When Charlotte retired that night, she realized how exhausted she really was. She knew the reason. Her brain had worked at a feverish pitch all day, striving not to betray anything about herself that might raise questions. She hoped that the following days would be less challenging, but began to doubt it. Except for her promise to Oliver, she would never have dared consider doing what she had done. She began a letter to Anne. She was careful not to lose track of her role, as she addressed it to Anne Wakefield, care of the Wheat Sheaf Inn, in a respectable area of London.
She slept easier that night than she had slept for a long time, but her mind had not let her sleep for several hours, as she went over all that had happened to her that day.
Her letter must have gone off because, just a few days later, she received a response from her sister; and the correspondence between them did not let up, with at least one letter each week.
Obviously, there will be no difficulty with letters. We have made a good start. I shall not tell Mama anything of what you are doing, though she is always curious about where you are and demands to see every letter that comes into the house. I reassured her that you are well, while telling her as little as I can or as much as I dare.
So you have become a lady’s maid and companion. Quite unexpected! “O” would have approved of your ingenuity in dealing with Miss W, though Mama certainly would not.
I am glad to hear that you and Georgiana seem well suited together and that she is like us. I told you that you would get on well, but you should let her know more about you, and the sooner, the better.′
She meant, by disclosing who she really was. Charlotte would not dare do that so soon and risk everything. Anne had been incautious to have even said as much as she had. She should caution her again in her next letter.
’Mama is still feeling it badly, and we all miss him dreadfully. The house seems empty without him, even more than when he was at university, for we knew that he was not so far away and that he would be home quite often. But you have been remarkably sparing in your description of G. She is already an extension of our own family, and I am burning to know as much of her as you can possibly relate, and especially how she goes on with that . . . other difficulty.
Of the dastardly E, there is no sign anywhere, nor would we expect it. There is a rumor that he is still in London with his elder brother and has been recuperating there now for some weeks after his injuries. Preston told me some of it, for he, rather than O, was the last one to see E before he managed to crawl home. It is a good thing I did not find him myself after that, for I did have that small pistol with me, and I would not have held back from using it had I known then what I know now—although words are one thing and actions another. Like you, however, I feel he had a hand in O’s circumstance.
Please write often, every day if you can, there seems to be so few of us left now with O gone. It is almost as though there had been ten of him. Why is it that families remain too far apart and only come together when such tragedy strikes. We assume we have all of the time in the world to say those things one wishes to say or to be known, and then we find out that we don’t.
Shortly after she had made a start in response to Anne, Charlotte went looking for Georgiana, finding her seated in the garden, reading letters of her own. Charlotte recognized them as those she had sent off from Fallowfield and in her own handwriting. She felt a small pang of concern. Some of her peculiarities of stating or describing things, indeed her background and upbringing, were unavoidably the same as those of her brother; but she was not conscious of them, and she could not help them. It would not do for her to be recognized out of hand too soon. She also began to realize that she had not learned from Oliver what he may have disclosed to this young woman about her. If he had described her at all, as he might have, in any absentminded mood as they had talked together, then Georgiana may know more of her than she might be aware. Certainly, she and her brother had been alike in so many ways—in the way they spoke and expressed themselves, their gestures, and what they found funny. They had even found humor in the same things. She would need to watch what she said. Could a bond have formed so quickly between Georgiana and herself because of that? It had, but it was also to be hoped that she would not be recognized so soon. She might need to guard her responses and her tongue.
Each day, she sat down, either during the afternoon if there had been nothing else planned or just before she retired, brought her diary up to date, and continued her letters to her sister.
This is the first letter I have been able to write that I shall be able to see safely on its way and without fear of being read by others, so I shall be more expansive without fear of detection, but you must still be careful in your response. It might also be wiser if Mama did not read any of them.
I am now beginning to relax and perhaps even to feel settled in. Georgiana is every bit as good and as kind as I suspected she must be for Oliver to have fallen in love with her.′
She was being recklessly indiscreet herself, but then Anne could be careful where she left her sister’s letters, without the same fear of them being discovered.
’Her family is supportive of her, even the brother, whom I have heard so much about, but have not yet met. I fear I may have painted a dreadful picture of him for Miss W, as I had to make sure to frighten her off so that I might take her place. I can only hope that I was wrong in what I heard of him and really did mistake him for another in the family. One never hears anything to one’s credit in gossip, which is where I got all of my information about the family—almost like listening at keyholes, though it was not that. I sat like a church mouse in my own parlor and heard all that was said from the taproom next door. Considering how it all worked out for me, I think it all went off well. The little I heard of the family from Oliver was too little.
When the name “Stavely” comes up, it is almost invariably the uncle that is spoken of, though it took me some time to realize this. Georgiana’s own father and her brother, who had not been involved in any way with the business, stepped in and have been endeavoring to recover the family name and fortune after that set back. It has not been easy, but they seem to be, at last, having some better luck than they had faced at the beginning. I am still listening and learning about all of this.
I can reassure you that I am not unhappy here, at least no more so than I would have been at Fallowfield, and possibly more happy when I think about it, for I am distracted by my charming companion, whom I distract in turn. We might almost be sisters, the way I am made to feel welcome.
I have not yet dared tell her who I am of course. I do not wish to jeopardize my position here quite so soon, but I will have to tell her eventually.
We get out quite often, and I shall be able to take this letter to London. I fear that she might never have ventured out but for encouragement from me, but once encouraged, she threw herself into any and every excuse to be out and about—from visits to ruined Abbeys, to picnics on the riverbank or at the coast, which we do often now while the weather is with us, despite iron-hard frosts overnight. She would have done none of this by herself.
Your loving sister,
Within a week, she had a reply from Anne.
Thank you for your informative letter. I can feel more relaxed now that I know you are safely settling in and are happy. I shall of course be discreet in what I say, just in case you misplace any of my letters . . .′
Georgiana interrupted her companion’s reading. “You seem to have some steady admirer to receive so many letters, Charlotte—at least one each week. A male admirer perhaps, except that I judged the direction to have been a woman’s hand? Though I should not pry into your personal life.”
“They are from my sister, Anne. She is in London. There is no man in my life other than my late father or . . .” She had come too close to saying her late brother but had caught herself in time. Georgiana had not noticed her sudden break from finishing her sentence and finished setting a stitch before she spoke again.
“Tell me, Charlotte. Have you ever lost someone close to you?” Her voice broke, and she almost gave in to tears, at thought of what was obviously and constantly occupying her mind. Charlotte reached over and took her hand.
“Yes, I have.”
“Yes, very close.” The family would never recover from Oliver’s death. Those earlier, happy times could never be recaptured. Time may heal all wounds, as they said; but at this moment, it seemed that all time did was to inflict more wounds of its own.
“Then we are kindred spirits, betrayed by our own history and emotions. I sensed that you understood some of my present mood, and I hope that you can try to forgive me for it. I will likely be poor company for some time. I just lost someone dear to me. I had known him only a short time when he was . . . when he was . . .”—she could not say it—” . . . but even that little time was a lifetime in many ways. He became as dear to me as any member of my own family ever could be, and yet that might seem a strange thing, even a callous thing to say, considering how close I am to both my parents and my brother. I was not sure how I would survive his loss, until you came to me.” The tears were close to the surface. They were like two lost souls finding each other in that moment of mutual loss. Georgiana knew none of Charlotte’s difficulties, though their pains were just as deep and hurtful—the one losing her love and her lover, and the other, her twin brother.
“I cannot understand how it is, but you seem to be such a great comfort to me, and so in tune with my own feelings. I think you came just in time, for I was ready to tear my hair out over it. I must be dreaming still, for I seem not to know what is real and what is not at times, and I see in you . . .” She held back from saying more. In her vulnerability, she was able to see Oliver all about her, not realizing that Charlotte embodied many of those same memories for a good reason. Many of Charlotte’s actions, expressions even, and ways of stating things were like those of her brother. Undoubtedly, Georgiana’s senses had been sharpened by her love of Oliver, as she had noted every detail of his appearance, his smile, his words, his expressions, and had burned them into her consciousness, never realizing that he would so soon be removed from her. They were still fresh, and would be for some considerable time.
“Such burdens are better for being shared and spoken about. I am a good listener, Georgiana, but only when you are ready and feel comfortable with telling me anything.”
“I think I feel that way with you already, even though you have been here barely a month, and I am not sure I understand why.” Charlotte did understand, but could say nothing. “The one you lost, who was close to you . . . were you . . . it is a personal question, I know, so I will understand if you do not wish me to pry. Were you in love with him?” That was an easy question for Charlotte to deal with.
“Yes, I was—though a special kind of love.” She referred to the closeness she had felt for her brother, of course. She knew that they were speaking of the same man and of a different kind of love, but she could not tell Georgiana that.
“Then you do know what it means to lose someone close to you. Did you ever wonder how you might continue living after such a loss?” Her words disturbed Charlotte.
“Never quite to that degree. Life must always go on.”
“That’s what Henry tells me. One almost might think he knows . . . Yet I don’t think he does.” She might almost have been reminiscing to herself.
“Knows what?” Charlotte’s question took Georgiana by surprise, startling her into consciousness of what she had almost said.
“Every secret that a woman might strive to hide from him. But I am not being entirely honest with you, and I am almost afraid to confess all of my troubles, even to you who have been such a wonderful support since you arrived.”
“I am a good listener.” Charlotte tried to encourage her.
“Yes, I know that you are, and have become a dear companion and even a friend already, but . . . soon I will need to confide in someone before I . . . Sufficient unto the day . . .” Her words tailed off. Charlotte took her hand.
“Perhaps it might help you if I tell you what I think I already know.” Georgiana looked at her and waited, wondering what that might be. “I have older, married sisters. They now have children of their own, and I was privy to their changing conditions as their”—she hesitated only for a while to use the word—“as their pregnancies advanced. I believe . . .”
Georgiana blushed notably. “Am I . . . ? Have I been that obvious? I thought I was hiding my condition quite well, but morning sickness is difficult to conceal, isn’t it? Oh dear, what you must think of me. You must be concerned about what you have walked into. Yes, there is no denying it. I am pregnant.” Her voice was gentle, and yet she sounded almost defiant. She was worried how her companion might now react to her. “It is also difficult to continue to hide it, isn’t it, when you are with me when I am sick, or with helping bathe me as you do.” She looked up at Charlotte. “It is not yet obvious, but it will soon be too big to deny. I have grown to depend upon you more than I dare say over the last few weeks, and as much more than a companion. However, I will try to understand if you feel you must rush off from such an undeniable admission of moral failure. To become known that you may have associated with one such as I, can be damaging.” She waited to see how Charlotte might deal with that admission.
Charlotte smiled at her and comforted her to deny that possibility. “What a poor friend I would be if I were to do that. I would not rush off for any such reason. I guessed almost as soon as I arrived (if I had not already known). Men are to blame for most of the awkward things that happen to us, as well as being so ready to take credit for the good, sometimes, though we must also shoulder some of the blame ourselves. Pregnancy is a burden that only we women must learn to bear, while they evade any responsibility so well. It is a common lot of many women.”
Georgiana seemed to relax and to be relieved by Charlotte’s ready understanding. “He . . . my . . . the man I loved did not evade responsibility. We were married, and that is the first time I have told anyone of that. No one else in my family knows, and I do not want them to know of any of it until I tell them.” Charlotte waited for her to explain more of it in her own way now that she had started. “I saw him for just a moment, but that one moment was enough for us both. We took one look at each other and fell in love at that moment of first meeting. What happened between us after that seemed inevitable. I quite shocked myself. Me, having been brought up to protect myself and my reputation in every way, and then to find that all I had been taught could be so easily ignored. I was in love for the first time in my life, and I felt loved in turn. I do not regret it.”
“Where is he now?” It was a question that Charlotte had to ask—it would have been expected—though knowing the answer all too well.
“Dead!” Georgiana looked down toward her feet and closed her eyes, remembering too much that was painful and trying to deaden that memory while holding on to others. “Could fate ever deal so ill with something so right? Yet it did. He had an accident and died shortly afterward, but not before we were married, late one evening at his home, and all unknown to his family. He was a good man. He was the only man for me. He did try to protect me that way.”
Charlotte patted her hand comfortingly. “Then there is nothing anyone needs to say. You do not need to admit that you were pregnant before you married. Would it not be wise to let your family know? They will certainly find out eventually.”
“Yes. And I will tell them, eventually. But not yet. I still have to come to grips with it all myself first. Thank you for not being so shocked and for not wanting to leave me, though others might believe that the situation is infectious, and that such carelessness in one, causes a spasm of similar recklessness in others.” She struggled to find words that would not be too shocking to explain her situation.
“He was shot accidentally, and did not recover.” She hesitatingly produced his letters from her reticule, many of which Charlotte had written at her brother’s dictation, and which both of them could recite almost word for word, so deeply had they affected them both. “He was so alive, and he affected me the same way. We lived in our own little world for such a brief time. I know how hard it hit me, and I am sure his sisters—he had five of them—must have felt when he died so tragically, but I could not pluck up the courage to go and see them, to tell them about me. I am sure I would have been far too great a shock for them to bear, after losing him as they did. I was never introduced to his family. I am not even sure that they knew of me. Except I did get a letter from one of his sisters, who had also written other of his letters to me when he had not been able to—so she, at least, knows of me—telling me of his . . .” She went quiet, unable to speak further for some moments. She had also gone quite pale, but she continued with her thoughts.
“It must have hit her so hard too, and made it almost impossible for her to write that letter—her tears were evident everywhere upon it. I had not the heart to respond and stir up more grief, and possibly other feelings. It is just as well. I was too distraught myself, and still am at times. They could know nothing of me. I did not feel that I had any right to respond.” Charlotte was content enough to listen. She was so filled with emotion herself that the tears could not be stopped. Georgiana’s eyes were closed so she did not notice.
“I could not attend the funeral. Nor could I write and tell them of me, or commiserate with them in their loss. I cannot think that they might know we married except that one sister, the one who wrote to me, must have known. It all ended so cruelly. I am sure they would look upon me with disgust and disdain and see me as nothing more than an immoral harpy who ensnared their brother and son into forgetting himself as I destroyed him. I feared I would not be believed.” Charlotte endeavored to counter that mistaken belief.
“They would not be so cruel. He did marry you. That, alone, would have spoken to how highly he valued you in his life and wished to protect you. I am sure you would have been made as welcome as any member of the family.”
“Yes, we did marry. But as for welcoming me, do you think so? That is kind of you to say. But a woman they did not know, showing up as Oliver’s wife—oh dear, I told you his name—so soon after he died, and all too quickly turning out to be pregnant? No. They would want nothing to do with me and would never be able to trust me. They would be wise to ignore me.” She looked closely at Charlotte. “But you do not seem to be as shocked as I thought you would be when you discovered my secret.”
“No. I guessed soon after I arrived. From what you tell me of your brother, you should expect that he may know of it too, or will soon guess it.”
“Yes. I should expect that, shouldn’t I? He always knows about such things long before he should. He will not learn of this as early as I might have feared, however. He will be away until well after Christmas—somewhere in Europe on business, so we shall spend Christmas alone, you and I, unless my parents come up to us, or we go down to them. We may have known each other only a short time, but I have come to regard you as a close friend and—after these admissions to you—a confidant. But will your own family not miss you?”
Charlotte tried to reassure her on many things. “They can do without me for one Christmas. I would rather be here. My own circumstance is not so different from yours, emotionally, though the particulars are. I cannot speak of them yet. It would be an unwise woman who would feel so morally secure and superior to dare to pass judgment on you. In truth, we are all just a whisker away from sharing that same fate, and not always because of love but because of circumstance placing us in an impossible situation.”
“Mrs. Deming’s brother! Yes, I suppose you are right. How much better that it happens out of love, rather than the other. It makes all of the difference as to how we bear it. I was right about you, Charlotte. You are a mature, superior, and sympathetic lady, as I wrote and told Henry, so that he need not feel as though he must rush back to console me.”