The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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Oliver Has a Secret

A secret, once revealed, is of little interest to anyone. A secret not revealed torments and eats away at the brain of others until it is discovered.

Oliver arrived back at Fallowfield by midmorning, in time to bathe and change, and then to have a late breakfast with his sisters. He noticed that he was under scrutiny by Charlotte, who regarded him with a knowing smile on her face but would say nothing in front of Anne, who had already observed enough for herself, with him looking sleepy eyed and even yawning.

“What? Why are you looking at me that way?” He looked at them both, seeing their smiles, but not about to say anything more about where he had been or had been doing, to either of them at such an early stage. When Anne had excused herself, however, Charlotte was able to grill him suitably. “Well, Oliver, you have the look about you of the cat that got the cream. What were you up to, to stay out all night as you did, for you have done nothing but endeavor to stifle one yawn after another since you arrived back home. You also entered the house where no one might see you to comment upon your rather bedraggled state, but I watched from the window, and I saw you going up the back stairs. I also saw the sorry state of your clothing in the laundry afterward. It looked like you had gone for a swim in the river in all of your clothes, and I know you would not do that. Did you?” She was smiling at him, but he said nothing other than to mutter some lame excuse. She decided not to ask about the widow Cowperthwaite. It had not been she who had put such a rosy glow into his cheeks, fire into his eyes, or a spring in his step.

“So what secret is this that you are so tongue-tied you dare say nothing to me. I thought we had no secrets from each other, you and I. Still, we both of us, knew that that time might come when we would have secrets. It’s just that I did not expect it so suddenly or so soon.” It did not seem that he would respond. She knew better than to badger him if she wanted to find anything out. Better if he told her in his own way. She knew enough, however, to realize that he had met someone at the fair on the previous day; but where he had been since then was a mystery, though not a total mystery. There was much that could be read from the state of his clothing sitting in the laundry, and also likely to need the attention of a needlewoman, as well as his sudden reluctance to say how they had got that way. He had also left a trail of sand from where he had removed his boots.

“I should amplify on what I said earlier about the state of your clothing, Oliver. When I went to the washhouse, I found Mary wondering what you might have been doing to get sand in your clothing and to leave it in such a state, as though you had bathed in it, and your boots were no better. I doubt that you might make such a mess of yourself bobbing for apples, or sitting astride that greasy pole above the mud and disporting yourself in that way, though there seems to be a profusion of village idiots intent on doing that when this time of year arrives.” She looked at him, put out by his unusual silence as he smiled enigmatically at her. He had not been doing any of those things, and she found she was puzzled at what might have happened to him. They usually had no secrets from each other. She felt she knew the nature of his silence, though he had not been with the widow Cowperthwaite. He knew enough to keep clear of her most of the time. That desperate young widow had ambitions to hear wedding bells in her future once more, and discreetly favored several vulnerable men of the village in hopes of catching any one of them. Oliver was at the top of that list.

“If I did not know you better, I might suspect you had met a woman at the festival, though what kind of a woman, considering what often happens there, I dare not think.” She saw a sudden alarmed look on his face and realized that she was possibly correct. It quite shocked her, for Oliver was not known for being so obviously interested in anyone of the opposite sex.

“I fell into the river is all.” She smiled, understanding far more than he might say in the way he could not easily look at her, and with his face distinctly flushed. For the first time in his life, in any of his dealings with his sister, he was not entirely believable and could not easily meet her eyes. There was more that he was not telling her. That much was evident from his face.

“Oliver, reassure me, at least, that she might be a lady!” Her eyes sparkled as she tormented him. From the set of his jaw as he returned her smiling request, she feared he might not answer her. She saw his expression soften. There was a new pleading in his eyes.

“Stop speculating out loud please, Charlotte, especially where others may hear you. You know what Mama is like about prying secrets out of us.” She raised an eyebrow at him, waiting for his answer to her question, and continued to smile.

He relented. “Yes, she is certainly a lady.” He blushed. “Now ask me no more.”

She took a bite at her toast, satisfied to have made even some small progress. “I shall find it all out eventually, you know.”

“I know that you will try, but I shall say nothing else at this moment, and nothing at all, if you persist.” She was satisfied with that. She knew she would learn all of it in due course and would now keep her eyes open. Not much could be hidden for long between them. Other secrets might take months to appear, with the last ones usually taking a full nine months to show up, but any between her and Oliver would become evident within a few days, usually.

“While I remember, Oliver, and before you get chance to rush off again, I shall need your escort to Calderwold this afternoon, if you can find time to accommodate me in your busy schedule, for I heard you telling the stable boy that you would need a horse for this afternoon.” Her voice dropped. “As well as asking the cook to put you up a picnic for two, and some wine.” She looked searchingly at him. “Well, you began this, by appearing as you did, and in the state you did. I am curious of course, but I shall not spy on you, and you may tell me only what you feel comfortable with.”

“Thank you, Charlotte, but I am not ready to say anything to anyone just yet and have myself denned and questioned by curious sisters and my mother. I shall reveal all in due course, I can promise you that.”

“I suppose I should be satisfied that you said even as much as you did, but I cannot help being a woman, Oliver, and you know what that means.” He knew—insatiable curiosity where her brother’s personal life was concerned. “It is enough to make me more curious than ever. Perhaps I cannot count upon you this afternoon now that you have another, and obviously, more romantic distraction.”

“I will take you, Shar, but I shall need to let you fend for yourself after that, for I have other plans.”

“Yes, I am sure that you do. But you say far too little. Who is she, apart from being an unknown young woman? Will you not put a name to her? You cannot have any secrets from your own twin sister for long, you know. We have shared too much together, you and I, for we lived in each other’s company for a full nine months while we shared everything at that time in the womb together, and for almost the whole of the next twenty years. We were only really separated when you went off to university. I can smell a rare tale lurking here, and would love to know more. Promise me, at least, that you will be careful and not get dragged into some reckless liaison that you will later regret.”

“Nothing like that. You are letting your imagination run away with you. I told you that I shall tell you eventually, but you must not read more into it than is there, as you women tend to do. You can take some crumb of evidence or some nuance or word and turn it into a drama, if not worse, and I would not like that at this moment.” He was being protective of someone. Charlotte was now even more fired up with curiosity, but to find out more, she would need to be cautious, or that door might be too well and securely closed to her. She and her brother rarely had secrets from each other, and she felt conflicting feelings of hurt at being shut out, and yet she was also happy for him.

“No, of course not! Yes, we women do have that tendency, don’t we, but not so much drama, as love story. Those are more titillating.” She saw further confirmation that her suspicions were correct. “. . . And we are naturally curious to ferret out a romance. But you men in turn become silent and taciturn, secretive, and even evasive—as you are being now—when you seem to have the most to hide from us. No doubt the truth will be found somewhere in the middle.

“On another matter”—she changed the subject to relieve Oliver of what seemed to be a mildly difficult situation—“you may be interested to know that Mrs. Bowling, the Enright’s housekeeper told her son, our chief brewmaster, some of what happened yesterday with Jasper. Mama does not know, fortunately, but he felt that I should know. It seems that Jasper dared not tell the truth of what happened to him, but described instead how he had been set upon by a gang of ruffians from the village and that he was lucky to escape with his life. Quite a Canterbury tale he wove for his mother, to explain his appearance. Well, that latter aspect is true, I suppose. His mother was quite taken in as she usually is, for she can see no wrong in him and will not hear any of the tales told of him. She packed him off in the carriage last night, or perhaps it was early this morning, to London, to save him from further bullying and harm. He was sent off to see a London doctor—one who might be able to deal better with his injuries, as well as being less inclined to broadcast it all about the area concerning what had befallen her son. Clearly, we will have nothing to worry about from that quarter for some time.”

Oliver said nothing, satisfied to see the subject changed away from himself. He held no such sympathetic feelings toward Jasper’s mother. She was a devious troublemaker in her own way and hid her true feelings and machinations behind a mask of inscrutability, while plotting in her own way to confound those arraigned against her son, and therefore—as she was convinced—against her too.

As Charlotte had requested, Oliver escorted her into Calderwold and left her in the company of her friend Angelica, but she quickly took her friends arm and steered her back, so that they might see what Oliver was up to and to follow him.

He went off to the edge of town and waited, unaware that his sister and her companion—soon informed that Oliver seemed to have fallen in love—had abandoned any pretense of behaving like young ladies and had excitedly rushed out behind him in some haste to follow him, while staying well back and out of sight. He was sufficiently distracted that he had forgotten the firebrand of curiosity he had ignited behind him. They stayed out of sight and watched as they saw Oliver settle himself to wait for someone at the edge of the village green. There were enough others gathering by then, that the two curious observers would not be too easily noticed.

Within minutes, a young woman appeared that neither Charlotte nor her companion had ever seen before to their knowledge—an apparently respectable young woman riding a striking horse, possibly the match of Charlotte’s own horse stabled safety at home, and they greeted each other warmly, though discreetly, as they touched each other’s hands and then conversed. It seemed a harmless kind of meeting to anyone else, but to someone who knew Oliver as well as his sister did, their gentle, but intense interaction spoke volumes. Charlotte wished she had been closer and had been able to overhear what they said, but she was too far off. Their gentle actions as they looked intently at each other, proclaimed loudly enough for her to see what she could not overhear. She was observing two people deeply in love. She felt stirrings of concern and then of jealousy, which she soon put aside. Oliver then mounted, and they left Calderwold and its gathering horde, as they rode off together toward the river.

“Where would they be going? Surely there is enough here to interest them, or perhaps not, considering the special interest they showed in each other.” Angelica giggled and then spoke up. “There is nothing there in that direction until Southwold, but that is about six miles off. There is, however, a meeting place down by the riverbank, not so far away on horseback that is a frequent meeting place for those with more seriously amorous intentions. My mother told me that my brother was—” she had gone too far to leave it unsaid, but she knew that Charlotte would say nothing “—was conceived there!”

“Oh!” Charlotte looked at her in shock. “Yes, we all have skeletons rattling behind the scenes, don’t we, as Oliver constantly reminds me. But Oliver . . .” She held off from voicing anything further. Her brother was stepping out of character—or perhaps not. When a woman came into a man’s life, he changed in ways even his own close family might not suspect. Sometimes, not always for the better. However, she had looked like a lady, for all that might mean when the two of them looked at each other in that way. The prodromous had rung for Oliver and was giving him a pleasant message, as well as a promise.

As Oliver and Georgiana had intended, their meetings continued for the duration of the festivities, as well as after them too; and they met as discreetly as they might each day, before they took themselves off, either down to the river as before, or to other places that might be free of supervision. Both had ready explanations for their constantly being away from home, and their late hours, appearing only midmorning. Though it was unusual, and gave rise to some speculation, no one questioned any of it too closely. Georgiana was staying with a close bosom friend; Oliver was doing what young men did—whatever that might be. It was the nature of such a festival to cause changes in long-held habits. When it was over, the usual humdrum existence of dreary lives would soon overpower them once more, leaving them with only good (one hoped) memories.

They discovered more about each other with the advance of time, and found that no matter what they found out, that they were comfortable with each other’s company and character, for they were of one mind by then as to their future together. If others were at the river, intent on more innocent or similar distraction, then they took themselves off to other peaceful settings where they would not be disturbed and spent the evening cozily in each other’s company as they had on that first night. They made their plans and decided how they would continue, and how they would broach what had happened and was happening to their families, only when it became necessary to do so. Nothing else was allowed to intrude into their suddenly small and fully occupied world.

Charlotte was more aware of what might be happening than Oliver might have felt easy to admit (so was the Stavely laundry maid, who had to deal with the shocking story that her clothing told, afterward), but nothing was openly discussed in the confines of their families to suggest that anything amiss was taking place—as would have been suspected—or that other things were taking place than just participation in the festivities. The carnival atmosphere, while it had been going on, was merely an excuse to hide what was truly taking place between them, as it did for many other young couples who might never have met.

There had been talk of scaling back the celebrations in the past, as there seemed to be an unusual number of hastily arranged marriages following the celebrations, but such welcome avenues of relief were so infrequently presented to them in their confined existences for anyone to want to see any of it scaled back. It was well known in the parish records that after the annual festivities, there was also a noticeable spike in births, nine months following, so what might it be like after this, where everything had been on a larger scale and had gone on for longer, was open to some alarming speculation. There might not be a virgin left in the entire surrounding area above the age of twelve or below the age of seventy!

There was even some harmless wagering between the regulars at the various inns as to which of the young lasses, and not so young women, or them as was not good looking enough—caught up in the throes of romantic desperation and recognizing their last chance to trap a man had come—might get caught out, as their moral restraint suffered a notable weakening in the last few days of the festival. With so many new faces, so many new possibilities were opened up, far away from the usual and familiar prying eyes of those who might exercise some control over suddenly heightened and desperate emotions. Besides, such strenuous guarding of moral values became both tiring and tiresomely restrictive when temptation came around. With time, parents grew less attentive of their daughters, and carelessness set in. The devil truly was hard at work at those moments, despite Tyson’s herculean efforts to keep him at bay.

Where one was not easily recognized by friends or relatives, newfound courage in approaching a not so well-guarded young lady, also momentarily separated from others who might know her, could blossom, and recklessness—often shyly signaled or more openly encouraged before the opportunity passed out of their lives forever—soon followed. Some of the girls were not so slow to behave coquettishly, and to signal their availability for romance, with nothing more complicated than a direct look, or a simple smile and a nod of the head, when their parents’ backs were turned. A quick tumble in the hay was never far off, after that. In short, a good time was had by most of those attending, with the reckoning from being careless with one’s reputation, far enough off in the future not to concern so many who hoped to escape it, as many luckily did, maintaining their unblemished reputations for another year. Others didn’t escape so easily.

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