And then there was Mary!
“That was when we encountered the laundry maid, Mary.”
Sophia was waiting for him to tell her more, and was not about to be embarrassed by anything, though he had already told her enough about Mary, to shock her earlier.
“She was about sixteen at the time and was a well-developed young woman and very precocious. She was taking the laundry off the hedges where it had dried in the sun and was folding it. She was struggling with it, being alone, and doing what it took two people to do well. We were intrigued to see so much of her as she reached and stretched from her little steps, to free the sheets from where the hedge wanted to hang onto them. It wanted to hang onto her clothing too, when she stepped off that contraption. I remember thinking that the laundry must be an exceptionally warm place. We could see that she wore very little.” Almost as little as Miss Sophia was wearing.
“We decided, on the spur of the moment, and with the enthusiasm of youth, or driven by some other urgent, awakening motive, that we would help. I believe she was as grateful for that, as we were keen to help her, and she may even have had the same outcome in mind with two boys obviously eager to help, as well as keen to learn about her. She showed us how to fold it, and then to approach each other to complete that action, as in one of those formal kinds of dance as partners approach each other, until the sheet became small enough that one person could handle it.
“I remember that as Charles and I had completed the first two folds in the length of the sheet with her to show, and to help us, and as we walked toward each other to fold it across its length, we found that Mary was somehow trapped between us. It had been no accident on either of our parts, as we soon found out.” He paused there, remembering what had then happened that he should not reveal.
“We became firm friends with Mary after that; very firm, and all thanks to our autocratic grandfather. So, you see, that piglet and our grandfather were instrumental in introducing us to Mary and all of her delights, though he would never have admitted it, and we never told him.”
He changed the subject and told her something that he had noticed about her the first moment he had met her.
“I don’t know if anyone might have told you this, but you are very like your sister when she was your age.”
She thought about what he had said and looked up at him with a puzzled look on her face. “I thought you had never met her.”
He began to regret that careless observation, but there was no backing away from it now. He got up and stirred the coals as he thought about how to answer her, watching the ash fall down through the grate, then slowly made up the fire again as he spoke.
“I met her once. Though even she does not remember it.” He left it there and waited for her next comments as she thought about what he had said; the how, why, where, and the when of it, but there were none. How unusual. He looked at her to see why she did not press him further with more questions, but she had fallen asleep. At least it had saved him from explaining that careless comment.
He took the glass from her nerveless fingers before she lost it to the floor and filled it for himself before he returned to his reading.
That was when both Emily and Hester quietly came into the room and looked over at their mother and Anne, and then saw their Aunt Sophia sitting with their Uncle Robert. He looked over at them and smiled.
How could this be happening to him? “You couldn’t sleep either?” At least he did not send them back to their room. It had taken some courage to wander that empty corridor at night without a candle.
“No, sir. We saw that Anne had gone, and Abby was fast asleep, so we came to find Anne, and to see you.” He watched as they piled onto the settee with him and Sophia and sat staring dreamily into the fire as Sophia had done. In less than a minute they had leaned-up against Sophia, where they were made welcome, before she carelessly settled again. They were soon asleep.
What a cozy family was presented, all together in that one room. The world outside did not exist for him. He began to see how everything he might ever have wanted in life was with him. He lay back and relaxed as he observed those around him. Had he achieved this state of peace in the house, and in himself in the few hours since his arrival? Yes, it seemed that he had.
Despite feeling the sad loss of his brother, his cup was filled to overflowing, but it could not possibly last. He would be discovered in what had started as a mild, but necessary deception; his deeper purpose would be discovered, and then all hell would break loose around him.
Sometime later, Nurse entered, and took them all in. He would have lost his bet. She was two hours beyond the time he had believed she would have checked up on him.
She had gone to see to the children, to find only Abby there, fast asleep, and to find them gone and their beds cold. She knew where they would be, so was not angry with Abby. However, the first thing she saw was that Miss Sophia was sprawled out indecorously with her arms resting on Emily and Hester. She was illuminated by the glow from the fire, and she was lying along the settee with her feet, touching against Robert’s leg. He did not seem to mind.
“So, this is where everyone is.”
“Let them relax, Nurse. They are well settled.”
“Not like that I won’t! She should not be here, dressed so carelessly as that, and not sprawled out as she is. Not with you. Nor so close.”
“Like what?” He raised his head from his book and saw what nurse was referring to. He could not help but smile at the way they were all so casually relaxed, as they slept. “And why not with me? Though yes, I suppose she is being too careless, but she can’t help that.” She should not have had that glass of wine.
“However, it would be a shame to disturb her or the children and spoil my pleasure. Leave them as they are. They need to be here, and they are so hard asleep nothing would awaken them, so they can stay where they are. We shall blame the way they are relaxed, on the warmth, Nurse, and everyone being so exhausted. Better to say, and do, nothing, I would say. Some things are best left undiscovered. She will correct it for herself in her own time. It will be far less embarrassing to her if there is no-one standing over her to draw attention to her situation. I didn’t realize the company of young women could be so exciting, no matter their age, whether five or twenty-five.”
“She is nineteen!” He remembered her telling him that twice before, and she clearly intended to reinforce it by repeating it emphatically.
“Ah, yes. I forgot. Should I perhaps tease her about it afterwards, and tell her how shocked you were, but that I was not, and quite appreciated her relaxing with me like this? Nothing like this ever entertained me on board ship.”
“Sir! I should hope not!”
“Oh come, Nurse. I was never a prude, nor afraid of trampling on sensitive ground. You know how much I like to shock those who can be so easily shocked. Especially you.”
“Yes. You seem to try and delight in shocking us all in one way or another. Miss Sophia is not the kind of woman that you might think. She is also much more vulnerable than you realize, and not at all familiar with the likes of you. I would not like to see her hurt in any way.”
“That’s better. Now you are sounding more like my nurse of old. The likes of me, indeed. Forever ready to tear a strip off me. Never able to believe that that I might have a respectable or responsible bone in my body or be capable of any good. As well as being too ready to rush to judgment and to accuse me of all manner of things whether I deserve it or not.”
She could see that she had been wrong to have said anything, though he had smiled all the time he had been speaking to her. “I’m sorry sir, I did not…”
“Of course you did, Nurse. You have been ready to assume and believe the worst of me ever since I arrived. You have even infected Sophia with suspicion of me, as well as the rest of the young women in this house. I am surprised any of them are still here.”