The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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A necessary deception.

“You did say you were to be employed as a lady’s maid?”

“Yes.” She launched off into an explanation. Charlotte was pleased to see that she was not at all shy with her. “I was a governess, mostly, but I answered an advertisement to be employed as a lady’s maid.” She had heard from Oliver that Georgiana was the only young lady at Stavely. “Then you must have been hired to be lady’s maid to Miss Georgiana Stavely.”

“I was. I am. Hired to be her personal maid. I heard reports in London that the young lady was kind and generous with her servants and her former companion. I responded to an advertisement in the Gazette. Penningtons, one of those services that specialize in placing servants, interviewed me, but they could tell me little of the family other than that they were trusted to find servants for all of the best families in London as well as the provinces, and I would be taken on, subject to the young lady’s approval. They felt that there would be no difficulty.” She looked embarrassed but then asked something that seemed to be important to her. “Perhaps you would not mind telling me something of the family, as no one seemed able to tell me anything more, and seemed to suggest that I would find out all of that once I had settled in, as though I had no need to know any more, and as though it were none of my business, but it is. I must admit, I was leery of coming so far out of London without knowing more, and it is too far from London for me to change my mind that easily.” It began to seem as if Miss Wakefield might have had little choice about quitting her previous employer, as few servants willingly left any reasonable employment of their own volition, or accepted another that seemed to have been so poorly presented to her. She was inclined to chatter along in her nervousness, which quite suited Charlotte, who was happy to accommodate her and learn what she might.

Charlotte learned from her that her references had been more than suitable for Penningtons to take her on, though her last employer, Mrs. Deming, had not received her resignation at all kindly and might have been trusted to have tried to do her an injustice, even going so far as threatening to refuse her a character. “Fortunately, she didn’t do that when she learned of my reasons for leaving, though I had not wanted to, and I had other references that I could rely upon anyway. I fear I may have burned my bridges with her, though perhaps not. I do hope I am not to be stranded here. I cannot imagine they got the days mixed up. It is the fourteenth, I do know that, for I checked it before I dared leave, and the letter said that they would expect me then.” Miss Wakefield showed her a letter, which laid out how she would be met, so they were expecting her. Charlotte said nothing about this inn not being the one used by the London coach. That coaching stop; the Red Lion, was five minutes further up the main street. Charlotte’s mind worked quickly, and she began to see various ways through her own needs, while at the same time not putting Miss Wakefield out too much, if at all. She had at least two hours to find out what she could, and to somehow dissuade Miss Wakefield from being in Calderwold when her ride out to Stavely arrived.

“You appear to have some time to wait. Perhaps you would like to join me for some light refreshment, and we can at least make each other’s acquaintance. I have a private parlor, and we can talk to pass the time.”

She made sure to get her out of the way of the landlord so that he could say nothing to her, or learn why she was here and possibly sabotage Charlotte’s hastily forming plan. As they sat over tea and a plate of tarts, hot from the oven, she drew out the young woman and learned as much of her as she could. Miss Wakefield gave all appearances of being gently spoken. She may have been a governess in a previous life for Mrs. Deming’s younger daughters, but she had also served as a lady’s maid to the eldest daughter of that same Deming clan. Being respectably born herself, she was familiar with London society before her family had fallen on harder times. Mrs. Deming had seen her value in grooming her daughter for presentation into that society. Despite Miss Wakefield’s family’s difficulties, which she did not elaborate upon, she did not dress carelessly, nor push herself forward, and seemed quite gratified that Miss Carter had not disdained to befriend her. Indeed, Miss Carter was seemingly a young woman from the same level of society as herself and was well able to make her feel welcome, even on such short acquaintance. That, in itself, was a mark of gentility.

Charlotte smiled at her. “I am surprised Penningtons did not warn you better about the family. But I suppose that was deliberate—didn’t want to frighten you off so soon.” Her companion looked at her with some slight alarm evident on her face. What had she landed herself into? “Not that there is anything so wrong. Just not something that one can talk easily about. The family is going through a period of turmoil at the moment, but I thought someone may have warned you.”

“Warn me? How do you mean? Turmoil?” Miss Wakefield began to feel that Penningtons may have been secretive for a reason they chose not to disclose to her and may have misled her. She had never used them before. Perhaps she might have been wiser to have trusted her own instincts and stayed in London to find a position for herself, or braved Mrs. Deming again. From what Penningtons had said, the remuneration was unusually generous for the position she was expected to fill. She should have taken warning from that. No doubt they had made it appear that way so that she would not question them too closely about the family, whatever the problem might be. She wished she had made inquiries of her own before she had leapt at the offer. She began to fear she might be stuck for some time where she did not wish to be.

She had just managed to break away from one difficult circumstance, and now it began to sound that she might just find herself in one just like it or worse. From one fire to another fire. It was always hard to know such things, with too little disclosed that was important to a young and single woman cautious of her reputation. Miss Carter seemed honest and kindly enough and appeared to be able to tell her the worst of what she was about to land in and was not afraid to hold back telling her, either.

“A young woman must be careful these days. It is always so trying and unnerving to be dropped into the middle of a strange family and never knowing what to expect, and it is so easy to be misled.” She well knew that for herself. She had been governess, maid, and companion to the eldest Miss Deming, but her jealous younger siblings had been mischievous and mean-spirited to the eldest daughter’s maid and had tried to get her into trouble on more than one occasion, just as they had with a string of earlier governesses.

Ms. Wakefield had soon recognized what they were doing. She had risen above their pettiness and had even managed to earn the compliments of her employer, who had slowly become aware of the reckless behavior of her rebellious and intransigent younger daughters, and had laid the law down to them about their own futures if they did not behave as young ladies should behave. She had threatened them with never being welcome in society if they did not mend their ways and would never find a husband as a result—at least not one worth having. Indeed Miss Wakefield’s life had improved notably for some time after that, for almost two years, until her employer’s younger brother had arrived on the scene and had accosted her one evening. Yes, accost had been the right term, but she had managed to escape him, fortunately, and resolved to stay out of his way if possible. He had been too persistent for her comfort, but she had held him at bay.

She learned that he had been put up to his attempts on her, by the lies and plotting of those same mischievous siblings who still worked against her, but rather more cleverly. They would not have had to work at it very hard, as he seemed to be ripe for trouble in his own way. She was not sure what they may have said of her, but it cannot have been flattering for her to have been approached in a familiar way. She had given him no encouragement. Having failed in one direction, he did not seem to be deterred in another more dangerous one. The daughters then began to be on the receiving end of his special attention and seemed to welcome it without realizing the dangers of his intent. Miss Wakefield had warned Mrs. Deming of her brother, but had been told off for it, and told that she must be mistaken. It was then that she had decided to leave Mrs. Deming’s employ as soon as she might, and she would let the chickens come home to roost as they would.

Fortunately, Mrs. Deming had soon learned the true reason for Miss Wakefield leaving. It had indeed been the threat posed by her own brother, and even upon her own daughters.

Learning of her own brother before any damage had been done, she was far more annoyed with him than she was with Miss Wakefield and sought to try and regain favor, so she had decided to provide a flattering reference, partially in the expectation that once Miss Wakefield had learned more of the Stavelys of whom she had heard something, herself, and that little had not been reassuring, she might reconsider her resignation and trust Mrs. Deming to ensure that her brother did not pose any more of a threat either to her or her own daughters.

Ms. Wakefield had, of course, thanked her for that and promised that under those circumstances, she would certainly write to her. The situation had not ended as badly as she had feared, as she had fulfilled all of her obligations satisfactorily, at least until the brother had appeared, and despite the machinations of the younger siblings. She felt some degree of comfort to learn that the brother had been sent off the same day that she had left, and was never to be permitted to return. She learned from a friend still employed with Mrs. Deming that the brother had received a tongue lashing from his elder sister for jeopardizing her own daughter’s entry to society, though without going into details, and that the younger daughters had been severely brought to heel, and in a way they would never forget.

The downfall of many a family had been at the hands of brothers (look at that Byron fellow), never mind uncles or cousins. Miss Wakefield had been glad to have been saved from any accusation of neglecting her duties by allowing such a circumstance to continue and to get out of hand as it so easily threatened to do. She had been vindicated. She returned to listening to what Miss Carter had to say.

“The difficulties I mention are because of Henry, Miss Georgiana’s brother.” She saw a sudden look of concern pass across the young woman’s face. Not another difficult brother! As the conversation drew along, it was clear that Miss Wakefield was not sure what to believe, but began to feel that she could rely upon Miss Carter. She admitted that she had heard some strange tales of the family, even while she had been in London, and had not been sure that it was the same family, or what to believe, but she had little choice facing her. She resolved that if it were as bad as she feared, she would be gone at the first opportunity and reapply with Mrs. Deming.

Charlotte recalled the details of the conversation she had overheard on those previous evenings, and even from Willis, and was prepared to repeat them. She knew (there was no point in betraying her own uncertainty by being vague or vacillating) that the elder Mr. Stavely had a bad reputation for maltreating servants and was known to be a libertine, and worse, with one or two of the less well-protected younger women in his employ. The family could not keep servants—male or female—in the place for long. The son was rumored to be even worse (in for a penny, in for a pound), and she could easily embellish, to achieve the end she thought to achieve. She related how the younger Stavely was perhaps even worse than the elder. “Young and headstrong and cared nothing for anyone or anything but his own selfish pleasure.” She looked about and whispered but one word as she pursed her lips . . . “Rape!” She could see the impact of that word, as Miss Wakefield had gone pale. She had escaped one such circumstance, unharmed, but one went to that well, only so many times. “No woman in the entire house is safe from either of them. Not even the older servants!” It began to sound worse than she had faced in Mrs. Deming’s household where there had been only one real blackguard to deal with, and he had been sent packing. She was quite horrified.

“No wonder Penningtons would choose to tell me nothing. I shall make sure never to use them again. I must thank you, Miss Carter, for the warning before I got out there and became trapped. I do have at least enough money to return to London by coach.” Charlotte was happy to sit back after that, having planted the seeds, as she then let the young woman ramble on about her own recent history of trials and tribulations in the family she had just quit. It had been a precarious situation. She offered her another slice of ham pie. It was clear that the young woman had not eaten since early that morning.

Ms. Wakefield seemed to have lost her reserve in confiding to a relative stranger and rattled on. Charlotte smiled and agreed with her where it would not be too dangerous to do so. She was glad there was no one close by who might overhear her fabrications and shocking renditions of the character of the Stavely males. She mercilessly painted them all in an unflattering light by amplifying upon what Miss Wakefield had let slip in her candor about her previous position, which suddenly began to appear to that young lady, not at all so unfavorably as it once had.

“You have no need to feel trapped in any way, Miss Wakefield. My modest carriage is on its way to London this afternoon on an errand. If you would not mind taking that, it would save you considerable discomfort and some expense. It is also more comfortable than rubbing shoulders and being cheek by jowl with half a dozen or more passengers, some of whom are, at best, careless of their behavior and perhaps even slapdash in their personal hygiene, to mention nothing of the dangers of physical proximity to some strange persons.” Miss Wakefield had already suffered in that way coming into Calderwold, as well as being subjected to a sniffling child who sneezed almost without cease and obviously had a fever. Not the best way for a young woman to travel, being jostled by questionable strangers and subjected to such dangers.

“There are many young women locally who will risk the brother, and will be more than pleased to be able to step in and give the help that is needed, so you need not bother yourself on that score. If it will help, I will speak with Miss Georgiana myself so that Penningtons will not learn of this and possibly give you a bad character in any future dealings.” She eagerly took Miss Charlotte up on both of her offers.

Charlotte left Miss Wakefield for but a few moments—time being of the essence, and exchanged a few words with Willis, explaining what she was going to do and that he would be taking the young woman at her table, back to London, while leaving her where she was. She overrode his mounting concerns at leaving her with so little luggage—no protection in the bosom of a questionable family, and with just a few items of her less conspicuous luggage to go with her, as he was to remove the rest of it to London without letting her mother know anything that she was planning, or doing. He was also to take up a strange young woman and convey her to London. He knew better than to object to her plans.

“I shall be all right, Willis. You can let Anne know what I have done, and please ask her to send me some of my plainer dresses, though I am not sure we have anything plain enough for what I may be called upon to do. Never mind. I will keep Anne informed, and she will see to my getting what I need.”

Charlotte saw her luggage rearranged and trimmed down as befits what might be expected of a lady’s maid. Unfortunately, as she feared, her dresses were not quite as plain as she would have liked, though she could always explain that being because of the generosity of a previous employer (Mrs. Deming). She then sat down and quickly drafted a letter to Anne explaining what she was going to do, and for her to see that she sent some of her less expensive dresses, suitable for a lady’s maid, up to the Red Lion at Calderwold for her and under the name of Charlotte (rather than Caroline) Wakefield, to be picked up. Willis followed her instructions with some reluctance, paid off her tab, and loaded her spare luggage and that of Miss Wakefield, as well as the young woman herself, and departed.

Charlotte walked to the Red Lion hostelry down the road to await the carriage from Stavely. She was amazed how easily it had all been accomplished. Charlotte was now presented with the means of readily making the acquaintance of Miss Stavely. Everything she had wanted and waited for was now within reach. Her parting words to Willis, in an undertone so that she would not be overheard, was to be sure for a rider to visit the hostelry further up the street at least once a week and check for messages and leave others for her under the name of Charlotte Wakefield. It was better she used her own first name rather than Caroline, and would protest that Penningtons had made a mistake about that. “Remember, Willis, I am now Miss Wakefield and not Miss Morton, though I am Miss Carter to your passenger and at the Pelican, so don’t forget. Tell my mother nothing of this, but you can tell her that I am as well as can be expected and that I shall write to her quite soon. It is safe to confide in Anne, as she knows everything that I am trying to achieve.” She began to feel guilty, misleading Miss Wakefield as she had, but soon quashed those feelings. There was too much at stake here to be troubled by any twinges of conscience, and besides, she had ensured that Miss Wakefield would not be inconvenienced by what she had done.

An hour beyond the time stipulated for her to be met, and long after the London coach had passed through, she noticed a light carriage approaching the inn. The driver dismounted and approached the landlord.

“I’m meeting a young woman from London—a Miss Wakefield.”

“There was no young woman on that coach. Just a couple of locals returning from the city.”

At that point, Charlotte decided to speak up, “I’m sorry. You were expecting to meet me. I am Miss Wakefield.” Fortunately, it was at the other inn; the Pelican, that she was known as Miss Carter, so there should not be any awkwardness over names where she was. “I came on an earlier coach from Selbourne, which let me off at the inn down the street. That’s where my luggage is waiting.”

“Well, that explains it then. We’d better get down there.” He helped her up. “I’m sorry to be so late, Miss—later than I was supposed to be, but I lost a wheel. I’m Cartwright—sent here to pick you up, Miss, on behalf of Miss Georgiana.” He seemed to be a gentle kind of man and with a ready smile. He helped her up into the carriage. Her entire subterfuge was going as she had hoped it might. It had been accomplished with so little difficulty, yet her heart was pounding at the uncharacteristic deception she was taking on. They were right who suggested that those who would lie and deceive had better have a strong stomach. She was beginning to feel out of her depth already.

Her luggage was soon retrieved. She thanked the landlord for his kindness and his hospitality, thankful that he did not mention any name that Cartwright might overhear. It might even become confusing for her, if she were not careful, juggling three names in her mind; Morton, Carter, Wakefield.

Cartwright helped her up into the carriage and saw her settled, with a heavy blanket for her legs. It was like her own carriage as far as comfort went, and he was attentive to her comfort. She hoped that the tales she had related to Miss Wakefield in an amplified form were not true, or she might not be there long at all herself, although there was that promise to Oliver that she kept reminding herself about. She had brought the small pistol that Oliver had given her, and for some reason, she had her crop with her too, with its blade. She was relieved to find that her conscience was not troubling her as much as it might have done, despite all of the fabrications she had conjured up for Miss Wakefield. She could only hope that none of them might be true. There was more at stake here than bothering about a conscience.

“How far are we to go?”

“No more than a half-hour drive, miss. I lost a wheel earlier, so I shall have to take it easy. I’m glad you came when you did. Mistress has taken on a severe depression, and no getting her out of it. Perhaps you might be of some help with her brother not being here. He can usually be relied upon to help her through the rough stretches, but this one seems to be worse than anything I’ve seen before. And after all of that other trouble too. They no sooner get up from one problem than another knocks ’em down again.” He realized he may be divulging too much, too soon, and had to be careful not to scare the young woman off. He had no need to worry on that score; Charlotte was not about to be discouraged.

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