Thank you, Sir.
She heard a noise she could not immediately identify and felt herself suddenly freed from all weight upon her. The hand holding the bedding over her face was removed as she still fought, but there was no one within reach of her. She almost fell from her bed in her haste to get away from the presence she knew was still close by, and huddled herself in a corner of the room to recover her wind and her wits as her eyes darted about the dark room to see what might have changed.
In the weak moonlight, which flooded across the floor, she saw two men struggling together. Both were deadly silent. The younger man—she could see that it was Henry—had his hand tight about the throat of his uncle, who seemed to be held clear of the floor as he tried to kick, while his arms, powerful as she had felt them to be, tore futilely at the younger man’s hands slowly choking the life from him. Once Henry had him pinned up against the wall, he struck at him, in his face, several times. The blows landed with a dull impact and drove the older man’s head back against the wall. As his uncle’s struggles became less, Henry let go of his throat and then grasped him from behind with his arm around his neck, dragging him over to the window and squeezing about his neck with additional force if he seemed inclined to struggle or resist. No words were spoken. They were just two shadows, breathing heavily and seeking advantage, one over the other in a life-or-death struggle. It was an uneven contest. Everything moved forward in silence and with but one inevitable outcome.
The window had been left partially open despite the cold, as the room had been far too warm. Henry reached out and opened it even wider as their audience watched, not even sure at times which of the two was Henry and which was his uncle. The noise of the chair being kicked over must have disturbed Henry from his own rest. He must have responded immediately.
His uncle could see the way it would go, and resisted as he could, with his feet and arms trying to block Henry’s efforts to see him gone, and fighting back in desperation rather than allowing himself to be ejected from the window. However, nothing could resist Henry’s anger at that moment; and the older man, already tired from his earlier struggle with Charlotte, could do nothing about it. He was pushed from the window with a last effort to grasp at the edge of it and breathing heavily, and possibly pleading for his life but making little sound with any sense, before Henry’s fist drove into his face and sent him backward out of the window to fall to the garden twenty feet below.
Henry watched him fall, hearing him scream with sudden terror into the shrubbery. His uncle must have believed that his last moment had come, but his fall had been cushioned by the bushes. He survived, though probably injured, if the cries of pain were any indication. After some moments of watching, as the motion of the branches settled down, Henry saw him crawl painfully out from the darker shadows and collapse in the open area at the edge of the driveway. He knew he should have had that shrubbery cut away, and the outcome would have been more certain. The problem still remained, but not for long. He had Charlotte to see to first.
The doors into the house were all locked at that time of night. If the older man had not suffered any broken bones to hinder his movement, the only place accessible to him might be the stable or one of the nearby barns. He would be easy to find. Henry closed the window and fastened it. He turned back to Charlotte, still bundled up in the corner, vaguely illuminated by the moonlight and terrified even of moving, and still not sure what she had seen, or perhaps even what her fate might be.
Henry was not sure, but he thought he could see blood on her hands and on her legs and her body. She was still terrified of what had happened. He ignored her nakedness, took her hands, and gradually raised her to her feet and into his arms where he held her close as he tried to comfort her. She felt cold and was almost ready to fight him off too in her nervousness, but then realized that she had escaped the real danger and might now be safe.
She sobbed and moved protectively into him. If she began to recognize her lack of clothing covering her, then she would need to be buried out of sight, close to him, rather than being so openly revealed in the somewhat brighter light from the window. He felt her arms go around him tightly and felt her uncontrollable sobs begin at her relief of being delivered from that fate that had almost enveloped her.
After some moments of that, he picked her up into his arms and carried her across to her bed. He lay her down and brought the one sheet that remained within easy reach across her, where she clutched it close about her. He would see to the rest later.
He lit the candles beside the bed with a taper from the almost-dead fire (he would make it up later) and looked over what he could see of her and the turmoil in the room, some of which he had caused, though the blankets and sheets had been torn from the bed by his uncle. Her torn nightdress was also there.
He looked into her eyes, wondering how she might believe she could trust him. “Are you seriously injured anywhere that I should know about? I would like to know. I will not leave until I do know.” She was not yet able to speak, but she did shake her head.
He picked other coverings up from the floor and covered her with those too. “Would you like me to get someone else to help you?” Her eyes seemed alarmed at that happening.
She reached out and held his arm as she spoke. “No. No one else must know of this. I will need to trust you, or risk the entire house learning of it. I would rather that no one else learned of this.”
“I can assure you that Mrs. Forster would say nothing. I shall get her if you wish.”
“No! Not Mrs. Forster, and not your sister. No one.” He watched as she closed her eyes as a sudden tremor shook her body. She was still shocked by what had happened. He reached out and sat her up into his arms once more until he began to feel the emotion begin to drain from her, and the trembling stopped. Such an emotional blowup was likely to ensure that she would get no further sleep that night. Neither would he. He felt torn between staying to provide her support and comfort as well as help, and seeking out his uncle to complete what he had begun and to wring his neck like a chicken.
“You are safe now, you know. The outside doors are all locked, and windows too. He will have a cold night out there with the likelihood of frost by morning. He knows that if he were to return, I would not hesitate to put him out of the window again, head first, and from a higher floor, and where there will be no undergrowth to soften his fall.” He sat by her and held her hand. “I will say that you put up a plucky defense of yourself. Who taught you to go for the eyes like that? You made it difficult for him. Remind me not to get into a fight with you, Charlotte, or to invite your wrath.” She seemed to try to smile. “The marks to his face alone will cause some speculation, but if neither of us betrays anything nor confirms any of it by our behavior, it will mean little. It can seem to have been a contretemps between only him and me when I found him wandering the house, and that is what I will suggest. They will understand that at least. You can let go of me, you know, so that I may find what you need. You are no longer in any danger.” That was not entirely true, the way he felt about her. “I cannot help being concerned about you. I have too much to lose if I frighten you as I fear I might. I am not entirely disconnected from this situation, nor as disinterested as I might be. As I should be.” She knew that and felt the better to learn that.
Somehow he had survived both temptations—to kill his uncle out of hand and to reveal his feelings, suddenly felt so overpoweringly, to this special woman whom he unreservedly loved. He felt privileged to have been trusted at all, for he was not sure that he deserved to be. He sat beside her as he took her hand in turn. “I hope we, both of us, survived that experience, though I find that I am trembling with emotion over it now, while you seem to be so calm.
“From the little I saw of you, none of your wounds seems to be that serious. I suspect and hope that the blood is all his.” He looked at her with a gentle smile on his face. “You are a courageous young woman. I do not know of anyone who might have dealt so well with this, or have dared to trust me after that, as you did. Everything that took place here, this evening, and now, will be our secret, Miss Wakefield.”
“Charlotte!” She corrected him, as she looked up at him intently. “You never had such difficulty with my name before. We seem to have a growing number of secrets to hide from the rest of the house.”
“Yes, we all do. It is time they were spoken of, even between us. I never came so close to losing everything that I find I value in life, as I just did.” She knew what he was saying. “My mind is still in turmoil after that.” She tried to reassure him now, as she held his hand. A strange reversal of roles, and seeming to trust him, as though they knew everything about the other, and knew each other’s every secret and were comfortable with it.
“You will not leave me, will you? I do not wish to be left alone.” She still held his hand.
“No, Charlotte. If you can stand my company after this, I am not going to leave you at all tonight. I am going to stay close to both you and my sister until after my uncle leaves this house, and likely for a longer time after that.” She looked relieved to hear that, though in truth, he was more relieved than he might ever say over the trust she seemed to feel for him.
“You need to come closer—here, to me, please!” He did not know why, but he followed her request as she looked up into his face. “You do not need to be shy with me now. Not after what almost happened, and after what you did for me, I am not.
“You have marks about your face too, you know, and there is also blood, his blood I hope, on your nightshirt. I fear he tried to scratch at you as you choked him, and not just at your wrists and hands.” She moved the candles closer to him and got him to lean toward her as she touched his head. He could feel her hand trembling with suppressed emotion.
He smiled and leaned over to kiss her. She did not object or retreat from that. It was a comforting kiss and did not alarm her as it might have done just a short time before. “Nothing that happened was your fault, Charlotte. If anything, it was my fault for allowing him too much freedom and tolerating his insidious presence here. I should have known he might try to be revenged on someone, after I exposed his reasons for being here.”
“None of it was your fault either, Henry. You were not to know. You are not to blame.”
“I feel that I am. I should have known. How easily we forget and . . . We are supposed to protect those we love, far better than I did. You know by now what my feelings for you are, Charlotte.”
“Yes. I have known for some time, Henry. Since that first night. The whole house knows it, but we were never properly alone after that to speak of it, though we both knew it.”
“Yes, so Georgiana told me. I fell in love with you that first night in the library, but was too afraid to admit it for fear of alarming you more than I already did.” He looked closely at her. “Dare I say . . . might I hope . . . believe . . . that I do not feel that I have been mistaken in assuming that my feelings are returned?”
She was able to smile at his seemingly being unsure of what she felt for him. “You have known for some time that they are returned, sir. Your sister knew that first morning we were together. I knew even as you caught me and stopped me falling into that fire, and as you say, you knew that first night in the library. We should both have had this discussion a long time ago and have saved ourselves from such difficulty, but I expect we each had good reasons of our own for not doing so. Until now.”