The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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The Grundy girls learn all about Henry.

They entered the backyard of a small but tidy house, with its fittingly small, kitchen-garden, and called out to let others know he had returned. A woman—clearly his wife—and three growing daughters answered his urgent summons. He gave instructions and left his wife to see to getting the young lad stripped out of his clothes and the stink of the river washed off him before he entered their home.

They had watched him begin to strip off, heedless of those who might be watching and not at all shy to do so, with him shivering uncontrollably. They had soon realized that he could not do it by himself, and had soon found their courage, with stern prompting from their mother, to help him get out of his clothing, as she went off to organize other things. They gradually lost their shyness and recognized that there were three of them to his one, and the sooner it was done, the better. Their mother had told them what to do, so they would do it. He seemed to barely notice their help but was grateful for it and did not resist or object. The cold and discomfort blunted any immediate feelings of shyness from him so that the young lasses, between twelve and possibly sixteen years, could help as they might, with telling glances exchanged between them silently and some nudging and eye-opening curiosity about what they could see of him as his clothes came off. Their mother brought buckets of clean luke-warm water as they poured it over him to wash off the filth and the stink.

They continued to wet down his hair to get rid of all traces of his ducking, as another wiped down his legs with a cloth and then went over him again from stem to stern. Their mother ignored them other than to hiss in their direction to quieten them down from being too expressive and possibly embarrassing the lad. It would be an education for them if they didn’t cause him to become too shy in his sudden nakedness and to insist on some privacy once he woke up to what was happening. He was so miserable, he had not cared who had helped him, or what they did—for the moment—but was grateful for all that was being done for him.

Only after he passed their mother’s inspection was he then wrapped up in a warm blanket and admitted to the warm house—water dripping from his hair—leaving the two youngest girls to see to his still-offensive clothes. They chuckled now that he was not there and spoke to each other in whispers, with no one to overhear them, and even laughed at what they had seen and done. They would not mind rinsing out and cleaning up that clothing. They washed worse smells and offensive messes each day they helped their mother. The girls would have a lot to talk about, to chuckle over, to marvel at, and to speculate about that night as they lay in the warmth and security of their bed in the one room they shared.

He had been recovering nicely at the end of that, and it was obvious that he would eventually object to any further attention, now that he was warmer and was becoming shy once more.

After that, Mrs. Grundy got him into a warmer bath to get some warmth back into him, sitting in front of the kitchen fire. He was helped briefly, this time only by Mrs. Grundy pouring warmer water over his head. The girls watched with interest from their grandstand seating on the dark stairs, out of the brighter light and mostly out of sight, as they missed nothing.

He seemed to be used to women about him—probably older sisters or even an attentive mother or nurse. Mrs. Grundy would have liked a son of her own. She would be surprised if he were totally unaware that he was being closely observed by those same impressionable and curious girls who had earlier helped him, considering the whispers that she could hear and the noise of the movement of their feet on the stairs, as they strained to see more. There was little he could do about it anyway, so he would have to put up with it. Within ten minutes, he was out of his bath and dried off—also supervised attentively—warm, wrapped in a clean blanket to give him some protection from curious girls, and was partaking of a bowl of hot soup at the table to bring some warmth back to his body. Mr. Grundy and his curious and intent daughters had appeared then from the shadows to look at Henry’s sketches as they and the contents of that satchel were laid out on the table. Mr. Grundy was well aware that the daughters hovered close by, as though interested in everything about him—which they were—even his drawings, and were happy to listen as their father distracted him from their presence and their obvious, burning curiosity concerning everything about him.

The shoes that Mr. Grundy had on his feet, which he had now taken off, were there, as well as a pistol, the one that William had thought to use on Henry; a pouch of coins, representing quite a small fortune to Mr. Grundy’s view of things (more gold than he would see in ten years); and a small bundle of papers and letters. No man should carry so much gold about himself, unless he had been ready to depart England for some time. As William had been barely literate, the documents were likely the property of his father. Henry’s drawings were of interest to all there—partially because of the obvious skill that he had brought to bear upon them, and partially because many of those persons drawn there were recognizable to Mr. Grundy. They had all been done over the course of a week—the time that Henry had spent at the docks. They showed other ships that had left the port during that time, some of which had been Stavely ships. All had been drawn in great detail and with loving care, revealing a skill that few people had, wielding a pencil. From the look of the lad, anything he was likely to turn his hand to, he’d make a success of it. For each of the ships, the old man could put a name to all of them without looking at the printing showing on the drawing itself.

The lad also had drawings of persons in that portfolio—gentlemen, and some who were not gentlemen and who had met with his uncle earlier that week. Grundy knew most of them too, where the lad didn’t. They were well done despite having been done quickly and captured in caricature form, the salient features and dress of each individual well, though some had been reworked afterward. He had obviously watched from a safe location and out of sight to have done those, or he might have attracted worse attention than just a cuff about the ear or a good soaking. Some things that went on at the docks, and between gentlemen even, were best not known about, and they were sensitive about being seen with certain other folk who maybe were not of a good enough reputation to associate with in open view. Anyone who showed any curiosity in that location might be put to bed with a mattock—if their body was ever found. Others were taken aboard and dropped over the side once the ship went beyond the estuary. That could easily have been Henry’s fate. Mr. Grundy began to recognize more than he might dare to say to the lad. As they turned the pages, Mr. Grundy spoke of what he knew and recognized. He could put names to most of them where Henry could not.

“This pair here.” He pointed to one of the drawings showing two men, obvious brothers. “Sinclairs, from Edinburgh. They dressed like gentlemen, but they wasn’t. I heard they had come into property in the city and had promptly sold it at a good price. They were looking to buy a ship or two with that war coming to an end, and put the word out.” He pointed to another man. “Sullivan, over in the west country, somewhere near Devon, from his accent, and others.” He turned the pages and reeled off the names with little hesitation as he pointed at them. He had made it his business to find out who they were. Perhaps he had been observed doing that. “Business dealings.” The young lad stored the names away in his head. He’d write them in later. “Perhaps they noticed my being curious, and I saw more than I was supposed to see, and they didn’t like that. Not normal to see so many of ’em down here at the same time and meeting with that uncle of yours too. Makes one wonder what they might have been up to, but you drew ’em well, and I know ’em.”

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