Who is this Man we thought we knew?
“What a whisker, Nurse! You thought nothing of the kind with me in the bloody state I was in. You were full of anxiety at my return, especially when you saw the state of my clothing, and I caused a return of all of those less cherished memories.
"But yes, sometimes the wings of the devil will bring unexpected joy to someone, and especially if it is the devil that everyone knows so well, rather than one that no one knows.”
“Oh, sir. You know I do not think that of you.” She hesitated, waiting for the crash of thunder.
“May I speak very plainly, sir?”
“Oh, dear. This does not sound good. But yes, you may. Since when have you ever done otherwise with me?”
“There were times, sir, when I did not always say what was on my mind.” She took a deep breath and looked nervous, over what his response might be about what she might have to say, which quite surprised him.
He put his arm about her shoulder. “Come, Nurse, you know I will not bite, or snap your head off as my grandfather often did when he thought you were too lax with us, even though you were quite ruthless with me at times. What is it you wish to say?”
“Well, sir. I know you were quite wild in your younger days.”
“Don’t sugarcoat the pill, Nurse. I was much more than wild. Everyone knew it. I didn’t try to hide it from anyone.” Was she about to warn him again, to reinforce her earlier point?
“Yes sir. You were. For some reason no-one could understand, you were like a magnet to iron, with certain women.”
“It was my attitude Nurse. I did not care a fig for most of them. Nor they for me. I was untouched by their supposed beauty, and it tended to annoy certain of the toasts-of-the-town who thought that they were irresistible to any man. And then I dropped into the scene and proceeded to ignore them. I was bored, I think. They could not ignore such a challenge. I believe I counted on it.”
“No, sir. There were times when I was sure that you would not long be alive with some of the enemies you made, for you rode roughshod over everyone when you found… something that you intended to have, once she had caught your attention.”
“Once I caught her attention, Nurse,” he corrected her. Whether a daughter or even a wife.” Too true.
“And if anyone stood in your way…” She left the rest unsaid.
“Yes. I was quite reckless, wasn’t I!” He saw her color-up at the truth of that. “Go on! What is it you are itching to say?”
“I have grown attached to my mistress over the years, sir. I have come to love her.” She fidgeted, not sure how to say what she knew she must say without offending him. “What I mean to say, sir, is that her ladyship is not one of those other women. Not like the ones you were used to.”
“Did we not already have this conversation, or one like it?” He looked at her and smiled, taking no offence at what she had said.
“I know that, Nurse. I have always known that. And I am not offended by your protective comments. I know that in your position I would have been even more protective of her from rogues like me. I expected no less from you. She is not to be toyed with. Nor her sister, either. I know all of that, but I can’t help tormenting. I am still a man, and I cannot do aught but appreciate and to respond to beauty, as I do with any woman. And even the children. But so far only, and no farther. I am sure they are all fully aware of me and my failings in character by now, or soon will be, so will keep an eye on me and rush to you if anything seems likely to get out of hand.”
“Not her ladyship, sir. She isn’t aware of any of it. And wouldn’t care even if she was.”
“No, I suppose not. My intention, when I first came, was to pay my last respects to my brother, do what I might for his widow and children, and then give the management of all of the affairs into someone else’s hands. I dare not cherish any other…” Better say no more about what hope he might now entertain.
“I would then head back to sea, leaving your mistress and the children secure here surrounded by what they know and are familiar with. My presence would have been a constant reminder of their tragedy, and I did not want that. Little did I know what I was walking into. After encountering the children, and learning much more about myself in the process, and meeting your mistress again, I decided that I should not be so ready to make up my mind about leaving.” She was looking at him peculiarly.
“What do you mean, after meeting her again? You never met her. Did you?” She waited to see what he might have to say about that. His words had gone ahead of his brain for a moment.
“Did I say that? How careless of me. I must have misspoken. I meant to say after seeing her again. I did see her at the wedding, remember?” She seemed satisfied with that.
“From what I have seen of you and the children, it would be better if you were to stay, sir. For their sakes.” He had the same thought but for slightly different reasons. “This place needs you now. And so do the children. And I never thought to hear myself say that.” She consoled herself that Mistress would also soon be back on her feet, so to speak, and this other danger between her and Robert would be gone, when she realized that he was not her husband.
“Yes. The children. Exactly what I was thinking myself. Time, as they say, heals all wounds, even if it doesn’t make them entirely disappear.” He would have to watch what he said.
He looked up as Sophia entered the room, after delivering the children to Abby to get ready for bed.
“Are they likely to settle easily, or did I get them too excited?”
“Anne was already as close to being asleep as it is possible to be, but she was fighting it. They will not be awake for long.”
“So, do you join me for a while, Sophia? I shall have a bottle of wine sent up here, and instructions to have more of that stew sent up here too, with some of the beer.”
“Yes, I will join you, but you should perhaps delay on sending for your dinner. You will need to read the children a story first, once they are into bed. Your brother used to do that for them.”
“I will? Oh dear!”
“Yes, sir, you will now. They expect it.”
“Then I shall not disappoint them. But I do not have any suitable stories for such delicate ears. The ones related aboard my ship were about blood and guts, and battles, and violence, and piracy, and mayhem… as well as various other things that little girls should never hear about, and some of the songs we sang….well, the air was blue, in a manner of speaking.”
“Yes, I am sure. Poor Benson tried to stop you after you launched off on that one about that questionable maid in Plymouth town, though I am curious about her, and what impolite anatomical word might possibly rhyme with the fiddle de dum, as well as the rest of that song. Apart from that, you managed very well at dinner. I am sure you will recall many of those stories your mother used to tell you, and the songs she sang to you, just as you recalled that other, more respectable song that you were singing.” She looked at him with a smile.
“Yes, she did, didn’t she? I had forgotten. You can help or supervise with the story telling if you do not mind, and stall me if I appear to be heading down too awkward a path, just as Benson did. I have been used to the company of men for so long, and their rough language, that I hardly know how to behave around gentle women-folk anymore.”
Nurse did not like to hear any of it. Sophia was one who might prove susceptible to his laissez-fair attitude, as others had, despite his earlier denials of interest in that way. She said nothing, however. She could only do so much, but if there was one woman she could try and protect from him if it were needed, it was her mistress. Miss Sophia could sink or swim by herself. She went off to see that the children were properly prepared for bed. She would soon return.
Sophia walked over to their patient. “She looks so much better.”
“Yes, she does. You should have refused both my offer of wine and the possibility of spending any time here with me, Sophia. Nurse will never rest after hearing that, and will be convinced, after my cavalier treatment of you with the brandy earlier, that I am intent on seducing you. That maid thought so when she saw you in my arms before I put you in your cot. Your reputation will be unrecoverable after this.”
“I think I might survive, sir.” She smiled at him. “Why do you keep up this pretense of being a roué? They will eventually find out about you as I did. The children already know all about you.” He smiled back at her.
“Yes, you may have done, but you are unencumbered by preconceived notions of me. They, have to work to get rid of the last ten years of prejudice and gossip against me. It will not be easy for them.”
A few moments later, Nurse returned to stay with her mistress, while they went to see the children. “They are ready for you now, if they are not already asleep.”
He and Sophia walked along to the childrens’ room. They paused outside of the half open door and listened with smiles on their faces as Sophia took his arm and waited. They listened to what was being said. The children were saying their prayers for their mother. Emily was speaking.
“Thank you, God, for giving Mama back to us, as you did. Thank you for Aunt Sophia. Please look after father and give him our love and thank you for sending Uncle Robert to us even if he was all bloody and scared us at first. He is a lot of fun and nothing like the others in the house. Please bless the house-hold and protect everyone in it. Amen.”
“Now into bed. It is very late.”
Hester protested. “Not yet, Abby. It is not so very late. It is still daylight.”
“It is two hours past your bedtime.”
“But we have two more prayers to say; mine and Anne’s.” They were intent on dragging the remaining minutes out, for as long as they could.
Sophia and Robert peeked into the door and saw the two older girls in their nightdresses, kneeling beside the one large bed they were to occupy, with Anne still in Abby’s arms. “Go on Anne, before you fall asleep.” Anne revived enough to add her own prayer.
“Thank you for Aunt Sophia. Amen.” She dropped back onto Abby’s shoulder.
“Now you, Hester.”
“And a special thank you, Lord, for bringing Uncle Robert to us.”
“I already said that.”
“I said it again, Emily.” She returned to what she was saying. “Thank you for him bringing Mama back into this world for us, and for the dinner we had with him this evening. And thank you for Alfreda. That was funny. Please let Uncle Robert stay here with us, and never go back to sea again. Find something to anchor him here, if that is what I mean to say, so that he will never want to leave us. And thank you for Nurse, and Abby, and Deirdre, and Benson and Mrs. Gurney, and…”
Emily brought an end to any more recitation of names by firmly and loudly saying, “Amen.”
They scrambled into bed as Sophia and Robert came into their room and waited patiently to see what he would read to them, or what story he would tell as they pulled the sheet up around them and crowded together so that Robert and Sophia could sit on the bed with them. All three girls were in the one bed. Robert sat on one side of it, leaning back against the headboard, with his stocking feet stretched out. Sophia was on the other side, and the children were between them. He had a book ready, but it was clear that it would not be needed. He could see that it would not matter what he might talk to them about, that they would be asleep in very short order. They were falling asleep even as he observed them. He would tell them a story some other time.
Sophia slid off the bed and tucked them in, before she kissed them. She looked up at Robert and smiled at him.
“You are indeed a lamb in wolves clothing, sir. Nurse does not know you even after thirty years, and the rest of the household does not know quite what to believe.” He did not feel the way she described him, but more the opposite.
“I wonder what she will do when she finds out what your real purpose is, in being here.” He looked at her sharply, feeling the color rise in his face, but chose not to respond. What did she think she knew? How could anyone know? Yet she seemed to know too much, and Abby was listening too attentively, drinking it all in.