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The Elusive Miss Wakefield

By johnksutherland All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Adventure

An Unwelcome Surprise

Bad news should come in small portions. It is not as easily digested as good news.

Two days later, Henry received a letter from his father. Luckily, he had decided that he did not need to rush away quite as he had intended once their guest, Miss Anne Wakefield, had returned to London after a welcome extended stay. They had been like a close-knit family together. He had been pleased to see Georgiana’s outlook on life, improve notably, surrounded as she now was by both family and friends.

He excused himself to his company as he dealt with what he knew was likely to be important. He broke the seal and opened the somewhat lengthy letter. He read it with a growing feeling of puzzlement and annoyance.

'Henry,

Bad news. I knew things were going too well for us to last. The devil has come back to haunt us. My brother came to my door last night, so the rumors of his being alive were true! I heard of his presence in the city quite by accident. He is avoiding his old haunts and supposed friends, knowing what his reception would be like.

I hope you will be at Stavely when this arrives, and not on your way here. You did not arrive late last night, so I expect, I hope, it catches you early enough before you have chance to leave.

How he managed to avoid being arrested and detained, I do not know. He has been recuperating in Greenwich for the last month under another name and has kept out of the way of things, except to level accusations at his former shipmates concerning robbery and their attempts to murder him, though with him alive and as noisy as he is, he will likely be ignored by them for a short while, but not for long. I would not be surprised if they had robbed him, as he said, but he’ll never be able to prove it without admitting to a crime of his own, so he begins his troublemaking all over again. Most stupid of him to alert those individuals to his survival.

I got warning just two days ago what it was that he intended, and from one of his former impoverished friends (his letter is enclosed), so I am giving you warning that he is on his way to Stavely. Deal with him as you need to, or send him on, for I want nothing to do with him. He knows better than to approach me to help him after what he did to us. We (you) may be able to use him, as he undoubtedly intends to use us.

Do not trust him in any way. He is still dangerous, but I would rather know where he was and what he was doing than not. You may know best how to do that, for I do not trust him and cannot stand him anywhere near me. He is at least as big a liar as he always was if Matchett is to be believed, so be cautious.

Above all, keep track of what he is doing, night or day, wherever he is. You know as well as I do what he is capable of doing. However, he may become careless or stupid enough to betray more of what we need to know, if the situation can be manipulated to provoke him or befuddle him (he is still overfond of the brandy).

He will offer an olive branch of course, or some completely fabricated story, but do not ever trust him. He would see us both dead if he might get away with it. I do hope that I am doing the right thing to send him onto you to deal with as I know you can.

Regards,my boy. Your mother sends her love.

Warn Georgiana.

RPS'

Even without Matchett’s or his father’s warning, he had no intention of trusting his uncle, or believing anything he might say, if he showed up. He had his own memories of him, and they were none of them kind.

Georgiana walked into the breakfast parlor to see Charlotte adding more paragraphs to a letter she had started some time earlier, and Henry reading his letter. It was not quite the cozy little tête-à-tête between her brother and Charlotte that she had become used to intruding upon. Something was wrong.

“Why that distempered look on your face, Henry? Did something you eat not agree with you?” She saw the letter in his hand. “Bad news?” She could see from the expression on his face that it was. He dropped the letter onto the table and smiled pleasantly at her. Georgiana gave him a kiss before she sat down.

Henry recovered himself quickly after a brief smile to Charlotte. “A letter from Father. If I understand this correctly, then not the best. Our uncle has shown up in London.” He let that sink in. “He has been found alive, of course, and is even now on his way here. He had the gall to call in on Father yesterday. It seems that our best interests are to be served by allowing him back into his former home, briefly, at this time, where I can keep an eye on him and learn what I may. No doubt he intends to do the same of us.

“It begins to looks like I cannot leave after all, even for a day or two, as I had planned to do, but will need to see to this and make sure that he is kept under watch. He may be trying to avoid some of his former partners in London. I would think he might prefer to hide here for a while, if he can, as he learns all that we have done for the last few years and sniffs around to find out what the milieu is like for him, though I know that his purpose is less innocent. I suppose I should warn the household.”

Shortly after, a cart pulled up, and an aged and seemingly crippled individual alighted from it with minor difficulty, until he caught himself in his eagerness and realized that he was likely being observed. He then turned everything into clumsiness, dropping his crutches, having the lad get down off his seat to recover them for him as he leaned back against the wheel and mopped his face, as though perspiring with the painful effort of moving. Those who had seen his initial ease, and compared that with the seeming difficulties as he maneuvered over to the house, recognized the antics. They were those carefully choreographed acts of one who fully intended to play upon the sympathies of others. The tyranny of the mendaciously infirm—if they could get away with it. There was no rush of servants to help, as might be expected for one so obviously in need of assistance. They had recognized who he was, and intended to let Master Henry deal with him. They had long memories of the household as it had been many years earlier when he had been the master there.

No one came out to see to him or to help him with his trunks, so he had to pay the lad off himself, once that individual had unloaded them. After that, the youth driving the cart wasted no time, anxious to be gone from the place. He was thankful to be paid and was not about to argue the situation or be detained any longer.

Only then did anyone appear from the house. He spoke out confidently to one of the servants. “Take my trunks up . . .”

“No!” Henry had also appeared in the doorway. There was no arguing with that forceful utterance, though no one would have moved to follow the elder Stavely’s bidding until Henry directed them. They knew who was master here. “They can be brought in, to stay in the hall for the moment, until I decide where to put you or to send you on. It is a pity the carter drove off so soon. You and I need to talk first.” Henry led the way into a nearby room as the servant carried his trunks in and placed them as Master Henry had directed.

“Your father said I might stay. He sent you a letter.”

“Yes. I received it this morning. Why did you not stay in London, where your friends—I assume you still have some—might help you?”

“Friends, aye. But they are not family. I have had seven years of hell and have thought of nothing more than coming back to somewhere familiar and welcoming, to collect my thoughts.”

“Your welcome is threadbare, Uncle. My last memories of you were somewhat unpleasant. I am sure you remember.” He also remembered the older man under the canvas, and marked for death. His uncle would not know that he had any knowledge of that, however, or what his intentions had been toward Mr. Grundy, or the outcome of that.

“Aye, well, we should all let bygones be bygones.”

Henry smiled cynically. “Easily said, but there is too much at stake here for you to expect any trust or even an open welcome.”

“I can’t blame you for being cautious, nevvy. Everything happened so fast. I was surprised myself to hear what was believed of me from that time—as though I were but a common criminal. I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. As though I would think to deceive anyone or cheat my own partners of anything.” Henry recognized his uncle of old.

“Tell me, Uncle, why are you here, and what do you hope to achieve?” Matchett’s letter had said far too little to his father, but enough to warn them.

“Achieve? Why nothing, other than a place to rest my bones for a while until I recover my health, and perhaps make my way about in society once more. I shall not trouble you for any longer than I need, but you see, I have nothing. I was betrayed, kidnapped even, shipwrecked, robbed, nearly murdered, and am returning after all these years of privation and hardship, a shell of my former self, and a cripple, as you can see. I was disturbed to hear what happened to my business at the hands of those thieves, but thankful that you and your father stepped in to try and save it, and our name.” His father had been right. His uncle would do what he could to muddy the water to try and hide what he had done himself.

“The servants know to do only my bidding, Uncle, so you must not think that you can order them in any way.” His uncle could see that he would need to tread carefully or risk not getting even a foot, if he had a complete one, into the door.

“You don’t need to worry there on my account, nevvy. I would not think to overstep my bounds. I am aware that things have changed here, and I have no wish to upset the order of anything.”

“No, of course not.” Henry could see that his uncle had difficulty meeting his eyes. His father had warned him, though he had known for himself of his uncle’s character. “You may stay in the wing where my grandparents stayed.” He would be deservingly uncomfortable and out of the way of the household there, and could also be observed. “If you need anything from the city, you may ask me, but I am afraid we do not have either the livestock or the carriages to go anywhere far afield without you first consulting me.” It was clear that nothing was to happen without Henry’s direct permission. He accepted that with as good a grace as he could muster.

“I shall be contented to be here until I recover my wits and can then see to myself. Just a week or so should do it. This country air will bring me about. I can feel a difference already.” He was hiding something, and it was obvious to Henry. His uncle still remembered him as a boy and may not have been aware of the nature of the man that Henry had become—wise to the ways of those who would try to deceive, but Henry knew him well, and what he was capable of.

“You may stay for a few days. A few days only, until I decide how best to deal with you.”

“Thank you, lad. That’s all I ask. Tell me, have you heard from my son, William? Any news of where he might be? He missed going with me as we had intended, just to Gibraltar and back but just as well, or we might both have been murdered. As it was, I was lucky to survive my ordeal.” Henry managed to look suitably surprised to hear that William had not accompanied him.

“The rumor was that he had gone with you. No one here has heard anything of him.” Nor would they. What had happened seven years earlier, to William, could remain hidden.

“Ah well! I am glad that you and your father made the effort you did to salvage the family name.” Henry looked at him and could sense the insincerity in his manner. “I only learned the full extent of it all when I got back from my ordeal, fearing for my life every minute I was away, and was lying up in that naval hospital. The damage done to me and our name in my absence was not of my doing. I have greater love of my name and my family than to have done what I was accused of.” He shook his head as though in disbelief at what had happened in his absence. “I worked all of my life to build up a business that was the envy of London, and then learn that it was all brought to ruin.” Henry merely smiled. He changed the subject.

“Apart from your infirmities, you are in reasonably good health?”

“As well as can be expected. Ague is all that bothers me. When I am overcome by that fever I picked up on that cursed island, I am sickened a little, is all, and need to take to my bed. This other, with my feet, was what happened to me afterward on board that ship that supposedly rescued me. The damned ship’s surgeon was learning his trade on poor unfortunates like me that fell into his hands, which is why I have but one awkward foot with no toes, and only half of the other leg! We came back to London in time to stop him taking both legs off entirely! I suppose I am as well as might be expected under the circumstances.” Henry did not appear to be sympathetic to him, but there would likely never be a better time to raise the subject. “I could stay in my old room . . .”

“What! Up all of those stairs? No. I would not be so inconsiderate as to put you to such difficulty. Besides, it is in use.” He recalled the uncomfortable conditions under which his grandparents had lived under that same roof, and the many unpleasant arguments that there had been between his father and uncle concerning their parents’ welfare, and a host of other disagreements. He was not about to see his uncle settled in any comfort.

“No, you may reside in that wing where my grandparents lived. You decided that it was comfortable enough for them, so it should be entirely adequate for you, and there are no stairs to struggle with.” His seemingly calm consideration for his uncle fooled no one. Those apartments, in the most neglected area of the house, had been dreadfully uncomfortable. They had been cold and drafty, with ill-fitting windows and doors and entirely inadequate fireplaces. Henry was well aware that his uncle knew better than to object at this early stage, and he could not be sure what Henry might have remembered from all of those years ago.

Henry recalled other things too. There had once been a very unpleasant confrontation between his uncle and his father that had gone on for months concerning an inheritance that his father had received from a relative of their mother on her death. His uncle had had no share in that and resented it. He had felt that Henry’s father should give it to him, if he expected to continue to live in their family home, with his own finances not being as robust as he would have liked them to be. Henry’s father had refused, of course, unwilling to see good money go after bad, and had come close to losing his life for it. Matthew had pleaded that it had been an accident that his fowling piece had gone off as it had, when they had been out hunting together, but anyone who knew Matthew suspected that there was more to it than that. The shot had been in his brother’s back. He had been saved only by a heavy leather waistcoat he had donned that morning, else he would have died on the spot.

His father had become aware of his brother’s intent toward him by that act and had left the family home soon after that, taking his own family, and his parents with him, and that branch of the family had gone to reside in London. The inheritance had been more than adequate to see to all that they needed. Henry remembered those times well enough, as he had been an attentive child of six or seven years. He decided not to raise that particular unpleasant memory just yet. That bitter break had been necessary. Henry had overheard many similar confrontations but decided not to dwell upon the past. He would hide his teeth and make full use of his uncle in whatever way he might be vulnerable. The knives could come out later.

“Then perhaps if a servant might take my trunks to those apartments. They will have to do.”

“No! Not at this moment! The servants are busy, Uncle. The trunks can stay here and will be dealt with when it is convenient, but you can give Chorley the key so that he may unpack them for you when he gets chance.” Henry smiled at him, waiting for some objection. His uncle was obviously reluctant to part with his keys, but he had at least got his foot in the door and would need to comply, or risk a sudden turn of fortune after such a difficult beginning. He passed the keys over to his nephew’s butler and moved over to the door leading to the wing of the house he would have for his own use, however briefly.

“By the way, Uncle, you should keep your door secured. The dogs have the run of the house at night as well as during the day and are likely to blunder anywhere and everywhere. They are aware of their overpowering and intimidating presence and may knock you entirely off your feet. They also tend to take exception to strangers at first. It took them almost a month to learn about the new cook, so she needed an escort at all times, or risked being savaged.” There was a slightly scornful look on his uncle’s face to be told such a tale. The dogs knew him well enough—one of them, and he could soon make friends with the other that he had seen.

“One other thing, nevvy: I may need to go into the city.”

“Oh! You just came from there! That might be difficult. I thought I had dealt with that. You must apply to me when you feel that way, and I shall see what we can do, but at the moment, we have just one dog cart and the one usable carriage, which I or my sister are likely to need most of the time. The others are being repaired. This is a particularly busy time for us. I doubt you could ride a horse, even if one were available.”

“So, I am to be held somewhat of a reluctant guest in my own house!”

Henry laughed. “Oh no, Uncle! Nothing quite so insidious. Nor is this your house, but my father’s now. You may leave anytime you wish. You chose to come here, remember, and you may go to the city whenever you wish to, provided you can see to the hire of your own means of getting there from the village. I cannot spare a carriage or a coachman at this time, and if you do go, I am not sure that you might easily get back.” He was becoming aware of that himself. His nephew would be difficult—that was obvious.

Henry realized that his uncle might recognize that he was being deliberately difficult, but difficult only in a firm way that he intended would appear inoffensive. He could be just as devious as his uncle, while being superficially pleasant about it. “We need our own carriage here every day, so letting you take it might present some difficulty for us. However, any letters or messages to your tailor or boot maker, for example, that you need to send, can be placed on the table by the door, and I will see to them. I can certainly do that for you.”

Rather than get into immediate disagreement with his nephew, he swallowed his anger, and at least gave the appearance of accepting the situation. “Thank you.” His wardrobe certainly did need attention, but that could wait. He had other plans, which might be difficult to move forward without some freedom for himself.

His uncle persisted. “I may need to see a doctor, and I need a girl to wait on me too—I will need my stump and my legs tended to. I am too stiff to reach them for myself.”

“Then tell me when that need arises, and I shall see that it is addressed. I shall see to a woman being brought in from the village, if your funds might extend to that.” Never an outright refusal to take exception to, but never an agreement either, and always a point of difficulty. “I doubt any parent would willingly let a young girl anywhere near this place after the rumors that still circulate.” Henry could see that he had hit another nerve, but his uncle wisely held his tongue.

“I shall need my brandy, and opiates, to deaden the pain.”

“Of course you will. Mrs. Forster looks after such things and can do the same for you. Chorley can remove any of those you have into her care. If you mention to me when you need them, I shall let her know. You may be comforted, Uncle, to know that I shall accord you exactly the consideration you gave my grandparents when they lived here under your gentle care and protection. I am sure that will meet with your complete approval.” Henry’s sarcasm was not lost on his uncle.

Matthew began to find that Henry was not as well known to him as he had assumed. He was being parried at every turn, without any outright refusal of anything. He began to realize that the smile on his nephew’s face was not one of kindness or of humor, but one of intransigence and a determination to block anything that he did not control or was not comfortable about, but without appearing to be blocking it.

His uncle scowled, but recognized that he had been caught out on every suit. “Oh well, that’s a comfort then.” It wasn’t really. He all too well remembered the arguments he had had with his brother concerning their parents’ care, and he knew that those confrontations had not been as private or as soon forgotten as he now wished they had been. He had been hoist with his own petard there, and knew it. He stifled all complaint, for it would buy him only fewer privileges and more hardship. He would do what he could, out of sight, to work his way around whatever blocks were being put in his way. This coldly calculating man before him, and difficult to read, was not the nephew he thought he remembered. He would also need to be sure not to let his impatience be seen, or Henry might become even more difficult. He had fumed and fretted for six years as he had first avoided being murdered by his former ship’s crew and then had waited seemingly interminable years to be rescued after that. A few more days, or even a week or so, to achieve what he needed to achieve in this house would not kill him.

While his uncle was being served a cold repast—likely to take at least an hour—Henry and Chorley had carefully unpacked each of his uncle’s trunks. There were at least two bottles of brandy carefully packed in each of them. Those were put aside to go to Mrs. Forster and could be produced a little at a time, or as might be required.

The trunks contained the usual belongings of a gentleman, but what might once have been relatively fine clothing was now well worn and in need of repair and replacement. Most of his things had been stolen or lost in his movements from ship to ship and while he had been laid up in Greenwich. A few gold coins of recent origin, an old watch, and a sewn leather pouch containing several letters written in just the last two weeks were hidden away behind a thin wooden panel at the bottom of one of the trunks. He had meant them not to be found (so they would not be found, at least as far as his uncle might know). The trunks could be stored out of the way for a while so he might not know that anything had been temporarily removed from them. Henry put the letters in his pocket to read later. At the bottom was a pistol with a rolled scrap of paper cleverly hidden in the barrel of it. The paper contained several names and addresses in London. Most were familiar to Henry, but some were not. The brandy went to the kitchen, leaving but one bottle for his uncle to enjoy sparingly, not knowing when another might be given to him.

In the comfort and privacy of his own study, Henry went through each letter in turn. They had been written fairly recently and seemed to be responses to letters his uncle had sent off since arriving in London. The name to which they had been directed was not Stavely, but Matthews, and they had been sent to an inn in Stepney. He transcribed the more important of those and made note of the sender, where he could, linking the only name signed, a first name, against those on that scrap of paper—feeling that he was now able to identify the writers. They would not expect a visit from their former partner’s nephew, but that is what would happen. There would soon be some unhappy individuals in London, if they had decided to stay in London after getting that jolt of a letter from his uncle. Their surprise would be compounded when they received a visit from Henry himself.

He put everything back into the main trunk as though none of it had been found. Those names and addresses—all to do with the business of seven years earlier—would prove useful—he was sure of that.

Henry saw the trunks taken later that day for his uncle to unpack for himself and to inspect, knowing that he would dig down to the bottom section when he was left alone and would learn that the small compartment had remained undiscovered. He would know that Henry would not be likely to leave him with a pistol. Had he examined it, however, he would have been less comforted. He did not know that it would no longer fire as was intended. He felt some relief that his nephew had not discovered those letters or that scrap of paper in the barrel of the gun. He should have destroyed them, rather than risk bringing them here, but how was he to know that his nephew would kick up awkward and search through everything? He remedied that omission now, while he had the chance, and saw the paper and the letters consumed in the small fire he was allowed. He would need to be careful what he did, but the entire house was now accessible to him. There were a few things he needed to learn, and a few other things that he would retrieve to hide in the bottom of his trunk, and then he would be gone.

It was a point of annoyance that he knew better than to object to, but Henry had told him that he would be dining in his own part of the house and alone. “We no longer dine quite as formally as we used to, and as we are often engaged in other things, we rarely dine by the clock anymore, but as and where it suits us. I am sure such a lack of formality might annoy you, so you may dine according to tradition in your own quarters. Chorley will see to you. Indeed, I think it might be better for all of us if you restrict yourself to that area of the house, and then I will not worry so much for you”—there went his nephew again, using words to mask his real purpose, to keep him away from everyone else.

Sometime later, Henry approached his sister in the garden. “I have decided that as long as Uncle Matthew is here, Georgiana, I shall be absent less often. He is not to be trusted in any way. I told him that he must take all of his meals in his own quarters and that I do not want to see him in any other part of the house at any time, though I expect that will be too much to expect of him. I shall keep an eye on him and see what his intentions are, as I do not believe that he is here to simply rest, as he claims. I should warn you that he is likely to try to become familiar with the new routine, and our habits, and then will sneak about the house at night when everyone has retired, so I recommend that you and Charlotte lock your bedroom doors. In fact, I shall let the servants know that all doors to the rooms in our part of the house are to be kept locked at all times. He does not know where any of us are located to sleep, and with the dogs likely to be up there too, and ready to kick up a fuss, he had better be careful.”

“Why do you think he came here, Henry?”

“For no good purpose, I can tell you that. It is part of his devious nature. I believe he came to recover various things of some value that he had left behind years ago, that he could not easily remove with him, and to learn as much as he might of what Father and I have managed to do with the business since he left. He will be out of luck on both counts. We removed everything of value that he had hidden all those years ago. There were various paintings that our grandparents commissioned, a few heirlooms, and several pieces of our grandmother’s jewelry—bequeathed to you, and which will be given to you once he has gone—and other knickknacks. Had he tried to sell them in London all of those years ago, they would have raised suspicions about what he intended to do, and he did not want that, so he hid them away here, probably intending to recover them if the need ever arose. They are in Father’s house in London, though our uncle does not need to know that.

“He seems to have planned ahead. Father was right. He is just as devious as he always was. He will also be inclined to learn what he can of our business, so I shall see that he learns only what I want him to know. Best if you keep out of his way and let me know if he tries to approach either you or Charlotte. He will try to use you if he can. His presence here is likely to be of far greater value to me than it ever might be for him. It already has been.” He thought of those names and letters that he had recovered from the trunk. “He won’t be staying long—I can tell you that.”

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