After Robert had time to think about what he and the children had spoken about, he went to find Sophia. She was engaged in repairing one of her dresses. She smiled when she saw him.
He got straight to the point. “Sophia, I need your advice and possibly your approval on something.” She put her work aside and waited for him to speak, pointing to a chair in front of her.
“I have no doubt that it will offend the rigid moral standards of those who will judge me at every turn. But then, they have been doing that for the last twenty years or more.”
“Concerning what, Charles?” That name flowed easily off her lips now. “You are Master here. I cannot imagine that my approval, or anyone else’s might be needed for anything you choose to do.”
“But it does.” She smiled at him.
“I value what you think.” This was a far different man than had first walked into the house and had set the hens a’cackling.
“You are rising in my estimation every day, sir. I wondered when you might want to approach me to confide in me, considering what my sister has planned for you to make your life even more complicated. She will eventually succeed, you know, or you risk being discovered.
“I am not sure which is regarded with the greater anxiety; my sister’s suddenly recognizing you and possibly suffering a relapse—though that latter possibility seems to be lessening with each day—or that their other, greater, fear—moral relapse, brought about either by you or my sister giving in to your feelings, is likely to happen first. I wonder how the house will deal with that, if it has not already happened.”
“It has not happened.”
“Then it soon will. It is just a matter of time. I have seen the difficulties you face, trying to hold my sister at bay without revealing your role, though how she has not yet recognized you…? And how you have been able to bear such temptation constantly and obviously offered to you as you sit together with her….” She could not understand it herself. “You have surprised Nurse, as well as the rest of us by your uncharacteristic and inexplicable restraint. They expected you to fail before now, and to give in to her. There are those who love my sister so much that they want you to fail, with all that implies. They will soon get to the point where they even intend to help you fail, and you will soon find yourself left alone with her more than you are. Even Nurse can see some good coming of that.”
“Yes, I know. I can no longer count upon Abby to be a protective chaperone as I thought I once could. She is quite prepared to see me give in to her mistress’s entreaties.
“No matter what I do, or don’t do, they will never think any better of me, but this is not about me. It is about Selena and the children, and what is best for them. Fortunately, you and the children, or others were always close by when I needed them.”
“Fortunately?” This did not sound like the man that Nurse thought she knew. “My sister has never been used to her husband being unavailable to her, as you have been—though she can excuse it in her present condition, being bed-ridden and with her leg broken, but for how much longer I do not know. You are working with borrowed time.
“I was surprised that Nurse eventually found courage to warn you that she and Charles were never shy to express their love for each other. They often had the servants scurrying for cover.” She smiled at him. “I can also be outspoken. If it might help, and as surprising as I am sure it must be for you to hear this, I think you are possibly the most moral person I might know, considering the temptation she must be for you.” He looked at her in some surprise. She thought him moral? What next?
“I watched you with the children after you had first arrived, and then after that when you examined my sister, remember?” He seemed embarrassed to be reminded of that. “You did not deliberately set out to shock me, but you did not avoid it either. You did not care what I might think, or if I might object. I watched you. It took me some time after that to recognize what I had seen.” He waited, but she obviously had no intention of explaining what she had said. After some moments of silence, he recollected his reason for being there.
“Our anniversary—Charles’s and your sister’s anniversary—is approaching. I need to tell you what I intend to do, and you shall tell me if it will be right, or not, especially for your sister, the way things are. I am no longer thinking clearly enough to be a fit judge of my own ambitions and actions where she is concerned.” Sophia waited for him to explain.
“I was just delightfully approached and put on the spot in a revealing interview, a delicate and very personal grilling, that I had from the children. They asked me several searching questions about my plans for them and their mother; 'did I intend to put them out of their home? was I about to bring another woman into it?' Though not stated in such a direct way.
“The one that had me completely floored, was where Emily asked me if I would marry her when she was old enough? Where on earth did she get that idea? She thought twelve-years-old might do it. She asked me that in all seriousness. I accepted, of course, so as not to devastate her feelings, but then managed to find other slight difficulties with it.” Sophia laughed, but it was not an unkind laugh.
“No, sir. You cannot marry her. Even at twelve she would not be old enough. The House would object too. Surely you would know that.” She was having fun with him.
“Of course I know that. But I was immensely flattered. She told me that I needed a woman in my life, and she would be that woman if it would hold me here and stop me straying. Where she heard half of what she came out with, beggars the imagination. When I tried to explain what the difficulties might be, but without hurting any of their feelings, she then wondered if I might marry either their mother, or you.” Sophia was still smiling.
“No, sir. I hope you did not come here to offer for me.” She knew that he hadn’t. “You are already deeply in love, but not with me. Anyone who is not blind to the real you would have seen that, but they are all indeed blind where you are concerned.”
He continued beyond that interruption, determined not to be knocked off stride.
“The difficulty I face, is that someone is sure to be hurt by what I do, or don’t do. Surely everyone can see that. I am damned if I do, and damned if I don’t, no matter what happens.” She thought she understood what he was trying to say.
“If, as you say, sir—and without my knowing exactly what you are planning, but I can guess—you are damned whether you do, or don’t do something, then do what is right in your eyes to achieve the greatest happiness for those who matter the most to you; the children and my sister. Never mind what the busybodies in this house might think. I have seen what has been happening every time you are with her and as you strive not to be left alone with her. She will overcome you eventually and give you no choice.”
She continued. “Yes, the entire house, except for the children, will judge you for it one way or another. However, what might they say or do? They will just have to accept it and be reconciled to it. It will protect the happiness and the security of one that they love, even if it means accepting the outrageously unthinkable when it happens, as it will. Yes, it is indeed quite a moral dilemma you are caught in.” She smiled at him. At least she seemed to be sympathetic and on his side.
“So, what do you need to ask me? What is it that needs my approval that I have not already tacitly given several times over? Though what an interesting philosophical conundrum you present us all with. The morality of it all; the damaging immorality if it happens, and the other damaging immorality if it does not.” She thought about it. He seemed slow to want to tell her just what, exactly, he needed of her.
“Tell me, Robert”, she slipped back into using that other name, “when was it that you so easily fell in love with my sister? You were in love with her before ever you arrived here. I was easily able to see that for myself where others didn’t. Everyone here believes that you never met her before last week, but from what I have seen, and from some things that you let slip, I find that I do not believe that. When did you meet her? I seem to remember that I asked you that question a few days ago, after you had slipped up in something you said, but I do not remember getting an answer.”