The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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A lady's Maid Cleverly Diverted

A Gossip: A person who will never tell a lie if the truth will do more damage. Also, Rumors: A kind of gossip in which such a small investment of effort can create such a large return in discomfort.

Much to their coachman’s dismay, though he knew better than to say anything, Charlotte chose to travel to Calderwold in a relatively drab style that did not reflect her true station and that might raise questions if anyone were to recognize her. At least she was not likely to attract attention to herself in a sleepy little village that she had only infrequently visited in the past.

She would also need to masquerade under a different name. It would not do for anyone to speculate as to who Miss Morton of Fallowfield might be and possibly have word get out to Stavely or back to her mother. She would adopt another name altogether, and pass herself off as a daughter of a clergyman from London and awaiting the rest of their party before they might go off to what they had planned, as they toured the ruined monasteries that littered that part of their world.

She had explained to Willis that it would not do for her to arrive with any fanfare from Fallowfield, nor to have her intention known of making friends with Georgiana Stavely. She would arouse curiosity—a single woman alone, but her reasons for being there were no one’s concern; and if anyone should ask who she might be, she would go under the name of her married eldest sister—Carter. She would travel the local area, despite the colder weather, and take in the sights of interest alone, as her friends had seemingly been detained at the last minute and were to join her later. At least, that was the story she would tell. Willis would be there to see her safe.

She had not been to the coast more than twice in her life, other than to Eastbourne, more than a hundred miles distant, and that could be one of her trips. As she sought her opportunity, she would occupy herself with reading and listening for gossip—no better place than a local inn for that—and learn what she could of the Stavelys, though she would need to be careful. Willis, who was staying at the inn also, but in quarters over the stable, was probably in a better position to make inquiries, suggesting, in idle conversation of an evening in the taproom, that he was interested in finding employment locally. Charlotte had let him know that he could describe her as somewhat eccentric, despite her youth (the fault of over-indulgent parents), and difficult to work for, especially when she took it in her mind to go off willy-nilly, as she did now, without any good reason that he was aware of, and at the worst time of year. Eventually, the name Stavely would be sure to come up.

As much as she was impatient to do so, she could hardly ride onto the Stavely estate and announce who she was or why she might be there, or her interest. That would be far too encroaching and presumptive. Some secrets were best kept hidden for a while, as she was sure Georgiana might prefer. Emotions would be high on both sides for some considerable time, and it would be better to move cautiously to achieve the best result. She would reside in the village for several weeks, if necessary, and learn what she could of the family. She might even contrive to bump into the young woman in her travels, though she held out little hope of that.

The letter she had sent along to the Red Lion inn, addressed to “George,” informing Georgiana of her brother’s demise, along with those other documents, must not have been entirely unexpected after her seeing Oliver for herself that evening. She would need time to get over that. Charlotte had written and rewritten that letter several times and in different ways to try and soften the blow, but how does one soften the blow of such disastrous news that brings one’s world of dreams to such an end? She assured her, however, that she would keep what she knew from the rest of the family and would write to her again from London, where the family planned on going. She explained that for the short term, while they were in mourning, she had every intention of removing to London to her aunt’s house for a lengthy stay. She gave clear directions to that address for any letters from Miss Stavely and would ensure that all correspondence between them would be from that address too. Everything would need to be undertaken cautiously and with a good deal of thought. There was too much at stake to make any mistake about it.

Fortunately, she had learned about Georgiana and her immediate family from Oliver as she had sat with him each evening, playing piquet or a game of chess, before he had undergone his disastrous decline.

Ms. Stavely had not, of course, attended Oliver’s funeral. There would have been too many questions from both families at finding a charming and unknown young woman standing graveside and shedding tears over someone she should not have known, and of whom his parents had no knowledge. Her own family would, no doubt, raise similar questions over her distraught mood and needing to attend the funeral of someone almost entirely unknown to them, though whose name would undoubtedly have been known to her brother, Henry, who must have been away on business. He had not even heard of Oliver’s death, or he certainly would have been there.

It was a difficult circumstance and a trying time, but there was a need that Charlotte make things happen somehow, and sooner rather than later, considering that Georgiana was carrying Oliver’s baby. No matter how desperate she might become at her lack of progress, Charlotte dare not just arrive at Stavely unannounced.

She decided to give it a week, at first, as she tried to learn of the Stavelys without provoking too much curiosity about herself, concerning what a striking young woman might be doing alone in a village inn, though she was not entirely unattended, with Willis driving her about from time to time, on pretext of various excursions. She had the determination to carry it off, however, and was aware of the dangers for a young woman in such a place. She tried to present the appearance of one who was capable of looking after herself. The landlord had defused any worries there, by suggesting that his own daughter could sleep either in the same room with her while she stayed there, or in the room immediately adjoining. She had thanked him for his thoughtfulness and had accepted his kind offer about his daughter occupying her room with her, as the inn seemed to be quite busy, and she did not wish to inconvenience anyone. She might learn more of the Stavelys by questioning the daughter after they had both retired, provided she was careful how she raised the topic. Perhaps she might express curiosity about the whereabouts of an old friend whose family resided in the general area and cautiously mention the name of Georgiana Stavely. Done properly, she might learn all she needed to know about not only Georgiana but the rest of the family too.

Unfortunately, the innkeeper’s daughter had just returned from a lengthy stay of some years with relatives in London and knew nothing of any of the local families, but Willis had managed to uncover more than she might have believed possible by their third day there, which he dutifully related to her as they sat looking out over the sea on one of their many outings. Some of what he told her of the family, painted a difficult picture, though Oliver had been able to tell her of it without alarming her. She knew that there were two Stavely brothers, both elderly men now, Robert, and Matthew, who had each gone their different paths in life.

“The elder brother of the two, Matthew, and his son, William, disappeared some years ago with all of the proceeds from a business venture, leaving creditors and business partners searching for him and hungry for his blood. By all accounts, the father and son had been a nasty pair who had treated their servants with as little respect as the business partners at the end. There were many relieved to see them go, wherever it was that they went, and with everything that they could carry, effectively looting the family business, and they left chaos and ill feeling behind them with all of the encumbrances on the estate and unpaid bills everywhere.”

He continued, as Miss Morton indicated that he should, “The younger brother, Robert, who had been in London at the time, and who had nothing to do with the business up until then, was a man of an entirely different character. Well liked and well spoken of, from what I heard. He seemed to regard any slight against the family and their name as inexcusable, and had resolved to try and pick up the pieces left by his brother. From what I learned of him, he was determined to rebuild the business, with little thought given to what it might cost him, seeing that no one would suffer because of the criminal actions of his elder brother. He had started well and had eventually earned the trust, albeit cautiously, of many of his brother’s former partners, but after several years of difficulty, as his health seemed to be suffering, following one setback after another, had had to request the help of his own son, Henry, seeing him leave the university and enter the business too.” Oliver had told her as much. “The son, Henry, had been a blend of both his father and his uncle, but only in the essential details—having his father’s sense of duty, obligation, and purpose, while bringing a firm and sometimes ruthless manner into his dealings, as he dug deeper into the ruin that his uncle had left behind, and discovered too much, which others preferred to keep hidden.”

“Go on, Willis. You certainly learned far more than I have.”

“It was rumored, miss, that Master Henry had repossessed two ships from the earlier business, and which two brothers, the Sinclairs, regarded as their own, after some dealing or other with the elder Stavely. It was all violently done, if what I heard was right. He appeared back in London with those ships and a full cargo of coal on both of ’em, and then a week later, the news trickled down about the two brothers having been murdered in an inn just south of Edinburgh. It all seemed to take place about the same time he had left port with those ships to sail them down to London. The implications were obvious, though nothing could be proved. The Sinclairs had not been well liked.” He did not like to upset his mistress. “I’ll not say more, miss, though I heard more than enough about Master Henry Stavely. Not a nice man to know was the impression I got, and not a man one should think to deceive or to cross.

“The Stavely business seemed to have turned around after he brought those ships back and . . . rumors of that other . . . what had happened to the Sinclairs, seems to have been laid at his door, but I wouldn’t know one way or the other. He went off after other ships too that had been disposed of improperly, without clear and proper title. Rumor is that he heard of those others from the Sinclairs before they met with . . . whatever, or that’s the tale being told, though what to believe, or not believe, is hard to say.” He wished he had not said quite as much as he had, but at least he had not told of what he’d heard about the Sinclair daughter and what had happened to her, though it all seemed to be related.

“I wouldn’t have said anything about that, miss, ’cept it paints a picture about that family and tells me that you’d better be careful what you gets yourself into, though why you would want to have anything to do with them . . .” He realized that his opinion was not required but also knew that it had been Master Oliver’s dying wish that his sister should make friends with a young woman in that same family, and possibly for a reason best not spoken of. It was not for him to judge. “Anyway, it seemed to get easier for the family business after that, and a few people were getting nervous and leaving London. Some of ’em got nervous enough to want to kill Master Henry themselves ’afore he caught up to ’em.” Charlotte nodded her head and listened.

“From what I heard, miss, Mr. Henry Stavely is not one to argue, nor to argue with, if you didn’t guess it already from what I said, but is more likely to act rather suddenlike and without warning, if you follow my drift, though hard to know what to believe.” She followed his meaning. “Not a man to cross.” He was repeating himself. “Too like his uncle and cousin that way, and then there was that other with the Sinclair dau . . .” He had been unable to stop himself before he had said too much. He stopped speaking and would have left it there before his mouth overran his brain even further.

“Go on,” Charlotte tried to prompt him. “The Sinclair dau . . . I take it you mean the daughter?”

“I’m not sure I should say more, miss. Not at all proper, what I heard.” She looked at him with a look in her eyes that he knew, when she was in one of her stubborn moods. He knew she would not let him leave anything unsaid that he had started, no matter how bad it was. “Though if you insist on going into the family, you’d better know the worst.”

“You mean there is something worse than murder?” That was exactly what he meant. “Perhaps you don’t need to say. I can guess. He severely compromised the Sinclair daughter!” Willis blushed and nodded. Another one of those rumors. He didn’t like to touch on such a sensitive story, even if she didn’t seem to mind. “No wonder they might have wanted to kill him.”

“Only rumor, Miss. Taproom gossip, and hard to know where the truth is! Same as the other about that violence and all, but where there’s smoke . . .” She understood. “Still, that bit about the ships seems true enough, as I heard that from more than one other.”

Over a late breakfast the next morning, she overheard a young woman inquiring about the Stavely family and the estate. Charlotte listened with growing interest. The woman had been offered a post as personal maid to a young lady there, Miss Stavely. The maid she had asked had been the same one that Charlotte had initially tried to get information from, but who had told her that she’d have to get her father to answer her questions when it became less busy and the other coaches had gone, as she was new in the area.

Charlotte immediately pounced upon the opening that had just been presented to her, and approached her as diplomatically as she might. “I am sorry for intruding, but I could not help but overhear. You are bound for Stavely, you say? I am a close friend of the family—Charlotte Carter,” the name she had given when she had decided to stay. She learned that the young woman was Caroline Wakefield. “I am a friend of the family. Are you sure you have the family name correct?” She felt somewhat guilty for misleading her about being a family friend, but she felt as though she was—even though they did not know it just yet, as they had never met her. Desperate times required desperate behavior. It was out of character for her, but necessary. She needed an introduction to Stavely and a way in that would not raise hackles as to her purpose, and this seemed to be a heaven-sent opportunity. She would get a message to Willis to cancel their outing for the day.

“Yes, Miss. But I know nothing of the family.” She passed a letter of appointment over to Charlotte to read, spelling out the details of her employment. It was all clear. “I am some hours early, unfortunately, as I was to arrive on the London coach, which I am told does not come in for another hour or two, and I came in from over Selbourne way, to the west of here. I had no choice when I was to leave there, as there was just the one coach from there that was to come through here today.” Charlotte passed the document back to her.

“If you came from the west, then I imagine you did not get chance to stop and refresh yourself. I am also here for just a short time, and I would like some company. Perhaps we can exchange pleasantries and relieve each other of the usual tedium.” The young woman seemed thankful to have met someone who might know the family, as she had arrived in a strange place and without anyone likely to meet her for some time. She had been told, in a letter she had received, however, that there would be a carriage to meet the coach from London. But all of that was still some time off, and it was to meet the London coach, as she had said.

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