The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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The end of a villain.

There was but a single loud shot, louder than one would have expected, but then within such an enclosed space, it would always sound louder. The birds had stopped their incessant cooing and had flown in panic-stricken terror out of their roost. Henry knew that two guns had fired. He had seen the flame and smoke from Jasper’s gun, which had followed him as he had moved, so he knew that Charlotte could not have been hit, and Jasper’s shot had thankfully, missed him. Henry moved quickly to give Charlotte his support as Jasper slowly crumpled to the ground. He knew the boys would be frozen where they were, and lying low, as he had taught them.

Charlotte sobbed at what she had been forced to do. “I could not let him shoot you or do what he intended with the boys.” She was unsteady on her feet. “If Oliver’s gun had not misfired almost seven years ago this would not have happened. A different outcome, a different path.” Henry pulled her closer to him and tried to reassure her.

“But for better or for worse? Who would know? You did well, my love. They were right who said that the female of any species is the more dangerous. It’s over now.” He moved some hair back from her face and kissed her. There was a frightened voice from above them.

“Mama, Henry?”

“Yes, boys?” Henry answered for both of them, as Charlotte had her head buried in his shirt as he held her close to him.

“That was a gunshot! What happened? Was there another badger?

“No, boys. Just a rat that your mother dealt with, with one of my pistols.” They would not have heard Jasper talking where they were amid those noisily cooing pigeons—cooing, until that shot had driven them off in panic.

“She did?” James sounded relieved but puzzled. “She said she didn’t like guns and forbade us to have anything to do with them.”

“She doesn’t like them, but is having a change of heart, now that she can perceive that sometimes they serve a useful purpose. I suspect that she may change her mind about you learning about them. She is a promising shot too, with practice. I doubt I could have done so well.” He retrieved a horse blanket from over the edge of a half door into another section of the barn and threw it over Jasper’s body to hide what had happened from the boys, and even pulled hay across it. He picked up Jasper’s pistol, which had been fired, and the other one, unfired. He knocked the charge from it, emptied the powder from the flash pan, and put both of them with the body under the blanket. Jasper was certainly dead. He had been shot through the heart. Henry took the pistol from her hand and tucked it back into his pocket from which she had removed it as she had reached back to him. “That was well done, my love, and took a great deal of courage and determination. You saved all of our lives by that.”

“Is he dead?” He felt her shiver.

“He is certainly dead—through the heart, but keep your voice down. We are likely to have two curious boys here shortly and anxious to learn what was shot. The rat got away, remember?” He turned his attention back to the boys. “You can come down now, boys, but watch out for loose planking and stay close to where the hay will cushion you if you fall, as I showed you.”

“Yes, sir.”

There was a clattering of loose boards from the platform and dust and dried grass cascading down off them and visible in the sunbeams beginning to streak in through gaps in the barn siding as the sun rose above the trees outside. Charlotte was relieved to see, as well as hear, both boys—James, with Oliver Henry close behind. Thank God they were unharmed! Her heart was in her mouth as they maneuvered from the high platform they were on.

“Oh, be careful.”

“We will, Mama. Henry showed us how to do it safely. I want to see this rat that you shot.”

“There is nothing to see. I am not that good a shot. It got away.”

Within two minutes, they came down, finally sliding off the hay into her arms. “Where’s Henry, Mama? I thought I heard him with you.”

“You did.” She turned to find out where he was, but he was stretched out on the ground. She suddenly felt almost sick to her stomach. Had he been shot? No, there was a piece of planking lying beside him, and blood flowing freely from a scalp wound. He seemed to be unconscious. She had been unaware that one of those loose pieces of wood had fallen, as it had, and struck Henry, as he had moved to protect her, for she had been standing exactly where he was now lying. She hoped it was that, as bad as it was, and not the shot from Jasper’s gun, which she had also seen fired.

She dropped to her knees beside him. All thought of Jasper lying under the horse blanket was forgotten for the moment. There was a lot of blood! She was not sure how it might have happened, but it was not a gunshot, she made sure of that. “James, go to the house and get Davis. Better still, go to the stable and get two of the hands over here, if they are up and about. We need to get him inside, and seen to, to stop this bleeding. Oliver, you stay with us!” James ran off. She stripped off the robe that Henry had draped over her and put it under his head. She needed something to staunch the bleeding, but there had been nothing close to hand except his robe or her nightdress. Henry had a small sheath knife at his waist. She removed that, and took the bottom few inches off her nightdress with a few cuts into the fabric and then by tearing it away. Another cut, and she had a bandage that seemed long enough.

She moved the dressing gown out from under his head and slid her leg in its place to support him, as she brought the piece of skin back across his scalp to close it off from dust, still falling from above. She tried to staunch the bleeding and then wrapped it as best she could. Her heart was beating wildly, and she was close to tears but fought them away. The bleeding did not want to stop. She put her arms under his neck and raised him to her, to lift his head higher, and hugged him close into her breast. She did not care that blood was being transferred to her nightdress, though the bleeding did seem to be slowing. She listened. Where were James and the help? Her heart was beating so quickly now.

James came running back into the barn. “I could not find anyone in the stable, and there is no one stirring in the house yet either, Mama, so I thought I had better come back. I can stay with Henry, if you will tell me what to do, while you go and get them.”

She heard a muffled voice from her bosom. “Ouch! That hurt! And I thought India was a dangerous place. Laid out by a board! I saw it coming at me but could not avoid it.”

“Lie still, Henry. Thank God you are coming round! You are more trouble than any two boys with all of your injuries and wounds. You are indeed like a big overgrown boy, and I love you for it.” She sounded relieved and pulled him even closer, as she shed tears on him and even kissed him on the cheek. “You had me almost in a panic.”

He nestled closer to her and touched at her leg to find out where she was, relative to him, finding it uncovered, but she did not care. “What goes up . . .” his muffled voice could just be heard.

“Must come down.” She and both boys repeated it together to complete it, and then laughed, but how she might manage to laugh through her tears after what had just happened to the man she loved, with another man, her half brother, lying dead not ten feet away, amazed her.

“Yes. That plank was another one of those dangers that I was in process of seeing addressed. I can’t see to them all at once. I didn’t see it coming until the last second, and I was too slow to get out of the way. Awful glad it wasn’t one of you two!” He looked up at her. “Or you.” She liked the way he was looking at her, and touching. “Don’t go climbing alone like that again, will you, boys, without letting us know and having one of us with you?”

“No, Henry, we won’t, not without you with us.”

Henry looked up at Charlotte. “You can kiss me again if you like, you know. I won’t object, and I will feel better for it. I have pleasant memories of that from some years ago. We used to do a lot of that. I have a headache, and it might help. Thank God I am the one injured and not one of them, or you might never have forgiven me.” She kissed him and lingered over it as she did so.

“Well, my love, if I can stand—though why I should want to move from here at all, escapes me—we should get back to the house now that we’ve found James and Oliver, and neither of them the worse for wear after that little adventure, while we are the ones most sobered by it.” He looked up at her. “I must admit I do like being just where I am. Nice and soft—warm too . . . brings back such pleasant memories of . . . gentler times. We can get the other difficulty seen to later.” He was perhaps referring to Jasper, but she also knew the way his mind worked. She would not ask him which difficulty he was referring to in front of the boys.

“I see you are recovering already! To think that I was worried about what you would do to find me when you returned, and how you would respond once you did. I worried for nothing! If only I had known how easily you seem to have forgiven me, I would have let you know all about me soon enough. But, Henry, there is a lot of blood! Are you sure you were not . . . There were two shots at the same time, sounding as one.” The boys knew better than to ask, and to close off what they might hear.

“No, he missed me. As for blood, there always is a lot from a scalp wound! It will soon stop, but it will need to be seen to. Just give me support to get to the house, and I’ll be in fine fettle before we know it.” She helped him slowly to his feet, as he held on to her. “I can’t see clearly.”

“You have blood running down your face and getting into your eyes, and onto everything now. You will need a doctor.”

“I doubt it. I’d rather not see any more of that breed. I had my fill of them and learned enough in India to avoid most of ’em. Some water, scissors, brandy, and a needle and thread, and I’ll be right enough. I’ve had worse! It’s in the hair, so it won’t be too obvious of a scar. I won’t be able to do it for myself where it is, so I hope you won’t feel queasy about it.” He leaned quite heavily on her as they maneuvered out of the barn and walked slowly across the yard. The boys followed behind them, carrying the robe and Henry’s knife. James opened the door and let them into the house. No one was about yet, but they soon would be. It was unlikely that anyone one would have heard those shots either.

“Better get me down to the laundry, my love. There will be hot water there, and I can get cleaned up down there without causing any panic, though that blood trail might cause problems. There might even be a clean shirt down there too, and other clothing. The stone flooring will be easier to wipe up than bloody carpets, and there will be fewer people to overhear me when I scream shamelessly with the pain as you stitch me up.” She could not help but laugh at him. “I hope you are a good seamstress, but I will not need any of your finer needlepoint.” The boys were anxious to see what would happen and how he might be able to tolerate the pain.

James let them into the washroom and moved a stool over for him to sit on, by the boiler, as his wound was washed off. It was warm, and a welcome change from the chilly morning air outside. Charlotte made up the fire with some help from both boys and then washed her hands. Henry looked up at her and caught her hand before she might escape from him to get what she needed. “You are all bloody too. I am sorry for that.” He raised it to his lips and kissed it. He looked a mess, but there was no mistaking the look in his eyes.

She knelt down beside him as she looked him over in the stronger light from the window. She spoke softly to him. “I will need to see to this, and to those other injuries too! Anne told me that Jasper shot at you.”

“Yes, he did, after I had seen him off the premises. I was not going to allow him to bully your mother and take over the house as though he already owned it. He could barely see to shoot at me after I had finished with him, but he managed to come close enough. I expect he could not leave well enough alone after that, and it cost him his life.”

“We saw some of it, Mama. Nanny was horrified, but it was ever so exciting to see after we had quieted her down. We watched from the library window. Ouch!” James had poked at Oliver to get him to stay quiet so that they might be forgotten and might see and hear all that might be done and said. They had been able to understand most of what was said, but not all of it. They watched as their mother continued to bathe Henry’s head and listened attentively, as the conversation between them continued.

“What about his claim . . . you know?”

“What claim might that be? Dead men have no claim.” The children perked up, hearing talk of dead men. “Oliver’s son is the heir, and that’s all there is to it. Better that it worked out this way.”

“How will we deal with that . . . in the barn?” James looked at Oliver, as though to say, See, I told you something had happened that they were not telling us about.

“I’ll see to it later. An unmarked grave at the edge of the woods will do well enough.” Unmarked grave? So their mother had shot something in the barn that they were not supposed to know about. They shrank back and stayed quiet, lest they caused this exciting conversation to dry up. “No one needs to know. Many families have little secrets like that.”

“Not such a little secret!” She looked over to the two boys. “Little pitchers, Henry. Little pitchers.” He heard her warning. “The bleeding has stopped now. You two stay here with him, while I go and get what I need.” She would also make sure she found Davis and would tell him of something that he would need to see moved well out of sight, with some help from a couple of the barn hands that he might trust to say nothing, before the boys got chance to go out again and investigate as they seemed inclined to want to do. He would know what would need to be done and would direct some men to see to it.

“Yes, Mama.”

Henry spoke up, “You will need to change too, don’t forget. I can imagine what the servants might think, seeing you in a much foreshortened nightdress, wandering all bloodied about the house like a demented Lady Macbeth. They will come looking for me with murder in their hearts at what they fear I might have done. They already believe ill of me.”

“You are wrong! They don’t! They know you better than you think. They are more likely to be worried for you.” She picked up the robe that James had dragged over and used that to cover her appearance. It would need washing anyway to get blood out of it, so it would make little difference now; and she was not going to get anything else bloody, until she had finished seeing to Henry.

When she came back with needle, thread, a bottle of brandy and some better wraps, scissors, and a few other things, she noticed that Henry had already wiped most of the blood off his face and out of his eyes, as James held a mirror for him. There was still some seepage through the pad that he was holding in place with his other hand, but he did not look quite so pale, and his eyes were clear. James had helped him off with his bloody shirt.

She knew exactly what to do, for she was the one that everyone seemed to rely upon to see to cuts, superficial wounds, and scrapes. Broken bones and other problems needed a doctor, and she did not hesitate to see one brought in when necessary, but not this time. “I’ll get you to come closer to the window, Henry. You can sit on that low stool, with the light shining in on you, and I shall sit on that stone slab in the window and practice my best needlepoint.”

“Nothing too fancy, my dear! I might need your help to get over there. I’m still none too steady on my feet just yet, and I have quite a headache.” His smile put the lie to most of what he said, but she did not mind.

“I’m not surprised!” She helped him to his feet again, as James carried the stool and placed it where Charlotte suggested for him to sit as she steadied him. She laid out everything she needed beside her and then poured some brandy over the thread she held coiled in the palm of her hand before she threaded the needle. She wiped the brandy off onto the new wraps she had brought. She placed her robe aside, out of her way, as Henry sat in front of her, and she slowly lifted the pad from his head. He could see by the look on her face that it was still not a pleasant sight to see with his hair all matted with blood, but James was curious enough, with Oliver not too far behind him. Fortunately, they could not see what Henry could see out of the window. They had their backs to the light and did not see Davis, accompanied by two of the stable hands head off to the barn to remove a body.

She moved hair out of the way of the tear and made sure that there was none trapped beneath the flap of scalp as she cut hair away from the edge of the wound. It was not as large a wound as she had feared. Such wounds always did seem to bleed more than they should.

“This will hurt, and the sooner and quicker it is done, the better!” He dropped his head onto his other arm, which he rested across her bare knees, so that she might see the side and top of his head. She suddenly sat up straighter, taken by surprise at what he had just done.

Henry!” He had blown under her foreshortened nightdress sitting just above her knees. The boys chuckled at her sudden start. Fortunately, they had not seen what Henry had done.

“I’m sorry, my love. I did not intend to startle you.” She knew better. He had intended it.

“Little pitchers, Henry. Next, you will forget they are here and will be talking of my female attributes again.” She had seen where he had been staring at her, and where she had felt his breath on her, as well as seeing the mischievous look on his face. “I am aware of what you are looking at, and what you are doing, blowing like that.”

“I have to look somewhere, and there is nowhere nearly so delightful for me to look at, sitting where I am! Such delightful attributes too, and calling for my attention. And for your information, that was a particularly heavy sigh, like this.” He sighed heavily again, with the same disturbing effect upon her as before as his breath, riffled those hairs that he could see, as he looked mischievously up at her.

“What are female attributes, Mama? Henry told us we must always ask when an adult says something we do not understand.”

“Now is not one of those times to ask anything, James. I am sufficiently distracted as it is, with the worst of my three mischievous boys to deal with. Henry will tell you when he is better recovered, won’t you, Henry!”

“Yes, my love, I will. When I am fully recovered.”

“I am not sure what I will do with you. (She was sure that he would soon find some way to tell her.) I would smother you with affection if your head were not such . . .” Despite that, she pulled him into her bosom again and kissed him on the top of his head. “Oh, I am so happy that you are back in my life! But for James, and then Oliver Henry, and your many letters I fear I would not have wanted to live without you.” She recollected what she had been doing, and allowed him to sit up. He was smiling at her.

“We may have too much to explain to the boys if you recklessly tempt me like that again. I felt the same way, my love. I wrote every day before I retired (she had too), and then finished and sent each letter off when there was a ship going to London, which was never often enough for me.” She began on his head. “Only thought of you and James, always before me, kept me going—I knew nothing of the other wondrous life we had created. Why did you not tell me?” He focused once more on what he could see of her, close to him, and tried to ignore the pain.

“I dare not. I discovered the wondrous condition I was in just a few weeks before we were to go to India together. I decided that I would tell you when we were aboard ship and on our way so that no one would find out and might try to dissuade me from going with you before I gave birth. Then, after I suddenly was presented with James to look after and realized that I could not go with you, I dare not tell you. You might have delayed even longer. You might not have gone, and your business would have suffered.” The boys stayed quiet, listening and watching, as their mother worked on Henry’s scalp. They could see that he was in pain by the way he flinched from time to time, but he said nothing.

“I knew what I wanted when I first saw you again. I wanted to throw myself into your arms, but I was afraid and not sure exactly why you were here, with so much that you needed to find out about me, and to forgive.” She was sure that she must be hurting him, yet he said nothing about that.

“I hope you are sure about me now.”

“I am sure, Henry—very sure, but I must be careful. I fear that I am not a lady in some people’s eyes, even here, in my own home, considering how I must have behaved with you when I was away. I know that I am not supposed to admit to those warmer feelings that I do have for you—oh! I quite shame myself at my utter lack of embarrassment—and I am not sure that I dare be as demonstrative as I would like to be, and yet I once did dare, didn’t I?”

“Yes, my love, you certainly did. In fact you were the instigator, but it was a close run thing.”

“I am not sure how to go forward now, as I would like to, without putting the house into an uproar. Except mama wouldn’t care.”

“I will help you there, if you will allow me, and we will put the house into an uproar together, as I refresh your memory.” He looked up at her with a smile on his face. “I hear sounds from the kitchen. James and Oliver could both go and get breakfast, while you finish this off.”

“We want to stay, Mama, and watch.”

“Tarnation!” Will we never be alone? She smiled at Henry’s gentle outburst.

“James, you may pass me another towel, please, and I will also need a clean cloth from that pile over there, Oliver.” She smiled at how easily they went off to do her bidding. “I am so pleased no one else can hear this improper conversation, or read what is in both of our minds!” He could see that she was as flushed as he was. She felt changing pressure on her legs as she continued to stitched the two sides together. He was pale again now, with his eyes looking straight ahead, to try and take his mind off what was happening. He said nothing about any pain, to James’s surprise.

“That must hurt a lot, Henry. I would be screaming. I think it might hurt even more than a toothache.”

“I am screaming, James! I’m screaming deep inside, that’s why you can’t hear me!” He opened his mouth a little, and there was a small sound escaping, as though of a scream coming from deep within him. It was closed off again when he closed his mouth.

“There. Done!” She smiled weakly at him, knowing she had caused him a good deal of pain. He breathed a sigh of relief, only to tense again as she sloshed a few drops of brandy along the line of stitches and then proceeded to wrap his head to keep dirt out, and the blood from staining his pillow when he was put to bed as he would be for a while after that. “You look like an invalid.”

“That is because I am an invalid. I will certainly need to be put to bed, as you say, and should deserve to get special care and attention after this.”

“If you are not careful, I shall send my mother up to see to you.” She was smiling at him, so he was not misled by that comment.

“You threatened that once before. You would not be so cruel!”

“No, I would not be so cruel. Not now. Come, we shall get you into bed, and if you are a good boy, I shall bring you breakfast later.”

“I shall be a very good boy, Mama, with your help.” He paused. “On second thoughts, perhaps I shall not be a good boy.”

“I’ll help too, Mama.” They slowly walked with him up the stairs and into Charlotte’s bedroom, which would be warmer than his. The bed was just as she had left it an hour earlier. They saw him undressed, attired in his own nightshirt, brought from the laundry room with them, and tucked into bed.

“We shall leave him to rest . . . for only a short while, and I will bring him a glass of milk, and then I shall check those other wounds.” He was smiling now.

“That sounds better, but I don’t need any milk just yet. If you stay, I shall tell you the history of each one of my scars and wounds and catalog all of my aches and pains, each and every one.” He looked up at her. “Do you think that Anne might be prepared to occupy the boys while we . . . while I rest?”

She smiled at his transparency, and silenced the boys complaints. They wanted to see his wounds too, and learn their history. “Yes, Henry, I am sure she will not mind. I shall send them off even now to make sure she is out of bed if the noise we made did not already disturb her. Off you go, boys. I shall see that your father rests, after all of his excitement.” They watched them reluctantly go, and even heard the commotion from the next room as they woke Anne up to drag her down for breakfast with them.

“Mama and Henry want to be left alone, Aunt Anne. Something to do with needing to find out about female attributes like the ones that you have. We are to have breakfast with you, and about time too, as we are fair gutfoundered.” They heard Anne laughing.

They smiled at each other. Henry reached up and caressed her face. “Alone at last. You did make sure that the door was properly closed behind them, my love?”

“Of course.”

“Good! And locked?”

“Should I?”

“Yes, my love, you should, and then you must come back here to bed, and keep me warm.” He watched as she walked to the door and heard her turn the key before she walked back to him.

Finis.

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