The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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Ambitious Planning Meets Fickle Fortune

Henry stayed close to the Stavely estate for the next two months, taking his sister (well along by then) and Charlotte to London with him as the opportunity permitted. The business had taken off in new directions as a result of what Henry had learned from his uncle’s letters, and in a more peaceful and less violent way than he had faced with the Sinclairs, in Edinburgh, but his planned trip to India loomed ever closer and became more and more urgent. He was concerned for his sister and how she would fare during his absence. There was no one else he dared trust with what must be done, but once he had set up a base of operation for trading in that region, then he would be able to appoint someone in his stead and return to England to lift more of the burden from his father. India and the East Indies, in general, were where the trade opportunities were, provided one could loosen some of the controlling stranglehold that the East India Company had on that part of the world.

No one made any mention of the new circumstance concerning his surprising and suddenly closer relationship with Miss Wakefield, or of them sharing the same bedroom after Mr. Matthew Stavely had been seen off in a decisive way. They had seen the difficulty the older man had had in getting into the carriage and had seen abundant evidence of some severe violence upon his features. Something perhaps involving Miss Charlotte too, though they could learn nothing more of it. Mrs. Forster had told the staff what had changed, if they did not already know, and had been adamant that they must act as though nothing out of the ordinary was occurring or had occurred. Nothing of it was to be discussed outside of the house, and those who had anything to say on it, inside of the house, were to be discreet and careful of who might overhear them.

The laundry maid had commented some weeks later that one of Miss Charlotte’s nightdresses had somehow disappeared, but sufficient time had gone by that it could not easily be linked to any other past event, nor easily correlated to that morning when Henry’s uncle, Matthew, had left the estate under a cloud, and when some of the sheets had been put into the boiler, though she had not put them there.

In moral terms, what was known to be happening between Master Henry and Miss Charlotte might not fit with what was expected in a genteel and moral society (hypocritical in many of its personal interactions), but anyone who might have had anything negative to say held back from voicing it. They knew that a marriage was being planned. It might be late, but who was to criticize that? Such events frequently got themselves a bit out of order, even in the finest families. Miss Charlotte was happy with the circumstance and would not be harmed by it—not with the obvious love that was shared between them, and that was all that mattered. If there were any repercussions, who might know, or even find out, once they had gone to India?

It was understood by everyone that Charlotte would be accompanying him to India after Miss Georgiana had given birth. As far as anyone was concerned, they were married in every way that mattered between two people so obviously in love, so what might be started here would not be obvious to anyone before they left, to give rise to any further speculation and gossip.

Charlotte began to worry for Miss Georgiana. She was keeping herself in bed for too long when she should have been up and about. There were other disturbing signs too. She complained of painful swelling in her ankles and of headaches and suffered long bouts of being sick, unable to keep anything down.

After one particularly difficult day, Charlotte decided to spend the evening sitting with Georgiana. She must have dozed off for just a few moments, but was instantly awake. The baby was coming, but there seemed to be difficulties, and Miss Georgiana was too quiet.

She rushed along back to the bedroom and shook him awake. “Henry, you must summon the doctor. The baby is coming, but there is something wrong. Georgiana is not behaving as she should. She seems to be too lethargic, and she is feverish too.”

He leaped out of bed, threw his clothes on, and went first to summon Mrs. Forster before he aroused the stable lad and rode off to summon the doctor.

Several hours later, almost at first light—a good sign perhaps—a healthy baby boy was born on that morning of May 8, leaving Georgiana exhausted and drained of the strength needed to go on. It had not gone as they had hoped.

The baby, James (the name had been decided earlier if it were a boy; with Constance, if it were a girl), was pronounced to be entirely what one might want, with everything as it should be. He had announced his entry loudly to the world. Once he had been cleaned off and dried, and with the umbilical cord tied and cut, he was immediately passed into Charlotte’s care, to settle upon her own breasts inside of her nightdress and to protect him from drafts, while others saw to Georgiana.

Charlotte, Henry, the doctor, and Mrs. Forster had been present throughout, with a constant procession of maids bringing water, clean sheets, towels, and whatever else might be needed, and then removing them to the laundry to be seen to. No sooner had the doctor seen the baby brought into the world and had pronounced him a healthy baby boy than he had been called away. He had been loath to leave, though as he explained to Henry off to one side, and out of the hearing of the others, he had done all that he could for both mother and child. The baby seemed healthy and would survive with the right care, though he would be in need of a wet nurse before long. He held out less hope for Georgiana. She had been drained of energy even before the birth, and with it being as difficult as it had been, she had gone even further downhill. It was all in God’s hands now. She would either live or die according to her own inner strength and determination. He could offer no hope or correction of such a sudden turn of events and the way things seemed destined to go. Fate played its own games.

Georgiana was conscious for some time after that, even though quite heavily sedated. She watched Charlotte sitting in the rocking chair by the fire with the infant at her breast, for warmth and for the familiarity he needed of a woman’s body holding him close to where he needed to be, until he might grow hungry.

Georgiana raised her hand and signaled Henry to her. He sat beside her on the bed and took her hand. He was clearly worried for her. “I feared it might come to this, Henry. The last two weeks were draining on me, and I seem to have little will to carry on.”

“But you must, my dear. James is counting on you now.”

“No. Life will go on without me. He needs Charlotte now. I have another appointment to keep with one that I love more than I love this life. Trust him with no one else, Henry. She will be as good a mother, perhaps better for him than I would be, and better for him than a stranger.” He would have corrected her, but she stopped him by simply raising her hand. “When the need is there, and as he suckles, she will produce milk. If not, then he will need a wet nurse, but only Charlotte shall make that decision. She will be his mother now. Take care of them both.” He saw a spasm of pain pass across her face. “Dearest Henry, I thought I would have time to tell you everything that I wanted you to know, but I find that I don’t. Charlotte will tell you. She knows everything. Now give me something to drink to ease this parched feeling, and then I will rest. James is in good hands, and he will have two of the best and most loving parents that a baby might ever want.” She drank as he held the glass for her and then sank back on her pillows. She died peacefully several minutes later, with Henry the only one aware of what had happened for some time.

When Charlotte became aware of what had happened, seeing Georgiana unnaturally still and Henry crying as he sat beside his sister, she felt yet another deep sense of loss to match that of losing Oliver only a few months earlier. She was determined that there would not be a third loss of someone close to her. A newborn had a difficult enough start in life without also fighting loss of its mother within hours of its birth.

Charlotte dared not let James leave her embrace after that, and settled him more comfortably by her own breast. She could not give milk herself at that moment, but her body would respond to the infant’s suckling at her once he grew hungry. He would have no need of nourishment for some little time, but if he felt the need to suckle, she would be there. She had heard of such stimulation encouraging the production of milk, even in a woman who had not given birth. If that were indeed true, then it would happen to her, as she would not easily see the baby given up to any other. She needed to focus single-mindedly on baby James and what he needed now. She dared not give in to grief as she wanted to, for fear that it might rob her of the ability to produce the milk that James would certainly need, and soon.

Henry felt sudden grief and anger that his sister should be so cruelly taken from them, but he had to stifle it for everyone else’s sake. He did not know that for Charlotte, it was but another burden to add to her already great loss of her brother. Charlotte had grown so close to Georgiana too in the last few months, just as she had also grown closer to Henry. Despite the changes that had occurred in their relationship over the last two months, there were still secrets that she had not dared to share with either of them. Too late now. There were many times she regretted setting out to deceive as she had done, but she had had no choice; and the longer that she held back from confessing what she would need to sooner or later disclose, the more difficult it had become. That moment had now receded once more.

She had never dared tell Georgiana anything of the subterfuge that she had begun without realizing where it would lead or how it might so easily go beyond her control, as it had. It would be even more difficult to tell Henry anything of that now.

After the changes in his business, requiring less travel to the north, and now with the sudden death of his sister, there was little to hold any of them at Stavely. The house held too many memories, many good ones, but also some that were far too tragic for them to wish to stay longer in it. London would provide all that they would need, and provide even a wet nurse if one were required.

He made up his mind at that moment. “We shall remove to London today, Mrs. Forster! All of us! Charlotte, the baby, Georgiana, and we will go as soon as I can arrange what we shall need. I will not see my sister buried here, but in far more friendly surroundings where there are better memories for us both, though all but a few recent memories here have also been good.” He meant with the pleasant changes that Charlotte had brought with her, giving new life to Georgiana as well as to him. “There is nothing to hold us here now. We can leave a skeleton staff to look after the place until we decide what to do with it. My father may eventually decide to live here. His memories of it are better than mine.

“I shall see to Georgiana, and getting her to London with us, but we shall not spend another night under this roof. The staff can follow along after us over the next few days or weeks once they have put everything in order.”

The servants were soon scurrying to pack what they would need immediately for their journey and then would see to closing the house up and follow over the next few days with the rest of what they might need. Mrs. Forster was capable of seeing to all of that.

Henry knelt beside Charlotte as she sat in the rocking chair by Georgiana’s bed. A new life attempting to suckle and gain a precarious start on life as his mother lay dead, though still warm on the bed, and with only a thin sheet over her. The living would take all of their attention now. They could all grieve later. He moved Charlotte’s nightdress aside at the neck to reveal the added bundle of a naked baby sitting at her warm and comforting breasts and with his mouth firmly secured to her nipple and sucking noisily, seeking comfort, if not food, just yet. Charlotte looked up at him, not in the least embarrassed. “Life will not be stopped easily. I am surprised how attentive he seems to be so soon after being born.” That might have had something to do with Georgiana’s deteriorating condition. “He is trying to suckle at last! It is a comforting yet strange feeling, to have such a new life so dependent upon me in this way so soon. I doubt he will get any milk for some time, but we shall see what miracle we can work together.” Henry kissed her and then kissed the baby that she held close to her. There was no embarrassment between them. James was all he had left of Georgiana. Everything he loved in the world was here, in this room.

“There will soon be milk for him, Henry. I know it. He will bring it along as he needs to. He will suckle long and hard enough when he is hungry, and I shall help him.” She massaged and squeezed her breast to stimulate whatever she might achieve along that direction as the baby also fussed to find what he needed. He would need to be closely watched around the clock, to be sure that she was producing milk and that he was getting enough of it in the early stages. She had learned of this long ago, but had never realized that she might be faced with this task in her own life, to give nurture to a baby not her own, but as dear to her as though it were hers. If thought and wishing it might be so might do it, she would have had milk flowing for ten babies at that moment. If she did not soon produce milk, they would need to be in London anyway, to ensure some proximity to a nursing mother who might not object to sharing her milk for some reward that would help her in return.

Charlotte did not object to Henry’s tender familiarity as he revealed the baby lying on her, snuggling into her breast, and suckling noisily even then, though not deriving nourishment just yet, with such tender gestures from the small hands resting upon her breast.

He glanced across at Georgiana, whose face he had uncovered so that she might see, if it were possible to see in any way after death. Perhaps Georgiana still retained some measure of consciousness of what was happening, and might relax better, seeing it all and knowing that she had delivered of a healthy baby boy even as she had faded. He realized that he was being foolish, but it was a thought he would have liked to have been true.

With Georgiana dying as she had, other difficulties were now unavoidably being presented to them that would soon rearrange all of their carefully laid plans. Neither of them dared speak of any of it so soon, but Charlotte might not be able to go to India with him now. Where he would be, on the southern coast, and needing to travel in that inhospitable and sometimes violent region, where sickness seemed an everyday event for Europeans, would not be healthy for a newborn or a nursing mother. The baby could not go with him any more than Charlotte could, as neither of them would trust leaving the baby with anyone else, but each for their own reasons. It was a relief for Charlotte, for it meant that she would not need to reveal her own secret until after he returned, or more gradually in her letters.

A formal marriage could not be considered so soon after the death of his sister, and the marriage they had planned to take place on the ship as they left England behind could not take place either. It saddened her. They had planned it all so well, just as Oliver and Georgiana must have, only to be frustrated by fate. Henry was not one to give up so easily, however.

“Despite what has happened here, Charlotte, I would like you to marry me. I know we had planned on waiting until we set sail and were out at sea for that, but the situation has changed. We should marry before I leave.”

“I know, we should.” She reached out and stroked the side of his head. “I would like us to marry too, but it would be the wrong time and the wrong place with so many things happening about us. England is likely to be safer for both the baby and me, than India.” He knew that for himself. “James needs my comfort and protection. I would not trust him with anyone else any more than Georgiana would have.” Nor would he.

“Georgiana wanted to see us married, Charlotte. She would want us to continue with that plan.”

“We are married, Henry, where it counts. Besides, you know nothing about me really, of my past, who I am, where I came from.” It was something that they had never needed to discuss, and now was not the time.

“No, I don’t. I found out enough in the last few months that I feel that I know the real you—the woman I love. Georgiana knew you and trusted you. Her dying words were that I should trust you, and no one else, to see to James.

We have come to know each other closely in the last two months, and there is nothing more that I need to know, if you cannot tell me. What is past is past, and we all have one of those. We, all of us, have skeletons lurking there too. You have seen some of ours firsthand over the last few months while you have lived with us. What I do know of you is that I love you and that you love me, and that we have grown closer than any married couple I have ever known.” They had indeed.

She sighed. “Sometimes, love must take on a new role, Henry! We discovered each other, and I would have gone to India with you without hesitation if it were just me. Until now. This baby—this newly beginning life needs me now, far more than you do. For his sake and for Georgiana’s, I may not go with you, no matter how it will tear at me to be parted from you.” He could see that for himself. “From what I have learned from you and others, India is not kind to those of us brought up in an English climate, and especially not to a nursing infant. We dare not take that chance. There is too much at stake.”

“I know that you are right. Love makes sacrifices as it must. We could still marry. I may be away several years, and I would . . .”

“We are married, Henry.” She repeated herself to try and reassure him. “We have been married in every way for the last two months, even if not . . . if not in the formal way. Georgiana knew and approved. No one judges us ill for that, at least no one who matters. I will still be here when you return, as your wife, if you still want me, even without that more formal tie.” A formal marriage was out of the question. It would force her own secret into the open, to be revealed when she had to disclose her real name. Then it would be clear how she had misled everyone—a hateful imposter with other motives than looking after his sister; even though those needs had changed as she had come to know Georgiana for the loving young woman that her brother had instantly fallen in love with. She could not bear the thought of sending him away with that suddenly-revealed secret gnawing at him as to how she had come to them under false colors and had not immediately disclosed who she was and her special interest in his family. She should have said something earlier, but the longer it had gone on without being spoken of, the easier it had been. Until this latest tragedy.

He would grow to hate her for that deception and not confessing all, when she should have done, and she could not stand the thought of that at this moment. She was torn between conflicting emotions. Deception was useful to achieve some things, but in this case, it was now proving to be an unfortunate burden to her. Without it, she would not have hesitated to consent to becoming his wife at any time. She was crying. “The emotional feelings are running too high at the moment, sir. You losing a sister, and me losing a friend whom I felt to be a sister, a newborn to consider, and other emotions and feelings that must take second place to us at this time. The baby must come first.”

“You are right. Too soon and too fast perhaps, and with the loss of my sister, despite the understanding between us . . .” He stopped his words before they took him too far. Though he knew she felt the same way that he did. “There is another reason why we should marry, Charlotte. A respectable young lady, you, suckling an infant and not married, might create many difficulties for you if you were anywhere else than here. I offer you the security of my name and the desirability of raising a child within the framework of a marriage and of my household—my father’s—even if we do not take it further with a proper marriage, before I leave.”

“No one here will be concerned about that, Henry. I shall also ensure that I am known as Charlotte Stavely in London, as though we had married, so there is no fear of difficulty there. No one knows where or when we might have been married, and I doubt the question will ever arise. Society knows neither of us well, and I shall not be in society, so we cannot suddenly become a scandal broth of entertainment to gossip about.” He knew better than to try and persuade her further.

“Then I must be satisfied with that. You shall want for nothing in my absence, but I would far prefer that you marry me first, at least with even the smallest degree of formality. We should have done this long before now.” She watched as he removed a gold ring from his little finger and placed it onto her ring finger. She did not object or resist, and it fitted well.

“You have never treated me with anything but kindness and respect while I have been here, and have always treated me as an equal, Henry, and I shall treasure that.”

“You are my equal, Charlotte, perhaps more than my equal from what I have learned of you. I could look after James, while you dress for traveling.”

“I shall not dress, Henry. I cannot! The baby needs me as I am. I can wear a heavy shawl over my nightdress. He needs to feel my warmth and the comforting closeness of my body against him, and to get used to me now, and to get to suckling to stimulate milk flow. I dare not leave him at this crucial moment. It will happen soon, for I have known of it. I am his mother now in every way, and a dress would stifle us both and make it almost impossible for him to be at my breast as he must be, and in my protective warmth. I do not have the wardrobe for this. It will be difficult enough, but it will happen, and the sooner the better. All I need is some wraps about me, warm blankets perhaps, and cushions, and I will be comfortable. It is only two hours or so, and the carriage will be private enough.”

“Then I shall see to getting you both down and into the carriages when we need to leave, though I must see to Georgiana first. I shall not see her left here or buried in this damned place, but in better surroundings where she can at least rest in peace. Cartwright can drive her to our parent’s house, and we will be close behind.”

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