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The Elusive Miss Wakefield

By johnksutherland All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Adventure

Stavely: A Challenging Beginning

'Oh what a tangled web we weave When first we practice to deceive.' —Sir Walter Scott (Marmion, 1808)

Stavely was a larger house than she had expected when she first glimpsed it from a rise in the road—perhaps even as large as the one at Fallowfield. It was a square house, with extensive gardens leading up to it and had what, at one time, may have been a maze beside it. The large, relatively open lawns were dotted here and there with what were either oak or chestnut trees, and the driveway was lined with other trees that were mixed in type, extending for fully a half mile from what she could see, though almost totally leafless at this time of year. Even at that hour in the afternoon, there was a mist forming over low wetlands where the warm air of the day encountered colder water. The house and grounds had been badly neglected when the older Stavely brother had it, or so Cartwright had told her when she had requested he stop at the top of that rise so that she could see everything more clearly and fix it in her mind. It did not look to be neglected from that distance.

He explained that it had been ignored for the last twenty years, but that the new owner, the younger of the Stavely brothers and his son—mostly the son—now had control of it and, with more money coming in, had begun to put men to work to bring the gardens back to where they had been, and to strip the ivy from the façade. Charlotte thought that the ivy added to its appearance, rather than detracted from it, but she would say nothing. She could see several men at work in various tasks and tending to a large bonfire. She also learned that what she had thought might be a maze was indeed one, and that it had been designed by Capability Brown himself just before he died in 1783. It had been laid out long before the recent family troubles. He did not expand on that, but she knew more than he might know. From what she could see, all that was needed was a good trimming of the hedges, still green, of either yew or privet, and removal of some trees that appeared to have rooted in the hedgerows. The lawns, at least, were being tended to in some way and would be easily brought back to condition in the spring.

Despite what Willis had said of the rumors being that the estate was heavily encumbered, something must have recently changed to allow so many men to be tending the grounds and the buildings, with others working on the roof and a small army of men clearing and tidying up the grounds while the weather allowed them. There was a second large, smoky bonfire of ivy fronds, torn from the same building, and there were several boys given the lighter job of clearing up dead wood and limbs from some of the older oak trees throughout the park and tossing them onto the blaze. Charlotte noticed a change in the ride of the carriage. She was no longer thrown from side to side. The driveway had been leveled and covered with fine chipped stone, which would soon work its way down deeper into the mud, as it was traveled.

She learned that Miss Georgiana and Master Henry were the ones mostly in residence, with their parents in London and with their father managing the day-to-day affairs of the company while Henry was off traveling and recovering assets that had been improperly disposed of.

Charlotte had learned that the estate, which had initially gone to the eldest son, Matthew, had now been legally passed on to his younger brother. Both Matthew and his son had disappeared at the same time, so Robert Stavely had inherited it all, once Matthew was declared legally dead—whether he was dead or not. After that, Robert could then begin to sell off parts of it to defray some of the earlier business losses and to allow them to put the business back onto a secure footing that much sooner.

She was expected, of course. She was met by the butler, who showed her into the parlor to meet with her employer, while her trunks were being brought in from the carriage. She found that she was quite nervous and was not sure what to expect or what sort of an appearance her hostess might present after her recent tragic loss. She had only fleetingly seen her at a distance in the village several times, or in the dark, the night she had married Oliver.

Though Georgiana looked haggard and pale when she first came into the room, she did not meet Charlotte in any way that might be seen as deficient. She presented a smiling face, no matter how little she might feel it, and made her welcome as though they might have known each other for ever. Charlotte felt her trepidation at meeting her for the first time slip from her shoulders. She sensed an instant bonding with Miss Georgiana who was as near her own age as might be. She could also sense the great burden the young woman bore, and which she tried to hide away from everyone, though there could be no hiding it from Charlotte who knew of her secrets, and thus everything that might be troubling her—or hoped she did.

She saw a sad-looking young woman with dark areas under her eyes. She had been crying. Charlotte wondered if she herself might also present a similar appearance as she had also cried herself to sleep most nights and had slept little. It was not a good time to be alone and to dwell upon recent tragedies. Charlotte knew how she felt and resisted the urge to rush over to her, fold her in her arms, and commiserate with her as a sister might, with such a common bond, and blurt out everything to her. She would need to restrain herself until she was better able to gauge Miss Georgiana’s mood and what would be needed from her. However, forewarned—and aware of the situation she was walking into—was forearmed. There was no sign of any pregnancy just yet, of course, and would not be for at least another two or even three months, though other signs might present themselves before then. She would have time to learn more of Georgiana and for her to learn more of her before her secret would be obvious, but she would need to be careful and not disclose her own secret too soon.

Georgiana had immediately reached out for her as though crying out for help. In that one brief moment of time, they both sensed a bond of friendship between them that could never be broken or removed. Charlotte knew why, but Georgiana could not yet know what there was about them both that drew them together—love of the same man, but each in her own way, and each with her own memories.

“Miss Wakefield! Caroline.”

Charlotte,” she corrected her. “There was a mistake with my name. Penningtons persisted in addressing me as Caroline, no matter what I said, so I gave up.”

“Charlotte then. We should call each other by our first names, for I do hate formality between friends, and we are destined to become friends, I can sense it.”

Charlotte sensed the same kind of bond with her, though would never have dared explain it. Everything her brother had told her had painted a more-than-interesting portrait of a fine young woman, despite the sudden dispensing of moral restraint when they had first met. She was not about to judge her for that. Her brother had been more than ready to take the blame for that, himself, while not seeming to regret any part of what he had done—what they had done. It was frightening for Charlotte to realize that such emotions could take hold so soon and so powerfully and overturn a lifetime of teaching, concerning a lady’s reputation and how it must be guarded and protected—at least until it was clear that it would only get in the way of life. It had been in Oliver’s and Georgiana’s way almost as soon as they had become acquainted with each other.

“Welcome to Stavely, Miss Wakefield, Charlotte. You are welcome. I am sure we shall get on well together.” Charlotte had the same feeling. “Do you need time to freshen up or change—perhaps to rest after being bounced over these dreadful roads for hours, or to have some tea? It is an interminable trip from London unless one has one’s own horses and carriage.”

“Thank you, but I had several hours to freshen up and rest in the village. I need nothing. What a beautiful house and grounds!” She gave up her bonnet and outer coat to the butler, as Miss Georgiana, distracted for the first time for too long, steered her off to show her the house, and so that they could learn of each other in private.

“You dress better than I expected, but you are exactly as Penningtons described you in their letters. Too many families fell upon hard times after that war, while others prospered.” Charlotte wondered what Penningtons might have said about her and her family ties, and history. She would have to be careful. “We almost did not survive ourselves, after father decided to try and salvage the family name. But you know all of that if you spent any time in the village at one or other of the inns.” She stood back and looked over her guest, though without giving any offense. “Thank goodness you are close to my own age. Penningtons disclosed so little. They did say, however, that you were not only well informed of society and its recent goings on but that you were also well read and quite widely traveled, so we shall be able to while away the evening hours in conversation as you tell me your adventures.

“Your grandfather, General Murgatroyd, was a friend of my own grandfather before mine died.” Charlotte had not known that. She would need to read up on her supposed grandfather in the army lists, or ask Anne to find out for her. She realized that her conversation with Miss Wakefield had been far too brief and realized how little she knew of her supposed origins and hoped that there would not be too many such surprises to tax her ingenuity or trip her up. She stored away that name, Murgatroyd.

“You will be exactly what I need to fight away the sullens, but I would like to make it clear at the outset—you are to be more a companion and a friend than anything else.” Charlotte was relieved to hear that but would quite happily have taken on any role that would have allowed her to be close to Miss Stavely.

She observed, and was in turn observed, no doubt with Georgiana wondering how much she dare confide in her so soon. It was a mutual feeling. They both had weighty secrets from the other, though Georgiana was not to know how her secrets were already well known. Her heart went out to her. The great upset to her existence was evident in her eyes, her face, and even her demeanor. Her shoulders seemed unable to bear the great weight that had been forced upon her. Charlotte would do what she could to lift that burden from her as she might be allowed.

She was surprised to recognize that though she, Charlotte, had lost a brother she had known for her entire lifetime, she was still surrounded by mother, sisters, familiar settings, and circumstances (at least when she had been at home); but that this young woman had lost her true love, whom she may only have known for such a brief time but who had become her entire world, as she had become Oliver’s. Her life, her entire future, had completely changed with that loss; and there would be no easy return to that earlier time, no matter what else might surround her. That earlier life now no longer existed even. Everything in her life from this moment forward would be haunted by the memory of the man she had so intensely loved and that had filled her every waking and sleeping moment for the last two months. She began to come to the reluctant realization that as great as her own loss was, that of Georgiana was so much worse, so much more painful, and so much harder to bear. Love was not only its own greatest reward but also, in losing it, its own greatest torture. Oliver had been right to have wanted his sister to be here for her.

Georgiana took her hand. “Come, I shall help you unpack if you do not mind, and we can discuss fashions and the London scene and take our minds off our own particular difficulties that weigh us down, you with your Mrs. Deming and her disreputable brother—yes, I heard of that—and me of . . . my own. Eventually!

“You are a surprise already. Penningtons led me to believe that you would be relatively withdrawn, perhaps shy, even reserved, and proper—perhaps a little stiff, if you do not mind me being so outspoken. They were wrong about you, you are already so much better than they described you. I do not think that you are withdrawn in that way, not do I sense any reserve in you, for you greeted me almost as warmly and as openly as I greeted you, and yet we are still strangers, though we shall not be that way for long.” She looked at Charlotte with a strange look on her face and a slight blush on her cheeks where there had been none earlier. “I already feel as though I might know you from somewhere.”

Until Charlotte had learned from Miss Wakefield that no member of the Stavely family had met her, it had seemed an impossible and awkward thing to consider; to pass herself off as someone else. But then the family knew as little of her as she would know of them, though Oliver had told her a little of what he knew, so she did have some warning of what might await her outside of his obvious attachment to Miss Georgiana.

“There it is again. I have the strangest feeling that I know you. Are you sure we have not met somewhere?” Georgiana had a far-off look on her face, trying to recall something that was obviously important to her.

“I can assure you, we have not met. I spent so little time in London society before . . .” She alluded to the presumed family upset that had seen Miss Wakefield thrown into society to fend for herself. “I do not think I could forget if we had.” Charlotte wondered if she might sense some part of Oliver in her behavior or in her manner or way of speaking. It would not do for her subterfuge to be discovered too soon, or she might face a sudden loss of trust and loss of everything that Oliver had hoped she might be able to do. It would be her own loss too. She would need to be careful and would need to check her baggage for any remaining hint of Fallowfield in her belongings.

They chatted away quite easily as Georgiana watched her unpack and tidy her clothing away in an empty dresser or to one side of a closet, which seemed to contain other clothing—belonging to a gentleman. “I must see to getting those relocated into another room. They are my brother’s, and this was his room, but I would rather have you closer to me. He is away on business and rarely gets through. He sets the dogs off whenever he does come through, so we will have some warning. I shall tell the housekeeper to put him in that room next to the library. He spends most of his time there anyway, with his books, or in the study. We shall have some tea in a few minutes, but until then, if you do not mind, and if my constant chattering has not tired you out—I see so few people with whom I have anything in common—I need some fresh air, and you probably need to stretch your legs. We need to get out of here, for I have felt cooped up and confined here for too long. It was about to send me mad, but for you arriving as you did. If it is not too cold, we should go into the garden, while the sun still has some warmth, and admire the late roses. We have you unpacked and the first and more difficult introductions out of the way. Though perhaps you would like to be left alone for a while, to rest.”

“No. I would like to stretch my legs as you say and see some of the garden if you would not mind showing me. I saw it from the rise by the house, and I was curious about it then.” Her initial welcome had been reassuring, but she would need to keep her wits about her. Those who intended to deceive needed the memory of an elephant. She had been ill prepared to take on such a deception.

They walked out of the house and strolled across to the gardens to see the beds of chrysanthemums and the still-blooming roses. “I must admit you dress far better than I expected, Miss Wakefield, Charlotte, but that is to the good, for one must be forever on one’s toes and not appear shabby, or behind society, and you don’t. You shall lead by example, for I fear I might have neglected myself of late and have become careless in my appearance. My brother can usually shake me out of it, but he has been away for almost a month now. If he did not write so often, I should worry for him far more than I do.” She paused and looked at her companion. “I do like that dress by the way, and if I do not mistake, it is one of those that I saw in Miss Horace’s shop in Mayfair just this spring.”

“Oh! I did not realize!” Charlotte wondered what else Miss Stavely might notice, for that indeed was where she had purchased some of her dresses. She began to regret not purchasing some plainer ones in the village, except that the selection in the shop there was limited, from what she had seen the one time she was in there, and not at all to her taste. She had better go over her personal things once more, when she was able to get back to her room to make sure that her minor pieces of jewelry, which she had held back from being returned with Willis, were not of similar quality, though she was sure that they all might be.

She recalled what Miss Wakefield had told her and responded quite quickly, she thought, to the flattering comment on the quality of her dress. “My previous employer was kind and gave me her own daughter’s discards, even after only one or two wearings if she were tired of them, for we were the same size. I found I had to make few alterations. I did not realize they were of such an obvious quality. However, some of my own are not so shabby, for my own situation at home was not so deprived either, until recently, but circumstances can change suddenly for any family, as they did in mine.” At least that was true. Charlotte regretted that thoughtless comment even as she uttered it. The fewer such reminders of grief and such personal loss, the better.

“Yes, they can, and they do.” Her companion fell silent and sighed heavily, before she picked up the conversational thread again. “I didn’t know that Mrs. Deming was so generous. That doesn’t sound like the Mrs. Deming that I heard of, except her eldest daughter—whose name escapes me—has that reputation of generosity.”

“Alicia!” Charlotte had tried to remember those details that would undoubtedly be important.

“Is it? I forget!” Fortunately, the real Miss Wakefield had felt relieved to meet a kindred spirit at the inn and had chattered on without realizing just how attentive her listener was or that her questions might have had a deeper purpose than mere interest and curiosity. With gentle encouragement from her gentle inquisitor, Miss Wakefield had disclosed more-than-enough details of her previous life, as she had rambled along with different tales of Mrs. Deming and that family. That General Murgatroyd had been her grandfather, however, was not one of them.

Georgiana kept the conversation going. “I may have met the daughter once, but I was there only one season, in London, and I did not like it. I met her mother briefly, in Almacks. I remember that the daughter did dress well, and I can see that she and her mother were clearly generous to you, as I am sure you deserved. I was not there long that evening, or I may have met you also. She must miss you sorely. I expect that disreputable brother of hers was enough of a disincentive to stay.”

Charlotte readily agreed, but not too eagerly, and wondered how she might have learned of Mrs. Deming’s brother. Still, it was a topic never likely to be raised again, and she could easily excuse herself from discussing it, pleading a case of unwelcome memories, if it seemed likely to get out of hand.

Georgiana realized that she had monopolized her companion’s time more than she should have done upon first meeting. “But I have forgotten my manners, Charlotte. Despite what you say, I am sure you had a tiring day, kicking your heels waiting to be picked up, and here I am, so full of myself that I dragged you out here to speak with me, and with no thought of you. You must be famished and in need of a luncheon and some tea at least, as dinner is still some time off, though we can order it as we see fit, as there is only you and I dining this evening. I usually dine alone these days, with my brother off in the north somewhere and my parents still in London. I also should introduce you to Mrs. Forster, our housekeeper. She keeps us all in line and is strict with us when we are assembled. She insists on formality and does not allow us to become careless over what is expected of us, so we do dine with some formality, but not too much.”

Charlotte was duly introduced to the housekeeper and other of the servants as she was shown about the house and fell easily into being a companion and confidante, though hardly that latter, just yet. She also learned more of the family history and began to realize that she may have severely misled the real Miss Wakefield about the character of the family. She had heard tales about two separate branches of it and had mistakenly, in her ignorance, put both of them under the same roof.

When she retired that night, she realized how exhausted she really was. She knew the reason. Her brain had worked at a feverish pitch all day, striving not to betray anything about herself that might raise questions. She hoped that the following days would be less challenging, but began to doubt it. Except for her promise to Oliver, she would never have dared consider doing what she had done. She began a letter to Anne. She was careful not to lose track of her role, as she addressed it to Anne Wakefield, care of the Wheat Sheaf Inn, in a respectable area of London.

She slept easier that night than she had slept for a long time, but her mind had not let her sleep for several hours, as she went over all that had happened to her that day.

Her letter must have gone off because, just a few days later, she received a response from her sister; and the correspondence between them did not let up, with at least one letter each week.

'Dear Charlotte,

Obviously, there will be no difficulty with letters. We have made a good start. I shall not tell Mama anything of what you are doing, though she is always curious about where you are and demands to see every letter that comes into the house. I reassured her that you are well, while telling her as little as I can or as much as I dare.

So you have become a lady’s maid and companion. Quite unexpected! “O” would have approved of your ingenuity in dealing with Miss W, though Mama certainly would not.

I am glad to hear that you and Georgiana seem well suited together and that she is like us. I told you that you would get on well, but you should let her know more about you, and the sooner, the better.'

She meant, by disclosing who she really was. Charlotte would not dare do that so soon and risk everything. Anne had been incautious to have even said as much as she had. She should caution her again in her next letter.

'Mama is still feeling it badly, and we all miss him dreadfully. The house seems empty without him, even more than when he was at university, for we knew that he was not so far away and that he would be home quite often. But you have been remarkably sparing in your description of G. She is already an extension of our own family, and I am burning to know as much of her as you can possibly relate, and especially how she goes on with that . . . other difficulty.

Of the dastardly E, there is no sign anywhere, nor would we expect it. There is a rumor that he is still in London with his elder brother and has been recuperating there now for some weeks after his injuries. Preston told me some of it, for he, rather than O, was the last one to see E before he managed to crawl home. It is a good thing I did not find him myself after that, for I did have that small pistol with me, and I would not have held back from using it had I known then what I know now—although words are one thing and actions another. Like you, however, I feel he had a hand in O’s circumstance.

Please write often, every day if you can, there seems to be so few of us left now with O gone. It is almost as though there had been ten of him. Why is it that families remain too far apart and only come together when such tragedy strikes. We assume we have all of the time in the world to say those things one wishes to say or to be known, and then we find out that we don’t.

Anne.'

Shortly after she had made a start in response to Anne, Charlotte went looking for Georgiana, finding her seated in the garden, reading letters of her own. Charlotte recognized them as those she had sent off from Fallowfield and in her own handwriting. She felt a small pang of concern. Some of her peculiarities of stating or describing things, indeed her background and upbringing, were unavoidably the same as those of her brother; but she was not conscious of them, and she could not help them. It would not do for her to be recognized out of hand too soon. She also began to realize that she had not learned from Oliver what he may have disclosed to this young woman about her. If he had described her at all, as he might have, in any absentminded mood as they had talked together, then Georgiana may know more of her than she might be aware. Certainly, she and her brother had been alike in so many ways—in the way they spoke and expressed themselves, their gestures, and what they found funny. They had even found humor in the same things. She would need to watch what she said. Could a bond have formed so quickly between Georgiana and herself because of that? It had, but it was also to be hoped that she would not be recognized so soon. She might need to guard her responses and her tongue.

Each day, she sat down, either during the afternoon if there had been nothing else planned or just before she retired, brought her diary up to date, and continued her letters to her sister.

'Dearest Anne,

This is the first letter I have been able to write that I shall be able to see safely on its way and without fear of being read by others, so I shall be more expansive without fear of detection, but you must still be careful in your response. It might also be wiser if Mama did not read any of them.

Iam now beginning to relax and perhaps even to feel settled in. Georgiana is every bit as good and as kind as I suspected she must be for Oliver to have fallen in love with her.'

She was being recklessly indiscreet herself, but then Anne could be careful where she left her sister’s letters, without the same fear of them being discovered.

'Her family is supportive of her, even the brother, whom I have heard so much about, but have not yet met. I fear I may have painted a dreadful picture of him for Miss W, as I had to make sure to frighten her off so that I might take her place. I can only hope that I was wrong in what I heard of him and really did mistake him for another in the family. One never hears anything to one’s credit in gossip, which is where I got all of my information about the family—almost like listening at keyholes, though it was not that. I sat like a church mouse in my own parlor and heard all that was said from the taproom next door. Considering how it all worked out for me, I think it all went off well. The little I heard of the family from Oliver was too little.

When the name “Stavely” comes up, it is almost invariably the uncle that is spoken of, though it took me some time to realize this. Georgiana’s own father and her brother, who had not been involved in any way with the business, stepped in and have been endeavoring to recover the family name and fortune after that set back. It has not been easy, but they seem to be, at last, having some better luck than they had faced at the beginning. I am still listening and learning about all of this.

I can reassure you that I am not unhappy here, at least no more so than I would have been at Fallowfield, and possibly more happy when I think about it, for I am distracted by my charming companion, whom I distract in turn. We might almost be sisters, the way I am made to feel welcome.

I have not yet dared tell her who I am of course. I do not wish to jeopardize my position here quite so soon, but I will have to tell her eventually.

We get out quite often, and I shall be able to take this letter to London. I fear that she might never have ventured out but for encouragement from me, but once encouraged, she threw herself into any and every excuse to be out and about—from visits to ruined Abbeys, to picnics on the riverbank or at the coast, which we do often now while the weather is with us, despite iron-hard frosts overnight. She would have done none of this by herself.

Your loving sister,

Charlotte.'

Within a week, she had a reply from Anne.

'Dearest Charlotte,

Thank you for your informative letter. I can feel more relaxed now that I know you are safely settling in and are happy. I shall of course be discreet in what I say, just in case you misplace any of my letters . . .'

Georgiana interrupted her companion’s reading. “You seem to have some steady admirer to receive so many letters, Charlotte—at least one each week. A male admirer perhaps, except that I judged the direction to have been a woman’s hand? Though I should not pry into your personal life.”

“They are from my sister, Anne. She is in London. There is no man in my life other than my late father or . . .” She had come too close to saying her late brother but had caught herself in time. Georgiana had not noticed her sudden break from finishing her sentence and finished setting a stitch before she spoke again.

“Tell me, Charlotte. Have you ever lost someone close to you?” Her voice broke, and she almost gave in to tears, at thought of what was obviously and constantly occupying her mind. Charlotte reached over and took her hand.

“Yes, I have.”

“Someone close?”

“Yes, very close.” The family would never recover from Oliver’s death. Those earlier, happy times could never be recaptured. Time may heal all wounds, as they said; but at this moment, it seemed that all time did was to inflict more wounds of its own.

“Then we are kindred spirits, betrayed by our own history and emotions. I sensed that you understood some of my present mood, and I hope that you can try to forgive me for it. I will likely be poor company for some time. I just lost someone dear to me. I had known him only a short time when he was . . . when he was . . .”—she could not say it—” . . . but even that little time was a lifetime in many ways. He became as dear to me as any member of my own family ever could be, and yet that might seem a strange thing, even a callous thing to say, considering how close I am to both my parents and my brother. I was not sure how I would survive his loss, until you came to me.” The tears were close to the surface. They were like two lost souls finding each other in that moment of mutual loss. Georgiana knew none of Charlotte’s difficulties, though their pains were just as deep and hurtful—the one losing her love and her lover, and the other, her twin brother.

“I cannot understand how it is, but you seem to be such a great comfort to me, and so in tune with my own feelings. I think you came just in time, for I was ready to tear my hair out over it. I must be dreaming still, for I seem not to know what is real and what is not at times, and I see in you . . .” She held back from saying more. In her vulnerability, she was able to see Oliver all about her, not realizing that Charlotte embodied many of those same memories for a good reason. Many of Charlotte’s actions, expressions even, and ways of stating things were like those of her brother. Undoubtedly, Georgiana’s senses had been sharpened by her love of Oliver, as she had noted every detail of his appearance, his smile, his words, his expressions, and had burned them into her consciousness, never realizing that he would so soon be removed from her. They were still fresh, and would be for some considerable time.

“Such burdens are better for being shared and spoken about. I am a good listener, Georgiana, but only when you are ready and feel comfortable with telling me anything.”

“I think I feel that way with you already, even though you have been here barely a month, and I am not sure I understand why.” Charlotte did understand, but could say nothing. “The one you lost, who was close to you . . . were you . . . it is a personal question, I know, so I will understand if you do not wish me to pry. Were you in love with him?” That was an easy question for Charlotte to deal with.

“Yes, I was—though a special kind of love.” She referred to the closeness she had felt for her brother, of course. She knew that they were speaking of the same man and of a different kind of love, but she could not tell Georgiana that.

“Then you do know what it means to lose someone close to you. Did you ever wonder how you might continue living after such a loss?” Her words disturbed Charlotte.

“Never quite to that degree. Life must always go on.”

“That’s what Henry tells me. One almost might think he knows . . . Yet I don’t think he does.” She might almost have been reminiscing to herself.

“Knows what?” Charlotte’s question took Georgiana by surprise, startling her into consciousness of what she had almost said.

“Every secret that a woman might strive to hide from him. But I am not being entirely honest with you, and I am almost afraid to confess all of my troubles, even to you who have been such a wonderful support since you arrived.”

“I am a good listener.” Charlotte tried to encourage her.

“Yes, I know that you are, and have become a dear companion and even a friend already, but . . . soon I will need to confide in someone before I . . . Sufficient unto the day . . .” Her words tailed off. Charlotte took her hand.

“Perhaps it might help you if I tell you what I think I already know.” Georgiana looked at her and waited, wondering what that might be. “I have older, married sisters. They now have children of their own, and I was privy to their changing conditions as their”—she hesitated only for a while to use the word—“as their pregnancies advanced. I believe . . .”

Georgiana blushed notably. “Am I . . . ? Have I been that obvious? I thought I was hiding my condition quite well, but morning sickness is difficult to conceal, isn’t it? Oh dear, what you must think of me. You must be concerned about what you have walked into. Yes, there is no denying it. I am pregnant.” Her voice was gentle, and yet she sounded almost defiant. She was worried how her companion might now react to her. “It is also difficult to continue to hide it, isn’t it, when you are with me when I am sick, or with helping bathe me as you do.” She looked up at Charlotte. “It is not yet obvious, but it will soon be too big to deny. I have grown to depend upon you more than I dare say over the last few weeks, and as much more than a companion. However, I will try to understand if you feel you must rush off from such an undeniable admission of moral failure. To become known that you may have associated with one such as I, can be damaging.” She waited to see how Charlotte might deal with that admission.

Charlotte smiled at her and comforted her to deny that possibility. “What a poor friend I would be if I were to do that. I would not rush off for any such reason. I guessed almost as soon as I arrived (if I had not already known). Men are to blame for most of the awkward things that happen to us, as well as being so ready to take credit for the good, sometimes, though we must also shoulder some of the blame ourselves. Pregnancy is a burden that only we women must learn to bear, while they evade any responsibility so well. It is a common lot of many women.”

Georgiana seemed to relax and to be relieved by Charlotte’s ready understanding. “He . . . my . . . the man I loved did not evade responsibility. We were married, and that is the first time I have told anyone of that. No one else in my family knows, and I do not want them to know of any of it until I tell them.” Charlotte waited for her to explain more of it in her own way now that she had started. “I saw him for just a moment, but that one moment was enough for us both. We took one look at each other and fell in love at that moment of first meeting. What happened between us after that seemed inevitable. I quite shocked myself. Me, having been brought up to protect myself and my reputation in every way, and then to find that all I had been taught could be so easily ignored. I was in love for the first time in my life, and I felt loved in turn. I do not regret it.”

“Where is he now?” It was a question that Charlotte had to ask—it would have been expected—though knowing the answer all too well.

“Dead!” Georgiana looked down toward her feet and closed her eyes, remembering too much that was painful and trying to deaden that memory while holding on to others. “Could fate ever deal so ill with something so right? Yet it did. He had an accident and died shortly afterward, but not before we were married, late one evening at his home, and all unknown to his family. He was a good man. He was the only man for me. He did try to protect me that way.”

Charlotte patted her hand comfortingly. “Then there is nothing anyone needs to say. You do not need to admit that you were pregnant before you married. Would it not be wise to let your family know? They will certainly find out eventually.”

“Yes. And I will tell them, eventually. But not yet. I still have to come to grips with it all myself first. Thank you for not being so shocked and for not wanting to leave me, though others might believe that the situation is infectious, and that such carelessness in one, causes a spasm of similar recklessness in others.” She struggled to find words that would not be too shocking to explain her situation.

“He was shot accidentally, and did not recover.” She hesitatingly produced his letters from her reticule, many of which Charlotte had written at her brother’s dictation, and which both of them could recite almost word for word, so deeply had they affected them both. “He was so alive, and he affected me the same way. We lived in our own little world for such a brief time. I know how hard it hit me, and I am sure his sisters—he had five of them—must have felt when he died so tragically, but I could not pluck up the courage to go and see them, to tell them about me. I am sure I would have been far too great a shock for them to bear, after losing him as they did. I was never introduced to his family. I am not even sure that they knew of me. Except I did get a letter from one of his sisters, who had also written other of his letters to me when he had not been able to—so she, at least, knows of me—telling me of his . . .” She went quiet, unable to speak further for some moments. She had also gone quite pale, but she continued with her thoughts.

“It must have hit her so hard too, and made it almost impossible for her to write that letter—her tears were evident everywhere upon it. I had not the heart to respond and stir up more grief, and possibly other feelings. It is just as well. I was too distraught myself, and still am at times. They could know nothing of me. I did not feel that I had any right to respond.” Charlotte was content enough to listen. She was so filled with emotion herself that the tears could not be stopped. Georgiana’s eyes were closed so she did not notice.

“I could not attend the funeral. Nor could I write and tell them of me, or commiserate with them in their loss. I cannot think that they might know we married except that one sister, the one who wrote to me, must have known. It all ended so cruelly. I am sure they would look upon me with disgust and disdain and see me as nothing more than an immoral harpy who ensnared their brother and son into forgetting himself as I destroyed him. I feared I would not be believed.” Charlotte endeavored to counter that mistaken belief.

“They would not be so cruel. He did marry you. That, alone, would have spoken to how highly he valued you in his life and wished to protect you. I am sure you would have been made as welcome as any member of the family.”

“Yes, we did marry. But as for welcoming me, do you think so? That is kind of you to say. But a woman they did not know, showing up as Oliver’s wife—oh dear, I told you his name—so soon after he died, and all too quickly turning out to be pregnant? No. They would want nothing to do with me and would never be able to trust me. They would be wise to ignore me.” She looked closely at Charlotte. “But you do not seem to be as shocked as I thought you would be when you discovered my secret.”

“No. I guessed soon after I arrived. From what you tell me of your brother, you should expect that he may know of it too, or will soon guess it.”

“Yes. I should expect that, shouldn’t I? He always knows about such things long before he should. He will not learn of this as early as I might have feared, however. He will be away until well after Christmas—somewhere in Europe on business, so we shall spend Christmas alone, you and I, unless my parents come up to us, or we go down to them. We may have known each other only a short time, but I have come to regard you as a close friend and—after these admissions to you—a confidant. But will your own family not miss you?”

Charlotte tried to reassure her on many things. “They can do without me for one Christmas. I would rather be here. My own circumstance is not so different from yours, emotionally, though the particulars are. I cannot speak of them yet. It would be an unwise woman who would feel so morally secure and superior to dare to pass judgment on you. In truth, we are all just a whisker away from sharing that same fate, and not always because of love but because of circumstance placing us in an impossible situation.”

“Mrs. Deming’s brother! Yes, I suppose you are right. How much better that it happens out of love, rather than the other. It makes all of the difference as to how we bear it. I was right about you, Charlotte. You are a mature, superior, and sympathetic lady, as I wrote and told Henry, so that he need not feel as though he must rush back to console me.”

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