It is important that you learn about me, as I am about to turn your world inside out and shock you beyond what simple words might express.
Robert walked with Miss Sophia toward the stairs down to the lower part of the house and the servants’ area. He needed to think about how to broach what he needed to do about Selena, without entirely offending her sister.
“May I join you for a drink downstairs while you eat, Sophia, and we can give the house time to adjust to my disruptive presence? I think we may still have good beers. I know we used to make cheese, and there will be bread. I am thirsty as well as hungry. Then we can go and see your sister together, if that will not be too much of a burden.” She could not, of course, refuse him.
“Never a burden. Yes, sir, you may visit her if you do not stay too long. This is your home now, and it is for you to direct what happens in it as you will, but should you not rest after being wounded, and after your ordeal?”
He would never be able to rest without knowing everything he could know about the woman lying injured upstairs. Sophia had not left her side for more than a few minutes since she had been here. Everyone would be protective of her, especially from him, yet he needed to see her and to do what he could for her no matter what they might do to stop him. How could he rest, knowing that the only woman he had ever truly loved might die under his roof without his help? Perhaps even with it. However, he could not tell her sister that, nor let her see his impatience.
“I need no rest just yet.” They walked downstairs into the cooler part of the house and along to the scullery where there were the sounds of food being prepared.
Sophia was not silent for long. “I should admit that you are not a complete stranger to me. I do know something of you.” He raised his eyebrows and looked at her for a moment as they walked together, encouraging her to continue. Unfortunately, anything she had heard of him in this house, was unlikely to have been to his credit.
“Do you really have the reputation of being a lady’s man, sir?”
The question took him quite off guard. He had not expected her to be so outspoken about something that others regarded as a fault in him. He was amused at her comment. Young ladies rarely raised such a ripe topic—though politely stated—for conversation with the very man who had given rise to it. She was either foolhardy and reckless, or very sure of herself. Most probably the latter he began to realize. And very much like her sister for leaping right in and getting to the point. It would make what he needed to do so much easier, though it might also mean that he would have a fight on his hands.
He was resolved to be no less forthright.
He smiled at her. “Not quite the first thing I expected to be greeted with after my arrival. However, to answer your question, yes, I did have that well-earned reputation, many years ago. That was only one of the reasons I was packed off into the navy. I was becoming too much of an embarrassment, with my twin brother about to be married. There was no knowing what trouble I might get up to that might embroil him if he were to be mistaken for me.” Or I, for him, as had happened when he had first met Selena. He decided to say nothing of the main reason that he had gone; his mother’s insistence he go, so that he might never meet Selena. Yet he had met her. His life had changed at that very moment, though no one else’s had, thank god.
“As I have been at sea for many years, I had hoped that society was beginning to forget about me. But Nurse hasn’t, more’s the pity.” He looked at Sophia as she walked along beside him. She had an attractive profile and had a disturbingly strongly resemblance to her sister at that age. Her hair was coiffed the same way he had remembered, as though it were yesterday that he had met her, though it was now untidy for lack of attention, as was her dress. She did not seem to need to fill in gaps in the conversation, so he continued.
“I should tell you that you and I did see each other, at a distance, and did briefly meet, though we did not officially meet. Why would we, with the difference in our ages? You were at your sister’s wedding at the time, and you blundered into me, before you ran off. He knew she would not have remembered him among so many faces in her childlike excitement on that occasion, though he had taken close note of her entire family, and even of her. He had been eager to learn as much as he might of them after meeting their elder daughter, but he could not tell this young woman any of that. If anyone were to learn of that intimate moment in time…? But, how could they?
Robert assisted her to a seat in the breakfast area and began to serve her, waiting for her next foray into the conversation.
Sophia could not allow him to wait upon her, as he seemed ready to do, but stood and helped prepare them both a meal, as he drew two tankards of beer from different kegs after first tasting one and then the other. He would see that she had the weaker beer. With her being tired, the stronger brew would soon have sent her to sleep, perhaps even before he might have achieved what he was impatient to do.
Once the table had been prepared, with no one else to fuss about them, they sat, and began to eat. She did not seem ready to pick up the conversation again, possibly because she had so much on her mind, so he began.
“I am sorry that I appeared in such a disheveled way to meet you, but it was beyond my control. Nurse was not about to let me wander the house, dripping blood. I fear I am still not properly dressed, and I apologize for that, but I promise that I shall be, for dinner. We have also not been properly introduced, despite what you seem to have learned about me, so I shall fill that gap. I am Robert Charles Penfield, at your service.” They shook hands across the table as she accepted the similarity of his own and his brother’s names. Robert Charles, and Charles Robert! What on earth had possessed their parents to give them the same Christian names, but in a different order? No wonder there had been constant confusion.
“Charles beat me into the world by less than ten minutes, and on different days. Or I beat him. We will never know. My name is Robert, of course. I shall be put out if you call me Lord Penfield. I do not yet feel like Lord Penfield, but like a sailor cast high and dry upon an alien shore, surrounded by strangers and enemies.”
She looked at him. Was that how he looked upon his coming home? As landing on an alien shore? Yet what had happened to bring him here had been unexpected and upsetting; losing his brother like that. It must have completely overturned his own plans and would change his life completely. And if he had been sent away under some kind of cloud, as he had suggested, it might not seem a happy and welcoming place to return to.
She digested all that she was learning of him as he spoke and tried to reconcile it with what she had heard over the years. She had heard a lot. She remained silent as she ate, keeping her thoughts of him to herself.
“It will be better if you think the worst of me at the start, Sophia, as everyone else does—Abby nearly baptized me with hot water in her surprise—and what Mrs. Gurney may do to me when she is told about the blood I left on the carpet…? After that, I can only improve. It is better than having you think good of me at the outset, however unlikely after that start, and then appearing worse as time goes by when you are forced to reassess your early position, as the disparaging rumors begin to circulate once more.”
She had listened for long enough and decided to correct what he seemed to assume.
“Yes sir. Except, there are no seriously disparaging rumors about you that I have heard, or that I might choose to give credence to. I heard only good of you. And I have been here many times.”
She corrected herself. “Other than the one rumor that I mentioned; that you were ‘inordinately attentive’ to the ladies.” There was that other one, but she was not sure she should mention that. “I am not sure that that is a fault. I believe the word ‘dalliance’ was used. I know few women who like to be ignored, though I suppose it might be a fault, depending upon….” He almost laughed out loud. She paused at the look on his face. Had she said something wrong? He filled in the conversation as she paused.
“Depending upon what they meant by using that word, ‘dalliance’. Someone was being diplomatic. However, that expression, ‘inordinately attentive’, hides a world of meaning, despite the sugar-coating with that other word, dalliance.” It could have been much worse. He found such a tactful way of describing what he had done, hard to believe, though she might be too young and inexperienced to know exactly what was being suggested or to have learned exactly what his crimes had been.
She had not been put off by his interruption. “Except for one other rumor.” Now she was being reckless in her honesty but had caught his attention. “One that I recall from several years ago, but I did not hear that from any servant. I am not sure I should repeat it.”
“Of course you should.” He passed her the tankard of small beer, saw her sip at it, pull a face, and then switch it with the one that he had intended to drink. He said nothing about her now having the much stronger brew. He paused and looked at her before he continued.
“Now I am curious. Which rumor of the many? I cannot defend myself if I do not know what is being rumored about me. We are, after all, close family, as horrifying as that thought may be to you, even though we have just met as adults.” His eyes smiled at her. “As we are family, there should be no secrets between us.” She seemed to want to believe him. Reckless of her. Others would caution her later about how clever he was to ease his way behind one’s defenses, (especially those of an incautious woman), but for the moment, and before she might be cautioned, he would learn what he could. He was relieved to find that she would be able to speak of it. He allowed her to find her own words.
“It was one concerning a maidservant called, Mary.” His eyes flashed to her face and he almost choked on a piece of bread as he drank from the small beer, then pulled a wry face at the relatively insipid taste. She did not notice. That name had not been permitted to be used in the house after they…. She certainly had his attention now and continued with her tale.
“My sister and Lord P…. Charles, your brother”—she stumbled a little— “were discussing her in private, and laughing about it all. It sounded more amusing than anything worse. They did not know that I was close by, in the window embrasure, with a book. They often forgot that I was there. When I asked Selena, afterward, what certain things meant, she became quite embarrassed to have been overheard. She warned me never to say anything in front of the servants. I think I was about fifteen at the time and was very curious as well as being unafraid of treading on dangerous ground. I often stumbled into some tender areas that I should not have known about.”
He smiled at her and looked studious, as he filled in more detail. “Mary was the laundry maid. Yes, I suppose the rumors might be ripe for one as young as you, even now; depending upon what was disclosed. And it was about Mary and me? You are sure of that name, are you?”
Might there be others? He could see the look on her face, and found it amusing.
“So, Charles was able to discuss her with his wife. Most brave of him. But that was Charles. No secrets where she was concerned. But tell me, Sophia, what was it that you heard, before I say more than I should?” He was smiling encouragingly; challenging her to continue. She recognized that she had overstepped an invisible line by daring to mention Mary, and would find it difficult to retreat. She blushed but was game enough to continue.
“I had almost forgotten it. It seemed to involve your brother, Charles, quite as much as it involved you. I believe that was where I heard that word, ‘dalliance’, and ‘sowing one’s wild oats’, among other things.” He smiled disbelievingly at her. “I was not sure what it meant. I told you, I was only about fifteen at the time. And there were a few other suggestive remarks.”
“Yes, ‘dalliance’, is a diplomatic description, and so much more refined, and even genteel compared to the way I might have described what happened between us. As Charles became more emotionally settled after he met your sister, I became more careless. In fact I became a severe embarrassment to myself and everyone around me, but I did not care. I was at a reckless age. Mary was not only our first conquest, but very nearly my last, when we were discovered going at it like ferrets, in the hay. Or was it on the front lawn early one evening as she gathered up the laundry? Or any one of a dozen other places.” His mind seemed far off. “We covered a lot of ground and had never been shy about what we were doing, though it seemed to take a long time for us to get caught.”
She chuckled nervously at his daring to be so outspoken. He looked up, hearing her chuckle, and recollected where he was, and to whom he was speaking.
“Oh, Lord. I am sorry. Pardon my being considerably more expressive than I should have been.” She did not seem to be too shocked, and was not even blushing, or covering her ears and rushing off, as any other young woman might have done.
“Yes, it was a nice little affaire that did get to be quite flagrantly conducted under everyone’s noses. I must apologize to you, of course for my incautious way of stating things. I hope I am not too outspoken for you, but I have been in the company of rough men, and some not so very respectable women for many years. Did I actually use that more shocking expression—going at it like ferrets—in a moment of carelessness? Yes I did.” He had the grace to blush.
“It may take some time for me to remember that I am no longer on-board ship, where we were liable to be a trifle outspoken.” Only a trifle outspoken? He offered her some of the cheese. “Dalliance. Yes, I like that word. Mary was very demanding. We became careless, and went to the well, one too many times, which is why I was the one who got caught with her, and not Charles. However, he had met, and become engaged to your sister by then, so he no longer needed Mary’s attentive ministrations as much as I did, so I had her to myself.”
She looked at him sharply, wondering if he really intended to imply what he was suggesting of her sister and Charles, and when they were only engaged, but he was not looking at her. How might he know what Charles and her sister had so openly done together so often and so many times?
“We were harming no one. They let Mary go, of course, without actually letting her go—they just made her less accessible to me for a while. However, we were quite determined and ripe for trouble, the pair of us, and we stayed in touch until I went off to sea. Actually, more than just in touch. Much more than just, in touch.” He shook his head. He seemed to have no shame in continuing to discuss such things. That was the third or fourth quite shocking thing he had said in as many minutes. “In fact, nothing changed between us until just a month or so before I left to go to sea.”
That was when everything had changed!
He saw that she understood him. “I warned you that it might get ripe. I saw she did not suffer for such an unwise liaison with me. She is married and settled down now, thank god. Charles told me in one of his letters. I could not be more pleased for her. It ended well for her if not for me. That was when I encountered…”—he paused and smiled again, but it was not the same smile as before— “no, I should not shock you further with tales of my exploits.”
She wanted to drag him back to continue what he had started ‘that was when I encountered…’ but couldn’t. What had he encountered? Or who?
“All of that is in my difficult past, Miss Crowther. It has been there for the last ten years and is unlikely ever to be forgotten in this house. I doubt that you and I should be discussing my moral failings quite so soon after my arrival, even if I am your brother-in-law, though I know that the house is awash with such a discussion even at this very moment.”
He had better get the conversation back on a less dangerous tack. He offered her some of the cheese. She found that he was studying her, perhaps wondering what more he should tell her of himself.
“I would like to tell you that despite all of the things said about me, that I am sure you will eventually hear, that they apply to a man who no longer exists. But those others in this house do not know that.” He looked across at her.