A meeting of equals.
He lit another candle, led the way to the door and off to the kitchen through drafty corridors. She could feel her nightdress blowing about her legs, almost as though a door or a window were open somewhere. She had forgotten her wrap, for all the good it would have been. He spoke in a low voice so as not to disturb any others in the house. “My sister did tell me of you in her letters, but she did not do you justice, you know. I should not embarrass you with what she said in your praise, though I see she was right. You are beautiful in an interesting way. You have direct eyes, and your hair is striking! It was the first thing I noticed when I walked in on you. The light from the fading fire was reflected from it and made it stand out in quite an entrancing way.”
She blushed. “Perhaps, I should just retire, sir.”
He laughed. “Oh come, Miss Wakefield! I did not mean to scare you off so well. Do not rob me of your company so soon after such a promising start. My day began so poorly and became even more trying as it wore on, and even with some snow beginning to come down in the last hour. I was almost in a complete despair when I rode up, and . . . when I walked in upon you here, sitting as you were, so relaxed, you changed all of that for the better. My despair was lifted from me. I was not entirely sure what I had blundered in upon, and it was an enervating surprise.” She looked at him sharply, but he was focused on not blundering into anything as he walked ahead of her, so she could not read his expression.
“You should not be afraid of my compliments—they were sincerely meant, if clumsy, and not quite with the finesse that an accomplished gentleman about town and more familiar with the gentle sex might use. I am not familiar with the manners of society, or saying one thing when one means another. I am more in favor of direct speech, and saying what one means. You are safe with me, even if I am occasionally known to be outrageously outspoken and somewhat careless of social niceties, as I warned you. I like the company of women, and far prefer it over that of men, though women often make me nervous with the power that they hold over us. In the presence of such an assured woman as you are, I am all atwitter.” Her eyes glanced to his face as he had turned to look at her. He had a serious look on his face. She felt far from being assured, or having any kind of power to influence this man. They seemed strange words for such a man to utter. He saw the doubt and uncertainty in her eyes.
“I see that you think I am bamboozling you, but I assure you I am not. Oh yes, the company of an intelligent woman can be nerve wracking. She soon sees beyond the mask that we all strive to hide ourselves behind and glimpses the little boy cowering behind it. I am also noted for not holding my tongue when I have something to say. If so, and I offend you, I must ask that you should try and make allowances for my brusque, male mannerisms and outspoken qualities. Others describe it as lack of manners, and stupidity. I fear they may be right more than I like to admit.” She doubted that anyone with any sense would regard him as stupid. Oliver had spoken highly of his academic abilities and of his assurance with those of the opposite sex. “You are not what I expected, though my sister was candid and described you well. She thinks you are . . .” he hesitated before he might say more than was wise. “Yes, but you are not as beautiful as she led me to believe—you have something . . . more . . . much more than mere beauty.” Mere beauty? He could not believe that he had dared to describe her in a way that she might feel was slighting of her, but she did not seem to be offended. “Intelligent too, if that book you had started; Gibbon, is one that attracts you.” He smiled at her, quite prepared to talk to exhaustion until she felt like joining in.
“Despite what it must sound like, I do not engage in flattery where it is not deserved.” It would be well deserved here, he realized, but would probably alarm her even more, and he did not want to do that. “We have just met. I would be ashamed to admit to my sister that my too-forward behavior had scared you away, even as we first met, for she maintained that you were the most forthright and outspoken young woman she had met—like herself in fact—and you quite impressed her.”
His sister had said as much to her about him and had hoped that she might approve of him and even perhaps like him, so it seemed that they had that in common anyway. “I am gratified that I have not sent you scurrying off in fear with my clumsiness, or bored you to death with my incessant chatter.”
He led the way downstairs, carrying the candle, pleased to see that she followed him closely, with her hand on his arm, and that he had not entirely scared her into deserting him. She seemed to have recovered her ability to relax and was not now so afraid of him and his intentions, for he was like Georgiana in many ways, and he seemed to be as easy to know as she was.
He dipped enough hot water from the boiler to wash his hands and even his face and, after drying them on a towel laid out close by, was able to find everything they might need in the cold room. He watched as she sliced the onion and then the cheese for their sandwiches, as he drew a large pitcher of small beer from a keg lying on its side, and then loaded a tray.
“If we both have onion with the cheese, then we will be unlikely to give offense to each other, and if you feel an overwhelming desire to . . .” he was smiling mischievously as he glanced at her “. . . to argue heatedly, head to head with me, as Georgiana and I do when we discuss politics or certain aspects of society we care to disagree upon, but always good naturedly, we shall both be equally offensive to the other, but in only a correct and unobjectionable way, and neither of us will notice.”
She wondered what he had been about to say. If you feel an overwhelming desire to what . . . kiss him? She had thought it! What else might he have seen in her face and her manner? What might he think of her? He might assume she was too forward a piece of baggage in not having excused herself immediately and leaving, and that was a dangerous impression for a young woman to give to any man. But then there had been that same look on his face too, even before she had said a word. He seemed to have the ability to put her at ease. She was not sure she dare think what any of it might mean, but she recognized that she did know, and dare not believe it. It was all too sudden! She did not know him, or he, her, yet she did not wish to leave him at this moment, never giving thought as to how improper it might be to remain in his presence, as ill clad as she was.
“I shall make up the fire here and give them a head start on the coming day.” He threw several pieces of wood into the stove and closed the door. “Now, if you will light the way for us back upstairs while I walk ahead of you with the tray, we can return and settle by the library fire and talk if you wish. We are out of the way and will disturb no one there.” He saw her nod her head. She would go along with what he suggested for them, against her better judgment. She could not just run off as she knew might be the wiser course of action. He led the way ahead of her, balancing the tray on one hand as he opened the door, to feel the warmth and light greet them.
“This is my favorite room. It is warm, friendly in every way, with its smell of old books, surrounded by familiar names who introduce me to strange and exotic places. It provides comfort when I am tormented, relaxation when I am unsettled, and allows me to travel the world, at least in my mind.” He threw more cushions upon the floor and poured some of the beer into a glass for her. “If you prefer wine, there is a small store behind a small false-fronted cupboard there, hidden behind books that are painted on the woodwork.” She shook her head.
“Beer will do, sir. I am not unfamiliar with it, provided it is not too strong.” He seemed amused to learn that.
He realized that he had forgotten all about a robe for her, but then so had she, so he did not point that out to discomfort her. “I spent the first ten years of my life growing up here in generally happy circumstances if I could avoid my cousin, which was not too hard to do. My grandparents helped me in that way too and knew the difficulty I faced here. My grandfather had sailed with Nelson, and many of the books here are to do with sailing and ships—their design, their structure and how to sail them, naval maneuvers and descriptions of the engagements, and their legendary captains. I was born too late to see such glory, though my grandfather told me that there was more fear than heroism, more death than any man should see in his lifetime, and the supposed glory was but the empty, rum-soaked talk of those who knew nothing of it and had never been in battle. He was right. He told me to keep away from the navy and taught me about those things that he thought a gentleman should know—to ride, to shoot a pistol, to fence, to handle a saber, and how to defend myself against villains. He showed me how to fire a cannon; a small one. There was one in a small tree house overlooking the lake. He used to fire it to celebrate the first day of each of the changing seasons. I shall have to reinstitute that tradition.” She recalled that, at home, Oliver had built a tree house overlooking their own small lake.
“I have slept in here quite often when I have come through late, and will probably spend the present night here too, for I believe you have my old room, and Georgiana told me nothing of where my things might have been relocated. The last time I came through, I had a change of clothing with me, so I did not need to worry about that.” She recalled a closet full of a man’s clothing in her room and told him of them.
He took the tray from the table where he had initially placed it out of the way and onto the floor between them where they would sit. “If you do not object, we could sit next the fender on the floor, as you were when I first came in, and we can lean against this and talk in comfort, for there are cushions enough to support us, and then we will not be yards apart and can relax as the Romans did. Alternatively, we can sit more demurely and safely, by dragging the chairs closer in front of the fire and sit and talk that way in more civilized fashion if you would feel safer. I see that I forgot napkins.”
“We can sit on the floor, sir, as you suggest.” It would be safer with her back to the light from the fire, without the robe he had suggested to conceal her deficiencies in dress, and which they had both forgotten. At least, she had. “You can imagine that I am Georgiana. I can even see you and her sitting here doing this.” However, there would be no possibility of him being able to imagine that she were Georgiana; she could see that in his admiring glance to her from time to time. He may have deliberately overlooked that robe for her—the devil!
“I would prefer it if you could call me Henry. I shall talk Georgiana into doing this with us, the next time I come through, if it will allow you to relax more easily in my company.”
“Henry!” He smiled at her. She seemed to be still uncertain of him but did not seem ready to rush away despite that.
“There, that was easy. He threw more cushions down for them both, only a foot or two apart. They settled, each becoming quite relaxed in their situation and with little thought given to how close they sat or where her nightdress even now did not sit so properly about her. They were both of them conscious of that and of each other, as they tried to ignore it. He pulled the tray between them, poured each of them a beer, and drank off some of his. “Ah, how I missed that! My father’s brewmaster knows what he is about. He makes the best beer in England!”
She followed his example, tasted it, and looked at him. “It is good, but I already knew that.” She put her arm onto the fender and relaxed into the cushions, as she folded her nightdress and her wrap, which he had retrieved for her, under her knees, as he passed her a thick sandwich of crusty bread and cheese that defied any delicacy of attack.
“I know it is not the dainty kind of sandwich that ladies might prefer, with the crust cut off and thin sliced, but then you did cut the bread and the cheese to my direction, didn’t you? I will promise to say nothing if we make a bit of a mess!” She and Oliver had often done the same thing together. “There is also no one to watch us or to say anything if we drop anything, and the dogs will clear anything from the carpet as soon as they are let in here, for they can smell cheese at the other end of the house.” He watched as she bit decisively into the sandwich. He smiled and followed suit.
She noticed then the letter that lay beneath his chair. It was the one she had written to him letting him know of her brother’s unfortunate accident and death. No matter where she went, she would be constantly reminded of that tragedy, one way or another. Unfortunately, it was in her handwriting, and he must have just retrieved it as he entered the house and had read it, even as he had sat with her, before she had awoken; another indication that he must have observed her for some time. She would need to be careful. She had written it before this subterfuge had become necessary. There were so many things like that, that could trip her up if she were not careful. After they had eaten quite well and drunk off their beer, he cleared most things back onto the tray and moved it out of their way. He indicated a crumb lodged at the side of her mouth and reached over to dislodge another that had somehow caught in her hair by the side of her face. Her hair was probably as unkempt as his, but she did not care.
“So how do you like Stavely, Miss Wakefield? No awkward surprises apart from an hour or two ago. I did behave myself, I hope. Had I not, there would have been three furies descend upon me—my sister, Mrs. Forster, and you.”
She laughed at his attempted humor. “You were a surprise, but I would not say it was an awkward surprise.” She saw the expression on his face. “You are looking at me strangely, sir. Do I have food left on my face?” She reached up and felt at the edge of her mouth as she watched his face.
“Please allow me.” He reached over and brushed at the side of her cheek and then absentmindedly picked a small piece of cheese, a crumbly Cheshire cheese, from the neck of her nightdress and put it into his mouth. He shook his head. “Not now!” There had been another morsel sitting there too, but he decided that he had better ignore that one and leave it alone, sitting atop one of her entrancing breasts, which her nightdress did not entirely cover, and in great danger of rolling down between them. He tore his mind from contemplation of that with some difficulty, until she spoke.
“You are staring, sir.” She was blushing quite delightfully but did not seem too displeased at his obvious yet strangely welcome admiration.
“Yes, I am. I must beg your forgiveness.” He tore his mind away from what he could see of her and looked then into her eyes. “You puzzle me and interest me at the same time. You are not who or what you say you are.” She felt a sudden alarm. “You are . . . much more.” He told her what he saw. “You are wary of me, yet you are not at all concerned—at least I don’t think so—about being here alone with me at this time of night as other women might be with a strange man. Wariness is wise. You are not yet sure what to make of me. Do I pose a threat to you? No, I don’t, not in that way. Yet I do, in another. I am a man, after all, confronted by vulnerable and fragile beauty. I also see a depth of character that one does not often see in a young woman. There is a lifetime of experience, painful experience, lurking in your eyes, not what one expects from someone so young.”
“I am twenty-two!”
“Yes, a very young woman”—his eyes twinkled in humor as he baited her gently.—“but confident in herself, especially with me.” She returned his glance and was in no way so overpowered by his personal attention that she needed to look away.
“I am perhaps afraid of asking, but what is it that you are thinking, sir? Your mind seems far off. You were analyzing me, but you may not have realized that while you were doing that, you also laid yourself open to being studied in the same way.” That comment startled him. She would not describe what she saw in his eyes. She was not entirely sure. He hid his inner feelings well. “You did describe yourself as the wicked brother. In what way are you wicked? If you dare tell me.”
“Did I say that? How rash of me. I do not think you are afraid of much at all, Miss Wakefield, or we would not be sitting here quite so relaxed with each other, but you would have deserted me, and with justification. It suggests that you are relaxed in the company of a rascally man and may have brothers of your own.”
“Charlotte! My name is Charlotte.” It was clear that they could dispense with all of that formality. “And I have no brothers.” It would be dangerous ground if she confessed to having just lost her only brother and would bring a note of sadness into this quite gentle moment.
“Charlotte,” he corrected his too-formal use of her name yet again and recalled her earlier question. “No brothers then, but I would think that you have many male admirers to be so at ease with me. But you asked a question: what am I thinking?” He stared into the fire. “Many things. The different paths that life takes us, things that are, that should not be, in a better and more just world. The vagaries of life. The shock . . . the strangely unanticipated pleasure of meeting someone so unexpectedly as we met, and here, of all places. There is also the fact that you are, I hope, no longer afraid of my presence at this time of night—dressed as we are. We are also having an interesting conversation as though we had known each other for ages, when I am sure most young women would not have been so relaxed.” He looked up at her.
“At least you are no longer afraid. You are no longer afraid, are you . . . Charlotte?” She shook her head and set her hair moving. “And . . . other . . . not-so-pleasant considerations. We all have secrets.” She well knew that for herself. He saw her distant expression, recalling memories of her own, hidden away. It was a distraction that told of the presence of such secrets, though did not reveal what they might be. “Of course, secrets are a purely human failing, along with lies, and deception . . .” He saw her start as he used those words, bringing an unpleasant aspect to the conversation, and he regretted using them. “Though certain insects try to deceive those others who might prey on them, or which they might prey upon, so deception is second nature to us all.”
She looked at him as she tried to recall what might have been displayed in her diary where it was open. She had written about deception in there too, but he was staring into the fire at that particular moment, or he might have seen how that word had caught her. His mind was dealing with those deceptions in his own world.