A marriage is planned.
Then her brother seemed to take a turn for the worse and became feverish. He became more thoughtful and to withdraw within himself, which Charlotte knew was not a good sign. She discovered that he had sent Hessock off on some errand, but had told her nothing of it. Hessock returned no more than an hour later and sat with Master Oliver as they talked together in a way that suggested that Oliver had given him instructions of some kind and was now learning the outcome of all of that. Their brother was up to something and did not want them to know what it was. Perhaps he was feeling better than he let on. Or was worse!
He ate the soup that his mother brought him and then pleaded that he would like to be left alone, with Hessock only, close by him. He reassured them that Hessock was all he needed at that moment, and if he needed anything else, he would see that they were rung for.
Their mother saw it all but mentioned it only to her daughters in private. “What is this mood that Oliver is in, and why is Hessock forever riding off on some errand or other that I did not direct? Also, to whom is Oliver writing in the village and from whom is he receiving letters? One might almost think he had secrets from us.” Their mother seemed to worry about everything, which was the prerogative of most mothers, but she obviously knew nothing of Miss Stavely.
“I am sure we will find out all of these things eventually, Mama, but he clearly does not want us so close to him all of the time. You know how men feel about the too-confining society of fussing women.” She put aside the dress she had been hemming. “I shall take a turn about the grounds before it gets too dark. None of us had time to think for the last few days.”
Anne put aside the book she was reading. “If you do not mind my company, I will join you too.” They walked, heading in the direction of the stable before Anne spoke. “What is going on, Charlotte? I know that you are more in Oliver’s confidence than we are, and I would like to know. He has been behaving like a love-sick puppy ever since the festival, coming and going at all hours when he should have been at the university. I know it cannot be Patricia Cowperthwaite, even though she has been throwing herself at him suggestively. What does he think he can do now, that he needs us out of his way?”
“No, it is not her. I believe that I know what is going on, but I could not say anything in front of Mama. Oliver intends something, even this evening, but he does not want any of his immediate family interfering in it or asking too many questions, which is why he got us out of the way for a while. I believe he is planning a clandestine marriage—tonight!”
Anne took a firm hold of her arm to stop her and turned her sister to face her. “Who?”
“A young lady he has known for only a few weeks. A Miss Georgiana Stavely. He has written to her every day since his accident—dictated, for me to write for him, and she has responded each time, though he does not let me see her letters.” They continued to walk toward the stables. “That is why he wants us out of the way. He sent Hessock off to get it all arranged with the vicar and Miss Stavely for this evening. I cornered Hessock and got it out of him.” Anne took her arm and waited for her to continue. “I intend to sit beneath that pine tree at the corner of the stable to get a closer look at her, if I can, and see what happens. The light from the stable and the house will allow us to see her, but we will not be seen.”
“Why does he feel that this is needed? Surely we should meet her first, even if he does not expect us to approve of her.” She stopped suddenly. “You don’t think he believes . . .” She could not say more but felt a sudden feeling of sickness come over her.
“Oliver tells us too little, Anne. He may not be quite as optimistic as we would like him to be, but there may be another reason for this marriage than that, and I would rather believe it was the second reason rather than the first.”
“You mean that she might be . . . pregnant? Surely not!” Anne was shocked, but she was even more shocked by what Charlotte said next.
“I can only hope that she is, and this is his way of protecting her!” The alternative was not something she wished to think about. “Sh. I hear a cart approaching. We need to be out of sight.” They scurried into the dark shadows under the spreading pine tree and waited out of sight. A small two-wheel cart, with no lights and drawn by a single horse, came out of the dark of the driveway. Hessock himself met it, as they could hear by his words. There was a young woman, and a man got out of it, as a young stable hand led it off out of sight to await their return. Hessock silently escorted the two visitors off to the side of the house to enter by another door.
“I was right. That was Reverend Wilberforce.” She had recognized the voice of the vicar from an adjacent parish. No hiding that Cornish accent.
“Oh, Charlotte, why did he not tell us what he intended?”
“Probably for fear we would try to talk him out of it, or stop him.” She reconsidered that statement. “No, that is not his fear. He is trying to protect her, even from us. We might be too much for her to have to contend with at such a moment as this, on top of what he fears.”
“What do we do now?”
“Nothing. We wait.” It was an anxious time for Charlotte. She knew what it all meant, but Oliver, in his usual way, was trying to protect them all from what should have been obvious, but which they dare not believe might be possible. Within half an hour, the three reappeared from the house. The young woman was crying, that much was obvious. Charlotte wanted to rush over to her and hold her in her arms and tell her that all would be well, but knew in her own heart that it would not be. She pulled Anne into her arms instead and shed her tears there. Anne then realized for herself what it all meant, and they cried together as the carriage left.
“Miss!” Hessock was standing just out of the shadow by the tree and was addressing them. “You should go back up to him now. He’ll need your support now more than ever.” He had obviously known they had both been there, even before the cart had arrived.
When Charlotte and Anne entered his sickroom, they could see that Oliver was more at ease than earlier; but in this case, it was not a good sign. His face was flushed, and his breathing was more labored than it had been. He had done what he knew he must do and had given the woman he loved the protection of his name in what would soon become an even more difficult circumstance for her. What would he not have given to have retraced his steps even a week, although fate had a tendency to surprise, with her capricious nature. One might avoid one pitfall, only to walk into another that was worse, but he was not one of those who ascribed such things to the will of God or the hand of fate. No god would be so cruel as to bring two young people together in such love as they had shared and then see them parted from each other in such a cruel manner.
His first words to them were to confess that, as they probably knew, he was married now. His next utterance was not entirely unexpected and confirmed what Charlotte had suspected. “She is with child—mine, ours, and has been for a month or more now.” He seemed to have a sense of death creeping over him, and it was disturbing to see, but he knew more of his own condition than anyone else might. “This has gone the wrong way, Shar! It doesn’t feel right. I’m too lightheaded and don’t know where I am half the time. Tell Mama nothing of this. She does not need any added burden. Perhaps in a year or so . . .
“I have to protect everyone now as best I can. I didn’t have time to do it properly, Shar. Last-minute thing, but it had to be done. I had not planned on ruining her, which I may have done inadvertently. This outcome was the furthest thing from my thoughts or desires, but who is ever given warning of what might happen in the future? We were, both of us, caught up in the moment, even as we met, and nothing else mattered. We would not have done anything different, either of us. You can, and should, meet her under better circumstances, I hope, once this has settled down, but now is not the time. Between all of you and your women’s grief and tears, I would have been undone and useless. Better this way. I have ruined her, Charlotte! Nothing was further from my mind than this outcome.” He signaled for them to approach more closely. “I need you to listen carefully to what I have to say.”
His sisters sat down with him while he told them all that he either dared, or could. He got Charlotte to promise that she would soon go and visit Georgiana Stavely and to try and ensure that she came to no harm and to explain to her, if she could, how sorry he was for the way things had worked out. He also wanted Charlotte to be with her at the time of her giving birth and to see that his child would know of his or her origins. “Become her friend if you can, Shar. She is like you for common sense and knowing exactly what she wants, but her family is undergoing a difficult time still. Rescue her if necessary. I have made some provision for her”—he indicated a letter to his bank in London—“but not enough at this time, with so little warning, and I must ask that you see that she does not want for anything.” He paused to bring his thoughts to order.
“One last thing: you must, both of you, get away from here, and take Mama with you. I doubt that Father will go so easily, but it is more important that you two do. I should have killed Enright when I had the chance. I fear he may have had a hand in this somehow, but I do not know how. I am afraid for you. He bears a grudge, Shar, after what you and I both did to him. You need to follow the example of our sisters and get married and head out of here if you cannot find some means of staying with Georgiana and helping her through what I fear is about to happen. You could confide in her. She would not make you unwelcome.”
He passed over to his twin sister all of the letters he had exchanged with Georgiana, as well as the wedding document. “Keep them safe. Let no one see them before you give them to her.” As his hand touched hers, he held her hand and touched her finger with her ring on it—a heavy gold ring with an onyx inset engraved with her initials, CM. “She has my ring, the same as your own that we were given at birth, with our initials on them, and I have this one that she gave me. See that it is returned to her please.” He took a man’s ring off his finger and gave it to his sister. “Better if Mama knows nothing of these, or what happened here tonight.
“Please forgive me for not involving you in the marriage, but it was a sudden thing, and . . . I dare not risk anyone trying to go against me and stopping me. I am in no fit state to argue or fight anyone off.” He waved his hand toward the papers she held and the ring. “Give them to her. Better if they are in a safe place and not with me for Mama to find, with all of her questions. Look after Anne and yourself. You are both vulnerable now. Our sisters will be too late, except . . . for the rest of it. Give them my love.” He looked about the room as though he knew he was seeing it for the last time. “I do not have long. Would that I could have spent it with her, but I could not have borne that pain too. You should ask Mama to come up now.” He lay back to conserve his remaining strength and closed his eyes.
Oliver died peacefully that same evening with his younger sisters and his mother by his bedside. His older sisters would not be there until the next day but would at least have been spared the agony of watching their only brother die.
Charlotte’s heart was heavy. “I must write another letter now—the worst kind of letter, and let Georgiana know, if she did not already guess. Not a letter I ever believed I might have been called upon to write, and one that will cause as much, if not more, grief to receive as to write, but it must be done, and with others to our more distant relatives. I shall go and let Mama know that I will take on that task— writing to our relatives. I dare tell her nothing of the other.”
After the letters had been sent off with riders, the two sisters sat down, reaching out and holding each other’s hands, unable to hold back their tears and their concerns for what lay ahead of them now. They still could not believe what had happened, but they knew that it would catch up with them before long and strike harder once their older sisters arrived. Nothing would ever be the same with Oliver gone.
Charlotte’s thoughts were not only upon their own loss, however. She felt a deeper pain, knowing that out there, was a young woman who had been presented with all that life had to offer for her in abundance—love, a lover, promise of a good future together, and had seen it ripped from her before she might ever see it mature and grow. She could not hold those thoughts back from her sister. “Oh, Anne, I know how this tragedy is affecting me—us, and I might guess how it is affecting her, even though she and Oliver knew each other for such a brief time. To fall so deeply in love as they obviously did, and then to have this happen. I cannot think that she will get over it easily, if ever, especially not with a child growing inside her to think about.”
“I wonder if we might we see her at the funeral, Shar?”
“I doubt she will be there. She knows none of us, or us, her. That would raise even more problems to be dealt with, both for her and for us. A beautiful young woman; a stranger, in deepest mourning, shedding tears with the rest of us and hovering close by, would have everyone wondering about her and raising too many questions.” She could no longer hold back her hurt. “Damn Oliver for putting himself and all of us into this position!” She regretted those words immediately but still felt annoyed with the circumstance and needed to give vent to her frustration. She might just put a saddle on Velvet and take off for an hour or two before her growing black mood robbed her of all ambition.
Somehow, when she was up to it, after Oliver’s funeral, she would need to make friends with Miss Georgiana and become as close as she might to her, to be sure that Oliver’s last wishes would be carried through. It would be better if their mother were left in the dark about this for at least a few months, though she may give some hint of it to her sisters—sensible women all. One tragedy was one too many, and then this . . . ? She would take off immediately after the funeral, making some suitable excuse to her mother, and see in what way she might make the acquaintance of Georgiana Stavely—Ms. Stavely no more, but Mrs. Oliver Morton, yet not a name she might easily and openly go by. Nonetheless, she began to feel like a sister to her already. They were at least sisters in tragedy.
“Oh, Charlotte, I know you will become great friends with her, as I will when I get to meet her, but I do not know how any of that might be arranged without Mama suspecting something. I liked what little I saw of her when she did come last evening, and she was obviously worried for Oliver. Oliver loved her, so she must be an entirely wonderful young woman. I will want you to let me know everything you are doing. How will you let me know? How should I write to you?”
“We will think of something. I may not be able to communicate too openly with you at first, or you with me, unless we do it through that inn close by the house in London. I shall send my letters there, as I dare not address them here. We should not identify any names openly, lest our letters go astray. I had better be the first to write to let you know how we can go forward. I shall send them to that inn to be picked up by Miss Anne M. It will seem that you are a bosom friend rather than a sister.” They held each other. “You had better take care, Anne. We lost our one rock of stability in our lives with Oliver, and there are but the two of us here now.” She dried her eyes. “I shall tell Mama none of this. She is burdened enough as it is. I know that after the funeral, she will not be able to stay here but will also need to relocate to London with you, at least until she gets over this. I shall suggest that to her anyway. I need to find out what I can do first about becoming part of Miss Stavely’s society. Be assured that I shall let you know as soon as I might. If it does not work out, I may have to return home, you know, finding that we do not suit, or because of some other difficulty, but it shall not be for lack of effort or determination on my part.”
After the funeral, attended only by family, a few friends, and household staff, Charlotte saw Anne and their mother packed off down to London. When the carriage returned, she packed her own trunks for what might be a relatively long stay and moved herself into the Pelican in Calderwold, close to the estate where her brother’s wife lived, and where she might learn of the family, and could decide how best to approach Miss Stavely. If she approached the family as Charlotte Morton, Miss Georgiana would know who she was immediately and would fear that her secret had been betrayed. Better if she did not identify herself just yet and cause more emotional agony and painful memories.
She had debated with herself whether or not she should read Georgiana’s letters. They might tell her more about the young woman she was about to approach. At least that was the excuse she made to herself.
She began the first letter that had come addressed to “Oliver,” which Georgiana had written:
She got no further. Her eyes had blurred over. The writing was that of someone who did everything with care and was that of an intelligent and well-educated young woman. The tears would not be stopped. She imagined that somewhere, not so far away, Georgiana was shedding similar tears and for the same reason—loss of a loved one. She may also be reading other letters—those from Oliver—with a similarly heavy heart and feeling that her life had now ended.
She had not the right to intrude into something so personal and private. She resolutely bound them all together and wrapped them to send off to Miss Georgiana Stavely. Neither she nor anyone else would read them before Miss Georgiana—Mrs. Oliver Morton now, a name the young lady might cherish only in secret—had them in her hands. They were the last things that Oliver had treasured, apart from the last painful lingering memory of the woman he had fallen in love with. His mind had been on her and her alone when he had last slipped away from the world.
Charlotte would learn to live with her own grief and somehow see that her brother’s wife, and their unborn child, would be safe, as Oliver had requested. She would need to carefully consider how she might present herself to Miss Stavely in a way that would not entirely shock her, and possibly turn her against her at such a difficult time, and that would not cause the family to ask too many questions with a stranger suddenly appearing among them. It would not be an easy task.