I take it You have been Warned about Me?
“So, apart from what your sister let slip, you have not yet been entertained by the rest of the tales about me. You soon will be, and before the day is ended.” He unobtrusively switched his small beer for the tankard of the stronger one and kept it close to him.
“Even now they are circulating the house and the general area. They serve as a kind of moral, to the kind of story that a young woman in service would be well advised to learn, concerning what goes on in any gentleman’s household. Can you not sense it in the air? Hear the ‘tut-tutting’? I can. All of these nubile females; maids, too young to remember me, are being scurried off home by their attentive mothers, or are being warned of me, as my history is being rapidly dragged out of the closet, is filled in and, no doubt, embellished. They are being told to keep out of my way.” He sat back and continued.
“Never, are they to be caught alone with me anywhere, even in daylight. They are to go in pairs into any remote area of the house or outdoors, and they are being cautioned to lock their bedroom doors at night, and whenever they are in there, or not in there. Never, are they to venture forth, for any reason, until morning light. Nurse will be sure to get to you when she has had chance to recover from the shock of my arrival, so I am warning you ahead of time. And, by the way, Nurse will ring a peal over you for being alone with me even now, if she finds out. My reputation is likely to taint you if you associate too closely with me for any length of time.” He was smiling at her. He heard her laugh disbelievingly.
“Certainly, you can talk up a storm, sir.” Now what did she mean by that? She changed the subject now that he had gone silent.
“I had not realized that you and Lord Penfield were so much alike, until I heard the girls announce your approach in great surprise and excitement from the landing upstairs. They had pulled back the curtain to see who might possibly have arrived. (That must have been the curtain that he had seen disturbed). They took off, heedless of my request to slow down on the stairs and to be careful. I could not possibly believe what I was hearing from them. I swear they flew down those stairs. All I heard was that; ‘papa is come back to us, papa is home. I knew he was not taken from us’.” Sophia cut a slice of bread for him.
“I had to see the reason for such excitement and for such an unbelievable change in them from the way they had been. I think I was as surprised and as shocked as they were when I walked in on you. No one had prepared me for that. Not even my own sister. When I walked into that room and saw you with the children, I am sure I must have looked lost. I thought for a moment that you really were Charles, just as the children had. I had often been here for Christmas and Easter, and many other times too. I spent most of my time here, but you were always at sea. I assumed that there was at least a year or two between you with you being described as the younger brother. It took me some moments to recover.” He watched her face as she spoke.
“I soon saw that you could not possibly be Charles. He would not have had a bloody saber, nor would he have had such a wild look about himself or be shedding blood with such obvious enjoyment for the entertainment of three very attentive little girls. You were a complete surprise to me. I might almost think to wake up from a dream, a pleasant dream, where Lord Penfield really did not die and had brought such happiness back into the lives of the children and of the entire house.”
“But my brother did not die, Miss Crowther. As long as I live, and his name is remembered, he shall not die. He never will, not where it counts. Here!” He laid his hand over his heart.
There was silence for an extended time, which she did not seem to need to fill in. She was not at all overawed or shocked by him. Those who were nervous about the circumstance would usually have been chattering away quite incautiously, but not Miss Crowther.
He heard footsteps approaching the scullery, but then stop before they reached where the two of them were eating. Nurse might soon be along to discover where he was and what mischief he might be up to with this young woman. He kept his voice down.
“Caught you without something to say, have I?”
“Only for a brief moment, sir, as I digest what you are telling me, and as I learn more about you. I hope I am not one of those females who chatters on, nervously, without reason.” She wasn’t. “In fact, despite your outspokenness, I doubt that you might surprise me. I am not unversed in the ways of our so-called genteel society, but I have been protected from it until now.” And now all of their lives had been changed by what had happened.
“I am aware of the hazards facing young, unmarried women without independent means, and with few prospects, especially in the home of close relatives whom they must rely upon. I have always felt safe, here, but that will all change now.”
Not if he had his way. At least not in a way she might expect.
“I shall remain with my sister as long as I can, of course, but you will control much of what happens, both to her and, indirectly, to me.” Rather than interrupt her to correct that impression, he let her speak.
“There will come a time when I must make my own way in life.” He looked at her and realized that despite her seeming self-assurance, she was in fact feeling very vulnerable, and in need of reassurance about herself and her welcome here. She might not know what to expect, now that such a devastating change had taken place to her security. And not with those damned rumors. He tried to re-assure her.
“Why must anything change here? I don’t want it to. And you are as safe here now, as you were when my brother was in charge, despite what you might believe of me from those other tales. Yes, I have inherited the title, but that does not mean that I shall stay here to upset everyone. I might not be welcome. I am caught in a delicate predicament.”
She had difficulty understanding what he might be saying. He did not want anything to change, and he might not stay. Not stay?
“I hope you will not misunderstand me when I say that you will always be welcome to make your home here, whether I remain, or not. And why do you describe yourself as having few prospects? I have difficulty believing that. You are young, and you are beautiful.” She did not detect any questionable undertones to his saying that of her. “I imagine that your own parents or even your sister, and my brother, would have been careful to introduce you into only the right circles, and to have thrown parties and balls to bring the cream of society to your feet.”
He reached over and laid his hand over hers. She had not expected such a sign of comfort but did not misinterpret his action and remove hers. She looked up at him. He was surprised to find that she seemed to trust him, even on such short acquaintance. That would soon change. He might hurt her feelings then, but without intending to. He sat back.
“If you will not object, that office now becomes Lord Penfield’s responsibility, my responsibility to some degree while you are under this roof.” He sighed. “Except my reputation is likely to get in the way, so you should likely refuse any offer of help from me. Even your own father might caution you there. However, I did tell you that my past life was left behind when I went to sea, and none of the early rumors have any currency, except here. I am without honor only in this environment”—he looked around—“though my manners need some polishing for me to blend in to our more demanding society. I think you may be of as much benefit to me there, as I might be to you. I have lived with men for too long and have forgotten what it means to be in the company of genteel women. I find that they do not understand me. No one in this house does, or wants to.” She felt the need to respond to that.
“I believe, sir, that they think they understand you well enough. You are clearly a typical man. A man without a conscience when it comes to dealing with one of the weaker sex, and whom you can browbeat and overwhelm. You tell a woman what you think she wishes to hear so that you may seduce her more easily.”
He laughed easily. He was a cool one.
“Because I told you that you were beautiful, Sophia? But you are. I told you the truth. I had no ulterior motive. I doubt I might be able to browbeat or overwhelm you and would not want to. You are safe here, no matter what others might tell you about me, and you will always be welcome.”
She began to realize that he could easily bounce from flippant, to serious in the blink of an eye, and that she did not know him at all. No sooner did she begin to feel that she might understand him than he changed, and she realized that she really did not know anything about him. He was a gentleman one moment; a rogue, a villain, and a scoundrel at another. Yet he had easily captivated those children the moment he arrived and put them at their ease. And they had captivated him in turn. He was having fun with them all from one moment to the next, and yet who, in this house, might know it? She was content to listen.
“Also, contrary to what you think of me, or might believe from what others might have said about me, I tell only the truth about anyone or anything. Sometimes, others do not want to hear the truth. I am also far from being a man without a conscience. My conscience has been a constant, nagging companion for the last ten years.” He looked at her then with a sad look in his eyes and set her heart fluttering by that sudden heart-rending look. What was it that she could see lurking there? He soon recovered. His eyes changed. He was in control of himself once more.
“So, after such devastating admissions about my past, and that I actually have a conscience, what is it that you think you have learned about me so far? Or is it too soon to ask?” He was looking at her closely, waiting for her answer. It seemed important to him. “Not at all flattering, I imagine, considering what you heard of me, despite my easy assurances. That is, if you dare answer.” She dared.
She thought for a while. “It is far too soon to tell. My father told me to pay little heed to what is said about a man behind his back, but to judge a man by how he appears to you when you are facing him directly and what he says then, as well as how he expresses himself. That, will tell you about the real man; when you can look into his eyes and search his soul a little, if he will allow it.
“The most important thing I learned about you was that you handled yourself unusually well with the children, which is not something that many men do well. Apart from that, you are still a closed book to me, though you show signs of promise.” He would settle for that.
She decided not to trespass further into such a dangerous area. He was an entirely unknown and unknowable entity and was used to dealing with both men and women far more used to the vagaries of the world than she was. She was out of her depth with him.
“I suppose it was unfair of me to ask you that so soon. You will find out about me soon enough. Too soon. I can promise you that.” She was not sure what he might mean.