Brother and sister. Sister and brother!
He recalled that he would need to find another nightdress for her. In the top drawer, he found what he was looking for. He sorted out the neck and organized it to slip over her head and arms more easily. As he approached her, she let go of the sheet and raised her hands as the sheet fell away from her. She did not seem to be shy with him in any way now, after what he had done for her and as he pulled the nightdress down and around her. He sorted out the rest of the bedding and covered her tidily with that too. He would see to it and get it into the laundry before anyone else was stirring and bring up new, to make up the bed properly. He retrieved her torn nightdress from where it had been thrown aside and put that out of sight. He would clear it all away himself in the morning, sheets and all, to the laundry, along with the slightly bloodstained sheet covering her and the one beneath her. He would do that before anyone else might be stirring to recognize where they might have come from. He would also find replacement bedding down there. There was no other obvious sign of damage in the room, though he was sure that there would be some blood spattering visible to sharp eyes in daylight, from the scratches she had given his uncle, as well as from the beating he had given him.
He was still struggling with various emotions that pulled him in different directions. “I should have looked after you better than this, Charlotte, my love. I am sorry, but I feel this, perhaps . . . I should have made sure he . . . I shall deal with it tomorrow and ensure that he cannot do anything like this again.” He began to relax for the first time that evening.
“You will not leave me alone, will you?” She seemed concerned that he might do so, and had asked him that again.
“No, my dear. I told you I would not. I am not about to leave you. I am going to spend the night in that chair over there, where you can see me. I doubt that either of us will be able to sleep easily.”
“Thank you, but I may not rest, just yet. I will need your escort, for I must also go and see to your sister first. She is getting closer to her time and is not having a comfortable time with it, and I have been away too long!”
Then I shall go with you. I doubt you would feel completely relaxed wandering the dark hallways at night, with that other individual still alive and somewhere out there. What a spectacle we shall present, wandering the halls like this together. Me in my blood-spattered nightshirt and you in your nightdress. The gossip may never cease if we are seen like this.” She was able to smile.
“I do not care about that. Not now. I would welcome your company now, and I may need your support at least a little. But I am not an invalid, and it was not too serious.” He knew better than that. “If she is awake and wonders why we are together, we shall tell her something that will not alarm her. She shall learn none of the other from me to upset her, nor I hope from you, though we shall avoid disturbing her if possible and having her question us both about . . .”
“About what is obvious?” She would not see any minor splashes of blood on his nightshirt in the low light in her room, and he would stay over by the door. “If she sees us both in our nightclothes, with you in my company at this advanced hour, as well as both of us ruffled, she will suspect the worst. Or the reality.” He smoothed her hair a little.
“The reality, Henry. Your sister may think ill of me and that I trapped you! She is very defensive of you.”
“I am her brother. Of course, she is defensive of me, but will think nothing of the kind where you are concerned. She has also seen us together many times. She knows that we love each other. She told me almost before I knew it myself. She approves of you in every way and loves you almost as I do.”
They went off together, arm in arm, strolling in a relaxed way along the corridor, as they conversed quietly, almost as though nothing had happened.
“You don’t hurt anywhere, do you, now that you are walking? No soreness? Pulled muscles? Nothing I missed or that I should know about?”
“No. They are just minor scrapes, Henry. I am more rattled and annoyed that I was taken off guard and frustrated that, as a woman, I am not as strong as I sometimes need to be. Thank you for coming to my rescue when you did!”
“I would like to be there for you all of the time, Charlotte. There is so much we need to discuss and clear out of the way. We should have said more to each other than we did in the last few months.” She rested her head against him as they walked slowly. They would have presented a shocking yet comforting sight to anyone who might also have been abroad in the house to see them, but no one else was stirring.
“Not just the last few months, Henry. We should have spoken more openly with each other that first night we met. Though neither of us dared. There was too much we left unsaid, each not sure of the other at that moment, and scared of where it might lead.”
“I was sure of what I knew then! What I had learned! I know now that I fell in love with you as I walked through that library door and saw you sitting before that fire and asleep, but I dare say nothing and possibly offend you by showing how excited or eager I was, though I am afraid my drawings gave me away. You were like a goddess, sitting in front of that fire, with the firelight reflecting off you. You captivated me even then. I was sure I must be dreaming and that it could not possibly be happening to me.”
“I was sure too. When I looked up and saw you there, making up the fire and then looking at me as you did with that look on your face, I too thought I must be dreaming and seeing what I wanted to see and that you would disappear even as I woke up a little more—that you were a mirage. I thought for a moment you were . . . someone I lost recently.” They paused and held each other close at that moment as they turned into each other and kissed.
“Our first real kiss. I hope I did not cause more pain with your lips.”
“You were gentle. There was no pain. Our first real kiss, as you said, but not our last, and we must see where our first gentle kiss shall lead, sir. I seem to recall pointing out to you that a kiss often leads on to other more serious things.” He could only hope so. So did she.
After some few moments, they continued along the corridor to see to Georgiana. He let them both in quietly, and saw that she was resting easily. Charlotte made sure that she was covered and had some lemonade still with her if she woke up thirsty, as he quietly made up the fire, and they returned the way they had come.
Once they were back in her room, Henry turned back her covers and saw her into her bed and then found that she was holding on to him and not wishing to let him go across to his chair where he had planned to spend the night. She no longer seemed as afraid as she had previously been. There was a strange look in her eyes. “I would like to be held in your arms, Henry. After what almost happened, I only regret that we seem to have wasted so much time in not openly admitting our love for each other until now.” She reached up and pulled his head down to her bosom as he slowly dropped to his knees by the bed and pulled her closer into him in turn, as she kissed him. He turned his head up to her and found that she continued to kiss him and hold him close to her in a way that left no doubt as to her vulnerable emotional state and possibly her intentions at that moment. She was crying.
“Come, Henry. It is too cold out there for you. Hold me close. There have been too many things neglected between us, and it is time to ensure that they do not escape us again. Life is too short and throws so many unexpected blocks in our way. I would like to be held, and kissed, and loved. We have delayed far too long. After what almost happened to me, I shall not allow such unimportant considerations as morality or protective virtue get in our way again.”
He knew what she was asking of him. “Are you sure, Charlotte? There will be no recovery from that, and no possibility of going back, and I am only a weak man where you are concerned. You present me with a circumstance that I have not the strength of character to refuse. It is something that I know we both have wanted to have happen for some time.”
“I am sure. We will have too little time together after Georgiana’s baby is born.”
“Then we must marry. I should have asked you before now, but I was afraid of your answer. I am not afraid now. You shall go to India with me.”
“Yes, Henry. I will, to both suggestions.” He felt as though a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders.
“You will no longer be needed quite so well here once Georgiana is delivered. I have long-overdue business there that will take me away from London for some time, and I fear I would not survive long over there, with you here, constantly on my mind as you would be, and are. We, you could ask your sister, Anne, to come here and stay with Georgiana and take your place. She is as welcome here as you are, and is as much of our family as anyone can be with what we intend. Once we leave, then Georgiana will go and live with our parents in London, so it will not be as though your sister is to be trapped in this rural fastness forever. But you realize that we should marry, Charlotte.” He corrected himself. “No—that we now must marry, and soon. The sooner the better. I would like you to.” She liked what she was hearing and turned her face up to be kissed again. “Should I approach anyone in your family about this—ask their permission?”
“There is no one you need to ask other than me, Henry.” He was pleased to hear that.
“Georgiana’s confinement is still two months off, so we have plenty of time to make plans for that. We should tell Georgiana of this and see that she approves of it—after all, I was hired here to look after her.” Long before then, however, Charlotte’s own secret would need to be revealed, though she was not sure how she might do that at this time without causing some awkward and hurtful questions to deal with, and some admissions she had rather not have had to make quite so soon. Everything had been going better than she had ever thought they might, but it could also change quickly. Perhaps she should say nothing. Who might know? She recalled those threats of Henry’s uncle. He knew, but his own problems were so much greater than they had been, that what he might know of her real identity would have become of little consideration with the future that now seemed to await him.
Perhaps it might be safer if she kept the name of Wakefield, continuing her deception for longer, and got married to Henry only when they were on that ship together. That is what she would suggest. She had not had time to think beyond that. She would need to confide in Anne, however, and possibly ask her what she might think.
“Georgiana must come first in all of our plans, Henry. We can tell her about us later. If you do not mind, sir, with all that is happening here and with too little time to plan everything or do it all as we might like, I believe it might be wiser if we married on board that ship, once we have left, and with minimal ceremony or fuss.” If they could marry free of public scrutiny, she could remain undiscovered and could remain Charlotte Wakefield.
“But that is still some time off. Possibly two months away, Charlotte, and what we begin here . . . I doubt I could stand being parted from you for that long.”
“We do not need to be parted. This was your room before, and it can be our room from this moment on. I am not ashamed of my feelings for you. I doubt any of the servants will dare say anything. I suspect this circumstance is more common in even the most respectable of families than one might know. Others may hide those feelings away, but I will not. Love is not something we need to be ashamed of.”
“You are a remarkable woman, Charlotte.”
“Georgiana already knows what would soon happen between us anyway. She is amazed how we have been able to hold off from each other until even now, and she is not about to judge either of us, but will accept it. I can carry this off, if you can.” He answered her with a gentle kiss and felt his affection returned.
“Thus, are all men disarmed! And we refer to you as the weaker sex. Just when I think I might begin to understand a woman, I realize that I do not. You are all most confusing. You are all propriety, when it is least called for or needed, and all compliance when one least expects it, though I suppose this is a time when one could not avoid it, considering what happened to us both—where we are; as we are, and feeling as we do for each other. However, a lot can happen in two months. What if . . . ?”
“What if I become pregnant?” She had no hesitation or shyness in broaching that possibility. She laughed softly at his understandable concern, dismissing it. “I suppose we should consider it, but it does not matter. Not now. I might actually welcome it, if that were to happen. It will not be noticeable by the time we leave. When we arrive in India, we will be starting out in a new place, on a new life as husband and wife. We will be unknown, in a new society, with nothing hanging over us as to when we were married, except in a ship’s log from some months earlier, and where nothing behind us need concern anyone. Georgiana will know, of course, as well as your parents, and I must tell Anne. We both know the way forward. I care nothing for what anyone outside of this house might say, though how might they know of it without us telling them? Neither Anne nor Georgiana are likely to be surprised by this, or will say anything. I am of age, I am independent, I can choose to live as I will, and I will not be separated from you now, not for one second longer than I need to be. By the time we return, who might know what had happened before we left if there are several children running around?” He could find no fault with her reasonable logic or forthright planning of events. He watched as she began to remove her nightdress and then slowly climbed into bed with her. They took each other into their arms as they kissed. Neither of them had any doubt at that moment where such kissing would lead them. It was no longer of any empty philosophical concern.
Their uncle left at first light that morning. His face and neck showed some of the difficulties of the previous evening, and he moved only with considerable pain. He was not sure how he had survived that encounter, and being thrown so easily from that window. It had sharpened his mind about what was truly important in his life. He would have his revenge on his brother and his nephew in other ways, but would keep himself to himself until he was far away from Stavely, and not rashly invite further pain and trouble. He could easily see that Henry had a great desire to continue what he had begun on the previous night, and to punish him as he wished he had done, even killed him, but had held back.
Henry would, of course, say nothing of what had happened either before or after their confrontation, but he might almost have thanked his uncle for bringing him and Charlotte closer together as he had, and as they had both wanted for so long. The servants could see for themselves what had happened to Henry’s uncle, but did not know any of the details. They also saw more than that, but whatever was happening between Miss Wakefield and Master Henry, was not open for discussion.
Before he had left, Matthew had packed his trunks as he was told to do, and they were brought into the hall until the cart could be organized. His trunks were unlocked as he stood there helpless, fuming, as they were emptied and searched in every way, with some items of some small value that did not belong there put to one side, and that would not be going with him. Only then did Henry allow the trunks to be taken out to the cart. Matthew was not consulted nor given any choice on the time or means of his going, nor of his destination. Henry did not even see him off after that.
Only as he climbed painstakingly into the carriage was he told where he would be dropped off—at the Rack and Ruin, down between the brickyard and the river. He was thankful that it was out of the way and not frequented by any of those who might remember him. He knew of it—a hostel that catered to the raff and scaff of society, a whorehouse, where there were women for rent for a few pence by the moment in the stable yard outside, or by the hour, the day, the night, or the week, in only slightly more comfortable, but just as filthy a setting, whatever might be afforded or agreed upon. No one could sleep for long, or comfortably, with the vermin that all such hostels had. He would soon get used to the lice and fleas again, but he would be there only the one night and would find some other place to stay, not known to Henry Stavely.
He had some money of his own if it had not been taken from his trunk, and felt sure he could soon get more. If he were careful, he would not be discovered by his former friends, other than those he might be able to trust—few as they had become, thanks to his damned nephew. He knew at that moment, that all ties with his own estranged family were severed forever.
As his uncle was driven off, Henry sat down and wrote a letter to an old friend, a Mr. Silas Grundy, who lived down by the docks. They had first met seven years earlier under exceptionally difficult circumstances on exactly the day that Matthew Stavely had left England and had helped each other over the last few years. Both had thrived because of their mutual association, but Mr. Grundy had an old score to settle with Henry’s uncle, and now was to be the time when he could do so.
When that letter was delivered later that same day, Mr. Grundy realized that a long-held wish of his was about to be fulfilled. He dug out an old satchel from the back of a cupboard and checked the contents, satisfied with what he saw there.