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.”

 

 

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