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

Wednesday, May 9th, 2018



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Too thick and heavy for my taste.”

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

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

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

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

“I am sincere, Annis.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I meant…about other things.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had struck. She knew that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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