The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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A Change of Plans

An attentive listener always learns so much more than an eager and unguarded talker.

Henry was up early the next morning and went to see his sister to let her know of his sudden change of plan.

“So, Henry!” Georgiana looked at him from under her long eyelashes as he walked over to her and captured her hand as he leaned over to kiss her. “I thought I heard you come in last night.”

“Yes. It was after midnight when I got home. You are looking better than when I last saw you.” There was more color in her cheeks, and her eyes seemed brighter. “I hope you can forgive me for not disturbing you when I first came in, even though we have not seen each other for some time.” She looked him over and made note of those little changes in him that boded either good or ill for what he was trying to achieve. He looked more happy than when she had last seen him, though that could possibly be because of his meeting with Charlotte. He said nothing of that, however, though Charlotte had, almost as an afterthought when she had come to see her earlier. Georgiana was not slow, however, any more than her brother was, and it was what Charlotte had not said, that spoke most loudly.

“I see that you have no intention of telling me that you met my friend, Charlotte, last night, and under strange circumstances.” She waited for him to say something, but he didn’t. “Last night.” He just looked at her with a neutral look on his face. She knew that look. “Late last night. She said that you woke her up.” He still volunteered nothing. “What happened?”

“Nothing! Why? What did she say?” He was dismissing it too easily and fishing for some clue as to what Charlotte might have said. Something had happened between them.

Her eyes widened. “Henry, you didn’t . . . !” He looked at his sister and smiled.

“Tarnation! You found out! Of course I did! Did you not hear her screams when I thought to crawl into her bed, not knowing she was there? I am your careless brother, am I not?” He sighed and laughed gently. “So she has been here already? Oh dear! I hope she did not relate how I found her asleep and caused her some deep concern at first . . . or that other?”

“What deep concern, and what other might that be, Henry? How did you have chance to encounter her, for you cannot have been in the house before midnight, unless . . .” her eyes widened. “Henry, do tell me you were joking earlier. You didn’t!”

“No, I didn’t. Not in her room, as you seem to assume. I met her in the library. She was dozing off there. I walked in and saw her sitting there, quite carelessly too, entrancing in a flimsy creation that set my heart fluttering wildly, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I thought I might have been dreaming—even in the wrong house. Her hair shone in the firelight. Most striking!” She looked at him closely and waited for him to tell her more, but he didn’t. He had said enough, however.

“I shall not inquire what you mean by quite carelessly, Henry, and embarrass you further, or her, when I speak with her. The library can sometimes become far too warm for comfort even at this time of year. So there is a secret—perhaps several of them. She seemed quite flushed after I had mentioned that I thought I had heard you ride in last night, but that when I went looking for you in the library, I found no one there. I was not sure where you might have gone.” She looked at him critically. “But those clothes you are wearing, Henry. They were in that closet in her room! Are you sure . . . ?” She waited for him to explain.

“I didn’t blunder into her bedroom, if that is what you think. When I came in, I found her in the library, reading Gibbon, and she had dozed off. Took me quite by surprise. I quite envied her, her ability to fall asleep like that, though Gibbon would do that for anyone. I recalled that you mentioned your companion being in my old room, so I thought I might stay in the library. I’d slept out there the last time. It is by far the warmest room in the house with the most comfortable chairs to sleep in, or perhaps it is the books and the attempt to read them that drives one to sleep. When she awoke, I persuaded her that we could have a late-night snack together. No doubt we had both gone down to the kitchen when you were looking for me.” She looked peculiarly at him, as though to question the truth of what he was telling her.

“You obviously did not have too repelling an effect on her. She hoped she might meet you again at breakfast, for that is where she went. She said that she had something she wished to ask you.” She watched his face for some sign of betraying his feelings to her. She was disappointed. “You seem to have puzzled her in some way, though she tried not to give the impression of being as excited as I know she was. You are obviously excited too and itching to be out of here and downstairs, now that you have visited me and now that I have told you where she is.

"You and she are alike, both of you with secrets that you are keeping from me. You look different too. Yes, you are both hiding something from me.” She tried to read him, but he was as closed as any book. She sighed. “What can I possibly learn from you if you won’t respond as I hoped you would to all of my searching questions? Tell her that I will join her in a half hour or so when I wake up properly, and you too, if you really do not have to rush off. I expect you to tell me what happened between you two to give her such a strong impression of you. I’ll get it out of her later anyway and ask her what you may have meant by quite carelessly, for she is such an open, unselfish person—so easy to talk with, and quite my superior. Although I am sure that if I see you two together, looking at each other, I will not need to ask anything at all, for it will all be laid out as an open book, rather than as you are now, with you both hiding all of your secrets away, though not so well as you both might think.” She looked at the expression on his face. “Henry! You didn’t draw her, did you?” She waited for an answer but saw a blank look on his face. “I know that look! Oh, dear. Of course you did. You would be unable to resist.”

He smiled at her. She needed some mystery in her life, as well as humorous distractions. “Just two drawings. At first.” He saw the look on her face. “No, don’t go looking for them. I hid them away.” He looked at her and smiled. “No, I didn’t draw her that way, but I did draw her. As you said—I could not resist. If I miss you for breakfast when you discover that you cannot break the habit of not being an early riser, do not feel too disappointed, my love. I’ll be back in a day or so, perhaps even later today. I will soon be able to stop running about the countryside here, except that someone will need to go to the East Indies, Asia, and the West Coast of the Americas soon, if I don’t go myself. That’s where the main profits are to be made, now that we are finding our feet again, and we need a toehold there.” He saw his sister looking at him with a smile on her face and felt her holding on to his sleeve to stop him leaving.

“Henry, you are not telling me what I need to hear, and until you do, I shall not let you go.” He relented. “Yes, I admit that I am eager to meet with Charlotte again. No, I shall not show you my drawings of her just yet, nor those she made of me.” Her ears perked up at that. Charlotte had somehow managed to get him to stay still for long enough to draw him.

“I wonder what she looks like when she is dressed.” He corrected himself though could not hide his slip from his sister and tried to recover. “Dressed properly, that is! And in daylight.” He paused with a touch of color on his cheeks as his eyes flew to his sister’s face to find her laughing at him yet again.

“So she was not properly dressed either. Yes, that would be irresistible for you. So I assume that you certainly could not resist drawing her then, if she was asleep like that in that chair. At that time of night, and believing she would be alone in the library, she was probably in her nightdress, so that might explain your shocking comment.” She could see the look on his face. “Yes, undoubtedly in her nightdress and creating notable confusion in you. She was probably asleep too, and all in slumberous disarray in front of the fire. Those chairs do that to you. They are too easily slid out of, when one relaxes too well.” She had guessed what had happened, but he would not confirm it.

“Henry, you must have had the discipline of a statue to have survived that. Or for her to have survived, if that was how you saw her. I am not sure she did survive it, considering what I have now learned of both of you. Undoubtedly, you could not resist drawing her like that!”

“She said something to you?” He was blushing even more and wondering what Miss Wakefield might have said about him.

“No. It was what she did not say, and carefully avoided saying, that was interesting and revealing. How careless of her indeed to tempt you like that! Now I am all eagerness to see those drawings.” He would see that she did not. His sister would endeavor to play the one off against the other to learn what she intended to learn as she watched their expressions and how they responded to her not-at-all-innocent questioning.

After Henry had gone. Georgiana climbed hurriedly out of her bed. She would see if she could not take them both unawares and corner them both. She was still laughing some moments later, after she had taken the opportunity to go along to the library and, after a few minutes of careful searching, discovered where Henry had hidden his sketchbook, high up on one of the shelves. She turned to the drawing she had last remembered seeing and then slowly turned each page from there. He had been busy. All of the later drawings had been of either of Charlotte or of him, as they had managed to catch each other, and obviously unawares, as no woman would knowingly sit like that to be captured in a drawing. Later, she had then captured Henry asleep in turn, followed by a charming piece of prose—telling in itself. Following that were yet other drawings of them both. They had clearly had a busy evening in the library together, and she wished that she had been there to see it all.

When Georgiana went down to the breakfast parlor, she was beginning to feel more optimistic of things around her, but the feeling would not last long once Henry had left. However, he did say that he would soon be back, perhaps even that evening. She would have much to confide to him about then. They could even share the secrets that they both of them clearly had, though hers would be the more damaging and less welcome.

Henry walked into the breakfast parlor after leaving his sister itching for him to disappear so that she could rush off and find his sketchbook, and stood in the doorway, entranced for the second time, as he and Charlotte looked at each other. He paused in the doorway as he felt his color rising. She had been nibbling at some toast as she wrote in her diary. She folded a partially completed letter that she had also been working on and put it away into the pages, which she then tied up with a ribbon. He recovered from his shocked state.

“Miss Wakefield, Charlotte, if I may, I must beg your forgiveness for last night. I was tired, and my mind was off gathering wool. We should have been properly introduced before . . . before any of that . . . er . . . other . . . and speculation about . . . I was also carelessly dressed, though I would have remedied that had I known you were there. Please try to forgive me for being so forward last night, and so careless of the more formal protocol, but I have been away and may have developed some careless habits.” He walked over and took her hand.

She laughed at his flustered manner and came to his rescue. He was obviously now drinking to her with his eyes and could not help but feel that he had seen only a pale replica of her in the dull light of the library on the precious evening. She seemed to have an even greater effect on him now than then—that much was obvious. She felt relieved and gratified after what had happened between them, and that might—upon reflection—not have presented her in a favorable light. “I am sure, sir, that Celia would not have been at a loss for words, but then I wasn’t either, was I? Not after the first few moments. However, protocol was not close by at that moment, so had to be dispensed with. We were both where we were, and as we were—with neither of us as we would have chosen to be seen, and neither of us could easily run off. No one else need learn of that.”

“Too late! My sister seems to know all of it!” She blushed. “Furthermore, pardon my correcting you, Miss . . . Charlotte, but there was another brief moment there when you were at a loss for words, when I so boldly admitted . . . that I would like to kiss you. Can you possibly forgive me for that dreadful faux pas? I shall plead that my mind was far off and in a quite different place, though you were also in that same place with me. I was also far too forward when I suggested I walk you to your bedroom, and nearly caused you to fear for the worst for a few moments. However, we also seemed quite relaxed with each other during our late-night repast and delightful conversation, before I suggested that, and almost ruined it all. I cannot think that that was quite what is done in the more careful echelons of society, but I am relieved that you did not rush off, and equally relieved that you did not tell my sister what you found out about me that is not at all to my credit.”

“Don’t worry, sir. I shall wait until you are gone before I tell your sister what I recall of it.”

“Thank you for that reprieve.” He looked relieved. He helped himself to a plate of sausage, ham, eggs, and toast from the side, as she poured him a coffee. He would not tell her that Georgiana probably knew everything there was to know already, and then with more to be seen if she were to see them together now, blushing at each other and laughing as they were, though not with so much embarrassment as there might have been between them after what had happened.

It was a relief to find that she seemed pleased to see him, after last night, and had a more relaxed and confident look on her face. He would not tell her that he had seen her drawings of him, or reveal that he had read a piece of delightful prose that he had read and reread, seeking to find some meaning in it that might involve him. He was pleased to see that she dressed well, and even unusually well for someone who was engaged as a lady’s maid. But she was clearly not that, as his sister had intimated once or twice in her letters, and as he had discovered for himself.

“I hope you will excuse me for not waiting on breakfast for you to appear, sir. I did not wait for you, as I heard you say that you might have to leave early, though I was aware that you had not gone as you thought you might. I checked in the library and found you to be still asleep before I went to see Georgiana, and I did not wish to awake you.”

“No. I decided to spend some time at home. I find that I have been traveling too far. I have changed my plans. I shall try to catch up on my rest for a day or so and shall send letters off instead.”

She seemed to be struggling to ask him something. “Henry?” He smiled at her using his name so easily so soon after their meeting.

“Yes, my d—Charlotte.” He caught his slip; the second time it had happened, but not in time for her not to notice. Her color had risen at that, but she did not seem displeased.

“Henry, I . . . you . . . there is a gap in my remembrance of certain things. In the library, last evening, I was writing in my diary in that chair, with you asleep across from me, and then the next thing I recall . . .” She hesitated, wondering if she dare ask. “Did you . . . did you?” She looked at him and found him to be smiling at her as she waited for him to fill in that gap in her memory. It seemed important for her to know. Henry heard footsteps approaching and recognized that Georgiana had broken her usual habit and was about to join them earlier than was usual for her.

“Before we are interrupted by my sister, the answer is yes, Charlotte. You fell asleep, and I did carry you back to your bedroom, and I did see you settled comfortably, and safely, in your own bed without either of us being seen by anyone else. That shall be our undiscovered secret.” She was relieved in one sense but would have liked to have asked him more, except that Georgiana walked in upon them, to see Charlotte blushing at something he had said to her.

There was a strange look, one of silent triumph on Georgiana’s face. She placed Henry’s drawing book, which he had left hidden away in the library, on the table by them. He looked up at her and saw her smiling down at him in a knowing kind of way. She was pleased to see him blushing. She had caught them in some secret way and had interrupted something important. She would learn everything later, from either her brother or Charlotte, when she was able to pry them apart.

“You did not hide it so well, you know, Henry. I am aware of most of your hiding places for those things you do not wish to have discovered.” He wondered as much on other occasions, when he had found his drawing books out of place from where he seemed to recall leaving them. He resolved to see that they would be in a different place from this moment forward. She had obviously gone through it from cover to cover and had undoubtedly seen Charlotte’s prose, and her drawings of him, as well as those earlier and later drawings he had done of Charlotte.

“From what I could see, you both had a busy evening, with bread crumbs and a few bits of cheese that the dog missed, on the floor, as well as beer flowing like water, and not the weaker beer either. I was sorry not to have been invited. Don’t worry, I shall not betray your deepest secrets—if you have any left. You both seem to have had a busy evening together.”

“Georgiana!” She ignored her brother’s cautioning use of her name to rein her in, though she could see a look of mild distress on Charlotte’s face.

“So, Charlotte, did your second impression of my brother, before I arrived for breakfast, and to unexpectedly disrupt your morning peace, make up for the first, or not?” She smiled at her friend to reassure her that her comments were kindly meant. “He rushed out, saying that he needed to see you dressed, and in the light of day. It did not sound at all innocent! I could not remain where I was after that comment and had to arouse myself and find out what is going on.”

She noticed Charlotte blush intensely, and glance quickly at her brother in an alarmed way, and saw a similar look on her brother’s face. It was certainly not at all innocent. There were secrets between them that there should not have been. They were looking at each other, like two young children who had been caught with their clothing disarranged, as they had been learning of each other’s anatomical differences, as children will.

She was startled to realize that life, and love, always found its own way, as it must have done for Charlotte and her brother; but she would not dare broach that personal subject with either of them, but she knew what she had seen. She would gradually pry what she could out of her brother, and out of Charlotte later when she had each of them to herself. Henry would hide nothing from her, she knew that, provided she broached the subject gently; and she knew that with diplomatic encouragement, she might persuade Charlotte to tell her what she remembered, or dared say.

She was not disappointed by what she saw, and was happy to see the tension she had caused by revealing that book, and of her subsequent comments, to slowly fade once Henry had removed it from being in full view. She was content to help herself to breakfast, and then to watch and listen, while throwing a few morsels into the conversation, as required. She learned that Henry had also changed his plans and decided that he could send his father a letter, instead of rushing off to London, and would join him in a day or so. She had no illusions about why Henry had decided not to rush off. She had guessed it all for herself. The reason was sitting opposite him, and they were conversing almost as though she were not there, and as though they had known each other for longer than just a few hours. She might soon lose her companion, but found that she did not mind. She would not so much lose anything, as gain far more than she might lose.

Later that same day, when she had the opportunity, Charlotte continued her letter to Anne that had been interrupted when Henry had walked into the breakfast room. She read it through from the beginning to take up those same threads of thought that had carried her into it.

'Dearest Anne,

You would not believe what happened to me last evening. I scarce can believe it myself, but I must write to someone to relate all that I feel, and you are the only one I can confide in.

I met the brother, Henry, last night! He came in upon me when I was asleep. It was a strange meeting, and if you and I were not in the habit of being able to share our innermost feelings and secrets with each other, I would never dare tell you anything of it. It was strange and even shocking at first, but then . . . not quite so shocking. I write this at the breakfast table, as I am the only one here.

I had seen Georgiana to bed, as I usually do, close to ten, but could not rest myself, so I got up, threw a wrap about me, and went off to the library. It is quite the warmest, private, and most comfortable room in the house as well as being superior to the library at home, and better lit. I settled myself by the fire, brought my diary up to date, and picked up a boring book that Oliver told us used to drive him to sleep after just a page or so, which is what must have happened to me. I had not intended to fall sleep there, yet I did.

The next thing I knew, there was a gentleman standing by me and making up the fire. Henry! He had also been there for some time, watching me and even drawing me, as I discovered later!'

That last sentence had been underlined carefully as though to convey some shocking meaning, which it did.

'He had ridden up while the house was asleep and had not expected to find me where I should not have been at that time of night. I was so concerned and embarrassed by what he had seen of me, I did not know what to do with myself. I had on that diaphanous creation that Mama had never dared wear, as she said that it hid too little of her. To make it worse, I must have dozed off and slid off the chair into some cushions on the floor, and with my nightdress goodness only knows where, upon me, or not upon me . . . I shall not say more. You can imagine how I appeared, and how I felt when I woke to find where I was and with this . . . man, beside me . . . although when I awoke, there was a thin blanket over me that I had not put there, and I seemed to be respectably covered. I dare say nothing. I was utterly struck dumb with embarrassment and well aware of what he must think of me.

I must break off. Someone is coming into the breakfast parlor.

Alone again! He, Georgiana’s brother, put me at my ease as much as he could under the circumstance . . . but the whole situation was charged with so much tension, considering what he must have seen of me. I was entirely flustered and at a loss for words, with so much that I dare not say or ask. My first temptation was to retreat back to my room.

He persuaded me to stay, even though I felt like running off in a welter of anxiety, and even close to tears, but he did not refer to it at all—almost as though he had not seen me in any awkward way, but I know that he had. He must have sensed how I felt. He was apologetic of his own appearance as though to distract me from my own.

After he had somehow convinced me that I was in no danger, and that he would value my company for a while, without touching upon any of that other embarrassment (strange how easily it slipped from my mind with the persuasion of his words), we ate a nice little late-night repast together, as you and I used to do with Oliver (I shall make sure that I see this sent off, myself, as I see that I am using names that might be recognized). He had just read my letter to him from Fallowfield, concerning Oliver, and I was totally disarmed when I saw how sad he was to have lost his friend—our brother.

He noticed too many things about me—no, not that damned all-revealing nightdress, but those little habits that we, all of us, have, that label us without us knowing it. Oliver used to sit with his hands together and held up to his face when he was puzzling over a difficult problem or trying to beat me at chess, and I caught myself doing the same thing.

He threw me into the worst panic when he said that he would accompany me to my bedroom (I can see you hugging yourself and laughing nervously at that). I began to be horrified what impression he might have gained of me before I woke up, for him to suggest that, though he only wanted to recover some clothes so that he would not need to disturb me in the morning before he left. I was occupying his old room to be close to Georgiana.

If that were not bad enough, I must confess that about an hour later, I returned to the library to recover my diary and found him asleep, so I decided to see what he had drawn of me when he first saw me. I was shocked. Georgiana had warned me that he was mischievous, and he is. How I might dare hold my head up and smile at him after that, I do not know, but I just did, as we had breakfast together. By way of revenge, I drew him, almost as he had drawn me while he was asleep. He said nothing of it at breakfast this morning, though his sister had found his sketchbook and took him to task for what he had drawn of me, but said nothing of my drawings of him. It might almost have been Oliver and me, with our roles reversed, as I was the one who used to mischievously draw things that Oliver warned me to make sure that no one else might see.'

Charlotte decided to say nothing about him speculating about a kiss, or that she had kissed him before she had locked her door, or that she had then unlocked it again without understanding why she had done that.

'I will tell you more when I can speak with you alone. There are some things that it is wiser not to put into any letter . . . and yet look what I have already said.'

She had already done enough of that but then proceeded to do even more, ignoring her own cautioning.

'This morning, he had not rushed off as he had suggested he might do. He had changed his plans. His coming to the breakfast room was the sound I heard that caused me to break away from this letter.

I last remembered being in the library, yet I woke up the next morning in my own bed. I do not remember taking myself there! I wondered how I had been in the library one moment, writing in my diary, and then woke to find myself where I was—in my bed, but without recollecting how I had got there. I think it must have been the stronger beer that did it (I thought it tasted rather bitter). I am not sure I dare tell you this, but I shall. Henry told me that he had carried me there from the library (in that nightdress too!), and had put me to bed! Mama would have a fit, if she knew.

It was one embarrassment after another, and he just smiled at me and was enjoying it all. How I kept my equanimity at learning that, I do not know, but I did. (When I think about it, that was another one of those things that it is wiser not to put into any letter. Too late now.) I shall not say more. I got up early, as I could not sleep with so much on my mind to torment me, and needing some answers. You must make sure that Mama does not learn any of this. She can continue to believe that I am with one of our sisters in Eastbourne. If you dare say anything of this to anyone else . . . I . . .

I am beginning to realize that I was not cut out for a life of deception. I will trip myself up with having to remember so many half truths, but there is no going back now. My conscience is pricking me severely the way I misled Miss W about the entire family, based upon the little I knew or had overheard, but I was desperate to grasp the opportunity she presented. I can only hope that no one ever finds out what I told her to scare her back to London as I did. I am also finding out that nothing of what I thought I knew to be true, is true. My conscience is causing me great difficulties these days. What a tangled web indeed.

I shall write more, when I know more, or decide what I dare to tell you, but I will need to speak with you face-to-face, before I disclose too much that you will find impossible to believe. I am not sure I believe it myself, just yet.

Charlotte.'

Her sister would be sure to read more into that than she should, but they had so few secrets from each other that it did not matter.

Over the next few days, Henry stayed close to the property, enjoying the pleasant interludes with his sister and Miss Wakefield, walking about the grounds and gardens, if it was not too cold, and discoursing with them easily when he was not busy writing in his study. He had learned a good deal about Miss Wakefield as they had rambled and conversed together on their walks, with Georgiana holding on to his arm on one side, and Charlotte doing the same on the other. He had mostly listened while his sister and Charlotte talked. He smiled at Charlotte once or twice, relieved that his sister seemed to be her old self and was recovering her former composure.

As he listened, he learned that his sister’s friend (and she was a friend more than anything else, despite her being employed as his sister’s maid and companion) was certainly not a lady’s maid or, if she was, had been forced into that usually unhappy state by circumstance. A common fate of many families. He said little but was happy just to watch both of the ladies, as they in turn watched him with each of them as the opportunity came. Once, when he was in a discussion with his sister about a point of natural history of the area, and another occasion when he had pointed out a large chrysalis hanging from one of the lilac bush twigs to Charlotte, he noted that she did not shrink from it or express horror but had reached out to touch it. He stored away what he learned of that. Miss Wakefield had a brother or brothers, yet she had denied that possibility, or cousins close to her. She had not been afraid of accepting his pistol that night in the library either, which suggested either an understanding father and mother, or those same relatives again.

His intent, to spend only a day or two at Stavely, had soon changed. He decided to stay for several days, which soon extended to a week and then two. Business could go on without him now for some time, as he could see to everything by an exchange of messages with his father and others in London. It was not as though he had neglected anything, but the time came when he could no longer neglect business with at least one of their ships entering the estuary to approach London. He gave his apologies to his sister and Charlotte and rode off to London, in a better frame of mind than he had been in for some considerable time. He promised that he would return as soon as he might. Miss Wakefield had certainly brought a sea change to the fortunes of the Stavelys in more ways than one. He decided against approaching his sister and telling her what he knew of her condition. She would tell him herself when the time was ripe, and he would try to find out the identity of the man who had done this to her.

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