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Deception By Proxy. Ch. 35. At The Dock.

Friday, July 20th, 2018

Annis wasted no time once she was on the open road. There was a glimmer of a moon, not yet full, but enough to see by. Clearly, the horse could see far more than she could and was surefooted. He did not seem to mind her on his back. He knew where he was going despite having a strange rider up, so she trusted his judgment.

She rode low on the horse to make sure of avoiding any low lying branches that might sweep her off after the heavy winds of the previous few days.

Within a half hour, she had reached the dock and could see the wharf. She was relieved to see the ship still tied up there with no obvious signs of activity on its deck and, unfortunately, no sign that Sophia might be there either, though she was undoubtedly well hidden by now. They must all still be in the inn, plotting their evening’s work.

She pulled up outside, and the boy appeared at the sound of hoof-beats on the cobbles, to hold the horse for her. She lowered her voice and spoke. “I need to speak with William Devane. It is urgent.”

“Yeh?” He looked at the rider suspiciously. Annis wondered what he was thinking. Surely he knew that any customs officers would not be here alone, so he could not possibly mistake her for one of those.

“It alus is on a night like this. I’ll get t’gaffer.” He went off to find t’gaffer. Whomever he might be. She hoped no one would recognize her as a woman and make a scene, but she was determined to speak with William. If need be, she would break into wherever they were and stand there until he recognized her.

Damn! This was not working out quite as easily as she had hoped. She didn’t want t’gaffer; she wanted William. However, apart from a strange look on the boy’s face, he said nothing more and merely told her to wait there. An older man took a fast look outside of the door to see Mr. Devane’s horse standing there with a strange person on its back and the mule close by and investigating some blades of grass at the edge of the building. He returned inside, and Annis could hear his clogs along the corridor as he went off into a back room.

Within a short space of time, William appeared and took in her appearance in a flash.

She dismounted, relieved to see him at last, and he steered her off out of the way while the boy looked after the horse. “Well. What are you doing here dressed like that? On Boney too I see, and heard. How did you manage him?”

“Easily.”

“Then I am surprised and impressed, for he will not let just anyone ride him.”

“But then I am not just anyone. I have ridden him before, and you saw me, though you said nothing.”

“No, you rode him well then, and I am sure, just as well this time too, and dressed so well for it.” His eyes shone as he looked at her. “I never looked so good in those clothes.”

“William.” She liked the way he looked approvingly at her, despite her strange attire. “I could not ride sidesaddle and expect to get here either in time or at all. I would have attracted the wrong attention riding alone like that. So this was necessary. Charlotte helped.”

“She didn’t come as well, did she?”

“No. Of course not. But I am not here to pass the time of day. I have some urgent reason for being here.” He waited for her to speak. “You have been found out.”

“Oh my! You mean you got another letter, perhaps two, from our godmother about our recent exploits? Now how did she hear of them?” He was smiling at her.

“You may think it is funny, but it is not. I mean this.” She rummaged in her pocket and passed him his cousin’s urgent letter.

He read it quickly. “Yes. Yes. I know all of this.”

“You know of it?”

“Oh yes. I have good informants in London who are able to tell me of the movements of the various ships. I have numerous other friends too, with their eyes open for the wrong people, and anxious to have me renew my questionable habits—that one anyway. I’ll read the rest later. I can outrun any ship they might throw at us tonight, and besides that, we do not intend to return here when we are through. George cannot have known that I was aware of this, but it was protective of him to warn me, and brave of you to have considered doing so as well, and dressed like that too.” His eyes sparkled as he admired her openly. “Most becoming for some reason.” He suddenly remembered where he was. “I am sorry your trip was to no avail, Annis. We already knew. But thank you for the warning. Can you make it back the same way safely?”

“No. I cannot. Not yet. Sophia is gone, and she has smuggled herself aboard your ship.”

That got his attention. “I doubt it. How could she? I checked in the box before we left. I half expected one of you would try that, for one of you did the other night, except we did not go.”

“Yet she did, somehow. She is not at home, and her usual clothing is on her bed, and some of your smaller boyhood clothes are missing.” She stored the other about someone trying to go off with them the other night in her mind, to ask about later. “She must have dressed in your clothes again as they are gone from the closet. She knows that you check in that box before you leave now, so she would hide somewhere else. You’ll not find her if she does not want to be found, you know?”

He was deep in thought. “I know. Especially on board a ship. There are far too many hiding places for a small body to crawl into, and no one will be able to follow her. If I call for her to come out, she will be unlikely to do so if she feels I may put her ashore. She is unlikely to reveal herself to me, but she might for you.”

“I warned Charlotte that it may not be possible for Sophia and me to return tonight, but if we are not back by morning….” She looked up at him for help.

“If we do not easily find Sophia, you will certainly not be back by morning. We must make this run tonight, and we must leave soon, or the tide will shortly be too low to get out of here. We’d better find her, is all I can say.” He shook his head. “Your mother will have some choice words to say to me if you are not back home tonight.” In truth he knew she would have some choice words to say to him if she was.

 

In reality, her mother was excitedly awaiting confirmation that all was going as had been planned.

 

At that moment, William’s friends started to leave the inn and paid little attention to the ‘boy’ William was with, as his body mostly sheltered ‘him’ from their view.

Joe appeared from the direction of the ship as the rest of the crew boarded. “Five minutes, William. I told you that fifteen minutes gone. You almost left it too late you know? We need to leave before the water gets too low, or we’ll get grounded. So you’d better come now and sharpish like. We have little enough time as it is if the weather does not cooperate.”

“Then get ready to cast off and leave. I’ll be there.”

His voice dropped as he turned to Annis and held her close to him by her shoulders. “Very well, it seems that I must take you with us, but if I find Sophia before we leave, I will put you both ashore” (when pigs might fly). “If not, then you both will be coming to France with us. If that is the case, you shall stay out of sight in the cabin and be ready to follow my instructions at any time and without question.”

“I will. I promise.”

“I hope I shall not regret this. We need to find Sophia. She will be somewhere there, amidst all the clutter, but I will not have time to look, for she was poking about there when she was last here with me. Probably looking for a hideaway if she was already planning this. If we can find her before we put out then I will assuredly put you both ashore.” He had no intention of doing anything of the kind. “Wait here.”

He had a few words with the landlord, scribbled a note on a sheet of paper, folded it and gave it to the man, and then led Annis off along the dock. “He’ll see the horses and the carriage returned to Brooklands as soon as we leave if we do not find her and get you both ashore. I wrote a note for your mother telling her some of this and what might happen. It will at least save her from worrying about your absence, and I told her where we will be. I want no evidence to remain here that so many of us shipped out and are not yet returned, and hopefully, they will give up but not too soon and not before the Seamew gets in tomorrow morning.

“I thought you said you were not returning here?”

“We’re not.” He walked with her over to the ship. “We’ll ground this one in dead man’s slough, down the coast, and offload her there at our leisure. It’s well out of the way, and we’ll take the masts off so she’ll not be too visible above the shrub and undergrowth. There is another Seamew docked in France at this moment. She will be here by morning for the revenuers to board and search if they can’t catch her at sea. My new vessel. Father had her built before he died. Looks like this one too, but is on her maiden voyage. She will replace this one as this is her last voyage and shall be retired, ignominiously on a mud bank, but nonetheless retired. They won’t know the difference. It should be suitably embarrassing for them to come up empty-handed. I shall also rechristen her later. She shall be called the Annabel.”

He smeared at the hub of the carriage standing by the ship and then put a thin smudge of the dark greasy mess on Annis face and brow. She did not flinch. “A candle and a cork would have been better and easier to get off, but they are not available at this moment. This will distract from too close a look at you.” He knew it wouldn’t. “Your complexion is far too white and smooth and gentle for a boy, and your eyes too clear and distracting.” He sighed. “Too damned attractive altogether!” He looked about to make sure they were not being watched and then leaned in and kissed her suddenly. She returned his kiss without any hesitation.

“William, someone might see us!”

“No, they won’t. We don’t need you identified as a woman on this trip, so it’s good that my clothing is loose about you.” For all the good that did, he could see. “Tie your cap down under your chin. There is a tape there and it will stop it blowing off. I doubt that too many boys have quite a head of well-kept hair as you do either.” Nor those other disturbing parts that no boy ever had. “It will be a dark night and not much moon just yet. Some of the men are superstitious and might get anxious with a woman on board anyway, and there is at least one other who might recognize you—the Reverend. So we will need to stay out of his way as much as we can.”

“I thought we passed him as we were going in to the village the other day.”

“You did. Watch for the gangplank, my love. It is narrow and steep. He was getting ready for this jaunt. Yes, I know what you are thinking. I am a corrupting influence on the poor man. But even the clergy likes its small pleasures and needs a little adventure and to be distracted from hellfire and damnation from time to time. Or as others say, to get the Hell scared out of them. His bishop liked the idea of some brandy as a gift and likes the notion of free trade too, for he preaches about it, or so I hear, so we also have the indirect blessing of the church in our little adventure, my dear. Now if only he could part the waters or even calm them, for it will not be a pleasant or calm crossing tonight, but the better for it, for we are likely to avoid others.”

“Better not say the ‘my love’ or ‘my dear’ too much, William, or this mess will be for naught, and I shall not be put ashore willingly without Sophia, and perhaps not even then.”

He raised his voice for the benefit of his shipmates. “Come on, Andy, let’s get you aboard, cousin.” He slapped her on the back, almost knocking her off her feet, and put his arm over her shoulder. He spoke softly again. “You shall be my cousin along for the adventure, and there will be no questions or comments while you are close to me. Speak as little as you can, keep your soft hands out of sight. Put them in your pockets. Follow no orders but mine, and keep out of the way of the men.”

“Aye aye, sir.” She saluted, and grinned at him.

He smiled at her levity. “Some of them can be rough in their speech and behavior without ladies present and likely will be with a green lad. Do not be overly startled by what you might see or hear. Or at least don’t show it.”

Deception by Proxy. Ch. 34. That Night. The Grand Deception.

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

Charlotte had seen the signs developing, that a smuggling run was planned for that evening. It would be William’s first run across to France since he had returned from abroad, and he had prepared for it for the last two weeks now.

“I watched them earlier….” she disclosed to Annis when her sister had wondered the same thing when she returned from the village later that day with Mrs. Abernethy, “…and they are even busier now. They are getting ready to make a run tonight. That is the same sailor we watched the other morning. They are getting the cart ready again. I heard William say something about seven tonight, after dinner, and they had to set sail before eight to catch the tide, but they went quiet when I walked around the corner of the building and they seemed to be talking about something else entirely, and they looked like two guilty little boys for a moment. One might almost think they do not trust us.”

“Oh, come away from the window, Charlotte. You will be seen and upset their plans. Smugglers are always nervous.”

“We didn’t upset them the last time we watched them, and I know they must have seen us, for William gave me a strange look over breakfast that morning and asked if I had slept well, for he said I looked tired.” She perked up. “Look. They are loading some new rope to take with them, so they aregoing out. Did you hear that Sophia was at the docks with William the other morning while they were getting their sloop—I think it is a sloop or sloop-rigged, whatever that means—ready for the next of their nighttime jaunts across to France. She had insisted she be taken up with him or that she be allowed to ride Pat, and he agreed. I overheard her, and then I saw them going off together.”

“Surely not. Though I may have heard something.”

“Oh yes. She was not about to tell me anything until I caught her putting some boy’s clothing away in that closet in your room again, and I demanded to know it all, or I would go and tell Mama what she had been doing. I told you about it earlier. She confessed that she had borrowed some of William’s clothing from his boyhood. They were in the closet in that bedroom you now have, and she did some minor alterations—she must have been planning it for some time—and then waylaid him to be taken with him. He could hardly refuse, could he?”

Annis smiled. It was hard to refuse Sophia when she turned on the charm or the disappointment. “Hardly. She can be persuasive as I have discovered to my cost more than once.”

“He took her off with him on that mule and had her back into the house before lunch and before anyone saw how she was dressed. She would provide no more details than that, the little witch. No one would have been the wiser except for me seeing her putting those clothes away when I came to find you. She learned thattrick from you, I know she did, for you did that with father’s clothes when you wanted to go off alone and to ride properly astride the horse, instead of with that stupid saddle and with someone with you to help you when you fall off, which happens to me all of the time.”

“I thought no one knew of that.” Annis had an alarmed look on her face.

“Everyone knows I fall off that saddle.”

“No Charlotte, I meant knew about me dressing in father’s clothes, for I changed in the stable before anyone else was about, and I made sure that none of you were awake when I did so.” She became thoughtful. “Though Bella must have found out somehow for she cautioned me about it later. I only did it the once.”

“You might have been caught by the stable boy, and then where would you have been Annis.”

“But I wasn’t. I changed in a box stall and made sure the door was closed, and no one saw me go or return.”

“No matter. Sophia knew. She seems to know everything that goes on, for she spies upon everyone. I thought she did that only to William, but no, she does it to all of us. The whole house seemed to know what you had done eventually. She was impressed by that. No doubt that was where she got the idea. She has now put it to good use I would say, by eclipsing us both. If we don’t watch her, she’ll be the one slipping aboard the Seamew next, perhaps even tonight, for a nighttime rendezvous with the smugglers. She will come in beaming and boasting of it all tomorrow when they return and after putting us all in fear of her life and her whereabouts.”

Charlotte sighed. “I lack the courage, but I am sure I would enjoy the adventure. William will be out overnight too, for he is going with them this time. I heard that it was to be a big run with a lot of cargo. Perhaps I shall approach William and see if he will take me out with them. I have never been to France.”

Annis frowned. “That will be his second night out in a row.” She wondered if he might have guessed where she had waited for him last night, and he had tried to avoid her in that way. ‘But you must do nothing of the kind, Charlotte. Out overnight with only rough sailors for company? Your reputation….”

“Yes. Always one’s reputation. I will not let it hold me back from doing what is needed. Not as youseem to do. Life is supposed to have some enjoyment in it I think, rather than confine us to being so mindful of our reputation, and dull. I doubt he would allow me to go anyway, and I am not sure I dare to hide away like that.” She changed the subject. “That was a particularly nice dessert we had after dinner. Apple something or other.”

“Apple cobbler.”

“Oh yes. I think I shall go down and have some more of it.”

“It is only half an hour since we ate. Be careful you do not put on any weight, Charlotte.”

“You will be putting on weight long before I will, Annis, and it will not be from eating.”

“What do you mean?” Annis felt a touch of alarm at what her sister seemed to be suggesting. What did she know? Had sheknown where she had been?

“Never you mind. You’ll see.”

 

Charlotte had been right about the preparations. Later, Annis noticed the carriage pulling out of the yard with William at the reins. So they weregoing out on a run tonight.

“At least you resisted that impetuous impulse to want to go with them, Charlotte.”

“Yes, I did. I don’t like the thought of being seasick or getting wet. But that is the only reason I decided not to go. At least not this time.”

 

No more than half an hour after the cart had disappeared down the driveway, a rider approached at a fast clip across the lawns. The horse appeared to have been ridden hard and was all lathered up.

Annis came onto the scene just as the messenger was letting Jerome know that he must see Mr. Devane immediately and urgently, for he had a letter for him and hoped he had not already left for the coast.

Jerome recognized the stable hand from Kellands, where William’s cousin George lived. “I’m sorry, but he has gone. He left a short time ago and will be setting sail about now, or soon, I would say.”

“Damn! Beg pardon, miss.” He saw the young lady in the doorway. “I have an urgent message for him. Very urgent, from his cousin. Matter of life and death he said. I was told that I might catch him before he left. But he has gone you say?”

“Yes.”

“Then there is nothing I can do.” I will give you this to pass on to him when he returns. If he returns. For by then it will be too late for him I suspect. Master George will not like to hear that I missed him. He told me to say how important it was and that it really was a matter of life or death. I had to make sure that I stopped him setting sail, even if it meant killing this horse to get here.”

“And you will kill him if you try to return like that. Get him walked around and seen to. I am sure we will have a spare horse for you if you must return tonight.”

“Yes, I must. His cousin will not be pleased to hear that I missed him and needs to be told that. I will be lucky if I am not turned off after this.”

Jerome passed the letter to Annis. It was indeed from his cousin George Devane. It was marked urgent and immediate. Open it now and read it, cousin.”

Just then her mother walked up to her. She seemed worried. “Have you seen Sophia, my love? She is not in her bed nor in the conservatory, and all of her clothing is on her bed. She was locked out there the entire night of the thunderstorm in nothing but her nightdress, poor child. She must have been cold and terrified, and here she is gone off hiding somewhere again.” Fortunately, she was not looking at Annis’s face as she said that. Or she would have seen a great look of alarm on her face.

Annis tore open the letter and read it. “I thought that was for William, my dear, or did I mishear? You should not open other people’s mail. It might get you into trouble.”

“I must, for he is not here Mama. It is from his cousin, and it says urgent and immediate, and he even wrote that William must open it and read it now. Something about life or death. I am sure he will not mind.” She read it quickly. Within seconds of seeing what the letter said, she was headed upstairs at a run, heedless of inquiries from either her mother or her sister who was just then heading down to execute her own plan concerning the little that remained of the apple cobbler.

“Charlotte.” She spoke so that her mother might not overhear her. “Sophia has gone off with them.”

“With who, whom?” She corrected herself, but was not sure she was correct for a moment.

“With William.”

“I told you.” She turned and followed her sister upstairs. “I said she would. So she undoubtedly did. She told me that she would be doing so at the first opportunity when she knew they were going off to France, but I thought she was just talking.”

“Undoubtedly not, Charlotte. But there is now another reason I must get down to the dock and stop them. I must show William this letter that just came for him. He is in grave danger. They both are. Do not let anyone know I have gone.”

“What danger?”

“Revenuers. Customs agents. They know what he is about and of his plans tonight and intend to board him or sink him. He must not go. If Sophia is with him, it is even more important that she does not go either, for that also puts herin danger.”

“She may not be with him.”

“Don’t be silly, Charlotte. Of course she is.”

Charlotte recognized the truth of that. “Yes, she probably is. How will you get down there?”

“I’ll take William’s horse.”

“He won’t like you doing that. But if you do, you must also take the mule too don’t forget, or you will not get far. But you should not, you know? William will be annoyed.”

Her sister ignored her. “Yes, and the mule must go too. William will not be annoyed, considering what I have to tell him. I’ll saddle the mule up so that I can bring Sophia back with me, the little mischief. I’ll have some words to say to her after this.”

“The side saddle will not fit Boney. The girth is not long enough. You will need to change it.”

“I shall not take the side saddle.”

“Well.” Charlotte was shocked to hear that. “Quite a sight you will make careening across the countryside with your skirts flapping at your waist and revealingallto the world.”

“No, I won’t, for I shall dress in some of Williams clothes from that same closet in my room that Sophia was raiding. I tried one set on the other day, but it was not a good fit. It will have to do though.”

“Annis. You didn’t?”

Her sister blushed, and was defiant. “Well, I don’t see why Sophia should be the only one to have fun, but I realized I shouldn’t. Come, I will need your help.”

 

Charlotte assisted her out of her clothing and into a suit of young man’s clothes that she sorted from the clothing in the closet. “They are not at all flattering, but they look better on you than they did on me.” She looked approvingly at her sister. “You should have put two shirts on. It would never do to have those obvious parts of you, moving about as they do—like two piglets jostling in a sack, as they say—and that should not be there if you were a youth. Better do the buttons up as far as you can too. At least the trousers are loose enough to hide your hips.”

“They are a better and looser fit than the others I had on.” Annis sounded puzzled. “I don’t remember these, except they are just as scratchy. You say you tried them on?”

“Yes. I thought I might try and smuggle away too, but the more I thought about it, the less enjoyable it began to seem. You’d better get them off and put these smalls on first, to help stop the scratchiness. But look. She did go as you thought. There is a gap here where Sophia had those boy’s clothes that she wore before, and they are gone again. She did go. The little vixen.”

“Yes. I suspected as much myself, when Mama could not find her in her usual places and with her clothes lying on her bed. We don’t know the half of what she gets up to. All the more reason that I must now go myself and make sure that she does not come to harm considering what that letter said.”

“What letter?”

“I told you. The urgent letter that just came was from William’s cousin warning him of the revenue officers about to descend on that wharf sometime tonight after they had departed and await their return in the morning. It also said that they may have a ship out too, to try to intercept them at sea or even sink them. The message said that he must cancel the run at any cost, or he would be risking everything. To think that Sophia is on board with him and he not knowing she was there. I must warn him and stop him, andher, and I have little time to get there to do either of those things. I hope that neither of us will be missed, except that Mama already seems to know that Sophia is not in her bed. But say nothing of the other about the contents of the letter that came, or she would be worried. There, how do I look?”

She did not wait for an answer but stormed out of her door and headed for the stairs even as she was doing up her buttons, closely followed by Charlotte.

“Except for the hair, you might easily pass for a poorly dressed youth. If it were dark. Your complexion is too smooth by far though and your eyes too large and innocent. You don’t look like a youth to me. You are built all wrong. Youths do not generally have such prominent breasts, which nothing will hide you know? If anyone recognizes you, your reputation, even ours, will be lost forever. You will be branded as a hoyden, which you called me once. Whatever one of those is, but I am sure it is not complimentary.”

“It is not complimentary and refers to a woman’s lack of self-control and thoughtfulness concerning her reputation. I don’t care. I am a hoyden by that definition.”

“At last. An awakening as to what is really important. But what have you and William been up to? You will put on weight if you are not careful, and you are not married either, don’t forget.”

“Charlotte.”

Annis grabbed a boy’s cap from her pocket. She had not recalled thatearlier either. It suited the rest of her garb, and as she ran off across the yard, she stuffed her hair up under it.

“There.”

“Yes. Better and better. No one would take a second look at you.” That was a blatant lie, and Charlotte knew it. “You should not run, Annis, or you certainly will be discovered. Boys do not run like that nor do they jiggle quite like that either.” She was having difficulty containing her laughter. “You had better take care of yourself, you know. I only have two sisters left. I shall try to tell Mama nothing until she demands to know, or goes into decline. I hope you remembered to take that pistol with you. It will go into your pocket just in case someone tries to stop you.”

“I already have it.” She patted her other pocket. “But if they do, I will ride them down. I hope no one sees me leave, or there will be trouble.”

Charlotte could not help wondering for whom there might be trouble. “I shall help you saddle up. At least I can do that. I hope you can manage that brute. He is as much as any man could handle, never mind you.”

 

Within five minutes, they had the stallion saddled and ready to go, and with the mule saddled too, and turned loose. Annis mounted and she turned off and rode out to get onto the road to the coast and to the wharf where the Seamew was tied up. She hoped she was in time, and that they had not set sail already. Charlotte watched her go.

She smiled as Annis rode out of sight and then chuckled to herself and, in her excitement, almost ran back to the house to report to their mother and Elizabeth that their plan was now underway, and to describe what Annis looked like, and was still so obviously a woman.. What was Annis thinking, to believe she could hide her sex and dress like a youth. No one could possibly be misled by any of it. She might as well have hired trumpets to blare out her coming or have emulated the daringly reckless Lady Godiva, and dispensed with clothing altogether, for the difference it made. Charlotte had to stop in the doorway as the tears of mirth and even of relief ran down her cheeks. Resolution of all of the nagging difficulties was now within reach. She rushed off to capture the shockingly revealing images of Annis, burned into her brain. Those, she fully intended to show William. At the same time, she began to feel a slight envy of what lay ahead of her sister. It would be interesting to see how her sister’s new outlook on life as a ‘married’ woman might be reflected in her face when they were able to visit her in a couple of days, and after riding the…marriage peacemaker, as she had heard her mother jokingly refer to that intimate activity with their father. Though best if she did not say it, even to herself.

Deception by Proxy. Ch. 33. Charlotte Tells a Secret. A Plot is born.

Wednesday, July 4th, 2018

“William?” He looked up from the book that he was reading by the library fire to see Charlotte approaching him. He had dozed there for some hours after he had returned from the coast, seeing that the Seamew had not suffered in the gale that had accompanied the thunderstorm the night before. It had been necessary to ensure that it was also ready for its planned trip to France later that evening. He had not immediately gone to bed when he had returned in the early hours as his mind had been far too busy with another, and perhaps even more urgent and pressing problem that he needed to deal with.

“Yes, Charlotte.”

“There is something that I need to tell you. It is quite disturbing. I hope you will be able to forgive us.”

He paused and smiled at her. “You too now, eh? I recall a similar meeting with your sister just a few days ago. I am not sure I will survive many more of these sudden revelations. Nothing to do with a watch or a letter, is it?”

“No.”

“Perhaps Sophia has been showing you some things of mine that she was not supposed to find?”

“You mean your drawings?”

“So she did show you them. Damn!”

“No. Annis told me of them. She had looked in your journal when you were not here. But you already know that.” He looked sharply at her. How did she know that? These girls really did not miss anything. “Sophia was looking at your drawings of the Peninsula when she found those others too. That was when Annis stopped her running to Mama with them, for she also draws better than any of us, or telling her of one that you had done of Annis. She said that yours were almost as good as mine, but I already knew that. I looked in your journal once too. We all have. I hope you can forgive us.” The signs were not threatening, as he was still smiling upon her, so she continued. “Your drawings are very good, but I was quite surprised to see that one of them, the one that Sophia had seen, was of you bathing Annis in her bedroo—.”

“Yes, Charlotte. Let us not go there. That was not for general circulation.”

“You will show me the others sometime, won’t you? I saw that there were more in there of her too, but I had to put them down when others came in. I’m glad I saw them, for now you cannot criticize me so harshly for doing those of you as you sat in your, in… the window seat.” She might almost have been ready to admit to having drawn him in other circumstances. “Besides, you saw some of my drawings of Annis that you were not supposed to see, and they were no more revealing than the one you drew.”

She said nothing of those other of her more daring drawings of him in his bath or in other revealing circumstances as he had stepped out of it, that he had also seen in her book on that occasion. She probably would not like to admit to those and invite more searching questions about where she had been hiding to have seen him like that. He smiled. “Perhaps. So, not a watch and not a letter.”

“No. Not about that embarrassingly dreadful watch.” Her expression showed her feelings at seeing that for the first time, when Annis showed it to her. “Annis is looking after it and may have hidden it away if she did not give it back to you. But what letter do you refer to?”

“Good. If you do not know, then never mind. Yes, she gave me the watch. You said to ‘tell’ me, not to ‘ask’me.” He waited for her to continue.

“Was that the reverend that just came through before lunch?”

Clearly, she was not about to say anything until she was ready. “Yes, it was. He visited earlier. He will come back through here again in a few hours. Do you wish to speak with him?”

“No. Not at the moment. Is he a member of your crew too?”

He glanced searchingly at her. “Yes, he is. How did you learn of that?”

“Sophia.”

“Of course.” He saw that she might have difficulty getting to the point and she was hungrily eyeing the cake that he had barely touched. “Do have a seat, Charlotte. Help yourself to some of that cake your mother brought me, if you wish.”

“Thank you.” She picked up a small piece and ate it as she sat opposite him. “Did Annis go out with you last night too?”

“No, she did not. Why do you ask?”

“She was not in her bed last night at all. Nor was she in the drawing-room chair in the window, waiting to see when you might return. Well. I wonder where she was?”

He had known where she had been; waiting for him to return, but he was not about to let her sister know any of that. “Now, young lady, enough beating about the bush. You said you had something to tell me, rather than to ask me.”

She dusted off her fingers on her dress. “Yes, for Annis won’t, and neither will Mama, and Sophia does not really know enough about it, so she cannot.”

“So you all, except Sophia, know this thing that you say is quite disturbing, and it is not about my revealing drawings of Annis?”

“Yes. But not a drawing. Though Sophia might know. She seems to know everything. But if she does know, I doubt that she would understand. It is quite disturbing.” She paused for a moment. “It is also tragic. I cannot believe how anyone might think otherwise. Except I think Mama does not think about it anymore. She seemed upset at first when I mentioned it to her, but she said that there was nothing she could do about it now.” He let her ramble on. She would get to the point eventually. “She also seems quite happy to leave everything the way it is, and for that matter, so am I, in a way; but in another, I am not happy to leave it be.” She moistened her finger and picked up some of the crumbs from the plate as she considered the last pieces of it still sitting there. “Mama says it will all sort itself out eventually, yet it would be wrong to leave it as it is, for it is preying on Annis at times. She is not herself.”

“Yes. I think I had a similarly confusing discussion like this one just the other day with Annis herself. But why will Annis not say anything?”

“She does not speak of it, but it is obvious that she is afraid of what you will do when you find out; how you will respond to her? To us. She seemsto respond to you as she should, most of the time, considering…, but then at others, she remembers things, and then she becomes remote and goes quiet and sad, and I know why.”

He had seen the same thing, but less in recent days. “Apart from that, does this involve me in any way?”

“Yes, William, it does. She is not the only one that is afraid. We all are, that you will leave us when you find out.”

“How can I leave? This is my home.” He gestured about himself with his hand.

“No, William. Leave us. Turn against us.” She stressed that last word.

“Ah. I think I see. But I think you have nothing to fear there, you know?”

“If you were to do that, I think Mama might suffer a breakdown. It has been…different…with you being with us. We all would suffer cruely, for since you entered our lives, we have been shielded from most things that could have destroyed us. You did not replace our father in any way.” She reconsidered that statement. “And yet you have, in every way, providing the same kind of support and no-nonsense stability that he did. I did not know that was what a man’s role might be in a family, but I do now. You saw the Thackerays off. You rescued us from the fire.” She took another piece of cake and ate as she spoke. “You even brought us here. As Mama says, you distracted us from ourselves and our dreadful circumstance. For you did. You shielded Sophia best of all. We were worried for her at first.”

He looked steadily at her. “But what about you? You lost them both too.”

She did not answer immediately but finished off the cake. “We should have told you sooner, but I am not sure anyone knows how to tell you, for it all seems so foolish now.”

He waited for her to get to the point. She picked up his wine glass and took a sip of that too, to wash down the cake. He smiled at the familiar ease that she showed of him and his presence. He found it quite charming and entirely disarming, for Sophia was the same, and Annis too.

“We made up some of those special cards that we learned about in one of those tarot books that Mama has. We made one up for each of us with our birthdates and other information on them. To make a long story short, your name seemed always to be paired with that of Arabella when we played. That is why this all came to pass as it did, to have you marry Arabella.” She fell thoughtful. “There was also the need for one of us—the eldest I think it had to be—to get married before Papa died for some reason. I did not understand that, for I learned that in his will he had left everything to Mama, though Mama did not seem convinced that Father’s Will might be accepted if it were contested. Then the accident happened and threw everything into disarray.” She swallowed hard, recalling those so recent memories.

“So that is what you needed to tell me? The tarot cards? So what is it that is wrong? Or was that it?”

“No. Annis was looking through those cards again just the other day at Underby before the fire, the day that it rained so hard. She seemed upset over something, for she swore—I have never heard her swear before—most shocking, and then she threw them into the fireplace. Fortunately there was no fire at that moment, and Mama was not there to hear her, so after she had fled the room, I recovered them to find out what had upset her.

“It took me a while, but I noticed that there were two cards with Bella’s name on them, but only one of them had her information correct with her birthday and all. The one with a smudge of blood from the paper cut that Sophia got, had the information that belonged really to Annis but had Arabella’s name written on it in error somehow. There was no card for Annis. How we could possibly have overlooked that, I do not know. I remember that when that card was paired with your name, it may have had Bella’s name on it, but it was not the correct one for Bella. It was the smudged one that should have had Annis’s name on it. We had got you married to my sister, Bella, all based upon that wrong card. Oh William, it has become so obvious to us all in the last week and more, but it was Annis that you should have married and not Arabella.”

She waited for some sign from William that he understood this cataclysm, that what had happened—marrying Arabella—had happened in error, but there was nothing to read in his face though his shoulders seemed to be shaking, perhaps with suppressed laughter. She did not understand that.

“And that is what you wanted to tell me?” He had a strange smile on his face.

“Yes, William. I think that has been obvious to everyone by now that you should have married Annis. Perhaps it is obvious even to Annis herself. No. Most certainly to Annis too, though she will not easily admit it. There seem to be other things on her mind and preying upon her too, for she no longer confides in me as she did. I no longer understand her.”

“Is that all?”

She seemed puzzled that he was neither surprised nor angry over it. “Mama knows this too, for I told her, though she will not discuss it with us now, for she can get upset if she thinks about it, and now it has all worked out wrong in one way, if not in another. So very wrong, and we have ruined two lives and two futures. Yours and Annis’s. I do not see how you might forgive us for this—marrying you to the wrong daughter, and you now a widower as a result. It is too large a burden to bear, and I do not know how to go forward with this. I felt that I must come and tell you, and can only pray that you will know how to solve this before we all go mad.”

He smiled at her. She knew he had heard what she had said, but perhaps he did not understand.

“It is not so bad, Charlotte.” She looked at him in some surprise as he refilled his wine glass for her. “No. I do not feel that I am laboring under any such burden, or that my life is ruined, nor my future. Quite the opposite. We are all still together, are we not? Did you not wonder why?” She seemed confused and unlikely to be able to answer easily. “You forget that when I arrived, I had no expectation of marrying anyone.”

Charlotte felt confused that he seemed to be taking it all so easily. “I expect not. But now I cannot talk to Annis about it for she gets too annoyed and frustrated with me and is afraid of revealing any of it, especially to you. She is afraid of upsetting you, indeed of overturning all of this, for Mama and me and Sophia, and of opening up the will to being contested and setting us all back into the state we might have been in, but for you, if any of it is discovered. But if it is, then what of you? What of Annis?”

“I think we will survive, my dear.” He was quite sure that Annis had come to grips with it too and did not care about any of it so much. He moved over to her and put his arm around her shoulders as he gave her his handkerchief to wipe away her tears. He laughed gently. “That is your carefully nurtured secret? This revelation that will turn the world upside down for everyone?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well. I did not know all of the details of that one. It sounds neither insurmountable nor earth shaking to me. But you say that Annis knows this?”

“Yes. She must. She was the one that alerted me to it by accident some days ago. I told you she was looking through those cards and let out a cry and threw them into the grate and rushed off. I picked them out and wondered what she had seen to upset her so. It took me some time, but then I discovered it too.”

“You have nothing to fear, you know. I am not angry over the mix-up, and I do know more than you are giving me credit for. I am not about to leave any of you either. Not now that I have a family of my own. Not ever, if I have my own way on this. It will all sort itself out eventually.”

“You won’t turn against us? It will?” She looked both surprised and relieved, but was also puzzled.

“No, nothing will change that much, except for one or two minor things that seem to have got out of hand, but they will still be manageable with care on my part, though it is getting more difficult and dangerous by the minute, I think. For me. I can assure you that the settlement of everything upon your mother cannot be overturned now. None of it depended upon my marrying Bella or any one of you, but I did not discover that until later. Under the circumstances, I think it was better that I married Arabella rather than Annis.”

She looked at him in disbelief, not understanding why he would say that, knowing how Annis felt about him and how he obviously felt about her.

“Yes, quite an unexpected thing for me to say. But think about it for a moment, Charlotte. If I had married Annis instead of Bella, what a difficult time we would have had of it, striving to discover and come to grips with each other in the role of man and wife and trying to cope with all of that grief and pain over the loss of her father and eldest sister at the same time.” He shook his head at that thought. “No. No. It would have been far too difficult.” He re-thought that.

“Did I say difficult?” He shook his head, “it would have been impossible. Some marriages do not survive less than that. Then there was that monumental difficulty created by our godmother’s let—. That is another problem that I do not now need to face. No. That would have been too much. I think I should feel lucky that I survived as long as I did in your midst, rather than have all of that hanging over me and a wife who did not know the first thing about me and who would have been ready to see me dead before she allowed me near her after what she found out about me. I far prefer the way it worked out, as unsettling as that has been at times.”

He looked far off as he thought about that. “Though….” he struggled with some thought for a moment. “I do begin to believe that it is certainly long overdue to try and correct all of that, and as soon as possible, considering what has been happening of late.”

She did not understand how he could accept it all so easily and was not sure she was hearing him correctly. It was all so tragic and emotionally draining, and here he was striving to thinka way through a matter of the heart. Could all men be so coldly unromantic and emotionally unimaginative?

“But let me reassure you of this, Charlotte. I have no intention of deserting any of you, and especially not Sophia nor Annis nor even your mother nor you. I inherited a wonderful and ready-made family all of my own—even a wife and sisters presented to me by none other than your father and with his unreserved blessing. I am very selfish and jealous of it, as I am sure he was too, that I am not about to jeopardize it or give it up without a fight.” He had a determined look on his face. “All that is needed is an adjustment here and there, and it will all work out as it should.” He sounded convinced of that.

“It will? But what adjustment?” His wonderful and ready-made family was built around a wife that he had almost immediately lost. It did not sound quite as rational or as stable as it should be.

“I don’t know. I am still thinking about that. My mother had a hand in this circumstance too, didn’t she? I can clearly see the signs, for she was the one who gave your mother those astrology books and got you all immersed in the occult, or whatever it is called these days, with horoscopes and astrology and the conjunctions of planets and constellations and houses in ascendance.”

“Yes.” There was a look of relief on her face but then a flicker of concern returned. Perhaps he had not understood her. “I know we are in mourning. I know I should not speak about it, but I also know that since you lost Bella, you…you and Annis have grown close together in…in that…other way, for I have eyes of my own, and Sophia tells me everything.”

He looked at her sharply. “I hope not everything.” She would not meet his eyes. He began to see that there really were few secrets from any of these sisters.

Perhaps it was time for plain speaking and taking the bull by the horns. Charlotte blurted out what she had been thinking for some time now. “She should not be allowed to wait a year, sir, if that is what must happen, for I doubt that she can, or will, or should. Nor, I think, can you, from what I have seen.” She waited for him to object to her outspoken utterance.

He looked at her, wondering what she might know or had seen. He knew that Annis was not about to wait for even another day to go by, considering what she had already done and had in mind for them both. “Wait for what, Charlotte?”

“I am not sure I dare speak of it, sir. To be married, in that otherway, of course.” She blushed intensely. But why would heobject?

“And what other way is that, Charlotte?” He looked steadily at her. He was not about to make it easy for her.

“I am not sure I dare to say. To be married, and yet not married. The informal way. De facto… informal… canonical. Not churched.” She blurted the last of it out in a way he could not misunderstand. Her face was red, but she had not faltered to say what she felt was needed to be said.

“Yes. Relax. I understand. I wondered if you would dare say it. No lack of courage with any of you, is there? The wrong side of the sheets. None of you beat about the bush, do you? But then an informal marriage? I cannot easily do that either. Strange of me to admit that, for I never thought I might hold back when so much is offered to me, as it undoubtedly was, and is, and yet I am holding back.” He recalled the interlude in the conservatory. Is Annis…am I…are we…that obvious and signaling it all to the world?”

“Yes. Of course you are. Both of you.” She sounded quite frustrated that he did not seem to know. “But you both seem to be ignoring it in some grand theatrical way. I sometimes feel that you deserve to be slapped hard the pair of you and brought to your senses as to what needs to be done, and soon, even as immoral as it might seem, before you drive the rest of us mad with how foolish you both can be on some stupid social requirement that there is no need for. Where there is true love, there is no such thing as immorality.”

“And you but sixteen.” He was impressed by her forthrightness. She seemed mature well beyond her years, but then they all were, especially Sophia.

“I can assure you I am not ignoring anything, Charlotte. You seemed worried that when I discovered this it would turn meagainst you, yet here am I, trying to find a way through this, that will not turn everyone against me, and that most especially, will not hurt Annis. For it might, eventually, you know? But what do you think I should do? For I will not hurt any of you, nor her, by any precipitate action if it can be avoided? We are all just recently bereaved. All of us. Including me. We will be in mourning for some time, though it all seems pointless.”

“Yes, that is exactly it William. It is pointless. Mama has no patience with any of that. Nor did Papa. But does it matter if certain social formalities are not strictly observed if you both love each other? Who would know, here. Happiness is the most important thing in anyone’s life, and thatis what our father told us.”

“It is. But how would you suggest I move forward on this?” He waited for her suggestion, for she had obviously struggled with it for some time.

“Why, sir, she must be kidnapped or abducted and, if necessary, forcedto marry you… if it must happen that way. You are both free to marry despite you being only recently a widower. Who cares what gossips might say? You could take her to Gretna Green, or better yet, to France and marry her there, for you will be going there soon, and no one could object or raise a fuss until it is too late, and she could be brought to her senses away from here and us. But even if you do not immediately marry…at least you would be happy together in that…that other way.”

“Being free to marry and getting married are two different things, but forced, you say? I don’t like that word. No. That is not the way out of this. Annis would certainly object to this scheme.” He did not tell Charlotte that her sister had another intent that was just as shocking. He continued, “…And so would your mother and everyone about us. But to France you say, and away from here and everyone?” He was deep in thought at that moment but could still devote some of his attention to what Charlotte was saying by way of persuasion.

“But you love each other. You are both eating your hearts out. Oh, why are men so unimaginative and unromantic? It sounds melodramatic, I know, but she has changed. She never did truly hate you. She mopes more than she should, despite…and she is moody at times and tearful, and it has not so much to do with that…other; our loss. Surely any reservations or foolish objection she might make would be swept aside by expeditious action. Then, it would not matter, for you do love each other.”

“The expeditious action you refer to Charlotte, is a course that might be more destructive than constructive. I know that it would not matter to me. I am only a clumsy unfeeling unromantic man, as you tell me, and yet I am hesitant.”

She blushed at having her own unflattering description of him tossed back at her, for she had been wrong to have said it.

“Yet I am not really so far removed from propriety that I must thumb my nose at the formalities, or what society might think. I do not care for myself, but I do care for your family’s reputation.” He seemed to be conducting two lines of thought, one internally and one that he expressed openly. “Although such things—cart before horse—and rushing things along are expected of me , by both my mother as well as Lady Seymour, and everyone who thinks they know me. But it would eventually matter to Annis, and therefore it would to me too, that everything be done properly, even if in some haste now, and that is what is important.”

He saw that Charlotte was prepared to listen to what he had to say before she lost all patience with him, but the act of her broaching this subject presented some interesting possibilities.

“A relationship should be based upon trust. Kidnapping her and against her will, as it certainly would be, is not an option that I would easily choose, and is not conducive to any degree of trust or happiness afterward. A disastrous start to a relationship.”

“Then she must be abducted more cleverly, William, and not against her will. There must be a way. She must not recognize that she is a victim of some larger plan until it is too late, and she must approve of what is happening, yet without her knowing that she has been a victim of an abduction. She could be lured into a circumstance from which she could not, nor might want to escape. In fact, it would be better if she never did find out about it all until it is far too late. But then I am dreaming and probably confused with having thought about it for too long.”

He looked at her searchingly for a few moments, clearly deep in thought. “One might almost think you were not exactly protective of your sister’s virtue or finer interests, wishing that I might abduct her and compromise her, whether with or without her understanding or approval.”

“Hang her virtue, William.” Her emphatic pronouncement startled him, and herself too, but Annis was her sister and she loved her too much to see her abandon her own needs. “I’ve heard too much of virtue and not enough of what should be done. Once she accepts the finality of what has happened to her, she will recognize that it has to be done, just as it was done for all of our sanity, and everything will work out all right, and she will marry you. A little late perhaps, but it will not matter by then.”

“Oh my. I had not realized young ladies might all be so violently adamant about such a decisive and compromising course of action. And against your own sister no less. I am sure your mother would not approve.”

“My mother’s views on that might amaze you, William.”

The look on Charlotte’s face, as well as her words, suggested that she would not place any weight on her mother not approving it at all. “My mother has her own views on such things.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. It is just a matter of time before we all succeed. Sophia has tried twice now, to bring you closer together but….”

“You heard of those, did you? What do you know of them?”

“Sophia told me. I cannot blame her, for I saw what needed to happen too between the two of you, but you are both holding back when there is no need of it. I watched you both after you had rescued her from the fire as you sat by the trough. I saw everything I needed to know about the two of you at that moment, and so did Mama. Unfortunately, so did Sophia. I did not know it then, but I do now; Sophia is far more of a knowing little schemer than even I might have believed. When she makes up her mind about something, it seems to happen. Then afterward… please forgive me, William, for relating this without hiding anything, but you need to know. Mama and I saw Annis shaving you in the far parlor. There was more going on there between you two then, than we were supposed to see, I think.”

She saw his eyebrows raise in surprise, but he said nothing and let her continue.

“I was not sure what I might believe, for you had just recently married my sister and here you were…. But Mama soon showed me the way of it and how mistaken I was to think as I did, so she is already quite accepting of what must happen between you and Annis, and it must happen soon. Oh William. How can you not see what we see?”

“I thought I was the only one who did see it in quite the way that I do. So the secret is no longer a secret. It seems that it never was. One way or another, my fate is sealed. I doubt I will survive another night like the last two have been, and they were just the start of it.” He looked at her and saw another determined young lady, much as Annis had been at the time when she had that pistol, and as Sophia had been when she got him out to the conservatory, and before that when she insisted he take her with him to the dock that other morning.

“You are three remarkable sisters. All so frighteningly observant and all with minds of your own and not afraid of being outspokenly direct once you have made up your minds about something. I wish I had known Bella and had been able to speak with her too. I am sure she was just as formidable. My life will never be the same, I am glad to say. But Sophia is only six. Surely she did not dream up those two plots by herself?”

“Sir, she did. At least I think she did. After she told me what she planned, I gave her some help with the kitten, and she was delighted to hear how things might be rolled along. Annis never could resist a kitten in a dire plight, or anything else for that matter.”

“No more than I can.”

“But then there really wasa rat, so she had to try and deal with it herself. That was when you rescued Sophia instead of Annis. She was so downcast to see her plot fall to pieces until it became obvious that Annis would not know that the kitten was not in the barn if she was kept away from the kitchen.”

William had to smile. “So Sophia plotted to throw us both together in that way, to ensnare me into a compromising circumstance with your sister, that we might never be able to escape from. Two sisters endeavoring to get me to seduce another sister. I hope no-one everdiscovers this about us. I am sure that it is not something that one expects one’s own sisters to plot about. Then another clever little scheme that night of the thunderstorm. There was no need for either of those two, you know? Who will get involved next, I wonder? Your mother?”

He looked studious for some moments. “Why not? What is there to lose?” He answered his own question. “Far too much if it were to go wrong.”

She suddenly saw that he was coming around to her way of thinking. “Oh, sir. It won’t. Not if we all are involved. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

“Or all lost. But then I am in too pessimistic a turn of mind, and I know I should not be, considering what I know. I will need all the support I can get. Perhaps… perhaps the time has come then for me to give in to all of these pressures that I am surrounded by and for some more decisive action on all of our parts, including your mother’s for I think we all see the same thing and desire the same end but do not yet know how to make the best use of what we know, although I am rapidly seeing a way through all of this.”

His mind nowseemed to be working along the lines she had hoped to encourage.

He looked up suddenly. “Charlotte, I think it is time for us to have a word with your mother. I do not think that your presence or that of Sophia would be amiss either, if you can find her. Four heads will undoubtedly be better than one. There is a rational way through all of this that has been sitting under my nose for a long time but which I have missed seeing until now.” He felt a small hand slide into his own. He chuckled and looked down at her.

“So. Sophia. Our arch schemer. Where were you, I wonder? No. No need to tell me. Our circle is now almost complete. I knew you could not be so very far away. Sitting off out of sight again eh, as you usually are, and listening and thinking?”

“Will he help us, Charlotte? You will, won’t you, William?” Sophia knew the answer to that question by the tearful but happy look on Charlotte’s face.

William began to move over to the door with his arms on both of their shoulders, as a friendly brother might behave with his sisters. “It is not so much about whether I will help you, young ladies, as it is about whether you will help me. Where is Annis at this moment? We need to avoid letting her know what is going on.”

“She is gone to the village with Mrs. Abernethy, sir, and will not be back before lunchtime. There were some things they both needed.”

“And your mother?”

“In the drawing room with your sister.”

“Good. Then you two and I should go and have a meeting with both of them and get all of this cleared out of the way once and for all, and concluded as it should be, starting tonight. Five heads will also be better than four. I think I can see how to do it now. I just hope we have enough time. Bring those cards with you too. I won’t need them just yet, but your mother might need more of a nudge.”

“But….”

“No buts, Charlotte. It will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and without the feared upset to anyone, including me, I hope. If there is upset to anyone it will be temporary only, but not to any of you, I can assure you of that.” He turned back for a moment and looked back to where he had been sitting. “But first, there is a book on my desk over there. Would you bring that with us please?”

Charlotte went over and picked it up and looked at it intently for a moment. “But, sir, isn’t this the…?”

“Yes, it is, isn’t it? The trouble that book has been to me, you would not believe, though it will be the one thing that will ensure our success. Please bring it, and we shall move things along better than they have been, with your help and that of your mother and even Sophia, who shall play a major role in this. Again. That is, if you all approve of this scheme of mine. Of ours.”

“But why not Annis?”

“The less she knows of this, the better. That is what you said, isn’t it? I doubt she would approve the scheme I have in mind anyway, at least not just yet, for it is certainly scandalous and outrageous and never to be considered even. But not quite as direct as what she has in mind, I fear. But then, what isn’t, where this family is concerned? Come.”

Deception by Proxy. Ch. 32. The Inestimable Value of a Thunderstorm.

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

The beating of tree branches on the window next to his bed woke William from a peaceful rest. He was surprised that the thunder and lightning had not done it earlier.  A major storm, blown in from the coast, was raging outside. His first thought was of the horses. They had been left out in the paddock and would be wet and possibly scared. Then he remembered that they had been put away.

It seemed that the wind might be strong enough to bring trees down. It was likely that the driveway would be blocked, as there was an ancient copper beech tree at the side of the road which should have been felled for firewood long ago and would likely come down or, at best, might only shed a few of its branches. He made a mental note to see that it would be felled, and soon.

He heard one of the tiles above his head rattling ominously as it was lifted by the wind. It was obvious that he would not be able to get back to sleep again with the storm raging as it was.

That was when he noticed Sophia standing by the edge of his bed looking at him. Perhaps that was what had awoken him. She might even have been ready to slip into bed with him to get out of the sudden noise. He yawned. “Well, miss, what are you doing here?”

“The storm woke me. I’m scared. I’m scared for the horses too. They don’t like this any more than I do, and they are out in it. I was going to find Annis to help me put them in but she must have gone to comfort Charlotte. She does not like storms like this either and I decided to come to you instead. There is not room for three in Charlotte’s bed.”

“There is nothing to be afraid of, you know? I don’t think they were left out.” He heard the clock strike midnight from the hall below.

“But they were. I heard Jonathan, the groom, mention that the night was so warm they would be happy to be out.”

“But he knows enough to see to them.”

“He’s not here. You gave him the night off and he went into the village.”

“Yes, I did, didn’t I?” He looked at the storm passing across the landscape, illuminating it as though it were daylight each time the lightning flashed, which it did often. He decided that he had better see to the horses himself and then check that no damage had yet occurred to the conservatory attached to the house. There was a tree not too far away that might lose branches, or it might come down. It was doubtful that it could reach as far as the glass but blowing branches might.

“You say you went looking for Annis?”

“Yes. I was going to her room to slip into bed with her and spend the night there until the storm had passed, but she was not there. She might have gone to Charlotte’s room. Annis is terrified of the thunder even more than I am. But I dare not go along that corridor with all of those windows and mirrors while the lightning was flashing the way it was, so I came here instead. Then I remembered the horses.”

He slipped out of bed and decided not to light a candle, as the lightning was intense enough to illuminate his way, and the wind would only blow it out. Everyone else would be under their covers if not sleeping through it. He would go as he was, rather than wet his clothing and boots. He could easily change when he got back. “You should go back to bed, Sophia. Or climb in here where it’s warm, and I will see to this.”

“No, William. I do not want to be alone in this. I want to come too.” She moved over to him and looked nervously about herself as the lightning illuminated everything in the room. He felt her shrink closer to him and grasp his hand firmly. “The thunder scares me. I do not like being alone in this storm.”

“Very well. But I’ll get you to stay in the conservatory out of the storm while I see to them. No point in both of us getting soaked.” He could hear the rain spatter upon the tiles above his head and drive hard against the window. At least the Seamew was well tied up with good heavy rope fenders and was not out tonight. The wind was strong enough to tax even the best sailor with gusts strong enough to snap masts if not to tear sails away. Strong enough to un-hair a dog as his father used to say. It was strong enough even to lay a small boat flat in the water as had happened to him more than once as a boy out in a dinghy, when a sudden squall swept through.

He and Sophia—her hand tucked firmly into his—went down the back stairs to the conservatory where he let them both in. The door swung closed behind him, driven by a draft from somewhere inside the house. There must be a window open somewhere. It seemed so well protected from the winds outside, with little movement of the vegetation inside, and was even warm from the dying fire in the stove. It was clear that no damage had yet been done, and it was a relief to see that. But the rain, possibly mixed with hail, began to beat noisily onto the glass above their heads, and ran in small rivulets above them, outlined by the occasional flash of light. He noticed that one of the windows near the floor had been slid away. He closed it.

He counted between lightning and thunder. Fifteen seconds. That flash had been almost three miles away, but which way the storm was headed he did not yet know. It was probably all around him, as the sky everywhere seemed to reflect with light even without the closer sound of thunder to go with it.

He walked across and let himself out into the night, being careful to close the outer door securely behind himself, not realizing that Sophia had come outside with him. Even as he stepped away from the immediate shelter of the building, he felt the wind buffet him strongly and drive the rain into his face and whip his nightshirt flat against his body. There was no hail at all. It was too warm for that. The strength of the wind was what drove the rain hard, like hail, against everything. The wind seemed to suck the very breath from his lungs.

As he stepped away from the building, the runoff from the roof caught him in a drenching downpour that soaked him entirely, but it was warm and not at all unpleasant. He stood there for a few moments, smiled at the pleasant shock of it, and savored the unusual warmth as it ran down his neck and inside his nightshirt. He then noticed that his young shadow had not dared stay in the conservatory but had stayed close to him and was now holding his hand securely, and also getting wet, but not seeming to enjoy it quite so much.

Ah well, they were both wet now, but it was a warm rain and would do no one harm for the brief time they would likely be out, though no doubt it would soon get cold too, for it seemed always to get cold as a thunderstorm moved through. He could change her when they got back in. A candle could not possibly have been any use out here and possibly not even a lantern. He could hear branches whipping about in the edge of the woods and an occasional dead limb dropping with a crash, not so far off. There might be considerable damage by morning.

Sophia had her hand once more tucked firmly into his as they walked over to the barn. The paddock was empty. Someone must have brought the horses in earlier. He decided that he had better check them anyway, now that he was already wet and here. The wind was irregular because of the building behind him, but it did not seem that he was in the path of any flying branches from nearby trees, though he could hear the trees complaining loudly as their branches rubbed together or as they were swept into contact with each other. There would be many of them downed by morning, and even now he could hear yet another crash as a distant tree was snapped off by the wind.

“We worried for nothing, Sophia. They must have been put away by someone else. Either that or Jonathan knew a storm was coming and did not go to his mother’s house.”

He opened the stable door and spoke a few words so that the horses might know that someone they knew was there, but there was no answering snorts as there usually were. Instead, they were all comfortable in their stalls and seemed settled and contented despite the wind outside. They were intent on eating from the hay nets that had been put up for them late the night before.

“Well, Sophia, it was an empty journey.  I see that everyone is content and not overly concerned about the weather outside, and everything seems secure.”

“They are all right.” Another voice spoke up from the shadows at the horses heads.

“Annis?”

“I could not sleep either and came to check them too.” She saw Sophia with him. “I thought you would still be tucked up in your bed, miss.” Sophia held firmly onto William’s hand. “The storm woke me up, and I couldn’t stay by myself, Annis. You weren’t in your bed, so I went to look for William.”

“So you woke William instead. I am surprised he dragged you down here with him.”

“I didn’t drag her. She insisted on coming. I did tell her to stay in the conservatory and wait for me, but…well, she’s here now.”

“I got scared.” Sophia ran over to Annis and hugged her leg as the lightning flashed and lit a path for her. In the sudden glare, he noticed Annis standing off near the mule, clad, once again, only in her nightdress, as more flashes of lightning, in rapid succession, illuminated the inside of the stable with a flickering light that went on for some time.

“You seem to be making a habit of coming out lightly dressed. Is Charlotte or your mother not with you too? We could make this a family gathering.”

She laughed at his levity. “No. Charlotte does not like such storms, and Mama will not move when there is one about. But you are also lightly dressed too, this time. You seem to make a habit of it too, you know?”

“I knew it might be a warm rain, so I did not think I would be likely to get a chill, and I saw no reason to wet my few remaining clothes. Nor did I expect to find anyone else here. I hope you are not as wet as Sophia and I.”

Annis laughed. “But I am sure that I am, for it has not let up since I came out of the house. But you should not have encouraged her to come out with you.”

“I didn’t. I told you, she followed me. But it is not cold just yet. We seemed to catch the water cascading off the conservatory roof, but it was nice and warm so I did not mind. How long have you been here?”

“No more than a few minutes. I was surprised to see you two walk across from the conservatory. You seemed to be enjoying it.”

He laughed gently. “I was, though Sophia may not have been. I do not mind the rain when it is as warm as this. It reminds me of Portugal.”

“Sophia loves rain and thunder and even the lightning, and often sits in the window while a storm moves through. None of us are so very scared of a bad storm, though I must admit we sometimes can be if it is very severe like this one is.”

“And here I got the impression that she was terrified of all of that.”

“Not Sophia. Not usually.”

Sophia piped up at that. “I am sometimes scared.” The young lady in question was out of the way in the stall with Pat, the mule, and with the cat fussing about her legs. She seemed unaffected by the turn of conversation that put a lie to some of what she had said to William.

“No matter. Was it you that brought the horses in?”

“No. I expected that I would need to, but they were already brought in earlier before it began to rain, but I did not know that. They are dry. But William, it seems to be getting worse out there, rather than better.”

He heard the wind pick up even stronger and drive the rain against the side of the stable. “We should probably return to the house. The animals seem settled and contented and are safe here. We are the ones that are wet.” He opened the door and let them out and then closed it firmly behind them as he took her hand. “At least the rain is still warm and even quite pleasurable. We should wait for a while.” There was another flash, and he counted again. “Now we can go.” Their instinct was to run, to get out of it all, but William strolled almost leisurely across the intervening space with Annis beside him and Sophia tucked in between them, holding close to both of them for shelter from the wind and rain. It was even enjoyable to feel the warm rain against their faces.

“Are you not afraid of being struck by lightning?”

He glanced at Annis and felt her hand holding on to his as though she were not sure what to think. “No. It is still at least three miles away.”

“How do you know that, William?”

“I count.”

“But how will that tell you?”

He stopped in the middle of the open space, heedless of the rain beating against them. “I will show you. It is still far enough away that we are in little danger. We will watch for a strong flash.” They waited as they leaned against each other with Sophia tucked close into them both.

“There?” He started counting immediately out loud when they saw the flash, so they might hear. There was no crash of thunder other than the general rumble of many such strikes further way and all around them until he got to nine, and then there was a loud and strong crash that made Sophia tremble and move even closer to them. He put his arm around her too. He noticed that Annis was also close beside him and still holding his arm tightly. He could feel her breast pushing strongly up against his arm, and chose not to move. “That was only about two miles.”

“How do you know?”

“Light—the lightning—moves very fast. I do not know how fast, but it is exceedingly fast, whereas sound by comparison moves slowly.” The wind suddenly picked up about them and drove the rain hard into their faces to run down them, and to drip down from their hair and faces, and then suddenly whipped about their legs and bodies, sending their wet nightclothes in all directions. They held tight onto each other to stop from being blown over, with Sophia trapped between their legs for shelter as she laughed nervously at the power of the storm. He put his arm about Annis and pulled her close into his chest for protection. He felt her arm go around his back and hold him tightly also.

They were both amazed that he was not as scared as they were. It was one thing not to be afraid of a storm in the shelter of one’s home, but outside…? yet he was not afraid of any of it. They took their cue from him. He realized that they probably regarded him as quite strange to enjoy such weather, but he did.

He almost had to shout to be heard over the sudden blast of wind. “If you have ever stood on the cliff top and watched a cannon fired from a ship far out to sea, you can see the smoke from the barrel almost immediately—the flash, if it is nighttime. But it takes some time to actually hear the boom of the cannon. One can calculate how far the ship is from where you are on the shore by counting the seconds between the smoke or the flash, and then the noise of the canon reaching you, and can confirm it by using trigonometry and triangular measurements. It is about five seconds for each mile of distance between the flash of the lightning and the time one hears the thunder, for the two are directly related.”

“I did not know that.”

“It seems to be coming toward us, so we should retreat. I doubt that we will get any wetter than we already are, so we can be foolish if we like and stand under that runoff and enjoy it while we can. We cannot get any wetter than we already are, and it is pleasantly warm.”

They walked over to the conservatory and stood for a few moments under the drenching runoff from the roof, feeling its warmth in their hair and down their bodies as they laughed. There was something deliciously sensual about what they were doing. Annis could not help but laugh at his obvious enjoyment of it all. “How strange you are to enjoy such things.” In the poor light, occasionally brightened by stronger lightning flashes from cloud to cloud far above them, she could just see the rain pouring down his face as he smiled at her. She knew she would present the same sight to him. He leaned in and kissed her as the water played over all three of them.

A lightning strike seemed suddenly to hit a tree at the edge of the woods, and within a second or less, there was a sharp and loud crack of thunder that hurt their senses and threw them together in a moment of reflexive panic that set their hearts thumping. It had been unnerving, and they quickly entered the conservatory and closed off the outside as they laughed nervously.

“That scared me.” Sophia appeared to be glad to be out of it, but not sure how safe she might be in such an open room, despite the glass covering it all. She seemed to be losing her love of such storms.

“Yes, me too,” he admitted. “It was too close and not quite as enjoyable as at a distance. Right on top of us. But we are safe in here, I think. The trees will take the brunt of it as they usually do. I am wringing wet as I know both of you must be too. It may be a warm rain, but it will soon rob us of warmth so we had better get inside the house and get ourselves changed and back to our beds or….” he looked at them and smiled, “…or we can get ourselves dressed and come back here to see it all as it moves through, if the mood strikes you.  I doubt any of us will be able to sleep now until it has passed. I think we should be safe enough here for the moment.”

Annis took his arm. “I think I would like to do that.  I know that I will not sleep now for a while either.” They walked over to the door into the house and tried to open it, but it would not open.

“Strange.” He seemed puzzled. “I did not lock it when I came out, and they are never locked, but it feels as though it is locked now. Ah well, the other door at the rear of house must still be open. Hollis does not usually lock any of the doors unless he knows that the gypsies are about. Maybe that was it. We can get there along the side of the building. We will get even more wet I suppose, if that were possible, but at least we will be able to get in unless he locked those too.”

They returned outside and, holding onto each other, walked without any urgency, despite the storm and the wet along the edge of the dark building, noting with some relief that the storm was moving further away from them, but with another storm sweeping in along the same track from the coast if the distant lightning was any indication. The wind had died a fraction.

They tried that door too. It was also locked. “I think Hollis has locked them all for once in his life. It’s either gypsies, or the storm must have woken him up and he locked all of the doors to stop them blowing open. I seem to remember he considered such a storm as warring between gods and devils and was intent on keeping them out when they were in that kind of a mood. I wonder what would make him think they needed a door to enter by? Damn! I will have to climb into your bedroom window as I did when it was my room. I think I can maneuver the vines in the dark, though I am heavier now.”

“You can’t.” Annis pointed out to him. “I closed and latched it against the wind and rain.”

“And I did mine too, to stop the wind blowing it open, and allowing the rain to beat in. Back to the conservatory then.” They walked back and let themselves into the conservatory again.

Annis smiled at the sudden predicament they were faced with. “So what are we to do, William?”

“We can stay here all night if necessary. But we need to get ourselves dry first I would say. There is a day bed over there with a heavy coverlet on it. My mother used to spend some time out here. You and Sophia can snuggle yourselves up in that and pass me your nightclothes to dry. There is nothing I can do about it.  Hollis is as deaf as a post, and I would be unable to arouse him, even if I knew which was his room. We can stay out here, and I can make up the stove if there are still some live coals in it, and I am sure there are. We can all sit around that if you would prefer. The stonework holds the heat for a long time, and it is still warm.” He touched the rocks. “It is not unpleasant here just yet and will not get that way if we can get warm enough to dry out. I used to spend a lot of time out here and even feasted upon figs when they were ripe.”

He opened the stove door and discovered that there were still live coals as he expected, and there was a good supply of dry wood nearby. There would be more after tonight, with all of the trees brought down. He loaded the large firebox up with smaller pieces that would easily catch from the embers and then added larger pieces until there was a blazing fire going.

He noticed Sophia was shivering. “You will need to get out of that wet nightdress first young lady, or you will soon be even less comfortable.” He retrieved the coverlet, and as Annis stripped off Sophia’s nightdress, he wrapped her in the coverlet, which would soon dry her, and lifted her onto the day bed.

“Comfortable?”

She nodded. “There’s room for all three of us here. We could keep each other warm.”

“Yes. We could, but you and Annis can. I shall stay out here and see to the fire.”

He wrung the small nightdress out by the drain in the floor and then hung it on a line strung above the stove where it would soon dry out. The heat was beginning to rise strongly from the stove now. He could hear the wood crackling loudly and could see thin fingers of flickering golden light shining out through the air vents onto his legs. He opened the door partially to increase the draft. “You could join her if you wish, you know?” He spoke to Annis. “I would turn my back while you get out of your wet clothing and see that it gets dry for you.”

“No. She is warm enough there and wide awake as well, and I am warm enough for the moment, even if I am soaking wet.”

“Then you and I can sit here together if you like, and talk and keep each other warm. There is a large kind of straw-filled bed that was used for the dogs when they were kept out here at night. It’s a bit scratchy, but I’ve even slept on it myself once or twice. We can sit on it in front of this stove and get ourselves warm.”

He brought it out from behind the stove, sniffed at it suspiciously, turned it over, and dropped it to the floor in front of the fire and up against the wood pile. “It smells clean, and we can lean up against the wood pile here with this behind us and under us and even stretch our legs out and rest them against the stones that we use to hold the heat. Until they get too hot. The cats used to lie against it too until the stones got too warm and then they took off. We’ll soon get dry, and it does not matter if this gets damp.”

She sat herself down beside him, half sitting and half reclining, and leaned up against him as he pulled her closer into him and even kissed her once more. She sighed. “I could sleep here. It is so comfortable against you, and from the sounds of it, Sophia is asleep already.”

“No, I’m not. I’m warming up.” Sophia’s voice piped up sleepily from the shadows.

“I doubt that you would be able to sleep in all of that wet, any more than I might, but we will soon get dry.” His voice dropped as he spoke so that only Annis could hear him. “Be careful, my love, that Lady Seymour does not catch a whiff of this, especially if you find that you can go to sleep in my arms, though how she would find out about that, I do not know.  I shall say nothing.”

“William. How could she possibly hear of any of it?” She struggled to her knees, pulling her nightdress free from under her, and turned to lie with her back onto him. She looked up at his face as she snuggled closer into his chest so that he could put his arms around her, and might be able to kiss her more easily, which he took the opportunity to do, and spoke so that Sophia would not overhear what she said. “To think that both this indelicate circumstance, and that earlier one, may both have been deliberately planned.” Her eyes seemed to be twinkling with amusement in the dim light.

“Do you think so? Both of them? With what end?” He knew the answer to that for himself.

“To throw us together shamelessly of course. As we are. We are also ill-dressed.”

“Yes we are. Again. And both of us too. But it is dark and there is no one else to see us. You may be right about it being a deliberate plot.” He stroked her damp hair and wrapped his arms about her as he pulled her closer. “I soon realized that yesterday’s adventure was created cleverly by her when she sought me out—as she did—and told me you were stuck up on that beam as she had been, and this one fits the same pattern. Now that I recall it, she was the one who mentioned having seen gypsies in the home wood. But how did she know Hollis would lock the doors after that?”

“William, if you do not yet know that Sophia knows everything that goes on, even to the habits of the servants, and provokes most of it, you are very slow indeed.”

He tried to imitate Lady Seymour but kept his voice low, speaking softly into Annis’s ear as she leaned back against him. “My dears, the child is obviously beyond saving, leading adults astray and into iniquitous channels,as she does.”He chuckled. “She will be fired up to write yet another letter to your mother about us both. That makes three so far by my reckoning.”

“I do not care if she does, William; not now, and I don’t think anyone else will either.” They both laughed as she turned and snuggled into him with her arms around him and her face looking up at him. She seemed to be inviting him to kiss her again, so he did.

She brought her knees up to her body once more so that she could lean more closely into him and take advantage of his warmth. As they held each other, he was deeply conscious of her breasts, not at all well hidden, pushing up against his chest and of her nightdress falling away from her legs as she continuously adjusted her position to lie on his chest as she did. She did not seem to care. They had progressed too far for any such considerations of appearance to mar them being able to relax intimately with each other. He knew that he presented as embarrassing an appearance as she did, and much as they had at the trough that day at Underby as they had sat very close to each other. “I find that I do not want to sleep, William. I like what we are doing, so you have no need to stop kissing me, you know?”

After some moments of such tender affection and with them both becoming breathless, she smiled at the obvious effects she was having on his composure and allowed him to rest for a while. She snuggled further down onto him and closed her eyes, feeling his hand upon her bare knee and holding her close. She knew that he watched her for some time, fighting with his own turbulent feelings as she was dealing with her own, as she occasionally opened her own to catch him smiling upon her.

 

He must have dozed off with the warmth from her body, her closeness, and the added warmth from the stove.  He awoke some time later to discover that he was alone and partially covered by a corner of the bedding.

The woodstove had been made up earlier and was throwing out its warmth. In the first glimmer of morning light, he saw that there were two nightdresses now hanging over the top of the stove and seemed to be drying well. He was relieved to find that his own was now mostly dry. He smiled. He looked over to the day bed and saw Annis watching him from under the coverlet. She was wide awake and smiling at him too.

“Well, you were brave to have done that, my love. What would you have done if I had awoken?”

“But you did not awake when I left you and made up the wood stove, and I was far too noisy about it.”

“Yes, that was reckless of you. But why did you do that and risk me waking up?” He did not really need to ask.

“I refuse to say for the moment. You are really a sheep in wolves clothing I can see. You are all bluster and not much for a girl to fear.” Her loving smile robbed her comments of any hurtful intent.

“Girls have no need to fear me. Young ladies—one young lady, should.”

She studied him. “Yet I don’t. I think you fear me more than I might fear you.” She looked at him with a smile on her face, not realizing how true that comment was. “I must have been tired last night.  I do not clearly remember getting in here with Sophia after that, but it is very warm. Tell me, William, how are we to get back into the house without alerting everyone to this second questionable adventure we have got ourselves embroiled in?”

“Each hurdle in turn, my dear. Hollis will unlock all of the house doors when he wakes, which should not be very long now. We shall hear the lock turn. I don’t think he is in the habit of checking out here at all or making the stove up, so when he has done that we can all creep back into the house.”

“You will need to pass us our nightclothes first when mine is dry, and we shall get dressed under here.”

“That will be no fun for me. I was hoping I might help you again. I need to become practiced at it. Sophia does not object to my helping her in that way, and nor should you. But yes.” he continued. “If he does happen to come out here, you two shall just lie still and say nothing. You will be hidden away under the cover, unseen, and I shall sit here and let him know in a severe tone that he locked me out, but I shall also tell him that I forgive him, for I am comfortable and contented. He’s found me out here before when I was younger, though I was not locked out then, so it will not surprise him too much. He laughs at my attempted severity anyway, for he knows I mean him no harm. As well as being deaf, he is as blind as a bat, and will not notice nightdresses drying. At least I hope he doesn’t. But even if he does, he will say nothing and he will not see either of you to know that they should not be there.”

She snuggled down lower under the coverlet to join Sophia, feeling contented and safe and confident in herself at that moment.

Deception By Proxy. Ch. 31. A Young Conspirator is Run to Ground.

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

Some hours later, Annis caught up with her elusive youngest sister.

“Sophia. No, do not try to run off again.” She held her by the shoulder. “You have been avoiding me after that episode in the barn.” Annis had tried to get Sophia alone for some hours, but Sophia had been avoiding her, recognizing that she was about to be taken to task for what had happened.

“You deliberately plotted to get me out there, as ill dressed as I was, to rescue a kitten that did not need to be rescued at all and with me winding up in an embarrassing situation. I was surprised to learn that you clearly knew the kitten was not there at all, for William had rescued you in almost the same way earlier, and the kitten too.”

“Yes. But I was not sure that the mother cat would not return there with the kitten, and I did see the rat again, so I had to find you then.”

“I am not sure you are to be believed.” But it had sounded plausible.

“But Annis, William had gone by then, so I had to do something. But then he came back again. I do not know what you were complaining about after that. William would not have allowed you to fall. Besides, I thought it was brave of you. He did not seem to mind helping you. He seemed to find it all very interesting, despite your fussing and complaints for I know he liked looking up at you in your nightdress. I thought it quite funny at times with you trying to hide yourself from him, and so did he. He has seen you in less.”

“It was not funny. It was embarrassing with me in just that nightdress. I guessed what you were up to you know? You must stop trying to throw William and me together. Was he aware of what you were doing? Did you plot it together?”

“Of course not. I would never have dared tell him anything of that. He would have told me it was not proper to put my sister into that predicament, though you and he seem to get into them all by yourselves often enough.” Annis wondered with some growing concern what it was that she might think she knew.

“Why should I not try and throw you both together in that way? He is in love with you, but you seem to blow hot and cold with him, whatever that means. I overheard Mama and Charlotte speaking of how you encourage him daringly one minute and then seem to be too cautious the next, and they think you are annoyingly frustrating for the poor man in the way you behave, and should take pity on him. I have watched you with him, and him with you. Charlotte even says that you seemed meant for each other, and she didn’t approve at first when she saw you both together by the trough, but did. She also thought that William was moving things along quite fast, whatever that means, or maybe you were, when she and Mama saw you shaving him and tempting him, and encouraging him so outrageously to touch…different…. things.” She decided to say no more on that. “But Mama approved. What does outrageously mean?”

Annis could not hide her blushes at hearing her youngest sister hint at such deeply personal things that others had seen when they should not have. “You must allow others to have some measure of privacy young lady, and you should not speak in that way, Sophia.”

“I know. I won’t say anything.” Sophia looked at her sister. “But I like William, and you and he were meant for each other, and I think I do know what that means now. If you won’t marry him, I will. I have told him that I love him. I did ask him to marry me too, if you won’t, but unfortunately, I am not old enough. Even know that. But he told me that if I were of the same mind when I was twenty-one that he would certainly marry me. You are twenty one.”

“Oh, Sophia. What would you know of such things? It is not proper what Charlotte may have said…well… mostly not proper.” She was uncomfortably brought to realize that it had all been true. She had encouraged him to be bold with her, perhaps more than was wise, and perhaps more than just a little. “But he is married now.”

“No, he is not.” Her youngest sister almost stamped her foot in annoyance at her sister’s foolishness. “He is a widower and a young man, so Mama said, and he needs a new wife now to fulfill his needs (whatever they are), and if you are not careful, he will leave us all and find one to oblige him in that way somewhere else, and if that happened I would never forgive you.” She was flushed as well as annoyed. “I heard Charlotte say that just the other day too, that he would soon leave us without something strong to hold him here. She said a young man surrounded by so many foolishly fond women and so much temptation denied him, must have a wife to calm him down and to focus his male attention—as Molly does with Thomas I think, when she takes him into the barn and encourages him to touch… and to do what they do. And your breasts are much bigger than Molly’s.” She reflected for a moment. “So that is what male attention means.” She chuckled over that sudden, embarrassing realization, but felt it wise not to continue along that line of thought, “…and that if he could not soon attach himself to you…in that way…as Thomas does to Molly; ’attach’.” She suddenly saw meaning in that too, “…but you were resisting for some reason that no one seemed to understand, and don’t…that he would be gone. Though I did not understand all of what she said. He must have an attentive living wife to love. Why is it improper to say what is obvious to everyone? He loves you and would like to touch your… and become ‘attached’ to you, and I think that you love him from what I have seen.”

Annis was flushed. “You see too much, and seem to know more than is good for you. Also, to be attached in that way, is not what you are assuming. What would you know of any of that, young lady; of mature love, or of what Molly and Thomas get up to?”

Sophia was not shy to relate what she had seen. “Molly and Thomas do that ‘attaching’ thing every Sunday in the barn after the get rid of all of their clothes while everyone else is at church… and they really are attached like that, like the dog and the bitch that time when they couldn’t get apart, for I watch them doing what they do whenever I can. They like being attached to each other, though they joked about hiding something away in that nurturing garden that Molly has within her shrubbery.” Her sister seemed to have a slight coughing fit, but not enough to concern her sister. “It is very interesting, but I am not sure that I know what they meant about the garden. I looked but could see nothing there. Mama and Papa were in love and did that too. When I could not sleep and came into your bed once or twice, I sometimes woke to see you and Charlotte watching them in their bedroom through that little crack in the plaster when they did not know it, and you thought I was asleep.” Annis listened to her sister in some surprise. “After they had gone quiet, you and Charlotte giggled a lot and thought it quite funny sometimes, and you went very quiet and wide eyed at others and held on to each other just after he had taken off her nightd—”

“Sophia.” Annis interrupted her and stopped the further flow of embarrassing disclosures. “You must never speak of such things. Nor should you have watched as you did.”

“Well he did. You and Charlotte watched. But I did not understand all of what you were saying to each other, except that you thought that what was going on was quite confusing. I could see your shocked faces, and you wondered why mama did not cry out more and object when papa…”

“Stop, Sophia.” Annis was blushing quite red.”

“Well, it must have hurt.”

“Sophia, you must never repeat any of that nor will you ask anyone about it. You will learn all about that when you are older.”

She could see that Annis was quite upset. “I won’t say anything. Molly doesn’t object or cry out when Thomas pushes that part of himself….”

“Stop, Sophia.”

“Well he does.” She would clearly not be shut up. “But she doesn’t seem to mind when he lies on top of her as he kisses her. As for not watching mama and papa, you and Charlotte did, and you found it entertaining from what I could see, for you did not stop watching them.”

There was no answering that. Sophia saw, and understood far more than anyone might give her credit for.

“You and William spend a lot of time laughing together too, just as I remember Mama and Papa doing, and they were in love and were not afraid to show it. Mama says that when two people love each other, it is natural that they want to be together all of the time, and should marry, and that is what I was helping to achieve. I was hoping that you and William might do what Mama and Papa…”

“Stop! Stop! You must not speak nor even think such things. You must not speak of them to anyone.” She looked severely at her sister. “Another thing; that episode of getting me out to the barn to… You should not have done it in the way that you did, telling lies about that kitten needing to be rescued.”

“But it did need rescuing. Earlier. So it was not all of it a lie.”

“And hiding my clothes to get me out there so unsuitably clad while you spun that tale of urgency.”

“I didn’t. The maid was in earlier and took them. They were still damp from the water you spilled on your dress just before we came to bed. It did not dry out as you thought it might. But it was urgent. William would soon be gone to the outer fields and would not be able to help you down as he did me, and I wanted him to have to help you down, especially if you were in only your nightdress. You and that seem to attract his attention and interest, more than when you are fully dressed. I like to watch you together. Thomas and Molly know what to do when they are alone in the barn at home, and it is ever so interesting to watch them undress each other and become attached and excited, as they do so often, but you…”

Annis suddenly recovered her tongue after being rendered speechless yet again, over what her sister was daring to tell her. “Enough. Sophia. I am surprised at you. What Thomas and Molly get up to when they are alone, or think they are alone, is none of your business nor mine either, and you must never tell that to anyone else. You must not speak of Thomas and Molly’s trysts to anyone else. Nor should you watch them as you do. You see too much. You will be caught eventually, and that would upset them dreadfully. Yes, you threw William and me together, but I was in my nightdress, and that is not acceptable, no matter what you thought.”

“Why not? The way he was looking up at you and smiling, it was clear that he likes you in your nightdress, and you didn’t seem embarrassed when that was all that both of you, and even all of us had on that morning of the fire. He was in his nightshirt when he rescued you, and that was all you had on too, and you were both wet and it was easy to see—”

“Enough.”

“He was looking at you in a strange way then too and he wanted to take your nightdress off you. Charlotte noticed. And so did you, and you seemed to like it and even encourage it then. Mama was even smiling, and she should not have been smiling like that, for I know her ankle was hurting her. You have been with him in only your nightdress several times after that fire, and he often helps me on and off with mine when I get ready for bed or need bathing or changing.”

“You are six years old, and believe me, it is not the same.”

“Not yet. But when I develop breasts and hair there, like you have, he will…for he finds them interesting too when you are not looking at him. But I think he likes you even more when you are not in it. You had no nightdress on that afternoon after you had come back from that ride with….” She stopped speaking, realizing that she had perhaps said more than she should.

Would her sister’s perceptive and embarrassing revelations never cease? “And what do you think you know of that? Surely you had all gone into the garden to pick roses at that time?” Annis had an alarmed look on her face with her eyes wide and a distinct blush on her cheeks. Her sister’s seemingly innocent observations were alarming.

Sophia had said more than she had intended. Again. She had a sheepish look on her face and recognized that an explanation was now called for. “Mama and Charlotte did, but I stayed behind and decided I would go up to see if you were all right. I pushed the door open. You were bathing in front of your mirror with nothing on, and William was behind you.”

“Sophia. You little wretch. I hope you did not speak of that to anyone else.”

“Of course I didn’t. It was all interesting. He was very gentle with you, just as he is with me. I don’t know why you made such a fuss of it all. Why did he have his eyes closed, though he didn’t at first? I see you that way all of the time. He bathes me that way too, but he doesn’t have his eyes closed then.”

“That is different.”

“Yes, it was. He was looking at you once or twice when he thought you were not looking at him. But you didn’t respond as you should have. He didn’t hug you close, or tickle you, or kiss you on the middle or blow loud noises on your bare belly or bum, or turn you upside down, as he does me and sets me off laughing and screaming.”

“Yes. I suppose there are some things I can be thankful for.” Annis was surprised to recognize a pang of regret at that moment, which she soon dispelled. “But that was wrong of you to watch us like that. Getting me into that barn under a false pretext was also wrong. If two people are attracted to each other, they will find their own way. It does not help things along if someone else is pulling the strings so clumsily.”

“But I do not want him to leave, Annis. Nor does Mama or Charlotte, and I don’t think you do either. Do you?” There was a plaintive tone in her voice.

“No. Of course I don’t. But how can he leave? This is his home, not ours.” How she might stop them from leaving him, was more to the point, but she was not sure how to do that or, seeing how it might be done, was not sure that she had the courage to do it.

“That is not what I meant, Annis. We will soon need to leave and go back home when the repairs are finished. I heard Mama say as much, and they soon will be, and then he may not come with us to stay at Underby if his interest is not fixed—whatever that means—that male attention part again, I expect, and getting attached, as I know he would like to do to you. He is my friend. I have never had a friend like him.”

Annis was almost speechless with shock at what her sister knew and had seen. “I doubt that we can stop him from coming or going, or whatever he might decide to do. He is a man, and men do what they choose to do, not what a woman might suggest. I have little influence on him. He married Bella, remember? We are all in mourning, though it does not seem that we are at times. He has a habit of distracting all of us cleverly from our grief. But what is more important is that I could not stop him if he did choose to leave us or to let us go.”

She noticed that Sophia had tears in her eyes. “But, Annis, you could stop him if you wanted to. You could if you set your mind to it. You can do anything you set your mind to. You told Charlotte and me often enough that we can outwit any foolish man if we were to set our minds to it. You just haven’t thought about it enough, but have. He would stay with us if you were to persuade him to attach to you, and let him do to you what Thomas does to Molly, for they seem so happy doing that, and even laugh afterwards, despite her crying out as she does as they hug each other so hard and make some strange grunting noises. It must not be very comfortable with him being big like that, though she does not sound to be in pain that way, no matter how big he becomes or how hard he pushes…” Sophia’s voice slowly faded as the shocked look on her sister’s face.

Annis decided not to respond to that. “I was referring to the young men in the village. William is of a different class. You know, if I hadn’t seen you being born and helped you into the world, I would doubt that you were really my sister. You must stop this plotting to throw William and me together. It is not proper so soon after Bella…”

Sophia had fled the room at that point in tears, and Annis was left to agonize over what she had said to hurt her sister and how she might have dealt with it all differently, for everything Sophia had said had a glimmer of truth in it. More than a glimmer. She didn’t want him to go either.

She decided to give her youngest sister some time to calm down and she would try to find out more of what her mother and Charlotte had said, for they had certainly not confided in her, whereas Sophia seemed to know everything that was going on. Even about Thomas and Molly. That in itself was shocking enough for Annis to have seen, never mind Sophia. Though she found that she had envied them their tender show of affection for each other, before her conscience got the better of her, and she quietly removed herself from spying on them.

Annis considered long and hard over what Sophia had said and began to see her situation quite differently. What did she really want to see happen in her life? She accepted that Sophia seemed to have a perception and an understanding well beyond her six years, though she had not told Annis anything she had not already seen for herself. She decided that she would try and recover some of the ground she may have lost with her sister. Perhaps Sophia and Charlotte were both right, and that it was also time to be more demonstrative of her own feelings towards William before she really did lose him.

Deception by Proxy. Ch. 30. The Unusual Plights of the Kitten and Annis.

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

“Annis. Annis. You must come at once, without delay. Oh please hurry. There is a rat in the barn, and it is going to kill the kitten, I know it. I cannot stop it, for it is out of my reach. The mother cat is gone somewhere. Oh please come, please, before it is too late.”

Annis threw back the covers and reached for her clothes. “It cannot be much after five, Sophia. Why have you not told William instead of me as you seem to be so thick with him?”

Sophia had run over to the door, wondering why her sister was not already following her as quickly as she might. “I tried, and I would have done, but he is not in his bed, and it is cold. He has ridden off somewhere, and I can find no one else, for it is too early. I doubt that Charlotte would help me, for she is barely awake even by nine.”

Her impatience was mounting by the second as Annis searched for something to wear. “Oh please, Annis. We do not have time for that. There is no one else moving about at all, and there won’t be for at least another hour or even two.” She stamped her foot and was overwrought and close to tears.

“But I cannot go like this. Where are my clothes? Where is my dress? There is no wrap either.”

“We shall be too late.” Tearful frustration filled her sister’s eyes.

“Oh very well. It is too early for anyone else to be about, except you did say William had gone. I do hope there is no one to see us, though you are dressed, I see.”

Sophia led her elder sister downstairs and off at a fast clip around the corner of the building and across the yard to the smaller barn. The wind whipped dust about Annis’s bare legs and blew her nightdress up around her as she tried to hold it down about her legs, fearful that others might see her in her present state. She regretted having come without taking time to find at least some of her clothes and to get dressed.

They pushed into the dark interior of the barn. It was dusty and eerily still. “This was not wise of you, Sophia. Nor of me, I fear.”

“But it won’t take long.”

“Now where is this kitten? Or more to the point, where is the rat? I do not like rats.”

“The rat will not stay if you are up there with the kitten, and the mother cat will soon return, I know it. The cat’s nest is just under that small window. I dared not come and get you till now when I saw the rat retreat, for I was throwing things at it.”

“I see nothing of any kitten.”

“No, it is well hidden as they always are.”

“And how am I to get to the kitten, pray? I do not see a ladder except that one against the hay, but that is too short.”

Oh Annis. You will use that one to climb onto the hay there, and then you can go across the hay to that small platform and onto the beam. It is only a short walk from there across to the nest.”

“Really? You make it sound so easy. It looks like a remarkably foolhardy venture to me.”

“But it is easy. It is. I would show you myself, but…Please, Annis.”

“No. That is far too high for me, never mind for you. I shall not risk my life by going out there. You should go and get William after I return to the house.”

“But he is not here at the moment. Oh dear. Then I must.” She sobbed in frustration and headed for the ladder to get up onto the first bank of hay.

It was clear that she would too, and would likely fall from the beam, for it seemed very narrow. “No. You stay. shall go.” She helped Sophia off the ladder. “But if I fall, it shall be on your head, perhaps in more ways than one. If I get a broken bone out of this, you shall not hear the last of it.”

“Oh please hurry, Annis. Please.I cannot see the rat now, and it may already be with the kitten.”

“I doubt it. Not after the noise weseem to be making.”

Despite the entire escapade being against her better judgment, she climbed the ladder and onto the hay mow and then struggled through the higher banking of hay, scratching her legs in the process. She lost her balance and tumbled back indecorously on two occasions, getting hay all up through her nightdress and in her hair and mouth, and then maneuvered up to the platform in the top of the barn. It was obviously where numerous pigeons congregated on a regular basis, for there were nests here and there, all empty. Perhaps the rat had scared them off or…she put that thought from her mind and without looking down, balanced shakily across the beam to the far side and held strongly and with some nervous relief onto the edge of the small window high off the ground.

“Now where is this kitten?”

“The nest is right there. Right in front of you, just below the window. By your knees.”

Annis saw with a sinking heart that the small nest was empty. “I do not see a kitten.”

There was a small cry of despair from beneath her. “Oh, do not say that, Annis. It must be there. It must.”

“But it isn’t.”

“Look around. It may have tried to escape.”

“I still see nothing, and I do not see where it might have gone either.” She decided not to mention that there seemed to be a small spot of blood on the wood near the nest, and even the head of a mouse, but no sign of any rat or the kitten. She shivered in disgust. “I see nothing. The mother cat must have moved it. They do, you know, for we followed one set of kittens to three different hide-a-ways on one occasion. She knew we were looking for her kittens, and she would know of a rat too and would do anything to protect her kitten. I would.”

“Yes. Perhaps that is it. Oh, I hope so. But why would anyone want to drown kittens, for that is what they did with the others, didn’t they?”

“Yes, they did I expect. If they didn’t, then the place would be overrun by them.”

“That is cruel. I would have hidden them myself if I had known.”

“Now where did you see this rat?”

“It was over there when I saw it.” She pointed to the small platform at the far end of the beam.

“Well, Sophia, I think it must be long gone by now, considering all of the activity that you and I both have been involved with here. But now we have yet another problem.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“How am I to get down?”

“You can go back across the beam.” Sophia seemed to find it strange to be asked so obvious a question.

“I suppose I can. I managed to come across it easily enough, I think, for there was some urgency in doing so, and my mind was elsewhere, but I am not sure it will be quite as easy going the other way now that there is none, and I can also see how far down it really is without the glare from the window in my face.”

“You shouldn’t look down.”

“Now why did I let you talk me into this, young lady? If I fall and break a leg….”

“But it was urgent, Annis. Oh I do hope we were not too late. But you used to climb in the barn at home.”

“Yes, I did. But I was fully dressed then, and I knew what I was about and where I could hang onto something. There is nothing here, and I am too high for my own comfort. It is higher than the barn at home, and everything is out of reach.”

“You don’t look that high to me.”

“No. It never does seem that far up from down there, but it is when you get up here yourself. I should have let you do this, and then I could have caught you if you had fallen, but you cannot catch me.”

“No. Then what are we to do?”

“I shall think. Charlotte said something about a longer ladder. You shall go and find that, and drag it here if need be, for I doubt you could carry it.” She swore at herself. “Sophia?”

“Yes?”

“Tell no one why you need it, nor what it is for.” How Sophia might stand the ladder up for her when she had found it, was out of mind at the moment.

Sophia disappeared from view.

Less than two interminable minutes later, she heard the door creaking. “Sophia. You found it.”

“So here you are. Found what?”

She froze. “William? Oh. You must not see me. You must not.” She pulled her nightdress closer around her with her free hand.

“Why must I not see you?”

He walked into view.

“Well, Miss. Not another one after that kitten. What are you doing up there?”

“The kitten…the kitten.” She pointed to the nest.

“It is now safe in the kitchen with its mother, by the stove. Sophia and I rescued it this morning when I helped her down from that same perch not thirty minutes ago. I am surprised she did not tell you before you climbed up there.”

“Surely not. She was just….” Her voice trailed off. She determined that she would certainly have a word with her youngest sister about this and find out what the true story was. Unless the mother cat had returned with it as they sometimes did.

William continued as though he had not heard her. “There was a rat about and bigger than the cat could handle. We’ll get the terrier to find it later. But the ladder that you expected Sophia to find is on its way to one of the outer barns by now. I thought I saw her leave urgently and talking to herself about the long ladder, and I know I heard other voices, so I came to find out what was afoot.”

“Oh.”

“I think you should come down now. It is not at all safe up there, and if you were to fall….”

“I would get down. I would if I could. I can’t. I got across here easily enough, but it is quite another matter to get back.”

“Yes. That’s always the way of it. Sophia found that out too. I am here now, and I can always break your fall.” He moved under the beam and almost directly below her.

“You must turn away, sir, and hide your eyes.”

“Why?”

“Because I am…I am not properly dressed.”

“Oh, is that all? How remiss of you.” He looked up at her. “But a prettily embroidered nightdress and daringly short too. Or is that because of the angle of view? Yes, you must be quite cold and finding the drafts ferocious by that window and rustling through your maidenly foliage.”

She gasped and let out a low noise of complaint as she clutched tighter at her inadequate clothing. He was having fun at her expense.

“What made you come out here so ill-attired to rescue a kitten that did not need rescuing and at this hour of the morning?”

“Sophia.”

“You are shedding hay from under your nightdress too.”

“Damn!”

“I did not hear that.”

“But I did not know that you had rescued it, and I got the impression that nor did she, and I did not expect to find myself in this predicament. But you must go away or hide your eyes, sir.”

“If you expect me to catch you or break your fall, I need to stay here and to keep my eyes open, so I suppose we shall both have to accept the situation. I did not encounter you so little time ago only to see you snatched away from me by this foolishness. I have seen you in less, or have you forgotten? If I were to lose you now, I do not know what I would do with myself.”

She scowled down at him, hearing only the first part of his explanation it seemed, or she may have responded differently. “Oh, you. You.”

“Yes, my love? Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

She had let go of her support and started out along the beam, holding her nightdress tightly about her legs. He backed up beneath her, ready to break her fall if she did lose her balance.

“You need your arms for balance, my dear, not to protect your modesty at a time like this or to hide that delicate female foliage and shrubbery. Too late anyway. If you fall and hurt yourself, your modesty will count for very little. Why you need to do so escapes me, for there is little that either of us has not seen of the other from time to time, it seems.”

She blushed, but he could not see that. “But you are directly below me, and I am up here. I had not intended this.”

“Of course not. Neither did I. But I think I see what you mean, with my looking up…up at you. No, I had not seen you quite from this intriguing aspect before. Interesting perspective…which reminds me, the kitten we rescued was also female.”

“William! Oh, you…You….” she was alarmed about what he could see of her. “I can do it.” He seemed quite amused at her predicament. “I have done it before, and I shall do it again.”

“It is not advisable, Annis. At least not that way. If you will be patient, I will be able to think of something.”

“Yes, if I wait long enough.” she protested. “But meanwhile, half of the laborers will be here to ogle me too when they bring hay in. I shall never recover from the shame of it.”

“No, they won’t. Not for another few hours anyway. Besides there is nothing else for them to do here until more hay is dry, so they will not be in here again for at least another day. Had the rat not been about, this would never have happened this way, for we would not have moved the kitten, and this mow would now be at least half full of hay, and you could just fall off and land safely in the hay.”

“Oh.” She stopped and teetered unsteadily.

“What is the matter?”

“I have a splinter in my foot.”

“I’m not surprised. I seem to recall that I discovered a few of those in that same beam many years ago to my great pain and cost, but I did not have your courage to balance across it at that time, and you in your bare feet too. I was astride it and shuffling across it. I recall that it was very painful. It took a week or more to work some of them out. You are lucky you found out that way first, rather than the other, as I did.”

“Now you tell me.” She sounded frustrated and angry. “I found none on my way across. I cannot move.”

“Of course, you can. You did very well so far. You are almost to the rope.”

“What rope?” She recalled that Sophia, or was it Charlotte, had mentioned a swing.

“There is a rope tied around that beam that we used to swing on as children, and what is left of it hangs down for at least two feet.”

“Oh. Can you not get it to hang up, sir? It does me no good down there, for I cannot see it.” He laughed at her request.

“Oh. This is embarrassing. But you are a man and would know nothing about that.”

“Yes, it is embarrassing. But do not worry, my dear, I will soon get over it.”

She mumbled something uncomplimentary under her breath. “I meant for me.”

He chuckled. “I had not thought of that.” He was having fun at her expense.

“You are a liar and a rogue, and you are enjoying every minute of my acute discomfort.”

“Yes, I am, aren’t I? But I am not the one caught in this situation and in a short nightdress. Isn’t it amazing how all of my difficulties seem to find me, and not I them. What a pity Lady Seymour is not aware of this as another example of how trouble so easily finds me. You must explain to your mother how I so skillfully managed to maneuver you up onto that beam in just your short and all-revealing nightdress so that I might stare up…up at you in your present state of interesting undre…—difficulty.”

She blushed profusely. There was a certain truth in what he said (and avoided saying) that was not lost on her at that moment. “William?”

“Yes, my love.”

“If you dare to mention this to anyone, I will shoot you.”

“Oh. That sounds serious. But that’s the spirit. Of course you will. What makes you think I would tell anyone else about this and spoil the fun? I told no one about our earlier, even more revealing, and equally disturbing encounter. But there is a solution at hand.”

“Where? What is it?”

“Immediately above your head and tying the rafters together, there is a small piece of wood, a brace, going across. If you straighten up and reach directly above you, you will find it. I think it might just be in reach for you.”

“But…but.”

“You may either continue to protect your modesty, precariously like that—a waste of time and effort now, I can assure you—and risk a fall for little reason, or you can protect yourself from falling. Though I shall catch you if you do. But if you injure yourself, you will find yourself in a more revealing state by far and with precious little hidden from prying and curious eyes as we need to assess your injuries. You will need to make up your mind, my dear, for you cannot do both. When I see that you cannot fall, I can come and rescue you.”

“But this is a short nightdress and will….”

“Yes, it will, won’t it? At least I hope so. But no more than it already has. Besides, I need to refresh my tormented memory.”

“You devil.” She let go of her nightdress, straightened up, and felt above her head while striving to keep her balance.

“Almost there. A little higher. Higher, my dear. Yes, it does ride up quite high upon you, doesn’t it?”

She ground her teeth at his tormenting her this way. He watched as her hand reached above her and found the wooden crosspiece and grasped it.

“There. That’s better.” He heaved a sigh of relief. “Yes. Most satisfactory, my love. Now you are unlikely to fall.”

“Satisfactory in what way? But I can go nowhere like this and you…you
…seeing….”

“You don’t have to go anywhere. But then you can’t, can you? Just hold onto that piece of wood. I can leave here now—eventually, if I can tear myself away from such entrancing scenery—so that you may no longer fear what I might see, and get to you, now that you are at least safe for the moment. Hang on and stay still, I am coming up to you.”

“I cannot see you. Where are you?”

She heard his voice but could not see him. “No. You can’t see me now. Don’t let go or do anything else. I am climbing up near the window and behind you, and I am no longer beneath you to see anything, unfortunately, so relax.”

“Perhaps that is how should have done this.”

“I don’t think you would have easily done it in a dress even as short and as loose fitting as that one.”

She felt embarrassed over the truth of that and withheld comment. “Oh. But when you get up here, how will we get down?”

“One step at a time, my dear. I shall explain when I get to you. Are you still hanging on?”

“Yes.” She felt the barn sway slightly as he climbed and then felt and heard his feet on the beam behind her.

“Almost got you.” She felt his hand take a secure and tight hold of her nightdress behind her at the lower part of her back and then gasped as his fingers caught some of her skin in his grip. “Ouch.”

“Sorry if I pinched your skin, but I need to make sure that you do not slip out of my hold. It would not do for me to find myself holding an empty nightdress, would it?”

As much as he would have liked to have done so in other circumstances.

“Now you can let go of that brace and can back up to me slowly. Let go of the wood above you and use your hands to balance.”

“My splinter….”

“Try. We’ll deal with the splinter later. You cannot stay there forever. There is no one down below you now to see your embarrassing plight.”

She was able to move her foot. “Ouch.”

“I’ve got you, you know? You don’t have to slide your feet and risk picking up any more.”

She moved back, favoring her sore foot, and felt his other arm encircle her waist from behind. She knew then that she was now securely held with his arms across her body just beneath her breasts and backed into him until she could go no further.

“But what are you holding on to if you have both hands on me?”

“I am leaning against the side of the barn, and I cannot slide either way. There is a vertical support by me.”

“Now what?”

“I will get you to turn around to face me, and then you will be able to hold on to the supports on either side of me.” He put his hands upon her waist, and she turned slowly as she cautiously maneuvered her feet on the narrow beam, and then she reached out and held onto the supports behind him. Their bodies seemed too close together as she pushed up against him. But she could not let go, and he was caught in between her arms, though she recognized that she was, in reality, the one that was caught with his arms around her and her with nowhere to go. She noticed that he was also smiling down at her in a mischievous kind of way. “Don’t you dare.” She was not pleased with him.

“What? I did nothing,” he protested, but there was still a smile on his face. She had been right about that look.

“You were thinking it.”

“Yes, I must confess that I was. You cannot easily escape me now as you have been doing, staying just out of my reach as you did in my study, and you are a very beautiful young lady, Annis.” His hands were on her waist to steady her.

“You are only saying that, as you know I cannot easily escape, with you stopping me from getting down on my own, in the same way that you got up here.” She was annoyed with the predicament.

He smiled at her. “We can soon fix that.” He moved himself off to one side, holding onto the side of the building as she moved her arm out of his way, and then was able to hang on for herself without him between her and the side, though he still supported her by holding firmly onto her arm. “There. I am no longer in your way. Now you can escape from this precarious and personally dangerous predicament.” He was leaning away from the beam slightly, still smiling at her.

“Which one? One is as threatening as the other.”

“Indeed.”

She looked down. “I do not see how you got up.”

“No. The bright light from this window is blinding you and obscuring the holds which are in the shadow. But they are there. Long familiarity with climbing up here as a child,” he explained.

“But that first one. The only one that I can see is a long way down.”

“Yes, it is. You need to hang onto the bottom of the window, lean back a little as you look down to see where you are going, and then stretch down with your free leg as you push away from the beam with the other foot. It is a big first step. There is also a hand hold off to the side.”

“Too far. It is too big a step.” She could see obvious difficulties with her nightdress riding up onto her legs, and that would certainly make her attempt even more revealing than her earlier precarious situation.

“And that first step is a long way even for me, and I have long legs. I think you would find it quite drafty and perhaps too revealing with me here. Though nothing I have not seen before. I would not complain, and I might even close my eyes.”

She looked at him with a flustered look on her face. “No, you wouldn’t.”

“Well, it would be quite a stretch. You are right. I wouldn’t close my eyes. I would need to be ready to grab you if you were to fall.”

She could see the difficulty immediately with more splinters likely, if not a fall, never mind the embarrassment of having her nightdress far too high on her legs again. “Is there no other way?”

“Yes, there is. If you look out of the window, you will see that there are several large wooden rungs on the outside of the building leading down to the ground, but they are also widely spaced. They were not intended for young ladies in filmy nightdresses that the wind might blow around in an interesting manner.” He admired what he could see as she leaned out. She pulled herself back as she sensed his attention on her and took in the smirk on his face as she pulled at her nightdress behind her.

She blushed. “William.”

He was smiling as she pulled her nightdress closer down around herself and then realized the futility of it. “Some of them seem to be missing too.”

“Yes, probably. There is also a wind to consider, for you will need to hang on with both hands as you reach with your feet, so I doubt that you will present a suitable view for tender young minds like mine. On second thought, I actually think you would.” He painted an alarming picture of horrifying possibilities. “That is how we got back to the ground when the hay mow we are in now gets full of hay. I have not checked them for some years now. But they are all still solid enough. Most of them. Try them.”

“No. There is a wind.” She looked at the mischievous smile on his face. “You are enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“Not really.” He seemed serious. “I want to see you down there safely, more than anything else. Do you want me to go first and help you down and make sure you do not fall? I could also….”

“No.” She was emphatic about that, seeing exactly what kind of a display she would present to him immediately beneath her again, with her nightdress blowing about.

“No, of course not. I had not thought of that.”

“You had. I know how your mind works. You might almost have plotted this, you and Sophia between you, to get me up here, unwisely clad and revealing…I shall need to have a word with Sophia about this. I should have taken the time to dress. Perhaps it was all done on the pretext of rescuing a kitten that might never have been here in the first place.”

“Ouch. We have been found out, Sophia and I. You know me too well, young lady.”

“Yes. I should have given more credence to your godmother’s observations about you.”

“That’s it. Enough.” He was smiling at her. “I think I shall go in and have my breakfast with the mother cat and her kitten and let you find your own stubborn way down or until you come to your senses about this. You are unlikely to fall while you are here. I may even be able to see you from the dining room window if you lean out a little more, for that is where I shall be. You can wave to me when you want to get down. Except that others might also remark upon it and come out to see what it all means. Or, you could always go back across that beam, but I would not recommend it in your bare feet.” He was smiling at her.

“No. Don’t you dare leave.”

He would not have left, but she was not to know that. He had moved around her and had swung his foot over the edge of the window beside her. “Why not?” He smiled at her. “All that I am facing here, is abuse at your hands.”

“Please, William. I need your help.”

“Yes, you do. So what shall you forfeit for my help?”

“What do you mean?” There was some alarm in her voice.

“After your abuse of me, there is a price to pay.”

She resisted the urge to swear at him. “I did not abuse you. I merely…could see difficulties. You scoundrel. What price would you demand of me? You are not a gentleman.” She shivered.

“No, I am not. You already know that, for I told you often enough and warned you about me. Yes, the wind is cool in this window space, isn’t it, for someone so ill attired?” He took his other leg over the window sill and stood on the first rung outside of the barn, challenging her to follow him. “Solid enough, that one.”

“I shall not follow you out there. If you had only a nightdress on, you would not have dared to have done that, and I will not. There must be some other way.” She saw him looking at her with mischief in his eyes. “And what must I forfeit to get your help?”

His eyes twinkled. “I shall think of something.” He thought for a while. “I have it. A kiss.”

“On the cheek.” She leaned forward and offered her cheek.”

“Oh no. Not that should kiss youYou, must kiss me.”

“Damn you!” She leaned across to kiss him on the cheek but found that he had receded as he leaned out further and held himself further away from the side of the building. He had a mischievous smile on his face again. “For that profanity, I shall make you work for it; especially after your comments about my character, and then to throw my godmother’s accusations….”

“All true. Well, most of them.”

“After throwing her accusations at my head, you should not expect me to make it easy for you.”

“Well, you cannot lean so far out that I cannot reach you, can you? But you shall close your eyes, or I shall not do it.”

“Why?” He smiled knowingly. “Oh yes, of course. Loose nightdress and female attributes again, and you do not wish to jolt me into losing my grip and falling from the shock of it all. Yes, of course, that must be it.”

“Nothing would shock you, you scoundrel.” She was both frustrated at her predicament and angry with him, but not so angry.

“Very little. Now.”

“But you must promise to close your eyes.”

“But where is the fun? Very well. I promise.” She was not sure she could believe him. He was still leaning far away from the side of the barn.

He felt her hand on his shoulder and then as she quickly leaned out—for she did not trust him to keep his eyes closed—he felt her lips on his cheek. Before she knew what he was about, he had lowered his head under her and leaned in to grasp her about her upper legs and then had lifted her clear out of the window and onto his shoulder.

She let out a shriek, kicked and tried to hold onto him for dear life.

“You will need to be still, my dear, or you will bruise your toes and get more splinters or even slip out of this loose nightdress of yours.” He waited for a few seconds as he tried to reason with her until she had recognized the precariousness of it all and had settled down. “What are you doing, William?” There was fear in her voice.

“That’s better. Now stay still. I am rescuing you. I can get us both down like this if you will stop struggling and just hold still.”

“But it is precarious and high, and I do not feel secure. I am also sure it is not proper for you to hold me like this.” His arm was about her upper legs with his hand holding her around her leg, above her knees.

“There is no other easy way.”

She failed to see the truth of that. “It is a long way to the ground, and I am hanging above it head down with nothing to hang on to, and you are holding me with one hand and with me in an indecorous position.” She wasangry now.

“That is a matter of opinion. But alas I am not in a position to see anything.”

She did not mention that it was also drafty. “You cannot climb down with only one hand. This was not a good idea.”

“But you are secure for the moment. You are also correct that I cannot climb down with one hand.”

“Then this was unwise. What shall I do?”

“First, close your eyes, my dear. Then, you shall reach under my arm and then hold on to your ankle.” She did so.

“The other—my other arm and your other ankle.” He felt her reach out and struggle to do so. “No objection? Well, we are progressing.”

“I do not want to be left hanging up here all day in this indecorous position and the hub of every scathing comment for the next week. “Wait.” She felt the wind lift her nightdress. She let go of her ankle and pushed her nightdress between her upper leg and his body to trap it and stop it billowing around and then held her ankle once more.

“Good. Are your eyes closed?”

“Yes, I dare not open them. But why?” She wondered what mischief he was planning.

“It’s safer that way. I don’t want you to let go in a sudden state of panic, because I am now going to let go of you.”

“No.” He felt her tense up.

“But only when you feel secure.”

“I feel not at all secure. There is nothing to feel secure about. But I will hang on to my own ankle for dear life.”

“But you are secure, my dear. I assure you that if you do not let go, or struggle, you will not fall. You will not fall anyway.”

She did not fully trust him. He felt her other hand reach around his body and grasp at the waist of his trousers and shirt and take in some folds of skin. “I do not feel secure.”

“Ouch.”

“Sorry.” She was not. “A Bon chat. Bon rat. Oh dear. Too apropos in the circumstance.”

“Hold on.”

She felt him begin to descend, and felt them both swaying from side to side as he lowered himself, rung by rung. First testing them for solidity. She felt herself jostled from side to side along with him, but she recognized that as long as she held onto her own ankle, she could not fall.

“Now you can let go of that murderous grip you have on my flesh. We are down on terra firma.”

“We are?” She opened her eyes.

“Yes.” He put her down and steadied her. “Now let’s get you to the house. I am thankful no one else came to see what all of the unladylike complaints and protest was about.”

“I was not…But I cannot walk. I am in my bare feet, and I have a splinter.” She was balancing on one foot as she held the other off the ground.

He took her by surprise yet again as he easily lifted her into his arms and carried her back toward the house. She held his neck with one hand and pulled her nightdress about her better with the other to guard against the wind and any other observers.

She was feeling quite put out. “I wonder where that little wretch Sophia got to? She probably took off for fear of what I would say to her.”

“She is following us.”

“What?”

“She is following us. She watched the whole thing.”

“Yes, I did.” Sophia let her sister know that she really wasthere. “It was very exciting. You were complaining over nothing Annis. It was not so far up, and he was holding you securely. But I bet it was drafty like that.”

“Yes, and I shall no doubt have the bruises on my back to show for it and others on my legs. But I shall have some words to say to you later, young lady.”

They managed to get into the house unseen, climbed the back stairs without meeting anyone, and traversed the corridor to her room. He put her down upon her bed and sat by her for a few moments as she looked up at him with a deep flush on her cheeks as she gathered her nightdress close about her legs and neck. He took her hand and raised it to his lips. She could not wrench it from his grasp, but she did not try very hard. “You will tell no one of this. Either of you.” Her eyes flashed from William to Sophia.

“Of course not. I was not even in the barn, Annis, so how could I have played any part in rescuing you? At least my reputation will be safe if no one knows of this.” He seemed to have a smug expression, even a smirk on his face.

“Not with me, it isn’t. Your reputation? What of mine? You are a scoundrel. You…you….” She glared at her sister. “Both of you, you tricked me.”

“Yes, I did, for I had to get you out of the window somehow. There was no other way. You did not like anything I suggested—’too difficult, too revealing, too drafty, too precarious’—so I had to make the decision for you. Now the splinter.” He took her foot before she realized what he was about to do and examined it in the bright light from the window. She could not remove it from his grasp any more than she could have removed her hand earlier.

“I see nothing. Do stop struggling, my dear.”

“I am covering myself.” She was pushing her nightdress to close off the gap opened up beneath her by him raising her foot.

“It will have to come out, and if I do not do it, there will be more of the painful questions and embarrassing explanations that will be required when you hobble in for breakfast, for it did not come out of any of these floors, any more than the hay in your hair did.”

She saw the truth of his statement and submitted. “It is the other one.”

He picked up her other foot and examined it.

“Ah yes, a big splinter too. Yes. That one would hurt like the blazes and in the tender part of your foot too. It is a wonder you did not fall when that happened.” He dropped to his knees beside the bed and put his lips to her foot as his eyes met hers and closed his teeth on a piece of wood that he could feel with his tongue, and slowly pulled it out. He felt her flinch and squirm as he did so.

She gasped. “Thank you.”

He showed it to her. “Quite a respectable splinter. Beats all of mine.” He felt that part of her foot with his tongue to feel if there were others, as she had done to his cut hand some days previously, and then inspected it closely. There were no others to be seen, so he kissed it better as he had seen her do to Sophia and let it go. “No more there, and I have now kissed it better.”

He looked over at her with a strange look in his eyes. “Are you recovered now, my love?”

She nodded her head. “Not yet recovered but recovering. Fortunately, no one else saw me.”

“Not too angry with me, I hope.” He really did seem concerned at what she might think.

She shook her head. But her sparkling eyes said otherwise.

“Shall I see you for breakfast?”

“Yes. As soon as I have got this hay off me and washed and dressed. But there is something I would say.” She quickly closed off any attempt at levity, by him suggesting he should stay and help her, for he would not be shy to say anything, no matter how risqué, even with Sophia close by and listening attentively.

“What?”

She looked over at Sophia sitting by the window and looking out, and gestured to him to lean over so she might whisper in his ear.

He did so, expecting that she would strike him for the scoundrel that he had been, and found to his great surprise and pleasure that she kissed him instead on the cheek.

“There.” She spoke softly in his ear. “I have now paid my forfeit to you. I do not like to be behind in what I owe.”

Before she was aware of what he was then doing, he had turned his head and had kissed her on the lips and caught her by surprise.

She did not pull away as he expected that she might do in her anger. Her hand had raised to his arm to hold him there briefly. There was a look in her eyes that he was relieved to see. Then she blushed at her own forwardness and let him go.

“Am I truly forgiven? For I think that I may not deserve to be.”

“You know you are forgiven. You have been forgiven many times over, for different transgressions, and no, you do not deserve to be. That last trick to pull me out of the window was…despicable. You manhandled me roughly. I shall have bruises on my legs.”

“I needed to. I am sorry.” He had a look on his face that told her he was being sincere.

“If I tell Mama how I got them, you will have no reputation left with her either.”

He sat back and sighed heavily as he looked at her. “But it was necessary, I think. It is to be hoped Lady Seymour does not get wind of any of this harmless little escapade and write your mother another letter, or my reputation will suffer even further. I can see how she would describe it—truthfully, but in the most damaging way with her spluttering pen and underscoring.”

He sat back beside her on the bed and spoke softly so that Sophia would not too easily overhear.

 

‘He was seen to carry struggling young lady, draped indecorously in only her inadequate nightdress, revealing all to the world, over his shoulder and out of the barn where he had caught her unexpectedly and then handled her roughly in order to have his way with her.’

 

He smiled. “I did, didn’t I?” He noticed the startled look on her face at the truth of it. He continued:

 

‘What he had been doing in the hay with her, for she was covered with it, does not bear thinking on.’

 

“Of course everyone will think on it and suspect the worst.”

 

“He was later discovered with that same young lady in her bedroom where he was unashamedly kissing her, having already achieved what he had set out to do.’

 

“Whatever that was. The blackguard. The scoundrel.” He sighed. “All true, but not entirely true. Unfortunately. Quite a story line for one of the more lurid novels or a dreadful poem. The entire truth of it, but what a portrait is painted of me, and even of you. She frowned at the obvious truth of that, as she listened further to him. “Of course that is the nature of such tales. All so very innocent and harmless. Almost, and all to be blamed upon a poor helpless little kitten, and a six-year-old child.”

“I am not a child.” Sophia protested from the window.

He chuckled. “Yes. I thought you might be able to hear more than was good for you miss.”

“Before you leave, William…I will ask you to please pass me that other nightdress from the top of that dresser. This one is full of hay, and I would rather not be subjected to a lot of questions at this moment. I cannot easily hobble across there to get it myself, and I doubt Sophia could reach it.”

He turned away and retrieved her nightdress from a small pile of them and returned with it.

“And you should not be in my bedroom with me so ill-attired and with this loose-tongued and unsympathetic witness observing it all, for I need to wash and dress, and I see my clothes are now where they should be. No, William, I do not need your assistance for that this time.”

“How disappointing, my love. But you do have a chaperone, or is it a witness? I would like to stay and help. I am good at washing backs too.” He leaned in and kissed her again. As she did not pull away, he lingered over his next kiss.

He was relieved to see she was recovering her composure. “Some protector she is. My sister is a fellow plotter it seems, and you both schemed together so that all of this would unfold as it did.”

He turned to her sister, who knew everything that was going on. “Sophia, we have been found out. Though I must plead innocence, for I did not know what either one of you had planned. Perhaps the pair of you had plotted to get me out there.”

Deception by Proxy. Ch. 29.The Observers and a Disturbing Question.

Thursday, June 7th, 2018

“Have they gone?” Such a sudden and innocent-sounding inquiry might not have caused any problem had it been made during the day. In the silence of the dark room however, it suddenly became like a cannon shot to the one person there, standing in the dark, especially when everyone else was abed and no one should have been wandering the house at that time of the morning.

“Charlotte.” Annis was startled. Her hands leapt to her throat at her surprise at being discovered spying upon those just outside of the house over by the stable.

“You should not sneak up on people that way. You robbed me of five years of my life. Keep your voice down, you don’t need to wake anyone up or let anyone know that you are here. What are you doing out of bed at this hour? It is barely four o’clock.” She took in her sister’s white nightdress, brightly contrasted in the moonlight streaming in through the window of the dining room. “You are not dressed. You never know who you might bump into like that, and you are standing full in the moonlight.”

“Of course I’m not dressed. Why would I go to the trouble of dressing to see what those men are doing out there? They won’t see me. Besides, I don’t care. But I could say the same of you. You are just as lightly dressed and just as likely to be seen.” Her sister did not care either, it seemed. It was fortunate that anyone outside would not see what Charlotte could see, standing where she was inside, and behind her sister, for the moon shone full through Annis’ thin nightdress and showed more than she would be comfortable to be displaying so clearly. She would not torment her with that.

Annis turned back to watching out of the window. “No, they have not gone yet. They are still offloading their cart.” She had been watching them since the cart, showing no lights whatsoever, had come up the driveway making little noise. She wondered if they had the horses’ hooves bound with burlap to deaden the sounds of their shoes. She had heard that those who did not wish to draw attention to their presence in the dark sometimes might do that. They really hadn’t needed lights anyway, for there was enough of a moon to see by. She had then watched as William and one of his sailors had quietly unloaded many boxes and what appeared to be kegs into a small tool-shed tucked into the trees by the stable. The cart had then been walked out of sight behind the building, and then a few minutes later, she saw the sailor walking a horse across the lawns. William turned away from seeing him off, walked over to the stable, and disappeared inside.

The sisters stood and watched from the shelter and dark of the house. “Annis, they can’t have been out already. They have not been away for long enough, for William rode off just after dark last night. I am sure that it takes longer than that to go across to France and pick up a cargo and get back again.”

“No. They didn’t go out last night. They are moving what is left of an earlier cargo out of the way for when they do make a run across to France. For that is what they describe it as.”

“How exciting to have a smuggler in the family.” Charlotte was indeed excited. “If Sophia has her way, there will be two of them. If I have my way as well, there will be three, for I would not mind going out with them too. I’ve never been on any kind of ship, never mind one that is used for smuggling. Sophia has said little of anything else for the last few days now. I think we were both quite excited when we first heard him admit to being a smuggler, as he did that first night when he spoke to Bella and told her all about himself. I wish you had been there, Annis. He was so tender with her and kind. We could not help but cry, for he seemed so sad and even to share our burden at that moment. I was surprised at some of the things he told her about his past, apart from the smuggling.

“Mama told us both that we must say nothing to anyone of what we had heard. It had been told in confidence to Bella, and she would be hurt if she ever learned of us betraying what he said, but she couldn’t know any of that, could she?”

“No. Of course not, Charlotte. But you really shouldn’t say anything. He believed he was speaking only to Bella and not to her sisters too.”

“Sophia was out at the docks with him the other morning when they were preparing for their next run. She seems to think he will take her out with him, and if he won’t, she is determined to dress herself in boy’s clothes, as she did already to be taken with him, and smuggle herself on board and go anyway.”

Annis was surprised to hear that. “The little baggage! She wouldn’t dare.” Charlotte could feel her sister’s eyes burning into her.

“Oh, wouldn’t she? Much you know. She has been down to the docks once with him already dressed like that. She is too like you in that regard, so you should be careful who you call a baggage.”

Annis wondered what she might know of that, but did not quiz her about it. “But what is that about her wearing boy’s clothing? Where did she get them?”

“Never mind that, Annis. There is William again.” He appeared from the stable, looked around to see what might be stirring, and then walked over to the house.

“You should step back from the window, Charlotte. In your white nightdress and with the moon shining full upon you in the window, you are clearly visible.”

“I don’t think so. They didn’t see you,and you were standing full in the window as they offloaded those boxes and kegs. I watched you for some minutes before I spoke to you. You were talking to yourself about something. Anyway, he’s gone now. He goes in through the conservatory and gets rid of his boots out there so that he disturbs no one.”

“You seem to know a lot of what he does and how he does it.” Annis took her sister to task.

“So do you. I am not the only one who is interested in what he does. Sophia told me that when she was down on the docks with him—and the little wretch had no intention of telling me until I cornered her—that they were busy emptying one of the buildings behind the headland and were moving an earlier cargo further inland, to clear the space. They will obviously be going out soon, probably at the next full moon if the weather is in their favor, and that cannot be more than a few days off.”

“How do you know this, Charlotte?”

“I overheard them. I know their whole routine now, and what little I didn’t know, Sophia told me, with some encouragement and the threat that I would tell Mama about her dressing up as she did. I wish I were a boy. I would dress up as they do, smuggle myself into the back of that cart and into the large box there—where they keep rope and other things in—and stow away on their ship while they are having their meeting. They meet in that little inn on the dockside before they go, to make their plans. It would be easy to sneak aboard then. The reverend is one of their crew, and I discovered that Thomas was recruited as part of the land contingent, to keep an eye out for the revenue officers and to lead them astray if necessary. I overheard everything one evening in the library when William was explaining it to the reverend.” She laughed softly. “They did not know that I was off in the stacks and listening.”

“Charlotte, you must promise me not to do any such thing, to hide yourself away like that. That is the behavior of a hoyden and would get you into a good deal of trouble. Some of those men are not to be trusted as we trust William, and if one of them found you…Besides, you might put some thought like that into Sophia’s head if she were to hear you.”

“No, I will not promise. I think it would be fun, and there cannot be so many female smugglers. How romantic. Sophia is already planning that very thing, I think, for you can almost see her thoughts at moments like that. Besides, William would protect me.” Charlotte seemed very sure of that.

“Are you sure? He would more likely put you overboard and would never dare trust you again. He was quite put out that you had drawn him in that bath, and those other detailed and shocking drawings of him too.”

Her sister turned on her in surprise. “You showed him my drawings? How could you?” Her surprise gave way to a mischievous chuckle. “What did he say?”

“Keep your voice down. He did not say anything about any of them. I did not show him them deliberately. It was your own fault. He saw them himself and by accident. I thought Sophia may have told you. That was when you had sent her up to spy on us when we were quiet. I don’t know what you thought we were up to. He saw the others of me in that same book too, while I was distracted by her, and me not fully dressed in those, when I posed for you.”

“Not fully dressed?” Her sister laughed at her and touched her on the arm as she corrected her. “Annis, you were as naked as a dressed chicken. As well as pushing your breasts out proudly and defiantly like Britannia, challenging the world like an amazon—but with two breasts, except shehad on some kind of toga to cover her. And her breasts were less pronounced than yours and nowhere near as big. William seems to like looking at those.”

“Yes. I know.” The darkness hid her blushes from her sister. “I was so embarrassed. But he said nothing that was critical or censorious. He acted as though he had not seen those drawings, but I know that he had. He could not have avoided them. When I think about it now, I don’t think he was so very embarrassed at all, but I was so ashamed and my heart was in my mouth there for a while at what he might think or say. So you see the fault can be laid at your door for sending Sophia up to distract me from controlling what he might see.  I was showing him your drawings of Bella. I am beginning to think that that was not wise of you to draw any of us that way.”

“Pooh. There is nothing wrong with sketching the human form, especially if they are my own sisters, and if they are tastefully done, which those admittedly might not have been. But you were not supposed to share them with anyone. Mama used to draw a lot of portraits like that at one time, even of father, for I came across some of her sketch books once, but I don’t know where she hid them away now. I did not expect you would let him see the others, Annis. You should not have let him see them. But what did he say? Was he angry?” She seemed anxious to find out how he reacted to seeing them.

“I did not show him any of them deliberately, and I told you that he said nothing about those of me, nor about those of him either, but you were just as revealingly indiscreet about him, and I know he saw them.”

Charlotte laughed almost guiltily. “No. He would not be so unwise as to draw anyone’s attention to them‘Look, Annis, here is a drawing of me in my bath and another of me standing on a towel and all naked and showing off my baubles.’ I could never ask him to pose like that for me. That would be thought outrageously fast of me as well as dangerous to encourage any man in that….” she broke off that thought, “…and rightly so, and I would never dare do that, but how otherwise might I ever find out what a naked male looks like—apart from father, that is, and perhaps Thomas with Molly, and… a few others—without risking everything, and getting to draw one. Except I saw him like that, mostly, when he carelessly sat with you at the trough, that day of the fire. You were both revealing everything you had to the other at that moment. Everything! I’m surprised he maintained his composure or that you could stay so calm. But then he didn’t did he, as he seemed quite… well you know…that part of him…standing to attention. No wonder, with you clearly revealed and on display in front of him and asking for his attention. You saw it all well enough. I waited for him to reach out and touch you personally and intimately, as you were challenging him to do beneath your nightdress, widely, and invitingly I might add, or you, to touch him. No wonder he was aroused, and standing to attention like that for you, poor man.” Annis dared say nothing. “And then afterward when you shaved him, what did he not touch then?” Charlotte saw that her comments discomforted her sister.

“So he knows of those drawings now. Undoubtedly, that is why he has been so difficult to spy upon after that. It is a pity that I do not know this property nearly so well as I know Underby and all of its hideaways, or I might still be able to catch him unexpectedly again in his bath.

“But as for getting myself aboard his wagon or his boat, if I decided to do that, then I would not be found by him or anyone else.” She sounded almost defiant. “At least it all sounds so fine and adventurous when I tell you about it, but I realize I must not do any such thing.” She sighed heavily. “Oh, if only I were a boy. They have all of the fun. I so envy them riding astride a horse, as you once did, instead of perched on that stupid saddle. They can throw things, wrestle, swim, swing from ropes, and I especially envy them not having to squat to relieve themselves, for they have the ability to pee while they are standing up and directing it where they will, and quite a long way too. And high. Even from in a tree.”

“Charlotte.”

“Well, they can, and they do, and don’t get themselves all wet, for I have watched them. I even have a drawing.” She chuckled.

“Charlotte, not another one. You do too many like that, and one day you will be discovered and will be made to pay the price. I hope it was of no one that we know or that might be recognized. What Hogarth can get away with, drawing little boys with their tiny spigots, and what you might draw in exaggeration when you are feeling impish, as you did, are two different things. But when did you see this? And, if it comes to that, where were you to see all of this? I hope you were not seen yourself.”

“I went out with Sophia to find that cat in the barn; the one with the kittens. She used to have five, but they took the others away and only left her with the one. They had left the ladder up, and I climbed up to see. It is so cuddly and furry next to my chin, and the mother cat does not mind in the slightest, for she purred the whole time. I was up there in the beams, and there is a small window up there that one can see out of ever so far. I looked out, and there below me was that peculiar misshapen tree. One of the hands was standing there and peeing and….”

“No more, please, Charlotte. You should not repeat any of this.”

“I won’t. Why would I, except to you? But it was interesting. He knew nothing of my presence far above him. I said nothing to distract him. You never see that sort of thing with having only sisters. How they do that is interesting. At least they don’t get themselves wet, and they can direct it anywhere they like. I tried it and….”

“No, Charlotte, please.” She tried to silence her sister’s further confession. “Spare me that.”

“Well, don’t do it. My legs were sore and chapped for some time until I could wash them off. It is not as easy as they make it look with that spigot of theirs. Well at least Sophia did not see him, for she was there with me, and I cautioned her to be silent. She did not know what I could see. Fortunately, she was at the bottom of the ladder, inside, and could not see, or you know what she might have blurted out and been far too curious about, and gone to see, and even ask him directly. We would all have to remove back home if that happened. She is too direct at times.”

“I have noticed. But you seem little better, Charlotte. It bounces off William, fortunately, but I should have a word with her about that. But I do want to know about the kitten. You shall show me later.”

“I would, but they took the long ladder away, and I cannot find it, and I will not clamber up onto the hay and balance across that narrow beam, and I cannot climb up the other way. There used to be a swing on the beam too, but the rope must have broken off for there is just one small piece left hanging, and it is far too high to reach or I might have climbed up.”

Annis put a hand on her sister’s arm. “William will be inside now and settled. We could probably go now without being discovered.”

“We should give him a few more minutes. We don’t want to blunder into him,, not exposed like this, except you wouldn’t care if you were.” She looked at Annis standing in the moonlight and then realizing that there might never be a better moment to broach what had been on her mind now for several days.

“You haven’t told him yet, have you?”

That innocent question, half question, half statement, shattered Annis’s composure once more. She had thought of little else herself since that day of cornering him his study, with that letter.

There were a few seconds of silence over that sudden and extremely alarming statement. “Told him what?” Had it not been so relatively dark, Charlotte might have been concerned to have noticed how pale her sister had suddenly become.

“Oh, Annis. You know very well what I am talking about. We do not have that many secrets. Told him about what really happened? Even what those cards that we made up for a lark really showed and not what we at first thought they showed?”

Annis was far more agitated than her sister might know. “Of course not. You should put all of that from your mind, Charlotte. It didn’t happen in any way except the one that was needed. Besides, nothing but trouble would come from opening up either of those issues again. You know that.”

“You should tell him about the cards at least, you know? I am sure he would understand the mix-up and what his fate should have been. He will find out eventually. Better now than later.”

“You make it all sound so sinister—what his fate should have been. Better that he not find out at all, Charlotte. Do you not think I have agonized long and hard ever since I found out about those damned cards, and the sleepless nights, and all of the trouble they continue to cause me about what might have been? What should have been?” She sobbed at the thought. “But how do you know about those cards? I told no one.”

found out. I puzzled over them for ages after you had thrown them into the fireplace. Fortunately, there was no fire burning then, or all of the evidence would have been destroyed. He will find out if Mama tells him, or Sophia even, for she was there too when I sorted it out, and she will. Although…I don’t think it made any sense to Mama just yet, but it will eventually, even though she is quite happy at the way everything worked out. It is not the kind of secret that stays concealed for ever. Her motherly concern to see things right will not be submerged for long. She is itching to do something to bring you together, and she sees how you cannot take your eyes off him. Off each other even, for it is quite an entertainment now to watch you shaving him and how he responds to you and you to him, especially when you think no-one can see you both and where he touches you. Under your dress.”

Annis was blushing. “You have taken to spying on me too now. On us. Oh, Charlotte, that is not kind of you. But Mama will say nothing. She is quite contented with things the way they are, and in truth, so am I. I think. It is better than him finding out all of our secrets and then becoming disgusted with us, as he would, and put us out and leave us. We are in mourning and will be for some period of time. There is nothing we can do about it.”

“But, Annis, Father did not believe in any of that astrology stuff and nonsense. I don’t think Arabella would approve of the stupid mistake that has been made, if she had known. Your entire future happiness, indeed for all of us needs that you take some decisive action, and soon. He will not be with us much longer if you do not.”

“It is of no matter at this moment, Charlotte. In any case, Mama has said nothing, and she would, if she thought she should, and I think she has also quite forgotten what happened by now and has put it behind her, for it achieved everything she wanted. She has said nothing and hinted at nothing and is still grieving sorely as we all still are. It is not something one gets over in the space of a week or a month or even a year, and while things are as calm as they are, I have no intention of putting it all in jeopardy. I doubt that Mama could take kindly to it being revived to agonize over considering the likely outcome of that. I’m not sure that I could.”

“You should get over it as soon as you can, Annis, and deal with it. If you have a year it won’t seem so bad, but you don’t. Not if it happens the way we all see that it should. I have seen the way he looks at you and you at him, and so has Mother and his sister. You both are struggling to keep your hands off each other, though not struggling so very hard. It’s a losing game for both of you. Neither of you will survive a year the way things are, but will be sneaking off to the barn like Thomas and Molly do, and then you really will be big with news, but of another kind. You might be that way already.”

“Charlotte!”

The servants all seem to know too.”

She began to wonder to herself how it was that Molly did not become pregnant from what she and Thomas were doing so regularly.

“Know what?” Annis had gone pale. “That…big with news…is an improper thing to say Charlotte. We have done nothing like that together. Yet. But…you…I am sure you are mistaken.”

“No, I’m not. You are too blind to see, and think everyone else is too, but we are not. You just have to see the two of you together for a minute, even just as you were, by the trough, that day of the fire. I was startled by it all, for I was not sure what I saw then, but I do now. What you were not displaying to each other at that moment I do not know. Had there been no one else to see either of you, you would have thrown your nightclothes off and have been going at each other like Thomas and Molly were when we saw them in the hay barn, and…well you would have, because he was well enough primed to do so.” Her sister gasped, and blushed bright crimson. “Then when you shave him. I am all excitement at times, wondering where he will put his hands next, with you dressed… or partially dressed more like… the way you usually are now at times, as though you were still at home…sitting carelessly in that low dress, as open as you leave it—nightdress too, very dangerous—and leaning into him so that he might look down…, which he did, and attentively. Or with his knees inside yours now, more than outside…with your nightdress at your knees or even above them, far above them, when he pushed it there as though by accident, when it wasn’t an accident, and you tempting him with all of your wares on display—widely displayed, again. All of them—when he slowly moves his legs wider apart as he does, and yours are moved apart too with his hands high on your legs. Not quite as accidental as it might seem either, any of it, as one can tell by the knowing and mischievous smiles on both of your faces as you look at each other, and try to ignore what you know is happening deliberately, and what you know he can see of you. You knew full well what he was doing, and intended, and liked it. I was breathless with anticipation and excitement at what you both seemed so ready to do with each other. Very daring of you. But you didn’t explore each other as you should have.”

“Charlotte.” Her sister blushed, recognizing the truth of what she suggested, for she had sometimes wondered herself at what he might dare to do next, and she did not mind displaying more than she should, to torment him. It was nice to be admired so warmly in that way and to recognize how she could excite him. She was especially aware of the effect that her breasts and other…parts, that she allowed him to briefly glimpse, as though by accident, obviously had upon him in return—no hiding that change in him directly in front of her–though she did ignore that; she had too, except that she was curious and would have liked to have known more, or been more courageous. “You should not be watching at those times. It is private.”

“Oh no, it isn’t. No more private than what Thomas and Molly get up to in the barn. And I bet they have been making up for lost opportunity, and us not being there to get in their way, and they may even be living in the barn now, and have been less constrained while we have not been there. But how can we not watch? It is so very tender, and it makes me quite jealous that I do not have such an attentive gentleman of my own. I must admit that I have never felt that way about any man before, but where would we meet them in this… this area without a Ball or an Assembly. It is so obvious that you are in love. I would not hesitate for one second if it were me he was in love with, but it isn’t. I would suggest we run off and elope together. Or just ignore what people might say and do what Mama and Papa did before they were married, and hang propriety. Yes, I dare speak of that. You are far more restrained than I would be. I know where his bedroom is too. So do you. If it were me, I would know what needed to be done.”

“Charlotte, you must not spy on him.”

“I don’t. At least not as much as I used to or would like to. After you let him see those drawings I did of him, I cannot get as close to him as I used to do.”

“You should not say such things. Where did you come up with these notions? I am sure Mama did not put them into your head. They are not proper. It is also impossible. He would never forgive us for the…He married Bella. I can do nothing about that. He would hate us all if I were to…and then we would be gone from here, and we might never see him again. He would want nothing to do with us.”

“Much you know of him. You seem unable to believe your own eyes or your own feelings. I told you, I have watched the two of you together. He is in love with you, and you are in love with him. It is just a matter of time. Nothing improper can happen between two people who are in love as you two are, no matter what you might do together, but you seem frustratingly slow.”

“You must not say that, Charlotte.” But she knew that it were true. The difficulty was that when he learned what they had done to deceive him, he would not be in love with her any longer.

“Why not? There is nothing improper about being in love and wishing to act upon it when you are both of the same mind. There is nothing immoral where love is concerned. I told you, Mama and father did, before they got married properly. It may not be proper, but life is more important than to be put off by behaving stupidly, I would say, when you know what is important and what should be done. What needs to be done. Love is very important. When I fall in love, I shall know what to do. Provided it is reciprocated in the same way of course. A simple verbal exchange was all it used to take before they went at it together, and none of this other foolishness.”

“I can do nothing. Oh surely you can see that. He married Bella.”

“I know that, Annis, I am not stupid. But if she is looking down on you at this moment, she would not wish you to be so restrained or foolish, and stupid even, for it is so obvious that you were meant for each other. Just a week ago, the night of the fire. You were still in the house. We were outside by then and frantic with worry for you. You did not see him outside, of course, but I did, and so did Mama, for he had just got Mama out and then us too. He did not hesitate for a second with any of us, for we were then safe. He almost ran back after you and in only his nightshirt. He poured cold water over himself from the trough in the blink of an eye— a clever thing to do that, I would never have thought of that—and took a sodden sheet in with him. It’s a good job it was still dark, for I know how those cling to your body when they are wet. He saw no one else around him, I am sure. He had a determined look on his face and would have trampled anyone in his way or knocked them to one side. He was determined to go back in there and drag you out. It was obvious to us all that if he did not come out with you, he would not be coming out at all. Mother was terrified and pale beyond belief. That is the only time I have ever heard mother pray outside of church, and you know she is not that religious.”

“I am sure….” Annis was pale. She remembered other things that she had done then to encourage him, thinking they might die. But he had not followed through as she had wanted.

“I am right. We’d all seen it before then of course, even after he brought you back from your ride, with both of you looking like a guilty pair indeed. You are sure that nothing more happened than him just rescuing you when you became faint, are you?” She looked at Annis searchingly. “One might almost think you had made love then. You had been alone with him all day, you know? And you both had a sheepish look about you. Oh, Annis, we are none of us stupid.”

Annis fell into a deep silence with her thoughts to herself.

“And then after that fire, at the trough, as you did up his hand. Your clothing was still damp and stuck on you, and so was his. Very revealingly I can tell you, especially when you moved it above your knees, as you did, to stop it ripping I expect. At least I hope that was the reason, unless you were being daring, and deliberately tormenting him. The way you had eyes only for each other was quite telling. I told you that I thought you were about to undress each other after that.”

Annis blushed crimson. “Charlotte. So you said. And several times now. I could sit no other way at the time as I supported him and saw to his injuries. There was nothing wrong with that, considering he had risked his life to rescue us all. He could see nothing with that bang to his head.” Charlotte made a disbelieving noise. He had seen more than enough. Annis continued. “We owed him everything, including our lives. Loss of a little modesty, was a small price to pay to help him. You should not say such things. You….”

Charlotte held her hand up to stop her sister’s interjection. “I shall say no more on that. But you are behaving foolishly. Mama will tell him. But if she doesn’t, it is only a matter of time before Sophia lets slip something. She and William are as thick as thieves when they go off together. She is an artless little piece and will betray all of our secrets.”

“Yes. That is the only thing that worries me.”

“You should worry at his response when he finds out from someone else rather than from you if you don’t tell him. He will never trust any of us again. It is likely that he will turn us out of here, or if we are at Underby, he will never have anything to do with us again. Men do not like to be deceived. It is better if he finds out from you, and soon.”

“I dare say nothing. It was necessary at the time. At least we thought so.”

“We were wrong, Annis. Now it must be put right, for there will be no peace nor contentment for either you or him or us, until it is.”

Her voice dropped, and she put a hand on Annis’s arm “There. We were right to wait. William is just now come back into the house. He will probably go off to his study or will be taking a bath I expect, before he thinks anyone might be up and about to spy on him. But he bolts that door downstairs.” She chuckled. “If I knew he were coming back like this some other time, and you not here, I might just hide in there before he bolts the door, and sketch him at my leisure for I know where to hide.”

Annis tried to change the subject. “I would also like to know when they are going out again.” She tried to submerge her other feelings that Charlotte had disturbed so much by her earlier personal revelations and comments. It had not been the kind of conversation she had expected to have with Charlotte. “I shall ask Sophia what she knows of any of this, for she knows more of their plans than I do. She is usually out of bed by first light, watching for him when he has gone the night before. She probably watched everything from one of the upper windows, for there is a telescope up there, though not much good at this time of night, even with a moon, as I found out for myself.”

“If she discovers when they are planning on going out, I would not be surprised if she is not out there pestering to be taken with them. Or hiding herself away to make sure she goes. The longer you dither over the other issue, Annis, the more time you give Sophia to empty her mind about everything she knows.”

It was all too much for Annis.

“Please, Charlotte. No more, I beg of you. I am not likely to sleep at all after our conversation as it is.” She sighed heavily. “I’ll go and check her room. If she is awake, I will speak with her about not revealing any of this.”

“She’ll be in bed by then, and pretending to be asleep, for she can hear the stairs creaking. And then you should go and climb into bed. And not your own bed, and wait for him.”

“Charlotte!”

“Well, I would.”

Deception by Proxy. Ch. 28: Truth and Consequences.

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

“William?”

He put his quill down, stood as Annis entered the room, moved the accounts he was dealing with off to one side, and gave her his full attention as he smiled at her.

She noticed with a feeling of inner pleasure that ever since he had arrived at Underby, and now in the days since they had arrived at Brooklands, he always seemed to smile at her and pay her attention, no matter the difficulties thrown in his way.

“Yes, my dear.” She liked the way he said that, though he said it to both of her sisters and even once absentmindedly to their mother before he recognized that he was not speaking to one of the girls. “Is it time to shave me again already? Oh, good, I do so look forward to that.”

“I shaved you only an hour ago.” She could see what kind of a teasing mood he was in, and would not have minded shaving him twice a day, but would have welcomed it, considering the surprising and often intimately advancing liberties that seemed to occur each time, and that were never unwelcome.

‘You did?” He had known that of course. He was smiling as mischievously as he always seemed to as he played such gentle games with them all.

“There is something I would like to ask you.”

He raised an eyebrow and waited. “I hope it is not too risqué.” He would not have minded if it had been.

“No, of course not. At least I don’t think it is, but it might be.”

“Oh.” He noticed her gradually changing qualification.

She sat down on the settee off to one side of his desk and brought her feet up as she wrapped her dress about her legs and hugged them to her and looked at him in a measured way. He was pleased to note that they were the actions of a young lady who was at ease in his company and not at all as guarded of appearances as she might be, for what she had just done suggested that she was far too relaxed in his company, and that might not be regarded as proper if anyone else were to see her. However, what might be defined as proper between them, had been redefined in some subtle ways as time had progressed, as it had for all of them. In her case, however, she was recognizing that most of what she did seemed to invite his close attention and even to excite him. She began to recognize her own womanly power over him, as she tormented him from time to time by being perhaps too careless at times in the way that she sat, or moved, or even as she approached him first thing in the morning before she was fully dressed, or him either. She was not too shy to sit carelessly upon his bed to talk to him, revealing more of herself beneath the edge of her nightdress than might be wise as she moved enough to alarm him, all quite innocent-seeming, and yet all quite deliberate. Her effect on him at those times was revealing, and she watched for those signs. She learned almost as much about him at those times, as he had of her when he had walked in upon her in her state of complete undress.

He sat back and looked at her face, waiting for her to begin. She noticed that his eyes also seemed to smile at her. Quite disarming.

She seemed hesitant, so he helped her along.

“You may ask anything, you know. Is your room too cold? Draughty perhaps? Are you getting enough to eat now? Has one of the servants offended you? Did the cat move her kittens to your bed? Did anyone tell you that the breakfast ham came from Cyril. We used to have a pig of that name that I had as a pet? Never have farm pets that might wind up on the dinner table. It is quite off-putting to one’s appetite to learn of that. Have I offended you in any way recently or tried to kiss you again when you are not shaving me for I have been remiss there I think? Perhaps you are here to allow me to make up for that.” He was in a mischievous and provocative mood as he rattled on.

She smiled at his levity. “Of course not.”

He feigned shock. “What do you mean ‘of course not’? Oh dear, I must be losing my touch. But then you are under my roof now, so I must behave with greater circumspection for as long as I can, so a brotherly kiss is all I can muster at this time.”

It was far from being a ‘brotherly’ kind of kiss, as she was always happy to note, as they had progressed so well. “You seem to steal a kiss or two every time I shave you, by way of thanks, but I do not think that you intend it to be a brotherly kind of kiss, which should be on the cheek, as you do to Elizabeth or Charlotte now, and not upon my lips. Nor should you dwell there as you seem to for longer each time. A lot longer.”

“It should? I shouldn’t?” He managed to look confused, and she knew that he was nothing of the kind for his eyes were still laughing. She would have felt more than disappointed if he had kissed her only on the cheek, or had not lingered as he did or held her close, and each time, a little closer to touch more of her in their growing familiarity with each other. She liked the various little signs of intimate progress that had occurred almost without being consciously noted, though each one had been disturbingly welcomed and recognized for what it was; notice of others to come, as well as of a progression in their developing relationship. Her mother had noticed.

‘Perhaps you could show me how long I should kiss you in that case, and where I might place my hands, as I am out of practice. I am here, now. This would be a suitable moment I think.”

She blushed quite charmingly. “William, you are deliberately distracting me from what I want to say. It is none of those things and nothing like that, as I think you already know. We are all comfortable and could not have found ourselves in a more congenial or welcoming setting. However, it is personal.” She could not immediately meet his sudden glance. “In fact it is very personal, and I have no right to ask any of it. Yet I must.”

“Oh? Good. It is time we had another very personal conversation, you and I. Long overdue, considering where we find ourselves and what has already happened to me. To us. Between us. From time to time.”

Her eyes flashed to his for a moment. He had a strange look on his face, but was smiling knowingly at her in a way that quite flustered her..

He continued, before she recovered. “And if you do not mind me correcting you, considering what we have gone through and how far we have come, you have every right to ask even the most personal of questions of me, for I find that I would like you to know me better.” He added more qualification. “Much better.” That last slightly-emphasized comment, had seemed daring to her, but was nonetheless not un-welcome. “If that is possible.”

She still hesitated, yet it was not because the tenor or emphasis of his last and personally-suggestive comments had struck her as strange, because they had gone by her almost unnoticed.

He rattled on more than he usually would, to provoke her eventuallyinto asking what she clearly wanted to ask, for she might need some nudging. At least until she got started. “As you feel the need to ask, then I will promise that I will answer honestly. I will be candid and will not hide anything from you. It is about time you began to ask things of me of a personal nature again, for I have wanted to ask you many things too, along those same lines.”

He was clearly talking along quite deliberately, waiting for her to begin and to stop his rambling when it became too much for her.

“Oh. You have? Then please ask them, William. I will also promise to be candid and honest without evasion and will hide nothing from you, for I have nothing to hide from you, do I? Nothing..” Her smiling eyes said more than her mischievous words did.

He wisely decided not to go there. “But you first, Annis. You raised this topic with me, remember?”

“Yes.” She recollected the truth of that. “Oh dear. Where to begin? You are aware…I know you are…that Mama received a letter from our godmother, Lady Seymour, some two weeks or more ago just after….” She fell silent as those memories intruded. “She was busy at the time with all of the…arrangements and asked me to see to it.” She hesitated for some moments. “I read it.” Her eyes flickered to his. “It was quite disturbing. No….” She corrected herself. “It was devastating. I did not tell Mama what was in it other than a few inconsequential little bits and pieces, and I have kept it to myself since then. It said a lot concerning you, and….” She fell silent. It seemed to be proving difficult for her.

“Go on. My back is broad you know, and I am well aware of Lady Seymour’s poor opinion of me, so I can guess what her letter might say.”

“What she said, and I am ashamed to admit it now, shaped my earlier behavior toward you. I know now that I was wrong. Very wrong.” She suddenly seemed to become almost angry with him. “Why do you let her get away with telling all of those lies about you William? You are not the kind of a person she describes in her letter.”

“Yes, our godmother has an annoying habit of cutting through whatever truth there might be and discovering the embarrassing untruths and seeing only them. But how do you know they were lies or that I am not the kind of person she described? Though I am sure it was not flattering, if it was mostly about me. I am sure it is a long list of my faults; my violent past, and other and various indiscretions to add to what you already know of me. Unfortunately, I may have, unwisely, responded to her needling and given her ammunition for some more of those when I last met with her just before I got to Underby.”

She thought for a while and decided that he was unlikely to refuse to discuss any of it with her, as personal as it certainly was. She opened up to discuss what she had long wanted to find out about what her godmother had written, and she had rehearsed it often in her own mind. “We have all been thrown together for the last two weeks in a dreadful nightmare. My father, my sister, then that dreadful man and his father…who would have forced themselves into our midst, to do what? Then the fire. You have been the only sane spark of life for all of us to hang onto, and without you close by, I dare not think what might have happened on several occasions to us as a family. Then you brought us here into this completely new world where we had chance to get away from all of our immediate problems. If you were the man that she painted you to be in her letter, you would probably have done noneof those things, but others much worse by now. But you are not that kind of a person.”

“Much worse, eh?” She was not about to be provoked into saying more. “Perhaps I have not yet had the opportunity? But no, I did, didn’t I, and at least twice now. What kind of a person? As I have not seen her letter, I cannot answer to any charges she may have laid at my door. However, I see that I must address them and answer them to your satisfaction, whatever they might be, or you will wonder when I am likely to revert to that other dreadful individual that I am sure she described so well for you.”

She rummaged in the pocket of her dress and produced the often-read letter. It was crumpled from reading and being carried on her person. It was even tear stained, but she hoped he would not see that. She would never have dared to put it down anywhere it might be discovered.

“Ah. The letter. Well, you are still here and talking to me, and your mother and sisters have not deserted the estate, and earlier, did not cast me out from your home despite our previous revealing conversations and even more revealing exchanges. I refer, of course, to that wondrous unforgettable memory that is now forgotten once more.” She wondered which one of several he might be referring to, though there was only really one that certainly transcended all of the others. He hesitated, and then prompted her. “The letter?”

She came back to earth again. “Yes, the letter. They know nothing of it. I am the only one to have read it. I have lived with this now for the last two weeks and more, and I cannot but believe it is all a mistake, for I think I know you better than is shown in this.”

He stood up and walked over to sit beside her as she moved her feet off the settee, and then he read the letter she put into his hand, with her reading it yet again alongside of him. She was well aware of the warmth of his legs through her thin dress and of his shoulder pressed against hers and wanted to reach out and hold his hand and even rest her head against his shoulder, but lacked the courage. Far too forward, in such a difficult situation. She held the other side of the letter as they both read it and placed her other hand out of the way, and on her knee, though she had read it several times in the privacy of her room and wondered at it all.

But if she did touch him, she could not be sure what his response might be. Or perhaps she was afraid of what it might be, so she did not take his hand, but did find the courage to lean her head on his shoulder as he read it. She found him moving closer to her and holding it more in front of her so that she would not need to lean over to read it, though she had read it many times. She brought her feet up on the seat beside her again and leaned more heavily into him as she straightened out her dress.

She felt his shoulders begin to shake as he read. He found humor in it. She did not understand that. He should be annoyed with his godmother.

Then she found that his hand had reached out and taken hers from her knee and was holding it. She did not snatch it back, which had been her first surprised instinct, but just closed her eyes and listened as he read out loud, drinking in the sound of his voice and wondering how he might deal with the damning charges laid out in the letter, feeling the pulse pounding in her own neck and the warmth of his hand. She let go of the letter and courageously laid her other hand over his as he held hers. She could almost have recited that letter word for word with her eyes closed.

My dearest Eliza,

It is difficult to know where to begin. Too much is happening of a dreadful nature to upset us all. I was devastated to hear of your tragic circumstance and am only sorry that I cannot get there as quickly as this letter. It is to be hoped that it is not as tragic as you fear. I shall come to you when I am able.

 

“She is an untidy writer, isn’t she, though she does manage to express herself well, so far?”

 

But to get to the point quickly, and I hope I am not too late. In this matter of Bella marrying William Devane that we all of us had discussed when we met earlier—it should never have been considered at the start and must notbe allowed to happen. The consequences of his continued presence among you and your other girls might be unbearable to you and the entire family.

 

“There. Even I could have told you that, for look at what has happened. One thing after another. No end of trouble I have caused for you all.”

Annis said nothing. He read on.

 

I should have laid all of my reservations out to both you and his mother earlier, I know, but I did not wish to cause his mother any distress with my devastating and long-held opinion of her son, though I think she already knows it. I honestly never thought this plan of marriage would ever get this far, or I would have spoken sooner.

My objections to this possible connection going forward are numerous and persuasive. I provide details of such disastrous incidents that few in society know about it seems, and those who do know have said precious little about. The less his name is linked with any part of your family, the better it will be for all concerned.

Most of my objections come from the time before he was banished, by his parents, but obviously led up to that action. I doubt that warfare and fighting for his country will have improved him any, for I understand it often does quite the opposite. Violent men are for-ever violent. It might have been better for all, if he had not returned, for he was nothing less than a brawler, a libertine, even a….I hesitate to say the word, but it must be laid out without any timidity—rapist, and worse, if that were possible. Yet it is worse, for I have first-hand knowledge of one such affair to a relative of my own. Who knows what else there is that I have NOT heard about.

He will undoubtedly pick up those same propensities when he settles, though five years abroad will hardly have improved his character from what I hear of the dreadful goings-on of the military in their debauching treatment of those foreign women caught in their clutches and passed, I will say it, from man to man.

 

“Yes, unfortunately she is right there. There were some dreadful episodes that the army got up to at times with some of the local ladies, and it does not reflect well upon any of us.” Annis still said nothing.

 

I met with him earlier today just after he landed. He has not changed but seems to have become even more dangerous and hinted, entirely without shame, at some of those scandalous things that I know go on when our soldiers are abroad with…other women, whom they hold in no respect, though I gather that much of that is of their own doing. He easily, openly, even defiantly, confirmed what I had earlier heard of bringing a foreign woman back into the country with him, and depositing her in some little amorous situation where he might visit her at his leisure. I must admit that my reservations and opinions are more strongly based now, for I found him to be cold, aloof, and unrepentant of some of what I know, though I did not throw anything directly at him on these tender issues apart from mentioning the ill-fated Constanza to him, which he readily amplified, though I was sorely tempted to, with at least two other of them.

 

“It was my own fault for going on about Constanza to her. Too ripe for her to avoid picking up on it. But then I knew that.”

 

To begin:

Some five years ago, he, and another of his kind—a man named Maxton—brawled in one of the clubs over the favors of a lightskirt. It was well hushed up, and I had difficulty hearing of it, but I did eventually. The other “gentleman” involved fell afoul of his own family much more than WD seems to have done with his own, for it seems that he was promptly sent abroad and has not shown his face in London since. It quite surprised me, for that family has so little regard for their social position, that I had thought he would not have been pushed off as quickly as he was.

 

“A lightskirt eh? She must have been referring to that Chisholm female whose name somehow became linked with that episode. Just as well she did not know of the other.”

Annis did not trust herself to speak.

 

There was yet another brawl shortly after that in an entirely unrelated incident, I think, except that that also seems to have involved a woman of dubious character. I know that the brawl took place, though I do not have details of that, and could never find out who the other man was, or indeed the female, but that incident was also well hushed up.

As if that were not enough, there was an affair hard on the heels of the other two and involving a lady of better character, who had fallen into his snare. The lady was so upset over it, she has not dared speak of it to anyone since that time, but I know it all. I am reluctant to use a stronger word yet again, but that worse circumstance—rape—is clearly what it was, for the lady is well known to me, so I was made aware of some of the details (who could not be, with the physical injuries and those to her sanity too). He did not realize nor care that he left her with child—his child.—from that incident, which seemed to have been spread over several days of imprisonment and debauchery as he repeatedly forced himself upon her. The young lady and her infant have been in my care since that time. She would not divulge any names for fear of retribution from a violent man—that much was evident to me—but from the startled look in her eyes and her weak protestations and evasions when I threw the name of WD at her head, it was obvious where the blame truly resided. He abandoned her and her unborn child (I took pains to ensure that no one knew she was with child, of course) when he went abroad just some weeks afterward. He had done enough damage in society by then that his parents—who deserved better of a son—could no longer ignore it and forced him out of the country.

What he may have got up to abroad, I cannot say, but some of the shameful and violent things that those troops get up to over there with the local women—young and old alike and even children—is legend and never with their consent I might add. Indeed, every account of him from abroad reeks of violence and wicked goings-on.

And now, he is returned to pick up where he left off, and with Constanza, whoever she may be. Well, he must be stopped before greater damage is done. I would never forgive myself if I let anything go forward without letting you know of his character.

It pains me to recount this, for his mother and sister are both as dear to me as you are my dear friend. I went along with the plans and plots of you and his mother as they seemed harmless enough with him abroad, and it seemed that they would never amount to anything. Once he did return, if he returned, it seemed obvious to me that Bella—if she ever encountered him—would instantly take him in dislike and see his character writ large as it must be. I could say nothing then without hurting so many others, and there seemed no need. I did not wish to hurt or antagonize his mother and sister, for they have been friends, good friends of mine and yours for many years now as have you.

I just this evening received further disturbing accounts of the only surviving Maxton son having been murdered by a highwayman on the road out of London, near the hamlet of Inchdene, barely three miles from my estate and on the road out to Brooklands that he had to have travelled about the same time after he left my home. It would not surprise me if WD had not himself put paid to him somehow. Another such incident, and so soon after he returned. It all seems coincidental and highly suspicious. However, the Maxtons were never well liked, so society will be well rid of him too.

Forgive me for even thinking it, and his mother must never find this out, but that it was a great pity that—if it had happened at William’s hands, as I suspect it did—that Maxton had not been able to return the favor at that same moment, for the benefit of all concerned.

Your friend, 

 

Addie Seymour.

 

P.S. I now have the recipe for—from Mrs. Devane. As I have time, as this letter cannot leave my hands now until morning, I will pen it here…

 

“She tears me apart thoroughly and then calmly switches parts to divulge a recipe for marmalade and tarts. From murder and worse, to marmalade. Yet I still live and even thrive and prosper and am happier than I am sure I deserve to be, despite all of these manifest faults.”

He shook his head. “Most damning and damaging! Especially that Trevelyan accusation. Rather a devastating and full account of me I would say, though she has some of the details and the order of it all garbled.” He had laughed once or twice as he had read it, but there was little humor in his laugh. “But what do you think of me? Of this, Annis?”

She thought for a while, though she already had known the answer for a long time now.

“I think that our godmother does not know you. Not as we know you.”

“I like that answer. But what a villainous portrait is painted of me. So that’s what the old beldame wanted to see me about. To throw all of this in my face but then lacked the courage to do so. How I wish she had done so when we met and saved me from this diatribe. Yet even this can have a positive outcome, for at least I now know her litany of sins against me. This must have been festering away in her bosom all of these years with her waiting to send a broadside into me I would never recover from, but she did not have the courage to do it to my face.

“I had an uncomfortable feeling about why she wanted to see me and was warned off by everyone. Yet she asked me none of this nor sought confirmation from me, or clarification when I met with her, but danced around everything, except throwing out her comment about Constanza. The infamous Constanza. She was searching for what she might find out, so I became devious too and told her too much. She clearly knew none of it and chose to take my circuitous and devious answers and comments at face value and spin a disreputable romp out of it. She even danced around that other incident with her niece. A sad piece of work indeed. A direct question—which some ladies seem incapable of asking—which you have now asked on several occasions, would have elicited a better response from me than I was inclined to provide.”

“But the truth is rarely simple, William.” She was looking at him strangely, waiting for his denial of it all.

“True.” He let the letter flutter to the seat beside them and added his hand to hold hers.

“From what my sister let drop in her letters, I thought that, like my mother, she was striving to find a bride for me, which is something I would have rebelled at. Coming from her it seemed like an act of revenge upon me, especially if it had been the Collishawe woman that my uncle tried to warn be about, whereas from my mother it seemed like an act of desperate motherly concern for my well-being and getting me settled as she would have liked, to raise a few grandchildren.

“But then I did not know what our parents seemed to have planned for me and did not know that it had actually been your sister Bella. I had not met any of your family before I arrived. I find that my views on a few things, most things, have moderated considerably, though I fear that I am not yet become a gentleman in many ways and may never get there.

“It seemed out of character for our godmother to do anything out of consideration for me. Now it seems she would have forbidden me instead. Well I am glad she has emptied her budget onto paper for once. It is nice to know what she really thinks of me or thinks she knows. But she missed out on my smuggling career and those later incidents since I arrived. I should take her to task for that, for I worked hard at smuggling and was successful at it. In fact, I am taking it up again. There was also that thing about shaving her little dog. Though she found out the truth of that rather late, I heard, or that might have been in here too.”

“But none of it is true. Is it?” There was a pained look in her eyes as she waited for his answer.

He moved away from her and brought his leg up beside her and between them as he turned his body to face her so that she might see his face and read his expression. He did not let go of her hands but raised them to his lips and even kissed them as he held her eyes.

“Oh yes, my love. I can deny little of it. It is mostly true, with one or two minor exceptions and the changing of a few details here and there.” Clearly, she was not comfortable with that answer. “But I need to be more open with you. Especially with you. Fortunately, our godmother did not know the half of it, and what she did know, she got wrong. Just as well.”

She paled as she looked into his eyes and found it hard to breathe because of his admission that most of it was indeed true, which was unexpected, and he had also absentmindedly called her, his love. Perhaps not absentmindedly. It did seem to help.

“I hear that confession is good for the soul. Not my confessions. Hers. She must be relieved to have put it all down on paper and to have admitted what her true feelings for me are, though I think I knew what those were all along.”

She listened and looked into his eyes as he continued. They were still smiling at her. He was obviously telling the devastating truth, for who would ever willingly admit to any of that? She wanted to be almost anywhere else at that moment than where she was but could not just leave. She waited for him to continue as she held her concerns in check.

“So she ferreted out that first brawl with the elder Maxton, did she? I should have known she would have friends there. I am so pleased she didn’t learn the whole of it.”

Annis’s hand would have flown to her throat at that admission, but he still held it.

“But to think that she believes it was a brawl over a lightskirt. Her sources of information do not seem to be so robust after all. She stumbles across the truth and then makes a mess of it all with her contrivances. My sister will be offended to learn that that is what her godmother thinks of her. I wonder where she heard of that, for my sister obviously did not tell her.”

His audience could say nothing at first as she was too choked up with emotion. She did not sound like herself when she was at last able to say anything. “Y-y-your sister?”

“Oh yes. But Maxton—the rest of it. She has that wrong too. He did not go abroad after that. Yes, she was certainly wrong about that. We dueled after we had brawled. Pistols. He was as dead as any man could be, even before he hit the ground. His friends and relatives hid that last part cleverly, whisking him off as they did for whatever reason, and then they must have started that rumor of him going abroad.”

She took her hands away from his, only to find that he reached out and took them again. She could no longer look at him.

“And none of his relatives were ever going to tell anyone what they did with his body. They spread the rumor that he had gone abroad for some particular reason that escaped me. Hard to deceive those who witnessed it though, for I think that living men generally do not sport a large hole immediately between the eyes as they fall, to lie prostrate and lifeless on the grass, and bleeding out.”

“You killed him?” She was wide-eyed and breathless at the horror of that possibility.

“Oh yes. No doubt of that.”

“But you say your sister knew of this?”

“Oh yes. The brawl was because of my sister. Over her. You should ask her when you next see her. I could not avoid it. Nor could I avoid killing him. He would have hunted us both down in some remote and dark place if I had let him live. She knows it all. Probably more than I do, for she was the reason it took place, and she looked on the whole time. You should refer to her for confirmation of what I will say. A lightskirt indeed. She will be offended to hear herself described like that, and by our godmother too, for she is nothing of the kind but a respectably married woman, though our mother does not yet know that either.

“I’d better tell you the whole of it—about everything, all of it—so that you may judge me for yourself.” He took a deep breath and began.

“Maxton, Julius Maxton, was a notoriously bad character from a family of bad characters. His elder brother had been murdered some time before I came across him—a total rake with an unenviable reputation for gambling and violence, and a loose fish, if you know what I mean?”

She nodded.

“I will ask you sometime how you know that. He even sounds like me on the face of it, but he was nothing like me at all. He was banned from the clubs and polite society generally, as I almost was, but had gained access to the grounds at Lady Audsley’s estate, having seen my sister arrive earlier, in my company.”

She nodded.

“He had decided to take advantage of the situation and that he would pay court to her.” His eyes glinted. “Well perhaps not quite so polite or gentle an approach. I think he envisioned…the worst kind of encounter with her, and in the secluded garden of the grounds, where one of his friends, the unfortunate Miss Chisholm, whom I never met, had managed to take her on pretense of needing fresh air. He believed that there, he might not be overheard or interrupted, despite her obvious objections and resistance when he approached her unexpectedly, for she had repulsed him in the past.” He looked down at her. “I am not disturbing you too much, am I, by recounting any of this?”

She shook her head.

“He was insulting and even violently rough with her at first when she sought to escape. Elizabeth may decide to tell you more, but I should not. I had stayed for a few moments to renew an acquaintance and heard what was going on in the garden, so I went to see what trouble she had managed to get herself into and blundered onto the scene. She had scratched his face deeply, and he was very angry and determined upon revenge.

“He and I then fought. He believed he could beat me easily but found that he couldn’t. At least not fairly. My father did teach me something useful from his naval experiences, and one of them was how to defend myself if I wished to survive in the bad company I seemed to frequent. He had some questionable friends, my father. You met one of those gentlemen who taught me so much—Mr. Gilbey. He is now my good friend.”

She nodded.

“So I dealt with him and one of his friends the hard way, as Mr. Gilbey had taught me. No half measures with me when my only sister was involved.”

He looked at her pale face and smiled at her. “You should not look so worried or concerned, my love. Your hands are very warm, by the way. I like your hair too.” He leaned forward and allowed her hair to touch his forehead as he breathed into her neck and then nibbled at her ear. “I can also smell lavender. How pleasant.” She felt his lips upon her neck.

She did not pull away, and found his compliments pleasurable, despite the charged circumstances of the discussion. How could he deal with all of this so lightly?

“Now where was I?” He sat back, raised her hand to his lips, and kissed it again, recalling where he was and what he had been saying.

“By the time he realized that he was being well and truly beaten, I’d made quite a mess of his face, I think, over and above what my sister had done to him, rather like poor Thackeray’s. His friends had gathered by then and some others, fortunately for me, for one of his friends tried to give him a pistol. With others there, he could not easily shoot me out of hand as he might have done. Would have done. Except that Sir Alistair, John’s father, intervened. John, John Buckingham, my sister’s husband, was there too. That was where she first met him. Love at first sight. Like me.”

Her eyes flew to his face, to see him looking at her with a gentle, teasing smile about his lips. “I am surprised Elizabeth did not tell you.” She dared say nothing.

He continued. “But the gun. That would have been murder, and Maxton would have hanged. The suggestion was made by one of his friends, that honor would be served by a duel there and then. Of course, it was illegal, but that was of little consideration to anyone, myself included at that moment, for he fully intended to kill me, and if not there, then at some other time and a place less public and less likely to cause him a severe problem. Also, when I might least expect it.

“He had the reputation of being a murderous shot and basked in the dubious glory of having walked away from two previous duels over a woman, leaving his opponents severely wounded and likely to die. He was too cocksure of himself. Those others who had come upon us there, tried to avoid such a foolish and unnecessary confrontation in that setting, but he was not about to let sober reconsideration take a hand and deny him revenge. It was clear that I could no more avoid a duel with him than I could have avoided the brawl that started it.”

He sighed heavily at the thought. “Oh dear, I have not thought of that now for several years. It does not reflect well upon me. However, my father had also taught me something else other than dealing with bullies, that also proved to be of great value and has served me well over the years. He taught me to shoot well, to shoot calmly, and to stay sober. Maxton was ape drunk, the fool. And angry beyond belief with me and my sister, and she was witness to his being beaten. The outcome was that he was inebriated and roaring angry, and I was not quite as angry.”

He thought for a while and reconsidered. “Actually, I think I was the more angry. He had waylaid and been rough with my sister and had intended worse, but I was calm and deliberate and knew what the outcome had to be for the sake of my sister as well as myself. It was all done properly of course, Sir Alistair saw to that. We stood back to back, walked off the paces, turned as instructed, and I calmly shot him between the eyes while he merely grazed me, for he was trembling so much with rage, I think.” He momentarily let go of her hands and ran his finger along a faint scar distinctly visible on the side of his head, in the hairline. Sophia had drawn attention to that too from time to time, but he would not speak of how he had got it.

She was pale, but she also traced the faint scar with her finger and then took his hand again as she leaned weakly against his shoulder. She was pale and wide-eyed.

“Had I not killed him, he would have found some way of killing me later and maybe even my sister, or worse, for I did know of him and his reputation. I was not so innocent myself. He deserved the beating and his death, for he gave me no choice in either of them. My sister encountered the younger brother some time later and took the wind out of his sails by shooting him in the arm to defend herself from him too. I am surprised our godmother did not have something to say of that. Pity she didn’t kill him and saved me the bother of encountering him later when he also tried to kill me, but then I am glad she did not, for it would have weighed heavily upon her, far more than it did me. That was the incident at Inchdene that you overheard, and that the letter related. I did not intend to kill him, but that was how it worked out.”

“Oh.”

“There, that is the first and fullest account I have rendered of that incident to anyone, so I should allow you to repeat it as you wish but only with those who need to learn of it. Your mother knows, for I laid out all of my checkered history for her some days ago. All of it. Elizabeth, and even John, can confirm any of it, I expect.

“Now what else does she accuse me of? Yes, another brawl over a woman of questionable virtue and then a…forceful confinement and a rape even.”

He looked closely at Annis sitting beside him. “Are you sure you feel entirely safe in my company?”

“I am safe, I think.” Her voice was quiet and hoarse.

“Yes, you are. She does not mince her words, does she? Now why didn’t she broach that with me when she did see me? The two were related, though Lady Seymour did not seem to know that, for she got them reversed. The brawl was the outcome of that confinement of our godmother’s niece. There was only the one woman involved. But both were true; rape and brawl, unfortunately, though I can only take blame for the latter—the brawl, another brawl that brought things to an end.”

She was not sure that she had heard him correctly.

“Why fate seemed to have singled me out as it did on those two occasions, I still cannot understand. I am sure other young men never got caught up in such violence. Why me? I still cannot understand that, though I am glad that I was there both times.

“To continue: I was walking home fairly late one evening shortly before, not after that Maxton episode as she believes, when a tearful, disheveled, desperate, even hysterical I would say, and half-clad young lady rushed out of one of the fashionable houses along that street and threw herself at my feet, begging for my help—the unfortunate Miss Trevelyan. She had unwisely put herself into the clutches of a villain. Another villain. Not me. I found out later that she was Lady Seymour’s niece. The man involved, I may as well tell you his name too—Viscount Trencham, for he, like the Maxton brothers, is now dead—soon appeared on the scene at the door, afraid of what he might find waiting for him. She had pushed him down some stairs, , to make her escape after he had had her imprisoned in his house for some days before that, so that second part was unfortunately correct about the confinement and the other, but I was not the culprit as my godmother seems to believe.

“He saw what Maxton after him saw—only a stripling. Me. Of no consequence to him, and to be milled down and removed from his path. He was right. I really was of no consequence. He tried to force her to return with him, slapped her once or twice for the slight injury she had done him, and was insulting to me for presuming to meddle in his affairs with someone he protested was his wife when she clearly was not. What could I not do but help the young lady? He had more bottom and skill than Maxton did and was more calm about it, for he was older too. However, he also underestimated me, for I was but a thin sickly-looking youth, and he did not know me. How could he? Our circles were worlds apart.

“Afterward, I wrapped my coat about her and escorted the young lady—actually I think I carried her most of the way, and a devil of a job I had of it, for she could not walk home with me, and I was not in a fit state to carry her. My parents’ house was not too far distant, and I put her in the care of my sister, who saw her properly and suitably looked after, bathed, and dressed. My part in it ended there, for I never saw her again, but I did not escape the repercussions. Fortunately, my sister was home, or I would have had to have roused my mother and then the entire house would have been in an uproar. It was, later, anyway. Apart from that, I was bleeding quite severely and badly bruised and knocked about, so I presented quite a sight for anyone to see, but Trencham was in a worse state, I suspect.

“There was uproar anyway, as I said, later. Difficult to hide with the marks that I was sporting on my face, and a situation with a distraught young lady that was discovered in the house. I was too weak to care what anyone thought, and it could not be hidden. I also could not, and then would not talk of it for some days, so the worst was assumed of me. He had a punishing left hand, I recall, and that took me a few painful moments to recognize.

“My sister did not witness the brawl on that occasion, but she patched me up afterward that evening after she had seen to the welfare of the young lady, so she can vouch for the brawling part of it and the fact that the young lady did not object to my presence as she might do if I were her attacker, but had been effusive in her thanks. As my parents later saw my face, they realized what I had been up to and even assumed more than that. The young lady was turned over to a relative for safekeeping, but before she corrected the impression left of me. That relative, I later learned, was her aunt, and no less than Lady Seymour. Once out of our safekeeping, she could not undo the impression of me that my parents seemed to believe, and did not correct that of her aunt. Then later, that rape was laid at my door. It seems that no one had bothered to ask the young lady what she might know.

“My later protests counted for nothing, but in truth, I was annoyed that they did not believe me, when they should have. The upshot of all of that, and the subsequent Maxton thing, was that I would have to go. I was out of control. I only recently learned that Miss Trevelyan had given birth, so there is another item to be mistakenly laid at my door by those determined to do so. As her ladyship does.”

Annis reached up and stroked his head without realizing what she was doing. “No. You couldn’t avoid helping her. No wonder Addie feels so antagonistic about you.”

“I thought I might have deserved being regarded as a hero for that little escapade, but then reality hit home again. I was not the heroic type and certainly not to be credited with any of the finer attributes of a gentleman. I realized that it was time I struck out on my own. No one believed any good of me and more trouble was sure to find me, if not from Maxton’s brood then certainly from Trencham’s. So I decided to put my latent talents for violence to good use. I joined the military.

“Trencham, unknown to me of course, soon afterward took off for the continent, recognizing—I see now—that Lady Seymour, her aunt, can be a potent enemy when she is crossed. He had nothing to worry about, for she did not find out his part in it and still does not know. As you can tell from her letter, she is being revenged upon me again for something I did not do.” He sighed heavily.

“For the last few years, I have been keeping an eye open for someone in her employ to seek me out—which she does so well—and make an Il castrate out of me for that. I have survived so far. When I rashly took her up on her invitation, I only drank her tea, as she also was drinking it, and ate some of her cake only after I had fed some of it to her little dog.”

She looked up into his eyes. She could see that he was telling the truth in every sad detail and did not feel the need to hide any of it, but then why would he? By itself, the letter and its accusations were damning, as Lady Seymour had intended, but once the background was revealed, it became nothing more than hateful gossip no matter how true it might seem. No man would leave his sister unprotected. No man could resist responding to the pleas of a desperate woman in such dire need of his help. He had done the same for them, for her mother.

She would be prepared to tell Lady Seymour so, to her face, when she next saw her.

“One final footnote to this story. The one who did ferret me out was Trencham himself. I came across him on the continent, or rather, he came across me. He gave me my horse, Boney.” He paused for a few seconds. “That is a slight exaggeration, my dear. He did not give it to me willingly, of course. I had to shoot him off it, but then as he was drawing down on me at the time, and I, a fellow officer and an Englishman no less. Fortunately, I recognized him just in time, so I felt justified. He had recognized me earlier and was determined to be revenged for my earlier intrusion into his life and upsetting his continuing plans for Miss Trevelyan. So you see I killed two men up to that time and both of them Englishmen and me barely twenty-two years of age. What a desperate ruffian I had turned out to be. I also, unfortunately, killed numerous enemies in battle, but that is forgivable, I think, and is even expected and commendable.

“She got the last bit mostly right about me too. Perceptive of her. I was ambushed by two highwaymen on my way to the North the same evening, just before I got your mother’s letter telling me that I was needed at Underby. Yes, it was the surviving younger Maxton brother that had vowed revenge on me and even on my sister. I told you she shot him in the arm some years ago to disabuse him of that notion and now has the immovable Mr. Gilbey standing between her and others like Maxton. The younger Maxton attacked me, not I him.

“He had been very young at the time of his brother’s death, and I was long gone by the time he felt he had to seek me out. I had to stop him killing me and was hoping to reason with him, but he hit his head when I knocked him off his horse. I had not intended to kill him. I am not fond of people taking shots at me or threatening my sister in my absence. So now the count is three. How lucky I am, that neither of the Thackerays had courage enough to try and kill me also, though the father was sorely tempted, I know, and the son, would have liked to. I know even you were ready to kill me at that time too. What a dreadful character is painted of me. You had best wash your hands of me, my dear, I am, beyond hope. The worst part of it is that most of it is true.”

“No, it is not.” She was now calm and not in any way as tense as she had earlier been. “You said two men attacked you. What of the second man?”

“A most interesting Frenchman with an interesting story that I will tell you sometime. He was not familiar with the role of a highwayman and did not stay long aboard his horse once the guns went off, for the horse reared and got rid of him, so I had no need to shoot him. Which I am glad about. Apart from that, I saved his life in another way, though I am not sure he entirely believed me. Once I had his story, and it was interesting, and to do with my horse strangely enough, he decided that he would return to France forthwith, no doubt bemused, and wondering how the English could possibly survive their own stupidity and extreme violence.”

“And what of Constanza? You did not mention her.” She trusted that that would be as easily addressed as the others.

“Yes. Her. The fair and fast Constanza whom I brought back to England and of which, not whom, I provided some misleading details to her ladyship to think the worst. A ship my dear. Nothing more. A French ship, despite the name. The one my friends and I commandeered from her home port and sailed back to England before I returned to the Continent. It was well described in the navy gazette and other papers your father had on his desk. I took some pleasure in describing the intimate relationship we had together—for we did—and how she changed hands more than I liked, true also, and then I had left London and her behind. All true. I am afraid my godmother had made up her own mind who the fair Constanza must be, just as she did with all of the others, so I led her on about that and chose my language carefully, knowing she would deliberately misconstrue it, and she did. However, I did just what she seems to do so well. I told her only the truth about Constanza and let her misunderstand it all as she did, for I could see it lodging in her vitals and begin to nag at her. I consider that a small victory. That is the only part of this sordid tale she got entirely wrong.

“Of course, since then, and not to my credit, I brawled with Thackeray and might also have come to blows with his father too.  I have been busy. I hoped no one else would find out about that so soon and tarnish my already blackened reputation, but the servants seemed to observe it all. Perhaps if they had read this letter about me first, they may have been disappointed by my prevailing over the son, and may even have come to his aid to defeat the greater blackguard.”

She flashed a glance at him and found him to be smiling at her for his attempted levity.

“They were afraid for you at first. Undoubtedly surprised, and I think I dare say, pleased over the outcome. So were we when we heard, though did not express it in quite that way, for you seemed to be—to me—as big a villain, or even a bigger one, than Thackeray.”

“Hence the horse pistol. But as for no one finding out, I suspect that was too much to expect, for I seem to have watchers everywhere about me and find that I am actually enjoying it. I did have a choice over that, perhaps, for I caught him in your father’s study going over the papers that I had on the desk. But then, I did tell you some of that. He seemed to think he had every right to do so. I would have liked it to have been more peaceably settled, and he could leave as he came with no one the wiser or hurt. However, he was pigheaded and argued with me when I suggested he should put them down and to mind his own business. I was short on patience at that moment, having been recently bereaved—I think I can use that excuse for not being as patient or as forgiving as I might have been, or more restrained—and I was feeling protective of some beautiful ladies who had so suddenly become dependent upon me and of whom I had grown fond and protective by then. I think I showed him the wisdom of not arguing about that. I also avoided a confrontation of any more serious nature with his father too, which quite surprised me, but then he had got my measure by then and I his, so we dealt with each other like two tom cats circling and wailing at each other.”

“I heard.”

“Yes, unfortunately you did, didn’t you? But I did show amazing restraint on another matter, for I did not argue, or worse, with the squire as I was tempted to do, much to his relief, I think, for we were able to achieve a suitable compromise that made everyone happy and certainly worked in our favor the night of that fire. He proved to be a good neighbor after all.”

She remained silent and thoughtful. “I am afraid I may have badly misjudged you again and have harbored thoughts that were not at all complimentary to you. I should have burned this letter.”

“May have? I’ll settle for that. However, I did sense your reservations and even guarded animosity. I also began to sense your crumbling defenses against me.”

“I was wrong about you, William. I know that now. Though I was not as wrong as our godmother.”

“Oh, is that all? I am frequently wrong about many people.” She looked at him in surprise. “Besides, I would rather you thought the worst of me at the outset, as I think you did, and then suffer a painful reevaluation that puts me in a better light, than have it go the other way. It also gives me a considerable advantage when those who think ill of me suffer from pangs of conscience.”

She smiled weakly. “As I must admit to doing. I do not know how I could so badly misjudge anyone.”

“You didn’t, so do not fret about it. I am as bad a character as you fear I am, I can assure you of that. Your instincts about me were entirely correct, so don’t revise them too quickly and possibly prematurely. You do, after all, know so little about me still. I am not a gentleman as one might define that term, as you well know from first-hand experience. At least not just yet. I have to learn again what it is that is expected of a gentleman in this country. That is difficult when one comes across those like the Maxton’s and Thackeray’s and others, though my experiences in the Peninsula prepared me well to meet them directly and in ways they did not so soon expect.”

He sat back and reminisced more. “It is all very well being gentlemanlike in war, but it does not help one to survive, and it is better to dispense with those kinds of genteel preliminary formalities. I am every bit as bad as you feared. Just not quite as bad as you feared when it comes to either you or your family. At least I hope not.”

Annis was suddenly feeling more at ease with the situation. “I was wrong about you. I chose to accept at face value what that letter had said. I could not understand why Mama and Sophia and everyone else seemed to trust you.”

“Yes, the older, and the very young fall under my spell quickly. Do not be in such a rush to think good of me just yet, Annis. My behavior with you so far has not been entirely disinterested or of the most considerate and protective kind in certain directions, or have you forgotten already?”

She leaned her head against his shoulder and felt that she might now be able to relax properly. She also could not avoid shedding a few tears of relief. But she hoped that he might not notice that. He was contented to feel her beside him and in a mood he found that he liked. She found her voice after some moments. “When Bella learned from Mama what seemed to have been planned for her in those meetings with your mother and Addie, she was not at first suited, and was inclined to reject you out of hand.”

“Wise girl.”

“After listening to what your sister had to say of you, however, she relented and decided that she should at least know more about this unknown gentleman. You. What she learned was quite disturbing, for we were aware of some of the rumors, despite what your sister said of you. However, it seems that Mama was not about to give up so easily, and relied more upon Mrs. Devane—your mother – and your sister Elizabeth for her information and less upon Lady Seymour. I wish I had paid more attention now, and we could have avoided so much misunderstanding, though that letter would still have been damaging.”

“I do not doubt it. No matter whom you might consult, it is hardly a rosy picture that is painted of me, for I really did do most of those things, just not in the way our godmother thinks, or with the added embellishments. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky that you did not shoot me when you might have done, twice now, or slit my throat on the many occasions when you have shaved me, and saved your family the disgrace of such a connection, though the damage had been done on that first night before anyone had read that letter.” He looked at her. “So, there you have it, Annis. I am a violent and unprincipled kind of a rogue who takes advantage of young ladies in the most outrageous way, but I must deny the violence on a young woman—her niece, or responsibility for her child—laid at my door. I am never violent with a lady, even when she has a knife at my throat –- an earlier experience — or might threaten me with a pistol.” His voice dropped. “Not even when she is standing entirely naked before me, and the temptations to be anything but a gentleman are overpowering.”

She blushed at his smile and his gently suggestive words. “Only seemingly unprincipled and only in the deficient details. Not in the broader circumstances, and I find that there is a big difference.” She looked at him with some relief in her eyes. “Thank you.” She found she was trembling with relief and on the edge of shedding tears of happiness yet again.

“What. You believed me against that damning catalog of my sins?” He laughed. “You are forgetting your Chaucer.”

She looked at him and wiped some moistness from her eyes as she smiled weakly at him, clearly relieved, but waiting for him to enlighten her.

‘“Nigh and sly wins against fair and square who isn’t there.’ I am nigh and sly. Very sly. But I think you know that by now.”

“You have it the wrong way round, I think. This….” she indicated the letter, “…was the ‘nigh and sly.’ It worked its evil intent upon me quite badly, and from within over some considerable time until I dared broach it with you.”

“Yes. They knew what they were saying, who said that the pen is mightier than the sword. I am obviously a rank amateur. Lady Seymour is a past master at it I now see, yet I cannot think ill of her, for most of what she said was true, if not the whole picture. Had she known all of the details I am sure she would have been more careful and more kindly disposed toward me. Or not. One day she may know me better. So you see, it was all a mere misunderstanding. I do not think I have been too severely injured by any of it”

“You are too kind to her. I have now heard from ‘fair and square,’ I think, who is now there, here. What damage it would have done to any who might have innocently read it, without knowing the full story, or suspecting that it could not possibly be entirely true. But you are right about it being a damning litany against you. Yet, I have seen no sign of any…awkward intent…against my sisters, my mother, or…me.”

“My, you do forget so easily. Surely you do not forget when I blundered into your bedroom while you bathed, for I raised it just a few seconds ago? I should be hurt if you did, for it had a devastating effect upon me. I am unlikely to ever forget that moment. How I controlled myself, I do not know, for my feelings at that moment were nearly beyond me.” He touched her hair. “I wanted to take you into my arms just as you were and kiss and caress you relentlessly and…well, best leave the rest of it out of this discussion, for it did not happen.”

“No, I did not forget that, but that was…gentle, if unnerving.”

“It might not have been gentle. I scare myself thinking how it might have gone wrong for us both. Especially for me. But the temptation is always there…. Oh, how the temptation is there! It can only be a matter of time, my dear before my scruples entirely desert me.” There was a strange look in his eyes. “But as long as you are under my roof and in my protection, I shall strive to behave like a gentleman, and as I think your father might have liked me to behave toward you.”

She stood up, retrieved the letter, and then leaned over quickly and kissed him on the cheek, taking him entirely by surprise. Her eyes were still moist and she sniffed. He did not take the opportunity that he had, to capture her for a moment more, for he was looking into her eyes at that moment. He was more than pleased with what he saw.

“As for believing you over this? Why yes, I think I do, sir. Thank you.” She avoided his slowly reaching out for her and smiled at him from a distance, relieved by what he had confided to her.

“On second thought, now that I am out of your reach, I confess that I will reserve judgment on your character, for there are those episodes you described, and other minor deficiencies that I continue to notice, as when you bathed me in my room that day, as you so cleverly remind me from time to time, for you did not leave as I requested, did you? Nor did you succeed in keeping your eyes closed as you said you would. Also, as I have noticed when I have come close to you to shave you and discovered your mischievous inclinations and your hands upon my waist or moving….” She blushed and said no more of that. “There are a few other unanswered details and questions. So I now know, I think, the worst of you.”

“I very much doubt it.”

She ignored that. “But you do not know the wors—” She colored up and stopped from completing what she had started to say, regretting even starting to say anything. “I have another question, a difficult question to ask of you, and nothing to do with this, I think.” She looked at him and could see that he had not lost patience with her. He was still smiling.

“Yes, my love?”

“What….” She faltered and stumbled over her words and blushed as his words hit home yet again. “What would you…what are your intentions—plans, for me and my sisters and mother at this time?”

He doubted that had been the question she might have been ready to ask him. He sat back and relaxed. “My intentions? My plans? Why, I am going to look after you all if you will allow me, for I am but a sly and ingratiating kind of fellow always seeking the main chance. Can I take it that you now do not object to my intrusion into your personal lives; this interference in your family’s personal affairs; my presence? You did when I first appeared on the scene.”

“That was then, and we just dispensed with that. You seem to have looked after our interests very well, as you carefully worked your way into our good graces.”

He beamed. “I did, didn’t I? I would say that I am gradually succeeding in all of my main aspirations and overriding all obstacles slowly but surely.” He sounded smugly satisfied at that.

She thought for a few moments. “I find it strange. One can live with or close by someone for years and discover that you never really knew them at all. Sometimes I am not sure I know my own mother that well, and I am beginning to believe I did not know Bella as well as I thought I did. I certainly cannot understand my godmother at all after this, and I shall have some strong words to say to her. Others, you can encounter but briefly and feel quite certain that you know them.”

“I hope you do not put me in that latter category just yet, Annis, or you might be surprised and disappointed. I would far rather you believed me a villain worth keeping an eye on as I work my way closer to my goal.”

She would have liked to have asked him what that might be, but was afraid of his answer for some reason.

He was smiling at her strangely now. “Before you try to place me on that pedestal, there is still something that I must confess to you.”

“Oh?”

“I cannot continue to play the role of disinterested ‘brother-in-law’—how strangely wounding to me that phrase was when you first used it—for much longer, quite as easily as I had hoped.”

She blushed as he looked intently upon her with a smile on his face. She was also glad to hear it. “What role would you prefer, sir?”

He paused and did not immediately answer. “That was a rash question, my dear. But surely you now know the answer to it?” He could see from the gradual reddening on her cheeks that she perhaps did; that of lover.

“My godmother did not totally misinform you of my character, if you can read between the lines. No smoke without fire, as the saying goes, and I did tell you of Deirdre. But I find that I am likely to fail in that too, for I think that all of you—your mother, your sisters and even my own sister—know that I am not as disinterested in one of you as I should be. And find I have too much to lose—my very existence indeed—if I make the wrong step too quickly as I am so tempted to do from time to time…all of the time. So idle seduction is no longer as possible as I had at first hoped.”

She faltered for a few seconds as he continued to smile at her. Surely he could see how wildly her heart was beating. Even hear it. She was suddenly flustered again, and her hands were up close to her throat. “I do not follow you. I cannot think that that is a proper topic for conversation, sir.”

“I think you do follow me. Of course it is something that needs to be discussed between us. We are both adults, both of age as you once reminded me, and we both know our own minds, so I think it is proper. At least I know mine.”

“I do not think that I am supposed to know anything of that subject…seduction.”

He smiled at her evasion. “I had another word in mind, but seduction is close enough and will do for the purpose of this discussion. Yet you all practice it so well, as women have done across the ages. It happens when a beautiful young lady does not so violently object when I surprise her at her ablutions, or when she snuggles up close and looks up at you with those large and innocent eyes, inviting to be kissed. And does not object when I take her hand and even when I kiss it, or she encourages me to even lean toward her and feel her hair on my face, smell her perfume, or I kiss her on the neck, or say outrageous things, and call her my love. For you are, you know?”

She seemed confused to hear that. “I did not encourage you any of those times, for you did all of that, and you did not kiss me on the neck.” She was blushing.

“I did, just now. I also did that a few days ago. You did encourage me, even without words, and had been doing so for several days. So you see, there are different degrees of seduction and intimacy you know, and all of them pleasant for both parties. Provided they are both of the same mind.”

“There are those who might disagree, sir.”

“Undoubtedly. I think you should come and sit by me, Annis, for I have some other things I wish to say to you along those same lines as we progress this relationship further.”

She was now blushing furiously. “No, sir. I think I shall stay over here.”

He sighed. “My name is William, my dear. Yes, you should stay over there. Probably that would be wise, with me in my present turbulent and expressive mood.”

“Yes. I think so too.” She was aware what would happen if she took him up on his challenge, for neither of them would be likely to hold back. “I have another question.”

“Oh dear.”

“Men and women see things differently. You readily confessed to all of that violence, and as bad as that was, I cannot help but think that you could not avoid being as violent as you were.”

“Thank you.”

“But how readily would you confess, I wonder, if by confessing something…something far more subtle, and perhaps even more hurtful, than killing someone….”

He interrupted her progress. “Yes, killing someone is unsubtle, isn’t it?”

“Please do not interrupt William. It is difficult enough as it is. A confession that would cause others, innocent of any crime, immense distress. A distress perhaps far worse than killing a villainous man, or even two, who deserved it, and putting an end to it all in that way, for the subjects are still alive and…unaware of what has happened just yet…but it would all eventually be discovered. How would you deal with that deliberate and plotted deception, I wonder?”

He was surprised to find that she seemed to await his answer with some anxiety, perhaps even trepidation. Might she dare to tell him more? “Yes, deception, deliberate deception is a difficult moral situation to recover from. Sometimes. But sometimes it may be necessary for the greater good.”

“For the greater good.” She had unconsciously repeated his words and seemed to find some comfort in them.

He continued. “I can think of any number of times when I deceived my mother and father, especially about that Maxton situation, and before that, about the Trevelyan girl, and others too. I undoubtedly deceived Lady Seymour by describing Constanza as I did? No, she deceived herself there. We all deceive ourselves, I think, and that is the worst deception of all.”

She absent mindedly responded. “To thine own self be true.” She still seemed anxious over something that she dared not reveal in any greater detail.

He agreed with that. “Yes. But what would be the point of confessing any of it, Annis? I am sure that whatever it is, it is better left alone and even forgotten. It does not sound as though it were a crime against one’s fellow man if no life were lost and there was no injured party.” He looked up at her. “Is there an injured party in this?”

“No. Not yet. At least, there is, but no one knows of it just yet.” She could not meet his eyes at that moment. “Perhaps the only injury is to the truth.”

“Oh, is that all. A deep philosophical discussion to balance killing a person with the damage that might be done to the truth, whatever that might really be. But no person injured. I am confused that you give it such weight. I am sure that the Greek philosophers must have wrestled with this. Perhaps you should consult their writings. But you say that if the truth…an ever-changing entity, I might point out… were told, others might then be injured?”

“Hurt. Not injured. I may have misspoke.”

“Then I would say nothing, Annis. Let the gentle deception stand for as long as it will, and the scene play through. What would be gained by anyone? Deceptions hurt someone only when they are discovered, and perhaps it will not be discovered, for they sometimes turn out to be true, just as the ‘truth’ turns out to be not quite so true.”

“But it will be discovered. It cannot be avoided.” She seemed sure of that.

“Are you sure? Mine rarely were. They were all what I would call necessary deceptions. Perhaps what you are thinking of might be in the same vein. Necessary.”

“It is. It was.” She was still not easy with any of it. He wanted to help her, but knew that he could not.

“I think you had better let sleeping dogs lie then. By the time it is found out, if it is ever found out, it might not then mean anything. Besides, it may work out the way you would most like it to, with hurt to no one who matters. I hope it does.”

“So do I.”

He looked at her thoughtfully. “You will eventually tell me the situation behind your question, won’t you?”

“Perhaps. Eventually.” She seemed to be relieved by his answer.

“I still believe that my confession was the more weighty. After all murder….”

She leapt to his defense. “You did not murder anyone. That is entirely the wrong word. They deserved to die, for you were defending your sister and then yourself and even a woman in need of your protection. Even a mother will commit any number of crimes, perhaps even to kill, to protect her children.”

“Yes, and even deceive to protect them too.” Her eyes flashed to his face. He recognized that he had come close to a raw nerve. Now what might her mother have done to deceive anyone?

“No matter. The crime, my dear, is in killing one’s fellow man whether deserved or not. That is why we have the rule of law and laws.” He kept dragging it back to his own indiscretions to lessen her own burden.

She did not let it lie. “Laws that were powerless to help you at the time, I perceive. You had to kill, or be killed yourself, so you needed to defend yourself on each occasion as it arose. I do not believe the law regards that as murder.”

“You are right. But whether murder or self-defense, I still do not think there is a greater crime than to take a life. Had I been able to avoid doing so in any of those three cases, even in war, I would have done—except for Trencham—but there wasn’t. Deception is a mere gasp in a gale by comparison.”

She looked less anxious.

“My, we have covered some ground in the last few minutes, haven’t we? Again. I still would like you to come over here and sit beside me for a few minutes, Annis. I have something special I would relate to you of a personal nature.”

“No, sir.”

“My name is William.”

“No. William.”

He began to stand up. She could see a new look and determination in his eyes as he looked intently at her and was not sure she could deal with him at that moment in time, for his purpose seemed to focus solely upon her, and she was not sure quite how to deal with him. Or herself. She turned and fled the room.

He sat down and smiled. He felt that he knew the details of the circumstance behind her quandary, but he could not let her know any of that, or all of their world, his included, might come crashing down. It was in reality, a mere tempest in a teacup, and had been entirely forgotten by all of them it seemed but not by Annis and certainly not by him.

It would be soon enough uncovered and resolved if he had his way, but he would need to tread cautiously. It would never have done to have let her know that he was aware of any of what she had skirted around, or there might not be a recovery from that. If it were done right it would work to all of their advantages. Time enough for that to unfold, but it would need to unfold soon, that much was obvious, and for his own peace of mind and sanity. And for her protection.”

 

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.”