Now it Can be Told.
“Simply this, my love. If I remain Charles, then we will avoid the intense scandal of you marrying Robert, a mere intruding brother, within that unreasonable and impossible period of mourning demanded by society. Never mind that, as Robert, I could not live so close to you for a year of mourning without… severe moral difficulties for both of us. Those again. Oh, dear. My true character is showing through once more.” She was blushing. It was a good sign.
“Apart from those obvious hurdles to overcome, there are two other, simple reasons.” He took a deep breath and confessed something that he had bottled away for the last ten years. “You assume that we never met, and that you barely knew Robert. Neither is true. You may not know this, Selena, but I fell in love with you ten years ago!” She was surprised to hear that. He had said something like that earlier.
“Robert!” She looked at him in surprise. “How could you? We never met, though I recall hearing you say the same thing earlier.” He was silent. Too silent. She looked up at him and saw him smiling in a strange way that seemed to suggest that he knew differently. “Did we meet before now? I do not recollect it. Not even at our wedding, when Charles and I…”
“We did not officially meet, my love.” It seemed a peculiar answer, but she liked the way he continued to address her in such loving terms.
“You did not answer my question, Robert.”
He realized he could not avoid answering it. “We did not officially meet, but we did meet, Selena. A long time ago. You never knew of it.” Now, she was surprised.
“When? Where? Charles did not introduce us, not even in the church that day, and you were gone before the ceremony was completed. I would have remembered that.”
“We met once, just once. Charles was not there. Just you and I.” She hung upon his every word. She could not recall them meeting. “The month before your marriage, when you first came to live here. Indeed, the day you arrived. There was a carriage stuck across the driveway.”
“Yes, I remember that day and the carriage. How could I forget that? Charles had contrived that accident to meet me. But how did you hear of that?” She began to have her doubts, seeing the way Robert was looking at her. He smiled and continued to speak.
“Did he contrive it? Yes, it must have been Charles that met you. Who else could it have been? You ran after him and threw yourself into his arms, knocking him off balance, and got both of your feet wet in the river. His too. He carried you over the stream, and you did not let him get a single word in but kissed and hugged him as though you had not seen each other for years, never mind just a few days.”
She listened, feeling a growing unease. How did he know this? Robert could see that her color was mounting.
“You walked with him to the Belvedere, after a slight pause where you wondered if he might make love to you even then, where you stood, except we could have been seen. You expressed your excitement that you were about to make love again, after first making love to each other just a short time earlier, before you had parted. You recalled, excitedly, how you had come to Charles’s bedroom late one night and had got rid of your nightdress and crawled into bed with him when he had stayed with you and your parents at Ridgeway.”
There was a strange look on her face. She knew that Charles would never have disclosed any of that to anyone, not even to his brother.
“I shall not relate the rest of what happened between us. Between you and Robert. I am sure you remember it as well as I do. Charles knew none of it. He was impatiently waiting for you at home.” Her eyes widened.
“That was you? Oh!” Her hand flew to her face. “Oh, yes. It was you. I did not know it until this moment. I did have questions, about that time, that Charles did not seem ready to answer, but I did not question it or think anything out of the ordinary. I put it down to his mind being elsewhere, as it seemed to be for the next few weeks.” Robert smiled at her sudden understanding.
“You thought I was Charles. I intended to tell you who I was before things went as far as they did, but you took me off guard and would not let me speak. I thought nothing too serious would happen before you returned to your carriage, but you rapidly proved me wrong. Oh, how you proved me wrong.” She laughed nervously, recalling what had happened.
He took her hands into his to reassure her that she had nothing to be ashamed of. “You did not allow me to tell you who I really was before you had gone too far for me to easily confess anything. I hoped you and Charles would never find out. I could not tell you who I was after we had gone so far with each other.
“I realized that I had to say nothing and to act as though I were Charles to save you both from injury; especially you. I have been hopelessly in love with you since that moment.” She was speechless.
“I went to sea after your wedding, and in deepest despair with the recognition that I could never return to my home after what I had done. You were in my mind every waking moment. I have loved no other women since then, but you.” Her eyes now sparkled with new life.
“Was that why you stayed away all of these years?” He nodded.
“I could not return. Charles would have seen everything that I felt for you in my eyes, and so would you. He quizzed me about that look at your wedding, but thought I was in love with some other woman, not with you. And you might have seen that look too, in my face as I looked at you, and recollected other moments that were best never remembered. I loved my brother and you too much to endanger either of you with my presence.
“But, Robert, you cannot throw yourself away on me out of guilt for what happened then. You should marry a younger woman, unspoiled by history. One who can bear your children, and with whom you can settle down.” Her protests were becoming less convincing to him, and even to herself.
“Too late. I already fell in love with you in that first meeting, and I will not settle for anything less. It is not guilt that is driving me now, but love.”
“But I have borne too many children. I am unattractive. I have lost my youth.” He understood her continuing attempts to find some escape for him but overrode each of her objections.
“Far from it on all three counts. I came into this house from London, not sure what would greet me. I was terrified of what I might find. Within five minutes I learned that you still lived, and then my heart was captivated by three of the most entrancing young girls I have ever seen. I had already been entranced by their mother ten years earlier, and I saw some of you in them. I also met Sophia. She is like you, and able to see through me so easily. I dealt with her roughly, at first, when I insisted that I be allowed to examine you.”
“I sensed that. I heard you. I felt. You were Charles, to me, and I was given a reason to live again. But you earlier said that you had two reasons.” She waited for his response.
“Yes. If I… if we, continue this harmless and necessary deception, as I would like, though no longer a deception between us, then the real purpose of my wishing to keep Charles’s identity, becomes possible.”