A Change of Plans.
Because of the rules of inheritance—Robert now owned the estate, and the title of Lord Penfield was his. It was the last thing he wanted, but he could not escape his obligations either. There were now three young nieces whom he'd never met, who would need some direction in their tragic lives; and a grieving widow, if she survived, and god knows what else to deal with.
Returning to sea was not an option for him. Not now. He hoped the admiralty might understand.
Robert could not fathom how fate could have dealt so differently with him and his brother. Charles, had lived a settled, gentle life, surrounded by peace, tranquility, and those he loved, while his brother Robert, had done his best over the years to see his life ended as soon as he might, by what he chose to do. His nickname had been well earned. Yet his brother had died, and he still lived, against all odds. Now, fate had intervened again.
He would never return to sea if he had his way, but that was wishful thinking. An uncertain future still awaited him. He gathered his thoughts. He had to get home. He would likely be too late for his brother’s funeral but could hope that there would not be another one to greet him. Selena had to live, both for her childrens’ sake, and for his.
Robert put that painful possibility aside. Whether Selena lived or not, he would need to make arrangements for the children and see to their future. They would be eight, seven and, five, by now. He had not expected to be landed into this situation and was not sure how he would deal with it. Then there was Selena. Not expected to survive. How would he manage with this new set of responsibilities and three young nieces? And her! He could not think any further.
Stephenson walked back in and saw the look on Robert’s face. He felt sorry for his friend.
“I knew, of course. Your man, Benson, wrote several letters. He tried to make sure one of them would find you. Their Lordships also let me know, but I preferred to let you find it out from your own letters, rather than have to tell you myself. I saw nothing in the Gazette. I suppose your family hoped they might be able to let you know first, before they made any announcements and have you hear it in the wrong way. It would not do to have themselves overrun with relatives seeking some personal gain from such a sudden loss, and you not there.” Robert felt Stephenson’s comforting hand on his shoulder.
There would be no fear of that. The few relatives that were left, knew better than to show their faces on the estate. Charles had been as determined as their father had been, to keep their uncle Matthew as far away as possible and had told him never to show his face.
“You are required at home, my friend. Blood is thicker than water, and your family needs you. But you know that. Your nieces—yes, I know about them, just as I know such things about the families of most of the officers serving in the navy—now require a father figure and someone to see to them. You are the only one who can, and must make decisions on their behalf and for your late brother’s wife too.” He did not add ‘if she still lives’. Penfield had trouble enough to deal with.
“The Admiralty will be sad to see such a seasoned warrior go, but they understand, especially after what has happened. I’ll make your apologies when I see their Lordships tomorrow and give them your ship’s log and your papers. I would say that you now stand a chance of living to as ripe an old age as your grandfather did.”
Penfield wasn’t sure he wanted to live that long, and not if…he squashed that thought. He would strive to see things in a positive light.
“I’ll see to getting your personal things off your ship and sent along to you.”
Robert looked critically at his clothing. It would have been good enough until he got to his tailor, in the morning, but it would not do for his drive north, which had to be today and as soon as possible.
“Of all the things to happen. I am not suitably dressed to meet anyone or go anywhere. The moths got into my trunks, and what they missed, the sea got into. There was little that was not ruined by one or the other.” Stephenson looked him up and down.
“I am sure that I can find a uniform, or clothing of some kind somewhere, that will fit you easily enough, and we can get Burkett in for the minor alterations. No chance of finding your tailor open in the city, today.” He had a sudden thought. “However, a simple solution to your problem is at hand.” Robert looked at him and waited for him to continue.
“I think one might say that one man’s misfortune is another’s good fortune. Young Mr. Bascombe”—he pointed out of the window— “recently deceased, shall be your savior.”
“How?” Robert anticipated what Stephenson might suggest.
“His clothing of course. There are even his horses and carriage. If you take them, it will solve a problem for you as well as one for me. Their late owner, Gilbert Bascombe, is laid out and beyond objecting, and the undertaker and others are awaiting my instructions for him. He looked very like you. Same build, excellent taste in clothes. No relatives, he said. No next of kin. He sold everything except his horses and his carriage, and some of his belongings that he had in a portmanteau, and those few trunks that did not get loaded. I believe there should be a few changes of clothing in the portmanteau he intended to carry aboard with him, and even more in those trunks.
“Nice and simple. I was wondering what to do with it. It should fit you. You are a match for him in every way, even size of boots, at a guess. Take it. Take everything. If there is anything important in his belongings, you can deal with it.” Robert did not have to think for very long before accepting the offer rather than face scouring the dock for a horse or a carriage and all of the fuss that went along with it, and then arriving home dressed like a gypsy.
“Thank you. It would solve a thorny problem for me. I’d better get a look at it first, before I say anything. Bascombe wasn’t a dandy, was he?” He hadn’t seemed to have been overdressed when Robert had seen him.
“No. You saw him, same as I did. He dressed soberly, and from what I saw it was all of an excellent quality. He was rigged out at least as well as any of the finer lights in London. Nothing in excess or questionable about him at all.
“I tell you what. My house is no more than five minutes from here. I’ll give you a message for my housekeeper. Go through his things. Take what you can use. Leave what you can’t. Or, better still, take it all and save me the trouble. I’d rather see none of it again. You know just as much of him as I do. I was going to go through it at my leisure this evening and sort out what I could, that might be of some use, somewhere, but then I find I am committed elsewhere, so please take it off my hands and save me the trouble.” Robert was not about to argue.
“I hope you are right or I’ll look a rare sight wearing ill-fitting clothes. In a pinch I still have a few pieces of clothing that I managed to salvage, and there will be some at home, but what condition they may be in I do not know. But beggars cannot be choosers, so I will take you up on your offer.”
“Good. You have enough money?”
“More than enough for all of my immediate needs.”
“Good. Then there is nothing to stop you. You have now inherited some enviable horses, an expensive carriage, clothing, and whatever superficial character they may have brought their late owner. May you have better fortune than he had.” Stephenson looked at him questioningly.
“You can still handle the reins, can you? Not like driving a ship.” He was feeling mischievous to ask such a question. “Still, it’s only about a two-hour drive to your home isn’t it? And it is Sunday.”
“More like four. And yes, I can still drive horses.”
“Maybe not those horses, Robert. You’d better get a look at them. They have better blood lines than either of us. Those horses alone might bring a pretty penny or two in Tattersall’s sales, but if you can use ’em, use ’em. No one might know anyway, and if they come back here it will mean more damned paperwork and we have enough of that. Glad to see it all off my hands.” He had another thought.
“A word of caution. England’s gone downhill since you left, so take your pistols with you. Incivility seems to be the order of the day. There are highwaymen all over the place now that the war is winding down and throwing too many violent men out onto the streets. A single occupant of a fine carriage, and well dressed, behind such horses, is asking for trouble.”
Robert took the opportunity to go over the horses before he set out for Stephenson’s home. They were a matched pair of grays; well-mannered and kind. After a brief rest in a nearby stable, they would be up to a few hours of relatively easy travel to the north.
It was the kind of equipage that he might have aspired to own, once he finally retired from his majesty’s service. It seemed that fortune was being kind to him.
Bascombe’s clothing was also much better than he had expected. He would arrive home in style.
With two problems solved, Robert began to feel almost helpless, caught up in something that fate was writing for him. He felt like a fish out of water. He had been at sea in a different life for much of the last ten years. Now he was ready to rush off into the country and not sure what he might find at the end of his journey. He smiled grimly. He should be used to it by now. His entire life for the last ten years had been one tragedy after another for someone; usually the enemy. But that had been at sea. Now it was different. It directly involved him and his family, and in a way he could never have anticipated.
He was surprised to recognize that even before he had set out, he was beginning to make up his mind on other things to do with his future, and all of them to do with three young girls he had never met, and a young woman he had briefly met in the strangest of circumstances, but who had no knowledge of that meeting, and with whom he was even more insanely in love than before.