The Best-laid Schemes o'Mice and Men...
It was an uneasy and unsettling week in London. The house on Vine Avenue was a comfortable and fashionable residence in a quieter part of London. It was lined with plane trees, and one side of it was open to lush, green parkland, but little of the beauty was evident to anyone there, with the larger tragedy that had changed all of their lives.
Time was running out in all directions. Henry had to make arrangements to leave London as soon as possible.
With Georgiana’s belongings removed from Stavely to the house in London, and placed in her former bedroom, Charlotte began to fear that her letters, written on Oliver’s behalf, might be discovered in Georgiana’s belongings and turned over to Henry. If they were discovered, then the writing in those might be compared with that in the letter she had sent Henry, letting him know of his friend’s death. There was even the possibility that Georgiana’s letters to Oliver, and which Charlotte had returned to her, might be discovered to reveal even more of that relationship and the full story behind it and certainly expose her own part in this unfortunate deception that she wished she had confessed to both Georgiana and Henry much earlier. As if that were not enough, it was likely that Georgiana’s marriage paper, showing her marriage to Oliver, might also show up and send him off on that line of discovery too; and all of which would end with her being revealed for who she really was, rather than Miss Wakefield.
She had eventually relaxed over the possibility that Penningtons themselves might even write to the Stavely family and ask what there had been about Miss Caroline Wakefield that had not been suitable, with her reappearing in London as she certainly had. No such letter showed up to cause anyone to question who she really might be. Clearly, the real Miss Wakefield had not reapplied to Penningtons.
At Stavely, she had been well out into the country, known by no one, and unlikely to encounter anyone she knew, or who might know her; but here in London, it would be difficult to avoid everyone—even members of her own family. It might soon be found out that she was a Morton, and not a Wakefield. There was also that matter of Jasper Enright. He was still somewhere in London. It would not do for him to learn anything about her or where she was staying.
Despite her concerns, none of the obvious papers or letters in Georgiana’s belongings had included any of hers or Oliver’s letters, nor the marriage document. Georgiana had somehow hidden them away from everyone. It was unthinkable that she might have destroyed them, and Charlotte knew that she hadn’t, as she had encountered Georgiana reading them from time to time, even up to a few days before her delivery. Wherever it was that they were hidden, it was in a secure place that would not be found by casual scrutiny, but then no one would know to go looking for them. No one knew they existed except for her.
There was one aspect of what was happening around her that she endlessly agonized over. It had to do with a guilty conscience and being found out where she now was. Yes, she wanted to marry Henry, just as he wanted to marry her, but she dare not allow it now. She might have happily married him aboard that ship as Charlotte Wakefield, without any possibility of her real identity being discovered. She would have been known ever afterward as Charlotte Stavely anyway, so even after she had returned to London years later, her secret would have been safe, with the only record of it in a ship’s log, and with her previous existence long forgotten by all but her own family. Marrying him on board ship would also have allowed her time—eventually—to reveal to him everything about herself and her reasons for doing what she had done. But India was now out of the question.
Marriage in London would be certain to invite trouble, even without a reading of the bans for which there would not be enough time anyway. Henry had to leave almost immediately after Georgiana’s funeral. To think of getting married at that time, while they were still in mourning, would be certain to invite criticism and draw attention to the family. Henry would not have cared, but such announcements, of both funerals and marriages, always seemed to find their way into the Gazette for the gossips and scandalmongers to pick over. In London, there was also the possibility that she would be recognized, and her real identity blurted out, for others with her to take note of, before anyone might learn that she was now known as Charlotte Stavely.
There were so many fears to contend with—fear of her identity being discovered and spoken about, fear of encountering Enright without Oliver or Henry to protect her, and fear of meeting her own mother even. At Stavely, few of those worries had been able to intrude; but her world had suddenly changed, and she was now responsible for a baby just a few days old while its mother was even then being readied for burial. Fortunately, her milk had started to flow as nature and a demanding infant required. Loss of her dear friend had hit her almost as hard as losing Oliver. No one was free of pain at that moment. She was especially aware of the pain that Henry must feel in several directions and the conflicting issues warring away within himself.
There were too many things happening too quickly. Plans that had seemed sensible just a few days ago now lay in ruins. The new reality suddenly thrust upon her was almost too difficult to bear, except for James. She would succeed for him.
Georgiana was laid to rest with their grandparents in the family vault, but the ongoing resolution of what was to happen with James and Charlotte had never been adequately addressed with the interplay of all of the emotional issues, which would need time to calm them.
She knew that Henry could not delay much longer. He had easily accepted that she could no longer go with him to India, but could not yet understand why she would not marry him even in a quiet setting far out of London, away from prying eyes. Even with the death of his sister so close behind them. Neither of them had given any thought to the possibility of embarrassment that she would have been marrying him with a child at her breast. Neither of them cared about such minor difficulties. Such occurrences were common, and were usually easily overlooked except where they occurred in the more prominent families, of which the Stavelys were one.
They had talked of it, and the desirability of it for both of their sakes; but again, she had parried him, but with a heavy heart, seeing the confusion and hurt in his eyes. She felt it weighing heavily upon her, with her unable to tell him why she dare not. He had not asked for any explanation, accepting her wishes on the matter.
He seemed to try to understand some of her difficulty, even though he could not understand. He could not be angry with her, as he loved her. If anything, he had become more gentle and more loving. He was living up to her definition of love as she had exposited upon it in the library, that first evening together. She was the one who was failing her own definition. She was afraid to trust herself, or him. If she had met him as Charlotte Morton, in an accidental meeting, or with her brother in happier times when he had been alive, then none of this would be happening as it was. Why had Georgiana died as she did and, by doing so, thrown all of their lives and carefully made plans into such a turmoil? Her promise to Oliver had come with unexpected and painful difficulties, and yet she could never have refused his dying wish.
She began to feel overwhelmed with this continuing need for secrecy. One secret after another, hidden, and all weighing in the scale against her, as well as secrets kept from her own family too, who—with the exception of Anne—had no idea where she was or had really been for the last seven months; believing her to have been with one or other of her married sisters.
Henry could not understand any of her reasoning but did not pressure her. “I wish . . . I would like to understand why it is that you feel you cannot marry me, Charlotte, not even in a small, private ceremony. I know it is not for lack of love on either of our parts.”
“No, sir, it is not for that. I love you as I never expected to love anyone. I so intended that we would leave together and marry upon that ship, but now we cannot—not after what has happened. I have my reasons, which are so important to me. I need us to remember each other as we are now, as painful as that might be, and for you to know me and remember me as I am now, without anything else coming between us. There are elements of my past . . .”
“Charlotte, I care nothing for your past. You are all that I need in life. With you and James, I would need nothing else. What is it that you fear? I will try to understand. I will protect you. You can confide in me, you know.” He would not be able to protect her from her own fears.
“When you have done what you need to do in India, just return to us, Henry. I will tell you all, then, and marry you then if you will still have me, but I could not bear for you to see me in a lesser light at this moment, as I fear you would, and you about to go so far away. It would destroy me.” He could not understand her, but he accepted what he could not change. “I do not know how I might bear to be apart from you, married or not, and would not choose to be, but that option was removed from us by this tragedy. We must all, three of us, survive this time, and meet again under happier circumstances.” He was obviously upset to be leaving her with so little resolved between them of a more permanent and binding nature, but he accepted it. On the other hand, he knew that he must leave his nephew in her care during his absence, knowing that she would be a good mother and as equally attentive to the baby’s needs as his own sister would have been. He felt he could not have found a better mother for the baby in his absence, and told her so. Neither he nor Georgiana would have trusted any other with that task.
She could stay on in their London house, and was welcome to do so. She had already been welcomed as Henry’s wife, even without that more formal tie; and no one was about to say anything about that deficiency, as it was not a deficiency that mattered to anyone who had seen them together and had seen how happy they were. In truth, she would be happy to remain in that house until Henry returned, for she would be free to do what she might want to do. She would not need to travel far and would make sure that she was well bundled up and not be easily recognized. It would not be such hardship. She had an allowance, from Henry, for James, and that was greater than the one she had enjoyed for her own use at Fallowfield.
Anne was also welcome to visit her as she might, and stay—perhaps with visits from other members of her family, if they could be trusted to keep her secret. She would be looked after as though she were not only Henry’s wife but also as another daughter, for was she not looking after their grandchild? Indeed, that is how it might all have gone forward. While Henry was away for just one night, returning to Stavely to see the house left with only a skeleton staff, Charlotte saw someone she recognized in the avenue outside of the grounds, and the old fears arose once more. Jasper Enright! He seemed to be watching the house from the park opposite. Had he seen her and recognized her? Seeing Enright like that woke her from a dream world that she had deluded herself about.
She would need to leave for the sake of others as well as herself. London, for all it was a busy metropolis of many hundreds of thousands of people, could still be too small. Jasper seemed to have discovered her, and she would be discovered by others too, eventually, and might have to explain more than she wanted to explain to anyone. She would need to leave without explaining it to anyone. In the uncertainty, with her relationship to James still hidden from the family, he might be taken from her. Nowhere in London would be safe for her now, and she could not be parted from James. She would take him with her.
She said nothing about what she had seen, nor did she give any hint of what she was planning, but her obvious agitation as she looked out across the park was noted by others in the household. She had seen something or someone who disturbed her peace of mind.
Henry had noted him too, as he cantered across the park later that day, seeing the man’s sudden surprise at being discovered observing the house before he had quickly retreated into the low shrubbery and trees before he might be seen. Henry did nothing to show that he had even seen him, but saw his horse stabled. Afterward, he sought out his father’s steward, whom he knew was usually aware of everything. “We appear to have someone curious about us, David. In the park opposite. He seemed surprised when I almost rode him down. I saw him the other day too. Have there been any attempts to break in—any burglaries reported in the area?
“No, sir. We are careful that way, and the dogs are let loose at night. They keep any such intent well away. I believe Miss Charlotte noted him too and seemed disturbed by it.”
“Then he must be curious about our comings and goings—perhaps about one of us. He looks familiar to me.” He recalled seeing him once before but could not quite place him.
“I have seen him several times now since you first arrived, sir. Up and down the avenue, several times a day, on foot mostly, but even on horseback. I thought he might be a new neighbor, but no one has recently moved into the area, so I don’t believe he lives locally. He keeps well clear of anyone leaving the house, or approaching it. I thought to find out who he might be on one occasion and what his business was, but he took off before I might get close enough.”
“Then we should certainly find out who he is, and why he is curious about us before I need to leave here—and the sooner the better.”