Thursday, June 7th, 2018
“Have they gone?” Such a sudden and innocent-sounding inquiry might not have caused any problem had it been made during the day. In the silence of the dark room however, it suddenly became like a cannon shot to the one person there, standing in the dark, especially when everyone else was abed and no one should have been wandering the house at that time of the morning.
“Charlotte.” Annis was startled. Her hands leapt to her throat at her surprise at being discovered spying upon those just outside of the house over by the stable.
“You should not sneak up on people that way. You robbed me of five years of my life. Keep your voice down, you don’t need to wake anyone up or let anyone know that you are here. What are you doing out of bed at this hour? It is barely four o’clock.” She took in her sister’s white nightdress, brightly contrasted in the moonlight streaming in through the window of the dining room. “You are not dressed. You never know who you might bump into like that, and you are standing full in the moonlight.”
“Of course I’m not dressed. Why would I go to the trouble of dressing to see what those men are doing out there? They won’t see me. Besides, I don’t care. But I could say the same of you. You are just as lightly dressed and just as likely to be seen.” Her sister did not care either, it seemed. It was fortunate that anyone outside would not see what Charlotte could see, standing where she was inside, and behind her sister, for the moon shone full through Annis’ thin nightdress and showed more than she would be comfortable to be displaying so clearly. She would not torment her with that.
Annis turned back to watching out of the window. “No, they have not gone yet. They are still offloading their cart.” She had been watching them since the cart, showing no lights whatsoever, had come up the driveway making little noise. She wondered if they had the horses’ hooves bound with burlap to deaden the sounds of their shoes. She had heard that those who did not wish to draw attention to their presence in the dark sometimes might do that. They really hadn’t needed lights anyway, for there was enough of a moon to see by. She had then watched as William and one of his sailors had quietly unloaded many boxes and what appeared to be kegs into a small tool-shed tucked into the trees by the stable. The cart had then been walked out of sight behind the building, and then a few minutes later, she saw the sailor walking a horse across the lawns. William turned away from seeing him off, walked over to the stable, and disappeared inside.
The sisters stood and watched from the shelter and dark of the house. “Annis, they can’t have been out already. They have not been away for long enough, for William rode off just after dark last night. I am sure that it takes longer than that to go across to France and pick up a cargo and get back again.”
“No. They didn’t go out last night. They are moving what is left of an earlier cargo out of the way for when they do make a run across to France. For that is what they describe it as.”
“How exciting to have a smuggler in the family.” Charlotte was indeed excited. “If Sophia has her way, there will be two of them. If I have my way as well, there will be three, for I would not mind going out with them too. I’ve never been on any kind of ship, never mind one that is used for smuggling. Sophia has said little of anything else for the last few days now. I think we were both quite excited when we first heard him admit to being a smuggler, as he did that first night when he spoke to Bella and told her all about himself. I wish you had been there, Annis. He was so tender with her and kind. We could not help but cry, for he seemed so sad and even to share our burden at that moment. I was surprised at some of the things he told her about his past, apart from the smuggling.
“Mama told us both that we must say nothing to anyone of what we had heard. It had been told in confidence to Bella, and she would be hurt if she ever learned of us betraying what he said, but she couldn’t know any of that, could she?”
“No. Of course not, Charlotte. But you really shouldn’t say anything. He believed he was speaking only to Bella and not to her sisters too.”
“Sophia was out at the docks with him the other morning when they were preparing for their next run. She seems to think he will take her out with him, and if he won’t, she is determined to dress herself in boy’s clothes, as she did already to be taken with him, and smuggle herself on board and go anyway.”
Annis was surprised to hear that. “The little baggage! She wouldn’t dare.” Charlotte could feel her sister’s eyes burning into her.
“Oh, wouldn’t she? Much you know. She has been down to the docks once with him already dressed like that. She is too like you in that regard, so you should be careful who you call a baggage.”
Annis wondered what she might know of that, but did not quiz her about it. “But what is that about her wearing boy’s clothing? Where did she get them?”
“Never mind that, Annis. There is William again.” He appeared from the stable, looked around to see what might be stirring, and then walked over to the house.
“You should step back from the window, Charlotte. In your white nightdress and with the moon shining full upon you in the window, you are clearly visible.”
“I don’t think so. They didn’t see you,and you were standing full in the window as they offloaded those boxes and kegs. I watched you for some minutes before I spoke to you. You were talking to yourself about something. Anyway, he’s gone now. He goes in through the conservatory and gets rid of his boots out there so that he disturbs no one.”
“You seem to know a lot of what he does and how he does it.” Annis took her sister to task.
“So do you. I am not the only one who is interested in what he does. Sophia told me that when she was down on the docks with him—and the little wretch had no intention of telling me until I cornered her—that they were busy emptying one of the buildings behind the headland and were moving an earlier cargo further inland, to clear the space. They will obviously be going out soon, probably at the next full moon if the weather is in their favor, and that cannot be more than a few days off.”
“How do you know this, Charlotte?”
“I overheard them. I know their whole routine now, and what little I didn’t know, Sophia told me, with some encouragement and the threat that I would tell Mama about her dressing up as she did. I wish I were a boy. I would dress up as they do, smuggle myself into the back of that cart and into the large box there—where they keep rope and other things in—and stow away on their ship while they are having their meeting. They meet in that little inn on the dockside before they go, to make their plans. It would be easy to sneak aboard then. The reverend is one of their crew, and I discovered that Thomas was recruited as part of the land contingent, to keep an eye out for the revenue officers and to lead them astray if necessary. I overheard everything one evening in the library when William was explaining it to the reverend.” She laughed softly. “They did not know that I was off in the stacks and listening.”
“Charlotte, you must promise me not to do any such thing, to hide yourself away like that. That is the behavior of a hoyden and would get you into a good deal of trouble. Some of those men are not to be trusted as we trust William, and if one of them found you…Besides, you might put some thought like that into Sophia’s head if she were to hear you.”
“No, I will not promise. I think it would be fun, and there cannot be so many female smugglers. How romantic. Sophia is already planning that very thing, I think, for you can almost see her thoughts at moments like that. Besides, William would protect me.” Charlotte seemed very sure of that.
“Are you sure? He would more likely put you overboard and would never dare trust you again. He was quite put out that you had drawn him in that bath, and those other detailed and shocking drawings of him too.”
Her sister turned on her in surprise. “You showed him my drawings? How could you?” Her surprise gave way to a mischievous chuckle. “What did he say?”
“Keep your voice down. He did not say anything about any of them. I did not show him them deliberately. It was your own fault. He saw them himself and by accident. I thought Sophia may have told you. That was when you had sent her up to spy on us when we were quiet. I don’t know what you thought we were up to. He saw the others of me in that same book too, while I was distracted by her, and me not fully dressed in those, when I posed for you.”
“Not fully dressed?” Her sister laughed at her and touched her on the arm as she corrected her. “Annis, you were as naked as a dressed chicken. As well as pushing your breasts out proudly and defiantly like Britannia, challenging the world like an amazon—but with two breasts, except shehad on some kind of toga to cover her. And her breasts were less pronounced than yours and nowhere near as big. William seems to like looking at those.”
“Yes. I know.” The darkness hid her blushes from her sister. “I was so embarrassed. But he said nothing that was critical or censorious. He acted as though he had not seen those drawings, but I know that he had. He could not have avoided them. When I think about it now, I don’t think he was so very embarrassed at all, but I was so ashamed and my heart was in my mouth there for a while at what he might think or say. So you see the fault can be laid at your door for sending Sophia up to distract me from controlling what he might see. I was showing him your drawings of Bella. I am beginning to think that that was not wise of you to draw any of us that way.”
“Pooh. There is nothing wrong with sketching the human form, especially if they are my own sisters, and if they are tastefully done, which those admittedly might not have been. But you were not supposed to share them with anyone. Mama used to draw a lot of portraits like that at one time, even of father, for I came across some of her sketch books once, but I don’t know where she hid them away now. I did not expect you would let him see the others, Annis. You should not have let him see them. But what did he say? Was he angry?” She seemed anxious to find out how he reacted to seeing them.
“I did not show him any of them deliberately, and I told you that he said nothing about those of me, nor about those of him either, but you were just as revealingly indiscreet about him, and I know he saw them.”
Charlotte laughed almost guiltily. “No. He would not be so unwise as to draw anyone’s attention to them. ‘Look, Annis, here is a drawing of me in my bath and another of me standing on a towel and all naked and showing off my baubles.’ I could never ask him to pose like that for me. That would be thought outrageously fast of me as well as dangerous to encourage any man in that….” she broke off that thought, “…and rightly so, and I would never dare do that, but how otherwise might I ever find out what a naked male looks like—apart from father, that is, and perhaps Thomas with Molly, and… a few others—without risking everything, and getting to draw one. Except I saw him like that, mostly, when he carelessly sat with you at the trough, that day of the fire. You were both revealing everything you had to the other at that moment. Everything! I’m surprised he maintained his composure or that you could stay so calm. But then he didn’t did he, as he seemed quite… well you know…that part of him…standing to attention. No wonder, with you clearly revealed and on display in front of him and asking for his attention. You saw it all well enough. I waited for him to reach out and touch you personally and intimately, as you were challenging him to do beneath your nightdress, widely, and invitingly I might add, or you, to touch him. No wonder he was aroused, and standing to attention like that for you, poor man.” Annis dared say nothing. “And then afterward when you shaved him, what did he not touch then?” Charlotte saw that her comments discomforted her sister.
“So he knows of those drawings now. Undoubtedly, that is why he has been so difficult to spy upon after that. It is a pity that I do not know this property nearly so well as I know Underby and all of its hideaways, or I might still be able to catch him unexpectedly again in his bath.
“But as for getting myself aboard his wagon or his boat, if I decided to do that, then I would not be found by him or anyone else.” She sounded almost defiant. “At least it all sounds so fine and adventurous when I tell you about it, but I realize I must not do any such thing.” She sighed heavily. “Oh, if only I were a boy. They have all of the fun. I so envy them riding astride a horse, as you once did, instead of perched on that stupid saddle. They can throw things, wrestle, swim, swing from ropes, and I especially envy them not having to squat to relieve themselves, for they have the ability to pee while they are standing up and directing it where they will, and quite a long way too. And high. Even from in a tree.”
“Well, they can, and they do, and don’t get themselves all wet, for I have watched them. I even have a drawing.” She chuckled.
“Charlotte, not another one. You do too many like that, and one day you will be discovered and will be made to pay the price. I hope it was of no one that we know or that might be recognized. What Hogarth can get away with, drawing little boys with their tiny spigots, and what you might draw in exaggeration when you are feeling impish, as you did, are two different things. But when did you see this? And, if it comes to that, where were you to see all of this? I hope you were not seen yourself.”
“I went out with Sophia to find that cat in the barn; the one with the kittens. She used to have five, but they took the others away and only left her with the one. They had left the ladder up, and I climbed up to see. It is so cuddly and furry next to my chin, and the mother cat does not mind in the slightest, for she purred the whole time. I was up there in the beams, and there is a small window up there that one can see out of ever so far. I looked out, and there below me was that peculiar misshapen tree. One of the hands was standing there and peeing and….”
“No more, please, Charlotte. You should not repeat any of this.”
“I won’t. Why would I, except to you? But it was interesting. He knew nothing of my presence far above him. I said nothing to distract him. You never see that sort of thing with having only sisters. How they do that is interesting. At least they don’t get themselves wet, and they can direct it anywhere they like. I tried it and….”
“No, Charlotte, please.” She tried to silence her sister’s further confession. “Spare me that.”
“Well, don’t do it. My legs were sore and chapped for some time until I could wash them off. It is not as easy as they make it look with that spigot of theirs. Well at least Sophia did not see him, for she was there with me, and I cautioned her to be silent. She did not know what I could see. Fortunately, she was at the bottom of the ladder, inside, and could not see, or you know what she might have blurted out and been far too curious about, and gone to see, and even ask him directly. We would all have to remove back home if that happened. She is too direct at times.”
“I have noticed. But you seem little better, Charlotte. It bounces off William, fortunately, but I should have a word with her about that. But I do want to know about the kitten. You shall show me later.”
“I would, but they took the long ladder away, and I cannot find it, and I will not clamber up onto the hay and balance across that narrow beam, and I cannot climb up the other way. There used to be a swing on the beam too, but the rope must have broken off for there is just one small piece left hanging, and it is far too high to reach or I might have climbed up.”
Annis put a hand on her sister’s arm. “William will be inside now and settled. We could probably go now without being discovered.”
“We should give him a few more minutes. We don’t want to blunder into him,, not exposed like this, except you wouldn’t care if you were.” She looked at Annis standing in the moonlight and then realizing that there might never be a better moment to broach what had been on her mind now for several days.
“You haven’t told him yet, have you?”
That innocent question, half question, half statement, shattered Annis’s composure once more. She had thought of little else herself since that day of cornering him his study, with that letter.
There were a few seconds of silence over that sudden and extremely alarming statement. “Told him what?” Had it not been so relatively dark, Charlotte might have been concerned to have noticed how pale her sister had suddenly become.
“Oh, Annis. You know very well what I am talking about. We do not have that many secrets. Told him about what really happened? Even what those cards that we made up for a lark really showed and not what we at first thought they showed?”
Annis was far more agitated than her sister might know. “Of course not. You should put all of that from your mind, Charlotte. It didn’t happen in any way except the one that was needed. Besides, nothing but trouble would come from opening up either of those issues again. You know that.”
“You should tell him about the cards at least, you know? I am sure he would understand the mix-up and what his fate should have been. He will find out eventually. Better now than later.”
“You make it all sound so sinister—what his fate should have been. Better that he not find out at all, Charlotte. Do you not think I have agonized long and hard ever since I found out about those damned cards, and the sleepless nights, and all of the trouble they continue to cause me about what might have been? What should have been?” She sobbed at the thought. “But how do you know about those cards? I told no one.”
“I found out. I puzzled over them for ages after you had thrown them into the fireplace. Fortunately, there was no fire burning then, or all of the evidence would have been destroyed. He will find out if Mama tells him, or Sophia even, for she was there too when I sorted it out, and she will. Although…I don’t think it made any sense to Mama just yet, but it will eventually, even though she is quite happy at the way everything worked out. It is not the kind of secret that stays concealed for ever. Her motherly concern to see things right will not be submerged for long. She is itching to do something to bring you together, and she sees how you cannot take your eyes off him. Off each other even, for it is quite an entertainment now to watch you shaving him and how he responds to you and you to him, especially when you think no-one can see you both and where he touches you. Under your dress.”
Annis was blushing. “You have taken to spying on me too now. On us. Oh, Charlotte, that is not kind of you. But Mama will say nothing. She is quite contented with things the way they are, and in truth, so am I. I think. It is better than him finding out all of our secrets and then becoming disgusted with us, as he would, and put us out and leave us. We are in mourning and will be for some period of time. There is nothing we can do about it.”
“But, Annis, Father did not believe in any of that astrology stuff and nonsense. I don’t think Arabella would approve of the stupid mistake that has been made, if she had known. Your entire future happiness, indeed for all of us needs that you take some decisive action, and soon. He will not be with us much longer if you do not.”
“It is of no matter at this moment, Charlotte. In any case, Mama has said nothing, and she would, if she thought she should, and I think she has also quite forgotten what happened by now and has put it behind her, for it achieved everything she wanted. She has said nothing and hinted at nothing and is still grieving sorely as we all still are. It is not something one gets over in the space of a week or a month or even a year, and while things are as calm as they are, I have no intention of putting it all in jeopardy. I doubt that Mama could take kindly to it being revived to agonize over considering the likely outcome of that. I’m not sure that I could.”
“You should get over it as soon as you can, Annis, and deal with it. If you have a year it won’t seem so bad, but you don’t. Not if it happens the way we all see that it should. I have seen the way he looks at you and you at him, and so has Mother and his sister. You both are struggling to keep your hands off each other, though not struggling so very hard. It’s a losing game for both of you. Neither of you will survive a year the way things are, but will be sneaking off to the barn like Thomas and Molly do, and then you really will be big with news, but of another kind. You might be that way already.”
The servants all seem to know too.”
She began to wonder to herself how it was that Molly did not become pregnant from what she and Thomas were doing so regularly.
“Know what?” Annis had gone pale. “That…big with news…is an improper thing to say Charlotte. We have done nothing like that together. Yet. But…you…I am sure you are mistaken.”
“No, I’m not. You are too blind to see, and think everyone else is too, but we are not. You just have to see the two of you together for a minute, even just as you were, by the trough, that day of the fire. I was startled by it all, for I was not sure what I saw then, but I do now. What you were not displaying to each other at that moment I do not know. Had there been no one else to see either of you, you would have thrown your nightclothes off and have been going at each other like Thomas and Molly were when we saw them in the hay barn, and…well you would have, because he was well enough primed to do so.” Her sister gasped, and blushed bright crimson. “Then when you shave him. I am all excitement at times, wondering where he will put his hands next, with you dressed… or partially dressed more like… the way you usually are now at times, as though you were still at home…sitting carelessly in that low dress, as open as you leave it—nightdress too, very dangerous—and leaning into him so that he might look down…, which he did, and attentively. Or with his knees inside yours now, more than outside…with your nightdress at your knees or even above them, far above them, when he pushed it there as though by accident, when it wasn’t an accident, and you tempting him with all of your wares on display—widely displayed, again. All of them—when he slowly moves his legs wider apart as he does, and yours are moved apart too with his hands high on your legs. Not quite as accidental as it might seem either, any of it, as one can tell by the knowing and mischievous smiles on both of your faces as you look at each other, and try to ignore what you know is happening deliberately, and what you know he can see of you. You knew full well what he was doing, and intended, and liked it. I was breathless with anticipation and excitement at what you both seemed so ready to do with each other. Very daring of you. But you didn’t explore each other as you should have.”
“Charlotte.” Her sister blushed, recognizing the truth of what she suggested, for she had sometimes wondered herself at what he might dare to do next, and she did not mind displaying more than she should, to torment him. It was nice to be admired so warmly in that way and to recognize how she could excite him. She was especially aware of the effect that her breasts and other…parts, that she allowed him to briefly glimpse, as though by accident, obviously had upon him in return—no hiding that change in him directly in front of her–though she did ignore that; she had too, except that she was curious and would have liked to have known more, or been more courageous. “You should not be watching at those times. It is private.”
“Oh no, it isn’t. No more private than what Thomas and Molly get up to in the barn. And I bet they have been making up for lost opportunity, and us not being there to get in their way, and they may even be living in the barn now, and have been less constrained while we have not been there. But how can we not watch? It is so very tender, and it makes me quite jealous that I do not have such an attentive gentleman of my own. I must admit that I have never felt that way about any man before, but where would we meet them in this… this area without a Ball or an Assembly. It is so obvious that you are in love. I would not hesitate for one second if it were me he was in love with, but it isn’t. I would suggest we run off and elope together. Or just ignore what people might say and do what Mama and Papa did before they were married, and hang propriety. Yes, I dare speak of that. You are far more restrained than I would be. I know where his bedroom is too. So do you. If it were me, I would know what needed to be done.”
“Charlotte, you must not spy on him.”
“I don’t. At least not as much as I used to or would like to. After you let him see those drawings I did of him, I cannot get as close to him as I used to do.”
“You should not say such things. Where did you come up with these notions? I am sure Mama did not put them into your head. They are not proper. It is also impossible. He would never forgive us for the…He married Bella. I can do nothing about that. He would hate us all if I were to…and then we would be gone from here, and we might never see him again. He would want nothing to do with us.”
“Much you know of him. You seem unable to believe your own eyes or your own feelings. I told you, I have watched the two of you together. He is in love with you, and you are in love with him. It is just a matter of time. Nothing improper can happen between two people who are in love as you two are, no matter what you might do together, but you seem frustratingly slow.”
“You must not say that, Charlotte.” But she knew that it were true. The difficulty was that when he learned what they had done to deceive him, he would not be in love with her any longer.
“Why not? There is nothing improper about being in love and wishing to act upon it when you are both of the same mind. There is nothing immoral where love is concerned. I told you, Mama and father did, before they got married properly. It may not be proper, but life is more important than to be put off by behaving stupidly, I would say, when you know what is important and what should be done. What needs to be done. Love is very important. When I fall in love, I shall know what to do. Provided it is reciprocated in the same way of course. A simple verbal exchange was all it used to take before they went at it together, and none of this other foolishness.”
“I can do nothing. Oh surely you can see that. He married Bella.”
“I know that, Annis, I am not stupid. But if she is looking down on you at this moment, she would not wish you to be so restrained or foolish, and stupid even, for it is so obvious that you were meant for each other. Just a week ago, the night of the fire. You were still in the house. We were outside by then and frantic with worry for you. You did not see him outside, of course, but I did, and so did Mama, for he had just got Mama out and then us too. He did not hesitate for a second with any of us, for we were then safe. He almost ran back after you and in only his nightshirt. He poured cold water over himself from the trough in the blink of an eye— a clever thing to do that, I would never have thought of that—and took a sodden sheet in with him. It’s a good job it was still dark, for I know how those cling to your body when they are wet. He saw no one else around him, I am sure. He had a determined look on his face and would have trampled anyone in his way or knocked them to one side. He was determined to go back in there and drag you out. It was obvious to us all that if he did not come out with you, he would not be coming out at all. Mother was terrified and pale beyond belief. That is the only time I have ever heard mother pray outside of church, and you know she is not that religious.”
“I am sure….” Annis was pale. She remembered other things that she had done then to encourage him, thinking they might die. But he had not followed through as she had wanted.
“I am right. We’d all seen it before then of course, even after he brought you back from your ride, with both of you looking like a guilty pair indeed. You are sure that nothing more happened than him just rescuing you when you became faint, are you?” She looked at Annis searchingly. “One might almost think you had made love then. You had been alone with him all day, you know? And you both had a sheepish look about you. Oh, Annis, we are none of us stupid.”
Annis fell into a deep silence with her thoughts to herself.
“And then after that fire, at the trough, as you did up his hand. Your clothing was still damp and stuck on you, and so was his. Very revealingly I can tell you, especially when you moved it above your knees, as you did, to stop it ripping I expect. At least I hope that was the reason, unless you were being daring, and deliberately tormenting him. The way you had eyes only for each other was quite telling. I told you that I thought you were about to undress each other after that.”
Annis blushed crimson. “Charlotte. So you said. And several times now. I could sit no other way at the time as I supported him and saw to his injuries. There was nothing wrong with that, considering he had risked his life to rescue us all. He could see nothing with that bang to his head.” Charlotte made a disbelieving noise. He had seen more than enough. Annis continued. “We owed him everything, including our lives. Loss of a little modesty, was a small price to pay to help him. You should not say such things. You….”
Charlotte held her hand up to stop her sister’s interjection. “I shall say no more on that. But you are behaving foolishly. Mama will tell him. But if she doesn’t, it is only a matter of time before Sophia lets slip something. She and William are as thick as thieves when they go off together. She is an artless little piece and will betray all of our secrets.”
“Yes. That is the only thing that worries me.”
“You should worry at his response when he finds out from someone else rather than from you if you don’t tell him. He will never trust any of us again. It is likely that he will turn us out of here, or if we are at Underby, he will never have anything to do with us again. Men do not like to be deceived. It is better if he finds out from you, and soon.”
“I dare say nothing. It was necessary at the time. At least we thought so.”
“We were wrong, Annis. Now it must be put right, for there will be no peace nor contentment for either you or him or us, until it is.”
Her voice dropped, and she put a hand on Annis’s arm “There. We were right to wait. William is just now come back into the house. He will probably go off to his study or will be taking a bath I expect, before he thinks anyone might be up and about to spy on him. But he bolts that door downstairs.” She chuckled. “If I knew he were coming back like this some other time, and you not here, I might just hide in there before he bolts the door, and sketch him at my leisure for I know where to hide.”
Annis tried to change the subject. “I would also like to know when they are going out again.” She tried to submerge her other feelings that Charlotte had disturbed so much by her earlier personal revelations and comments. It had not been the kind of conversation she had expected to have with Charlotte. “I shall ask Sophia what she knows of any of this, for she knows more of their plans than I do. She is usually out of bed by first light, watching for him when he has gone the night before. She probably watched everything from one of the upper windows, for there is a telescope up there, though not much good at this time of night, even with a moon, as I found out for myself.”
“If she discovers when they are planning on going out, I would not be surprised if she is not out there pestering to be taken with them. Or hiding herself away to make sure she goes. The longer you dither over the other issue, Annis, the more time you give Sophia to empty her mind about everything she knows.”
It was all too much for Annis.
“Please, Charlotte. No more, I beg of you. I am not likely to sleep at all after our conversation as it is.” She sighed heavily. “I’ll go and check her room. If she is awake, I will speak with her about not revealing any of this.”
“She’ll be in bed by then, and pretending to be asleep, for she can hear the stairs creaking. And then you should go and climb into bed. And not your own bed, and wait for him.”
“Well, I would.”