The afternoon of the assembly Tom Parker had given up all hopes of his brother Sidney attending. There had been no word from him but his quick note upon arrival to Hampstead that spoke only of his settling in at the inn closest to his friends' lodgings. As she was making her preparations for the evening, Charlotte found that her anticipation of the event was lacking. There was no thrill of excitement as there had been just two short weeks ago. She dressed her hair, attached her earrings to her earlobes, and wrapped herself in her Spanish shawl with barely a glance at her reflection. It was only Julia's artless enthusiasm that managed to lift her spirits.
They were able to place themselves in the same corner they had claimed at the previous ball. Julia settled into her chair, her eyes shining.
"You must think me foolish to take such simple pleasures," said she. "I know that I will be relegated to dance with partners that hold no attraction, but it is the music that delights me, and the colour and spectacle of it all."
"Not at all. In truth your example is very good for me. Instead of becoming cross at the thought of Sir Edward claiming my hand for a set and having to bear his conversation for a full half-hour I shall relish all the other entertainments the evening should provide."
With such great philosophy for the enjoyment of the evening the two girls were able to bear the company of the Beaufort sisters with equanimity when they approached to pay their respects. They were full of empty compliments, which were designed only to bring attention to the superiority of their own dress. Soon they were gone; it was their purpose to spread their civility evenly throughout the company so not one of their friends would be left unaware of their elegance and fashion. This suited both Charlotte and Julia who would happily have spent the entire evening in private conversation.
The first set, however, brought Tom Parker with two hopeful young gentlemen who requested and were bestowed the honour of a dance. Later they were each claimed by both Arthur Parker and Sir Edward in turn. The evening was well underway before Charlotte found the opportunity to sit once more and enjoy watching the figures of the dance from her alcove. She was quite pleased with herself that she had barely thought of Sidney Parker. It had been impossible not to compare his light step and grace of movement with the performance of any of her partners, or his cheery banter to their polite conversation, but other than that he had not entered her head. That she had noticed no one's form or feature came close to being as attractive as his own was inescapable. But she was not longing for him to look upon her with his laughing eyes or languishing dejectedly in sorrow. She was not thinking of what ifs and might have beens; she would not let regret of him displace her tranquillity.
There was a disruption at the door as late arrivals made their entry. Charlotte allowed her attention to be diverted and looked up to see three gentlemen standing just beyond the doors and scanning the room. Mr Yardley held himself with his usual insouciance, Captain Mittering appeared eager. Sidney Parker stood back, behind the two, his face drawn and tight. Charlotte barely registered the presence of the other two men. She felt a sharp pain flush through her body and settle to a deep ache. She fought to control it - to compose herself. Her hands shook and she held them together tightly until her knuckles showed white. He had not yet seen her or looked her way. She wanted only for him to turn his head and smile. For that unaccustomed severity to fall from his countenance.
It was Captain Mittering who saw her first and he broke into the friendliest of smiles before turning and apprising his friends. Charlotte gave a smile and turned away. She knew she had been caught staring. Now they were all three coming her way and she strove to settle her features into their customary open cheerfulness though she was feeling anything but cheerful. If she had thought forgetting Sidney Parker difficult while he was gone, she knew now that keeping her heart shielded from him while he was present would be a daunting task.
Charlotte hardly knew what she said as she greeted the gentleman but all the common pleasantries were exchanged. Captain Mittering was more than delighted to become reacquainted. Mr Yardley said what was polite and cast his eyes back to the dance floor. Sidney Parker was unusually silent, speaking only in greeting and then standing, fidgeting, beside his friend. She had never before seen him ill at ease and knew not what to ascribe it to. As the set ended the captain applied to her and she accepted, relieved to be taken away from Sidney Parker and the tumult of feelings he had stirred in her. At the same time Julia was claimed by Mr Yardley who hoped she would not be too tired to return directly to the dance floor from which she had come. Charlotte noticed her smile and blush in assent.
As she danced, Charlotte was glad that Captain Mittering kept up a steady flow of conversation. She needed all the distraction he could afford to prevent her eyes from wandering back to where Sidney Parker was leaning up against the wall. The next time she looked he was no longer there and she found him further along, talking with his brother who was heartily slapping his back.
"I had just been asking if you still walk upon the beach with such regularity as you used to when I was last here," said Captain Mittering, "but you appear to be very deep in thought."
"I do apologise," said Charlotte. "I have no other excuse than that my mind wandered and that I blush to admit for it does not reflect well upon me."
"It reflects well upon neither of us," said Captain Mittering with a laugh, "but I will take it in good stead and attempt to make my conversation more appealing. You are no doubt accustomed to much better conversationalists than I, in fact I do recall a certain gentleman - Sir Edward, if I remember correctly."
Charlotte tried to hold back a gurgle of laughter. "He practices a very fine art of discourse which I am afraid is completely lost upon me."
"I could not understand one word in ten that he ever spoke," said Captain Mittering. "I must confide in you that I was constantly in a quake that he should want a response for I was utterly lost by the first sentence."
"A military man like you, overcome by conversation?"
"'Tis a sad fact. I only hope that whilst on a campaign the enemy never catches wind of it."
"I am pleased you were able to leave your military duties and come to Sanditon once again," said Charlotte.
"I too. My friend Sidney has taken a queer start which I am at a loss to understand - I hope that I can bring him out of it."
Charlotte wanted to hear more but could not bring herself to ask, and he immediately changed the course of the conversation back to his original question about walking on the beach. They spoke lightly until the end of the dance, but Charlotte's mind kept returning to Captain Mittering's oblique statement and wondering why the carefree Sidney Parker appeared so subdued, to the point that he was causing his friend such concern.
Captain Mittering returned Charlotte to her chair just as Mr Yardley and Julia came from the floor. All four sat together, conversing in a relaxed manner with all the ease of old friendship. Though the captain had not met Julia before, he had such an amiable nature that she was completely free of her shyness about him.
Sidney came back from talking with his brother and looked as though he was about to approach Charlotte when the Beaufort sisters descended from the opposite direction. They were not content to wait for the gentlemen to favour them with their company and not at all averse to forwarding their charms.
"Mr Parker!" cried Miss Letitia. "It has been such an age since you were gone! Sanditon has been dreadful dull without you."
"But there was enticement enough here to draw you and your friends back, was there not?" said Miss Beaufort coquettishly.
"Sister, it is very bad of you to say so," giggled Letitia. "Whatever will the gentlemen think?"
"The fine weather and the beaches, indeed," said Sidney with a light smile.
"You have not yet danced tonight, Mr Parker," said Miss Beaufort. "Both your friends have been upon the floor."
This comment did not elicit the invitation that she wished for. Her efforts received merely a nod.
"But you arrived so very late," said Miss Letitia, lacing her voice with sympathy. "I fear you travelled all day and must be terribly tired."
"I am not such a weak soul as you would make me out," said Sidney.
"Aye," put in Captain Mittering, coming to his friend's rescue. "Parker would be behind the reins all day if we let him. There is nothing he enjoys more than driving, and it has never fagged him yet."
"You dance very well, Captain Mittering," crooned Miss Letitia, seizing her chance.
"Thank you, ma'am," he said. "If you have the inclination I would be honoured to lead you out."
"Oh! Sir, you are too kind. I had thought to sit out for the rest of the evening, but as you so wish it, I would be delighted to oblige you."
"I will come for you when the next set is starting," he said gallantly.
Miss Beaufort looked eagerly at the other two gentlemen, and Mr Yardley sighed before standing and offering an invitation, after which the sisters were left with nothing to do but return to their seats. They had not achieved their primary objective, but still, dances with the other men were satisfactory consolation.
When the Miss Beauforts were completely out of earshot, Captain Mittering turned to Sidney and whispered. "You are very deeply in my debt now." He was rewarded with a reluctant smile.
Charlotte did not miss this exchange. In fact, she had watched the whole scene that had unfolded with unrestrained wonder. Sidney Parker had not flirted or flattered to oblige the sisters though they had been most energetic in their attempts. She began to worry that he was ill. He stood in conversation with his friends until they excused themselves to reluctantly join their waiting partners, then he took a seat beside Charlotte. Julia's attention was taken up by Mrs Parker who had just returned from the refreshment table.
"I would like to apologise to you, Miss Heywood," Sidney said in a low voice.
"Whatever for?" she asked. His closeness was ruffling her composure. She kept herself still and vowed that she would let nothing he said affect her.
"When I left for Hampstead over a week ago, I ought to have taken leave of you myself, and not sent a message with my brother. It was most uncivil." His eyes did not make contact with hers, but rested on a point just beyond her shoulder.
"You were under no obligation," said Charlotte, attempting to keep her voice level. "Your niece and nephews did miss seeing you, though."
"And you?" he asked.
Colour rose in her cheeks. "I ought not have said that about the children. I apologise . . . I did not mean to judge your actions or to invite . . ."
"You were very right. I deserved that. My question was most unfair. You have always been very able at noting my failings, and I appreciate it more than you can think."
"I . . ." She could not go on.
"I do not mean to tease you." This time he did try to catch her eyes, but she turned her head away. "Come, let us be friends again. Will you dance with me, or am I still not allowed to ask?"
"We have never stopped being friends," she said.
"I am happy to hear that, but you have not answered my question."
Charlotte took a deep breath and steeled her heart. "You are allowed to ask, and I will dance with you," she said lightly, as if it was no great matter to her. But it was - and she wanted to dance with him almost as much as she feared it.
"Thank you," he said, and then was silent, seemingly lost in thought.
Charlotte felt the discomfiture between them grow as they sat without speaking. She had no idea why he was so changed and wondered if she had somehow offended him. But that would only explain a difference of behaviour towards her, and his whole demeanour had not been the same since entering the room, and if his friend was to be believed, before that. She had to do something to ease the situation, and recollected that she had not yet even asked him about his trip. With all the attention she had placed on schooling her feelings and trying to interpret his diffidence, she had forgotten to act as her usual self also. It was just possible that he believed he had displeased her, regardless of her protestations.
"You were visiting your friend, Mr Keats, in Hampstead, I believe," she ventured. "Did you find him well?"
"Yes I did. He is very deeply involved in writing an epic poem and when he was down from his clouds he shared the verses which best pleased him," he said. "I have writ some down and will share them with you and Miss Lambe tomorrow, if I may."
"I would like that."
"I spent much time walking on the heath with his consumptive brother, Tom."
"Your own brother was worried about the unhealthy air you would be breathing."
Sidney smiled the first real smile of the night. "Yes, his Sanditon air is superior to all," he said with much fondness. "But the fresh air of Hampstead Heath was recommended by Tom Keats' doctor as being highly beneficial - do not tell my brother. He would be very let down."
"I promise not to," said Charlotte.
"There was much time to think on the lonely moors," said Sidney in a soft, tired voice, as if to himself. He sat quietly for some time again until he shook himself and turned to her. "You must think my poet friend has made me quite melancholy. It was not his doing." His gaze had become intent and he looked as if to say more, but did not.
Charlotte had indeed been thinking just that - that either the poet or his brother, whose disease would surely claim his life, had wrought this change in Sidney Parker. She left a wave of tenderness surge deep within and rock that glass bauble encased in her chest. She wished that she could do aught to comfort him, but knew not what to say without exposing herself.
He turned to her again and smiled. "We are at a ball and should be enjoying ourselves accordingly. Would you like some refreshment before our dance begins?"
"I think there is hardly time for this set will be drawing to a close soon."
"I would not want to miss my opportunity to dance with you."
"I know very well you would avail yourself of the next one."
"But, for all I know you may be promised for the rest of the evening."
"I am not," she said.
"Then all the other gentlemen here are fools," said Sidney with almost his old twinkle.
Though she had complained of his teasing too often in the past and wished for him to be more serious on many an occasion, Charlotte warmed inside at his welcome words and smiled softly without even thinking about it.
When the current dance ended, Charlotte and Sidney took to the floor. Captain Mittering returned from his mission of mercy and was in time to claim Julia and join the set before the music started up.
Charlotte and Sidney completed the first figure in silence and then he opened the conversation with, "We have spoken of my trip, but how did you entertain yourself while I was away? Do you have any exciting occurrences to relate?"
"The historical society meetings have begun."
"Such excitement! I ought never to have left."
"Your brother Arthur is most enthused."
"I am very happy for him. He is a good lad; he only lacked an interest - something to direct his thoughts from his health. My sisters are not always wise in that respect."
"He now walks daily to Sanditon House to peruse the library there."
"That is impressive! And what has your part been in this historical endeavour?" asked Sidney.
"Besides studying some fusty books on the flora and fauna of the coastal area, I toured the attics of your old home with your sister Diana."
"What were you searching for? Ghosts? I'm afraid they do not haunt the attics there but keep more to the main rooms. They are old, you see, and very fond of their comfort."
Charlotte laughed. The only ghosts she had seen were very young, but she did not tell him this. "We were looking for maps."
"Of course! The treasure maps. Shall we have Arthur searching for sunken ships next?"
"I believe his plan is to actually sink a ship himself."
"I have indeed missed much. I am tempted to never leave Sanditon again! You must tell me all about my young brother's piratical ambitions."
It pleased Charlotte to see Sidney Parker behaving so much nearer to his usual gaiety. She explained to him the plans Arthur had made for the excursion to the fort, and then regaled him with the outing to Sir Edward's cottage ornée. The dance ended much too soon, but on reflection she decided that it was a good thing. The presence of Sidney Parker had too strong of an effect upon her. She needed to become used to having him in Sanditon again so that she could feel more comfortable around him. And she needed to strengthen the barricades about her heart. Glass was just too fragile a protection.
The rest of the evening Sidney mingled with his neighbours and obliged his brother by dancing with one or two young ladies that he introduced him to. Charlotte danced with Mr Yardley and then agreed to a second dance with Arthur. There was no more occasion for private conversation with Sidney Parker, but Charlotte occasionally allowed herself to watch him as he interacted with others. He was exerting himself to be charming and convivial, but she could see that it was forced and when left to himself his face would become pensive again. That his eyes also sought her out from wherever he was in the room, she was unaware. They both kept such a close rein on themselves that neither chanced to catch the other looking.
Charlotte entered the breakfast room to find Mr and Mrs Parker already there. Tom Parker could still speak of nothing but his brother's return and how pleased he was by it. The change in Sidney Parker had not gone unnoticed and he had no trouble in ascribing in the indifferent air in the regions Sidney had recently visited.
"There is nothing more lasting and wholesome for a healthy constitution than the sea air," he said as he enjoyed a hearty breakfast of braised kippers. "I have never noticed such a marked change as the one Sidney has undergone, but a few days walking upon the beach in this invigorating clime will have him completely restored."
"I have as much dependence on the benefits of Sanditon as you, my dear," said his wife, "but are you certain there is no other reason for his subdued spirits? And did you not tell us he was not himself when he departed for Hampstead?"
"Well, I had put that down to a reluctance to bid farewell to one of the young ladies hereabouts, but I did not notice him paying any special attentions at the ball last evening. I teased him of the very thing, in fact, and he said he missed no one more than the inhabitants of Trafalgar House, which I can well imagine because he is so attached to you and the children, my dear."
Mrs Parker shot Charlotte a look but said nothing more than, "The children missed him also and will quite plague him today when he comes, I should imagine."
After breakfasting Charlotte and Mrs Parker sat in the small salon with their stitchery until such time as it was proper to go about their rounds of the town. Diana Parker interrupted their tranquillity with a petition for help with a musical evening she was planning to hold in one of the reception rooms at the library. Mrs Parker, knowing that Charlotte had promised herself to Miss Lambe for the morning, offered her services and soon the three women were walking the cobbles of the Terrace.
"Susan is so very ill this morning," said Miss Diana. "I cannot be away from her too long. We are trying a new regime of pork jelly and mint tea three times a day, but she has unaccountably broken out in a violent rash. If you and I, Mary, can discover two violinists I believe Dr Brooks will agree to accompany them on the piano and Miss Beaufort on her harp. Dear Miss Heywood, will you remember to tell Miss Beaufort how much I rely upon her to make my musical evening a success? Tell her also that I will bring by the lanolin salve I recommended just as soon as I am able. She must take every care of her fine hands."
Charlotte gave her assurances that she would pass the information along, and happily knocked upon Julia's door. She was ushered into the parlour and the two girls enjoyed a quiet chat until the gentleman arrived. Charlotte had spent the entire morning preparing herself for the moment when she would come face to face with Sidney Parker again, but it seemed to her that no amount of preparation could make any difference to the way her unruly heart reacted merely at the sight of him entering the room. She could not raise her eyes after their initial contact until all the pleasantries had been said and the gentlemen seated, and she found that Captain Mittering had taken the chair next to her. He soon engaged her in conversation giving her no time to deliberate on how she felt about Sidney Parker not having singled her out first.
Charlotte may not have noticed, but Julia was more perceptive. She had seen how Sidney Parker had looked to her friend and hesitated when Charlotte had not raised her eyes. This hesitation had given Captain Mittering the advantage that he had unwittingly taken, for if he had known what was labouring in the breast of either he would have unhesitatingly relinquished his seat by the lady.
As he had promised, Sidney Parker had brought a few verses of his friend John Keats' new poem, "Endymion", the still unfinished poetic romance.
"My friend is labouring feverishly upon this work," he told Julia. "He lives and breathes it day and night and barely has time for the rest of us poor souls of this lowly earth. He spends his time in the clouds with the gods. When you hear what he has written you will find it difficult to warrant that he is very critical of his achievement, worried that he has failed in his object and only committed to the page immature ramblings."
"I think I know the feelings he struggles with," said Julia. "Though I can hardly boast the rare ability that Mr Keats possess, my poor attempts at poetry fill me with just such apprehensions."
Charlotte strained to listen to their conversation as Captain Mittering shared glimpses of the more mundane world of a sporting man, which comprised horses and hounds. Speaking with the captain was like talking with one of her brothers. He had the same comforting familiarity of interest, the same friendly and casual manners. But Charlotte was drawn to Sidney Parker's quick and more impassioned speech as it filtered across the room. She was glad when everyone's attention was claimed for the reading of a verse or two of John Keats' newest poem, and then somewhat disappointed when it was Mr Yardley who took up the piece of parchment to read. He read well, with great feeling and none of the nonchalance that characterised him, but it was not the rich voice she had longed to hear. Mr Parker instead sat silent, listening intently and gazing abstractedly into the far corner of the room.
"What promise hast thou faithful guarded since
The day of sacrifice? Or, have new sorrows
Come with the constant dawn upon thy morrows?
Alas! 'tis his old grief. For many days,
Has he been wandering in uncertain ways:
Through wilderness, and woods of mossed oaks;
Counting his woe-worn minutes, by the strokes
Of the lone woodcutter; and listening still,
Hour after hour, to each lush-leav'd rill . . ."
It continued on, beautifully wistful, and as Charlotte listened she allowed her eyes to rest on Sidney Parker without being aware she had done so. In his face she saw the same uncertainty the poet spoke of and it surprised her, for she was accustomed to his confidence in every situation. The poetry touched him deeply, and through him, through the vulnerability it revealed in him, touched her more powerfully than she had ever expected of poetry. She could not look away and she allowed herself to study his face more than she ever had hitherto. In animation his every feature was lit with his effervescent charm and she had always been aware that he was handsome but now, with his very soul revealed in the soft planes of his cheeks and the faraway gaze of his eyes, she felt the word could not do him justice. His head turned and for a moment their eyes met and locked. The soft warmth of a smile overspread his face and she had to quickly look away before she revealed herself to him.
Mr Yardley laid the paper aside and talk centred upon the poem. Even Captain Mittering had some thoughts to express about the verses. Charlotte found herself unable to voice anything, so overcome was she by the profound feelings the combination of the poem and Sidney Parker had evoked within her. She felt that anything she said would give her heart away as the look across the room almost had done, and she concentrated on steeling her emotions so that she would be able to converse rationally once again.
In the course of the discussion, Captain Mittering moved closer to Mr Yardley in order to read over one of the lines that was up for debate. Sidney Parker lost no time in securing the vacant seat.
"When I first entered the room I did not think you were pleased to see me," he said quietly.
"Whatever made you think that?" was her flustered reply.
"You would not look at me."
"I was quite happy to see you and looking forward to hearing the promised poetry. I . . . I enjoyed it very much."
"I was hoping you would," he said. "Do you not think that Yardley reads well?"
"I had expected you . . . yes - he reads most eloquently." She had made the mistake of looking up and meeting his eyes and it had made her quite incoherent. She sought to compose herself as he moved his chair slightly closer.
"I have saved a few lines to say especially to you, if you will allow me that honour."
"Though your curls are most becoming, I would rather say them to your face. Will you not look up at me?"
Charlotte knew she ought not. She had long promised herself not to succumb to his flirting and how else could she interpret this? It was different from his normal style and she could only suppose he had changed his tactics because she had so well withstood him in the past. She knew it was weakness, but she lifted her head at his request and tried to avoid the clear depths of his eyes.
He spoke the four lines softly and slowly but with such intensity that it stole her breath away.
"My madness impious; for, by all the stars
That tend thy bidding, I do think the bars
That kept my spirit in are burst - that I
Am sailing with thee through the dizzy sky!"
She was lost and she knew it before he was even half-finished. She tried to tell herself that they were only lines of poetry, that he was only repeating another man's sentiments not relaying his own, that is was just his usual teasing and meaningless in itself. But a tiny part of her could not help but want to believe that it was true and for a moment she even allowed herself to sail the dizzy sky that she found within his eyes.
The entrance of the Beaufort sisters brought Charlotte suddenly back down to earth. They bustled into the room, demanding attention in their usual all-important manner. They hoped the gentlemen had not been waiting long. If they had but known of the proposed visit they would have never gone out upon the promenade. How had they not bumped into each other along the way? It must have been when Sir Edward had tempted them down the steps onto the beach. Well, it was of no moment because they were here now and ready to be entertained and entertain in turn. They hoped that Miss Lambe and Miss Heywood had managed to keep the gentlemen well occupied while they were waiting. Poetry? Why they just loved poetry and must hear it too. Mr Parker, they were assured, would read it better than any of the other gentlemen - they would just be seated and he could begin. Miss Heywood would not mind giving up her chair as she no doubt wanted to sit closer to the window anyway, so intent she was at looking out of it all the time. In short, they took over the salon and reorganised the gathering in a matter of minutes.
Charlotte gladly gave up her spot and moved to the window-seat though Sidney Parker demurred. She had been saved from casting aside all her resolutions and making a silly fool of herself - she had never been so heartily glad of an interruption in her life. Sidney Parker had almost trapped her. She wondered what he did when he made a conquest and acknowledged it. She knew he was too good and kind not to let her down easily and that he had no idea she had allowed her heart to be compromised. The temptation to believe that he had not been toying with her was powerfully strong but she subdued it in every way she could. The idea that someone as charming as him who travelled all of England and was accustomed to associating with people of the highest calibre would truly be interested in a simple daughter of a gentleman farmer was completely inconceivable. She would not think it - such thoughts would cause nothing but grief.
Though Miss Beaufort and Miss Letitia monopolised the gentlemen, particularly Sidney Parker, from the time of their entrance into the parlour, Charlotte could not help but notice that he did not flirt with them in the same way as he had done previously. He treated them with politeness and though he could not but exercise his natural charm, he appeared to also be exerting a good measure of forbearance. She wondered if this was his normal manner when he realised that his flirting might have led him into danger, and she hoped he would not lose his amiable approach with her. She knew she would never attain his love but she could not bear to lose his friendship. The covert glances he sent to her from time to time were reassuring, but they shared no words until the gentlemen took their leave, and those were only a reminder that he would see her that evening at Trafalgar House.
As she herself prepared to leave fifteen minutes later, Charlotte remembered to pass Diana Parker's message on to Miss Beaufort. An affectionate hug from Julia and insincere goodbyes from the sisters sent Charlotte on her solitary way.
The walk did much to clear her head. With the sun high in an untroubled sky she could not but be brought back to the real world - the one that the sensible Miss Heywood had always inhabited. In two short weeks she would be on her way home again and her stay in Sanditon would become no more than a happy memory, one to bring her warmth and gaiety to look back upon during the long fall and winter months. She was not such a simpleton as to bring heartache into the mix. What girl would not have fallen in love given the same situation as she found herself in? But it was impractical and nonsensical, and just as ephemeral as a summer's day. She would enjoy her time remaining and keep the memory of Sidney Parker's smile as a souvenir of a summer that would never be forgotten.
That evening she was able to keep her pragmatic outlook and take pleasure from her friendship with all the Parkers and not afford Sidney Parker the sole place in her thoughts. This was the most difficult while she watched him play with his nephews and niece, because thoughts of what a delightful father he would make were in danger of creating such images of his future children that would tear at her heartstrings. She instead replaced those images with the faces of her own little brothers and sisters and indulged in a bout of homesickness that was an effective antidote.
Later, while Sidney tucked the children abed, Arthur was able to entertain her with outlining all his preparations for their trip to the fort. In one short week it was finally to take place. He was now busy calculating the numbers of the party and the carriages they would need to transport everyone the fifteen miles up the coast.
"I am hoping for good weather. A day like today would be perfect, don't you think? We could all make the journey in open carriages, I'd wager, even Lady Denham and Dr. Brooks."
Sidney had rejoined them by this time and sat down on Charlotte's other side.
"As long as you put Miss Heywood in my carriage you are free to organise the rest as you chose," he said to Arthur.
Charlotte tried to quell the thrill these words gave her and said in a deceptively steady voice. "I am sure whatever your brother decides will suit me just fine."
"If I were you, Miss Heywood," said Arthur, "I would take Sidney up on his offer. He is by far the best horseman of the lot of us and drives to a T."
"And my carriage is very well sprung also," added Sidney smugly, accepting the accolade without demur.
Charlotte smiled and acquiesced, and the moment passed as Arthur continued on with his concerns of who would be driving the rest of the company and calculating over again how many carriages they would need.
The week until the outing was filled with activities. It seemed that everyone wanted to be involved doing things together. Sir Edward and his sister came to town each day and walked out on the beach with all the other young people. Even Clara Brereton was free to join the many outings while Lady Denham sat on the Terrace with Mrs Parker and Mrs Griffiths. Sir Edward's attentions to Julia Lambe increased and with Miss Brereton always present as well, he had great difficulty dividing his time evenly between the two young ladies who he sought to impress above all the others.
Diana Parker's musical evening was a success and Miss Beaufort basked in the many accolades her harp playing produced. This led Miss Letitia to carry her watercolours and easel wherever she went, and to try and induce Sidney Parker to assist her with its placement wherever possible and to advise her on her many lively compositions. She always managed to complete her sketches quickly, as the attention they provided was much more important to her than the occupation itself.
Throughout the week Charlotte remained sensible whenever she was in Sidney Parker's presence, though it was no easy task. She had much more difficulty at night in the darkness of her room, however. Her foolish mind kept going back to the lines of poetry that he had recited to her, the intensity of his voice on that occasion, and the depth of his eyes as she had lost herself in them. It was at these times that the full import of the words was not lost upon her and she wished for all the world that their meaning could be true.
To every appearance, Arthur Parker's excursion to the battlements of Fort Westhaven was bound to be a success. The sky was a clear deep summer blue with not a cloud on the horizon, but there was a light breeze that served to subdue the heat of the morning.
The entire company had agreed to meet on the Terrace. Sidney Parker was the last to arrive with his curricle, and most of the party had already taken their seats in the carriages available, with the help of Diana Parker. Though she was not able to join the excursion because racketing about the countryside would destroy both Susan's and her nerves, she still wanted to be of as much assistance as possible to the happy outcome of the event. Though Miss Letitia had made a great show of holding back and suggesting that Miss Heywood be seated first, Diana had manoeuvred the two Beaufort sisters into an open carriage with Sir Edward and Miss Denham. Lady Denham had then been prevailed upon to share her carriage with Dr Brooks, Clara Brereton, and Miss Lambe. The other three gentlemen had chosen to go on horseback, but Diana Parker was full of advice for them as to where they should ride in the cavalcade.
Charlotte had been about to accept the offer of being squeezed in alongside Mr and Mrs Parker in their gig when Sidney made his appearance and his tiger* quickly jumped down from the back of the equipage and handed her up. It is difficult to say whose face fell the furthest with this occurrence, Miss Letitia's, Miss Beaufort's, or Miss Denham's, but it was a blessing that Sir Edward had mastered the art of talking without need of a response for none of the ladies were over choking on their resentment for a full five minutes.
With only a quick greeting to his companion, Sidney attended to his horses and turned his carriage deftly in the hotel sweep. If Charlotte had been paying attention she would have been impressed at how well he handled the ribbons, but she was too preoccupied with overcoming her feelings at suddenly being seated so near to Sidney Parker. Their shoulders were almost brushing and if she turned her head his nicely shaven cheek was alarmingly close. She took a deep breath and trained her eyes straight ahead, trying to ignore the heady sensation brought on by the spiciness of his cologne. When she was finally able to take in her surroundings she realised that they were on their own upon the open road with only the company of his small groom. She turned her head and, through the dust of their wake, saw that the rest of the procession was ponderously setting out.
"Should we not wait for the others?" she asked tentatively. "We will soon outstrip them entirely."
Sidney smiled hugely. "That is my intention. I had expected you to congratulate me on my foresight in arriving last. It would never have done to be caught behind one of those lumbering rigs." But for all that he slowed down the pace of his horses. "I have been looking forward to this outing with much pleasure ever since you agreed to drive with me."
Charlotte hoped that her bonnet hid her blushing cheeks from his view. "Your planning almost caused you to drive alone. I was about to join your brother and sister in their gig."
"I would quickly have restored you to your rightful position."
Charlotte decided that a change of topic was in order if she was to make the journey without completely losing her resolve and succumbing to Sidney Parker's charm. The thoughts the phrase 'rightful position' evoked were much too distracting for her own good. "Growing up in this area as you did you must often have visited Westhaven."
"I have explored it once or twice, but never with such a strong enticement as was offered today."
"You have not yet witnessed the firing of the cannons?"
"It was not the cannons I was referring to, nor Arthur's pirate ship so there will be no need your mentioning it." This was said with such a look that left Charlotte at no loss as to his meaning.
"I beseech you not to flirt with me, trapped here as I am with you in this curricle with no way to avoid you."
"Whatever did I say that you would constitute as flirting?" he asked, coming on all innocent.
"You said . . ." Charlotte realised that she could not repeat that which was implication only without embarrassing herself still further. "You know full well what you said, sir, and what you meant by your words. It is most uncivil of you to expect me to restate it."
"Would you deny me the pleasure of seeing you blush? It is really most becoming."
"It would serve you right if I refrained from speaking to you at all for the remainder of the journey," said Charlotte in a tight little voice as she hoped that colour had not suffused her face again.
"You always know how to best me," he responded with an exaggerated sigh. "Your silence is a fate I should hate to bring upon myself and it would spoil the purpose of our driving together. In truth I had hoped to use this time to know you more. I mean that most earnestly."
To hear such sincerity from Sidney Parker's lips discomposed Charlotte more than all the flirting and teasing had ever done in the past. She knew not what to say and was relieved when Sidney motioned into the distance and began to tell her of all the points of interest to be found upon the road. His eye for beauty was as unerring as his ability to point out the ridiculous, and soon he and Charlotte were conversing easily. Her earlier awkwardness at being virtually alone with him slipped away and before they arrived to Westhaven she had all but forgotten to keep up her guard against him. Never had she enjoyed anyone's company as much, and if the satisfied smile on Sidney's face was any indication, he had found his companion delightful as well.
The road wound its way toward the sea again and soon the fortifications were in view between the sparse trees.
"I would tell you the history of the various stages of construction on this site, but I do not want to detract from Arthur's dissertation," said Sidney.
"I will be happy to wait to hear it from him," said Charlotte.
"That is because you doubt that I have any knowledge on the subject. I'll have you know that as a youth I rode out here regularly with Tom and almost haunted the battlements."
"I do not doubt your knowledge, nor that you plagued the custodian no end with your impertinent questions. I wonder you didn't convince him to let you fire off the cannons."
"It wasn't for lack of trying," said Sidney with a grin, "but that was one coup I never managed."
"Then he was a very strong-willed man."
"He was a fellow that valued his job."
Sidney had slowed his horses so that they could take in the scene before them. The stone ramparts dominated a cliff that overshadowed a small bay. The water was flecked with whitecaps and a boat could be seen anchored out in the snug harbour. Hoof beats echoed behind them and soon Arthur Parker came abreast of their carriage. He stopped for a moment to confide that he was going ahead to make sure everything was ready and then galloped up the road and off the smaller track that led to the gates of the fort.
By the time Sidney had guided his horses into the yard and chosen a shady spot for them to wait and be watered, the other carriages could be seen trundling along the lane. Mr Yardley was riding beside Lady Denham's carriage and Captain Mittering was riding ahead. He spurred his horse on and came quickly through the gate.
"And so ends our idyll," whispered Sidney as he gave the reins over to his tiger and hopped from the curricle. In a moment he was around the other side of the carriage, handing Charlotte down. She pretended not to have heard his remark and kept her eyes lowered as she alighted from the carriage so that he could not see how the touch of his hand on hers affected her. If she had but looked up she would have noticed that he was not unaffected himself. They stood beside each other in silence for a moment until Captain Mittering joined them, crying out in his usual bluff manner.
"That was very bad of you to leave us all behind in your dust, Parker, but I knew how it would be."
"There was nothing to stop you from riding alongside us," said Sidney. "You could easily have outdistanced everyone upon horseback."
"I could have," said Captain Mittering, "but I value your friendship too much.
Sidney laughed. "Indeed - I would have had your hide if you had done so."
Charlotte turned her head away in confusion. Sidney smiled at her affectionately and took her elbow to guide her towards the portcullis. "Come," he whispered. "Do not take umbrage. Can we not return to our earlier camaraderie?" She nodded her head but did not allow herself to speak.
Before long all the party was again assembled and there was much jostling for position as they waited for Arthur to begin the tour. Mr Yardley escorted Julia Lambe and Clara Brereton to Charlotte's right where the three girls conversed softly about the trip. Sidney Parker stayed resolutely by Charlotte's side though the Beaufort sisters attempted to surround him and draw him into their net. In the end Miss Beaufort gave up and attached herself to Captain Mittering, but Miss Letitia stayed by Sidney's side and barraged him with flirtatious comments that he parried with as much civility as he could muster. Miss Esther Denham had no desire to lower herself into competition with either sister so instead made a point of earning favour with her aunt by dancing attendance upon her.
Arthur finally appeared with a wizened old man who raised the portcullis. Both were dressed in military guise, and Arthur looked very striking indeed. He led them along a narrow causeway and then up a flight of stone steps to a broad crenellated parapet.
"Coastal fortifications existed along this seacoast for thousands of years prior to William the Conqueror," he said as they all stood and gazed at the view out to the open sea. "Westhaven is thought to be built upon Roman ruins."
"How very exciting," cried Miss Letitia. She turned to Sidney and batted her eyelashes. "History is so thrilling is it not? Imagine, Roman legionnaires standing in this very spot!"
"This spot was built at quite a later date," he responded dryly. "The Roman ruins were incorporated into the foundations centuries ago."
"The battlements we stand upon right now," said Arthur, "date to the Sixteenth century. Our fair country has been free from invasion since 1066, but there were a number of times in history where the fort was restored when we were believed to be in danger of assault. The Spanish Armada sailed in sight of this very location, but not in gun range, so no shot was actually fired upon it." He led them up to another level where a gun battery was installed. "This is the newest part of the fortification and it is in the best repair. It was added in the eighteenth century at the advent of the seven years' war. There was a master gunner and his assistant, both trained civilians who kept the post manned, though they were never put to the test."
Arthur had a lot more to say on the subject as he led them through the rest of the structure. Miss Letitia soon tired of trying to impress Sidney Parker as all his attention was given to Charlotte or one of their other companions. She instead joined her sister with Captain Mittering for the excursion into the powder rooms and what Sidney insisted on referring to as the dungeons. It was dark and damp in the lower regions of the fort with light coming only from deep windows that occasionally slit the thick stone walls. They were all glad to be out in the open and upon the ramparts again.
The cannon was studied with interest and then Arthur led them all to the more precarious ruined wing of the fort. He gave his arm to Clara Brereton and assiduously helped her over the rough stairways and uneven floors.
"I hope you do not mind his desertion," whispered Sidney in Charlotte's ear.
"Whatever are you speaking of?" asked Charlotte.
"Arthur. I fear he is no longer enamoured of you."
"He never was," said Charlotte. "It was all your imagination."
"I was in mortal fear that he would win you before I stood a chance."
"I never . . ."
"You never what?"
Charlotte almost choked and as the colour rushed to her cheeks she finally managed to say, "You are incorrigible."
"I will only add that though I can't see how anyone could prefer pallid Miss Brereton over you, I am relieved that he changed his course."
Charlotte was glad of a diversion at that very moment. Arthur announced that he was going to ready the demonstration and requested the assistance of a couple of the gentlemen. Everyone else, he said, was free to wander at will for the next little while until meeting at the cannon balustrade to defend country and honour against the pirates. Both Sidney and Mr Yardley joined Arthur and the caretaker. Charlotte was about to find Julia to talk with when Dr Brooks stopped her to point out an interesting differentiation in the rock used for construction in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. He prosed on for quite a while about the quarry to be found five miles inland from whence he believed all the building materials to originate. He kept her for so long that they both barely made it back to the gun battery before the demonstration was to begin.
Everyone crowded around the cannon but they were admonished to stand back.
"The ladies will want to cover their ears," said Arthur. "The report is very loud." He was ramming a long post down the gun barrel while the old caretaker readied the blasting powder.
"Where are Mr Yardley and Sidney?" asked Tom Parker. "I thought they were assisting you."
"They are manning the pirate ship!" announced Arthur excitedly.
"That is just the kind of a lark I would expect from Sidney," said Tom Parker.
"But they will be killed when you fire on it!" cried Miss Letitia in horror.
"They are only sailing it a bit closer and firing off a round in attack, then they will row a dingy to shore."
"What if you should miss and hit their rowboat!" cried Miss Beaufort.
All the other men scoffed at the ladies' fears and reassured them of the gentlemen's safety. Charlotte leaned against the
rampart and looked out at the boat that was sailing closer in to the bay. She knew in her rational mind that there was no need to fear for Sidney Parker's safety but she could not help the dread that rose in the pit of her stomach. Strangely enough, in all her worry she did not give a thought to Mr Yardley.
The pirate ship was really nothing more than a near derelict fishing boat which had been given a coat of black paint and trimmed in gold. Red sails had also been added and it indeed looked an impressive sight. A small cannon had been rolled onto the forward deck and Charlotte could see the two gentlemen readying it.
"They are going to fire upon us!" cried Miss Letitia, grabbing hold of Captain Mittering's arm.
"Do not worry. That little cannon has no range," he reassured her.
The cannon went off with a loud blast and a burst of smoke. A huge splash close to shore showed where the cannon ball had landed. Arthur and the caretaker yelled out a warning and as Charlotte covered her ears in preparation for the blast, she watched the small rowboat push off from the side of the pirate vessel and unerringly head for shore.
"Fire!" yelled Arthur, and the boom of the cannon rocked the foundations, the sound reverberating off the stone and swirling round them as their palms pressed tightly against the sides of their heads. The shot hit its mark and, amid cheers, the boat began to sink into the bay. Down on the shore Sidney Parker and Mr Yardley stood and saluted up to Arthur who saluted them in turn, then they made their way up winding stone steps that led up the side of the cliff to the foot of the fortifications.
"That was a very worthy demonstration!" cried Miss Letitia. "Well done indeed."
Charlotte looked around for Julia. She felt that she had been ignoring her friend, though unintentionally. First she had been too wrapped up with Sidney Parker, allowing him to monopolise her conversation, and then she had been distracted by Dr Brooks. Now she intended to make it up to Julia. She would offer to switch seats for the drive home with Miss Brereton so that she and Julia could have a long chat together. This resolution cost her a pang because the ride to the fort with Sidney Parker had been her favourite part of the outing. As Charlotte looked, she realised that Julia was nowhere to be seen, and neither was Sir Edward Denham.
Charlotte asked everybody, but no one recalled when they had last seen Miss Lambe or Sir Edward, and soon it was apparent that Clara Brereton was also missing.
"They all must be together," said Miss Esther. "I see no reason to get into a state about it."
Charlotte, however, was filled with trepidation. She rushed down the stairs, intent to search for them. The pavement had been so uneven in the ruined portion of the fort and many of the walls were unsafe. What if one of them had fallen, or worse yet? She almost tumbled headlong into Sidney Parker and Mr Yardley who had just reached the landing.
Sidney grabbed hold of her arms to steady her. "Char . . . Miss Heywood, what is the matter?" he asked in concern.
"Have either of you seen Miss Lambe?"
"Miss Lambe is missing?" It was the first time Charlotte had ever seen Mr Yardley unsettled. "Was she not with you for the demonstration?"
"I do not know when . . . and it is not only she who is missing. It is also Sir Edward and Miss Brereton."
Arthur came down the stairs at that moment. "You have not seen them?" he asked shortly. As they shook their heads he requested Mr Yardley to help him search the fort.
"Go and search with them," said Charlotte to Sidney who had stayed by her side and still held one of her arms.
"I do not want to leave you alone. You are not well."
"I am fine - I am just concerned for my friend, probably needlessly." Her voice shook as she spoke.
"I do not believe it is needless," responded Sidney, his face serious. "I think it very unusual that they were not there for the firing of the cannon."
Charlotte looked up into his eyes, hers full of pleading. "I cannot stand and do nothing. I need to look for Julia to know that she is all right. I feel responsible for not being with her. Will you help me?"
He took Charlotte's hand and raised it to his lips. "At your service," he said softly. Then he tucked it in the crook of his arm and led her down the next flight of stairs.
*Tiger: A liveried groom, generally small, generally young. An owner-driven curricle typically had a groom's seat between the springs on which the tiger sat.
As Charlotte and Sidney descended to the oldest section of the fort they saw Arthur Parker and Mr Yardley out upon the uneven ramparts so they continued further down into the lower rooms. Charlotte shivered involuntarily when they entered the dark, dank hallway.
"You are cold," said Sidney, taking her shawl from her arm and placing it about her shoulders. "Is that better?"
Charlotte nodded and smiled at him, uttering an almost silent "yes" but truly the shawl did not rid the chill feeling that had enveloped her. Her concern for Julia had thrust almost every other consideration from her mind. They went through one empty room after another and then followed a narrow staircase that took them even lower.
"What would Julia be doing down here?" she wondered. "She loves to be in the open with the sun upon her face."
"There is a side door that leads out onto the hill. They may have gone there to see the demonstration from that vantage point, away from the noise of the cannon." Sidney put as much conviction into his words as he could muster, and continued to lead Charlotte through the rabbit warren of tiny rooms and corridors.
"I am so glad you came with me," she said. "I should surely have lost my way."
"I could never have let you go in here alone," he said. His hand came down reassuringly upon hers where it rested on his arm.
Charlotte was surprised at the warmth his touch imparted, doing more to dispel the chill and bring her comfort than the shawl he had earlier wrapped about her. When he finally withdrew it she wished only that he could have kept it where it was. She peered into a room that showed only shadowed corners, empty and bleak, and a further door through which fell a shaft of watery light.
"It is this way," said Sidney, motioning past the doorway where the corridor continued on.
An indistinct sound drifted from the room. The wind, echoing perhaps from wall to wall, or a soft cry.
"Did you hear that?" asked Charlotte. She moved through the doorway eagerly. "Julia, are you here?"
From the far room slow steps could be heard and then Julia appeared, stumbling towards them.
"Oh, Charlotte," she cried. "Thank goodness you came. I am so lost down here." She burst into tears and threw herself into her friend's arms.
Charlotte held Julia close and stroked her hair, then looked up at Sidney. "She is very cold. We must get her into outside into the fresh air."
He was about to take his coat off when Mr Yardley and Arthur joined them. The former appraised the situation in an instant and was out of his excellently tailored riding coat more quickly than Charlotte ever would have expected of one usually so languid in his movements. Wrapping the shivering Miss Lamb up in its warm folds was a moment's work, and next he was guiding both Julia and Charlotte out of the room and along the corridor as the two brothers followed close behind.
Charlotte was glad to be back outside with the blue sky overhead and the sun's rays upon them. The door had opened onto a little pocket of grass bordered by trees on one side and sloping down to the sea on the other. She sat with Julia upon a large sun-washed stone and took up her friend's small hands, rubbing the warmth back into them. Sidney Parker and Mr Yardley stood back at a discreet distance while Arthur investigated a trail that led up through the trees.
"How did you come to be in the cellars?" asked Charlotte.
Julia looked up at her in agitation. "Miss Brereton!" She turned to the gentlemen. "Someone must go . . . Sir Edward has taken her . . . it is so very terrible! She must be brought back. She went with him to save me." Julia convulsed into sobs again.
Mr Yardley was kneeling at her side at once, holding out his handkerchief. "Miss Lambe, please, do not distress yourself. Everything will be done to find them."
At the same time Sidney ran up into the woods in search of Arthur. He returned shortly with a very troubled-looking brother.
"There is a rough track leading to the road. Horses and a carriage have been there recently," Arthur was saying. "He doesn't have too much of a head start. I am stealing your curricle, Sidney, and going after them." He turned to Julia. "Miss Lambe, did he give any indication where he was taking her?"
"He meant to take me to the border, so that must be their direction."
"Then he is heading for London," cried Arthur. "If that wretch has harmed Miss Brereton in any way, I will have his neck!"
"Take Captain Mittering with you," said Sidney. "You cannot have a better man."
"I have no time to search for him," said Arthur hurrying away.
"Have mercy on my horses," called Sidney after him, then he looked over to Charlotte. "You must excuse me for a few minutes, Miss Heywood. I need to appraise Captain Mittering of the situation and send him after my impetuous brother." He then ran back into the fort and his steps could be heard clattering and echoing down the cold stone corridors.
Mr Yardley had calmed Julia with his soothing words and unruffled manner and soon she was ready to tell her story. It came out in disjointed gasps at first and was a little incoherent, but when urged to collect herself and start from the beginning, the tale of her ordeal finally emerged.
Back before the readying of the cannon, when the gentlemen had gone off to assist Arthur, Miss Denham had approached Julia and asked for some assistance. Julia was a bit surprised, not having conversed privately with the lady at all before, but she readily offered to help her.
"I have lost my favourite silver bracelet," Miss Denham had said. "Would you please accompany me to look for it, dear Miss Lambe? I think it may have fallen off while we toured the lower rooms."
Julia had no desire to re-enter the cellars of the fort but could not politely excuse herself once she had already offered assistance. She looked about for Charlotte, but saw that she was in close conversation with the reverend. Esther Denham began speaking again as she steered Julia towards the stairs that led down from the ramparts.
"I have long wanted an excuse to get to know you better," she said. "My brother is forever dropping your name in conversation. I think he is quite besotted."
"Oh, no. You must be mistaken," Julia disclaimed.
"You can be open with me," said Miss Esther. "I know my brother to be very charming and handsome. He is quite irresistible with all the ladies, but he has a heart that is steady and true. Once he has decided what he means to have, he is very adept at claiming it."
"I have never thought of him in any way but as an acquaintance," said Julia, and then, thinking she may have sounded uncivil she added, "He is a most interesting conversationalist."
"Yes, he prides himself with his skill in that direction," said Miss Esther with a laugh. "Mind these stairs, my dear. I think it might have been here that I lost the bracelet. The clasp was loose, you see, and I had attempted to tighten it." She peered around and then said, "Do you suppose it could have fallen down this stairwell?"
"I don't quite see how . . ." began Julia, but Miss Esther grabbed her hand.
"Come let us go down to the lower level."
"But . . . we did not go there on the tour."
"And such a pity too. I have always had the strongest desire to see it. I know the Miss Beauforts and Miss Heywoods of this world blanche at the idea of exploring in such a dark and cavernous region but you, I feel Miss Lambe, are made of much sterner stuff."
"Indeed I am not," said poor Julia. She could not understand Miss Denham at all. The usually impersonal, reserved young lady who put on such airs and only spoke condescendingly was acting in a very erratic, outgoing manner. "I would like to return to the others - they will be wondering where we are."
"They will not miss us at all with their foolish displays of cannons and pirate ships." Miss Denham's voice was full of disdain - she sounded quite like her own self again. "I must find my bracelet. It is a most treasured heirloom."
"But it is not likely to turn up in a place we have not been."
"I am certain it fell down the stairs. We can at least search along this corridor." She went forward a few paces and then bent over as if to pick something up. "Just look! I have found it."
"That is lucky," said Julia, and she peered back up the stone stairs. If it had simply fallen from Miss Denham's arm it ought to have gone no further than the first step. "I wonder how it came to be there?"
Miss Denham was making a great show of fastening it on her arm once again when they heard footsteps, and a shadow was cast as someone descended the staircase.
"Why Edward," said Miss Denham. "What a surprise."
"Esther, Miss Lambe. What brings you ladies into these dark and dreary regions?"
"Your sister lost her bracelet," said Julia as she tried to calm her thumping heart. For some reason she had begun to feel very uncomfortable. She had an uneasy suspicion that Sir Edward's appearance was no accident.
"But it is found again as you see," said Miss Esther. "I am afraid, though, that my little friend here is feeling out of sorts. She is not accustomed to such dark and frightful places as this, and I do agree with her - it is quite a mausoleum."
"We must escort Miss Lambe outside with all haste," cried Sir Edward, taking Julia's arm and leading her along the corridor.
"But . . . this is entirely the wrong direction. Mustn't we go up the stairs?" asked Julia.
"There is a much nearer exit from these premises," said Sir Edward. "We need only cross through a room or two and down the occasional corridor and we will come upon a door." He shot a glance at his sister. "You know Miss Lambe suffers from ill health. I fear you have overtaxed her strength."
"Dear Edward, you take this sweet girl out into the fresh air and revive her. I do not mind rejoining the rest of the company on my own. I will be sure to tell them not to worry, Miss Lambe, for you are in good hands."
"I beg you, Miss Denham, please don't leave me."
"Someone must report your absence to the others," said Miss Denham. "You are certainly too ill to go any further until you have rested."
"But . . . can you not stay with me, and your brother go?" asked Julia desperately.
"I don't think that would serve quite so well," said Miss Denham as she turned and hurried away.
"Do not be afraid of me," said Sir Edward. "It is not my intention that you come to any harm. I care so very ardently for your welfare. I am uncommonly sorry that I had to bring you through this unpleasant territory. When you are in the luminous sunlight again your spirits will return."
"I beg you to take me back to Miss Heywood, sir," said Julia.
"I'm sorry, my sweet. I cannot do that. Not when I am come so close to achieving my heart's desire. You are the answer to every wish of my soul." He led her through the door and out into the sunlight. He glanced around and then pulled her close to him. "I have chosen you from all womankind to become my mate, to share my life and all my passions. My every waking hour is filled with thoughts of your enchanting eyes. I feel poetry flow from the heavens when I look upon your comely visage. My ardour almost overwhelms me. Say only that you will come with me and be my wife; that is all I ask of you."
"No . . . please let me go . . . I cannot," said Julia, pushing against his chest. "I do not wish to marry you, Sir Edward."
"You will change your mind in time," he responded. "Let us seal our bargain with a little kiss."
Julia squirmed and turned her head away. "I do not love you. I will not marry you."
"You have no choice. We are running away together now. My carriage lies beyond this verdant grove of trees. By the time we reach the hills of Scotland you will be as desirous of marrying me as I am of making you my very own."
Julia cried and entreated him to let her go, but he tossed her into his arms and marched purposefully up the trail through the trees to the waiting travelling coach. The groom did not blink an eye at the sight of Sir Edward carrying a young lady who was beating upon his chest with her fists and struggling for her freedom.
"You must stay calm for the journey will be lengthy and it will not do for you to be ill upon your wedding day."
"Please, have mercy and let me go."
"Never. I mean to marry you and I will. No one can stop me now."
"I will stop you, Sir Edward."
The voice was so unexpected that Sir Edward dropped his squirming burden. He turned and faced Clara Brereton who was standing in the middle of the pathway. Julia crawled over to the base of a tree and huddled against it in shock.
"How do you intend to deter me from my intent, Clara dearest?"
"I will tell everybody what you have done and where you have gone. You will be overtaken well before you get to the border. How did you ever dream you could get away with such a despicable plan?"
"Once we have gone five miles together in this carriage, Miss Lambe will be so compromised that she will have to marry me."
"Lady Denham will cast you off!"
"Lady Denham supports my suit."
"Yes, she is avaricious enough to encourage you to marry to gain a fortune, but I doubt very much she supports a flight to the border."
"Is what Lady Denham wants of the most importance here, or my desires? I have dreamt of carrying a young woman off by abduction for many a year. First it was you I wanted. My plans were all set for you when Miss Lambe and her fortune were brought to my notice. I put aside my craving for you, but I am prepared to throw it all away, to give up all the riches I could have gained to take you with me now."
"So, after all your professions of love you would leave Miss Lambe and run off with me?"
There was a fire in Sir Edward's eyes as he looked at Miss Brereton. "It has always been you for me, Clara. I would sell my soul to have you. I near tore my heart out from my chest when I made the decision to have Miss Lambe over you. But what is gold compared to love? I'll not bear the gnashing pain any longer. To see you standing there in all your beauty is more than any man as in love as I could possibly bear. If you will be mine I will grant Miss Lambe her freedom. Come away with me instead. I will shower you with love as none other ever could."
All the time he spoke, Sir Edward had been closing in upon Clara, and as he said his last words he grasped her arm in a tight grip. He looked into her eyes and she stared back, unmoved and resolute.
"I will, but not out of any feeling for you. Only to prevent you from ruining an innocent girl."
"You will develop feeling for me in that cold heart of yours," he said as he kissed her hand roughly, and pulled her tightly against him.
She drew away and looked at him frostily. "You will take no liberties." She walked to the carriage where the impassive groom opened the door for her.
"No!" cried Julia, suddenly arising from her stupor when she realised what was taking place. "Don't go with him. I'll do it . . . please."
"Miss Lambe, do not worry about me," said Clara Brereton. "It has always been my lot in life to make do with whatever uncomfortable situation I have been given. This will be no worse than being Lady Denham's slave. I will be content to know that at least you are safe and happy."
Sir Edward gave orders to his groom then jumped into the carriage behind Clara Brereton and closed the door. Julia rose up and ran forward, crying out for them to stop but the groom slashed his whip upon the horses' rumps and set the carriage rolling at quite a speed up the rutted track. She dropped to the ground in anguish and then picked herself up and stumbled back to the dark lower rooms of the fort.
Julia looked up from her hands. She had not been able to face anybody while she had told her tale. Sidney Parker returned quite early in the telling, but had only sat quietly on the grass beside the rock Charlotte and Julia were seated on. Mr Yardley remained where he was, seated by her knees where he had earlier knelt to give her his handkerchief. The very handkerchief she had been twisting in her hands the entire time. She raised it to her face now and dried her cheeks.
"I feel so terrible. She gave up all that is important in life for me. She will be tied to Sir Edward forever."
"No," said Charlotte. "Arthur Parker and Captain Mittering will find her before it is too late."
"How could I let myself fall into such a situation?"
"What reason had you to be suspicious of Miss Denham?" said Mr Yardley gently. "Do not blame yourself. You have been through enough today." He then turned to Charlotte and continued. "I think it best, Miss Heywood, if we were to take Miss Lambe home now, and if we could manage it in a way that she would not have to encounter even a questioning glance."
"I think I can commandeer my brother Tom's gig," said Sidney, "if you two ladies don't mind squeezing in with me, and Yardley can ride alongside."
"And how would Mr and Mrs Parker get home?" asked Charlotte.
"There are some empty spaces in the remaining equipages. I think everyone would be more than happy to oblige them, under the circumstances." He shot her a swift smile. "I won't be a moment. I know that neither place will be a happy choice for you, Miss Lambe, but I think if I bring the gig down the track to where Sir Edward had his carriage hid, it will be preferable to making your way back through the cellars of the fort again."
He took Charlotte's hand, gave it a reassuring squeeze, and then left to complete his mission. As she watched him go, she allowed a thought for her own concerns to override all that she was thinking regarding the harrowing occurrences of the day. Charlotte wondered how she had ever been able to keep her defences up against Sidney Parker. If anyone deserved her love, he did. She could not help but love him, regardless of whether he loved her in return. That, after all, was a little more than she could possibly expect.
The drive back to Sanditon was completely different from the trip to Fort Westhaven earlier in the day. Not only was the gig not as well sprung as Sidney Parker's curricle and the horses less eager at the bit, but concern over the plight of Clara Brereton created an atmosphere that was tight and troubled. Though she was squeezed much closer to Sidney Parker than before, Charlotte had no thought for the way every bump in the road threw her shoulder against his arm. All her attention was directed towards comforting Julia and if she gave Sidney's proximity a thought at all it was to be glad of his reassuring presence. His concentration was upon getting the most from a pair of horses unused to being given their heads, and returning Miss Lambe to Mrs. Griffith's establishment in Sanditon without delay. Yardley kept his horse at an easy pace beside the gig and his eyes were as often upon Miss Lambe, Charlotte's arm protectively around her, as on the road.
The gentlemen set the young ladies down at the lodgings and after ensuring that they were safely ensconced in Julia's sitting room, made for the hotel to change their horses. They both intended to ride out to join Arthur Parker and Captain Mittering in their search even though they were a few hours behind. To kick their heels in Sanditon awaiting news was unthinkable.
Charlotte sat with Julia for the remainder of the afternoon. Though Mrs. Griffiths had provided a cold collation neither of them was able to eat so intense was their worry for Clara Brereton. Despite all that Charlotte said to convince her otherwise, nothing could dispel Julia's overriding feeling of guilt for Miss Brereton's present predicament.
The Beaufort sisters returned during this time but Mrs Griffiths would not allow them to disturb Julia and Charlotte. They felt very ill used. They had been hoping to discover some particulars of the hasty and unexplained departure of so many of their party. It was really too bad that such a lovely outing had been spoiled and that the attention of all of the eligible gentlemen had been diverted from their charms. They held Miss Lambe responsible for causing a self aggrandising situation and they had no idea how such an insignificant person as she had managed to do it. The girl was much slyer than they had previously suspected - no doubt due to the influence of that upstart Miss Heywood.
By evening's fall there was still no news but Mrs Griffiths, in her concern for Miss Lambe's health, insisted that she retire to her bedchamber. She provided Charlotte with a servant to escort her back to Trafalgar house, then she bustled off to tend to the placement of hot water bottles in Julia's bed herself.
When Charlotte entered the Parker's parlour she could see by their expressions that no word had yet been heard in that establishment either. They both were very solicitous about Miss Lambe's wellbeing and showed truly compassionate feeling for Miss Brereton and her present plight. Mary Parker guided Charlotte to a chair close to the fire and saw to her comfort while Mr Parker ordered tea to be served at once.
"This is a shocking business indeed," he said after the servant had left the room. "Who would have believed it of Sir Edward? And that such a thing should happen to guest of our family on an outing from Sanditon. I'm afraid the world will view our fair town most unfavourably after this."
"If there is a happy resolution to this debacle the world need never know," said Mrs Parker.
"A happy resolution? Even if they are married with all due speed the gossip mongers will have a heyday."
"As yet it has all been kept very quiet," said Mrs Parker. "I doubt if all the guests are even aware of what took place. Sidney was very careful to avoid telling the truth of the matter to anyone but ourselves."
"Will they indeed have to marry?" asked Charlotte. "I cannot bring myself to believe that Miss Brereton will be happy with such a man. Is there no other recourse?"
"We can none of us be satisfied with that result, but what else is there to be done?" asked Mrs Parker. "Poor dear Arthur, I do feel for him."
"Arthur?" said Mr Parker. "Yes, he was so excited about his Westhaven outing and he put so much effort into its execution. It is a pity that Sir Edward chose to ruin the excursion with his outrageous plan."
"Oh Tom, that is not what I meant at all," said Mary Parker, smiling fondly and shaking her head. "But it is no use even thinking in that way anymore."
Mr Parker was about to question his wife as to her meaning when the tea was brought in and by the time everyone was served she had managed to steer the conversation in quite a different direction. She thought that dwelling on the tribulations of the day was what Charlotte most needed a break from and instead launched into a description of the antics of her young sons, a subject which no mother has difficulty in elaborating upon. Charlotte, for her part, was very grateful for the respite and soon found herself feeling much less preoccupied by her worries.
It was nearing their regular bed time and Charlotte was considering choosing a book from the library, for she was sure she would be unable to sleep, when the sounds of a late arrival could be heard from the front hall.
"Sydney and Arthur to be sure," cried Mr Parker. "I had expected them to be the night on the road. I wonder what news they bring us?"
All Charlotte's apprehension returned. She turned towards the door, her attention full upon it, barely breathing as her heart beat swiftly high up in her chest.
"Have they been found?" said Mr Parker without preamble as Sidney entered the room.
Sidney Parker looked at Charlotte and gave her a reassuring smile and a wink before addressing himself to his brother. "Yes and all is well," he said.
Charlotte's heart began a very different and quite erratic cadence which she could not explain. It ought to be settled now she knew that Clara Brereton was safe.
"And are they to marry?" asked Mary Parker.
"It depends whom you are speaking of," said Sidney as he came over to the fire and pulled up a chair between the two ladies. "But no, Sir Edward did not get his way. He did, however, receive a blackened eye and a swollen jaw."
"Enough with all this roundabout talk," said Tom Parker. "Tell us straight out what transpired. I know you like to tantalise us all with your pleasantries but we've been on tenterhooks all evening, especially poor Miss Heywood."
"Then I shall do my best to relieve Miss Heywood's suffering," said Sidney, giving her a sly grin. "But I am only doing it for Miss Heywood's benefit, mind, or you would not get the tale half so fast."
"We are not getting it at all," said Tom. "Never was there a more teasing scallywag."
"But his good humour does bode well," said Mrs Parker, "for surely he would not jest if aught were wrong."
"There is a perfect piece of wisdom," said Sidney. "Today's events, while harrowing at the outset, have turned out much better than would ever have been expected. I'll tease you no longer. Sir Edward's coach lost a wheel some twenty miles along the London road - happily no one was injured and they were within walking distance of a small inn. This is where Arthur and Captain Mittering found them; by the time Yardley and I arrived on the scene it was all over. The only use we have been is to serve as messengers."
"Yes, and a very poor messenger you are turning out to be. What of the blackened eye? The swollen jaw? Who is marrying whom?" cried Mr Parker in exasperation.
"Please - how will Miss Heywood's mind ever be set at ease if you insist on interrupting?"
Charlotte chuckled and said, "Do have mercy on your listeners."
"If you insist," said Sidney. "The blackened eye and swollen jaw were not incurred during the accident. I believe that the eye was a result of a difference of opinion between Sir Edward and Miss Brereton while the coach was still intact. She is not quite as submissive as she lets on. The swollen jaw he received in his initial encounter with our brother. Arthur has more fire in him than we ever gave him credit for.
"When Sir Edward and Miss Brereton arrived at the inn, she demanded a private parlour and a maid to accompany her. I am quite impressed with her conduct during this entire ordeal. She was courageous, sensible, and collected throughout. Apparently Sir Edward managed to fall foul of the landlord by issuing incomprehensible orders in a most high-handed fashion. When Arthur arrived they were almost at fisticuffs and Miss Brereton was attempting to restore order. He read the situation incorrectly and impetuously planted Sir Edward a facer, thinking he was protecting Miss Brereton's honour - but I rather think he had been wanting to do it for the past twenty miles, so it would have made no odds what was taking place at the time. Mittering arrived close on his heels and prevented any further bloodshed."
"Arthur punched Sir Edward?" asked Mr Parker in amazement. "First he rattles off in your curricle and then he hits a man? I know the lady was abducted while on an outing he arranged, but such behaviour is entirely out of character for him."
"Love can make a man act in unexpected ways. I wonder what I would have done if the situation had been different and it was the woman I love who had been abducted."
Charlotte again found herself unable to breathe and was thankful that Sidney Parker was looking at his brother and not at her as he spoke.
"Love? What are you talking about? Isn't Sir Edward the one who was in love? After all he abducted the young lady and was running off with her to the border."
"Oh Tom," said Mrs Parker. "You had no clue, had you?"
"I still have no clue," he said.
"Captain Mittering took Sir Edward in hand and soothed the landlord at the same time. A bit of money in the right places goes a long way in these cases. The man has promised his silence and so have the rest of his staff. Sir Edward is on his way to the continent on the evening stage and should not return to Sanditon for at least a twelvemonth."
"And what of Arthur? Did he not come back with you?"
"No. He's spending the night at the inn, along with Mittering. In the morning they will escort Miss Brereton to her family in London. She is taking the landlord's daughter with her as a companion."
"He is taking his responsibility in this affair rather seriously," said Mr Parker.
"Well, he does have some important business to discuss with Miss Brereton's Uncle," said Sidney.
"What business could he possibly have? I would not have thought he had ever heard of the man before."
"I doubt that he had, but Miss Brereton's uncle is, after all, her guardian, and so he is the correct person to speak to in matters such as these."
Mrs Parker clapped her hands and let out a sigh but Mr Parker continued to eye Sidney bemusedly.
"I believe that your brother Arthur means to ask for Miss Brereton's hand," said Charlotte, "but Mr Sidney Parker is having too much fun making sport of you to tell you outright."
Tom Parker's eyes widened. "When did all this take place?"
Sidney leaned back in his chair and directed a complacent smile at his brother. "Arthur asked Miss Brereton as soon as he found a moment alone with her, and once she realised that he was not merely being chivalrous she accepted him."
"But . . . but . . ."
"My dear," said his good wife, "have you not noticed how for the last two weeks they have not been able to keep their eyes from each other? This historical society of Diana's has truly wrought some wonders."
"It ought to please her that she has been of such good use," said Sidney. "She does so like to help out, though in this case I don't know that she will be happy to have lost her little brother whom she likes to coddle."
"Well it's a fine thing for him to finally be out of her influence," said Tom. "Diana is a good woman but she still had the lad in leading strings."
"I am very overjoyed for them both," said Charlotte. "What a wonderful ending to the whole affair. I never imagined it could possibly turn out well for Miss Brereton at all. I had been so worried for her and now I can wish her happy, though I don't know that I shall ever see her again. You will extend my greetings, won't you, when you next see your brother?"
"Why do you say you shall not see her again?" asked Sidney. "She is soon to be part of the family."
Charlotte blushed. She did not want to consider what this remark could possibly mean, preferring to think it was a slip on Sidney Parker's part. He must know that she had not taken up residence at Trafalgar House forever. "But I will be home again in Willingden by the time the week is up."
"Not so soon?" said Sidney. His face appeared to have lost some of its cheerful glow.
"I have been here all summer."
"I could not imagine Sanditon without you," he said softly.
"I do not know how we will manage at all without our Miss Heywood, eh Mary?" said Tom Parker. "And Arthur is sure to stay in London, courting his fair lady, and Sidney is never to be counted on to be in one place as long as a fortnight. We will be very dull indeed."
Charlotte looked into the fire and tried not to dwell on how even the thought of leaving was tearing at her heart.
Mrs Parker glanced from Sidney to Charlotte and back again. "It has been a long and eventful day," she said at last. "I am very tired and I'm certain Miss Heywood must be too, after all she was much more directly involved in the whole affair than I was. Thank you, Sidney, for bringing us the good news at once even though you have been on the road for most of the day. How you are still able to stand I have no idea."
"The horses I have ridden today bore all the brunt," he said with a laugh. "And my own pair! My brother probably became engaged just so I could not thrash him for driving them so hard. I have left them at the inn with my tiger to return in easy stages tomorrow. I will take my leave now and call again in the morning - not early, however, because I'm bound to sleep very late." This last was said more to Charlotte than to his brother and sister.
"I can well believe it," she said. "Goodnight, sir."
"Ah - such formality. But no matter, I can match it." He took her hand, standing as he did so. He bowed low over it. "Goodnight, Miss Heywood. Sleep well."
As Charlotte lay in her bed she tried to sleep but she was haunted by his eyes and his smile, the touch of his hand on hers and the sound of his voice. She had less than a week to enjoy them; less than a week until they would become little more than memories. She chided herself for her sensibility - she had always been so level-headed and pragmatic. Now she was wistfully holding on to dreams and longing for the impossible.
She had failed miserably when it came to Sidney Parker. She had intended to withstand his inescapable charm, but he had charmed her - wholly and completely. In a few days she would be gone and he would be out of her life and all she would have to hold onto would be her vain hopes, her wistful imaginings, and her imprudent love of him. And he - would he miss her even a little? Her vanity wished it, but she knew that it would take a remarkable lady to catch his capricious heart, not a simple, sensible country girl like herself.
Knowing that Sidney Parker intended to sleep late, Charlotte took an early walk, not towards the Terrace, but in the other direction along the road that led towards Sanditon House. She needed to be active, not sitting in the parlour waiting and watching the clock. The sun was already warm upon her shoulders as she traipsed along taking in the trees and fields that she had grown to know so well over the space of the summer. Birds sang in the larches, and the air smelled sweet with clover.
Half an hour later Charlotte slipped back into the house through the French doors of the parlour only to find Sidney Parker sitting on his own upon the settee, looking perfectly composed and relaxed. She started and swiftly took off her bonnet.
"You cannot escape from me quite so easily," he said.
"But . . . you were . . . you said you would not be early."
"Aha! You do attend to what I say," he said, rising and coming towards her. "The day was too fine to waste in bed, and besides there was somewhere I much preferred to be. Are not these windows a blessing? I entered this way myself. No one knows that we are both here . . . together, alone." His voice had lowered, become softer.
He came up very close beside her, took her bonnet from her hands and placed it upon the table. Charlotte did not know which way to look or what to say. She fixed her eyes upon her shoes and wished both that she were still outside and bent upon entering through the front door and that the moment, with Sidney Parker standing so close to her that she could almost hear his heart beating, would never end.
"I have long been hoping to have a minute . . ." he said, reaching his hand towards her as he spoke, but just then the parlour door opened with a bang and three little boys entered in a rush, followed closely by their sister.
"Uncle Sidney!" they cried in excitement.
Sidney laughed and stepped away from Charlotte into the direct onslaught of his little nephews. "It would seem a minute was not enough," he said ruefully. "I ought to have hoped for an hour at the very least."
Mrs Parker came through the door and took in the scene before her - Charlotte Heywood standing flustered in the light from the open windows, her bonnet upon the table, and Sidney not too far from her with all three boys dangling from his arms.
"I am so sorry," she said hurriedly. "I can take the children out again . . ."
"No need," said Sidney amiably. "I arrived earlier than expected and startled Miss Heywood. I think she took me for a burglar. But my real plan was to see if anyone wanted to come along with me for a walk upon the beach."
Mary turned to her mother. "Oh may we?" The boys disentangled themselves from their uncle and ran clamouring to their mother.
"Are you certain you want to be burdened with all these ragamuffins?" she asked.
"As long as Miss Heywood comes to assist me I will be sure to manage, and of course you and Tom are also welcome, Mary my dear."
"One of us really ought to join you," she said, "but Tom is tied up with his man of business and Diana spoke of dropping by this morning with some sort of restorative jelly she means for me to try."
"You have my deepest sympathies," said Sidney. "I'll have none of her remedies. The last time I took one of her draughts I was indisposed for a week afterwards. If I were you I would thank her kindly and then put it away in a deep, dark shelf."
Mary smiled. "Really, it is much too much for me to allow you to take all the children - what if I were to send their nurse along?"
"Miss Heywood hasn't even committed herself to coming yet," said Sidney. He turned to her with a crooked smile. "What is it to be, Miss Heywood? Will you accompany us, or shall I take nurse?"
"I would very much like to come," said Charlotte.
They strolled down the path that went behind the houses and to the private beach, the boys running ahead and Mary walking sedately beside Charlotte, holding her hand. They had a splendid time paddling in the waves, playing in the sand, and collecting sticks for a bonfire. Even little Mary forgot she was pretending to be a proper young lady and got her skirts wet as she ran screaming in glee through the surging waves. They arrived back at Trafalgar house late for their tea, all wet, bedraggled and sprinkled with sand. Charlotte's eyes were shining and her cheeks were bright. Gone were the dark smudges and sallow complexion that had looked back at her from the mirror in the morning.
The evening was spent in the parlour. The children went up to bed early, tired from their fun, and Diana and Susan joined the rest of them, eager to discuss their youngest brother's unusual behaviour and surprise engagement. Diana had a great many concerns that, although Clara Brereton appeared to be a level headed girl, she would not know just how to manage Arthur's diet and ensure the weakness of his cocoa or the dryness of his toast. Susan, on the other hand, worried that Clara might have a tendency to migraines and would not understand the great benefits to be gained from teeth pulling. Sidney departed with his sisters but before he left arranged to come with Mr Yardley the next morning to escort Charlotte to visit Julia Lambe.
The morning could not come soon enough for Charlotte. She slept deeply and awoke refreshed. Determined not to make the same mistake she had done the day before, she did not go out for an early walk. Still, she was reticent to simply sit in the parlour with some needlework and appear to be doing nothing but waiting for him. Instead she went into the garden to gather some of the climbing roses that had been blooming all summer long. But of course she really was waiting for Sidney Parker to arrive, and the time stretched endlessly. Her basket was quite full by the time he finally interrupted her, much later than she would ever have expected. She heard a step and glanced up from her task to see him standing hesitant on the threshold of the arbour. There was a constrained look upon his face. She felt her chest tighten and her face tingle.
Sidney took a step forward, reached up and plucked a rose and then stood twirling it between his fingers, his eyes all the time upon her. Finally he spoke.
"I'm afraid I cannot take you to visit your friend as I had promised," he said. "I have come to say goodbye. I do not have much time, but I told you that I would never leave again without saying goodbye in person. Truly - I could not have done it, had I tried."
The basket was dangling from Charlotte's hands, blooms spilling out unheeded by either of them. "What . . .?"
"I will be back as soon as possible . . . before you return to Willingden if I can manage it." He took two steps towards her. "I received an express this morning. My friend John Keats' brother Tom is very ill. John is distraught and begs me to come - I cannot let a friend in need down though it sorely goes against my wishes to leave at this time."
"Of course you must go," said Charlotte when she could find her voice.
"I wanted to make your last days in Sanditon special."
"Yesterday was special," said Charlotte softly.
"Yes, it was," he said and his face lit up with a slow smile, making him look almost as carefree as usual. He took the rose that he had been playing with and tucked it behind her ear. His hand paused beside her cheek and then pulled away. "I must go."
"Take care." Charlotte could not pull her eyes from his face. So sure was she that it was the last time she would ever see him she was intent on memorising every nuance of his expression; the curve of his cheek and the glint of his eyes when he smiled she already knew by heart.
Still he stood there even after he said he should go. The moments slipped by and then finally he said, "You look very sweet with that rose in your hair." He turned and walked quickly through the garden gate.
She watched the place he had stood long after he had departed then Charlotte stooped down and, without really knowing what she was about, perfunctorily began picking the flowers up from the ground and placing them back into her basket. She had to do something, if not she knew that she would cry.
Charlotte had not been able to face going to visit Julia that day. She had walked about the house listlessly not really aware of what she was doing and had sat with the family in the evening only partially listening to Diana expostulate on the best ways of going about making Sanditon a success as a favoured seaside resort with the right sort of people. Mrs Parker suggested that she go up to bed at the earliest opportunity and so she found herself in bed two hours before her usual time staring unseeing at the pages of a book the title of which she could no longer remember.
The next morning she had herself in check again. There was no denying that the allure of Sanditon was not the same now that Sidney Parker was gone, but it was not the end of the world. In two more days she would be leaving - the parting had been inevitable - it had simply come earlier than expected. She could not fault the man for going to his friend's aid - it only made her care for him all the more. And it did seem that he had been loath to leave her as well. He had acted differently, without his usual flirtatious teasing, almost as he had that evening at the second assembly, when he was serious and distant. Was he aware that he had stolen her heart and trying to be gentle with his goodbyes, or did he, actually, have some feelings for her? Could she possibly, somehow have touched his soul? In fact, the other morning she had almost thought . . . but what good was it to think in that way? He was gone and probably happy to find himself safe from an impetuous entanglement.
Julia Lambe was pleased to see Charlotte when she finally paid the postponed visit. She admitted to having been weakened by her ordeal at the fort, but the unexpectedly fortunate outcome had done much to raise her spirits.
"Yesterday I had a brief visit from Mr Yardley and Mr Sidney Parker before they left for Hampstead," she said.
Charlotte noticed how her friend's countenance brightened at the mention of the gentlemen. "Mr Parker took his leave of me as well, but I did not have the pleasure of saying goodbye to Mr Yardley." It was only at that moment that she had even been aware that Mr Yardley had gone also. She hadn't given him any thought at all.
Julia blushed. "He stayed with me and Mrs Griffiths while his friend went to say goodbye at Trafalgar House. Did not Sidney Parker extend his salutations?"
'It seems that Mr Yardley had been as far from Sidney Parker's thoughts as he was from mine,' thought Charlotte. "He must have. I probably was not attending."
"Mr Parker seemed very low," said Julia, giving Charlotte a penetrating gaze. "I do not think he liked to leave, though he was quite impatient to go. I attempted to return his book to him, the one he lent to you of John Keats' poems, but he said it belonged to you and not him. Here it is." She picked it up off the table and passed it over to Charlotte.
"Oh no, it was for you," said Charlotte.
"He clearly wanted you to have it," said Julia, "in fact he has marked a spot with the green ribbon. I saw him do it. Open it and see for yourself."
Charlotte let the book fall open where the ribbon separated the pages. It opened easily because just at that spot was also inserted a piece of parchment. Charlotte unfolded it and found one stanza of poetry written out carefully in copperplate. As she read it she could hear the voice that had spoken it to her so softly and yet with so much feeling.
My madness impious; for, by all the stars
That tend thy bidding, I do think the bars
That kept my spirit in are burst - that I
Am sailing with thee through the dizzy sky!
"Is it a note?" asked Julia in an awed voice as she saw Charlotte's face change.
"No," said Charlotte, handing it over to her friend. "It is a part of the poem Mr Keats has been working on."
Julia read it and then handed it back. "I think it has special meaning," she said, blushing lightly. "He placed it there on purpose before he told me that the book was yours and asked me to keep it for you."
"Then why did he not give it to me himself as he was leaving?"
"Perhaps he was afraid you would not take it. Perhaps he wanted you to find the stanza when you were home so that you would not forget him. I think it is very romantic."
"I think you are letting your imagination run away with you," countered Charlotte, but she earnestly wanted to believe that what Julia said was true.
"He was only here long enough to accomplish that and then he was gone to see you," said Julia.
"And when he left on that mission, Mr Yardley stayed to be with you," said Charlotte to turn Julia's attention away from a topic she was prepared to discuss no further.
"Yes," said Julia. She picked up a shell from the table and turned it over in her hands, stroking its rough surface. "He said that he has an uncle living in Camberwell who he visits every October. He asked if he could call on Mrs Griffiths and me while he makes his stay there."
"What a convenient uncle," said Charlotte with a laugh. "I hope he is not too surprised when his nephew writes to him asking for an invitation!"
"But, he said . . ."
"Yes, I know. He said he visits him every October, but a gentleman like Mr Yardley does not go to Camberwell in October - he goes to his country estate for the hunting season, or to that of one of his friends."
"I am glad that he is coming to Camberwell instead, then," said Julia with a soft smile.
"I like Mr Yardley very much," said Charlotte. "I think he will make you very happy."
"I like him very much too," admitted Julia. "But why may I not say the same thing to you of Mr Parker without you disclaiming?"
"Because the situation is different. Sidney Parker cannot help himself but flirt with any young lady he meets, and he chose to flirt more with me because I did not fall at once into his thrall. He is like a butterfly that flits from one flower to the other; he does not settle." 'But what magic he does weave,' she thought. 'I do not regret a minute that I spent in his company.'
"I think you are wrong. Whenever I saw him with you it was evident that he cares. Yesterday he was pained at the thought of leaving you. He is not an empty, thoughtless creature - he understands poetry and he understands life."
"No, he is not empty and he is not thoughtless, and I think he did enjoy my company and he was sad to cause me pain, but you must understand . . . he did not . . . he did not tell me that he had an uncle to visit in Willingden. He did not say anything about calling on me there at all."
There was nothing Julia could say to that. She was only seventeen and she had known so few gentlemen - could she really claim to understand Mr Sidney Parker? She did not want to bring Charlotte's hopes up only to have them dashed, but she thought that if she understood anything about poetry as sure as night follows day Sidney Parker would pay a visit to Willingden, uncle or no uncle.
Her final two days at Trafalgar House had been bittersweet - there were so many faces she had grown to love that she would no longer see every day, and maybe never again; there were so many beloved locations, so many memories - and she had wanted to hold onto them and never let them go. She promised to write to Julia and to Mary Parker, and she could not help but shed a few tears as she kissed the children's ruddy cheeks for the last time before she was handed up into the carriage her father had sent for her.
She had stared out of the window as the vehicle trundled along and watched the passing countryside through misty eyes. She did not break down until she viewed the old Parker homestead nestled in its curving valley and surrounded by its orchards and verdant grounds. The ghosts were there, playing amongst the trees and scampering across the overgrown lawns. The children with his eyes and her smile that would never be anything more than manifestations of a wistful imagination. She hadn't wanted to think of him at all. The night before she had held hope with every creaking floorboard and the slightest of sounds from the street that Sidney Parker would be ushered through the door. That he would return as he had said he might before she was gone so that she could see him one more time, hear his voice, feel the warmth of his smile.
But thinking of Sidney Parker was not a sensible thing to do at all - and Charlotte had vowed that if nothing else, she would be sensible again now that she was home. Little did it matter that she could not smell a rose without being transported to that last meeting they had together - her life was here in the present and not in the past. She was home in the heart of her family and she should relish that happiness instead. And though she tried her very best, her parents noticed a change in their Charlotte - a melancholy that lingered behind every smile, and they hoped they had not done her a disservice in allowing her to live for two months in a lively seaside resort, so different from her simple home.
She placed a sachet of lavender in her pocket and closed the stillroom door. It was time to give lessons to her youngest brother and sister, a boy of twelve who had grown surprisingly tall in her absence and a sweet girl of ten with a twinkle of mischief in her eyes. To her mind Francis was ready for more than she could offer him, but he had a quiet nature and loved the countryside and animals so much that he did not want to be sent away to school and his mother had not the heart to make him go. Emma was bright and eager to learn and challenged Charlotte at every step.
"What could be out the window that is more interesting than the lesson?"
Charlotte shook her head, attempting to organise her swirling thoughts. It had been a week; a week and no word. Not that she was expecting anything, but . . . she shook her head again. "Am I not the one who ought to be saying that?" She gave an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry. I will try to concentrate better." She had read The Iliad deep into the night, and pored over maps and histories of Greece that she might answer some of the probing questions she knew the children were bound to come up with. She now nodded as Francis drew a route out on the map with his finger and answered a quick question of Emma's that resulted in a change for the route. Both children began to argue their cases while she showed them a third possibility. The knock on the door was a welcome interruption.
"Your mother sent me to say there is a visitor to see you, miss."
Charlotte thanked the young servant girl and hurried from the room, relieved to be extricated from a lesson she was finding increasingly overwhelming. Whoever the visitor was, she was thankful for the reprieve, even should it be the widow from the cottage on the hill who rambled endlessly on such divergent topics that it was impossible to keep the threads of her conversation untangled. She smoothed the skirts of her old housedress and tucked a few loose strands of hair back behind her ear before she opened the parlour door. It was not much of an improvement, but it would have to do.
Her breath was knocked out of her as Sidney Parker stood up from a chair and walked forward, his arm outstretched in greeting. She did not know how she managed to get through the next few moments as she asked after his family. She hardly dared look at his face and when she did he appeared to be quite pleased with himself.
"This is an unexpected pleasure," she finally said as she sat down.
"Unexpected?" was all he said. But his expression was as teasing as ever.
Her mother looked from one to the other not knowing quite what to make of their visitor as he sat back and waited for her daughter to say something, a guileless look upon his face. Mrs Heywood smiled in relief as the servant entered with the tea and she was on an accustomed footing again.
"I understand you have a message from your brother for my husband, Mr Parker?" she asked politely as she served him a cup of tea.
"I suppose he did charge me with one," said Sidney, smiling. "But actually I came here to discuss a matter of business with Mr Heywood."
"I see," she said, completely at a loss again. "Are you a farmer yourself?"
"No, regretfully not, for from what I have heard from a reliable source it is a delightful occupation."
"So . . . you have developed an interest and have a business proposition for him?"
"A decided interest," said Sidney. "But it is not actually a proposition. It is more of a proposal."
"My husband is overseeing the labourers in his fields, but I can send for him, if you don't mind waiting," said Mrs Parker.
"I would much prefer going out to meet him if I could have someone show me the way," said Sidney, and then he addressed himself directly to Charlotte. "Do you know where your father is working, Miss Heywood?"
"I believe he is with the reapers in the barley fields," she said indistinctly.
"And would you be able to lead me there?"
His eyes were twinkling much too merrily. Charlotte's heart was fluttering disturbingly in her chest. She looked over to her mother for approval.
"Take Francis along with you," she said kindly. "I'm sure he would like to be out of doors today. I will sit and read with Emma." Mrs Heywood was nothing if not sensible. There was obviously something going on between this Mr Parker and her daughter, something that might explain Charlotte's unusually abstracted behaviour, and she was not about to allow them to walk through the fields unchaperoned, whatever the young man's intentions.
Charlotte decided that she must do something to fill in the gap in conversation while her mother called the girl back to the room to send for Francis. "Your friend," she said, swallowing a sip of tea quickly to ease her suddenly dry throat. "How is his brother faring?"
Sidney's expression sobered a bit. "On my previous visit to Hampstead, I became very close to Tom. We walked upon the moors talking while John was up in the clouds writing. John knew this and when his brother took a sharp turn for the worse he felt I would want to be there, at least to say goodbye. He was right, but fortunately it was not yet time for goodbyes."
"So, he is better then?" said Charlotte. "I am pleased to hear it."
"For the time being only. Consumption is a very heartless illness. There is no recovery, just increasing weakness and suffering to an inevitable early death. Tom has rallied once again - his spirit is astoundingly strong. We are all hopeful that he will not be taken from us too soon."
"I had forgotten it was consumption. I am so sorry. What is being done?" Charlotte wanted to reach out and touch his hand, but felt her mother's eyes upon her. She knew her words were too commonplace to convey her sentiments. She need not have worried - her eyes showed all that her words could not express.
"Their brother George has taken Tom to Paris now that he is on the mend. They will make their way slowly to Florence upon the doctor's recommendation. John Keats is going to stay with another friend in Oxford. The heath holds no more inspiration for him." Sidney smiled softly and said, "Come, let us have no more talk of sad things. Not today when we are finally together again. Tell me the gossip of your last days in Sanditon and how the Beaufort sisters took the desertion of all the eligible gentlemen."
Charlotte laughed. "In the end they would have it that Sanditon was a paltry place and that the following summer they would settle for no less than Eastbourne."
Francis joined the company in the parlour and quickly managed a piece of cake before the three walked out together under Mrs Heywood's interested gaze. As they rounded the garden wall she took up a plate of cake for Emma and made her way to the schoolroom.
"I am certain that a young Jack Strap like you knows a thing or two about horses," said Sidney to Francis.
"I do like to go down to the stables much more than attend to my studies," he admitted, glancing at his sister lest she would be displeased with this admission, but she only smiled.
"Who would not?" said Sidney. "And I can tell that you would rather take a prime pair of bays to be stabled than to walk out to the barley fields in the hot sun with us."
"That I would," he said eagerly, "but my mama . . ."
"Your mama only wanted you outdoors - if she had known about the horses I am sure she would have suggested it herself"
"Do you think so?" His eyes were alight.
"I am almost certain of it. My tiger is walking the horses in the lane. Do you think you could direct him to the stables and assist him in any way he needs?"
"I will do my very best." Francis began running through the grass towards the lane. He turned suddenly and called back, "Thank you, sir!"
"That was very bad of you," said Charlotte.
"To allow a young lad I've only just met free rein with my horses? I would say I was being very generous."
"You know exactly what I mean."
"Are you saying you did not wish to be alone with me?"
Charlotte coloured and stammered and could not meet his eyes. "I . . . I . . ."
"Because I have wanted to be alone with you from the moment you walked through your parlour door unable to meet my eyes, with your hair falling loose and your faded brown gown. I have never seen anything lovelier."
"Don't . . . flirt!"
"How I have missed hearing you say that! But you must know that I stopped flirting long ago." He stood still and took her arm and turned her to face him.
"You are flirting right now," she whispered, looking at her shoes.
"Those are very pretty shoes and I can see you are prodigiously proud of them, but will you not look at me?"
Charlotte's heart began to beat very quickly. "I am afraid to."
"Because I will be lost." There - she had said it and now he would know how foolish she really was.
"We are both of us lost, and have been for quite some time. Did you not know that?"
"Not you," she said, unable to be more articulate.
"And I had always thought you a girl of sense." He took her hand and squeezed it gently. "Especially me." He looked down at her and smiled, drawing her a little closer. "When I first realised I was falling in love with you, I was terrified. Do you remember the day the sea gave you the glass float?"
"You gave it to me."
He reached up and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and let his fingers trail down her cheek. "I admit it, I did, not the sea. I could never fool you. I thought you were going to throw it back into the waves."
"I wanted to keep it too much for that."
"And I thought then that you were still impervious to my charms. That night it came to me that I loved you, and I began shaking all over. By morning I had resolved to leave. Forgive me - I was not afraid of loving you but of what was happening to me, how my life would change, and what I would do if you did not care for me. When I returned I still had not decided what to do. I walked into the assembly and saw you and knew there was only one choice for me - that I shouldn't be afraid of change in my life because nothing could be better than sharing it with you. I tried to do what you had asked, to stop gratifying those ladies that expected me to flirt with them, to be more serious and sincere with you. It was completely painless for me to stop flirting - it is easy to give up something so meaningless - and I had no desire at all to pay any attention to any lady who was not you. But I cannot stop teasing you - do not ask that of me - it is much too rewarding."
Charlotte finally raised her head and looked up into his face. "I may tell you to stop, but I love it when you tease."
"Is there anything else that you love?"
"I love it when you play with your nephews and niece. I love the way you show consideration for the people you are close to and that you would do anything for a friend. I love the look in your eyes when you are about to say something very audacious. I love the way you read poetry. I love your voice. I love . . . " she faltered, and could go no further.
"That is a good beginning," he said, reaching his hand back up to stroke her hair. "I love it when you turn my words back on me. I love it when you put me in my place when I think I am being very clever. I love the way your nose wrinkles when you laugh. I love the way you take interest in the world about you. I love it when you look at me and your eyes soften and it makes me think I'm the luckiest man alive."
She leaned forward and, very naturally, his arms came around her. She pressed her head against his waistcoat, barely able to believe this was real - everything she had wished and hoped but thought was impossible was somehow coming true.
"Charlotte," he said. "How long do you think your father will want to keep you at home before he lets me have you?"
"What are you trying to say? Will you just take me away one day?"
"Yes. But I think we will have to involve a parson and some interested onlookers or everyone will look at us askance." He had that smug look on his face again, but this time she felt no desire to tell him to be serious.
"I would prefer it that way."
"So would I. Then I want to take you to a comfortable house in a shallow valley where a river runs out to the sea and fishermen tie glass balls to nets in the hopes of gaining riches - only I have discovered that the best way to gain riches is to place the glass ball at your loved one's feet."
"There are ghosts in that house that I want to give faces and names to and I want to hear their feet run up and down the stairs."
"I think I like your ghosts better than the ones I remember living there."
"They all have your eyes, but my smile," she whispered.
"Cannot some of them have your eyes?"
"Only with your smile."
She looked up into his face again and he smiled that special smile for her.
"I think we must find a barley field as soon as possible," he said. "There is something that I want to do, but I will need your father's blessing before I do it."
"I am sure there is one about here somewhere," said Charlotte, "but you cannot blame me if we have trouble finding it. Remember that I told you if I looked in your eyes I would become lost."
"Then it is up to me, I suppose," he said with a grin. "Can you at least tell me what barley looks like? I would not want to lead us to a field of oats by mistake."
"Just look for a field with a crew of labourers on it, and a gentleman supervising astride a horse."
Sidney released Charlotte from his arms, took her hand, and began to lead her along the hedgerows. "I knew you were a girl of uncommon good sense," he said as he leaned over and kissed her softly on her cheek. "That's why I chose you."