Scrambling For Answers
When Robert managed to break away from Selena after promising that he would not be away a single minute longer than he needed to be, he waited impatiently for Nurse to leave the room to join him. He walked slowly down the stairs with her.
She might know the answer and might be able to tell him what he needed to know. He hoped so. He had never been caught up in so much uncertainty and confusion, even in the midst of battle. This was much more nerve-wracking.
“Nurse, when is our anniversary?” He corrected himself. “Charles’s anniversary. My mind seems entirely unable to function.” He really had no need to ask. He already knew, and immediately filled in the inquiry for himself. “On our birthday of course. The day Charles and Selena married. The twenty-second.” He looked up at her. “More important, what had they planned? Do you know?”
Nurse was at a momentary loss for words and hesitated on the stairs as sudden realization hit her. “Oh lord! I had forgotten about that. Your tenth anniversary, and your birthday too. It is only a few days away. With all that has happened, it slipped my mind. I do not know what they planned. Charles always sprang it on everyone at the last minute, and quite turned the house upside down.
“I do remember that on their first anniversary they went off to Brighton for a week, but there were no children around at that time, just after they lost…” She could go no further with that thought of their son just having died. “After that they went across to France and spent two weeks there. She was far along with Emily, by then, so subsequent holidays were more localized, just to London, or to one of the other coastal areas nearby, where they could take the children with them. Last year it was Scarborough. He sprang that one on everyone, and what a scramble we had to get them all packed and off. I am still finding sand in some of the childrens’ clothes and luggage and am forever finding sea-shells.
“Charles always showered her and the children with presents and wonderful surprises all of the time.” (Then he must do the same.) “They were such a happy couple, and then this happened.” She shook her head.
“And I am not making it any easier am I, Nurse?” She snorted. She obviously considered that to be the understatement of the year. However, he had brought their mistress back to them, so there was a lot that she could forgive him for.
“I have been walking on pins and needles ever since you arrived, sir, expecting her to awaken any time and discover this trick which we have played upon her, and for her to give up on life and retreat within herself. How she has not seen those obvious differences between you and your brother that accumulated over the years, and that are so glaringly obvious, I do not know.” Nor did he know, and it could not go on for much longer.
“Then it will be just a matter of time before I am discovered, and then everyone can relax again.”
Nurse looked at him as though he were insane. Relax? Impossible! Their world would crash down around them when that happened.
“I am afraid of it happening, Sir, I truly am. And terrified that it will not. I have never been so torn between two such, unthinkable possibilities. Until then, we shall need to keep up this deception as long as we can and ensure that Charles will be close by her. Better she thinks that you are Charles than find out that you are Robert, just yet.” Nurse still seemed to regret what was threatening to get out of hand. At least she had managed to warn him of certain consequences.
“I should have stopped it in its tracks, sir, when I had the chance, except it slipped by so easily when she thought that you were your brother and gave us all room to breathe. Better if I had listened to my brain and put an end to it when this first started instead of listening to my heart. You played your role too well, and we allowed it. It is a pity that we did not see where it might lead. I do not know which is worse; this deception and what might come of it—though she is entirely happy with it even if I am not—or her recognizing that Charles must be dead, and that so much of her life has been destroyed with him.
“If you can ensure that you are never alone with her for long, sir, we might survive the worst of it until she recovers her memory.” It was a difficult predicament, not only for Nurse with her perception of his lack of morality, but for him too. Nurse would never understand what he was feeling, but any moral failing on his part would be more likely to destroy him, as well as Selena.
“And what then, Nurse? If she remembers anything, there will certainly be unfortunate consequences for all of us. As unlikely as it will be, it is to be hoped she does not recover her memory at all, which begs that same question again; what then? I will have difficulty refusing her forever. I am not talking of my own lack of character here, Nurse, which you seem to know so well.” She was taken aback by his seeming hurt as he said that. “No, but with the intent of not destroying her and seeing her life crumble to ashes when she begins to suspect that Charles no longer loves her as he once did.”
Nurse did not like to consider either of those two eventualities. Robert seemed to be more morally on her side than the one she might have expected. But morals would very soon not count. Certain things would be unavoidable if they expected to ward off even worse damage.
“No.” She shook her head, unable to grasp that latter possibility. “I shall not think of it, sir. It is a choice between two utterly unacceptable circumstances and I see no way out of it just yet.”
“Nor I. Therefore, until she recovers, Nurse, I will continue in this role for as long as I can without being discovered, while keeping her at a safe distance. But not so far off as to hurt her feelings. How difficult might it be, with her confined to her bed?” She scowled at him. Might he be so naïve? She had warned him more than once, but it was obviously needed again. Where a beautiful woman was concerned he would listen to what others had to say about moral restraint with the attention span of a sparrow contemplating a tasty grub.
“She might surprise you there, sir. I warned you about their ill-concealed affection for each other. “Hens and chickens was more what I thought a woman could take on for husbandry, and not near as shockingly obvious as with … with those dreadful pigs and their antics, with never any hesitation, and then with the cattle. Just as bad.” She was obviously embarrassed to relate such indelicate things.
“I told her so, once. She laughed at me, kindly mind you, and called me old fashioned, and she was right, I am old fashioned, so I said no more. I would never have told you any of those more personal goings-on, but I had to. You should be warned.” He could see the difficulty she had, talking about such dreadfully personal things, especially to him.
“I have never seen a more ideally suited couple as your brother and her, even if they were”—she waved her hand in embarrassment— “sometimes too shockingly demonstrative in their love for each other. If you are not careful, that is how you will betray who you are, as little as I care to think about it, and injure her at the same time more than any of us would like.” Robert smiled at her, even though he had never felt less like smiling in his entire life.
“Oh, why did you have to come home as you did, sir, and put us into this pickle?” She regretted the way that must sound to him. “And yet if you hadn’t, where would we be now?” It was too much for Nurse to grapple with. This talk of a potentially immoral situation was bad enough, but what was even worse, was that it might occur at any time if she let her guard down and left them alone together for any length of time, no matter how brief.
He smiled at her. “What a predicament for you, Nurse. Indeed, for us both.” He seemed to take it as seriously as she did, and even sounded almost believable. She could not imagine he was bothered by it the same way she was. He was a man, and a man she knew all too well; always ripe for mischief where the opposite sex was concerned. Not only that, but he was a sailor, and she knew all about them, having married one and had been battling him off ever since, though her reticence about that was also crumbling. She was not so very old herself, though perhaps beyond needing to worry about becoming pregnant.
“You spent the first half of my life trying to interfere and deny me that pleasure with Mary, at every turn, and now you are faced with having to reluctantly condone it, if not encourage it with my wife, or see everything brought down around us.” Might he have heard her teeth grinding in frustration?
She corrected him before he ran away with that easy assumption. “She is not your wife, sir, and you must never forget that.” Nurse was adamant about that but despaired about what was happening and was likely to run away from their control, like a snowball that had got away on a hill-slope and was building momentum as it rolled downhill.
Robert could not entirely suppress his mischievous feelings and threw another firebrand into the woodpile.
“She thinks she is my wife.” There was no denying the truth of that. “And I will not jeopardize that belief by anything I say or do, or not do. Whatever I do is sure to be wrong in someone’s eyes.” He took a deep breath. “Yes, it is quite a pickle I am in, isn’t it!”
Nurse suspected he might be enjoying all of this. He had always been impish.
Robert brought himself back to his reason for approaching her, before she had sidetracked him with her concerns. “So, you know nothing of any plans they had for this anniversary, and cannot even guess?”
“No, sir, I just found out from you, and look what we got to discussing instead to throw me into a lather, and now you have upset me just thinking about it. I might never sleep again until this is resolved. How she can have gone so long without recognizing you for who you are I cannot understand it.” Nor could he. He could not answer that question any more than she could.
She submerged her reservations about what might happen and refocused her thoughts where they needed to be. “No, sir. I do not know what they had planned. I thought with what happened that it would just sail by and be forgotten this one time.” That was another problem she could lay at his door. If he had not returned, none of this would have been considered. But then her mistress might not be here either.
“Then we are all in the dark.”