An Unexpected Meeting
To be awoken from a pleasant dream is disappointing. To be awoken into a pleasant dream can be delightfully devastating, and a little frightening.
One January evening, almost two months after that conversation in which the two women had grown even closer, as Charlotte learned more of her own brother than she had ever known, she had been too warm and too restless to sleep, despite the season. The servants had long since retired, and the house was quiet. She did not need to disturb Georgiana with whom she now had a close relationship, almost as close as the one she had with her own sisters. She had not yet dared confess her own secret, and the moment never seemed right to try to do so.
She got out of bed, threw a wrap about herself, and went down to the library, an equally warm room, to select one of the books she had noted in the collection, and that she had a fancy to read, to dispel her memories of just a few months earlier, and to drive her to sleep. She had found similar relaxation before in what she had discovered was the warmest room in the house, and had often gone to sleep in front of the fire or on the chair beside it with a book in her hand and more pleasant thoughts in her head. They often read to each other in that same room if the weather outside was too severe for them to walk. They had found their relationship with each other to have changed imperceptibly. They were equals who shared a great friendship. She realized that the longer she delayed telling Georgiana about herself, the more difficult it might be. She should have told her all within the first week, for it was clear that Georgiana would have understood and not have judged her ill or questioned why she found the need to do what she had done.
The fire was easily made up again on the bed of live ashes, and there was a comfortable chair by the fire. She started in on her book. She was now quite happy with her new circumstance, despite the tragedy that had given rise to her being where she was. Georgiana had become a true friend as she had hoped she might be, and she seemed to have discovered some comfort in having Charlotte close to her as a constant and understanding companion.
She had totally lost track of time and must have dozed off, for when she awoke, the fire was quite low, though the entire room was still warm.
She was not sure what might have disturbed her rest, and then saw that a tall and slightly untidily dressed young man had entered the room and was noisily making up the fire as he stood above her. She was no longer in the chair but was sitting amid a pile of cushions on the floor and with her back to the fender.
“So you are awake now. Good evening, Miss Wakefield!”
She was horrified to realize that she had slipped out of her chair as she had dozed off and had then been sitting carelessly on the floor. She hastily tried to pull her nightdress over her legs to cover herself better and across her neck, finding out that she was now covered, to some degree, with a light blanket. She had not covered herself like that, and she last remembered being seated in that chair. He must have done that for her. She dared say nothing. She wished she had not given in to her impulse to retreat to the library and had taken the trouble of adding a heavier wrap to her wardrobe. Her nightdress was too light to be respectable, but she had neglected that too, not expecting anyone to be roaming the house at that hour, and intending to be there no more than a few minutes. The light wrap she had brought with her was well out of reach, as she had cast it aside with the room being so warm.
Now that she was awake, she noticed that he was observing her intently. There was instant concern in her response, for he had taken her entirely by surprise, and she was not fully awake to immediately understand clearly where she was, or under what circumstances. He was an unknown quantity to her. He looked tired and careworn, and there was a pale scar, just visible, which crossed his forehead from his hairline on the right side of his head down to just above his right eye.
She began to relax. She had been sitting comfortably in the chair when she last remembered where she was, and here she was now, sitting with her cushions on the floor and leaning up against the fender. Fortunately, he had not seen that sudden flash of emotional uncertainty and was ignoring her concerns about where she now was. She sat still, rather than do what she should have done—excused herself and left his presence.
She had not heard him approach. He looked windblown and wild-eyed—even ferocious, with that scar on his forehead. She began to regret being alone in the library so late at night and so far way from those who might hear her. She was well aware that female servants in any family were often regarded as fair game for brothers, and even some of the older males. The original Miss Wakefield had known about that. What was even worse was that some of those girls did not resist but seemed to welcome such questionable attention as a means of securing their position better than it might otherwise be, despite the risks in so many directions. However, it was a dangerous game to play. Resisting such unwelcome and difficult advances often meant being turned off on some trumped up excuse, with a poor reference by way of revenge. Giving in to them often led to even worse difficulties. There was also the risk that the lady of the house might turn her off if she found out about it—assuming the young woman had deliberately tempted her husband, so there were risks in acquiescing, and risks in not cooperating. She was relieved to see that he did not seem to have any such intentions by her.
She then saw the chair opposite her. It had been moved and had been occupied. He had sat there and must have observed her for some time before he had woken her. There was an empty glass of wine by his chair, along with a letter he had let fall, so he had been there for at least several minutes as he had relaxed without disturbing her or alerting her to his presence. That was no relief. There was a large drawing book lying on the floor beside the chair too. That had not been there earlier either. Perhaps he had been there for considerably longer than just a few minutes and had deliberately not disturbed her until now. Georgiana had said that he was an accomplished artist and could sketch a credible likeness in a matter of a few strokes of his pencil before he worked on it more, to provide more detail. She had also said that he could be mischievous too. She would have liked to have seen what he had possibly drawn of her while she had slept as she had, if he had, and felt even more alarmed at that. She looked up at him to find him still smiling at her, but in a kindly way. He was amused by her obvious confusion, but there was nothing threatening or calculating in his look. He did not look like a villain . . . but then villains didn’t, did they?
“I began to fear I was in the wrong house for a moment and that my eyes were deceiving me. You are clearly not my sister, though I shall not complain of that. Nonetheless, you are a welcome sight in my otherwise empty and colorless existence. Please”—he must have seen the sudden concern in her eyes and tried to stall her rushing off.—“please stay, if you dare, if I have not frightened you too much. I hope I did not alarm you to the point where you feel the need to escape me.”
He appeared able to ignore her relatively insubstantial attire as she clutched it anxiously about her. He had to, or she would certainly be gone. “I am sorry. I did not mean to startle you as I did, though I think we were both surprised to encounter the other here at this time. I did not realize anyone might be in here so late, or is it so early? and I did not immediately see you amid those cushions in the dark. I only really noticed you after I had made up the fire when I first came in here. You must be Miss Wakefield. Or did I already say something like that? I am Georgiana’s questionable brother, Henry! Not questionable in the sense of there being any doubt of my being her brother, but questionable in other . . . well, never mind that.”
He advanced toward her as she stood up from where she had been sitting, taking the blanket with her and feeling as though she should not stay where she was under the circumstance, but she could not exactly bowl him out of her way. She held her nightdress and the blanket close about her, fearful of what kind of a spectacle she presented even now, and what she may have looked like earlier. She hoped he could not sense her anxiety or embarrassment. He reached out to take her hand as he bowed to her. As he did that, she almost fell back into the fire, dropping the blanket, as she seemed to overbalance. He responded more quickly than she might have expected and held her arm with one hand, while holding her securely at the waist with the other. He looked into her face. She felt a sudden flood of almost panic at his closeness and what she saw in his eyes, or was it what he might see in her eyes? She was aware that she was blushing uncontrollably with his arm close about her, and their faces close together. Her heart was pounding, and she felt suddenly weak again. He said nothing for a few moments. His hand felt warm where it touched her at her.
He sighed as he saw her gradually recover her composure. “No! Undoubtedly too soon for that.” His words seemed to confirm what she had suspected. He had been close to kissing her. “You would certainly gain the wrong . . . or perhaps the right impression of me.” There was a question in her eyes. He realized he should endeavor to explain himself. He dare not tell her what his first feelings had been. “Too soon to stand up so quickly after you just awoke.”
That was not what he had meant, and they both knew it. He seemed able to support her easily, and his grip was firm and steadying as he helped her to her chair. She seemed too weak to do anything else but sit down. There was a look of amused concern in his eyes, and he was smiling at her. All thoughts of the need for the blanket at her feet had left her.
He moved a strand of hair back from across her face as he looked into her eyes. She had a frightened look about her, matched to some degree by a look of concern on his own face. “I did take you by surprise, didn’t I? Or is it that you are unsure about me and do not know why I am here? I see that I am frightening you, and I should not do that.” He loosened his grip about her. “I am even frightening myself, so God knows what you must feel.” She did not understand his words. “You should also not stand up so quickly, Miss Wakefield, after being in such a restful position.” Her eyes darted to his, wondering what he might have meant by that. What had he seen of her? He picked up the light blanket and placed it across her legs once more.
“I hear that suddenly getting to one’s feet after being so relaxed can make one dizzy or even liable to faint.” She felt that he might have been referring to the way she had been relaxing. She glanced about. Her diary in which she had made some entries before she had settled down to read, lay open on the table beside the glass of milk, which she had forgotten to drink. She wondered if he might have seen any of her entries made earlier that evening, but she recalled that there was nothing in what she had written that might cause her to be concerned, and the light was too low for him to see her writing.
“I see there is a glass of milk. I assume it is yours, for no one expected me tonight or would have thought to leave that for me. That might help.” He passed it into her hands as he knelt in front her and watched as she drank. She seemed to recover. “Or did I startle you too much with your mind elsewhere and shattered a pleasant dream? If so, I doubly apologize for removing you from such pleasant contemplation, and of then giving you this surprise. I know I must present a peculiar spectacle, for I am not dressed for the best circles of society, having ridden all day, and I am undoubtedly damp—I feel it, and I know that I must be splashed with mud from the road. I fear we might even get some snow tonight. I did not expect to encounter anyone in here, and I was not yet able to get to a mirror to check, so please excuse my ruffled appearance if I am travel stained and for my incoherent babbling.” He stood up and retrieved the glass from her, as she had recovered her wits, and composure somewhat, after drinking it.
She had listened too long. She should not be where she was, and she was still feeling flustered. She rose to her feet again, cautiously this time, intending to be out of his way, but her legs had still not recovered to support her well enough. He watched her with a smile on his face, ready to support her once more if necessary. Instead of leaving, as she knew she should, she replaced a cushion on the chair and sat down, with another across her, trying to present less of a revealing or tempting sight and waiting for him to speak further.
She was fully and acutely conscious that she was not properly dressed, but with the hour being as late as it had been, she had not expected to meet anyone wandering about the house; but then he had obviously just ridden in, as he said, for he was still partially dressed for riding. His windswept appearance and the tired look and his eyes, were because he had just arrived, and he may find the now-blazing fire rather bright to his eyes, though that could not be it, as he had been in the room for some time. He had had time to make the fire up sometime earlier and had even lit other candles by the other chair. Time enough for his eyes to have adjusted and to have seen far too much of her. His wind-blown look was understandable, not having yet seen himself in a mirror, as he admitted; and it was windy outside, as she could hear, with the tendrils of ivy tapping at the windows and the wind soughing through the dead leaves.
She was still not well enough covered to suit herself, however, but preferred not to make her concerns too obvious by clutching a multitude of cushions to her in her embarrassment, as she had been inclined to do. She decided that rather than draw attention to her embarrassing situation, she had best try to ignore it.
She began to recover her poise. Her mind had indeed been elsewhere, and he had startled her beyond what words might describe. She had wanted to flee the room in sudden panic at first, but now found she could not move, and then realized that she not only did not want to leave but also did not need to. He was not paying her any special attention that might have caused her to be concerned for herself, despite her deficiencies of dress. Either his mind was still far off, or he really was being careful not to send her off in fear for her own safety. In another way, she felt she should not stay, and it was for her own safety, yet—and this did surprise her—it had little to do with him being there, but came from within herself. Her heart had still not slowed down from her sudden surprise; she was still breathless, and there was a feeling pervading the room that she did not understand—the result of both his presence and her presence in it with him at that moment. The room felt distinctly over warm, and she was sure that she was quite flushed.
He was smiling at the strange interplay of uncertainty and emotions he saw in her eyes and in her expression as he glanced at her. “I did upset you more than I should have. Georgiana should perhaps have warned you that when I come through late, I frequently come in here and relax in front of the fire with my letters. I also like to settle my thoughts with some food and some beer or a glass of wine or brandy.” Georgiana had neglected to mention that, or she would not have been there. “If it were earlier, I would have gone to see her first, but I would rather not disturb her, or any other part of the house at this time of night.” He looked at her with a smile on his face and took her hand. She did not try to pull away. “You still look pale. I did shock you, didn’t I? You have nothing to be concerned about. I really am relatively harmless. Are you sure you are all right?” She nodded her head, not trusting herself to say anything at that moment.
He spoke again as he looked into her eyes. “I do not usually rob anyone of speech so well as I seem to have done with you. I am the only one to have said anything since I came into this room. Are you well?” He was amused, but at the same time did not know what to think. He did seem concerned for her. Neither of them seemed to notice that he still had hold of her hand.
She cleared her throat but still felt flustered. “Yes, sir. I am well.” Her voice did not sound like her own. Her eyes were wide and her face still pale now after being so suddenly flushed a few moments before. “Just dizzy, as you say, and I did stand up more quickly than I should have. I had a full and tiring day and was relaxing when you walked in.”
“There, you can speak at last.” He let go of her, reluctantly, and made up the fire more. “Yes, you certainly were relaxed! Most charmingly relaxed. I began to feel as though I truly were home, and in a more gentle setting than I remember for some time.” She felt the stirrings of alarm once more, yet his attention was no longer on her or her inadequate covering at that moment, but the fire. “I envy you. I wish I could relax like that.”
She adjusted her position and covered herself better. She began to blush again. What had he seen of her? She wished for the tenth time that she had covered herself with a heavier wrap, or a robe, and had worn a more substantial nightdress. She put the cushion aside from her lap and tried to present a more relaxed and assured front than she felt. The light was not so revealing where she was sitting, and the bright light now thrown out by the fire would partially blind anyone.