The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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Anne Confesses Her Part

That night, Charlotte could not sleep, but tossed and turned. From time to time, she looked in on the boys. She had given their nanny some days to visit her own family now that she had returned. They were sleeping the sleep of the innocent—which nothing would disturb. It did not say much for her own restlessness. She heard the clock in the hall downstairs strike off each of the hours from midnight. At four o’clock, a full hour before first light, she gave up on rest and went to call in on Anne, who slept in the room next to her own. To her great surprise, she found her sister sitting up, reading in bed. She had not been able to sleep either.

Anne took one look at her sister’s face and patted the bed beside her. “So you couldn’t sleep any more than I could with what has happened.” They had often unburdened themselves of their weighty cares, as they had shared the one bed as children. She sat up beside her, while Anne pulled the covers over them both to keep them warm as they used to do as little girls when the house had gone cold overnight. She sensed the uncertain mood that Charlotte was in, to have sought her out like that, and waited for her to speak. She closed her book with an ornate chamois bookmark in it, and laid it on the bedside table, waiting for Charlotte to unburden herself. “What is on your mind? What is worrying you so much that you cannot sleep?”

“I need answers to some questions.” Anne waited for her to continue. “When did Henry return from India?”

“I thought you would be wondering that. He landed in London two weeks ago, just before you went off to Lancaster. I learned from the Stavely butler when he was expected and asked him to hold back all letters to you at that time so that you would not learn of it, or need to agonize about it. By then, I learned that he was only a week away and likely to arrive not much after his last letters, or maybe even before them. I missed him by only a day.” She waited for the next inevitable question.

“Why did you not tell me? You could have stopped me from going to our sister. You could even have sent me a letter to tell me after that, and I would have returned.” Anne did not tell her that having her find out about any of it, and not going to their sister, was the last thing on her mind. “And how did he manage to find us so soon? Indeed, how did he know where to find me? I felt sure I had hidden my tracks well.”

“We had. Too well, with us calling ourselves Wakefield. He had already spent a day at Penningtons and then meeting with the real Miss Wakefield.” Charlotte had not known that, though she remembered he had said something along those lines. “I didn’t think it was right to leave him in suspense any longer, or to see him wasting so much time looking for us, so I wrote him at his parents’ house and told him all that I dared to tell him, where to find us, and that I would arrange for him to visit us in a way that would not upset the apple cart.”

Charlotte listened. This was the first she had heard of any of this, but she had begun to suspect as much when she had found that Henry had been here for almost two weeks. That was just one of the reasons she had been unable to sleep. “I wasn’t sure how I would deal with it after that, until you got that plea for help with the chicken pox from Sophia. I told him that you would be away for a while and that he would be welcome to come here and to visit us as a friend of Oliver, while you were away, and remain with us, at least until you returned. Mama was in agreement with all of that. It couldn’t have happened at a better time.

“He arrived here the day after you left. Mama took one look at him as he walked in the door and knew everything in an instant... everything you had misled her about. I told him nothing of Oliver Henry. You should have seen his face when he saw two boys who might have been brothers.” Charlotte listened, unable to speak, imagining that moment for herself and wishing that she might have seen it too, but had she been there, who knows what she might have said or done?

“You should thank me. I made everything easier for you when you returned. I thought it might be better if he learned that he was a father only after he had arrived, rather than before.

“Had you been here, rather than on your way to Lancaster, I was going to step aside and let you two rediscover each other again, while Mama and I looked on and wept for you. Fortunately, it did not happen quite so precipitously. Your being called away gave us, and him, more time to become acquainted, and without the difficulty that you would have presented for each other had you been here. Nanny was the only one in an agony of misapprehension about him . . . until . . . I’ll tell you that later.” She was relieved that Charlotte did not call her back to explain what she was not saying about the Enright person. “Mama regards him as heaven-sent and an answer to so many of her difficulties with everything about you that she still did not understand until now.”

“I couldn’t tell her all of it. I daren’t. It was already more than she needed to know, and I was not sure how she would have dealt with me telling her of Georgiana, or of Oliver marrying her, or of Henry, or where I went, or why.” Charlotte was still agitated, and not herself.

“Well, there is no need to carry on any of the deception any longer. She understands it all now, and so does Henry. You should have seen Mama’s face when he walked in the door. The servants too. They all guessed our deepest secrets within minutes of him being here. Mama cornered me that same evening and demanded to know everything, so I told her. The servants would do anything for him, considering . . .” There it was again. Enright! She decided not to tell her sister of his two visits at just that moment and possibly disrupt what little rest she still might get that night. “You should have seen your face too. One might think you had seen a ghost. Just think, I saved you from all of that agony, wondering about so many things—what to tell him? How he would deal with the boys? I got most of that out of the way. As I said, you should thank me for smoothing the way for you as I did.” She took her sister’s hand under the coverlet. “You don’t seem to have a lot to say for yourself, Shar. Am I forgiven or not?”

She had been jolted by Anne using that abbreviation of her name, as Oliver used to do. “I suppose I should thank you. I would have made a mess of it and been at sixes and sevens. At least you probably didn’t let your emotions get in the way, as I know I would have done, and more than I should have done when I first saw him here.” She thought for a while. “How is he with the boys?” Anne laughed.

“Need you ask? You saw them. Did you really not see? They worship him. You would not believe how cleverly he has occupied them for the last two weeks, and them, him. He is like a big boy himself. He ran out of clothing on his third day here after falling in the lake, and tore others in the tree house that Oliver built.” She said nothing of the damage to his clothes from his later confrontation with Jasper. “I had to dig out some of Oliver’s old clothing for him. It began to seem as though Oliver had not really left us, as I remember him doing all of those things too.” So many sad thoughts were intruding. “You are still too quiet, Charlotte. Did I do wrong? Should I have done it differently?”

“No, of course not. I’ll come to grips with it soon enough. I just need time to recover from the shock of it all. It is just that I found it so overwhelming to come back and to find him here.”

“He has not changed, has he? He met you here in a way that would have melted the heart of a gorgon, and you are not that. Mama and I were both crying over it, and you just sat there like a statue and as pale as death.”

“Of course I did! He reappears unexpectedly after six years and in our own home. I did not know what to expect after that. You should have written to me, Anne, and given me warning.” She shivered and drew the covers up higher on her. “No. I should not criticize you over this. You did right. I was taken by surprise but I am more at ease with it all now.” She stared off into a far corner of the room as she reminisced. “He is just as I remember him, only more . . .” Anne thought she understood. “He is just as he was before he went away—so attentive and considerate, so gentle and understanding, as though all of my deception was just a hiccup and could be so easily brushed aside and forgiven.” She looked at her sister. She could barely hear her own voice. “Anne, I am not sure how I am to deal with him. I think he feels . . . he wishes to begin again where we parted, as though the last six years had not intervened.” Her sister chuckled.

“Of course he does, and why not? I would be surprised if he hadn’t felt like that. He loves you. He married you!”

“But he didn’t.

“You know what I meant. As far as he is concerned, he did. You even accepted that yourself. You did exchange rings and write down your vows to each other. You cannot easily escape marrying him properly now, with all of the difficulties swept out of the way, thanks to me. He knows that you are not Charlotte Wakefield, so that major difficulty is gone. He’s the first decisive man about the place since Oliver . . . And you had better not become stubborn about it. You are not the only one that needs him here—Mama does too.” She remembered the second visit that they had received from Jasper Enright, and how that had ended. Henry might have been killed. “The servants think you are staying away from your own husband, for fear there may still be some residual infection from your visit to our sister, but why you would be worried about infecting him, and not worry about infecting your children, they have said nothing about just yet.

“To think that I used to come to you for advice about such matters, and now I find that you are almost a prude, except that there is ample evidence that you cannot be one of those, but rather something else altogether, having borne two boys.”

“But I didn’t . . .”

“I know that, but no one else does, except . . . That’s what you let everyone believe, even though they must know it could not possibly have happened that way. You let everyone believe that they were both yours despite that difficulty with dates. One, or two such mistakes, what’s the difference? You go away for some time, which you refer to as almost a year, but which all of us know was only seven months, and arrive back with a baby in arms, just a few days old, and suckling at you, and another one on the way and born just seven months later. Utterly incredible! You got away with it only because you are here, where you are loved, and where no one will believe any ill of you. However, no one is entirely stupid either, and no one says anything, even now, despite Henry showing up and answering most of those questions. You do not help clarify anything about what happened with you sleeping at one end of the house, and him at the other when you so obviously belong together. Most unnatural!”

“I am not going to throw myself at him in that way and become a scandal broth. At least not too soon. I need to think about it and get used to things . . . the idea . . . again, with everyone looking on.”

“Oh, Charlotte! How can you hesitate? Never mind what anyone else might think or who might see what is obvious. You can now begin life again. Who says that you cannot just pick up where you left off? I kept away from the library last night so that you could at least learn something about each other once more. You and he needed time together. Alone. If you didn’t take advantage of that, you cannot blame me.” So that was why neither Anne nor her mother had joined them in the library.

“You make it sound so easy.”

“It is easy.”

“No, it isn’t. Everything has changed around me. I did not know what I had walked into. Nothing is the same. My life—our lives are turned upside down. You are different. Mama is different. I am different. Even the boys are different—though in a good way. Henry is the only one who has not changed in my eyes. He is exactly as I remember him . . . but . . . more so. I cannot just go along to his room, and . . . you know! Not after so long. What would everyone think?”

“Why not? I would! Everyone already assumed the worst, for the last six years after you came back as you did, and now there is a husband—an irregular kind of a husband, perhaps—here to rescue you from becoming an embittered old maid . . . though he will never allow you to become that. Don’t hesitate, Charlotte.”

“I suppose I should thank you. I had agonized forever over how I would deal with him when that moment arrived, and began to pray that he would not find us so that I would not have to face the shame of being forced to confess my deception. You saved me from that by what you did, and did it so easily, but that other . . . ? I need to reclaim both of my boys first. I told them to stay away from his room in the morning—this morning!”

“Very wise. You would not want them to see you with him like that, just yet. Too much of a shock for impressionable young minds.”

“Anne! Not for that reason.”

“How dull and boring you are becoming, Charlotte. You used to be so daring, and I find that you are in danger of becoming a prude. He had no doubts or any hesitation in coming here for you.”

“I need time to think! What must this look like to everyone? I will never dare hold up my head again with everyone so shamelessly planning my downfall.”

“Ah. So that is what this empty protest is all about. Pride! Yes, that most overvalued of worthless virtues, if it is a virtue rather than an impediment that has cost so many their happiness!” Anne was right, and Charlotte knew it. “You owe him far more than you will ever know. There is something else you need to know before you become entirely lost in foolish morality?”

“What should I know?” Anne hesitated, but there was no point in hiding it now. It would have to spoken of.

“Jasper Enright was here, the afternoon you went away and before Henry arrived.” Anne sensed the sudden tension that her words caused for her sister. “He came to browbeat Mama about some claim that he thinks he has to Fallowfield—to our home. Mama was considerably distressed by his visit before the cook threatened him with a meat cleaver and got rid of him. She spent the rest of the day in bed and only revived when I told her that a friend of Oliver’s was coming for a visit.”

“No!” Charlotte became short of breath. She vaguely remembered hearing something about a disturbance herself, but had not known the details.

“Jasper came back to renew his claim a few days ago. Henry was here then, thank god, and dealt with him. I did not see it, but nanny and the boys saw some of it from the hallway and from the library windows. They and Davis were sworn to secrecy so as not to upset Mama, but you can see the damage to the front door when Jasper first tried to get in and then put a ball in the door frame when he shot at Henry, twice. Henry might have been killed.” Charlotte had gone pale, visibly so, even in the weak candlelight, and her hands had fluttered at her throat in her anxiety at hearing that.

“Why did you not tell me this when I first came home?” Charlotte had become obviously agitated to hear that, but she had needed to be told.

“You had more than enough on your plate. Besides, Jasper will not make that mistake again.”

“But was Henry hurt? I saw no sign of injury on him—he said nothing.”

“He did not want to worry you. He was grazed on his body and leg, is all. Nanny and I took care of him. Jasper couldn’t see to shoot at anything with his face in the state it was in. I doubt his eyes will open again for a day or two—so Davis said. Silly man for coming here with such a flimsy claim, though it could all have ended so tragically. It still might. It would have done if Henry had been able to reach him in that carriage before Jasper sent it off.” Charlotte had gone quiet again. Ominously quiet this time.

“Charlotte, are you listening? Did you hear what I said?”

“Of course I heard you. My mind is suddenly busy is all! So much that I had forgotten. I hope to God that Jasper does not become aware that James is not my son but Oliver’s heir.” She heard the clock striking five. It was also becoming quite light outside. She threw back the covers. “I had better check on the boys again.” She suddenly had an uneasy feeling about them but would not say anything to Anne.

“Oh, I would have thought that you would have gone off to check on Henry first, after what I told you!” Anne saw her sister leave and then slumped back in her pillows with a smile on her face. Everything would soon sort itself out now. She blew out the candle and settled down to try and sleep.

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