could sense from her audible gasp and tensing once again for a second or two, uncertain of his true intention for just a moment.

“A gentle brotherly kiss, my dear, nothing more to be afraid of.”

“An encroaching kiss. I am not sure what your next trespass may be and it is unnerving me.”

“There will be none. That will be the full extent of it at this moment, Annis. I promise. So far only and no further. Now, please turn around, and I shall wash the rest of you.”

“No.” She was suddenly alarmed again.

“Yes. I understand you are afraid.” She was about to protest that challenging comment. “But, strange to say, you are safe with me at this moment, and I am not about to leave until I have helped you. My eyes will remain closed.”

“Promise me that you will not….”

“I promise whatever you would wish. I also promise you that if you insist I leave you at any moment, even now, that I will immediately, but reluctantly, do so. But I would not like you to do that until I have been able to help you as I want to, so I shall not go beyond what is reasonable at this moment and invite my expulsion.”

“Oh. But you have already gone well beyond that.”

“Yes, I have, haven’t I?”

“If I were to ask you to leave now, you would do so?”

“I promised that I would.” He began to feel defeat and disappointment.

She could sense the possible disappointment in his voice. She hesitated. “Then I shall turn, but you must keep your eyes closed if I do.” Where she found such courage, she did not know, but she began to feel more than just a little secure despite the circumstance.

“Of course, I will. I did promise.” He felt her turn in front of him and then touching her only with the cloth, except for the gentle touch upon her shoulder to gauge her position but able to feel every firm contour of her body, he wiped her upper body and each arm in turn, as she was able to allow herself to become uncovered in that way in front of him, and move each arm to the side so that he might wash her side too. He was not to know that she wished he would lean down and kiss her on the lips now rather than on her neck, but he was otherwise occupied. She noticed that there was a bright flush upon his face and his ears seemed more flushed and reddish than they usually were, and he was breathing in a more labored way than he might be, as though he were out of breath. She even began to feel a similar excitement. She should have felt guilty at tolerating this, but didn’t.

He leaned into her, taking her once more by surprise at his closeness.

“Sir.” there was a momentary concern in her voice.

“I am only rinsing out the cloth behind you again, Annis. Nothing more.”

He was far too close. She could feel his cheek brush upon hers as he rinsed out the cloth and applied soap once more. This time he quickly kissed her on the neck, under her ear. She said nothing, nor did she resist. Then gently, as he put a cautious hand upon her waist in front of him, covered by her own hand lest he might not be as trustworthy as he had protested he would be, he washed her upper and outer legs and lower back which, with her stiffness, she could not follow him to do. He rinsed off the cloth again but this time did not steal a kiss as she expected he might, and wiped off the soap left on her naked body and then repeated that action as she turned around, before he put the cloth back into the basin. She was relieved, but also she discovered, disappointed to note that his eyes had remained closed throughout, and that he had not tried to kiss her again as she would have liked, for she was standing exceptionally close to him and facing him and could feel his warm breath upon her face, but he was not to know that, and could not be told of her suddenly turbulent feelings at his intimate closeness.

“Now the towel, please.”

He felt her reach out, noticing her breast touch his bare forearm as she leaned across to the back of the chair and put the towel into his hand.

She felt him hesitate and take a sudden indrawn breath and then tremble, and he froze for a few seconds at that moment with that sensation, but he did not take advantage of her and give in to the feelings that clearly enveloped him, being so close to her and her without clothing to cover and protect her.

“Thank you.” He continued to dry her off, not applying pressure, but just dabbing with the towel, where he knew she was tender and was able to reach her shoulders and back where she had seemed to have difficulty. Once, while he was close to her, she saw that he briefly opened his eyes to see her looking up into his face and then quickly closed them again lest he alarm her. He felt his own color to be heightened at what he was daring to do and could not dispel from his mind the vision created as he had moved the cloth over her body, despite his closed eyes, so he did not notice her smile at his almost inevitable trespass and the sudden feeling of puzzled empowerment she felt, able to so visibly disturb him in the way she was now experiencing. But she realized that it was still a precarious situation.

He was strongly aware of every gentle contour and every part of her body presented to him and yet beyond his visual senses. Nonetheless, his other senses more than made up for it in truly alarming ways, for he was deeply conscious all of the time of a young and vibrantly naked woman in front of him, trusting him not to trespass beyond what he was already doing.

“Your mother has now returned.” He heard voices from downstairs as they entered the house. “I think we may finish this and get you into your bed before we are discovered. Now your nightdress, please, to close off this tempting mental vision of loveliness and save me from temptation and trespass if the returning hordes did not.”

“My mother left me this for the moment. I decided that I should try to sleep for a while after my…difficult day.”

“Yes, I was a fool for taking you so far without thinking it through better.”

He could hear voices downstairs as they decided where to put the pots of roses that they had collected. They would not be coming upstairs so very soon.

He felt a thin nightdress placed in his hand. He discovered the neck and its hem and the open front of it, flickered his eyes open for a second to see that it was as he assumed, and then closed them again. She could not raise her arms over her head, so he moved away from her and slid the nightdress onto her arms before he lifted the back of it over her head, and then brought it down around her at the back and then the front, briefly encountering one of her breasts with the back of his hand. She did not flinch and said nothing of that.

“Now that you are covered, may I now open my eyes, please?”

She made a few adjustments before she answered him, ensuring that it had indeed fully covered her. “Yes, William. Now you may.” She was looking up at him in a strange way with her nightdress now settled on her body though with its neck open and revealing a suggestion of cleavage between her breasts. She did not mind his presence now that she had some covering, as minimal as it was.

He leaned into her and kissed her upon her lips before she knew what he was doing and then watched for her objection as she pushed him away for breaking his promise for a second time. She did not object, and she did not seem inclined to push him away. She had not seemed to mind but had momentarily blushed and had then leaned closer to him as she rested her hands on his waist and had even briefly but unmistakably returned his kiss as she raised onto her tiptoes.

He was relieved more than words might express at that simple response and to discover that he was not about to be banished forever for his entirely unforgiveable lapse of judgment and abandonment of moral consideration.

“Now I will leave if you demand it, though I do not want to at this moment.”

“Too late now, I think. Thank you for helping me and for not….” Her breath caught in her throat, and she turned away to climb into her bed but not before he had seen, he thought, a tear standing out in her eyes. “Thank you for not taking advantage of me as I perhaps may have des—” She left others words unsaid, but there had seemed a suggestion that she would not too strongly have objected to more bold of a trespass than just a kiss or two, though he knew that she would have eventually, and his place in their secure and welcoming family would not be so welcoming, or secure. He had risked too much and might have lost it all. Yet he hadn’t. It was a strangely disturbing recognition. What word had she held off using? Deserved perhaps, or desired? He closed off both of those possibilities as leading along dangerous pathways.

“Thank you for the privilege of being allowed to help you. I did not deserve it. Yes, I did take outrageous advantage of you. I am sorry for that moral lapse, but I am not sorry that I stayed instead of retreating and immediately leaving as I should have done; as a gentleman under your roof would have, but I found that I could not just leave at that moment.” He looked both sheepish and apologetic. “You did not immediately banish me from your room or your presence or this house, as I began to suspect and fear would be my fate when I first walked in on you in your…wondrous state, but I did not know you were bathing.”

She savored the mood that overwhelmed her at that moment. She felt a sudden elation at his unexpected confession of his admiration of her in her naked state, and at his obvious inability to leave her at that moment as he should have done. Before today, she was sure she had seen what might have been an amused condescension, even remoteness in his dealings with her, though she could have misread him in that too. She did not understand how he might find her interesting in the way that he obviously did. She had been more afraid of his disapproval over her lack of more voluble protest. “How could you have known? Mama should have stayed to help me herself. But then she did not know that I had decided to bathe when she left to go downstairs.”

“Then both your mother and I are excused from plotting anything so improper.”

They heard others begin to mount the stairs. His hand fell upon hers. “Relax, my dear. Neither of us should feel guilty. I don’t. I shall also remove the satisfied smirk that I am sure I have upon my face, but I doubt that I can remove my flush so easily.” Nor my memories of seeing you as did.

“Please William, do not say anything about this, or I shall die of embarrassment. You did mostly behave as a gentleman would have. At least, the one confusing gentleman I have come to know in the last few days—very defensive of our comfort and security, but devastatingly outrageous and un-gentleman-like at other times. I think that you are more to be trusted than I had at first feared, but in other things you are not to be trusted far at all.” She had clearly come to some understanding of what kind of a gentleman he really might be.

He smiled at her, thankful that he seemed to be forgiven, when he knew he should not be. “You are entirely correct about that. Especially after the kiss I stole.”

“That was the least of it. Which kiss? For you stole three kisses and were becoming more bold by the minute.” She said nothing of her own turbulent feelings at that moment as she had returned that last one.

He said nothing of the kiss she had returned either. Or had he just imagined that? No, he had not. He felt strangely contented.

The footsteps retreated into a further wing of the upstairs. It seemed that Annis was to be allowed to rest, and they were not to be disturbed. Most unusual that no one came to check upon them, although her door had drifted open again somehow. He opened the door further and returned to her side. “It seems that you have been recklessly abandoned to my care once more.”

He smiled at her. “I know I was too bold by far. But as a man with a poor reputation, I was testing boundaries and limits without, I hoped, turning you completely against me. It…dalliance, is a fine art, years in the learning, and I am long out of practice. Had you objected, I would have pleaded for your forgiveness, blackened my face, and would have promised anything to remain in your trust and good graces. Though I fear I have not been in them, except for the last day or so when I seemed to have gained a precarious footing. I do hope I have not entirely lost it now again.”

He looked as though he might be entirely cast down if she said anything by way of criticism. She did not answer him at that moment. This was an entirely different William than the determined, serious, and even severe one she had seen over most of the last week and a half.

“However, what just happened between us shall be our secret. But, Annis….” his voice took on a cautionary tone, “…I should warn you that you must never trust me. I am a mere mortal man when faced with such striking beauty as yours and do not trust myself at times like that, or even like this when I am close by you, especially considering the disturbing state, to me, that you were in. The temptations were severe, but it would destroy me if I were to hurt or betray you or any member of your family who are as dear to me now as my own—perhaps more dear—so you must keep me outside of those boundaries that are comfortable for you.”

She continued to say nothing, contented to hear what he had to say, though she did look at him in a strange way. Had he regretted staying, for fear of what he might have done? His eyes told her that he was being sincere.

She spoke then. “I am…I know I should not admit this or say anything so forward, but you are family now in so many ways, looking out unselfishly for our interests as you did and have done and risking your own life to do so.” She now seemed prepared to let him into that select group.

“My unselfishness, as you put it, is not entirely without more personal interest, Annis.”

She realized that she must tread cautiously with him but was also intent on discovering some of those feelings that had suddenly been sparked within herself and what might be those boundaries that he spoke of, not only his, but also her own and how they might be tested without any disastrous consequences to a newfound relationship as well as to her own self-respect.

He spoke again after seeing the play of thoughts across her face as she seemed to become aware of her own growing influence over him. “Yes. I see you comprehend more than you are telling me. A sudden sensation of empowerment in a young woman is a force to be looked upon with awe. I saw it once in my sister, and….” He held off saying any more. “No matter. Now let us change this dangerous subject. Imagine, Annis, if you can, that I am truly a gentleman, and did delay for ten minutes my entrance. I have just now walked into the room after knocking as a true gentleman should, and being invited in, discovered you at calm and dignified repose in your bed—as you are—and that the delightful interlude we just experienced was merely a figment of my fevered imagination and did not happen. We can imagine also, one of your sisters sitting in attendance to ensure that all, proceeds as decorously and as proper as it ought to.” He cleared his throat, but not his mind, of those moments that would live with him forever.

Annis knew what had just happened to her, and to them both. It filled her with a feeling of euphoria as well as contentment.

Deception by Proxy. Ch 21. A Tearful Re-appraisal And A Motherly Confession.

Thursday, April 12th, 2018

Annis’s mother helped her upstairs after a light repast and some hot tea in the parlor.

“Oh, Mama, I am so tired.”

Her mother began to help her undress. “We all are, my dear. We are all being driven along by nervous energy, and that is the wrong kind. None of us has had time to relax or come to grips with the new reality. We are all being pulled off in a hundred new directions every day so that we do not have time to breathe even, never mind to think. Everything has happened far too fast around us, and none of it seems real just yet. I have had little time to sit and think about any of it, and I never had any expectation of it working out as it has, considering….

“I’ll order more food to be sent up if you wish, for you need to eat something you know, to build your strength up again. I wish I had paid more attention to what you were all eating or not, but I was too wrapped up in my own grief and concerns. That must change.”

“No, mama, there is no need. I did eat well at the inn, so I did not even need to eat as I did downstairs. I am but tired, probably as much from the ride and lack of food earlier as much as for other reasons to do with my own emotions and finding out some things about myself that I do not like. William was kind, and saw that I had a substantial meal at the inn or resolved he would not return home with me but would see me stay there and have my sisters join me. He insisted that he would see that I was well recovered before he would think of heading back. I began to worry that you might think the worst with us away for so long, and after we had seen Thomas turn back.”

“I was not worried for you, my dear. You were in good hands. I may have been more worried for William, considering the mood you were in after yesterday. Nothing worse for a man’s equanimity than a downcast female for company. Up until then, I think that he was more vulnerable than you might have been.”

She was too tired to note that her mother’s comments might have been confusing to her, had she given them any thought.

“I think that I would like to be alone and to rest for a while, Mama.”

‘Of course you do my dear, but I cannot leave you in this mood. We need to get you out of these things and then see to a nightdress for you. I will not rest myself until I know that you are resting. You will recover all the faster with quiet rest and sleep.” She began to help her remove her dress as though she were still as young as Sophia even.

“How could I have been so wrong about him, Mama? I harbored unkind thoughts and would have done him serious injury at one time, yesterday even.”

“My dear, I told you that you have so much to learn about men, and unfortunately, I cannot be your teacher. They will be. But I can help and give you pointers. They all seem to be so easily read like an open book, and then we find that they are not, for they continually surprise us. The scurrilous villains at first blush actually turn out to be heroes and vice versa, and all when we least expect it.”

“But it cannot be that simple.”

It isn’t. They can take years to understand, though they say the same of us. When you get to know them, you will find that they are all complicated brutes at times, or can be, and are the more lovable because of it, as your father was, or the more roundly hated. It is either a greater love or a growing hate, I think, after a few years. But rather than show either one, those who are unhappily married or do not recognize what they have, just become lifeless and aimless and often seek other amusements outside of their family.”

“A mistress? I do not want that from my husband.”

“No wife does if she has any sense.”

“I want love in my life. I want the kind of love that you and Papa had. But I am not sure that I will ever find that. I am obviously not mature enough, though I thought I was. I do not know who to trust now, and I dare not trust my own feelings either after being shown to be so wrong. I am too severe a critic of everything.” She absentmindedly allowed her mother to continue to slowly undress her.

“You are learning about life, emotions, and human relationships. A little late in life, I think, but then we made the mistake of sheltering you too much. It is often a painful experience. William is like your father, but I told you that. You can trust him. But not too far. You are far too pretty for that.” She had seen the way he looked at her from time to time.

“And yet he can be so violent. Too violent for a gentleman.”

“Yes. Thankfully for us, he is and was. But any gentleman can be violent when it is called for. Mostly, it is we women who help make greater gentlemen or bigger brutes out of all of them. He is a gentleman where it counts and not a gentleman when required.”

“I don’t think I understand that.”

“Not yet.”

“He dealt so firmly and calmly yet violently with Thackeray from what I hear, and with his father, from what I actually did overhear, though without the physical violence. But it was all still there, nonetheless, and ready to erupt. I could not believe what I was hearing, and it all seemed so calmly delivered but with such undertones of hatred and loathing—at least from one of them while he stayed calmly smiling, I am sure. I could not see him then, for he had locked the door to keep me out—wise of him I think, considering my mood—but I could sense how it was all unfolding. What I heard completely horrified me. I would have done him injury at that moment, except for that locked door.”

“You should not have eavesdropped. One never overhears what one should. Better to have it all out into the open and deal with someone to their face and say what one means.”

“I would have done that, but he locked me out. But was Papa ever like that? I cannot imagine it.”

“Do not move so, my dear, I will never undo this if you are so agitated.”

“I am sorry.” She stood still and allowed her mother to continue.

“Your father could be firm. He could be as firm as was needed and as violent as was needed too, but that was when he was younger, long before any of you were born. Well, not so long before. After that, we were married and settled, and he had no need then to protect me in quite that way.”

She picked up a brush and began to brush out her daughter’s hair.

“Oh dear. I never thought to broach any of this so soon, but I must, I can see that now. I shall tell you something of me, my dear, that…well, you may judge me ill for what I will tell you, but it may help you understand a little of me and of your father and perhaps of yourself, for you are human with the same human weaknesses as the rest of us.

“I was the focus of quite a lot of attention—the wrong kind of attention—when I was younger. Like the young fool I was, I encouraged it too for I was vain and liked to be flattered. I did not know enough to know better not to encourage certain men. I looked a lot like you actually, physically, but I had been brought up in a more difficult setting. I went out more, for I had an aunt—Aunt Cecilia, almost a sister to me, for she was older only by about four years—who took me under her wing, and London was not so far. I was mature for my age, with a figure that men might fight over and did once, even when I was just sixteen. Perhaps we sheltered you all too much, for you have some difficult lessons to learn about men. About just one of them, I think, from what I think I see.”

After she had seen to her hair, she continued to undress her daughter as she spoke, and then once she had put all to one side, she opened a drawer on the dresser to find a nightdress for her.

“No nightdress. Oh dear, I thought there was one here. I’ll get a warm nightdress from the airing closet and send Molly up with it. No matter, the room is warm.”

Annis picked up the brush and would have continued with her own hair as she stood before her mirror, but found that her muscles were too stiff. “I was wrong on so many things, Mama. I am afraid I let myself be influenced by….”

“By Addie’s letter?” Her mother continued to fold her clothing out of the way.

“Yes. It was…it was dreadful what it said of him, of William. I dare not show it to you. You were upset enough as it was.”

“I will get you to show it to me sometime but not at this juncture. I am sure she paints a lurid picture of him, but then she long believed he had mistreated her dog by shaving its tail, and that was the start of it all. He did not do it, however, but some other boy did, and he rescued the dog, though she gave him no credit for that. There was also some violent episode with one of her young female relatives, blamed upon him. But she knew none of the truth of that and was not about to believe anything different. Especially when the young lady delivered, sometime after he had gone abroad. He may tell you some of it if you have the courage to ask him.”

“Oh no. I couldn’t do that. It is none of my business. There was more than that, Mama.”

“Yes, I am sure there was. You will learn to put less trust in gossip and rumor as you learn more of life. I know it is difficult to separate truth and rumor, but it is necessary, or we would trust no one. You will soon learn who you can trust and who not. But you can still be wrong.”

“But can any of what Addie wrote be true?”

“I do not know what she wrote, but I can guess. Unfortunately, yes, it can be. Addie does not go out of her way to tell lies about anyone, my dear. Not to us at any rate. But she can often get things wrong or twisted about when she allows herself to do so in anger or frustration. She can sometimes be brutal with the truth where others are concerned. She can be evasive and less than honest with the rest of society, especially about her father, but who cares about them? She does it so well too; keeps them all on their toes. But then that is another story. Sometimes, I think she forgets who her best and most trusted friends are and can be quite hurtful of us at times, though she means well.”

“You said I had much to learn about men? One man? William?”

“You do, indeed. Perhaps not William.” She was loath to elaborate on what she had been happy to have seen when she had noted them together. Annis may not have seen it or understood it yet, but she had. “The one you will eventually meet if you have not already. But I think you have even more to learn about yourself. It is not so much about someone else as it is about you. That is where the greatest change will need to be made, for you cannot, nor should you ever try, to change any man. Women think that once they get married, they can change a man and bring him into line with what they would like to have in their husband, but they can’t. That is what leads to conflict between the sexes and creates animosity and unhappiness. Appreciating and loving someone for what they are and who they are now, not as you think you would like them to be, is one of the keys to being happy. Men can be rogues and frustratingly dense, obtuse, awkward, even unfeeling—or so it seems to us women at times in our emotional states. Your father could be when I forgot the rules. But he did not ever hurt me deliberately, though it took me a while to see that. I hurt myself more than he did. They can be clumsy in word and deed without intending it, especially when they foolishly insist on telling the truth at some crucial moment, rather than telling us what we most want to hear. Difficult for them to do, as theydeal with reason and common sense, and cannot read our unpredictable female minds. They can also be magnificent, generous, gentle, kind when one least expects it, and considerate and thoughtful. We women bring out the best and the worst. But they see far more than we give them credit for, and their feelings can be disturbingly evident all too suddenly and when one least expects it.”

“Thackeray?”

“No. Not Thackeray.” She was emphatic in denial of that. “Nothing to do with Thackeray. Much more personal than that. Oh dear.” She seemed frustrated that her daughter did not understand her better.

“I don’t understand.”

“No, I suppose not. We did shelter you too well, didn’t we? I am rushing you along too fast and expect too much. As your sisters are not here to learn any of this, perhaps it is time to be more expansive of my early history. I am sure I will shock you, for I was younger than you are when I met my…your father, but I do not care. Think of me what you will. I am beyond caring at this stage. In fact, I never did care what anyone thought of me once I had married him. Or before.”

“Arabella was born in early December. The sixth. It was earlier that same year” that I first met your father.”

Annis looked at her with a startled look in her eyes.

“Oh yes. We needed no lengthy courtship or engagement. In fact, I am not sure we were ever engaged in the usual way. He was my blinding flash of light into what had suddenly become a drab existence before he arrived, yet it hadn’t seemed that way until then, for he completely turned my life and expectations upside down in the blink of an eye, even as he walked through that door in London in his naval uniform. I can see it now as clearly as though it were this morning, and it was almost twenty-five years ago. We first met in early March of ‘91, and were married in June of that same year, once I persuaded my mother that marriage was necessary and needed to be soon. Very soon. The same year that Arabella came into the world.” She smiled as she watched the look upon her daughter’s face in the mirror and saw her eyes fly to her own as she did some rapid mental evaluation of the dates.

“Yes. Utterly disgraceful that I dare admit such failing of character and moral fiber to my young and impressionable daughter. Bella was an early baby my dear. Yes one of those. A very early baby.”

“Mama.” She chuckled nervously as her mother laughed at the amazed look on her face.

“Well. It is often said that babies—later ones, those conceived after marriage—will always be carried the full nine months, but because of the intense passions of… some relationships, first babies may be earlier.  Bella was one of those.” She had the grace to blush.

“Mama.” They both laughed at the peculiar revelation but mostly at Annis’s evident surprise at her mother’s unexpected confession and history.

“But what of those who do not marry at all and bear a child?”

“The Trevelyan girl? Yes, they do happen. But that one was different. Those pregnancies always go full term. You know that. Many months of denial usually, and then out pops the embarrassing evidence to announce it all so loudly to the world. But there is always a man involved somewhere lurking in the shadows, where they often do their worst as well as their best, no matter how much they—the bruised and compromised young ladies—might protest that there wasn’t. Foolish, stupid girls. Better to admit the truth at once, and get it behind them.”

She took the hairbrush from her daughter’s hands and continued to brush out her hair as she seemed unable to. She noticed some bruising on her back, but her words about that were interrupted before they had even begun.

“So Papa forced himself upon you? I would not have th—.”

“No, he didn’t. Nothing of the kind. You are fair and far off there. I expect you thought my first admission was surprising enough, so prepare for an even worse one my dear. Had everything been left to your father, who tried to be a gentleman throughout it all, your sister would not have been born until at least a full nine months after our marriage, which might have been a year or more beyond our first meeting. Totally out of the question. It was I who decided that I wanted none of that, but I did want him. It was I who rushed things along before my parents managed to sabotage everything I wanted, and before he lost interest in me and found a more accommodating female of which there were many about….” she paused, “…which I now realized he would never have done. I was the one who set the scene for him to seduce me. He had no choice in any of it, but he did not know that until later, and we often laughed over it since then. I had to do that. I feared he would be snapped up by some scheming, immoral…perhaps I should say some scheming immoral woman other than myself, for I suddenly had flexible morals where your father was concerned. I was utterly determined never to lose him. I had no need to worry. He was mine alone. He stayed that way until the day he died.” She blinked back a tear. “There was nothing immoral or wrong in what I did. It was necessary, and I would do it all again. It was essential for my sanity and peace of mind and his. I have never regretted it.”

She paused as she thought about all that had happened years before and even chuckled over her recollections. “Unfortunately, my accommodating and kindly aunt got all of the blame for leading me astray when it was all my own doing. She had done nothing of the kind. We were able to laugh at it in later years, but she must have been hurt by the misplaced trust she had placed in me. It seems that I, and not my aunt, was the viperous influence in the family. She was not the kind of woman who would let such a thing affect her for long, for she soon bounced back and married shortly afterward anyway, and we write often and laugh about it all now.”

She was surprised at recalling so vividly some of those earlier memories. “No, my dear, your father neither seduced me nor ran off with me nor compromised me…in that way, as was the rumor going about at first. I did all of those with him and took him quite off balance. Mind you he did not object too much. That is what I was referring to when I spoke of disturbingly sudden feelings becoming evident when one least expects them. I, who had led a blameless, uninteresting life, trapped your father, my dear. The first and only man I have ever known and loved, and we thanked each other for it with every breath we took. So now you know some of my disgraceful past. My parents relented quickly after I told them what I had done and what the outcome was to be. They had little choice if they wanted to cover the scandal over. We married and came to live with your uncle here and away from the prying eyes of relatives. The family was saved from the shame of it all by my moving away with all of the soon-to-be-born evidence of my disgrace. I have never spent a more happy time than all of the years we were here raising all of you. Loving and being loved. There is nothing more that anyone can aspire to I think, than to be as happy as we were. Ah a nightdress. Someone read my mind.”

Molly appeared with a nightdress and towels over her arm and a jug of steaming hot water.

“Thank you, Molly.”

Annis picked up her warm nightdress. “Mama. I will see to getting myself dressed and into bed. I need time to think and to rest.”

“Of course, you do. I gave you a lot to think about and to digest and not all to my credit, but I was honest about my feelings for your father. When you encounter your own, you must make your own decisions about how to go on, but do not shrink from making those decisions as too many do for fear of what others might think. I do not think that Bella would have, had she known that this might come to pass as it did. I shall go and reassure William that you are nothing more than tired. He was quite concerned for you.”

“He was?” Annis looked startled. “Yes, I think he was, wasn’t he? Though why he should be after the dreadful way I have treated him and what I have chosen to believe of him, I cannot understand.”

She soon would understand.

“You will. You are still young, naïve, and inexperienced of men my dear, despite your twenty-one years. They—most of them—do not harbor ill thoughts as we women sometimes do or store up resentment as some might. He forgave you everything. He knew what he had to do, and he knew the risks he was taking and the likely repercussions of it. He knew the burden we all labored under.”

Deception By Proxy. Ch 20: A Tour of The Estate: A Stolen Kiss.

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

The next morning, William approached Mrs. Barristow. “Good morning, Ma’am. It appears to be a fine day as we hoped, and seemingly might stay that way. If you would care to take an outing as we had discussed, we can take the carriage and tour the estate. We might get over to Nettleshome and perhaps even to Ayles Howing or at least the edges of it. Unless you have changed your mind, this might also be a suitable time to approach the squire about him purchasing that piece of land from you that has been in contention between your two families for some time, or even trading some land for it?”

“No, William, I have not changed my mind on that. That should be the first thing done, and it might be well received if it were to be done by you, rather than me. The squire does not know me well and may still bear animosity for harsh words that we exchanged at one time. The more I think about it, the better it seems as a sensible course of action that might bring some peace between us. It should have been settled long ago, but stubbornness takes over when men think to dictate to each other. I think that your suggestion was a good one and will achieve a lot of good. It will bring an end to that long-lived disagreement that never seemed to go away between Mr. Barristow and him.”

“Then I shall approach him first about that, and then we can take a look around and map out your boundaries better after I have that out of the way. It is all well and good to study the books and paperwork, but understanding and managing an estate like this one requires a good deal of getting out and about and meeting your tenants and learning of them. There is a rough map of sorts, and I can follow that well enough, but it appears to be out of date, and I do not know exactly where your boundaries are now, or who your tenants or neighbors might be.”

“Unfortunately, William, I would be of no help to you whatsoever. Mr. Barristow saw to all of that. Besides, if I go, then all of the girls will also demand to be taken, and I am not up to that at this moment. Annis is the only one who needs to go.”

“Then if one of your servants might accompany us, perhaps Thomas, who seems to know something of the layout and your holdings, it would be of some advantage.”

“Yes, Annis and Thomas are the two who need to go with you. She was often out around the estate with her father. It will do her good if she can be persuaded. However, she is down in the dumps after what she overheard yesterday and believing only the worst of you. It was a painful correction, though it will pass soon enough I suspect, with time. I will keep the other girls with me and deal with their protests, for they have also been cooped up too long. Besides, I think Annis needs to get some weighty issues off her mind that have been troubling her for some time now. I suspect her conscience was causing her difficulty after yesterday, when she discovered that you had neither disinherited us, as she feared, nor intended to cast us all out, and you were suddenly not the blackguard she had come to believe you to be, though she has been torn backward and forward on that too from time to time.”

He understood how Annis must have felt, overhearing him and Thackeray as she had. “Perhaps, Ma’am, if you were to ask her, if you do not mind, then she might be less likely to refuse, whereas a request from me at this delicate time might have her seeking refuge elsewhere to avoid a possibly embarrassing situation. I think I last saw her in the herb garden.”

“Then as we will need some basil, I shall go and ask if she would help out in that regard and make it clear to her that she has little choice in the matter, for we must know certain things.”

She went off to the garden to find her daughter.

They both returned to the house some minutes later with a basket of vegetables for dinner and another of herbs that would be bundled and hung up to dry over the kitchen.

Her mother had explained everything to her, and what the plan was, but she was not at ease with any of it and told him so. She still felt guilty. She had difficulty meeting his eyes. “I do not know why you would wish to have me accompany you. I have not been trusting of you since you arrived.”

He laughed gently. “I find no fault with that. How could you, overhearing what you did? I rarely trust anyone upon first meeting. I gave you little reason to trust me up to yesterday and especially not after what happened then. Nor indeed after my earlier confrontation with the younger Thackeray. Discovering that one has a violent man under one’s roof is not conducive to being at ease. However, I do need to have someone who knows something of the estate—your mother’s and yours now— to go with me. I would also like to meet some of your tenants and to have someone break the ice so that they will tell me what we need to know to help your mother as well as you, as you will also need to understand it fully too. If I, a complete stranger were to approach them, I would find out little. From what I have learned so far by going through your father’s papers, the estate is in a tolerably prosperous state. I also need to know where your boundaries are. I could guess, but that is not effective, and the small map that I have is quite confusing and undoubtedly is out of date. I need to know this, so that I may better advise your mother and you—if you can stand me doing that—as you are now the eldest daughter and will likely have to shoulder more of the burden when I need to leave. Your mother candidly admits to having little interest in doing any of it, as she is more burdened with the house and its chores and the home garden.”

He smiled at her kindly. “If you might fear being alone with me, we will have Thomas accompany us.”

She looked at him sharply at that statement. “I do not fear you.” She saw the look in his eyes that suggested she would have to demonstrate that to him by going with him. He was challenging her again, and she rarely refused a challenge. “Very well, I will accompany you. But I will need time to change and make ready.”

“That’s the spirit. You have whatever time you may need, Annis. The day is still young. I have other things that I need to do first with the squire, for your mother would like to see the issue of that disputed field put behind you at last. I doubt I shall be long.”

 

She was ready in less than thirty minutes and patiently waiting for him once he got back from seeing the squire. He told her mother what he had managed to do, and both of them felt that it had all worked out satisfyingly.

Later, with William on his own horse followed by the mule, Annis on one of the horses from the stable, and Thomas following on yet another; they set out.

Annis noticed that the squire was even then turning his cows loose in that field. His now, in exchange for another piece of land that naturally fitted with the Underby estate, so her mother had informed her as William was getting the horses ready.

The squire tipped his hat to William and his companions and had a broad smile on his face. He could not have believed his luck. When he had first seen Mr. Devane coming up his drive toward the house barely an hour earlier, he began to fear for his safety. He remembered clearly the day that the younger Thackeray had left the Barristow house in some disarray and pain and had even more recently—just yesterday—seen his father turned off with a black face and in an obvious ill temper, though his leaving had not been accompanied by force or obvious physical injury as far as he was aware. He had begun to fear for the worst. Now, he began to see that Mr. Devane was a man of rare diplomacy who could easily cut to the quick of the matter, and that he had little to fear from him, provided his future dealings with the Barristow ladies were above board and honest. After almost twenty years of argument with Mr. Barristow, he now owned that field that had long been a source of great aggravation and contention. So far, it was all based upon a simple handshake, but considering what he had already found out about Mr. Devane, that was all he needed at this stage.

 

“William.” Thomas attracted his attention. “I have a lame horse.” He dismounted as his companions stopped, and picked up his horses leg to examine the hoof.

“I doubt she is fit to go on, sir, for she is dead lame. I shall have to walk her back.”

William dismounted also and examined the mare’s foot. The mare was in some distress and obviously not able to go on or to be ridden. They conferred over the situation.

“If I walk her back, she should be all right, but I doubt I’ll be able to catch up easily after I see to getting this shoe off and her looked after, for the only other horses are out in the fields, working.”

“Then there is nothing for it. You should return, Thomas. We should also return, perhaps.” He looked at Annis questioningly and smiled at her. “You should not be alone with a violent and unpredictable blackguard such as me, you know?”

She looked startled for a moment. “No. We shall go forward. Considering what the weather has been like for the past week, there might not be another day like this one before we get hit with snow. I am not afraid. I do have your pistol with me for eventualities.”

He smiled at her. She saw that he had provoked her into that response, for it was as if he had known that had he suggested going forward anyway, that she would have been more in favor of returning. He seemed to know her too well. “And to protect your honor from the numerous brigands, pirates, and bandits that infest this locale. Excellent. I shall relax then, knowing that I am so well protected with such a good shot beside me.”

“You are having fun at my expense, sir, I think.” She was still smarting with her feelings of the day before.

He saw that she had been hurt by his attitude, and he did not need her to return into her shell. “Yes, I was. I was teasing you. That was not kind of me. I apologize, Annis. It was not called for.”

He turned to Thomas. “You’d better explain the circumstance to Mrs. Barristow, Thomas, or else she might worry.”

“That I will, sir.” They watched as he walked his horse around and began to lead her back to Underby, looking back at her often to ensure that she would not suffer from that, else he would turn her into a field to rest up and get her at some other time.

 

They continued to trace out the boundaries as best they could, for Annis was familiar with most of the transactions over the years, for they had been well explained to her by her father. After an hour or two, when they were close to the coast once more, William led the way, and they rode away from the property at a canter.

“But we are not heading around the property at all now.”

“No, Annis, we are not. I have seen enough for the moment, and there is nothing in dispute or ill defined for some distance to the North now, for it follows the coast. There are other things I need to see. You can show me more of the property when we return and can pick up where we left off. We shall not be long. Sophia and I were out this way twice now, and I find I need to go further afield.” He waited for her to object, but she seemed to have become resigned to accepting that she had objected more than enough about him already and had been shown to be wrong too often.

“In that case, sir, while we are here in this direction, we can visit my aunt, if that suggestion is not likely to sidetrack you from what you intend. She now lives with one of the tenants of another holding, not two miles from here, and sees to him and his children since his wife died. She was at the funeral, and she is known to you now.”

“I think I remember her. The lady with the slight limp.” He did not object.

She followed him and his mule out to a headland overlooking the channel. There were piles of dried underbrush collected there for a large bonfire, possibly for November 5th; the Guy Fawkes celebration, but that seemed a long time away for such preparations to be underway already. Thathad seemed to be all he was interested in.

They turned back inland, and he then followed her to her aunt’s home. After a pleasant relaxing visit with her aunt, who fussed about them both and plied them with bread and cakes— which only William ate—and tea, they rejoined their planned tour some little time later and continued around the property or examined it from those rare areas of slightly higher ground that afforded a wider view, and from which they could see the boundary easily enough along the lines of trees, well-defined hedgerows, or along a river’s edge. It was a large and extensive estate, larger than he had realized, and there was much to see.

It was still early afternoon when they finally turned for home, but the tour had unexpectedly taken its toll on Annis, for she let out a warning cry to him before she swayed in her saddle and almost fell from her horse.

But for her cry, she would have fallen, but that had been warning enough of something being wrong, as he had seen her sway in the saddle. He was close enough to reach out and grab her arm.

“What is the matter, Annis?”

“I am fatigued beyond belief and a little dizzy.”

“You should have mentioned this earlier. We have been out longer than I intended.” He looked at her pale face. “Most selfish of me. When did you last eat a good meal? You only picked at your aunt’s cooking.”

“I don’t know. I cannot remember.”

“I seem to recall that I did not see you partake of dinner last night either, for you excused yourself to your room after the soup, and now that I think about it, you did not have breakfast this morning. We need to get some substantial food into you, and Underby is too far away. Is there an inn or a hostelry anywhere nearby? Or should we return to your aunt?”

“There is an old inn ahead of us, probably no more than two miles, and easier than returning or going on to Underby.”

“Then we shall go there. In your weak and unpredictable condition, I doubt you will be able to stay aboard that mare like that and in that saddle. I had better have you up here with me where I can hold on to you to stop you tumbling off.” He reached over and, taking her by the waist and her legs as she unhooked herself from her saddle, took her across to his own before she fell off.

“Better hold onto me, if you can.”

He supported her about her back and legs as she pushed her hand inside of his coat and behind him. He looked down at her and saw her head so close to his, with her eyes closed and her face pale. He steadied his horse, leaned down, kissed her gently on the neck, and then waited for some response or objection. She appeared not to notice. He frowned.

He looped the reins of her horse around the knee support of her saddle and trusted that the loose horse would be able to follow them. As they rode off, he was pleased to see that she did. His own horse was used to being guided by knee pressure alone or voice, for he had often needed both hands free for pistols and saber when he was caught up in combat.

After heading in the direction that Annis had suggested, and encountering a better-used road, he turned along it, followed by the mule and Annis’s horse. As he rode into the stable yard, he was met by the hostler, who had seen him approaching with his awkward burden and proceeded to hold his horse while the rider dismounted, holding the young lady steady on his horse’s back as he did so and then allowing her to slide off into his arms.

“I’ll let you see to these three. See that the mule is in a stall next to my horse where he can see her, or there will be trouble.”

“Yes, sir.” He had seen the kind of trouble a mule like that could cause when it took things amiss, and that one had a mean look in its eyes.

William carried her over to the open door where he was met by the landlord who had been alerted to a problem even before they had arrived.

He fussed about as he shut the door behind them to keep out the dust and wind. “Is the young lady well, sir? Why, it is Miss Barristow.”

“Yes, she is well enough, I think. Just famished. She fainted. Hunger. She has eaten little for a week or more since her father died.”

“Aye. I heard of that, sir. Nasty accident and not so far from here either. Shocked us all it did. But to lose a father and a sister at the same time…nasty thing to have happen to any family.”

William ignored him as he saw to Annis and followed the Landlord down the hallway. “I will need some hot water and a cloth, and then soup at first and perhaps some of your coffee. We shall see how she responds to that and see where we go from there.”

“Yes, sir. The parlor is empty, and there is a good fire in there, for that wind is none too warm.”

He carried her in and sat her in front of the blazing fire and supported her as he took off her cloak and bonnet and then knelt in front of her and placed some cushions to support her head and then saw to himself. In a short time, a bowl of hot water and a cloth was placed beside him and he began to bathe her face. She slowly began to come around.

She suddenly sat forward and grabbed at his hand for support, wondering where she was and how she had got to where she now was.

The landlord opened the door wider. “The girl is here with some soup, sir. The rest of it should not be long now.”

“Thank you.”

Annis was looking at him and what was going on around her. She was clearly not sure what had happened.

“You became faint for lack of food, and almost fell off your horse,” he explained, seeing the question in her eyes. “We shall eat and rest here for a while. Come, take some of this soup. It will help.”

He spoon-fed her, and in no time at all, she began to perk up with thatand with the warmth from the fire.

“Oh. We are at the inn. How long have we been here?” She looked about her and brought her hands to her throat. “My hat? My cloak?”

“Yes, we are at the inn. You are safe.” He smiled at her. “You need not worry. I did not take advantage of you too much, if that is what you are afraid of. Your bonnet and cape are on the chair there, and I loosened only the one button at your throat, and I did steal only one kiss.”

Most of his words sailed by her without comprehension. “I am not afraid. I don’t remember getting here.” She was flushed.

“No. I had to carry you, or you might have fallen off your horse. Lack of food is your problem, young lady. Careless of me not to have seen more, and to have taken better care of you. Your mother will rake me over the coals for this, to think of heading out so far, without seeing you properly fed first. It is long past time for lunch anyway, for we have been out more than three hours. They may be worrying for you at home, but no matter. We should stay here until you recover fully, and I will see that you have something more substantial than soup.”

She allowed him to continue feeding her. “Yes, I am hungry, but I have been ignoring the demands of my stomach with all else going on about me.”

“Yes. Foolish, if understandable. Foolish of you for not looking after yourself as you should and foolish of me not to notice. We’ll soon fix that.”

He was satisfied to remain there until he saw her recover to her usual self and was pleased to see that she was eventually able to sit up to the table and partake of a good-sized meal, with roast chicken, roast potatoes and fresh garden vegetables. The landlord even had a small beer for them that was of a particularly good quality. She ate as though she had not eaten for a week. It was about time.

When he was satisfied that she would now be able to make it home, he saw her dressed again for the colder temperatures outdoors. He paid the landlord and then lifted her up onto her horse and saw her loop her knee about the saddle support.

“Are you sure you can manage now?” He looked up into her face.

“I think so. If not, I shall let you know—and before I am likely to fall.”

He gave a coin to the lad who had seen to the horses and then mounted his own horse and rode beside her. She seemed to have recovered most of her strength, but he was attentive to her, in case…..

 

They arrived back later than intended. Her mother had been worried at their extended absence until he explained the circumstances to her. He helped her from her horse and would have carried her inside, but she insisted on walking in, where she promptly sat at the table. She was still tired.

“She overdid it, and I was too ambitious. We ate at Baldock, at the inn there. I did not notice how little she had eaten over the last few days or we would not have gone so far afield. It was my fault, Ma’am, I should have taken better note of what she was and was not eating.”

“I think we have all been neglecting ourselves that way, William. She, more than any of us.”

Her mother suggested that Annis should get herself to bed to rest for an hour or two before dinner and that she had better see that she ate more substantial meals than she had been, or she would not be going out like that again.

Deception By Proxy, Ch. 19: The Revelation, and an Embarrassing Re-assessment.

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

When Mrs. Barristow and the two younger girls returned from their visit, having seen a carriage leaving their home, they saw Annis pacing up and down the corridor and obviously in high dudgeon. She was steadily fuming and had a drawn and angry look on her face. She rushed over to her mother and blurted out her feelings.

“Oh, Mama. I was right about him. I overheard everything that transpired between them.”

Her mother took in her blazing anger. “So I can see, Miss. The intention was that you would accompany us to our neighbors. You were not supposed to be here and listening at keyholes.”

Charlotte and Sophia listened to their sister’s outburst but could not make sense of what was disturbing Annis so much. Their visitor must have upset her in some way.

“I wasn’t, but I couldn’t help overhearing. They are a pair of rogues, the both of them, and we should never have trusted him. I would have burst in and confronted him with this…this….” She ground her teeth in anger. “But he locked the door to keep me out. He must have heard me. I overheard one blackguard dealing with another just as bad. I knew he couldn’t be trusted. Oh, why did I not tell you what I knew, before we lost everything?” She was close to tears in her desperate frustration. “How could you, Mama? How could you be so easily taken in and be so gullible? Oh, I wish I had shown you Lady Seymour’s letter now, for it laid his loose character out so clearly.” She seemed adamant about that. Yet her mother was smiling kindly at her for some reason she did not understand, and spoke gently.

“I doubt it, my dear. It would have shown you her perception of him from many years ago, and I do not always trust your godmother’s perception of anything as I have told you often enough. I do trust my own feelings and those of other of my friends however.”

“But her letter warned us of everything.” She was so agitated she felt like stamping her foot for all the good it might have done. “His character is execrable. We should never have trusted him or allowed him to stay. He intends mischief to all of us. He worked his way so well into our confidences and look where it has got us. I should have shot him when I had the opportunity and saved us from all of this. If he were here now, I would be tempted to do so. I may still do so, and with his own gun. Poetic justice to pay him back for his treachery and before he forces himself upon any one of us.”

Her mother was taking it all so calmly and even put her arm about her daughter’s shoulder. “Now please calm down, my dear. This is not like you to speak of violence, and guns, with such animation. I am so glad you didn’t do anything rash. You would have made everything so much worse. Here I thought you might be having second thoughts about his character, and his intentions.”

Annis was raging on tearfully. “I was. But not anymore. He pulled the wool over your eyes and mine. He was able to fool Thomas and Molly and even Mrs. Rogers.”

Her mother chuckled, but there was little humor in it considering how her daughter had become so exercised over something she really had little knowledge of.

“No, he didn’t.” Her mother seemed sure of it.

Sophia’s hand pushed into her mother’s for reassurance and comfort. She had never seen her sister before in such an upset, and wildly tearful mood, or so angry. Charlotte stood off to one side and listened, not sure what to believe, and not entirely sure who they might be talking about.

Her mother’s sober words and lack of anger at what had happened caused Annis to look at her strangely, as though her mother might not be entirely sane or in complete control of her senses.

“No, I have not lost my wits, my dear, but you seem to have.  What do you think you know, child?”

Annis did not take offense at her mother’s addressing her as “child” for her apparent simplicity in understanding. “Oh, mama. What will we do?”

“Why nothing, my dear. It has all been done for us and so easily and conveniently and without trouble.”

“It was not done for us, mama.” Her eyes were flashing with her anger. “It was done to us.”

Her mother continued to smile at her in an exasperated manner. “There was no violence, was there?”

“No. Unfortunately. There was some talk of a sword stick and a pistol and murderous intentions and some other threatening words between two like-minded villains. But why would you be concerned if there had been? One blackguard less, maybe two, and it would not have mattered which one as far as I could see. Neither of them deserves to live from what I heard. You are taking it all so calmly.” She was surprised at her mother’s apparent complacency.

“Yes, I am. So should you. My, you are bloodthirsty all of a sudden. I do hope your sisters do not become afflicted with this same feeling toward him.”

“I won’t, Mama.” Sophia seemed to want to rise to his defense, whoever they were talking about.

“I know you won’t, my dear.”

Annis fumed on. “Papa would not have allowed this to happen. He can’t have known him at all.”

“I fear your father might not have been able to stop it quite as William did. That was his biggest concern also. The Thackerays are too well connected in all of the wrong places and have a reputation for shady dealings, and even violence, especially the father. Deviousness, deception, villainy is all they might understand, especially when it is brought to bear against them, fortunately. William decided to fight fire with more fire. Nothing quite succeeds with such men like an unanticipated and unexpected excess of something returned to them, whether it be violence or some other action. Now, however, it does not matter. So come and sit here and cease your agitation.”

She saw Annis was unable to settle down in her present turbulent mood.

“Charlotte, Sophia, get on with you and help in the kitchen.” She stalled their protest with an upraised hand. “No. You are not staying to listen in. You will learn all you need to know of this later.”

She watched them reluctantly leave, though they did not leave so far, but lingered to listen.

“Now Annis. We shall sit down. Or I shall, if you are too worked up. What is it that you think you know, and I shall try to explain it to you?”

“Oh, Mama. Please tell me that it is not so, that we have been disinherited by that rogue.”

“Have we really?” She seemed almost to laugh at that thought. “How little you seem to know.”

“That is what I heard. Please tell me that it is not true.”

“Of course it is not true. You must be careful what you believe, my dear, no matter what you might hear, especially at keyholes. Nothing is what it seems. Your father told me to believe nothing that I heard from another, unless I knew the source well, and to believe only half of what I saw. He told you the same thing more than once. He was proved right on many things. Where is William, by the way?”

“He rode out after that Thackeray man. Probably to murder him on some lonely stretch of road like he did that unfortunate Mr. Maxton.”

“You do not know that. Oh I hope not. But then he has a way of cutting through such threats and nonsense and getting to the heart of any problem as he did with the son, and may just feel the need to do that to protect us even better.”

“I do believe it….” Annis faltered. She should not let it be known that she had been snooping in his private correspondence to his sister and knew more about Mr. Maxton than she should. No mistaking the meaning of R.I.P. “Oh, Mama, he is a rogue of the worst kind.”

“Yes, he might be, where the need is there, or almost. But no. Not of the worst kind. Of the best and most effective kind. The kind a woman can rely upon. But whatever he is, I am thankful for it. I am also thankful that he would stand no nonsense from either of those Thackeray persons. Very like your father was at that age too. Oh, my dear, you have a lot to learn about certain men and so little time to learn it I would say, now that your father is gone and our situation has changed. Too little time to achieve what we need to see achieved.”

She smoothed her daughter’s hair back from her face and wiped the tears of anger and frustration from her face. “The rogues often prove to be the better men, my dear. Your father was. The gentlemen of fine words and apparently finer deeds turn out to be the true rogues, for they too well hide their real purpose. I know several of both persuasions. The younger Thackeray when he first approached us was that way, I remember. All politeness. Simpering and greasing his way into our family as he did, and look how he turned out. He was interested only in finding out what he could to assist his father in his devious intent to put us out. Now we have one of another kind in our midst.”

“Yes. Worse.”

“I see that you think so. But easily settled I think.” She looked across to the pantry to see that William had left the documents where he said he would. “Pass me that small bundle of papers tucked into the pantry over there. Yes, bring them all over here, and we will go through them one by one. It is time you learned what I know of this man you think to be a villain.” She sorted through the documents that Annis brought over to her, to put them in some order.

“A man can deal better in business and legal matters with those people in London than ever a woman might. A woman can achieve so little with them, for they do not take her seriously, and I would have been at a severe disadvantage. Besides, I do not understand any of that, and would have made a mess of it even if I had known who to approach, and I knew nothing about even where to begin. William did.”

She put the first paper into her daughter’s hands and watched her read it.

“But, Mama, you confirm everything I said.” She looked up at her mother, convinced she had lost her wits completely. “You sold it to him. This entire property. Several days ago even. Is that what those two men did? They pressured you into this.”

“Oh, hush. It might seem so. But I can assure you they didn’t.”

“That is what it says.” She re-read the offending document. “It is a bill of sale to him. But it says nothing of the price paid, for that figure cannot be right. Can it? Yet it was witnessed by Thomas and Molly and there are both of your signatures on it. Yours and his. You did this yourself. The servants even helped you.” She seemed thoroughly confused.

“Yes, I did.” She tossed that paper onto the fire, to her daughter’s surprise. Annis doubted it might so easily be overturned as that.

She produced the next one and opened it up. “William and I had an enlightening conversation after you had all gone to bed, after those gentlemen had left, and he was not at all shy about laying his history out for me to understand; in its entirety I might add—warts and all as Cromwell said to his portraitist. He hid nothing from me. But I already knew most of it. We were lucky to find him, my dear.” She hesitated and thought for a moment or two. “Or did he find us?”

Her daughter was not inclined to believe her, except for the latter.

“He was busy in London yesterday on my behalf and not on his own, as you seem to suspect.”

“But….”

“Now what do you think that this is?” She passed the next paper for her daughter to examine.

“It is a full title….” She looked closely at the paragraphs her mother indicated, and the legal language, that seemed more easily understood than was usual she thought. She recognized the name Diebold in the Title above it all, as being one of the firm of several lawyers who had drawn it all up. ‘…to all of that property held by Mr. Lionel Barristow, whatsoever. Father.”

Annis scanned the paper. It looked disturbingly legal to her. “All of our property—land, house, possessions, everything.” She was pale. “It is now the property of Mr. William Devane of Brooklands. Dated yesterday at three in the afternoon.” She opened her mouth to protest but was caught without power of speech for a few moments.

Her mother threw that into the fire also. “No, my dear. Say nothing. It does begin to improve. That was the one he said he would show Mr. Thackeray, to convince him of the worst of his fears, that Underby was now totally lost to him. I think he may have succeeded in that, considering the black look that Thomas described on Mr. Thackeray’s face as he drove off. Now this one.”

“But it is another deed to all of that property of William Devane, formerly owned by Mr. Barristow of Underby Manor, drawn up by the same lawyers, and it is now entirely in your name. This is also dated yesterday, but the time is at four in the afternoon.”

“Yes. The last legal transaction before he returned to us. The London lawyers have copies of all of this and faithfully carried out his instructions and mine, once it was clear what we intended. It is done. Finished. We own Underby again without question.”

There was gentle whispering followed by movement away from outside of the door once Charlotte and Sophia had heard that last of it.

Annis looked confused as her mother knew she would be. That document, with another, she placed carefully back on to the pantry and set a decorative rock upon them to hold them down.

“I do not understand.”

Mrs. Barristow explained it to her daughter. “We now own Underby once more, my dear, and everything that your uncle and father added to it but with no cloud hanging over us ever again. It was William’s idea. I told you we spoke at length the other evening for some hours. After that, I gave him title to all of this, as far as I might be able to, so that he could work with his own lawyers in London without question, and bring some clarity to this property ownership. There were other things to do with property that you do not need to know about.” She tossed another small document on the fire. “Once it was cleared up, if it could be cleared up, then the intention was that he would transfer title back to me as he did. Otherwise, he would hold it on my behalf until it was resolved. Oh, don’t worry. He insisted on other safeguards in there too, so that if anything happened to him, I still had title to it all. You need to know nothing of those.”

Her daughter was speechless, undergoing a painful readjustment of her views, which a short time ago had been so violently inclined.

“Are you feeling any better about this, my dear?” She watched her daughter nod her head. There was a pained look on her flushed face. “He is an honest man, my dear. But I was already convinced of that. There are few of them about these days. You have been laboring under a wrong impression as you have been for several days now. The elder Thackeray was shown only the ownership by William. You may have heard part of that conversation that you were not supposed to be here to overhear. Thackeray could not be aware that William had already transferred ownership back to me, nor is he ever likely to find out. We need keep only this one. The others are where they need to be. She watched them consumed in the fire. Far too dangerous to leave those lying around.”

Her daughter’s anger had drained from her as she had learned of what had really happened, but then the reversal of feeling that suddenly flooded over her was more than she felt she could bear. She flopped into a chair beside her mother.

“Oh.”

Her mother smiled at the sudden transformation of emotional feeling. “Yes. Puts him in a different light altogether, doesn’t it? From villain to saint. But he was never the former. Nor the latter either. Just a good man. It’s a pity you overheard any of it, but then, it could not be helped, I suppose. His thoughts were only of protecting us. Nothing else.” At least, nothing else she could easily discuss at this time with her daughter. She watched as the tension and hatred drained from her daughter’s attitude, to be replaced by one of puzzlement and embarrassment and even uncertainty, and then guilt.

“But…” Annis still struggled with it. “How confusing it all is. It could not have been settled so easily? Father struggled with this for years. He must still be misleading us somehow. It seems to be part of his nature to be misleading.”

Her hand fell over that of her daughter. “Oh, hush. Let go of it, my dear. You appear not to know William as you should.”

“It seems I do not know him at all.” She was flushed, thinking about the uncharitable and even violent thoughts she had harbored. “I seem to have been wrong at every turn. I resented his presence when he first came, despite what his sister, Elizabeth, had persuaded Bella of, and I later learned that a deeper animosity was probably justified too, the more I learned of him. I didn’t understand how Bella or anyone could be so foolish as to ever consider entering into a marriage with a complete stranger about whom so little was known, and even that little, seemed to be questionable, considering the tales floating about. In fact, what was known was all either questionable or bad.”

Her mother reached out and took her hand to comfort her. “Bella thought so too at first. Your godmother’s views on him are far too pervasive and too well known. But then Bella was able to change her mind also, little by little, even without meeting him. His sister, Elizabeth, was able to clarify the confusion, for she was well aware of so many things that your godmother was not. William also confirmed all of that too when he and I spoke the other night. I don’t think I have ever known quite so much of any man, except your father. He hid nothing important from me. I think I would have been proud to have him as a son, and now I find that I do.

“Bella went from complete antipathy to any suggestion of a union with him, to being prepared to meet him and see him for herself. We could not ask for more. They may not have suited, despite our hopes. Unfortunately, she met with that accident before he might become acquainted with any of our plans or might even meet him. We had not allowed for that. All of those plans and scheming came to a disastrous end before any of it could take place as I had hoped. It is a pity that Bella did not confide in you more after her first confidences.

“Then, after that accident, I felt sure he could not come, not being in England, or would not come if he was. He is not easily either to be cajoled or pushed; no man is. They need to be led but in such a way they do not know that it is happening. Perhaps I was guilty of misleading him, for I appealed to him in a way I felt sure…no, I knew he might not be able to refuse. He didn’t refuse. We had not properly set the groundwork as we had originally intended. But then…when we most needed him, and when I had despaired of ever seeing an end to any of it, he did come….” She shed tears again at that welcome relief that she had felt at that moment. “I feared for the worst by that time, for I was ready to tear my hair out, and he must have wondered what he…’ She blinked back her tears. “No matter, he came. Fortunately for us.”

She wiped her tears away.

“For my part, I held out hope that he would come, but lived in fear that he would not or would not get my letter in time. Everything seemed to depend upon it.”

“Oh, Mama. Why did you not tell me all of this before?”

“You would not have believed me. But I did not think of it. There was too much else to occupy us.”

“No, I would probably not have believed it. I was sure that he was probably as bad as I feared even without reading that letter, except when….”

“Yes, my dear?”

“Nothing, Mama.” But she could not hold back her thoughts. “Except when he also shed tears over our loss on that first night. It seemed real and from the heart, when he had no need even to feign any of that. Then, when he kissed….” her voice caught as she thought of that “…when he kissed Bella in a gentle and loving way after he had married her. I did not expect that of him either. From the little I heard of him, I expected someone remote and untouchable, arrogant, unfeeling, cold. I thought he would be aloof and detached and resentful at being used in that way for our benefit alone, and then would be gone. When he didn’t go, I wondered why he stayed and began to suspect his motives for staying. I began to think he was a past master at misleading everyone, including his sister and mother, or so godmother said of him. That seemed better to fit his reputation. What little I had gleaned of him.”

“And what would you know of his reputation from gossip and rumors?”

She decided to say nothing more of Lady Seymour’s letter. Some of it was undoubtedly true, but it was difficult to know what was true and what might not be. It had not been a flattering account in any case. “But then I was concerned again, especially after he started wandering that first night. Except he seemed confused and lost, rather than intent on anything…worse, like that Joshua Thackeray had been, I think. Then that brawl with Thackeray. I feared for the servants when I saw his bloody hands at church that afternoon, for I had not known Thackeray had been here. And you thinking he had shaved to get that blood on his face and shirt. I had seen him shave earlier, so I knew that was not it.”

“I admit, I knew nothing of any of it until later my dear. My thoughts were elsewhere.”

“I could see that, Mama. I had to reassess him for myself after that and after listening to Molly and Mrs. Rogers and Thomas even. They could not praise him highly enough without breaking down into tears with their emotions. I could not understand them. But what wouldn’t I have given to have seen that. They could say nothing nice enough about him and certainly looked after him well after that.”

“And so they should look after him. If he had not interceded as he did, I do now know where we would be, even now, other than that we would probably not be living here. We would have had that grasping ignoramus and his father underfoot, interfering and encroaching in everything we did, and hard to get rid of and would not be quite so comfortable or secure.”

Annis tried to reconcile what she had seen with what she had come to believe of him “He seemed kind and good mannered in every way with the servants and with us, especially keeping Sophia occupied as he does. Hardly the attitude of an encroaching villain to enjoy the company of a child. Then there was that incident when he found my pistol, giving me his own. I did not know what to believe.”

“I heard of that. I cannot approve of you playing with guns. But not knowing what to believe? Of course you do. You will see it eventually. He is a good man, my dear. He will not judge you ill or hold your honest feelings against you, but may be quite amused by them. What others tell you of someone should not entirely displace what you yourself find out you know? Believe what you know for yourself and see and do not so readily or so easily believe what you hear from others. People are too often mistaken about others they may dislike or are jealous of.”

Her mother sighed as she took in her daughter’s contrition. “But there is another problem looming before us, Annis. I fear what might happen when he realizes—as he soon will, if not already—that eventually we may be able to manage without him, if we can, for then he might leave to go to his own estates. With both Thackerays now taken care of and difficulties with the title, all needless concerns now and seen to, it seems that our larger need for him is now at an end, but I shall not tell him that just yet.”

“Indeed, Mama, why would he stay in any case?”

Her mother felt that she might be able to answer that question if she chose to, but could not yet be sure how it might work out.

“I would think that he might want to put as much distance between himself and us, considering what has happened here and what I believed of him. But does he have any estates worth speaking of? You mentioned Brooklands, and I remember that name in one of those papers.”

“Yes, my dear, he does. Much larger than this one and a few miles off from here.” She stared into the fire.

“To think that I actually owned it for a few hours.” Annis looked at her sharply. Her mother raised her head. “One of those papers I burned.” She recovered from that brief consideration. “His father—late father—Captain Devane was a respected gentleman, well known to your father and a highly decorated sailor who served with Admiral Nelson. When he died not so long ago, he left the entire estate to him as the only son, and it is…he is quite wealthy. There is nothing here that he could not buy ten times over if he chose. But if he makes that decision to leave, and he will eventually, for there is nothing now to hold him here….” She knew that was not entirely true, but her daughter may need a jolt or two to think about that, “…I cannot stop him, though I will be more than sad to see him leave. He reminds me so much of your father at that age. It is to be hoped he will still remember us and visit as he might, for he is not so far away.”

She looked intently at her daughter as she made those comments, hoping to see some indication in her expression of how that eventuality of him leaving, sat with her, but there was nothing to see other than that she was in a downcast mood.

“Mama, you said he reminds you of my father, and I think I recall you saying something earlier about father too, and even eventually admitted about him being a rogue at times? Surely, not in the same vein? I find that hard to believe. I do not understand.”

“Of course, you don’t. You do not know the half of it, for I have never told you anything of your father when he was younger, but he and Mr. Devane had quite a few things in common. More than quite a few things. That is why I was not so defensive about him being considered for Bella. I shall tell you more, one of these days but not now. I need to relax for a while and savor what has just happened.

“We will be having a late lunch, and if I do not mistake, William has just returned to join us and will be in from the stable shortly.” Her daughter seemed uneasy at hearing that. She probably could not face him at this moment. “You cannot know how relieved I am to see him safely back. I take it you have lost your murderous impulses toward him?”

Her daughter nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

“I shall say no more at this time.” She stroked her daughter’s hair back from her forehead. “William is like your father was, and I think your father knew that of him too within seconds of meeting him. A man to be relied upon and not inclined to take nonsense from another like Thackeray. But he had to place his trust somewhere, and so did I.”

Her mother met William at the door and, unable to hide her feelings at what he had accomplished, embraced him. “Thank you for what you have done for us, William.” He smiled at her as he returned her hug. “You are just in time for a late lunch, Sir.”

She watched as Annis sheepishly excused herself went toward the sounds from the kitchen, with her head turned aside so that he might not see her tears. Her eyes followed her daughter. She smiled, knowing that he had seen those tears. “Do not worry, she will soon be her argumentative self again, William.”

He watched her out of sight. He understood her mood. It must have been quite an unexpected revelation for her to find out that he had not robbed and cheated them, as the older man had come to believe. “Yes, Ma’am. I must see what else I can do to annoy her and distract her from her present mood.”

“As you seem to do so well with all of us. Distract us, that is. I see you know her too well, William. Indeed you seem to know all of us well, if it comes to that. So what are your plans now? I am sure you must be itching to be gone, but we will be sad to part with you. I was hoping you might stay longer if you can manage it. I am not entirely sure we are out of the woods yet.”

“Nor am I. There is still that matter with the squire that should be tidied up, and I still need to define your financial affairs better. If the weather stays clear, perhaps a tour of the estates tomorrow will be distraction enough if I can persuade Annis to go with us, for she will be the one who will need to understand all of that for herself when I am not here.”

Deception By Proxy. Ch. 18. The Elder Thackeray Countered and Repulsed. A Murderous Listener.

Monday, March 26th, 2018

The next day, close to the appointed hour for Mr. Thackeray’s visit, Thomas entered the parlor after a brief knock.

“I saw his carriage broach the rise, Ma’am. He is coming, and on time it seems. He must have gone further afield after I mentioned the bed bugs and fleas at The Maggot.”

“Thomas. You know they have none.” She took him to task for his deception. “Mrs. Fleur keeps a cleaner house than almost any in the village.”

He smiled sheepishly. “I know that, Ma’am. But he don’t.” He thumbed over his shoulder at the approaching carriage.

“Who is coming, mama? Are we expecting a visitor?”

“Not one we need to concern ourselves with. Come girls, we must walk out of the back and across to Mrs. Davenport. She is expecting us at this time, and I told you that we would be visiting her this morning. We need to stay out of the way for a while. Oh. Where did Annis get to? Does she not know we were to be out of here when he came?”

“She may be over there already, Mama, and visiting with Ellie. But who is coming?”

“Someone who is not welcome, I can assure you of that. Who it is need not concern you for the moment. We shall be away for a while until he has gone. Is William ready for him, Thomas?”

“Indeed he is, Ma’am, but you need not worry, there will be no trouble. I shall be close by.”

“I hope you are right, Thomas.”

Mrs. Barristow quickly rounded up the girls, other than for Annis who had taken it in her head to be elsewhere at that moment, and ushered them out through the back of the house, where they would not be seen by the arriving gentleman. She had no intention of confronting a scheming, lying, and manipulative old enemy of her family who had been trying for far too long to see them off the property by any means possible, including one failed legal challenge after another. He had been a constant and persistent thorn in the side of her husband for the last ten years since her husband’s elder brother had died and would now be congratulating himself that all he might have to deal with in his way would be several helpless girls and a woman, as well as someone he might feel it easy to remove from his path. He must be even now, congratulating himself on his reviving fortunes.

 

The Thackeray carriage turned in through the now-open gates and into the driveway before the house. He sat there, looking warily around for the dog he had seen the day before.

William went out to see him.

The description his son had given him of his attacker told him that this was the man responsible for that vicious beating. There were no recent marks on his face or anywhere else about him that he could see, though his son was still laid up with his injuries, and his face was still notably marked.

He scowled and looked about impatiently. “No stable hands to see to my horses? The place was awash with them yesterday. They were uncooperative and disobliging to me. Not the way to greet a visitor.”

“They appear to be busy at the moment. But you can leave your horses there, if you can trust them to stand. You won’t be staying long.” There was no mistaking the nature of his welcome.

The man started to respond in a scathing tone to such unwelcoming comments but decided against it. Better to start on a gentle footing until he got to where he wanted to be.

He was a tall man, thin, but getting expansive about the waist and with an erect proud bearing. He was dressed in black but with a white cravat, a fashionable hat covering his graying hair, a little jewelry at his throat, and a silver-headed walking stick. He dressed well, considering that rumor had it that he was suffering under a mountain of debt, maintaining a lifestyle he felt entitled to but did not have the means to keep up.

William smiled at his dour expression. The elder Thackeray did not seem to be any more impressed with his lack of welcome today than he had been yesterday from Thomas’s description of him, but was intent on getting over whatever rough ground might face him and prevail as he believed he might. His reception left him uncertain of what was going on. He might have been able to bully his way past Mrs. Barristow but the gentleman before him was a different kind of problem. One he had been amply warned of.

The visitor looked William over coldly. “I am here to see Mrs. Barristow, sir. Please convey my condolences to her along with my compliments, and tell her that Gideon Thackeray, a not-so-distant relative, is here to see her and to solicit her hospitality.”

William nodded his head to acknowledge the formal approach, but did not respond with his own name. “They are not here, Mr. Thackeray, but I am. You may deal with me. Perhaps you should start by telling me exactly why you are here?”

Thackeray did not relish that idea and looked about himself. He would have liked to ignore the man. “I was told they would be here today, and they would have been told to expect me.”

“No, sir. I am your only welcoming committee.” He smiled at his own humor. Nothing welcoming about any of it.

“Considering their recent losses, I am surprised there are no signs of mourning at the gate or the door.” He looked him over with a scathing and contemptuous eye and noticed that he was being smiled at. He expressed himself with cold calmness and detachment, even polite iciness, but it was a struggle. “I think I know who you are. My son told me of you. I want nothing to do with you. It is Mrs. Barristow I would speak with. I should have the law brought down upon you for what you did to my son, attacking him without provocation as you did. He is still laid up and not likely to be about again for some time.” He spoke quietly, but William could feel the anger roiling inside the man, evident in the way he looked at him.

William smiled, but there was no humor in his eyes, which had never left the visitor’s face. “That was your son? Ah well, you have my sympathies then, sir. A pity you did not manage to teach him better manners when he was dealing with ladies, or those protecting them. But then possibly he did not give you an accurate account of what happened to him. I, myself, take a dim view of anyone who intrudes onto another’s property, forces his way into the house, and then deals roughly with the servant girls, and tries to bully them in order to get his own way.”

Mr. Thackeray let out a sound of disbelief. “Dealing gently with ladies is not one of your strong points either, considering what I heard of you and your goings-on about town.”

“There.” William smiled easily. “You do know me, despite all of that being old history. I thought you might. Just as I know of you.”

The older man did not believe that he would know anything of him at all. “Unlike my son, I am capable of removing those who stand in my way.”

William continued to smile at him in a way that the old man would undoubtedly find infuriating. “Bravely said, sir. Bravely said. Let us hope it does not come to discovering which of us might succeed there.” He watched him fidgeting with his cane. “A nice-looking sword stick you have there. I trust we shall not need to go down that path. Your son, on the other hand—a noisy shite-fire if ever there was one–thought to carry the day by producing a pistol to deal with me, and I, defenseless and unarmed. Quite unnerved me.” His continuing calmness and his smile put the lie to that. “I have that pistol by the way.” He seemed to suggest it might be in his pocket, and it could be, for there was a slight bulge there. “I was not of the impression that he was producing it at the time in order to show it off to me, any more than you might be with that stick, though it is quite an impressive little gun. Your son wisely decided to leave any other weapon where it might be, fortunately, or there may have been more serious injuries to one or both of us. He was trespassing without invitation, bullying womenfolk, and poking and prying where he should not have been. I could not allow that.”

“So you say.”

“Oh, there were many witnesses to his forcing his way into the house, even after they had told him that their mistress was not at home. She is not home now either. Fortunately, but unfortunately for your son, I then was, as I am now. So if we wish to speak of the law intervening in anything, I would be more cautious in whom and what you believe.”

“That is a matter that has nothing to do with you, and I will thank you to keep your nose out of it.”

“On the contrary. It does concern me now.”

“I doubt it. I do not particularly care how you may have ingratiated yourself with the Barristows, but I can assure you that it will not serve any purpose other than to delay the inevitable. Clearly, I wish to speak with Mrs. Barristow about this property and its prompt disposition to its rightful owner. Me. It is my property now. I will deal with you later.” He had rushed forward more than he had intended to at this stage, but then he was meeting with an unexpected resistance.

“My, oh my. How confusing it has suddenly seemed to become. But perhaps you should deal with me now. We could get this over with quickly if you can produce a valid deed to the place, and you can then be on your way back to London to finalize everything while I remove myself.” William was smiling. He knew he could do no such thing.

“In good time. I did not come here to either see you, nor to be encouraged in any kind of a disagreement with you.”

“Then I am relieved. But I can assure you that you will not meet with anyone else while you are here. I am it. I cannot be bullied or overawed by a loud voice, threats, or bluster…as women might be. Your son tried it and did not fare too well, as you know. I do, however, respond better to an intelligent and rational approach and am even open to persuasion. So unless you can convince me that you have anything constructive to say or have some worthwhile business or legal purpose here, then I shall bid you good day and not waste more of your time nor mine on a fool’s errand.”

“I shall not leave until I have spoken with Mrs. Barristow.”

“Really? Then you will be waiting here for a long time. But then, why should I beat about the bush? Do I take it you need to speak with the owner of this property?”

He looked him over with a puzzled look in his face. “Yes, I do. That is what I have been striving to tell you since I arrived. Its temporary and unlawful owner at the moment, who is inhabiting what is rightfully mine. Yes, I do, and not some interfering murderous interloper. I know all about you.”

“As I do about you, sir. It is amazing what one learns when one drops the name of Gideon Thackeray into a gathering of individuals in any tavern at the south end of the bridge and around Saint Olav’s. The air suddenly takes on an icy feel about it, and one gets the impression that one might have stepped in something unsavory and had brought it into the company on the bottom of one’s boot. So let us say that I am as familiar with your reputation about town as you may think you are familiar with mine.” Mr. Thackeray did not like what he was hearing. “However, my reputation is undoubtedly exaggerated, as it is about five years out of date. I am said to have improved notably in those five years with regard to polish and temperament. For the better that is. At least I hope so. I am considerably more restrained than I was, and less likely to act on impulse or the spur of the moment. Although that depends upon the circumstance.” He smiled at his visitor. Mr. Thackeray was obviously not satisfied with the way the conversation or his visit was unfolding.

William continued to look at his visitor with a hint of humor about his mouth. “Yes, I see we do begin to understand each other at last. I am the only one you will get to speak with today or any other day if it comes to that. I would advise you to be brief, however. I have other calls upon my time, and I am losing patience and any feeling of hospitable behavior by the minute in this cool wind.”

William noted a stir within the door to the house behind him, and a flurry of skirts, and began to realize that not all of the family had gone off to the neighbors as he had hoped, for the servants were all instructed to be either in the garden or at the far end of the house until their uninvited guest had gone.

“But then I am not entirely ill-mannered or totally inhospitable either. We should discuss this briefly in the warmth of the parlor than out in the driveway with the wind blowing everything about, for unlike you, I did not dress for the outdoors.”

William saw him dismount from his carriage and ushered him into the parlor, where Mr. Thackeray immediately went over to the fireplace and warmed himself before the blaze. Gideon Thackeray was angry at the opposition he was facing and irritated to find that he was up against someone he could not easily bully. He began to feel out of his depth. He was at a loss and not sure how to go on or deal with this assured and confident stranger.

He spoke in calmer tones than he felt, from the warmth of the fireplace. “You seem to think you know who I am. I can assure you that you do not. I do not take kindly to those who intrude into my life or make inquiries of me.” He was becoming more calm, but was still uncertain of what faced him.

William had an enigmatic smile upon his face. “I heard that too. Servants can be too expansive of their former masters when plied with gentle encouragement and a few drinks. Perhaps if you used your stick less often…or were less inclined to produce that blade within it…they might feel less threatened and thus less likely to betray confidences. But then, reputations—good or bad—are never personal things you know, lying under our own control. I wish they were. They are what the world about us perceives, so my father once told me, and believes it knows of us, and the world is a vocal place and can be quite cruel concerning those it takes amiss and in dislike.” He smiled at the man before him. “I do speak from personal experience. But then I diverge from the subject at hand. I can perhaps roll things along and save you from a needlessly prolonged visit if I tell you that I now own Underby outright. Lock, stock and barrel.”

He saw the older man stiffen. He was startled to hear anything of the kind and did not seem inclined to believe him.

“I see you do not find that news at all to your liking, but I assure you, I have a clear and legally notarized title, which I know you have been unable to obtain so far, even with promise of rewards and outright bribery over the years.” He looked at him again with a smile still on his face. “Former servants again, I am afraid. As well as the coerced confessions of a beleaguered firm of less reputable lawyers in the city. Yours.”

He heard a gasp and movement from outside of the door. He stood up and closed it and even turned the key, regretting that he had not thought to do so earlier, but taking care not to present his back to the older man by the fire.

His voice dropped so that he might not be easily overheard by anyone else. “And far from it being unlawful, I assure you that as of yesterday afternoon, when I was in the city seeing my own lawyers and making inquiries, I own it legally and lawfully and outright. Easily done too, when it is done properly. I ensured that Mrs. Barristow had clear title, which I think you already knew, and then I persuaded her to transfer it to me for…various considerations. I have been here only a week or so, but I have grown exceedingly fond of this property and there is something about it that interests me, and that I intend it to be a permanent occupation. So it appears that your journey from London was a snipe hunt.”

Mr. Thackeray’s brow had clouded upon hearing how it had so easily been snatched from him, if it were true, and he looked ready to explode. “I do not believe you. If so, you are a usurper, a thief, a….” There were a few moments of stunned silence and uncertainty. It was unsettling to be faced by one so calm and unruffled, who looked at him with a slight smile on his face, but with steely cold eyes.

William heard the door handle rattle under some concerted effort to gain entry.

“A usurper? I suppose so, but one who was more determined and cunning than you.” He smiled, knowing it would infuriate the older man. “And no, I shall not enlighten you further.

“I know what your efforts with your own lawyers yielded. Who are they now? Yes, Manley, Wrigley, and that other one—Johnson. Strange that they had thought to represent Mr. Barristow all of these years while actually working on your behalf to dislodge the Barristow claim. No wonder settlement never ever seemed possible. Their one true skill is in estimating how much they might squeeze from someone seeking their efforts. You included. Their contrivances on your behalf were not as fruitful as they undoubtedly led you to believe as they continued to milk you, which is why you are here to try and provoke and frighten Mrs. Barristow into an unwise act of signing that legal-looking paper that sits in your pocket and which is likely to erode further, her supposed grip on this property.”

His protestations were immediate. “Nothing of the kind. You attribute your own motives to me.”

William laughed gently. “But then I am now the rightful owner, and the family is not here to be browbeaten or cheated by you.”

“If that is the case, then no. For it seems that you are the one who has already cheated them.” The older gentleman was becoming more agitated and angry by the minute.

“So it seems?” William sat down at the end of the table away from the fire and removed the small gun from his pocket and laid it on the table within reach as he smiled at his uncomfortable guest. “Damn thing stretches the pocket more than I like. I see you have the same problem.”

His guest started, and pursed his lips, but held back any response.

William noted a vague shape walking outside and looking into the window. He recognized Annis and saw her move away.

“I have been here but a few days, and it was not so difficult to sort out the estate and its succession if you have access to the right documents, and know what you are about, and can employ trustworthy and honest individuals. It seems that you have tied yourself to a race of Petty Foggers, who have tried for years now to overturn the legal claim of the Barristow’s here, and I achieved in just a few days what you could not, and they would not, in as many years. You really should employ a better class of lawyer, you know if you wish to achieve anything? Mrs. Barristow was the actual owner after her husband died, for I was able to discover that her brother-in-law had seen to quieting all previous claims more than ten years ago. It made it so much easier for me to step in and scoop it out from under them—with their unknowing connivance and co-operation—for a mere pittance compared to what it is really worth.”

“My claim was not quieted.”

“You will find that it has been removed altogether, however, when you consult again with Manley, Wrigley, and Johnson, your ‘ambidextrous’ lawyers who take from both parties, while cheating them both. I doubt they will meet with you. They feel lucky, I think, to escape with only relatively minor penalties once they fully disclosed—with some gentle persuasion from my own lawyers—their unethical behavior concerning the Barristows, and implicated you in it. They are quitting the city and are even now relocating to the North of England as the price for evading a more hurtful legal outcome. They may be hard to find.”

He continued to look over his guest with an annoying smirk on his face. “In truth, you were too far off to the side to count. However, I do not and did not expect you to believe me, but you may believe a legal document issued by a reputable legal firm when you see it.”

He tossed a document onto the table for him to pick up and read, and followed it with another.

Mr. Thackeray made no move to pick either of them up.

“Or not. It does not matter to me one way or t’other. I am in possession now, and I intend to stick, and with properly authenticated title and deed. I will be harder to dislodge than a mere woman and her helpless daughters, whom you had planned to browbeat.

“A tick on a dog’s ear has more purchase than you do here. Even that tick can be readily dislodged with a glowing splinter touched to its arse.”

William laughed but without humor. “But I am of more substance and tenacity than a tick, as I think you know, and as your son soon discovered. It will take more than a hot splinter to displace me.”

The older man was breathing heavily with emotion, and his face was flushed.

“Go ahead. Read it. I have nothing to hide.” The older man picked the second document up and read it, blanching as he did so. It was essentially a full description of the confessed unethical behavior of Manley, Wrigley, and Johnson in the matter of the Barristow estate. He then picked up the first and read it too with mounting anger and agitation. He tossed them both back onto the table and turned away to the fire for a moment to avoid letting his feelings of frustration show too obviously on his face before he regained control of his anger once more and turned to face the man at the table.

“All of this means nothing except to another lawyer. Their way of enhancing their fees for the same simple piece of work. Legal jargon. Used to hide the true state of everything and to confuse the rest of us outside of their tight-knit cabal. They are the biggest criminal class against the rest of us on this earth.”

“The ones you usually deal with are, yes, as you can now see. I thought you would eventually recognize that you had no rightful claim, which is why you tried bribery to achieve your ends. That also is illegal, by the way, and is also described in the first document you saw.”

Thackeray looked at him from under a frowning brow. “But hard to prove. I put nothing in writing, and it is merely their accusation against me.”

“That is as may be, but I am sure you will recognize the name of the legal firm that drew it all up on my behalf. They have a considerable reputation for knowing what they are doing and for succeeding in it. They do not take bribes, and I would never think of offering them or anyone else one to achieve what I legally and honestly wish to achieve. I do not believe they have ever been wrong in anything they have done for my family. But then they are expensive.”

Mr. Thackeray was not feeling quite as on top of the world, as when he had at first arrived. “You use the word bribery too easily. Bribery. They are not above it any more than they are above outright robbery when they can get away with it. No one of that kidney is. That’s what you are talking about, bribery. These damned legal fellows can manipulate and connive to cheat a man out of everything and anything.”

“Or see that he is not cheated out of it. I know nothing of that. But I share your concerns when it comes to less reputable lawyers. That is why I employed only the most reputable lawyers acting on my behalf and in my interest. I find I can now afford them. But they are cheaper by far in the long run.” He looked about himself. “Rather a nice little property this.” He smiled in a needling way. “You should drop in on them, if you dare. I am sure they will give you better advice than your own, who are decamping even now. They may be expensive, but they will cost you less over the longer haul. On second thought, I doubt they would be interested in whatever business you may think to give them once you tell them who you are. They value their reputations more than that.”

He saw the old man bristle.

“If you like, I will instruct them to provide you with a duplicate of their findings. It will not come cheap, however.”

The old man’s eyes sparkled with feeling. “What of the Barristow girls and the mother? Did you give no thought of them?”

“My. What a wonderful recovery, sir. I must congratulate you. But strangely enough, I did give some small consideration to their welfare and far more than you might have. They will be comfortably settled after all of this. Most comfortably. They will not suffer too much from what I achieved, I can promise you that.”

Thackeray’s cane rattled on the floor in his barely concealed anger. “You will not get away with this, sir.”

“I already have. It is a done deal.” Thackeray could also see that for himself. He had been cheated in the same way he had planned on cheating the Barristow ladies. “But feel free to have your lawyers—if you can find them now—get in touch with my lawyers and discuss this further. They won’t of course, for there is no more reputable or well-known firm in London than that of Stevens, Dellingpole, and Diebold, for knowing their business and how to achieve what needs to be done. Your own are gone anyway by now. I am only surprised that it could be accomplished so well, in so short a time, but then, there was a history that proved easy to follow.”

His beleaguered guest now began to look distressed. “But you do not look well, sir.” The older gentleman looked flushed and seemed unsteady on his feet.

“I am perfectly well, damn you!”

“I am glad to hear it. I am aware that you have a reputation as a fire-eater and can be unpredictable with your stick and that little gun, like this one, and are more to be feared in most circles than your son. Not too difficult I would think, for he is mostly thunder and roar without substance to back it up. I should also warn you that if you try to produce a sword from inside of that stick that you are handling, as you now seem more tempted to do, that we will both regret it.”

He was inclined to believe him, for he had made inquiries of Mr. Devane before he had ever left London after that incident with his son. It may have been old information for the most part, but he had not liked what he had heard. He habitually carried a small pistol, so the story went, and never far from his hand, so there could be another one in his other pocket too as well as the one on the table.

“Yes. I have heard of you.” His voice was hard and perhaps even more clipped than it had been.

“Of course, you have. Who has not, even after five years? Just as I have heard of you, but then we covered that didn’t we?”

“You are not a gentleman but a ruthless, violent blackguard.”

“I freely admit it. There. It takes one to know one. Well at least you are right about that. But I make no claims to being a gentleman.”

“And no woman safe in your company either.”

“So rumor has it.” He was not generally so agreeable to those painting him in such an ill light.

“That is the general understanding. Obviously the ladies here do not know of your scurrilous reputation or your intent to plunder them all in their beds.”

“No. Fortunately they don’t. Unfortunately, mine, unlike that of your son, might be too well earned and deserved. I am sure you might feel tempted to look up the Barristows and inform them of my perfidious behavior, but you would be wasting your time, for it is too late for that. A done deal. But none of this need concern you further. Our meeting is at an end. You will, of course, excuse me if I do not offer you a lunch or a glass of wine. I gave most of the servants the day off. Besides, I am not known for my hospitality to those I do not know, or who appear to be trying to work against me.”

He stood up and unlocked the door and opened it. He was relieved to see that the corridor beyond was now empty.

“I doubt you will ever need to approach me again, sir, for any reason. Indeed, I gave your son the same advice, and I see he chose not to accompany you, so I may have convinced him, at least, of the wisdom of it.”

His listener realized that the interview was ended. “I shall take Joshua’s pistol, watch, and other property with me. The pistol is of some value and so is the watch.”

William was not about to turn over a pistol to this man. “You should have him apply to me then. A simple letter will do, describing the gun in all of its details, and he can explain to me the meanings of the initials carved into the stock of the gun. I had some difficulty reconciling Joshua Thackeray or J.T., at least two of your son’s initials, with those I actually read there—S.B. Unfortunately I have grown to like his little pistol, so I shall not easily give it up, even if it does stretch my pocket. I must find out what or who the S.B. is. Perhaps the watch which I have not yet seen is similarly engraved or identified.

“But then, I seem to recall something I read in an older Gazette, of a money lender recently brutally murdered in the city and robbed—Silas Bergmann. You once owed him a large sum of money, which you repaid about that time.” He smiled annoyingly. “Yes. Those damned servants again. As he was robbed at the time of his murder, nothing of any money could be found, yet you soon repaid another loan you had just previously incurred for exactly the same amount. Come to think of it, perhaps your son might not be so well advised to write that descriptive letter, in case it fell into the wrong hands.”

The older man did not like what he was hearing. “The city is a violent place. Someone is murdered there every day or night. It is also not illegal to borrow or repay money.”

William saw that he had hit a nerve with the name he had mentioned, for the older man suddenly began to look even more uncomfortable. No doubt he would raise the subject of that engraved pistol with his son when he next met with him. It had been a surprise to him, hearing the extent of Mr. Devane’s inquiries, even into his own finances, as discovering that he had been effectively blocked from his ambition with this extensive property.

“Perhaps if your sudden concern for the disinheritance of the Barristow ladies extended to a pension or a sufficiently large gift, I think they might feel grateful for it, but then I doubt that you planned on doing that anyway.”

Mr. Thackeray recognized that their interview was over and stormed out of the house. He mounted his carriage, wrenched the horses around, and drove off without any further word.

William spoke quietly after him as he left. “No, I thought not.”

He watched him go and then saw Thomas appear from the stable with a saddled horse made ready for him as he had instructed. He followed Mr. Thackeray for some time, to ensure that he did indeed head straight back to London and did not have other business or plans in the area.

Thackeray had the reputation of not being a man one might cross, and then turn ones back upon. William did not trust the old man, for his extensive inquiries in London had revealed that he had better be careful how he handled him. He was another that might feel inclined to pay others to see him shot on the highway or to slide a knife or that murderous sword into his back when he least expected it, as had happened before with others who had crossed him. However, that entirely unexpected comment on attempted bribery and the other comment on the brutal murder of Silas Bergmann may have shown him the wisdom of not meddling with him in any underhanded way, for fear of what might be revealed.