The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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1821, An ill-advised short cut.

Miss Charlotte Morton was eventually able to take leave of her lifelong friend and companion, Angelica Merriwether, and her own younger sister, Anne, to ride home alone late in the afternoon from Brokeston, their small village of but forty houses—a smithy, one inn, and a church that had once boasted one of the largest congregations per head of population. The once formidable attendance at church was not so much a testimony to the religious predisposition of the inhabitants of the village or to the loquacity of its vicar, as to the village of Brokeston having been the uneaseful birthplace of one the last witches burned in England. They had been persuaded that they had had much to atone for by that uncivilized act, and the only way to work their way back into God’s good graces was to put aside such heathen things and to attend church and to pray. However, the novelty had soon worn off once it began to dawn on his parishioners that the illusory rewards—said to be laid up for them in heaven—were not forthcoming until after their death, which seemed too late to collect on them.

Before they had chance to return to Fallowfield, Charlotte and her friend had learned that Angelica’s mother had suddenly taken ill—something she had eaten had disagreed with her—and had decided that Angelica should be persuaded to remain with her for that evening at least, rather than accompany Charlotte back to Fallowfield as had been the original intent. With her irrepressible equanimity with whatever unfolded about her, Charlotte had not only insisted upon the necessary change of plans but then also made others of her own. “Of course you must stay, Angelica. What sort of a friend would I be if I expected that you might not stay as you should at such a difficult time with your mother being taken ill. You have but the one, mother, you know.”

Charlotte’s younger sister, Anne, who had also accompanied them, had decided not to return immediately either but would stay with a local relative until the morning. She had also suggested that a visit to Calderwold, a larger village, some five miles further, to take in the preparations for the village festival, might also be considered, so not to expect her to return until later on the following day. Anne had suggested that she would probably return with the housekeeper when that woman had finished her visit to the market. There would not be so much to see just yet for the festival, nor much activity other than for the idly curious, of which there were many who had caught the infection of anticipation.

Although the tents were set up, and there were more people about than usual preparing everything, the festival was not going to begin until another day or so and would go on for two weeks. It had been several months in the planning, with so much coming together during that time, including rumor of a possible visit from the regent himself, always on the lookout for a new mistress and always likely to find several potential and obliging candidates, temporarily, with attendance at several balls in the nearby assembly rooms. There was a smaller fair for the children, with roundabouts, swing boats, slides, and the ever-present Punch and Judy. There were contests of skill and strength: archery, shooting, bare-fisted boxing with a disfigured pugilist—a prizefighter who was prepared to take on all comers who might wager a small bet—as well as wrestling, a tug-of-war contest, and even a caber toss. There were also cockfights and other blood contests, which only men might enjoy, but thatwas mostly out of sight. There were mystery plays three nights of the week for the more intelligent of their society. They were notwell attended.

The women also had their moment of participation, with various rewards for baking the best of breads, pickles, jams, and pies; and quilting, tatting, embroidery (mostly the younger women), and poetry.

There were mummers, jugglers, jongleurs, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, pickpockets (not one of the approved activities any more than prostitution was, but always present, nonetheless), men on stilts, and others to distract the masses from what might be going on elsewhere. At such a time, there were always some houses broken into by the gypsies (at least they were given the blame for it) that seemed to congregate to such gatherings, and a few things stolen.

All tastes and desires were catered to: from astrology, tarot reading, fortune telling, love philters, even communing with those on another plane and no longer among the living—a practice not condoned by the church of course, as some of them might be communicating from that other place—to other, less moral, activities, spoken about in hushed voices, a wink, and a knowing smile, and hidden away in various ornately decorated pavilions. Those lascivious activities were not easily discussed. They were, however, eagerly looked forward to by more than just a few of the men from the surrounding area. Those larger tents, set apart from the others, and busy of an evening, were populated by various enterprising young, and not-so-young, women from the city, who decked themselves out in tawdry fashions, characteristic of their occupation as they plied their trade. The evening time, and its subdued lighting, was kinder to them than the glaring light of day. They also occasionally titillated passersby, or shocked others, with a display—fleetingly, or not so fleetingly glimpsed, as though by accident—of their attributes for the attraction and seeming benefit of their exclusively male clientele. Those who were tempted, could purchase a few moments of guilty pleasure in Eve’s little garden, heatedly consulting her public ledger.

It was a time of unusual tolerance. There could also be more pleasure and understanding in the warm and loving embrace of a harlot, or in the quick embrace in the concealing shadows, of a coquettish and reckless young woman from a neighboring village—away from those who might know her—than either that of a cold, nag of a wife, or in the unforgiving, strangling, and emasculating embrace of the even colder, judgmental church. One’s wife might occasionally relent and relax, especially if bribed a little, but the church? Never. It was not in the forgiving business, no matter what was said—unless sufficient largesse bought that indulgence and forgave the sin. So it, like the good man’s wife, could also be bribed to relax its morals and to accept the unacceptable. It was, however, a freedom that only the relatively wealthy might enjoy. The church intended to make people feel guilty as often as possible, and as much as possible, over everything that was enjoyable.

“I shall be fine, Angelica.” Charlotte had protested good naturedly at her friend’s suggestion to send to Fallowfield for a groom to come and meet her and see her home safely now that she had lost both Anne’s company and Angelica’s. “I am in no danger, you know. Everyone is getting ready for the Calderwold celebrations, and that is where all the trouble can be found for the next month, until the festivities end and the euphoria dies down, so our little village will be empty for a month or more. It is the Calderwold tercentenary year this year, don’t forget, and they intend to make it the most memorable in living memory, and hopefully, this time, for all of the right reasons.”

They both laughed over that. There were always a few pranks and the almost inevitable fight, soon broken up by the more concerned stalwarts. Last year, several of the tents had burned to the ground when a planned fireworks display had been prematurely ignited by someone carelessly tapping out a pipe on the box holding them.

“There will also be at least one runnerthere, if they can spare more than one, to discourage anything more serious, but it is all usually minor and soon settled with a bloody nose or two, and then all is forgiven over a tankard of beer and a good meal. The more serious pickpockets and filledejoiewill not be discouraged anyway, and those other women are always well tolerated by most people, if not the wives—live and let live—though I am sure they can see some benefit afterward when their guilty husbands seek to placate them for their emotional straying.”

“How glad I am that there is no one to overhear you, Charlotte, relating such a tender subject, for thatis being outspoken, even for someone like you.”

“Pooh. It is a fact of life, and the sooner we women get used to the idea that men will stray—look at the regent with his wandering ways. If it were up to him, the sport of kings would not be horse racing but fornication, though it has always been that from what I recall of history and the droitdeseigneur;no longer tolerated, I am glad to say, but still practiced where mightmakes right—the better off we will be, though no one says anything critical of the more than obliging women of our own village, who are intent on tempting them away, and there are always a few of those. It soon settles down again, and husbands and wives are both soon forgiven. Most of the time. They have to, or there would be little going on to keep anyone in the village.

“But you should not worry for me. Once I leave Brokeston, it is all Fallowfield estate, and I have no plan to meet anyone, nor they me, I am sure, other than by accident. Besides, I am well able to defend myself.”

She had grown up in a close relationship with her twin brother, Oliver, and her statement about being able to defend herself was undoubtedly true, for they had often fought in a friendly manner, even going so far as to have her dress in Oliver’s clothing and to wrestle with him—out of sight of their disapproving parents of course—in order not to invite criticism of such an unladylike activity; but then she had been more of a tomboy growing up than any other woman of her acquaintance and had generally preferred the acquaintance of her brother over that of her mother or her older sisters—married and long gone from the area now, and with families of their own—or the younger one, Anne.

Oliver, who was some minutes her senior, had also taught her the finer arts of fencing and of firing a pistol, and even how to defend herself, also without knowledge of their parents. They would never approve of any such violently physical activity being taught to a young lady, never mind the justification for it. A woman’s reputation was always in the balance where local rogues were concerned. No one in their right mind would dare to accuse her of being tomboyish now, for she had not so much outgrown all of that, as submerged it, and held it in reserve. No one might accuse her of being unable to behave in an entirely ladylike manner either, when it was called for. However, she was conscious of her station and of the damaging gossip that can ensue when the young woman does not keep in the forefront of her mind what is required or expected of a lady, even as the other more firm resolve to defend herself could surface if it were called upon.

She was told often enough by her overprotective mother, whom she loved dearly, that she should never, ride alone. It would invite gossip and possibly other difficulties for a young woman, and in no case should she leave the main track and invite the wrong kind of attention from gypsies. It had never been a problem when she had ridden with Oliver, for they could both ride like the wind and, in their younger days, had lively ponies to cavort around the estate upon and in a reckless manner. Neither of them cared a fig about tumbles or scrapes, and she had been young enough then not to have raised eyebrows when she rode astride, instead of as she did now. Fortunately, others, except for a privileged few, were mostly not aware that she might rebel at her station and what was expected of her, and even now might dress in her brother’s clothing when he was away, and go off astride a horse. She never left her own estate at those times and was careful to leave the stable on the side away from the house so as not to be observed. She could pass well enough for Oliver at those times, at least at a distance, but her unmistakable female characteristics would give her away on closer scrutiny.

The neighborhood and her mother would have been scandalized had they, or she, found out, but they hadn’t. Oliver had been amused at it and cautioned her about the repercussions, but he did not preach about it. She had not done that for at least a year now.

The other alarming possibilities were of less concern to her than they were to her mother. She was not afraid of gypsies, for they would not be in the area for at least another week, if they came at all with the general discouragement of thatclassofpeoplewherever they went. The only serious problem in the surrounding area might be the Enright boy—no longer a boy, but a man now of twenty years—from the next estate over. Many were the tales of his violence against women, as well as men, or of his waylaying foolish young girls who ignored the cautions of their mothers. Unfortunately, there were also women of that other kind, who seemed to be attracted to a rogue, and a forceful and violent man—that is, until they learned the true nature of his sordid character—but by then, the damage had been done and her reputation irretrievably damaged. A lesson learned by then was a lesson too late. Most of the tales could not be true anyway but were told in such a way as to frighten young women from being incautious and were as inventive as those of the incubus, stalking unwise and careless women and inviting the devil to consort with them and deal brutally with them in a personal and painful way, especially if one believed those tales of that adornment of his . . . or an iron tip . . . well, best not speak of that.

Men, being what they were—creatures of self-indulgence, answering only to their own absent consciences—were always ready for such titillating misadventure, especially if it might later be blamed by both the willing, and the unwilling, upon Old Nick. Men were also reckless that way and would go out to meet with any succubus... threatened (or promised) for them, rather than displaying any fear, or reservation of such an encounter. Men really were animals that way. There was no point in preaching against something that could not be used to engender fear but was more likely to arouse venereal curiosity in too many, as talk of the succubus did.

Jasper Enright had learned his lesson from one of those events however, for the young woman’s father and brother had sought him out and set upon him violently after that and laid him up for almost a month. He had stayed out of sight for a year after that, licking his wounds and plotting revenge in some way. He was no longer tolerated in the village. His general reception might have taught him to be more restrained, but he soon seemed to be up to his old tricks again, having spread his net wider; but he had learned to choose his encounters more carefully, finding those, for the most part, who might not be inclined to make such a fuss about his disreputable intentions.

Considering the continuation of his various prurient activities, it was unlikely that the brother and father had relieved him of some critical body parts. Charlotte herself was not without protection, and Enright knew it, and knew enough to stay off the Fallowfield estate after falling afoul of their gamekeeper on a few occasions, and of her brother on at least one. He would soon need to quit the area altogether or find himself murdered one dark night. He would be missed in only the most pleasant of ways.

Because of all of that, her mother was worried for her, as mothers do, and would wrap her up in a cocoon of cotton wool and protect her from all of the ills and misfortunes of the world if she could. Charlotte, however, did not like to be coddled in that way and rebelled against it.

“At least wait and take Oliver with you if you won’t take a groom, my dear. I expect him home sometime today.” He was always expected home sometime today, even when it was well known that he wasn’t. “You know that horse of yours is more than a woman should have, and is too nervous. Besides, the younger Enright is not the only one in this area that has that kind of reputation, for there are too many inclined that way if they can get away with it, and see it blamed on him. You know that no lady should ever ride without a man to help her up, for that saddle is the most difficult thing to manage if the horse is spooked by a rabbit or a deer jumping out. If you are thrown and break an arm or a leg . . .” She left her further fears unspoken. Her mother always thought of the most pessimistic things and wished her daughter was not so stubborn or reckless.

“. . . Then others would soon come looking for me once Velvet returned to the stable. Yes, I know, Mama, but if we did not do the things we wanted to do because we were afraid of our neighbors, a few scratches, or being embarrassed by proving to be unable to manage a stupid horse, then we would achieve nothing that we wanted to do, would we, and might just as well stay at home.” That, would have suited her mother, instead of seeing her daughter forever taking off with one friend or another. At least Anne was more cautious.

Her mother had given up. She had heard the arguments before as to why her daughter would ignore her cautions and did not persist. Enright was, however, the kind of neighbor of whom one should always be cautious. Mrs. Enright herself, Serena, seemed to exercise no control whatsoever over Jasper—the only son residing at home after Charles, the elder son, had taken off for London. His mother was also not inclined to believe any of the tales against him. She had closed her ears rather than listen to reports of his depraved activities—what mother would choose to believe ill of her son—and chose not to believe suggestions of his wenching, brawling, and drinking when he had been in London. Her older son was of a different stripe to the younger and appeared to be doing quite well in his business in London. He rarely left London. While his mother lived, keeping alive all of the painful childhood memories that he would rather forget of her, he kept away from the estate.

Charlotte might have considered taking her twin brother with her if he had been home, for he was good company, but she was more considerate of her brother than that. She would not have him escort her and then leave him kicking his heels in the local inn waiting for her, nor inflict the three lackluster misses Langdon upon him or the vibrant and dangerous young widow Cowperthwaite, for that was whom she had visited today with Angelica. The attentive Mrs. Patricia Cowperthwaite had her own ideas of what might be proper when it came to flirting with Charlotte's brother, and Charlotte did not entirely trust either of them. Mrs. Cowperthwaite was an attractive young woman, barely twenty-two—for all she was a widow—and given suitable temptation would not be above being encouragingly indiscreet. Oliver was a mere mortal man and, like all men, had an eye for beauty, and might not be able to resist the clever entreaties or wiles of a previously married and reckless woman who knew what she wanted.

Mrs. C, had every intention of replacing her late and older, late husband with a younger suitor in her empty life, as well as in her bed as often as possible, whether or not marriage might enter into it, and she had long had her eyes on Oliver. She was quite aware how to trap a man effectively, by pleading helplessness and shedding tears at some strategic moment as she seemed inconsolable at her previous loss. She needed to be comforted and to be kept company, lest she despair of her existence and go into decline, threatening to be overwhelmed by her loneliness as she pulled him along to ruin her—if that were at all possible. Being a typical man, he would be helpless to avoid that temptation, so alluringly and simply offered, and there, for the taking. Men were so predictable when faced by a clever and scheming woman if she did it all gauged to the man. Her own father had fallen once into that trap with one of the women in the village if what she had overheard had been correct. Her brother had not succumbed yet—that she was aware of—but it would only be a matter of time if and when the precocious widow Cowperthwaite ever encountered him alone. She was a good-looking woman who had married young and was even now barely a year older than Oliver.

However, on this occasion, her brother was away at Cambridge, not so far away, and shewas not about to be constrained by her mother’s natural fears. She would do what she wanted and intended to do. She was capable of making her own decisions and saw no reason to make a prisoner of herself to satisfy her mother’s fears, or wait needlessly for Oliver, nor would she take anyone else with her.

She was of age, and had long ago decided that she would do whatever it was she wanted to do—within reason—and to close off the gentle admonishments and recommendations of her mother and others who wanted to protect her from herself and have her stay at home and occupy herself as a young lady might, and embroider, write letters, draw, play the pianoforte, or read. If she wanted to gallop off, she would do so without worrying about some aged retainer being coerced into going with her and breaking his neck at the first hedge, for she was not worried herself about taking a tumble or encountering ruffians along her route. She had a good heavy crop with a murderous little blade—well, not so little, it was an eight-inch steel blade—in the handle of it. She had a good seat and good balance, and her horse was well-enough trained that he was not about to be spooked by either a deer or a rabbit—most of the time—and she could outride most of the bruising young riders who thought to try and keep up with her, for they were both clumsy in their handling of a horse, and their horses could not match the quality of Velvet in any case.

She returned home across Spinney Common at the edge of the village and then was through the small gate, held for her by a small boy who had seen her approach and had given up his search for chestnuts on the ground for that moment (too early anyway), and whom she thanked kindly. By way of reward, for she had nothing else to give him, she told him of an apple tree just along the hedgerow, which undoubtedly had many ripe, or nearly ripe apples just waiting to be picked and others on the ground after the wind, which had accompanied the rain. She saw him close the gate carefully behind her and run off in the direction she had suggested. Once through the gate, she was onto her own estate. It was only a ten-minute ride after that by way of this shortcut, but she would go slowly fording the beck. The water levels would be high after the downpour of the previous night, and she did not want to get wet kicking up a great splash of water, as she and her brother had used to do at such a time.

She recalled that once beyond the thicker wooded area, there was an open space that harbored a notable bramble patch, and as she had an empty lidded willow basket with her from the pies and cakes that she had taken into the village with her; she would stop and pick some of them, if it was not too wet or muddy. An old log there would make it easy to mount Velvet again once she had picked enough.

The picking was particularly good after the dry wind and warmth of that afternoon, and she did not get too badly snagged up on the sharp thorns, and never with any serious damage to her clothing. In little time, she had filled her small basket and was ready to leave. It was not to be so easily achieved however, for just as she was straightening her clothing and was giving thought to getting aboard her horse without spilling any brambles, while holding her crop, she felt a pair of arms encircle her securely from behind, trapping her arms and causing her to drop her basket. She was startled and knew immediately that it was not her brother, Oliver, who would never do such a thing. She would have turned quickly and confronted whomever it might be, but she was held far too tightly to allow that. She heard a soft laugh behind her head.

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