The Elusive Miss Wakefield

By johnksutherland All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Adventure

Fate? Or Patient Planning?

And if we do but watch the hour, There never yet was human power Which could evade, if unforgiven, The patient search and vigil long Of him who treasures up a wrong.—Byron

Charlotte climbed hurriedly down from her carriage, not waiting for anyone to assist her, and walked with purpose over to the house. There was a worried and pale look on her face. She put down her basket and other things she had been carrying, on the hall table and stripped off her gloves and shrugged off her traveling cloak into the butler’s hands, as she asked those questions to which she needed an immediate answer.

“Where is he, Davis? How serious is it?” Her concerns were obvious.

“They are still helping him in from the home wood, Miss Charlotte. Last I heard, he was complaining that it was only a flesh wound, and he was mostly walking, but Hessock said that there was a lot of blood, and it was more serious than Oliver is letting on. Mistress Anne is also with them, for she rushed off as soon as she heard.”

“Let’s hope that’s all it is—a flesh wound, but if he’s losing a lot of blood, that is not a good sign! Is there a room being prepared? Has the doctor been summoned? Though I suppose that was why Hessock was riding like a madman through the village and why I returned here. He said too little, only that I should come home as soon as possible. I knew something was wrong then, and was convinced of it when I saw all the activity in front of the house.” Her mind was working beyond its usual relaxed pace, for nothing that Oliver did, seemed trivial, bouncing as he seemed to do, from one life-threatening scrape to another. Except for the last two months, during and after the Calderwold Festival, when he had quieted right down. And now this!

“At least you had some warning, miss. I only hope the doctor is easily found, and sober this time! Your mother is getting a room ready for him.” She saw servants scurrying into the room nearest the top of the stairs. “Poachers, I heard, miss. They don’t like to be disturbed!”

“Poachers? Then it was not . . . ?” He shook his head. Enright was still recovering in London. Her eyes flashed in anger. “After this, we shall certainly do all that we can to disturb them! I thought we’d solved that problem! Shooting an innocent man, and in broad daylight too on his own property! We should get the authorities to see what they can do! A man shot on his own grounds! What is this society coming to? If he had gone back to the university, as he should have done more than a month ago, he would have avoided this.” Neither of them mentioned the reason he had not gone back to the university, though the entire house, with the exception of her mother, knew that Oliver had met a young woman at the festival and that was why he was still close to home. “What was he doing out with a gun to encourage this kind of response?”

“He had no gun with him, miss, just a book! He’d gone out for a walk—to think, he said—and was not so far from the house, but they didn’t want to move him immediately! Fortunately, Preston heard the shot and may have interrupted further mischief, for he did have a gun, and his dogs with him too, and he saw them off and managed to stop the worst of it, or I dunno what might have happened. I did hear that he managed to wound someone. He seems to have been generally ahead of the poachers all along and has been able to keep them out of the park, at least until this last circumstance.” He moved to the door again. “I hear them now, miss.” He threw wide the door and watched as the party crossed the driveway in front of the house and let the three men in, closely followed by her sister Anne. There was a man on either side of her brother, who was pale and having some difficulty walking. He had a bloody stain, spreading on his shirt, and the blood had even run down onto his trousers.

His sister took one look at him and knew that it was far more serious than even she had feared. Her brother was pale, though he tried to smile at her. “Damn gypsies, Shar, or poachers!” He used the abbreviation of her name—so much easier than saying, Charlotte, every time. He should have been carried in and not have been allowed to walk, and make everything worse, but he was too damned stubborn for his own good!

She saw Preston looking at her, shaking his head, and she could see that Anne did not believe that either. It had not been gypsies. She’d get the full story later from both her brother—his version of it—and then possibly a more accurate one from Preston who undoubtedly would have seen more. It had been fortunate that she had been able to recognize Hessock as he had ridden at a mad pace through the village. She had sensed something seriously wrong even before she had seen him. She had given her excuses to the Coleridge family and had returned immediately to Fallowfield.

She had feared at first that her mother had fallen downstairs again, as she seemed prone to do, or one of the help had fallen off the roof, replacing tiles. “Upstairs with him!” She pointed. “There’ll be hot water and compresses and everything we need up there by now.” She and her mother would organize everything as they usually did when anything serious needed to be done. Her father was a kindly man, and capable enough, but he wisely left such difficulties in the more capable hands of his wife and daughters.

Her father had his own worries to contend with. The women could handle it all far better than he could, though he was concerned and took himself off to see what he might learn of the circumstance from where it had occurred. He recalled a conversation he had had, even from years earlier, when he had met that woman in the coffee house. It still nagged at him. Mrs. Enright had been correct. Her thinly veiled threat, when she had realized that he was not about to become her petticoat pensioner, or her benefactor, had revealed the true woman. Might she have had something to do with this?

Oliver was assisted upstairs and was immediately seen to by his sisters and mother, who stripped off his bloody coat while he was still on his feet, and then saw to the rest of his clothing, despite his complaints that it was nothing but a flesh wound. Rather than pull him around once he was lying back on the bed, they cut off his shirt, which was sticking to his wound.

It was far from a flesh wound, as they could easily see, and they did what they needed to do despite his complaints—staunched the blood flow and tended to him as best they could, to settle and stabilize him until the doctor arrived. They were well-aware that their brother and son was apt to make light of any such injury if he did not regard it as too serious, and that the safest plan was to entirely ignore him. They had learned years before that the louder his protestations of it being nothing more than a flesh wound or a scratch, the more serious his injury was likely to be, unless he was unconscious! He complained little on this occasion but had lain back in pain and allowed his sister and mother to see to him as he gritted his teeth, trying to put on a brave face, but he fooled no one!

Hessock had been the first to respond to the unexpected noise of a shot and, once the situation had become obvious to him, had alerted the house with the main details of what he had found and got someone out to help Preston, who had returned to Oliver after firing his own gun at the culprit and brought him down. Once Hessock had seen that Oliver had the help that he needed, he had not waited for instructions but had assessed the urgency of the situation for himself—seen a horse saddled and had ridden off. The doctor might be easily found, or could be miles away, and would need to be tracked down as soon as possible.

Oliver’s mother, once she had become aware of what had happened, had made all of the preparations she had thought might be needed to treat a gunshot wound, and then had waited impatiently. She resisted rushing off outside herself to find her son but had ordered the bed at the top of the stairs prepared for him, as well as speaking for hot water and bandages. She could do nothing until Oliver was in the house, and then she would take over and organize it all as needed. She had seen for herself, from an upper window, that it was more serious than she might have feared when she saw him being almost carried across the lawns rather than walking himself. True to his stubborn self, he had insisted on trying to make it appear less serious than it really was as he came in through the door, and by doing so, had undoubtedly made it all worse. His mother and sisters knew better than to believe him, until they had seen his wound for themselves!

Her mother ignored him entirely and directed others to carry him upstairs. She even had snapped at him uncharacteristically in her motherly concern and told him to remain quiet and let her do what needed to be done now, and to stop distracting everyone with his nattering and childish complaints.

He had shut up at that, as he knew he should, and let himself be ministered to as needed.

It was two hours before the doctor arrived, but at least he was sober. He had a long face over what he could see and hummed and hawed over what he was faced with, and clearly was not comfortable with what he might need to do. The ball had not passed through her brother but had lodged somewhere deeper, and probably near his back bone. It was serious, and the ball would need to come out, if they could find it.

None of it sounded comforting, but they acquiesced with as good a grace as they could, as Oliver lay there and said little. His face was pale. He knew that if he was probed for the ball, even if it could be found and then removed, his outlook was not of the best, but he said nothing. His mother would decide, for she was quite capable of overriding any doctor and, in some circumstances, knew even more than Dr. Sweeney did; but she also knew that the ball should be removed, provided the effort was not likely to kill her son. All except Charlotte and her mother were sent out of the room, and the servants had to endure the long wait to find out what they might about the outcome of it all. They watched as Anne and then Charlotte and then Anne again came out and returned with more hot water, more bandages, and a change of bedding, as bloody sheets and towels were removed to be washed.

Sweeney had seemingly done his best, under the watchful eyes of her mother and Anne (both uncomfortably aware that it was often not the affliction that killed the patient, but the doctor’s intervention and his medicines. Also, God might cure, but it would be the doctor who would claim his fee for it), until they had objected to him continuing to try and find the ball and subjecting their brother to more torture. They regretted calling him in now and were glad to see him gone. The doctor had done what he could, but had been unable to do anything other than to cause Oliver considerable pain. The ball seemed to have struck a rib and been redirected in some way, for no amount of probing could locate it. The good news was that it had not punctured his lung.

Sweeney had given up under protest, only when Mrs. Morton had suggested that her son should be allowed to rest and should be bandaged again, for he was losing too much blood. No critical part of his inner organs had been affected, though it was perhaps too early to decide the full extent of the damage. He was neither breathing nor coughing blood, which was a good sign. The unbelievably asinine suggestion that he might benefit from being bled, after all of the blood Oliver had lost already, was met with strong resistance by both Mrs. Morton and Charlotte, who both overruled the good doctor firmly, and resolutely saw him packed up and out of the house. He knew better than to argue with such forceful women. They knew all about Dr. Sweeney’s reputation and that he was likely more interested in raising his fee for what he had unsuccessfully tried to do.

Now, it was left in their more capable hands to nurse him back as best they might. They might tolerate a further visit on the next day, but it was clear that he would not be allowed to do anything more to Oliver than he already had. He would not be allowed to pull him around even more, and perhaps kill him. They needed the night to think about it. Better to leave the ball where it was, and give him a chance at life, than go after it again and certainly kill him.

Charlotte sat with him as he tried to rest. His mother and Anne would see to informing the rest of the family. Three married sisters much further afield, one in Lancaster and two others in Eastbourne, would be informed by courier of what had happened, though they could not possibly be able to see what the outcome might be so soon. The next forty-eight hours would reveal the likely course of the event. He might be dead before they got any kind of reply. His mother put that thought from her, but she had not liked any of what she had seen. She prepared a thin soup to at least get him started on the long road to recovery, always with an eye on a positive outcome. Someone would be with him round the clock from this moment forward. Rest was what he needed now to let the body marshal its own defenses. To that end, he had been sedated and settled as warmly and as comfortably as was possible.

He did not seem able to rest, however, for he was as adamant as he could be that Charlotte should write a letter for him, to go off immediately, and swore her to secrecy. Obviously, it would be to the young woman she had observed him with on that one occasion at the festival, and on several other occasions after that too, but always at a distance.

She could not understand the urgency of what he wanted but accepted that he seemed agitated enough that it should be done and got out of the way for him to be able to rest. It was also strange that he swore her to secrecy about it, for he insisted that no one else was to know about any part of it. However, she would need to trust one of the servants, perhaps Hessock, to see that it got to where it was meant to go. She readily acquiesced and allowed him to dictate his letter to her. He knew it would surprise his sister, yet he had no choice in the matter. He also knew that she would be unlikely to ask any probing questions of him until he were in a more relaxed state and better able to answer them.

My dearest Georgiana,

“At last we now know her first name after you have kept us in the dark for almost two months.” She blurted it out before she could hold herself back. He looked up to see his sister looking at him strangely, though she was too worried to quiz him just yet. He was thankful for that, and continued:

I would have been with you at our appointed time today, but a much more . . . but a serious family issue has arisen to stop me, and I am unable to leave. I am also unable to write it for myself at this moment, but I am prevailing upon my sister to write it for me, so that is why the writing may be strange and not what you are accustomed to see in those few letters we have needed to exchange.

I will relate more to you tomorrow when I write, if I cannot meet with you then either. Please do not be concerned. It is nothing too serious. You may also trust that my sister will say nothing.

Love.

Ever yours, Oliver.

“That will have to do. I will not worry her with any more than that. I fear she will be worried enough as it is, I know I would be. You will say nothing—not to Mama or anyone else, won’t you, Shar?” He looked concerned.

“I shall say nothing, if you promise to disclose everything to me later.”

“I will tell you all of it, Shar, but not now.” He closed his eyes and tried to calm his feelings. He knew that his sister was burning with curiosity but was more concerned for him at that moment than to demand to know anything. “Thank you for your forbearance.” He reached out and took her hand, though she could see it caused him pain to do so. “I will tell you more tomorrow, after I have had chance to rest, but I would not like her to worry about me, for I had arranged to meet her an hour or so gone.”

“But where should I address it to, Oliver, and to whom?”

“Oh yes, of course. It goes to ‘George.’ Just that name, ‘George,’ in care of the innkeeper of the Red Lion, in Calderwold—Mr. Williamson. Seal it well. I doubt there will be a response to this today, but there may be tomorrow. Her letters will be sent to me, ‘Oliver,’ at that same inn, so you should ask about that too.”

“Well, brief and to the point, and quite anonymous, almost! Who might question two gentlemen corresponding with each other?”

“Yes, we decided it was safer to do it that way, to avoid discovery or awkward questions. We agreed to use that method if either of us was not able to get to our meeting as planned. Use Hessock, Shar. He can keep a confidence and will not disclose what he is instructed not to. I must need to trust you in this, with me in this state. I promise to tell you more tomorrow about Georgiana and everything. It cannot be avoided now, and I will need someone I can trust and confide in. I suppose Anne can also be trusted. If . . . if anything were to happen to me before then, Shar, I will trust you to let her know. She is Georgiana Stavely, sister to my friend, Henry. The family lives over near Calderwold.” What was he suggesting? She felt a sudden chill envelop her over the implication in his words, and that he seemed to sense that it would not go well for him.

“Do not think of that, Oliver. You will recover.” She hoped, more than she felt optimistic of that. It was a serious wound. He reached out and took her hand as he looked steadily into her eyes.

“Please do not try to find out about her, Shar, or do more than you should. She is a lady, and if you have not already surmised it, I am in love with her, and she with me, and we have been that way since we met on that first day, just before the Calderwold festivities began. I had thought nothing good could possibly happen that day once I had seen to Enright after your confrontation with him, and then I met her not two hours afterward, and everything distasteful about that day left me. We have met every day since then. Until now.”

His briefly mentioning that time with Enright, sparked uneasy feelings of her own. Enright had been in her thoughts too, even concerning this. He was one who would bear such a grudge and would not hesitate to do injury to anyone in the most cowardly way. He was capable of it, and though it appeared that he had not been involved, she would not have put it past him to have somehow put someone else up to it. She kept that thought to herself but would raise it with Preston as soon as she had chance. It was clear that there was more that he was not telling her, but she would soon get the full story out of him, now that he had dared to start it.

“So that is where you have been going. We were wondering and speculating, as we women do, about what kept you out all night, and so often.” She said nothing of what she knew of them meeting as they had. “And it was all night and has been for the last six weeks and more, Oliver. Well, that is a relief to know that she is a lady, I expect.”

“She is a lady, like you. I can promise you that.”

She wanted to ask him so much but realized that now was not the time. “I shall do as you request, but please, Oliver, no more of this pessimism. You shall recover, you know. Mother is making her chicken soup for you, and that will get you back on your feet in no time at all, and we will try to keep that Sweeney quack out of it. We should never have allowed him past the door.”

“I hope so, Shar. I hope so.” He lay back, closed his eyes, and tried to sleep, though he mumbled a sentence that could be clearly heard, despite the effects of the opiate taking control of him. “To meet like that and then to possibly lose it all so quickly would be more than a body might bear.”

Charlotte rang for a servant to ask Anne to replace her for a few moments as she saw to the other matter of getting the letter seen to without her mother wondering about that. It was discomforting to see her twin so helpless, and obviously feeling so pessimistic about the outlook for himself.

She did not intend to sleep herself until she had questioned Preston to find out what he knew. He had returned briefly to the scene of the shooting, finding that the man he had shot had not gone far, before he had sat down. He had still been confused when Preston and his dogs came upon him. He had not been too seriously wounded, and Preston had recognized him immediately as being a simpleton from the village put up to some mischief by way of poaching a deer on the estate. The Fallowfield herd was one of the largest of those still left in the shires, and most of those intent on poaching knew better than to try to bring down a deer. But not this lad.

“He’s resting for the moment. Damn that doctor for causing him more pain, but I suppose we had to call him in to make sure it wasn’t worse. Although I fear he made it worse by what he did. We’ll know more tomorrow. About that shooting, Preston, I am sure I heard too little to fully understand any of it. You said poachers, but clearly it was not. How can you be sure that youth was not put up to it by Jasper?”

“No, not Jasper, Miss, at least not directly, nor in any way that I can find out. He’s in London last I heard—and still laid up after what Master Oliver did to him. I saw him go almost two months gone now, and a difficult enough time of it he had at that time, and still does. I have sources in London to let me know of his whereabouts if he were to surface anywhere. He is still not mobile. He’s staying with his brother, but on a tight rein. There is no love lost between those two. I would hear soon enough if he thought to come back here. I have my own reasons to want to meet up with him again.”

“Your niece?” He had not known that she had been aware of what had happened to his niece at Enright’s hands and then realized that such things were not easily hidden. “Don’t worry, it is not widely known. I was one of those who first encountered her.”

“Yes, miss, her! I wasn’t sure you knew of that. I doubt she’ll get over that soon, and nor will I. But on this shooting, miss, it was that daft lad from Grange way. Out doing something on a dare. There was another with him, a gapeseed like him, I warrant, for them both to be out on such a fool’s errand as to be after deer as they were, but the other lad took off too fast for me to see who it was, and that stupid lad won’t say just yet. He has his own problems to deal with now. Too daft to wait until dark, and not even sure what poaching was, but he got an old gun from somewhere, though his parents know naught of that. He thought he’d got a deer in his sights and let fly. Somebody put him up to it ’cause he’d never have thought of it by himself, but I can’t get a lick of sense out of him. His head’s full of something apart from wit! He’s a nice and amiable enough lad, but too stupid for his own good! This last was the worst. He may be locked away after this, for I doubt there’s worse he can be accused of. He was protesting that he didn’t know a deer might shoot back! But it was me who shot at him no more than twenty seconds after he’d shot Master Oliver. Confused him something fierce that did! Didn’t even know he’d shot a person. Master Oliver thought it was gypsies, miss, but it wasn’t.”

After that, to their great relief, Oliver began to improve. Charlotte sent a dictated letter off each day and picked a response up at the same time to her brother’s previous letter. He had opened the first one in her presence and had then been better able to relax and to respond to it. He kept them well out of everyone’s way, however, and would let no one else read them.

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