The law of unintended consequences stipulates that, all too often, what we strive to avoid is what we actually precipitate.
Lord Penfield looked up from the newssheet he was reading as one of his two sons entered the library. He put down his magnifying glass and sat back. He would pick up where he left off at some later time and finish off his correspondence after dinner.
He hesitated for a moment, not sure how to address the young man. It was always difficult to tell the two brothers apart, especially when they tended to dress the same and to affect the same mannerisms, as well as having the same tastes in most things. They didn’t help clear up the confusion when they sometimes responded to the other’s name out of some deviltry, though they had not done that for several years now, that he was aware of.
He suspected that there was a lot that he was not aware of. He tended not to inquire into those things. It usually didn’t matter which of the two it was; they had both been too ripe for trouble when they were younger, and Robert still was. Some tender issues were best not discussed if you were not sure which of the twins you were talking to.
Lord Penfield had eventually hit upon what he had thought had been an ingenious plan to tell the two apart when he had given the elder son, Charles—if it was Charles who was the elder (they had lost track of that a few moments after they had both been born, almost twenty-one years ago)—a ring that had belonged to his grandfather, when Charles had reached his twentieth birthday. Robert was given a pistol, as he seemed to have a fondness for guns as well as an unnerving aptitude in their use. That ring had become the only point of difference between the two.
Charles always wore his grandfather’s ring, except his hand was in his pocket, so it was not obvious which of the two young men it might be; Charles, with that ring on his finger, or Robert, with a recent cut on his hand. Nonetheless, it was Charles. It had to be. He had asked Robert to meet with him at eleven, and the clock showed that it was still a quarter to that hour.
Robert was packing, or was with his mother, bidding his goodbyes to her. Lord Penfield preferred to leave those inevitably teary moments to the womenfolk. He would miss his son in a thousand different ways but was not about to shed tears over it. All young men should be encouraged to strike out on their own for a while, but Robert was not so much being encouraged, as eased out of his home. That was what happened to younger sons.
He was glad to see that Charles had changed his clothes after being out riding earlier that morning. It would not do to present a ruffled appearance to one’s fiancée, though she would not arrive at Penfield for another three or four hours or more; some time after Robert had departed for the last time from this estate. She would be there for the entire month until the date of their marriage. It was a good match. Selena was very young, only nineteen, but she was the right one for Charles. She had never met Robert, and everyone, especially Lady Penfield, intended that it would stay that way. That was the main reason Robert was being sent away.
Selena’s parents and her much younger sister, Sophia, would be no more than a week or two behind her. Charles would take advantage of the lack of her parents’ supervision to further his already close relationship with the young woman.
How her parents would dare let her out of their sight for even a single minute, considering her obvious affection for Charles, was unthinkable. But if the pair of them couldn’t be trusted now…? They had, after all, been engaged for almost three years. It didn’t much matter if things got out-of-hand with the wedding only a month away. Who would worry at this stage?
Few might have described Charles’s fiancée as classically beautiful when they first met her. However, she seemed to have a difficult-to-define quality that surpassed beauty. She had a ready smile, and a pleasant personality. She certainly had character. There was also a reckless quality to her. She was not afraid to join in any dinner conversation and to ruffle male feathers; something that a wise woman should not be so eager to do. She was also intelligent, and had uncommon sense—for a woman—and could readily laugh at herself. It was easy to understand how Charles had fallen in love with her. Moreover, she grew upon one. After being in her company for a mere five minutes, one recognized that she was truly beautiful, with nothing superficial about her, and one could easily forgive her for her minor flaws. By then, however, you began to feel a nagging realization that she didn’t have any flaws, and you were also thoroughly captivated by her spell.
“Come in, Charles.” Lord Penfield poured his son a glass of port from the decanter by his elbow, and waved his hand in the direction of a chair. His son sat. He seemed to have guessed right.
“You are impatient for Selena to arrive. I was the same with your mother. Hard to believe there is only a month left before you marry her.” His son said nothing, but merely took the chair indicated, and tasted the wine that his father had poured for him. The entire household seemed tense, with two momentous events set to unfold; Robert’s going away to sea, for several years at least, and the arrival of Selena.
“I suppose you came to argue on Robert’s behalf, but it is too late for that with your marriage approaching. He needs to make his own way in life and it would not do to have him living here under the same roof after Selena arrives to stay. Indeed it was too late three years ago once you got engaged and set your marriage date. It was too late even twenty years ago when we decided that you, of the two of you, were to be my heir.” His son said nothing.
“He can no longer live here, of course. It would not do for either you, or him. I learned that from my own brother”—he corrected himself—“my half-brother, Matthew. There was bad blood between us from the very moment he realized that he had no expectations of inheriting anything, with me being the elder son, though your own brother is not inclined to such resentment or jealousy I am pleased to say. It was Matthew’s mother that resented it the most. She infected her son with the feeling that he was being unfairly cheated out of what should have been his, with her being my father’s second wife for twenty years. Primogenitor meant nothing to her. However, she only dared plot and fume about such things out of our father’s hearing.” He settled back and sipped at his wine.
“No, my half-brother and I never did like each other, and were never close; not like you and Robert. I suppose you will find some way of staying in touch with him, though I have seen that he shall want for nothing. Robert will need to find his own way in life now, once he gets over this wild streak.”
Lord Penfield tossed his paper onto the table, as though dissatisfied with something.
“I suppose all families must face this kind of moment eventually, where they must give in to change, whether they like it or not. Your brother is to come and see me at eleven o’clock, and to learn more about his fate in the hands of Sir Vincent. You knew, of course, that his commission came through some weeks ago.”
The young man had listened patiently to his father, nodding every so often, but now spoke up for the first time.
“Father. Before you say any more that you might wish unsaid.” He pointed. “That clock is wrong again. It is eleven o’clock. And I, am Robert.” His father sat forward, looked up at him, and adjusted his spectacles. He didn’t seem concerned by his mistake, but merely shrugged it off and topped up his son’s glass as well as his own, before he sat back again.
“Yes, of course you are. Never could tell the two of you apart. I don’t know how your mother does it.” It usually did not matter. He said nothing to apologize about his earlier characterization of his younger son, standing before him, as being ‘wild’. He was wild.
“I wonder where Charles got to? Probably gone rushing off to the village to get away from all of us, and to greet her out of the way of all of the prying eyes here.”
His ‘younger’ son corrected him. “He is seeing to her room being properly prepared, Father, and getting himself changed yet again. He seems all of a twitter with excitement. I have heard so much of this young woman and her inestimable parents for so long now, that I wonder how it is, in the three years that she and Charles have been engaged, that I have never once met her, or her parents, or her sister. Not once.”
Robert wondered nothing of the kind. He knew well enough, even if he did not understand it or believe it. He had overheard his mother animadvert on the issue enough times when she had believed him out of hearing. She had regarded the possibility of Selena meeting him—her second son (if he was her second son and not her first)—with ill-concealed concern.
His father had a ready answer; several of them, having dealt with variations of the same question many times before.
“You were never here to meet her, if you recall.” Robert smiled at the obvious evasion of the real reason; his mother’s insistence that Selena and Robert must never meet. His parents always had some kind of an excuse for him never meeting her. It had not been as simple as they made it sound, but neither of them was about to admit to anything else.
“No, I wasn’t, was I. But you and mother saw to that too. When Selena was to visit, I was sent off on some lame excuse or other. It was almost amusing how cleverly you both seemed to try and organize it. I could tell when she was to arrive by the growing insistence and speed with which I was sent off to do something.
“Did I? Did we?” They had indeed, but had never admitted as much to their son. Robert had found it quite amusing.
“Yes Father. You and Mama always found something for me to do in London, or even further afield, and made sure that I was well out of the way when she was to visit. I never saw her except at a distance when I was on my way out of the door, or being rushed off to do something important. Surely Selena herself must wonder why she has never met me. Does she even know that Charles has a brother; that I exist?” His father did not enjoy discussing that particular subject.
“Of course she does! You know how it is. It wouldn’t do to have you, his twin brother, underfoot at such a delicate time with them wishing to be alone together to wander the estate, and you muddying the water and throwing her into confusion if she might bump into you. She might never know which of you was which. It could lead to all manner of embarrassing little difficulties for the both of you, especially for her.” Robert knew that there was much more to it than that.
His father tried to change the subject to one that seemed more important. “Did you not enjoy yourself on my yacht? I gave her to you to try to make up for whatever… perception of favoritism there might have been about… you know?” Robert smiled. His parents always tried to change the subject when it came to Charles’s fiancée.
“Yes, Father. Thank you for that distraction. She was useful to blow off some of the ‘wildness’, as you described it, dodging the revenuers and the French.” Robert’s father continued to try and take the conversation further away from consideration of Charles and his fiancée.
“I heard you can handle my yacht almost as well as I did in my day, so I suppose something did come of it. You even got yourself over to France and back often enough, despite the revenuers trying to trap you with a load of contraband. I also heard that you learned French well enough to pass as a Frenchman.” Robert looked at him in mild disbelief. His father was clearly flustered, and not at all comfortable having this discussion. Lord Penfield knew that both of his sons spoke French as well as any Frenchman.
“I should hope so, Father. I am French when it is required of me, and English at other times. Mother taught us to speak French. She is French herself, after all, which makes Charles and me, half French. We visited her side of the family in Paris often enough that if we did not speak fluent French among them we were at a severe disadvantage in the midst of all of those boisterous and obnoxious cousins that we have.” His father looked up at him, embarrassed to be reminded of his second lapse in as many minutes.
“However, I did not come to complain about my lot, Father. No, I came to say goodbye.”
“That time already?” His father had known it was. Now that he was finally about to lose his son to the navy he began to realize how much he would miss him and would worry about him. The house would not be the same without both of the boys, and the uncertainty of knowing which of his sons he might be addressing. It would be too quiet with Robert going, but it would be a welcome quiet after the uproar that he had caused once he had been separated from his brother by that engagement, and the other rebellious antics he had got up to. Until that time he and Charles had done everything together. That was when Robert’s indiscretions began to be better noticed.
His lordship had long regretted ever separating him from the laundry-maid after they had been discovered, once too often, in embarrassing circumstances. Embarrassing circumstances! An understatement if ever there was one! They had been going at it without a care in the world and with never a thought for the consequences. They had even been doing it for years, and under everyone’s noses.
Until that discovery, Robert’s peccadilloes had been confined to the estate, and that one obliging young woman that both he and Charles had once shared (their mother had never known that) until Charles became engaged.
As Charles became better settled with his fiancée, he no longer needed that other distraction, so Robert had made up for that loss, and had applied himself eagerly with that maid for the next two years. Until they had been discovered.
After that shock, and once his parents had pried the two of them apart, Robert had rebelled and had thrown his net wider with even less caution about who got entangled in it, or the consequences to himself or the family. The last year had been a living nightmare for his mother, trying to control the damage that her younger son might do in their society, while keeping him apart from Selena, and ensuring that they would never meet.
“I am all packed, Father. Mama wants me out of the house before lunch, and well on my way to London. Despite everything happening the way it has, and my being pushed out of the nest”—his father felt guilty, hearing it stated that way—“I am, nonetheless, looking forward to taking up my commission. I intend to put the best face on it. I report to the admiralty tomorrow morning to find out what awaits me, though I already learned that we do not set sail until the twenty second of next month, a few hours after my brother’s wedding.”
One son matched and settled, as the other is dispatched, but to what fate? They both had the same thought, but neither of them spoke it. His father grasped at another straw.
“You’ll be with Sir Vincent Falstaff on The Falcon, once she’s been refitted after the hammering he took in the Mediterranean and then off Brest. You’ll be thrown into the thick of it with him, but don’t tell your mother that. She’ll worry enough for you as it is without hearing of his reputation. You should identify yourself to him as soon as you join his crew. He knows that you are my son. I sent him a letter as soon as I knew which ship you would be on, and he would like to meet you.”
Robert knew all of that.
His father was on edge and not feeling easy about Robert having to leave, despite the hostilities with the French winding down. Nelson’s string of victories had made a change there, though the final naval battles were yet lining up to be fought.
“He doesn’t know anything to your discredit that I am aware of, so it is a chance for you to build a reputation where you are not quite so well known”—he looked at his son from under lowered eyebrows as he passed him a pouch containing money—“and away from all of the baggage that follows a reckless young man.” He stifled his comment, especially following you. “It can be a good life; the sea. Different though.”
Robert was not about to leave so easily. He decided to torment his father by going back to an earlier subject, knowing the answer to his question before he even asked it.
“Do you think, before I leave, that I might be allowed to meet this young woman that my brother is engaged to, Father? Or is Mama convinced that my character and reputation are so much in question that I cannot be allowed within ten feet of her?”
Even a hundred feet would be too close! His father never uttered that thought, however. Robert’s not being allowed to meet with Selena had nothing to do with his character or his reputation of being a womanizer. It did, however, have everything to do with what his mother had been led to believe about the tragedies that would follow such a meeting.
“You’ll not meet Selena at all. Not if your mother has anything to do with it. You surely know that by now. And I’ll not go against your mother when she gets in that kind of a mood with her astrological gibberish, horoscopes, portents, comets, and other concerns.”
When Robert left that interview a few minutes later, he met his brother, Charles. They walked together for a few moments with neither of them saying very much until Charles finally broke the silence to deal with what was uppermost on all of their minds.
“Mother is quite unhappy that you are going you know, even though she is the one who insisted that you leave the estate. You will see her before you go, won’t you, Robert?”
“I already did, earlier, but I will be sure to see her again when the carriage is ready to spirit me away.”
“Robert.” Charles paused a little, but then said what was on his mind. “I am truly sorry the way things have worked out with me getting engaged. I know what that means for you, being the younger son, even if only by a few minutes, but you and I will never be strangers.” Robert watched as Charles took the ring off his finger and gave it to him.
“This was our grandfather’s ring. As the elder son, the designated elder son, whether I deserve that title or not, it came to me, along with all of those other expectations and obligations that I would rather not be saddled with when Father passes them to me. I would like you to have it. I wanted you to meet Selena so many times, but you know what Mama is like. She always made sure you were far away when Selena came. It is a pity Selena’s younger sister is not older and more mature, or she would have made a wife for you, but wait another ten years, and she will be another just like her sister.” He felt the need to talk, losing his brother in this way, and Robert was not about to stop him.
“Mama believes that a twin should never be allowed to meet his brother’s fiancée at any time if it can be avoided. She believes that it is sure to bring misfortune to the pair of them, and is likely to set brother against brother. I never believed that, but she does. Nothing I can do about it.” He watched as Robert placed that ring on his finger.
“But what am I talking about; we will see you at our wedding; at St Hilda’s, in a month from now, our birthday, or the birthday of one of us; the twenty second, just before you go off for the last time. I shall miss you.” Robert smiled at him.
“You won’t have time to miss me, Charles. You will have more than enough to keep you occupied, with a demanding wife. I shall be fighting against the French, including our own relatives, perhaps even our odious cousin, Alphonse, who is in their navy. I am not sure which one of us will have the harder time of it.
“However, even if I do not meet her, I feel as if I know your fiancée almost as well as you do.” Charles blushed at hearing that. Robert did not ask how his brother might be so easily embarrassed by such an innocent remark, but he had been on edge all morning waiting for Selena to come.
“How could I not know her? I have been an exemplary listener every time her name came up at dinner, or the conversation turned to her when one of her many letters arrived; often six at a time. I learned that she writes well, and has a keen sense of humor—which father might appreciate. I know that she can play the pianoforte quite well, and can sing; that she is exceptionally well-read, and dresses with the times. I did learn also, that her father was a navy man and after being wounded some years ago, had to relinquish control of his modest estate into the hands of his daughter. If she thinks she might be able to influence anything here, Father will be sure to take offense.”
Robert was pleased to see that his brother had relaxed again, and he continued. “Our mother could easily see my interest in what was said about her, by my silence. She cornered me after those conversations, and cautioned me severely about ever thinking to meet up with your intended, and the tragic repercussions for us all that might flow from that. She must have been able to read my mind after the picture that had been painted of your worthy Miss Selena Crowther. That astrology stuff may be melodramatic nonsense, but Mama believes it, and I would not choose to hurt her feelings on something she believes in so strongly.”
Charles faltered, and looked about. “Oh Lord, I just remembered something I had intended to do, to prepare for her room. Some flowers. Go and see Mama, Robert. I will be back in time to see you off.” He rushed away to correct that omission. Yes, he was all of a twitter.
Their mother was easy to find. She had been seeing to a lunch being put up for him for his drive to London. He walked quietly up behind her and put his arms about her, kissing her on her neck, causing her to gasp in surprise, and then to turn to him as he laughed. Both of her sons were equally demonstrative to her. She felt lucky about that. Too many families had difficulty expressing their affections, especially sons with their mothers.
“I am all packed, Mama.” She embraced him warmly and even shed her tears. It was not the first time he had gone from home, but it was the first time where he might never expect to be allowed to return home. He would need to strike out on his own after this.
His mother reached up and touched his face tenderly, wanting to pull him close to her and smother him with affection. She resisted that impulse.
“No, no. I must make your leaving us a happier occasion than have you remember only my tears and my distress at losing one of my boys.”
“You are not losing a son, Mama, you will never lose me. You are gaining a daughter. Isn’t that what they say to soften the blow? I would have thought that a daughter might be a better bargain for you than I have been.” She did not think so, though she had grown to love Selena as though she were a daughter.
“Do not say that, Robert. It is not the same. Yes, I like Selena, and might wish that I had a daughter much like her, but I had two boys instead, and I would not change anything about that. I could not have wished for two better boys, despite the heart-stopping moments that you gave me.”
They both looked up, hearing, and then seeing the carriage that Robert would take to London, go past the window, and the servants begin to load his trunks.
“I see my carriage is waiting for me. I must go, or risk treading on dangerous ground, and have you shooing me out of the back door of the house with a pitch fork, even as Selena arrives at the front.” It had never been that close, but his mother had been impatient to see him gone each time that Selena was to arrive, and at least an hour before.
“Go, you foolish boy, and make sure you have forgotten nothing. I would like you to write often, but I do not expect it. We have some hours before Selena is to arrive. We intend to see you off properly. I shall be out with your lunch basket in a moment, so don’t leave without it.” He could see she was close to tears again. He kissed her and moved a lock of hair back from her forehead.
“I shall miss you, Mama.” She knew he would, but not nearly as much as she would miss him. The house would seem empty with one of her sons gone. He promised her that he would write at least once each week, knowing it to be a promise he would find easy to keep, no matter how easy others had been to break. He kissed her and walked resolutely away to see to his trunks being loaded. His father would be somewhere close by, waiting for him to appear.
Robert’s meeting with his mother was more emotional than he liked, and it left him feeling sadder than he ever wanted to feel again. He bumped into Charles on his way up the stairs and took his arm. He kept his voice low so that their mother could not overhear him.
“I have never seen Mama in such a state. She is terrified that your fiancée and I might meet before I am gone.” There was more truth to it than either of them might understand. Charles looked around, and responded in the same low tone.
“You shall meet her after the wedding, Robert. I shall contrive it somehow, and never mind what Mama might say. Surely she wouldn’t object to you meeting her then, though she might, so we shall endeavor to do it out of Mama’s sight and knowledge.
They walked out to the carriage, and were joined soon after by their parents.
Robert shook his father’s hand and embraced his mother again. She held him by the shoulders and looked up into his eyes with love. She might never see him again, though he would be at the wedding, briefly, and at a distance.
What mother would choose to have twins, and to be faced with what this family now would have to endure with one of her boys banished from his home altogether, lest he accidentally meet his brother’s fiancée? There was also that other damned thing hanging over his head if that gypsy could be believed. But which one of her sons had she been speaking of when she had referred to the second born?
Might that astrologer have made a mistake about those two boys, she wondered? Could a separation of just ten minutes, and a day on the calendar, in their birth, make such a difference in their futures, with one boy born at five minutes to midnight on the twenty-second of July; a Cancer, and the other five minutes into the twenty-third; a Leo?
The damnable thing was that they did not know which of the two boys had actually been the first born, so did not know upon which one of them the ax were to fall, if it were to fall. For convenience they decided that both boys had been born on the twenty-second, yet that slight difference in astrological outlook constantly nagged at her, and here they were, sending one of them off into the thick of battle to fight Napoleon. If it was the wrong brother, then fate might claim both of her boys long before their time; one in battle, and one… wished she had kept away from that old sybil. It was too late to worry about that now. The damage had been done.
“Now go, my son, with my blessing. I shall see you briefly at the wedding, out of the way, and then after that, whenever you come back to England. Let me know, and I shall come and visit you in London. You must never set foot here again. That would not be wise.”
“Yes, Mama. I know.”
Goodbyes were always painful, especially at this time, knowing that he might not survive even his first encounter with the French. He had read about Sir Vincent Falstaff and knew what he would face the moment they left the estuary. Sir Vincent was never one to run from the enemy no matter how badly outnumbered he was. He had the reputation of being totally mad, in certain quarters.
Robert waved goodbye from the carriage as it took off down the driveway. He was sad to leave everything he was familiar with, and had grown to love. His brother was a lucky man from what he had learned of Selena, but it would not do to think about that.
A few hours after he passed through the gates for possibly the last time, Selena would be driving into them for the last time as Miss Crowther. Everyone’s life was changing too quickly.