An Enlightening Visit.
The three girls came cautiously into the study where Robert had again been looking for clues about the upcoming anniversary. He had found none, and no one seemed to know anything of what Charles might have planned. It seemed as though it would be left up to him to think of something.
They looked around shyly.
“Come in, girls. You are always welcome.” There was never a time when he was not pleased to see them. They knew that. He had greeted them with a smile and patience, just as their father had been used to doing. They gravitated slowly over toward him, curious about what they could see in this room they were usually discouraged from entering.
“You should close the door behind you or Nurse will track you down and may hear us. You want that, no more than I ever did at your age.” He seemed to know all about escaping from their Nurse and did not seem to object to their presence in the study.
They looked from one sister to the other and he could see that Emily, the eldest had been chosen to tell him something, or to ask something, but she was not sure how to go about it.
“There is something important that we need to ask you, sir.”
“Yes. I imagine there is. I am sure that even to young ladies, as young as you are, that certain things are of some concern to you, especially if you have overheard kitchen gossip and the ill-concealed ramblings of some of the household.
“When Mama is recovered, and is on her feet once more, are you really going to put us all out of our home, sir?”
Out of the mouths of babes…! Yet it would obviously be something of concern for them, to be faced with such threats to their established comfort and security, and what they knew. He had half expected to be faced with that question, but not so soon, nor so starkly stated. Yes, kitchen gossip. However, it was a reasonable question under the circumstance and needed to be dealt with, head on as soon as it was raised. He picked Anne up onto his knee as he looked at all three of them.
“This is your home, not mine, despite what others might say. It is the only home you have ever known or will ever need to know. I could never put you, or your mother out of your own home. This is where you belong.” They seemed relieved to hear him say that.
“In fact, I was thinking of asking your permission to stay here with you if you will have me, even though I am not properly house-trained, which is what all of the gossip is about.” Hester chuckled. He felt Anne run her finger over that part of his ear that had a piece missing. He was never so happy as when the children were with him, and when they were all with their mother, and he could see the growing improvement in her and the children, each day.
Emily spoke from the heart and spoke for all of them. “We would welcome you, sir. And we would like you to stay.” He could see that she had not yet finished.
“There were other things we overheard, and other words said about you, that we did not understand, and I tried to remember them. Sir, what does nef…nef…” She struggled to get the word out.
He suggested the word they seemed to be searching for. “Nefarious?” Which one of the servants might have known the meaning of that word to be able to use it?
“Yes sir, that was it. What does nefarious mean, and disreputable? What is a libertine? And what is a fancy woman? or a light-skirt?” They came flooding out of her with some gentle prompting from Hester. “And what are dispensable morals that come off as easily as clothing? I did not know that one might wear morals. What do they look like? Is it like a chemise or a petticoat? We have never heard so many new words as we have since you arrived, provided we stay out of sight.” He laughed, robbing those peculiar words of any awkward meaning for them.
“Undoubtedly those words refer to me. Nefarious and disreputable mean the same kind of thing and are not at all flattering to say about anyone. Nor are the others. Morals, are not clothing, they are how people behave with each other, usually when they are alone. Good morals, are when they act kindly toward each other, and poor morals, are when they don’t. None of them are anything you need to worry about.”
They looked at each other, and he saw Emily nod at her sisters as though to say, ‘now is the moment’. “We have something else that we would like to ask you, sir. Something personal.” He waited.
“We heard that a man needs an attentive and affectionate woman in his life to stop him from straying—whatever that means.” They had listened in on too much of the conversation of the kitchen. He hoped it had not got too ripe, though if it had involved him…?
“I may also have heard the same thing, but not always expressed so well or so tastefully.”
“We heard that when a man and a woman are in love, they marry. Does it matter if there is a large difference in their ages?” He could see where this was heading and would need to be careful how he responded.
“Sometimes, but generally not. Not if they are in love.”
“I am the eldest, and in another few years I will be a woman. I love you, and I know that you love me, as you love all of us. I would like to be the young woman that you will need in your life. If you would marry me, sir, then we could all live here together. We need you to stay for Mama’s sake, as well as it is also what we would like.”
He took Emily’s hand and raised it to his lips. They could not know how deeply that simple offer affected him.
“You know, Emily, that is the best offer of marriage—the only offer of marriage—I have ever received in my entire life. I feel extremely flattered that you think of me in that way.” He could see that his words pleased them. “You already make me happy. I accept!” Looks of relief came over their faces. He knew he could not leave it there.
“However, (that damned qualifier) it may not be easy. And, unfortunately, now that I think about it, with you being my brother’s daughters, and even close to being my own, as I wish you really were, we are too closely related for it to be allowed. We are already like father and daughters, but I am sure we will be able to find a way around that.” They were relieved to hear it and waited to hear what he would say. They trusted him as he had rarely been trusted before, and he was not about to disappoint or hurt them.
“One way, is for me to adopt you as my own daughters, except I already did that when I became your protector in place of your father.” They were not too downcast by his answer, but they had obviously given this some thought. Emily explored further.
“Might you also adopt our mother as well as us, so that we could still be a family once more?”
“I already did that too, but in a slightly different way.” He could see how confusing it all must be for them. The social world was a complicated place to try and understand at their age.
“It must all sound strange, but there is a special relationship between all of us. Your mother falls under my broader protection, just as you do.” Emily and Hester looked at each other, loath to let anything escape them, but not sure where to go from here. Anne just sat still and listened, happy to be where she was, even if she understood none of it. Emily tried again.
“You can adopt us, but you cannot marry one of us.” She accepted that and went on to the next point. “If you are too closely related to us to marry one of us, then you must also be as closely related to Aunt Sophia too, and to Mama.” She sounded disappointed. He could see the way their minds were working.
“Actually, no. There is still a difference.” I am not directly related in any way to your mother, as I am to you, nor am I directly related to your Aunt Sophia, so I could marry either of them.” Now they seemed thoroughly confused.
“I am not sure I understand, sir. You cannot marry me, but you can adopt us. You cannot adopt our mother or Aunt Sophia, but you could marry either of them.” She had to accept that, even though none of it made sense to any of them.
“Then would you marry our mother, sir? If you do that, we could all live together as we did before…before that accident. Nothing would really have changed, and we could be your real children if you would not mind having us. Mama already believes that you are our father. Anne does too. You look like him, you talk like him and you seem to love us as though you were. I think that you might even be him, but from a different life. So would you please marry our mother?” He smiled at their simplicity.
“I would if I could. I would like that too, but for your mother and I to be properly married, your mother would need to know that I am Robert, and not my brother, Charles. She knows that she is already married to Charles, and even thinks that I am Charles, though she may soon recover enough to see that I am not. It would look strange if I were to ask her to marry me when she believes that we are already married. She would immediately know then, that I was not who I said I was, but had deceived her. I would rather not hurry that process along too quickly.”
“It is only a name that is different, sir; Robert, instead of Charles.”
“There are other diff…” He stopped in mid-thought before he went any further. What was he thinking? He began to laugh.
“Leave it with me. I have a solution to this situation, though it may cost me dearly. However, it will bring security to all of those that I love.” He stood up with Anne in his arms. “Let us go and see your mother. She must be missing us by now almost as cruelly as we miss her.”