Oh, Cruel Fate!
“The injury we do, and the one we suffer, are not weighed in the same scale.” Aesop.
Not twenty minutes later, the carriage slowed to pass through the narrow gateposts marking the boundary of the estate. That was when Robert felt a sudden lurch to one side, throwing him into the opposite seat as the carriage dropped. It had lost a wheel, or an axle had broken. The carriage came to rest across the road, from one of the stone gateposts to the other, blocking the driveway. The horses set up a commotion but were soon calmed.
He heard his driver curse his luck as he climbed down to inspect the damage. Robert left the carriage to join him.
“Bad luck, Master Robert.” Brian’s south-country accent was obvious. “No goin’ anywhere until that wheel’s fixed, and no doubt about it. Take an hour or two, I reckon. If you was to go back ’ome, sir, I’ll come and get you when it’s fixed. The village is a tad closer than the 'ouse, and I know Crosby will have all I need to get it fettled. I’ll need to unhitch the horses and ride ’em in. You go back ’ome sir, while I see to it. Nothing you can do to help me here.”
Robert looked about. It was a fine day. He did not relish returning and explaining to his mother why he had still not gone and have her worry that he might bump into Selena.
“No, Brian. I shall walk into the village along the river bank. It’s a nice day for a stroll. You can pick me up at the inn when you have everything mended.”
“As you wish, Master Robert. There’ll be nobody goin’ in or out of this gate until this is fixed, that’s for sure. I wish we'd brought the lighter carriage, and then I could have moved it out of the way myself, but not this old brute. As soon as I get it seen to then.”
He began to envy Robert, who would be kicking his heels in the village inn with a tankard of beer, and the gentle company of the innkeeper’s daughter, while he was getting the carriage repaired.
He watched as Master Robert went off at a leisurely pace, seemingly with not a care in the world.
At that same moment, another carriage came along the road, its driver intending to make the turn onto the estate, but he was unable to do so because of the carriage blocking the only entrance. No sooner had that carriage come to a stop, than a young woman alighted from it, took in the nature of the damage to the other carriage, and became aware that it would take some time to repair it and get it moved.
That was when she saw someone she knew almost as well as she knew herself, walking close by. She spoke to her driver as she hurriedly left the carriage.
“Henry, that will take some time to mend I think. I shall see you back here or at the house. It is a nice day for a walk. Don’t wait for me if I have not returned when it is repaired.”
“Right, Miss.” He knew that it was not so far to the house, nobbut a mile or so in the other valley, as the crow flew, but a full four miles along the winding road, and Miss Crowther was well able to walk that distance in her eagerness to be there. She had been impatient for the last few hours and had insisted on setting out early to get to Penfield, even though she was not expected before four o’clock. There were still some hours to go before that time.
He had no need to worry for her. Miss Selena could look after herself. Once he had seen her safely delivered he would return to Ridgeway and make a trip with more of her belongings; her pianoforte and a writing desk as well as a few other odds and ends. Her mother and father, and her sister, Sophia, would join her in two weeks, and still a full two weeks before the wedding. He strolled over to the carriage blocking the driveway and struck up a conversation with the driver.
Selena walked off briskly, anxious to be somewhere else.
“Charles! Charles!” Robert turned as the voice became more insistent and louder. Someone was mistaking him for his brother again. He saw a slightly flushed young woman approaching him in some haste. He waited for her, not sure who she was—he had not seen her before in the village—or how she might know Charles, but he was curious.
Before he could say anything, she had thrown herself into his arms and was hugging him and then kissing him, giving him no choice in the matter. Her sudden and unexpected actions had nearly put them both into the shallow water, and more than just their feet. He put his arms about her to steady them both and held her securely as she drew his face down to hers, and kissed him repeatedly.
He was not about to object. His temperature began to rise, as his questions faded from thought. He was caught totally off guard. She was overpowering. She smelled delightful. She was also looking at him as few women had ever looked at any man. He was breathless and lost all power of speech. She was not about to let him talk anyway but continued to kiss him as she bubbled over with happiness.
This must be Selena, his brother’s fiancée. How did she not know who he was? But how would she? He should tell her about the mistake she was making, but she would not let him get a word in.
“How clever of you to know I would arrive early, and for you to decide to meet me here by putting that carriage across the gate to delay me. And how fortunate that I do not have a lady’s maid with me to intervene and fight you off, for my honor’s sake”—her eyes sparkled up at him— “as I shall certainly not fight you off, no matter what you might think to do with me.”
Yes, this must be Selena. But what did she mean about no maid to intervene for her honor’s sake, and not fighting him off no matter what he might do to her? Was there no one with her? What did she have in mind? She gurgled at his obvious shock at seeing her.
“Now I wonder why you did that, and what you have planned for me, you naughty boy.” It seemed that she did not wonder anything of the kind, but already had her own suspicions why. “And how did you know I would arrive early? But of course I would, wouldn’t I, after the shockingly wonderful way we left each other just a short time ago at Ridgeway. Was it just over a week ago? No, it was almost two.”
Where had she come from? Then he saw the other carriage through the hedgerow. Selena had arrived early, had seen him walking, and had assumed that he was Charles. What was he to do? How should he deal with this? He should tell her who he was, of course. However, anything he might decide to do was already being decided for him. She was excited to see him and was not about to let him speak.
“I have got my feet wet, Charles, and even the bottom of my dress. How careless of me.” She laughed easily as she hitched her dress up from the shallow water, blushing up at him. “Yes, completely sodden. I will need to dry my shoes and dress out before I arrive at Penfield or your mother and father will guess what happened. I wonder where we might do that. You will have to carry me over the stream now, or I shall certainly get more than just my feet wet.”
He would have to tell her that he was not Charles, but first things first. He obliged her, picking her up easily into his arms, as her own arms went around his neck. He stepped cautiously from stone to stone over the shallow stream, concentrating on not slipping, and precipitating them both into the water as she continued to kiss him and hug him, and to excitedly chatter along with pleasure at seeing him again. How would she respond when she learned that he was not Charles, but Robert? It was almost funny. Yet it would not be funny when she did find out, after smothering him with kisses and rattling on in such a personal way.
Once on the other side he put her down, but she would not let him catch his breath enough to explain that he was not Charles. She continued to embrace him and kiss him and would not allow him to speak in her excitement and pleasure at seeing him again.
She took his arm firmly—she seemed to know what she was doing—and he floated with her along the path, unsure of where she was guiding him as she continued to speak in her excitement. He couldn't have stopped her without hurting her feelings.
“Oh, Charles, I have been in such an agony of impatience to get here that I insisted we leave early. I had to get here without delay after the way we left each other. I do not know how I survived since you left my parents’ house. Was that just two weeks ago? If felt like a lifetime. And is it just three weeks ago that we first made love?”
Robert stumbled, but quickly recovered. He wanted to speak and tell her who he was, but he made the mistake of looking into her eyes as she turned into him and kissed him again. She moved against him familiarly, and blushed up at him charmingly.
“Yes, three weeks ago. It came to me one night after an enlightening day with you, what I must do to take pity on you; what we must do together to bind us closer.” She took his arm and walked with him as she continued to speak.
“We had waited far too long, you and I. It is not as though we were complete strangers to each other, considering what we invariably did when we were alone together, and the liberties I allowed you to take with me as we discovered everything about each other. Everything!” She blushed at him, making those daring confessions. “You had worn down my natural caution and resistance, and silenced my shy protestations as we slowly grew closer together and became more intimate. You were patient and gentle with me. Thank you.”
He said nothing.
“For my own sake and yours, Charles, I had to take pity on you—on us both—after that.”
He recognized what she was referring to.
“What was there to lose? We were in love, and we would marry in just a few more weeks. Once I made up my mind, I came along to your bedroom after the entire house was asleep, as you well-remember, I know you do. And then I overrode your initial surprise and natural caution about what I intended. You did not hesitate for long when you saw how determined I was that you would have me, once I got rid of my nightdress and so shamelessly crawled into your bed. That, and the rest of our week together after that, are what gave me the strength to endure that final separation that is now ended. And here I am.”
Robert began to feel alarmed at hearing such a personal and intimate confession. She, had approached Charles and had crawled into his bed? She sounded like a woman who had known exactly what she wanted and would not hesitate to go about getting it. No wonder Charles had blushed as he'd stumbled over his words. She would be embarrassed beyond belief when she learned that she was confessing such things, not to Charles, but to Charles’s twin brother.
Had Charles mentioned only that he had a brother, but had not told her that his brother was his twin? Obviously not.
“We had one week of wondrous intimacy together—I am breathless just thinking about it—before you left me with the promise of what would happen soon after I got here. Very soon after! How could I stay away? Well, now I am here, Charles. I no longer need worry about what my sister, Sophia, might have witnessed between us and might say about what we did when we were alone. I only learned that she had been spying on us as you were leaving, the little vixen. To think that she had observed us and what we did so many times that last week together. I almost died of embarrassment.” She chuckled enchantingly but would not be stopped.
“That week together has tormented me from the moment we parted, and I have been anxiously counting the days until I would get here. I decided that I would arrive as soon as I could, rather than at the suggested time, and would trust to your ingenuity to find some way for us to be alone together.”
He felt a sudden stab of concern.
She should not be having this personal conversation with him, though it was not a conversation, with her being the only one speaking and not letting him get a word in edgewise. He felt that he should tell her who he really was before she went any further with this mood, and those reckless confessions, but he could say nothing.
“However, I am here now, Charles. How glad I am that you decided to meet me like this, and so cleverly too, and out of the way. I think I know…no, I am sure what you must have in mind for me.” She had her arm around his waist and had captured his hand, the one between them, placing it across her shoulders and neck, as she held his hand by her face, and kissed it. He could not pull away.
His mind raced. What did she expect of him? He began to feel worried. Better if she did not learn who he was. She would head back to her carriage soon, after a short stroll with him, and then he would make it seem as though he would rush back to the house, as she delayed her own arrival to give him time to do so. Then, he, or rather, Charles, would meet her when she arrived. He would also need to caution her about the need for secrecy about this meeting. He would tell her that his parents, were not aware that he had decided to first meet her out here, so she should say nothing. It was beginning to get too complicated, but it would better if she did not discover who he really was.
If he were careful what he said or did, what harm might it do? He could play the role of Charles easily enough, he hoped, provided it did not get out of hand. He must surely be able to do that, and then see her on her way, once the carriage was repaired. Or could he? Might she expect him to go back to the house with her, in her carriage?
It was threatening to get out of control. He would think of something to save her from any embarrassment over the mistake she was making, but he would need to be careful how he did it, and he would need to do it soon.
“Don’t worry, Charles, you can still meet me when I drive up to the house, and no one will be the wiser. We have at least three hours before I am expected.”
Three hours? It began to sound as though she had something quite shocking in mind. At least she did not seem to expect him to travel back with her, and was thinking along the same lines he was, about secrecy. But what did she have in mind for him? For them both?
“How clever of you to arrange it this way, but isn’t that what lovers do; try to find a way around every obstacle placed in their way as we soon learned to do at my home? I am sure I would not be able to wait for hours, as we fret and fume in our frustration to be alone together, so this moment will solve that initial difficulty for us both. And to think that I would never have known what delights I was missing had I not first importuned you to have me that night, and every night after that.” She seemed to already have something planned. Where was she leading him? They were not walking to the village, but had taken an alternative path, little used by anyone. It led to the Belvedere on the edge of their property, and it was private. The Belvedere? Oh, lord!
Robert's head began to spin and his mouth was dry. Everything was being slowly but inexorably removed from his hands. He was being led further and further out of his depth, and to a point from which he might not be able to easily recover, though it had already gone beyond that. She stopped and turned into him again as she kissed him.
“I know I took you by surprise, arriving as early as I did, but I did expect to be greeted with more warmth, and for you to show me much more demonstrative affection, Charles. You cannot be shy with me. You never were, even when we were first naked together. Nor did I expect you to be so shocked, as I fear you are. Am I being too forward, even for you? Did I take you so much by surprise? Are you having second thoughts about this, about me? I hope not.” She was smiling sadly up at him.
The lives of three people were in his hands. Charles; hers, and his own. He should not hesitate. She needed reassuring, as dangerous as that might be.
“No.” That was the first word he had been allowed to speak since she had approached him. “Never any second thoughts, my love. You mean everything to me. My excitement at seeing you again, and the intoxication I feel at being so close to you, and the promise…my head is spinning and full to bursting. That is all that is holding me back.”
He knew he had said exactly the correct thing by the sudden look of happiness upon her face, but more was needed. He took her into his arms, properly then, and kissed her as she seemed to demand, or she might recognize that he was not Charles, and that would never do.
“There, I knew you could not have forgotten so soon. I expect you were distracted with promise of what we both know is about to happen between us.” She looked up into his face and smiled in a mischievous way. “There is much more of me to discover, Charles, as you so well know, and that you delighted to touch whenever we were alone that last week, as we are now.” Her face was flushed. “You were not so slow or backward to show your affection for me just before we last parted. In your eagerness and excitement, you could not get enough of any part of me, nor I, of you.
“How we were not discovered…?” She was blushing up at him. “I would like you to touch me again just like that, all of me, everywhere, without reservation or shyness, and giving both of us so much pleasure. I so want to feel your touch upon me, all over me, as you did when we were out of the way in that small coppice. And I also want to feel more of you, again; much more, as we make love.” She brought his hand up to touch her breast, upon the outside of her dress.
“Yes, here, and much more of me too. I suppose it is only natural that you might be shy, with us out in the open as we are. I thought I would be the shy one. I once was, but then I found the courage to approach you as I did, before I let you escape us. After that, I did not hold back. Nor did you. I remember it all so clearly. I have never been so exhausted as I was for that last week. It was wondrous. I am surprised my parents did not notice that lethargy about us both and say something over breakfast.” Robert said nothing.
“It is only a five-minute walk to the Belvedere, unless you feel that you cannot wait, Charles.” She chuckled and blushed up at him as she looked around them. “Though we have never been so eager before, as to do it out in the open where anyone might see us, but I suppose that there will be a first for everything.” She chuckled again, as she looked swiftly about them, and then looked up into his eyes and smiled. She knew the effect she was having on him. He could feel her trembling against him, but he was no less excited himself, warming up to the situation. He began to realize that there would be no turning back now.
She moved closer to him, closing her eyes as she kissed him again. His head was swimming. He could not back off now. There would be more damage if he were to stop, with all of the doubts and questions that would raise, than if he went forward. Just as long as she did not discover who he really was.
He and Charles had played this game before, of taking on each other’s identity, but this was far too serious for such a game. However, he would have to play it through to its conclusion now that it had proceeded so far, whatever that conclusion might be. He sensed her raising her dress for him, taking his other hand and moving it under her dress as she changed her position to allow him to touch her intimately.
The sudden scream of a jay from the hedgerow brought them back to their senses with a start. They separated a little, allowing her dress to drop back to where it had been. She laughed nervously.
“Almost, Charles. Almost.”
This woman was unbelievable! She completely took his breath away. No wonder Charles had instantly fallen in love with her. No wonder there had been such a pronounced effort to stop him from meeting her.
She laughed again; more of a mischievous gurgle. “No. It is too incautious of us, of me, Charles, in my excitement. Perhaps the Belvedere will be safer. It is close enough, and it will be much more private.” He said nothing. If he told her who he was now, she would be mortified, ashamed and embarrassed. She might never recover, and might feel that she could not remain, or continue to the house, with knowledge of what had happened to her; of what she had caused to happen. It might destroy her. It might destroy Charles if this went wrong. I might destroy him. She must not discover who he really was.
He would have to become Charles at this moment, as little as he would like to damage Selena, or his brother by taking advantage of her as she intended. He would damage them both, but only if he did not behave as she expected of him.
“I will let you reach down the key for the door, Charles. It is just beyond my reach.” He felt above the door for the key and unlocked the door. They entered the brightly sunlit room that she had obviously been in before with his brother in their stolen, intimate moments together. They must have been a mischievous pair.