Not going as planned!
Serena sought to correct him—rattled to realize that he seemed to know more than he should. “A pitiful allowance that only a church mouse might live on, and provided I remain in exile as I am, with but one or two visits to my sister a year, and no visits to me by anyone. At least, not worth speaking of. I have no say in taking on or getting rid of difficult or disobliging servants, who all spy upon me for him. Their allegiance is not to me. I was trapped! I felt I would go mad until I realized the possibilities. I was only a prisoner in my own mind. I found the countryside to be not so bleak once I woke up. I have ambition. I still have my looks for a few more years. I have horses and can ride. I have a carriage. I have freedom—of a kind. You were one such distraction, though what happened between us did not continue as I had hoped it might. A woman must protect and provide for herself as she can, and that is what I set out to do, as I spread my net out to see what I might catch. I wish I had woken up earlier to the possibilities.” She carelessly rattled her spoon in the saucer before she caught herself. “I do not regret what happened between us. I hope you don’t. You shouldn’t. If it is any consolation to you, you could not avoid doing what we did. I had also hoped that that would be the first of many such encounters between us.” She looked at him and spoke as she looked pointedly at him and even blushed quite charmingly. “I would still like it to be.” He did not respond and avoided meeting her eyes.
She sighed. “Ah well! Then perhaps not. I wonder how it was that I scared you off.” She toyed with the spoon again. “If you fear that you might have been deficient in your performance in that office of lover in some way that is causing you some anxiety, you should relieve yourself of that concern. I found it a promising start, and entirely satisfying. It was better than I had expected for our first meeting, and without the usual shyness or clumsy overtures. I like decisiveness in a man, and you were so decisive! We could have continued for years. You would have been a suitable alternative to the London scene, even though you were already married. I would have been discreet, as I am sure you would have been, too.”
He did not join in the conversation, which he found to be discomforting.
She continued. “I analyzed the circumstance after that, to decide what I might have done to have put you off me so well when you did not respond to any of my letters, nor would meet with me again.” He had been careful that way, after what had already happened between them. He did not trust her. There were always women who sought to turn a simple situation into something not at all simple.
“You caused me to engage in a good deal of soul-searching. What might I have done wrong? Was I not loving enough or eager enough for your attention? I thought I was. I deliberately cast all reservations about what I must do to one side and left you in no doubt as to what I intended for you. I started with a gentle touch at your shoulder, a warm sigh and my breath upon your face as you examined my neck and shoulders for injury. After that, as you progressed further with your more daring discoveries, my resistance slowly crumbled. I do not know how I could have been more appealingly attentive or passionate after that.”
She looked for some sign or remembrance in his expression, but saw nothing. “I cannot imagine that your wife still appeals to you in that way, having borne you four—or is it five—children? I imagine she might be almost as loose and as unexciting as a horse’s collar upon you, big as you are, whereas I . . ..” She left the rest unsaid. It was obvious that he vividly remembered that moment from his heightening color. Or was it what she had said, and the way she had said it?
He did not answer that pointless question or disparagingly vulgar observation, which reflected her lowly origins, but once more entered the mostly one-sided conversation. He tried to smile for the benefit of those curious few, still observing them from afar, but it was a wooden smile. “What we did, madam”—she did not like his constantly calling her madam; it was far too formal considering what they had shared just a short time before—“was more than enough. It was also wrong. You drew me into that meeting with you, on a pretext—nothing more—concerning a piece of land between our two estates that you suggested was in need of clarification as to where the boundaries might lie. You said something in your letter, madam, of disputed ownership.”
“Serena, please. My name is Serena. It once sounded so gentle and so pleasant on your lips. What gentleman could refuse a lady who appealed to him as I did to you after I had fallen when my horse was startled by a rabbit? I was in pain and the breath knocked from me. Did my cries and prostration not convince you that I was hurt? I feared I had broken some bones.”
“You were more than convincing, else I would not have sent Chollacomb after the doctor. I did not realize until afterward that you had not fallen by accident, as you said, but had done so deliberately. You were also not in pain, or what followed between us would certainly not have happened as easily as it did. I should have realized earlier what you were up to. You missed your calling!”
She smiled, though she did not feel like it. It had not been a compliment. How she could find humor in any of it escaped him. “I do hope you mean that in terms of performing on the stage, as I once aspired to, rather than of performing in that other, older profession, in the Academy of despoiled virgins, the Pushing School, though both are challenging roles and provide their own rich rewards to a clever woman, wise to the ways and needs of men—the right class of men. Similar rewards too, in the end, if one is careful in one’s choice of men.” She was enjoying his discomfort. “Or is it that you are moralizing? It is too late for that on both of our parts. I was sure that I convinced you that I was at least severely bruised (I was), if not worse, with broken bones, and I needed your help and close attention. We were far away from any doctor. We were also close to a cottage on my own estate that I knew would be empty that afternoon, as well as being out of the way and not likely to be easily found by your man. I had planned it all so well. You carried me there after I had swooned from the pain. You were gentle with me as you loosened my clothing and bathed me to revive me. I could see that I excited you, even then. When you dared go no further, I miraculously recovered my senses and clutched my clothing to me, upsetting that bowl of water onto us both so that my remaining clothing had to come off me as I lay shivering under that thin sheet. Almost under that sheet! Some of the time!” She recalled it all too well for his comfort. He looked around nervously, hoping that no one else might overhear her shocking recollections or see the look on her flushed face as she recalled that time.
He tried to redirect her thoughts. “So why this meeting this time? What is the grave urgency you refer to that you insisted I meet with you here? I thought I had discouraged any further ambitions you might have in that other direction.”
“You did! You also ignored me for too long. I had to do something to get your attention. If you do but think about it, you will know why we are here.”
“I don’t know.”
She smiled at him patiently, as though she knew a secret that he didn’t. “Of course you do, Reginald. I made no pretext of my ambition with you after I had first bowled you over, and after your oh-so-excited first visit to Eve’s custom house. My Eve’s custom house—and so eagerly too. It did not take long for us to become riveted together that first time, with you plowing a notable furrow in my delicate and tender little garden, and then fertilizing it excitedly too—several times.” She could see that he had closed his eyes, possibly reliving that moment, or shocked that she dared to describe it in those graphic terms. “Then, once I seemed to have tearfully forgiven you for your moments of weakness as you held me close to comfort me, what we then proceeded to do passionately yet again, and in a more protracted and satisfying fashion, but with the same wondrous outcome together. I had not known you might recover so well or so quickly. Perhaps your wife is not attentive to you in that way as she should be—as I would be.” She still held hope of a continuation of what they had started. “I was in a forgivingly guilty mood, if you recall, needing more consolation, and reluctant to see you leave me in any way until I had recovered my disordered feelings. You seemed concerned that hysteria might take over, as it threatened to do if you left me too soon after what you had done to me.” She fluttered her eyelashes at him as she dealt with such a delicate subject. “Tears, uncertainty, guilt—such useful little props. So, ever the gentleman, you didn’t leave me. You were completely helpless.”
“Your efforts to help me dress, failed several times after that. I broke down in tears once more and needed comforting and support, as I was in danger of falling again. I could see that you were not sure how you might get me safely home without it all being discovered about us. Me, in my tearful and mostly disrobed state, having difficulty getting dressed by my own efforts or even with your help—you, constantly being faced with maddening temptation. I needed your close and attentive presence, reassurance, and support for quite some time, as well as your tender, calming ministrations to help me regain my previous composure and to settle my disordered spirits.”
He decided that he should bring this discomforting interview to an end. “So there must be a point to all of this. Why are we here?” She looked at him for some moments before she spoke.
Her voice had become more hard and calculating. “There are often repercussions... from . . . what we did!” She watched his face, waiting for understanding to dawn, then saw a sudden awakening to what she meant, cross his face. “There, I knew you would be able to recall that, and to understand. Yes . . . there will be fruit from our passionate labors. I am with child, Reginald. Yours! Once is all it can take you know, though in your eagerness we were not so restrained that afternoon before you were able to see me calmed, and then at least partially dressed once more. I know I presented a well-used and disheveled appearance for the servants to see when I arrived home, but that was my intention. I am sure that they dutifully reported it to my husband. You were not sure you could safely leave me before your own man might return to discover he had been sent off on a snipe hunt, and what we had undoubtedly done, so many times, in his absence. We could have continued after that for several months as we grew even closer before I broke the joyous (or not so joyous) news to you. I wanted to—I had hoped that we would.” She paused for some moments as she watched various emotions cross his face.
“It is yours.” She bit daintily into a biscuit.
“I don’t know that.” He knew it well enough.
“I do.” She sipped at her coffee as she smiled at him over it, but then frowned a little. “That is the second or third ungallant thing you have said to me.” She smiled in her self-assurance at the power of her situation. “You have barely touched the coffee. It is really quite good, and so are the biscuits. Though the company is too attentive.”
He made no move to do so, as she looked about the room.
“What of your husband?” He dragged her thoughts back, though they had not gone far.
“Enright? What of him?” He was easily dismissed. “You were right. I sent him off two years ago. I was already carrying his child by then, though it took us almost a year to manage what you and I did in one afternoon. Men are such predictable beasts! And such fools! It took so long to become impregnated that I almost gave up on him. I was truthful with him then too, just as I am with you about this pregnancy. I doubt that he could so easily impregnate me with this one at that distance and after such a long time apart, considering the difficulty he had the first time.”
She looked at the disbelieving expression on his face. “It is yours, as I am sure will be evident when it is born and is revealed with those unmistakable features that all of the Morton children show—the hair, the eyes, the general features, and all of you, handsome. I envy you that.” She had him at a disadvantage. He had not liked her using his name again.
“Why did you ask me to meet you here? It cannot have been just to tell me that.”
“Of course not. I wanted us to meet so that we might reach an understanding with each other, as a continuation of that closer relationship seems to be beyond us, though I would not object if you would now wish to pick up where we left off.” She would still have welcomed that, but the signs from his expression were not promising. “Ah well, it does not matter. I find that with having no husband close by me, and being held a prisoner where I am with nowhere else to go, that I am lonely (and destined to stay that way, it seems) and I never have enough money to bring up even one child, but then I may send him off to my sister in London. Every time I look at him, he reminds me of his father. He will probably turn out to be the same too—weak, unfeeling, and spiteful.” She uttered that last word with distaste at the memories that evoked. “It will be even more difficult for me with a second underfoot, and I seem to have developed a desire to experience some rather expensive tastes and other pastimes, as I sense a denial of any closer relationship between us.”
“You will need to change those desires. You have approached the wrong man. You cannot blackmail me, and I have no intention of encouraging any relationship between us other than a remote one.”
“Blackmail?” She looked shocked and looked about herself to be sure that no one had overheard that word, though not really caring if they had or not. “What a dreadful word to bring into this gentle conversation! I merely seek to ensure that my child, our child, will not come into the world without some basic advantages as you seem ready to deny him a father that he can openly acknowledge, or that will acknowledge him”—she looked at him—“unless . . . No, I expect not. I believe that he should be hosed and shod, do not you, even if he will not know his heartless father?” There were others gaining a sense that there was something exceptionally personal being discussed for the gentleman to be so flushed and possibly angry.
“You approached the wrong man, as I told you. Blackmail is what it is, and blackmail—and those who conduct it—blackmailers, are never satisfied, but tend to become more and more greedy.” He recognized that others were taking an interest in their conversation. “Do your damnedest, madam. But be careful how you think to move this forward.”
She smiled in turn, but her eyes did not match that smile. She felt she had a strong hand, despite his response, and had come to realize as their conversation had progressed that he would resist. “I probably will. I am sure your wife, with three young daughters between two and four, and twins, a son and another daughter, Oliver and Charlotte, at breast, would not wish to hear of this.” She seemed to know too much about his family. “I should write to her. She would understand the pleadings of a wronged—a much-wronged—woman at your brutal hands when you had come upon me unexpectedly. But then all men are brutal that way. That is what makes them so appealing and exciting as they overpower us at the last with their violence and passion as they lose themselves upon us! You took me quite by surprise with your ruthless and passionate attack, or so I shall tell her, with details of your subsequent efforts to encounter me on my own estate as you laid in wait for me, to brutalize me further, which I shall assure her that you did. Then once you had damaged me beyond recovery and ruined me, my approaching her to lay all before her as I tearfully beg her forgiveness for having aroused the beast . . . she might feel betrayed that she could no longer trust you after such a history of . . .” She left the rest unsaid.
“And would you do that? Would you risk that, with so many lies?”
“Not lies, Reginald. Convenient and constructive deceptions! What risk is there to me? You have convinced me that I have no other recourse, as you seem to intend to abandon me. I have nothing to lose, therefore I risk nothing. Why not?”
“Because I would deny it. There are no letters between us that might compromise me. I was careful over that when I suspected what your intent might be. No one knows that I met with you then, or what happened between us, but they do know of other of your recent and not-so-recent liaisons. The whole of Brokeston is aware of them by now, and that you appear to have the moral restraint of an alley cat. If only I had known that before I met with you then. No one knows that I am meeting with you now in this out-of-the-way place.” His eyes flickered about the room again to be sure that he knew no one. “I believe my wife will believe me, rather than you. She is aware that I love her, even after so many children. The least damaging course of action is for me to report this conversation to her when I return home, and even to confess what happened between us two months ago, and in a way, that will undoubtedly conflict with your own telling of it. She and her friends have long suspected your ambitions in our society. She also knows me. It may be difficult for a while, but we will survive it. I have always believed that honesty is the best medicine for such trouble. It is only a pity I did not tell her of this two months ago, as I should have done, but I had hoped that it would fade from mind and that I would not hear any more of it.”
“It did not fade from my mind. Not now. Not with this growing in me! You put it there.” Her hand rested briefly upon her abdomen.” That gesture was noted by others. The nature of their meeting now began to make sense. The lady’s expression had gradually frozen at his intransigence to her threats. “Be careful . . . Have you never heard the expression that ‘hell hath no fury, like a woman scorned’?” He said nothing but stood up from the table.
She could not let him leave without a warning. “If not now, then sometime in the future, you shall be made to recall this conversation—it will be too late to regret walking away then.” She was angry, but it was under control.
“I already regret it in every way, but not the walking away.” He picked up his hat and cane and nodded his head to her with a fixed smile on his face as he bade her goodbye. He turned his back and walked off, settling her bill before he left in order not to invite more awkwardness.
Those who had observed them were aware that the issue that they had met to discuss, whatever it was, was personal—possibly a lovers’ quarrel, but it had not been resolved to the satisfaction of either party.
She swore in an unladylike way under her breath as she smiled calmly. She drank more of her coffee and nibbled at a biscuit, all for the benefit of those who had seen him leave, apparently in anger if his fixed expression were any indication, and watched for her response. She seemed cool, confident, and composed. They were not to know that she was seething within. She had miscalculated, and had lost, for the moment. He would pay, one way or another. Even in blood, if need be. She would be patient. She would visit Mrs. Morton in a month or so and inform her of her husband’s infidelity, and of his violent ways, along with other choice, discomforting comments about what he had done to her.
Once he had escaped from that difficult meeting, Reginald Morton resolved to close off two obvious avenues of difficulty as soon as he might. He would disclose the entire matter to his wife as soon as he arrived home, with all of the problems that would then ensue for him. Better she heard it from him rather than her. It would be a difficult year, but he would survive it. He would also acquaint his friend—Dyball Enright—of his wife’s devious nature and let him know of her threats. He would tell him everything that had happened on that fateful first day, and in their following meeting in that breakfast room. Their friendship might not survive that disclosure, but it should be done. He would try to minimize the damage that she might do and let her husband know that he would be likely to hear from her about it, and in exaggerated detail. It had not been an easy letter to write, but at least he would try to minimize the damage that she intended. He was not to know that the fate of his entire family, and of two other families, had been put onto a different and more cruel track by his meeting that morning.
No one could know that a villain had been conceived in that moment of weakness by Mr. Morton, or what the consequences would be.