Deception and confusion.
“I doubt that animals have such a conscious desire to hide anything as people do, or to try and cover their tracks, other than by instinct and to survive, but then, that is why we have secrets too, isn’t it? To hide painful, or guilty thoughts, away from others. We all have too many of those.” He was looking closely at her then, as though he could read her own secrets. It was discomforting for a moment or two, until she realized that he could know nothing of her. “Now, I wonder what secrets a young woman like you could possibly have.” Her eyes rose to his face, and he saw a moment of pain. It surprised him. “So great eh?” He reached out and took her hand. “What a fool I am for sidetracking this delightful occasion into other and clearly painful paths. It is not worthy of me to put any woman into such a predicament. What is here, and what is now, is all that is important. We all have some pain in our past history, and things we would rather forget. I have. I expect Georgiana told you some of our recent past and some of the tales told of me?’
“Very little.” Not so surprising, as Georgiana’s mind had been on other things of greater emotional pain to her.
“But we should try to speak of more pleasant things.” He looked at her without speaking for a full minute. “Dare I confess, Charlotte, that I have been thinking of only one thing since I first entered this room and saw you sitting there, almost as you are now. Just one thing above all of the others that I wondered, and I find that it has continued to torment me the entire time we have sat and spoken together.” He was looking at her quite strangely. She felt she knew what he was thinking but knew better than to try and guess.
“You know what it was, for I suspect that the same thought was in your mind when I caught you and stopped you falling into the fire. At least I hope so, considering how you were blushing in your wondrous and revealing confusion”—he hurried to correct himself lest she misunderstood him—“in your eyes, as you looked at me. I was caught at a disadvantage myself for a few moments, as I am sure you noticed when you looked into my face.” A sudden smile lurked about his mouth. “I hope you can forgive me, Miss Wakefield, Charlotte, but you are an unexpected vision in my empty life, and I was thinking how I would like to kiss you.” He was still smiling at her. “Not that I shall do so without your permission, but just something that I was thinking.” He let his words sink in as he looked at her, making no move that would cause her any concern. She might even have stifled a small involuntary chuckle at his boldness. He continued with his speculation. “Yes, that would be interesting, as well as enlightening.” His head had dropped to rest on his arms lying along the fender as he looked steadily at her. There was no threat to her in his words—just an admission of how he had been feeling and thinking.
She giggled, perhaps in sudden nervousness or disbelief at what he had dared to say, and blushed that he had been able to sense her mood so well, for she had indeed felt a similar curiosity. She was surprised to recognize that not only was she not afraid of him but that she also had no need to be. “I do not think you should, sir. It is far too soon between us. Stolen kisses too often lead into difficulties, especially for a young and vulnerable woman who is also a mere servant.” She had not vehemently berated him as he might have expected and excused herself from his reckless presence, but had dealt with it maturely.
“Yes, they do, don’t they? I had not planned on stealing one from you, but that we would . . . No, that would be wrong too. I fear I might be rambling and letting my feelings run away with me. My intentions should not frighten you, even though I should not have given voice to such a disturbing thought. However, philosophically-speaking now, wonderful discoveries, not difficulties, are also conveyed with simple kisses, especially between two persons of like mind, as I believe that we might be, despite us just having met! Friends, and of like mind. Also, you are not, as you say, Miss Wakefield, Charlotte, a mere servant. You are at least my equal and are not in any way overawed by my presence or by my daring to speak out so boldly, as I should not have done. Are you sure there is no other male presence in your life? You are far too assured to be surrounded only by sisters. I did not seem to shock you quite as much as I should have done.”
She ignored that observation, as she responded to the premise, “Discoveries of a dangerous nature for the woman. A woman has so much to lose, whereas a man has nothing to lose that is quite as valuable—as you well know.” She did not feel afraid at his sudden confession. “I should also point out that you are being too forward and bold at this moment with—despite what you say to try and excuse it, and make it more palatable—a servant girl who is a stranger to you. I am not that kind of a female.”
“I know you are not that kind of female, Miss Wakefield.” He looked at her, and she could see that he was sorry for his momentary slip. “I would not be so interested in you or attracted to you if you were. Damn! there I go again. I am not usually so clumsy in either my boldness—under complete control, I can assure you—or my thoughts . . . which are all too obviously completely out of my control. I plead guilty but with the mitigating circumstance of utter exhaustion, confusion and . . .” He left the rest unsaid, but his look betrayed him. “I also know that you are not a mere servant despite what you say. Anyone who has been in your company even for one minute, never mind two hours, would know that, even if my sister had not already told me the same thing.”
She could not meet his eyes at that moment. “Oh, then what am I?” A dangerous question to ask. She may betray more than was wise by her unguarded response if he asked anything too searching or touched upon a difficult subject. They could both sense the gentle back-and-forth diversion. He was pleased to note that she was completely at her ease with him now and was not offended or overpowered by him or his curiosity or speculation. It interested him more than he dared say. She was secure within herself and knew that he could not possibly know about her other than what his sister might have said. She had also learned enough about him during their conversation to recognize that any threat he might have presented to her, was under tight control. She intrigued him just as he intrigued her.
“A dangerous question, inviting gentle speculation, but I shall try once more, hopefully with more success, and less stupidity than on my previous attempt.” He looked closely at her. “I believe that you are a lady. Most certainly a lady. You are assured, as a lady would be, and I do not seem to scare you quite as as I first did. When I first entered the room, I had to stop and check that not only was I in the right room—the library—but I also had to consider carefully that I might even be in the wrong house and that I had blundered in upon such an unexpected pleasure as the sight of you sitting there.” So he had noticed more about her than he had earlier confessed to. “I am tired, or I was, when I first came in here, and I thought my mind might be playing tricks on me, or that one of my adventures had caught up with me in a way I had not expected and that I might be actually lying dead on the road somewhere—as others intended for me—and that my soul was wandering through those memories that I cherish. I thought I might be in heaven, though that cannot be, can it, as I must surely be destined for the other place from what is said of me.” He could withhold himself no longer. “But there is another predicament facing us.” She did not know what he was speaking of, but there was an amused look in his eyes. “Charlotte, I need you to trust me for a moment, even though I have possibly alarmed you by my intemperate musings. Will you do so?” She saw the gentle smile on his face as he looked into her eyes.
“How should I trust you?”
“I shall request that you close your eyes for a moment.”
“Why?” There was a hint of an alarmed look on her face.
“Do not be afraid. I shall not take advantage of you in any way—I think—or of kissing you without your permission, if that is what you are afraid of, though the temptation will be great.” He could see that she was not yet able to trust him, and understood the feeling. He might not be entirely trustworthy when presented with so much to tempt him. He chuckled, and his eyes sparkled. “Yes, you are probably wise not to trust me at this moment, as I probably might not be able to resist a kiss, but I will ask you to stay still.” She watched with some concern as he wet his finger and then reached over to her. She could not back away from him with the fender behind her. She felt him touch her, a gentle dab upon the exposed top of her breast before she knew what he was about to do, and then returned with a small piece of cheese on his finger, which he showed her before he put it in his mouth. “It was in danger of rolling into a disturbing and enviable predicament.”
He quickly changed the subject before she began to fear his further derelictions. “But you asked me a question earlier.” He brought his unruly thoughts back under control. “What, or who are you, as well as being a lady?” He began to muse almost to himself as he looked at her. “From a good family, that is certain, as you are not only soft spoken but are also well educated and certainly know how to deal diplomatically with one such as I. A family, perhaps fallen on hard times, as so often happens. Perhaps you are rebelling and felt the need to escape a tyrannical parent or two—or jealous siblings. Perhaps even running from an unwelcome suitor.” He avoided speculating about gambling or other pastimes that had caused the downfall of many a family, with the womenfolk caught up in the tragedy, and watching it unfold, with no possibility of influencing the outcome. “The book that you had been reading, and which is now lying on the floor, is not for the faint of heart and would tax an intellect even more stalwart than my own.
“Your slippers are embroidered with considerable care and love, except that for some inexplicable reason you decided to put the W upside down (she felt a first touch of alarm, but displayed none of it to him. He noticed too much)—the same with your handkerchief. Your nightdress, if you will forgive me for touching upon it, without touching upon it”—his eyes smiled at her as he moved as though to touch the fabric, but he did not physically touch, as he was tempted to do—“a decidedly delicate subject, is of the finest organza . . . I believe it is called . . . though unlike the usual way of dealing with that fabric, as it is gossamerlike, rather than stiff. Your wrap, which is still partially over the chair, as well as your legs, is made of silk chiffon, admired by the more discerning females.” He was intensely observant and had seen more than she realized. “Hardly the usual accoutrements of a servant or a companion or a governess. You write clearly and well; I saw some directions you had penned for Mrs. Forster, no doubt at my sister’s direction, with excellent use of grammar, telling of an education at least as good as, if not better, than my own, though I already said that, and I have seen one or two of your excellent drawings when I came through some weeks ago, and inexplicably did not encounter you then, as I was in a hurry. You carry yourself proudly, as a lady of consequence, and are able to meet my eyes and deal with me confidently, despite my frequent lapses in manners, and judgment. You seem capable of discussing everything we have touched upon, as an equal, which I find interesting.” He paused and looked at her. “How am I doing so far?” She inclined her head in acknowledgement. He saw more than she had thought he would.
“However, to be honest, I’m not sure of any of it, other than that you are confident of yourself and are well able to counter the likes of me when I give rein to my baser self, and speculate about a kiss. I have too many secrets of my own to cavil over those of another. I shall however let you know when I have found out more about you.” He sighed. “Yes, you were right about the other too. I should not have said anything about a kiss, though I have thought of little else since I entered this room and first saw you.” He would save that description for some other time, or he certainly would frighten her off. He sighed heavily. “I suppose that I am also moving far too fast for us both, and I risk giving the appearance of a scallywag and becoming dangerous to you and for myself, and I would not wish to be that. Apart from that, one word from you about my reckless and shocking suggestion, and my sister would disown me—deservedly so—and I would have to leave under a cloud, and we would never see each other again. That threat alone is sufficient to restrain me, for the moment.”
Her eyes flashed, but in humor. “For the moment, sir? Then I shall say nothing! As nothing happened!” She knew better than that, however. Something had happened, but she was not sure what it might be, or perhaps dared not admit what it might be.
He suddenly recalled where he was, and the other cares that usually weighed him down. “But reality intrudes once more. It has been a difficult year, full of . . . unpleasant things that I would rather forget, and you started that process so well, though the real difficulties now lie behind me.
“I am not myself in too many ways and find that I need company like yours to take my mind off other less pleasant things, and here I am, abusing that trust by asking about a kiss.” He had not asked for a kiss, but she decided not to correct him. He had speculated about how pleasant it would be to kiss her. She wondered the same thing herself. “It is more pleasant to consider those things, circumstances, settings, and persons that we love than those that are less pleasing. Love—a philosophical invention, confusing enough in itself, and although I know what it is when it comes to family, it takes on a different guise outside of it, and then I am not sure what it is. So what is love?” He shook himself out of that momentary mood and blushed that he had dared venture onto such a personal topic that might disturb her. “Too soon for such a deeply confusing philosophical discussion upon that subject.” She would have to agree with him.
He saw the letter he had dropped and picked it up. “And yet, speaking of a kind of love; brotherly love: I found this letter waiting for me downstairs and read it before I came up. I shouldn’t have done! It nearly destroyed my enjoyment of coming home, but you managed to rescue me from that, by just being here. Unexpected, but so welcome. This letter is more than two months old, and it did distract me from noticing you earlier than I did, as I found I had to read it more than once. I must have overlooked it when I came through before. A good friend of mine, the best of my few friends, died just recently after being shot by a poacher. A man I was at the university with, and was close to. Oliver Morton. He was just your age.” He was staring at the letter and did not notice how he had affected her in turn.
“Poor Oliver. He wrote me sometime before that accident, and was so excited. He regretted that I had missed meeting with him as we had arranged but confessed that something wonderful had happened to him instead, when he showed up at that inn where we had decided to meet. He related how he had fallen in love with the most surprising young woman that he met there and who had quite captured him. I hope he forgave me for missing that meeting about then. Even in his writing I could sense that he was bubbling with excitement, but would tell me nothing more of her until I met with him after that.”
Charlotte listened in amazement. She knew exactly everything he was talking about. Henry continued with his thoughts. “Love! I am sure that all of us know what love is, or might be, and yet I fear that so few of us are ever destined to find it. I found that I envied him and wanted to ask him more than he had disclosed. Then I discovered this letter.” He blinked back a tear, not ashamed to be seen to be so sad. He shook himself out of that mood. “You would not know him, of course. A relatively local family and no more inclined to rub shoulders with the great and the good of society any more than I would, but he was the salt of the earth.” She was glad to have him speak so candidly of her brother. “We had so much in common we might almost have been brothers.” From what Oliver had said of him, it had been a mutual feeling. “I feel for that young woman. In love, being loved, and now robbed of it. I feel sorry for his sisters, and his entire family. Such a tragic loss!”
She turned her face away from looking at him so that he would not see the suddenly pained expression on her face, but he was not looking at her. “It is a pity I was not closer to home and aware of it. It must have caused the one who wrote it such pain.” He would never know.
“There was so much said, that was not disclosed, and such damage from tears. My heart is still heavy to think of that.” He turned his head and looked at her. “Do you think perhaps that it might be late to visit his family and pay my respects? Though I should dislike to be the cause of arousing their grief once more.” She found it difficult to respond as she bit back her own emotions.
“More than two months ago, you say? Perhaps it would still be too much of a wrench.” She did not dare let her feelings show at what he was saying, but as he showed a similar pain on his face, he would not have noticed. She could see that he was saddened by it and could easily see the glint of tears in his eyes. She wanted to reach out and console him by touching his face as he had earlier touched hers, but she did not dare. She could not be sure what his response to her might be. She reached over and touched his hand instead—a less personal gesture of sympathy. He flinched at her unexpected touch. “Perhaps a letter might suffice then.” He responded to his own suggestion.
“Yes. A letter! Probably less disturbing. I knew much of him, and yet so little. I believe he had at least one sister. His twin, just as Georgiana is mine, though that is as much as I know. I would like to meet her. If she is anything like Oliver was, we would probably be good friends and have as much in common as I had with her brother. I suppose I should regard her as a friend too, now that Oliver is gone. He spoke of his family, but we always had other things to occupy us. My heart goes out to her. I wish I could get to know her and comfort her without causing her more grief, but I doubt I could do the one without the other.” She was moved by his sadness. “His death must have hit her particularly hard, as it will with those who are so close together as I am sure they must have been.” He could have no idea. “One day, I perhaps should seek the family out and meet with her, though why she would wish to be reminded so clumsily of her brother by my appearing out of nowhere, I hardly dare imagine. So I should not do it too precipitously, if at all. I can however send them my condolences.”
He cleared his throat as he choked off any display of deeper emotions, unsuccessfully, which quite surprised her, and looked at her as he blinked back his tears and was unlikely to notice hers, which she could not longer hide easily. “Yes. I fear my mood is infectious and unforgivably depressing.” He reached over and touched away a tear from her cheek. “Let us, instead, speak of something less threatening and upsetting to you and me both, than of kisses—even comforting kisses, or loss of a good friend.” The mood did not entirely leave him, however.
“We delude ourselves if we think that we control our own futures. Look at you, Miss Wakefield, Charlotte. I am sure that choice did not bring you here to us, but necessity of one kind or another or an accident, which changed the course of your life or that of your family. I find—with all that has befallen me, and with what I am called upon to do—I am labeled as a villain, but not out of my choice. My friend did not quit this sphere from choice. None of us know when the grim reaper will confront us, or how. Is our future preordained, and nothing we do can change what happens to us? Is it really written in some fateful scroll? No, I cannot believe that. There are thousands of different paths open to us in life, most are accidental, and beyond our own conscious control. This path, that path. A storm takes a traveler unawares, and he takes a wrong turn—a horse kicks out unexpectedly, a highwayman intervenes and his gun goes off, shooting his accomplice. I saw that happen once. An estate goes off in a different direction when the heir is murdered. A man spies an enemy from his past, or sees a young and attractive woman across a room and approaches her. Will her husband intervene, if she has one? What about her brother or her father, and what happens if they don’t intercede? Could it be the start of a new existence or the end of one? What happens if they do intervene? What of our meeting now? Where might this lead, or not lead? Except we risk treading on dangerous ground again, I fear.”
He stared into the fire with his head resting on his arm laid out along the fender, as he recovered his composure. “But to return to a subject far more pleasant at this moment. You! I tried to surmise as much as I dare about you, but I gained no sign from you that I might be even partially right. Please tell me about yourself Miss . . . Charlotte! Unless you are so tired or wary of me after my confessed lapses that you must desert me to escape the rascal that I would like to be, or this sad note, which I accidentally introduced into our tête-à-tête.” He reached out and touched her hair. His mind seemed far off. She did not feel threatened and liked the momentary feel of his hand on her head, giving and deriving comfort from it, before he let it fall.
“You were right in most of your conjecture. A family fallen on hard times. Difficult to speak of, so I hope you will excuse me from participating any further.”
“Yes. Grief is a private thing. Foolish of me to have raised that about my friend. I would rather fall asleep with pleasant thoughts on my mind, as I am sure you would too, and I am feeling tired enough to sleep now, where I did not earlier, despite that news. It is always better to sleep with happier thoughts than those that I have entertained for the last year or two, and then this.” He put the letter down on the small table.