The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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Fallowfield

To love and not to be loved in return, is to know the greatest depth of misery. To be loved without loving in return, is invariably hurtful and tragic. To love, and to be loved, is perfection.

Later that same afternoon, after lunch at the small inn, Henry rode onto the Fallowfield estate. He remembered it from some years earlier—almost a lifetime away now. He had been there on two other occasions in Oliver’s company, but they had been only brief visits, as they had both been on their way to the university at that time; and unfortunately, he had not met either of the two Morton daughters who were still at home. He began to regret that. Had he known that the woman he had met and fallen in love with had been Charlotte Morton, and not Wakefield, and that his friend Oliver had even married Georgiana, how much of all that had happened in the last six years might have been different, and with a better outcome?

He was admitted by the butler, who had been expecting him, and was met immediately after that by Anne, whom he enfolded into his arms just as a brother back from a long absence might do. The butler eyed him suspiciously as he did that, her throwing herself into the arms of a strange man like that, but was easily able to see that Miss Anne did not object to his familiarity and was happy to see him—even if she was crying with happiness. Why he had to wait for Miss Charlotte to be away at her sisters, before he came (as he had overheard Miss Anne relate sometime earlier) he had not understood at the time, and was not sure that he even wanted to understand. He liked both of the Morton girls and would not like to have that old scandal raise its head again.

On second thoughts, as he looked carefully at Mr. Stavely, he thought he might be beginning to understand it now. There was an uncanny resemblance to . . . He stored that feeling away. Others of the staff would see it too, and then the awkward speculation would begin all over again. At least now there would be a young man about the house as looked as though he could look after himself, and he would be welcome for that alone, considering what had happened on the previous afternoon with that other unwelcome visitor, who had set everyone’s teeth on edge and had dreadfully upset Mrs. Morton. Miss Anne would warn him what had happened, though she had been away at the time, fortunately.

As Anne could see, Henry was still deeply suntanned despite his three-month voyage and had a sharper look to his eye than she remembered, but he looked healthy. India seemed to have agreed with him in many ways, despite the emotional hardship upon them all. He had filled out. He either had a good tailor where he had been in India, or he had visited his tailor soon after he had arrived in London.

Anne led him through the house and introduced him to her mother who had been warned to expect him. Mrs. Morton found that she remembered him from many years before, when he had briefly visited Fallowfield with her son. However, she had gone suddenly pale when he had walked across the room to greet her. Her eyes had flown to Anne’s face, and then back again to his, and back to Anne’s again, to see her nodding and smiling at her in a knowing way. Fortunately, Anne had warned her mother to say nothing, and to control herself, no matter what turbulent thoughts might go through her head when she first saw him. She would tell her everything later on and clear up so much that had been left hanging from all of those years earlier.

“Yes, Mama. The same! As well as the unknown writer of all of those letters that we were so secretive about, and the one to whom Charlotte wrote each week, as well as Oliver’s friend.” Henry was not sure what those first cryptic comments might signify, but there was no mistaking his welcome. Anne’s eyes were twinkling with some mischievous knowledge that he was not privy too. She spoke more for benefit of her mother than for Henry, as her mother would not know to what degree Anne had already confided in him.

“Henry, I am so sorry you missed Charlotte, but she left for Lancaster yesterday. I know how much she wanted to meet with you again and reminisce about our brother, so I do hope you will accept our hospitality until she returns to meet you again, in person.” He began to recognize how Anne had contrived that he would be staying with them in Charlotte’s absence, and even until she returned.

“If it will be no trouble, I shall be happy to do so. I know that we have much to discuss.”

“Indeed we do, sir. Far more than you might realize!” Now what did she mean by that?

Mrs. Morton seemed to have recovered her composure after she had first laid eyes on him. “So you are the mysterious gentleman that so absorbed my daughters from one day to the next and occupied us all so well for the last few years.” He was not sure that he dare admit to any such thing, but she obviously had meant it all in a kindly way. “They tried to persuade me that all of those wonderful gifts from India were to do with investments that my husband had made, but I knew better! You have already answered so many of my own questions before you have said more than two words. Of course, you shall stay with us and liven up our society. We have had so few gentlemen stay with us for any length of time in the last few years.” She was distracted for a moment. “Is that the boys that I hear?”

“Yes, Mama. I expect it is, with their nanny! I wonder what mischief they managed to lead her into this time.” Henry noticed Anne smiling at him in the background. She seemed barely able to contain herself, though she could see a new look on his face and an obvious question. “Boys?” He was not sure what to think.

Anne watched his face, as two boys blundered into the room to see a strange, tall, and dark gentleman with their aunt and grandmother and stopped in some surprise. They had not expected anyone. “Come on in and meet our visitor, boys. He has just returned from India. He was the one who sent all of those wonderful presents and even wrote to you, just as you wrote to him, so he is not a total stranger to you. This is Henry, whom you know so well from his letters. Surely you remember all of that, and cannot be so tongue-tied that you cannot thank him.” Henry began to recognize that a greater secret had been hidden from him, which neither of them had told him about in any of their letters to him. He noticed that Anne was looking at him and smiling at his momentary surprise, and that he was being scrutinized by the younger boy.

She lowered her voice so that only Henry could hear her. “Yes, I am sure it is all becoming clear to you now. Charlotte brought James back with her after being away at Stavely and gave birth to Oliver Henry, sometime afterward! She felt it better if you knew nothing of young Oliver, to complicate your life further. She was afraid that if you knew of the baby, your baby, that she was carrying at the time, but dared not tell you about, that you might never have gone or would have returned before you had completed your business.” He looked lost all of a sudden and seemed rooted to the spot, but he recovered quickly.

“She was right.” He extended his hand to each of the boys and introduced himself. “How do you do? I am Henry Stavely.” He was not sure how he should further introduce himself, and would leave it to Anne to explain to him and to them what was the nature of his relationship to them. They introduced themselves politely to him in turn, as they had been taught to do—James Morton and Oliver Henry Morton.

“He is a close friend of your mother, and you, Oliver Henry, were named after him.” From what Mrs. Morton could see for herself, he was at least a close friend, and he had undoubtedly been much, much more than that too. The whole house would be buzzing about it, if it were not that way already.

The boys’ nanny took charge of them at that point, keeping her own thoughts to herself, and ushered them off to be cleaned up before they might be allowed to eat and return to visit with the grown-ups later, and before they retired. Henry watched them leave, as others watched him attentively. He spoke after a few moments of thought.

“You all play a deep game, don’t you?” He was smiling at the circumstance he had been drawn into. “I now see why you found it all so delightful that I was to visit Fallowfield, and to learn of something I was never aware of—that I had a s—”

Anne interrupted him to let him know the actual state of things before he blundered into an area he should not be. “That there were two boys? That you had two sons, despite Charlotte insisting that here, they go by the name of Morton.”

“Yes, I guessed some of it as soon as I set eyes on the two of them, but I am only a stupid male, Anne—older, but little wiser in the ways of women. I suppose it is difficult to argue with there being two boys who might even pass as brothers, and there was only one when I left! At least only one that I knew about. So I am their father, and Charlotte is their mother. I like that. I wish I had known. I might never have left. But surely, the birth dates . . .” He was curious about something. “I know when James was born, the eighth of May, but what . . . when was Oliver . . . ?” Anne was smiling at him wondering that.

“We prefer not to dwell upon that, sir, or have it wondered about.” She looked around to be sure that no servants were within hearing. “Their birthdays are seven months apart—Oliver Henry was born on December 10, of that same year. No one else, except for Mama and their nanny, knows of that slight difficulty. We avoid it by celebrating James’s birthday with his grandparents in London, and Oliver’s here, where he was born. I do hope you will not mind taking the blame, or the credit, for both boys.”

He was quite amused. “It seems that I already have. No, I do not mind. I am quite dumbfounded, while being pleased with that thought. Something about hanging sheep and lambs comes to mind here. Two sons already! And do the servants know of my questionable role in this?” She nodded.

“Having seen you, and your resemblance to both boys, they do now!”

“I am surprised they dare let me in the door. No wonder your butler looked at me strangely.”

“They forgave you long ago, as did our mother, even though they knew nothing about you. Yes, sir, it appears that you and my sister were on a rather less-than-formal footing—or perhaps one might say, with a more recklessly passionate understanding—than just good friends!” She saw that he blushed a little.

“Yes, I expect it does suggest that, doesn’t it? Difficult to deny, with such evidence staring me in the face. I would be an utter fool to try and deny myself two such sons, and the clouded reputation that I, no doubt, deserve, so I shall embrace it.” He felt as though he might be beyond his depth—something that had happened to him few times before. It seemed that Anne was just as likely as her sister to touch upon some tender subjects without hesitation and was not shy to speak out. “I fear that when your sister returns to find me here without knowing I had returned, or inviting me, that it will be a great shock to her. I may not be so welcome after all. She will feel betrayed by you, threatened by me, and desperately afraid of why I am here and what my intentions might be.”

“You are seeing difficulties where they do not exist, sir.” He doubted that.

“Anne! May I call you Anne again, as I used to do, without creating more concern than I already do?” She smiled at him and nodded. “Before I become mired into some awkward situation from which it may be difficult to extract myself, perhaps we should fall back upon that old and trusted tactic in warfare, and go for a stroll about the garden as you tell me everything that I should know about my role here so that I may not be confused about what is expected of me and reveal myself as a complete idiot as I try to see a way forward.” He recollected that Mrs. Morton was staying quiet and was listening to it all. He turned to her. “That is, if you will excuse us, ma’am?” She excused them. She would not have missed any of this for the world, and only regretted that she had not been invited upon that same stroll, to overhear so many truths and admissions. So much that had not been made clear to her now began to make sense. At least she would be present when Charlotte returned, and then might see and hear for herself how much more she had been misled about for the last few years. Skeletons were tumbling out of closets all over the place.

Once he understood that he was assumed to be the father of both boys, and that he was here to correct that most glaring of deficiencies in the relationship—marriage, just as Charlotte was their mother, Henry threw himself into his welcome role as father. He was quite surprised to also learn, as one day succeeded another, that he had a reservoir of patience with them that was limitless, and soon made friends with them. He knew why—these two were special and meant so much to him.

His days were rearranged in ways he could not have imagined, beginning when they first bounced into his bedroom at the crack of dawn and ended only as he tucked them away after reading them a story. At those times, their nanny was at a prudent distance. He wandered for hours about the grounds with them and their unflappable nanny, who hung close to them, as he described and explained everything that they asked about, recollecting his own childhood, and his own innumerable questions of that time. They exhausted him far more than India, with its constant battle of wits to survive, ever did. At the rate they were taxing both himself and his clothes to the limit, he began to believe that he would run out of energy and changes of clothing before ever Charlotte might return. When Anne accompanied them, she stayed back with their nanny and observed it all carefully as she stored her own impressions away. She was not part of their select little coterie. She was not dressed for climbing into a tree house either, even though she had done that with Oliver some years before, and even though the boys tried to persuade her. Henry had made sure that it was all reasonably safe for them, but stipulated that if he were not there, they were not to climb to it themselves. They accepted that. Neither Anne nor their nanny was prepared to get themselves muddied at the edge of the lake, fishing for tiddlers, as Henry did. He even fell in, to everyone’s amusement.

Throughout it all, their nanny, who did not fully approve of him—considering how he must have behaved around Miss Charlotte at one time—supervised it all. She regarded Anne as also needing her protection from such an obvious libertine. She did not condone any of the new morality laid out for all to see, even if the regent himself had embraced it and had set society back on its heels as he had pointed the way to perdition by his unrestrained embracing of a succession of mistresses.

The boys did not seem to have suffered any for their slightly checkered origins, nor would they, if she or Miss Anne or Miss Charlotte had anything to do with it, despite the unmistakable perpetrator of it all appearing on the scene. Besides, she came to recognize that he was a good man with the boys and with her, and Miss Anne, and it was not at all surprising that Miss Charlotte had given in to temptation. Any woman might be tempted by such a man. She decided that it was better if she did not think along those lines. It was too dangerous ground for a young woman to be venturing upon.

On his second day, Anne cornered him after the boys had been taken off for a bath. “There is something I need to tell you, Henry, and that will not be put off any longer. I hate to bring any unpleasantness to your visit, but you could not have come at a more fortuitous time. There is trouble! Jasper Enright is in the area again. You may remember him from some years ago.” He was surprised to hear that.

“His mother had an estate just next to ours and was a constant source of anxiety. She died earlier this year. That is one of the reasons Jasper is back. No sooner do we lose one aggravation—the mother—than Jasper shows up.”

“I remember him well enough. So he is not dead. I believed him to be dead after I shot him and saw him fall into the river just before I left for India.” She was surprised to hear that.

“Did you shoot him? I had not heard that. Charles, his brother and my fiancé, in London, got a letter from him from Jamaica about a year after you left. That was the last anyone heard of him, except for his writing to Charles, until just a few days ago. I do not know where he found the nerve, but he barged into this house just after Charlotte had left, and before you came, and confronted our mother while I was out with the boys. He had the gall to inform her that being the son of our father, that he was now heir to all that was Fallowfield.

“He upset Mama so badly that the cook had to bring a cleaver to threaten him with and suggest he leave, or see what its edge might do to him if he upset Mrs. Morton any further. All he did was to laugh at her but told us that it was not finished and that he would return and lay his incontrovertible evidence before her. Evidence!” Henry could see that it had upset her. “Unfortunately, from bits and pieces that I did hear over the years, there might be some truth to it, though with Oliver having a son, Jasper is certainly not the heir, no matter what he says.” Henry could see more of a threat in Jasper being there than Anne might have perceived. If Jasper learned that a mere child stood in his way . . . She may not have seen the same danger as he did, and continued, “Mama told me just last night, after that visit, some of the awkward family history and that Jasper might actually have a claim, and may indeed be our father’s son, though that harpy trapped him that way. Father confessed everything to her. The thought of being put out of Fallowfield is nagging at her. Charlotte and you hold the means to stop him in that endeavor by revealing who James’s father really is, but I have not dared discuss it yet with Mama.” Henry was content just to listen.

“It made it all simpler for Charlotte to claim both boys as her own than to go into any deeper explanation, except that we appear to have allowed this other problem to come to the fore. Now, it would look strange, and give rise to some awkward rumors—worse than are already circulating—if it were discovered that James was actually our brother’s son. Byron and his behavior would have seemed innocent compared to what might be believed! Of course, it would be a relatively simple matter to clear up, if we dared do so, by producing the marriage certificate between Oliver and Georgiana, and then the birth certificate of James’s birth to Georgiana. But that might put James in danger now from that villain.” So she had seen the danger. “He always did intend ill by us, just as his mother did.”

“Yes, Anne, you are right to want to keep such a thing quiet. If he were to recognize that a six-year-old was standing next in succession between him and this estate, who knows what he might be tempted to do? It appears that I came on the scene just in time.” Anne was relieved that he was able to see the difficulty. He had dealt with Enright before and was now forewarned about him, while Enright had no knowledge of Henry being here, just yet, and she would try to keep it that way.

“Mother told me just last night, after you had retired, that until she died, Mrs. Enright wrote letters to father, several times each year, to try and get him to admit an affair with her, and to admit to paternity of Jasper. He never responded to any of them. If she had indeed planned so far ahead, who is not to say that she did not have a hand in Oliver’s death too?, though I shall not raise that for Mother to stew over. I believe Jasper was trying to intimidate and frighten Mama into giving up the property without a fight, and he may try to do so again. I am so glad you are here now, Henry, and I only regret that you were not here earlier, when Jasper sought to pay Mama that first visit. I do not know what Charlotte will say about this when she returns. I am so sorry that we seem to have embroiled you in even more of our troubles.”

“They are not just your troubles, Anne. Anything that threatens you or your sister, or this family in any way, threatens me and my happiness also, and is my concern. Don’t forget, I encountered that man on two occasions now, and both of those were violent. It involved you on one occasion, and may possibly have involved Charlotte after that, but for my taking care of him, or thinking I had taken care of him as I did. You should not worry about it, Anne. I am here now, and thank you for letting me know of this. I doubt he’ll show his face too readily after giving warning of his intentions. He must know that one does not threaten to commit the same folly twice.”

“I hope you are right, sir.”

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