How Can this Be?
They watched in sudden bemused amazement, as their mother’s head moved on the pillow at the sound of their voices. She did not open her eyes.
“Charles.” Her voice was raspy. “Is that you? And the children, holding my hand!” One might have heard a pin drop. Everyone in the room had gone still and held their breath.
Robert did not hesitate for one second but laid his other hand over Hester’s where it held that of her mother, as the children all let her know of their presence, struck dumb for a moment at the unexpected delight of hearing her voice, and learning from that alone if Uncle Robert had not told them already, that their mother was recovering. They could not know the sudden rush of euphoria that overwhelmed him. Despite that, he did not hesitate. Once again, he would need to take on the role of his brother, but not with such devastating consequences to himself as on that first occasion.
“Yes, my dear. We are all here.” The words came easily to him. He reached up and caressed the side of her face, knowing that his touch would comfort her. His voice broke with emotion, but as they were all stupefied, it was not noticed.
“Thank God! What a nightmare I had! It seemed to go on forever, and I could not get out of it. Might I have something to drink please, I am so very thirsty, and my head aches so?”
Everyone other than Robert had been frozen into immobility. “Yes, my dear.” Robert picked up the half glass of lemonade from the bedside table, supported her behind her head with his arm about her, and raised her as he put the glass to her lips. She drank slowly but steadily and emptied it. There had been laudanum in it, and it would help her rest.
“That is so good! I do not seem able to move without so many aches and pains, and I seem unable to remember some things.” He let her back down and took her hand once more.
“Then do not move, my love. And do not try to remember. I will explain it all to you later. You are being well looked after. Sophia is here too.” He hoped that she might be distracted from her thoughts about him, whatever they might be, when she heard that.
“She is? Oh, how nice. I was just dreaming about her. I knew she was here, and close by, for I think I heard her. We did not expect her for another few days. Did we? We shall have so much to talk about. But first, I think I shall rest some more. The light is far too bright and hurts my eyes if I try to see anyone, so I shall not open my eyes just yet. You will all come back to see me when I awake, won’t you? I need to know you are here.”
“Yes, my dear, we will, but there is always someone close by if you need anything, so just ask, and I shall always be here or within reach.” She settled back down in her pillows and went back to sleep.
The entire assemblage around the bed was dazed by her sudden break into consciousness. The children were wide eyed, and ready to believe that their mother might indeed be recovering. Their uncle had worked miracles.
It was then that he noticed that not only was Hester still holding her mother’s hand with his own, but Anne had her hands over his shoulders behind him as she had approached as close as she could and was even standing on the back of his legs where they rested on the floor to get herself higher, and to look over his head at their mother. He felt an unusual contentment with it all, recognizing that, far from overwhelming and terrifying his young nieces, as might have been the case with their first impression of him, they had instantly accepted him. His heart was singing now for so many reasons. Unfortunately, it might change when Selena recognized who he was, and that he was not the one she thought and hoped he was.
They had not expected their mother to wake at just that moment. Emily was leaning close into him on his other side and was even looking at him closely and intently.
He had three worshipful young ladies entirely ensnared by him, but equally ensnaring in their own way. Had he not worked miracles and brought their mother back to them? Never again would they place any belief in kitchen gossip. Might as well ask the cat, and expect to get a sensible answer, indeed.
“Well, I never!”
He looked up and noticed Nurse had her hands up to her face, only able to speak now, and was shedding tears of happiness.
He glanced over to Sophia on the cot and saw that she was snuggling down into sleep. She had heard enough and could now rest properly. She needed it. He had made that fourth conquest, after almost losing her by what he had done. The fifth? That, was still in the balance, but he was working on it, and failure was not an option this time.
He dared not think of that one, but he could hope. He felt like crying with happiness himself.
Emily put her arm around his neck, and this time even kissed him on the cheek.
“Thank you, sir. But why did she call you…?” He put his finger upon his lips to signify to Emily that she should say no more that might be overheard by their patient, who might not be entirely asleep.
“I will tell you later. I think you little tykes might give us some breathing space now, please, and we shall see that she will be even stronger when you next come to see her. Perhaps even after our dinner. I think you can come up here and see her whenever you like, now. Whenever Nurse will let you. I can see no reason why not. It can only help her.” He passed them over into Nurse’s care and spoke to her as he did so.
“We should also get Sophia into her own bed, Nurse. But that can wait for a while. She will rest better there than where she is. I shall stay here as much of the night as I may, and others can spell me if they will, from time to time, for an hour or so while I stretch my legs. Selena will need a steady flow of nourishment, and more company and attention.”
“I’ll see to that, sir. They will be so pleased to hear this, downstairs. Cook knows what her favorites are, and we need to feed her up again. It has been like a …” she held back her disturbing description, with so many impressionable young minds listening to every word. “But it is not your place to be looking after anyone, sir, and not proper, if she needs…, nor your responsibility.”
He corrected her quite firmly. “It is my responsibility. You and Sophia have shouldered this alone, and the children too, and you both need a break from this, as does the rest of the house. I am fresh.” That was not quite true. “I have several young ladies counting on me, and what else am I good for without a heaving deck under me, or a bloody saber in my hand? I need to learn about this new life that I did not realize that I was missing.”
The children were whispering off to one side. “He called us tykes. I wonder what they are. And Nurse called him a scallywag. What is a heaving deck?”
It seemed that there were more than three young ladies counting on him. Miss Sophia had not left her sister’s side since she arrived, until now. But it might not be wise to trust him too far. One should never tempt a man such as him. Nurse kept that thought to herself.
“I have my own ship’s surgeon, Mr. Rogers coming in to see her when, and if, he can get permission to break away. We should keep that Jessop fellow away if it turns out that he is not so badly injured and thinks to show his face.”
“I could not agree more, sir, but….” She wanted to say more, but he continued.
“Mister Rogers is a far better doctor than Jessop.” He looked at her closely as he kept his voice down.
“On another matter.” His brain had been working at a feverish pace with what had unexpectedly been presented to him. “She believes that I am my brother. I realize that I am likely treading on dangerous ground here (he was indeed), but I think it will not harm her to continue to believe that for some little time. I would rather she found out, for herself, who I am, than have the incautious utterance of my name, or the unguarded tongue of any servant destroy that welcome illusion for her.” He saw Nurse nodding, but she had something to say on that matter. Her voice dropped almost to a whisper, as his voice had.
“Are you sure you should do that? It is a dangerous game you are playing with my mistress, sir. If you are discovered, and you will be discovered, it might set her back to even worse than she was. You are not Charles, and she will soon see that. You might have been able to switch places when you were younger, but your face shows signs of the life you just left. Charles never had those marks of battle, and was much more careful of his appearance, especially with his hair, and those other clothes on you are not his.”
“Then I shall strive to stay out of the brighter light as far as I can. I shall be careful, Nurse. I doubt that I will need to continue this for long before I am discovered, and I can revert back to Robert at any time if she discovers me; as hurtful as that will be for her.” But what then?
Yes, it might be dangerous, but not nearly so dangerous as the situation he had been drawn into with her ten years earlier, and with much greater chance of harm, but he had been given no choice in it the way she had overwhelmed him. He had been lucky the way that had turned out. He had a choice in this one, and it had been easy to make on the spur of the moment. Once he set out along this path, there would be no turning aside; for her sake. Nurse was right to worry. He would worry, himself.
“As for her believing you are your brother, and not finding you out too soon; I shall do my best to see to that, sir, if I can. But Miss Sophia and the children are the only ones who might let the cat out of the bag when they address you. Everyone else in the house knows enough to call you My Lord, now, or, sir.” Robert corrected her.
“Yes, but I meant in their less guarded moments when they talk to each other in this room; in her presence or where she might overhear. That name, Robert, should never pass their lips. It would be tragic if everything we had begun to accomplish were to get a setback because of some ill-thought gossip that might be overheard, and there seems to have been too much of that already.”
He saw Nurse look at him guiltily, wondering what he meant, and perhaps meaning her, for she had been unwise enough, already, to say what had been on her mind about him when she should have guarded her tongue better.
He was glad to see that with that little twinge of conscience to guide her, and the probable benefit that might come from such a gentle deception, that Nurse would be more on his side than against him at first. Until she became aware of his true intent, which he could only dream of for himself. She loved Selena enough to ensure that his name would not easily be mentioned in carelessness.
Abby entered the room. She had somehow heard the news, and was crying with happiness, probably along with the rest of the household. A much different atmosphere, one of confidence, seemed to be beginning to infuse the place. She could forgive him a lot, just for what he had done since he had arrived. He had taken charge, as was expected of him. He looked up at her and smiled, as he usually did.