Robert could not breathe. She had used his name! She knew he was not Charles! How long had she known? What might this mean for all of his careful planning? She did not speak again for some moments. She looked at him with a different look on her face; one of overwhelming despair. He felt his heart sink. Yet she had spoken gently to him.
“This must end, Robert, for your sake, before you go too far to back away easily. I would not wish to injure you by such a step, which is what I would be doing if I let it go forward.”
He had not expected this response and did not understand what she meant. He spoke quietly as he took her hand in his own. She did not pull away.
“You recognize me at last. I wondered when you might. If you might. But Selena, I have no intention of backing away from you, not unless you totally reject me now that you know who I really am. And who would be injured? I would not, no matter what you seem to think, and you would not be. Would you?” He waited for her response.
She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.
“I thought this marriage between us would be the answer to so many difficulties. I would become Charles in every way. It would protect you and the children. You, they, were all I ever wanted. I intended to marry you eventually, with no thought of it ever being ended between us, and with this opportunity…. Except that you have now discovered who I am.”
She sighed heavily and looked up at him. “I shall always treasure that, Robert. But it cannot be allowed to go so far. I cannot stand by and say nothing while you sacrifice yourself and your future for a wreck such as me.”
He quickly corrected her impression of herself. “You are no wreck, Selena, and you are all the future I want, or ever wanted. You are so alive and beautiful, and so full of life. I would be honored if you would have me. I know my own heart and my own feelings. I have known them for a long time. I would like to think that you might come to see me as you once looked upon Charles, but if you cannot, I will accept that and offer you my protection, and my love, even if you cannot return it.” His world was about to end, but he had never felt so calm, even as a chill of despair descended upon him.
“No, Robert, it is not that. It was kindly meant of you, but you cannot love me so soon, so quickly. You barely know me. I did not expect so much of you. Perhaps I was to blame. I should have said something when I began to wonder if I were dreaming about what had changed around me. You are so like your brother that I could scarce believe what I was learning. I never expected that you might go so far as to sacrifice yourself to protect me from what had happened.” He looked into her face, and smiled at her, though he did not feel like smiling. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it.
“That is the second time you seem to suggest that I might be sacrificing myself by wishing to marry you. I can assure you, I do not regard it as a sacrifice, Selena, but as something that is necessary for both of our sakes. For my future sanity, as well as yours.” She seemed prepared to listen and not to push him away, so he continued.
“You would never lose me, Selena, unless you wanted to. I would go if you felt that you could not bear to see me ever again for this well-intended deception that started innocently enough when you first addressed me as my brother. It began as an unintended deception, but then grew to be so necessary for both of us. For all of us.” She retrieved a handkerchief from her bedside table and dabbed at her eyes.
He could see that she still did not understand, but he detected that all was not yet lost, so he continued speaking.
“It means that nothing much will need to change in this household to upset their settled lives, or yours. None of them approved of what I seemed to be doing with you. They saw only the worst of me from what they thought they knew of me, and of the situation. Fortunately, they have gradually changed their views of me. They might almost forgive anything of me to have you back in happiness and health, even bending so much as to condone this marriage between us.” She was too upset to say anything.
His heart was breaking for her, knowing how she felt, and there being no need of it.
“They are still not sure whether they should regard me as a savior of you and the children, or as a libertine, ready to take advantage of a poor senseless woman as she lay helpless in her bed.”
She found her voice at last. “Dear, dear Robert. I know you would not harm me.” She had recovered enough to speak more easily now. There was no anger or protest, and she spoke kindly, so that was encouraging.
“Before I began to suspect who you really were, I found it quite annoying the way they interfered, and tried to ensure that we were never left alone. I wanted you to make love to me on so many occasions when we had the opportunity, just as we used to. However, we seemed unable to make any advances that someone did not soon intrude upon. We did manage to get a small start on it, several times, only to be interrupted each time. It was annoying and frustrating.
“They did everything they could to keep us apart. I thought they were afraid that you might injure my leg and set me back. They were so intent on protecting me from you, my own husband. I thought I could understand that. But then I saw that they were just as intent on protecting you from me. I could not understand that. Not at first. Why were they keeping me from my own husband, and keeping him from me?
“Then, I slowly woke up to what I had been blind to. You were Robert, and not Charles, yet you wanted me to believe that you were him. Why would you do that? I think I understand now. And to intend to go so far as to marry me to protect me. I can think of nothing more noble or so unselfish.” She choked back her emotions and fought to speak.
“I cannot allow you to do that, Robert. I would have settled for much less for however brief a span of time you might stay with me. However, Nurse would have intervened to try to save you; to save us both, when neither of us wished to be saved. After all, what damage might you do to me with me being as pregnant as I am?”
She blushed and smiled. “I am afraid that your brother’s wife has little morality when it comes to her love of the man in her l….” her words drifted off. “Oh Robert, I cannot easily give up as I so want to do and accept you, without you understanding that I know who you are. You deserve much better than that; than to trap yourself with me.”
He could see a glimmer of hope.
“Why? You think that what I propose to do is so noble and unselfish, as well as being far too quickly considered. Yet it is none of those. I am being entirely selfish. You are all I ever wanted, Selena, every waking moment for the last ten years. I came back here, only for you.” He could read confusion in her expression, and she had stopped crying.
“You are kind to say so, Robert. You had me convinced from the beginning that I was truly loved. The way you looked at me, the way you caressed and spoke to me. I could not believe what was happening; that I could be so fortunate. The children were equally convincing in their own way. Perhaps you really were Charles, and yet I knew deep within me, that you could not be. I had seen him die in front of my eyes, or thought I had. There was so much confusion in my mind. All I had to do was accept what my heart wanted me to believe; that you were Charles and not some apparition or a product of my imagination. It kept the pain at bay.
“At that moment, Robert, I was the one deliberately deceiving you and for my own selfish reasons; to keep you close to me, and to keep the pain away. I felt guilty doing that. I was not sure when you might have recognized my own deception. I almost called you Robert, more than once. I thank you for allowing me to hope.” She patted his hand.
“However, it could not last. Can you not see that? You would be trapped here with me; tied to your brother’s widow and feeling obliged to stay as long as I could persuade you that I believed you to be Charles. Even so, you would eventually have grown tired of me and would leave. My life would end then, but yours would not.” He let her continue and get all of the difficulties out of her system, rather than argue with her.
“I had a sleepless night thinking about how wrong it was for me to continue to mislead you. I did not realize that something so binding and committing as marriage to me was what you had in mind. I had not expected it. But I am also grateful for it. I felt loved again. Yet I have felt that way whenever you were with me and I could not understand it. I still cannot.” She looked up at him pleading for an explanation.
“You felt loved, Selena, because you are loved, as you have been for many years. I love you. That is why I want to marry you, and the only reason. It answers all of our needs and gets rid of so many difficulties.” She still did not understand.
“But why would you do this for me, Robert? Your life is just beginning. Mine is behind me after bearing so many children and losing…. This cannot go forward. You cannot love me so soon as you seem to do, as I could so easily be convinced that you do. It is irrational. No. I free you from any obligation you seem to think that you have for me.”