Two minutes later, they were down in Edward’s study, with a glass of brandy each, and Alfred searching the desk and the shelves for some sustenance as Charlotte hadn’t eaten all day.
‘I could have sworn he had some… Ah!’ Alfred chuckled in satisfaction as he found a glass jar of shortbread biscuits in a cupboard above the mantelpiece. He joined her in the armchairs by the fire and insisted she eat one. And another.
‘Care for one?’ he asked, holding out a silver case of cheroots, evidently another lucky discovery after rummaging in Edward’s desk.
She knew she shouldn’t have but she took one. He lit hers up and then his own. She was glad that Lord Alfred was not one to judge her for being a woman who smoked. But then he seemed an old hand at knowing the habits of people who were not playing by the usual rules.
‘This is the part where you tell me about her. Tell me… tell me how you met,’ he said, with a little smile for encouragement.
She took a hearty sip from her drink for Dutch courage – she couldn’t believe she was going to tell this to Lord Alfred of all people and if she was going to do this, she would need it. She hesitated still, remembering that night, warmth filling her heart at once, despite the pain.
‘I saw her dancing,’ she began, encouraged by Alfred’s cautiously delighted expression. ‘It was at the beginning of this past season. I remember Mama insisted that I wear a hideous brooch on my collar showing the image of a swan. Since then I’ve accidentally lost it.’
‘She insisted it would draw attention to my neck,’ she said rather cynically, taking another biscuit. ‘I had been perfectly happy in Scotland… but of course I am nothing more than goods to sell, preferably to the highest bidder, regardless of whether I disliked them or not, as far as my parents are concerned but I need not tell you about that.’
‘No, in fact, you sound exactly like Edward.’
‘Hm,’ she took another generous gulp of her brandy, enjoying the burning sensation down her throat. ‘I dreaded the endless show of balls and dinners and walks and concerts and all of it. Every night as Mama would list the eligible bachelors I was advised to dance with I was wishing for an awful pimple in the middle of my nose that would ward them off. I detested the idea that by the end of the summer I might be engaged to some horrid oaf with a hideous moustache and big hairy hands and the dullest personality and that I would have to eventually be a wife…’
She took a long drag of the cheroot, soothing her nerves.
‘But I completely forgot about that when I entered the ballroom and I spotted her. It was as if a draft connived to bend the light of the chandeliers and she seemed to sparkle more brilliantly than anyone else in the room. Her grace and elegance as she moved and the joy she clearly derived from the dance… I could gladly stand there watching her for the rest of my life. But I crumbled as soon as she looked at me, desperate for an escape.’
She drank more brandy and smoked more of Edward’s cheroot. He would notice some were missing in the morning but she did not care a fig about that at the moment. Now that she started, all she could think about was Agnes.
‘I did not clap eyes on her for some weeks after that. I didn’t even know her name! It was as if I felt that she would be significant and therefore potentially dangerous to me. But as luck should have it, even though I was as aloof and quiet as I could be at any event, I scored an invitation to the Duke of Fife’s birthday party and there she was again. Tommy’s sister. This time, we talked. It was strange, I felt as if she saw right through me, right down to my soul, even though I hardly said anything and even that little was about the weather or some such inconsequential nonsense.’
She let out a long sigh before continuing.
‘Tommy, the Duke, he was not short on stories from our youth – Edward would tell you, too, we used to play together as children. I thought it strange that I could remember him but not his sister, who was so enchanting and perfect. Apparently she was often sick as a child. Nothing serious, but she would miss out on those trips because she was deemed too fragile to travel. Except once. She did come to our house, or so I was told. When I wasn’t there because I was at our grandmama Winifred’s house for dancing lessons. By that time we were about fifteen… and… as she later revealed to me, she was so excited to be somewhere else than her home, after so much confinement, that she liked to explore. This game of hide-and-seek became such a habit of hers that to this day it raises not one eyebrow if she goes missing for an hour or two. After all, she was desperate to see something else than her own home once in a while and no one could blame her. They let her play. So on that visit, she went exploring in our house, too. She explored my room in my absence, and found some sketches of mine in a hidden drawer of my desk.’
‘Let me guess,’ Alfred said, a smile dancing on his lips. ‘They were not exactly miniatures of the Virgin Mary.’
‘Not exactly, no…’ Charlotte admitted. She couldn’t believe she was telling someone about this.
‘You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.’
‘Why, and miss out on a chance to shock you? I cannot possibly pass up on that!’ she joked and stopped to smoke. ‘I had seen some villagers bathe in the river while walking our dog one day. I had accidentally let go of the leash and had to chase after it and… Well, there they were. Women from the village, bathing, washing their clothes, playing in the water…’
Alfred seemed to read Charlotte’s mind and poured her a drop more brandy.
‘Thank you… Agnes remembered it. Finding my drawings. She hadn’t met me but she knew my deepest, darkest secret. That night of the birthday party, when no one was looking, she pulled me aside and took me through secret passages to the rooftop.’
‘By God, but how romantic!’ Alfred couldn’t help saying.
‘It… it was,’ Charlotte admitted.
She put out her cheroot and played with the rim of her brandy glass.
‘She took me to the rooftop. I thought she was absolutely mad! She beckoned to me to follow her, climbing over ledges – I was terrified we would slip on the tiles and fall to out deaths. My heart was racing so. But I followed her anyway. She stopped on top of a turret and pointed to the moon – I suppose it was lovely but I was too busy being glad to find flat surface under my feet. Before I could really find my footing, she came up to me, to fix my collar – the lace had caught in something and it was torn. But when she saw it was beyond saving, she did not step away. She… she touched my skin, and my hair, and…’ she said, absent-mindedly resting her hand on her own collar-bone. ‘She confessed it all. How she stole into my room years before and found my drawings and that she had often thought about me and when she heard from Tommy that I was in acquaintance with him, she encouraged him to invite me to the party. How she had hoped to meet me one day. And that I was…’ Charlotte shook her head bashfully, so like when Edward did so, ‘… that I was prettier than she had imagined in the wildest dreams. I… I felt as if I would have died if I hadn’t kissed her.’
Alfred knew exactly what she meant, as images of a midsummer evening crept into his mind’s eye.
Charlotte lingered on the memory for a few seconds, soaking it up all over again, letting it travel through his veins before she had to let it go.
‘There were so many guests for the party that no one batted an eyelash when Agnes suggested to her Mama that I share her bedroom,’ she said and Alfred had to hide his knowing grin behind his glass. ‘Throughout the season we connived to repeat that night. You’d be amazed how easy it is for women friends to be allowed to share a bedroom.’
‘I can only imagine with immense envy,’ Alfred sighed.
‘Sometimes Mama would even encourage it – no doubt she thought Agnes would be a good influence on me, that she would inspire me to want to marry. Because at the same time,’ Charlotte said, melancholia overcoming her again, ‘I knew quite early on that she was going to be married soon. She never made a secret out of it. In fact I was introduced to her fiancé, a distant relative of ours, a second cousin or something, in the same breath as I was to her at Tommy’s birthday party. He’s been a constant presence.’
Charlotte drowned her misery in the brandy lest she started crying again.
‘She may think she has chosen the easier path but I have a terrible feeling she will soon realise it isn’t so easy after all,’ Alfred said.
‘No, it’ll be easy for her. This is what she wanted.’
‘Or so she said?’ Alfred asked, remembering with shame the time he called his and Edward’s magical first kiss an indiscretion.
‘No, it is,’ Charlotte said matter-of-factly. ‘She likes him. Loves him, even. Or she will, with time. She’s not pretending any of it.’
Alfred didn’t have a good response to that. He had been with men who ended up perfectly happily with women. He never felt the inclination to frown at someone’s happiness. But he once feared Edward was one of those men, too. That even if he truly loved Alfred, he would be compelled to choose a life that was easier because it wasn’t so daunting for him as it was for Alfred. If he was honest, he imagined he himself might have decided to marry too, if he had ever felt capable of desire for women but the simple truth was that he did not.
‘So she ended things because of the marriage,’ he presumed.
‘No. I did,’ Charlotte surprised him again.
‘Yes. It was I who ended it. I told her I loved her. And then she said that’s impossible because... what we did doesn’t matter. She didn’t even consider it being unfaithful. She had no qualms about continuing it after she was married. Because it doesn’t matter. My heart was ripped into pieces but it “doesn’t matter.” So I ended it.’
Alfred could barely mask his shock.
‘Do you think I made a mistake?’
Alfred didn’t reply immediately. ‘No, I think that was remarkably brave of you.’
‘Or stupid. I might never find anything close to even this again. Don’t, Lord Alfred,’ she said before he started to object. ‘You don’t know the future any more than I do.’
Alfred had to give it to her. She was playing with the rim of her glass again so as to avoid what she presumed might be pity in Lord Alfred’s eyes.
‘She wasn’t my first,’ she admitted, barely above a whisper. ‘And she might not be my last… but… I wish one of them loved me back.’
She felt it – that sharp slash of pain through her chest, and lead in her lungs, put there by the prospect of life long loneliness.
‘Just once,’ she nearly pleaded, pulling Alfred’s frock coat that she was still wearing tighter around herself. ‘Just one of them. Just someone. For a minute. Properly.’
She couldn’t help fresh tears escaping his eyes and she drowned them in her drink but it wouldn’t help.
‘You said you met the Ladies of Llangollen. It’s possible.’
‘Oh it is. And meeting them has made me ache all the more. It’s not even because of Agnes particularly that I am distraught,’ she continued. ‘She may have been the reason for it in a more immediate way, and I am desperately mourning the end of what were some of my happiest moments courtesy of dear Agnes, but it’s not exactly the fact that I lost her that terrifies me so. Because I am terrified, Lord Alfred. I can feel it – I am constantly gripped by this overwhelming sense, no, not sense, realisation, that I shall never be loved.’
‘I have loved but no one ever returned it. It particularly hurts now because Agnes so seemed as if she would. But no. And I don’t think anyone ever will. Not because there isn’t anyone in the world who could love me like I could love them. On the contrary, I fear that there is someone out there that I haven’t met, and she’s just as lonely on this sleepless night and longing for someone who understands her, who accepts her, listens to her, and loves her, but with whom I shall never cross paths because it is such an infinitesimal possibility. Or maybe I have met her but the situation wasn’t such that we should have talked or not meaningfully and now the chance is gone… I can almost see her, I can almost hear her, somehow I know that she exists but I also know how unlikely it is that I will ever find her, let alone… let her know… or…’
Alfred leaned forward, taking the brandy out of her hands so that he could hold them.
‘If it is meant to be, you will find her. I truly believe so,’ he said.
Charlotte smiled despite herself. There was a fair amount of patronizing in there, that was true, but she was also glad that Lord Alfred will not know the pain she was feeling and would be feeling for the rest of her days if she was right.
‘You are kind, Lord Alfred,’ she said calmly. ‘But I do not believe so. I think I’m one of those people who are fated to miss out on it. And… I do not wish to sound resentful but I can’t even enjoy real distractions that would take my mind off it. I envy Edward endlessly – he has such responsibility in his hands. He is never without hugely important tasks, his mind can be occupied to its fullest.’
‘He is the first to say you are just as learned and brilliant—’
‘Maybe. But he can do something with it, whereas whatever I could get my hands on, it’s never going to be enough. I could find many an occupation but there are only so many books to read or write, there are only so many paintings to paint, songs to play, or charities to support…’
‘There must be something in which you could find solace.’
‘I would love to travel but I cannot do that alone – I cannot even walk to the end of this street without the supervision of a dull, stuck-up maid to chaperone me needlessly. I can’t, what would that look like? I wouldn’t really care but I can’t, I couldn’t embarrass Edward like that. He’s got enough on his shoulders as it is that could wreck his career, he doesn’t need me to add to it. So, alone, I am stuck here, with nothing of real significance to do. Left alone with my own anxious thoughts day and night. Perhaps I am going mad.’
‘It’s not over until it’s over.’
‘What if I want it to be over, then?’ she said savagely without thinking. Her hand shot up to her mouth as soon as she realised what she said. Perhaps she went too far.
Alfred moved to kneel on the carpet at her feet, squeezing her hand strongly. It was hard to stare such deep despair in the face. Indeed, the most heart breaking part wasn’t what she said so much as how she said it: she had accepted it all as the likely truth.
‘Edward loves you,’ Alfred said to her. ‘Your friends love you. Your family may have misguided methods to show it but I’m sure they—’
‘No, they do not,’ she cut in, not to fight but it was a simple fact she didn’t much dwell on anymore. ‘But I know what you mean to say. They say that a man’s job is to provide and protect and all of those wonderful actions full of agency, and a woman’s job is to love. I am not allowed to do a man’s job. But what if I am not even allowed to love? What then? What meaning is left?’ Charlotte asked, feeling thankful for Lord Alfred but also full of regret. ‘Please don’t tell Edward any of—’
Just as she said that, she felt warm hands on her shoulders and she was engulfed in the tightest brotherly hug. Edward was shaking with sobs, evidently having entered the room from the entrance behind her armchair and listened to it all. And to her surprise, once she returned the hug, she felt the weight of the world release her from its suffocating hold.
Edward knew now.
Alfred stood and knew it was time for him to leave. Before he did so, he caught Edward’s tear-filled eyes and saw he mouthed “Thank you” to him, over Charlotte’s shoulder. Hoping that he hadn’t made things worse, he left them alone.
It was a long while before their sobs ceased.
‘We ate up all your biscuits,’ she said, she didn’t know why. But it made Edward laugh through his tears.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said, releasing his sister. ‘We never eat them but they bake new ones every day.’
‘How much did you…?’
‘All of it. I was listening even upstairs.’
‘Then you heard what Lord Alfred—’
‘Yes, that too. I’ll talk to him later. But now, Charlotte… Oh my dear Charlotte, why haven’t you talked to me before? Don’t you know I am here for you?’
‘You can’t help,’ she reasoned, though somewhat apologetically. ‘And I didn’t want to burden you. You have enough on your plate as it is. It’s more than enough that you’ve taken me in, I can’t expect you to solve my problems for me.’
‘I… well… First of all, we’re hardly Oliver Twist and Mr Brownlow. You are not a burden, you’re my sister. And I may not be able to solve your problems but I can make it better. There must be some things I could do to make it a little more bearable.’
Charlotte considered this, now that she was a little more relieved.
‘Well, to be honest I wouldn’t mind a new maid, if I must have one. This one is just odious. She’s like a nun. I feel judged every second of every day.’
‘Done. I’ll find a new one. Or, you will, or Alfred might ask some lady at court for a recommendation or… it’s done.’
‘Thank you. And please apologise to Lord Alfred on my behalf. I have been… tense around him and he didn’t deserve it. His parents suggested a match between us in Wales, I had to…’
‘Oh God, did they really? I’m sorry. I will. But I’m afraid he already knows you don’t really dislike him, despite your best efforts to give such an impression.’
‘Then I am happy to hear I have failed,’ she said, allowing herself a smile and meaning it. ‘It would also help if he wrote a letter to Lord and Lady Anglesey about how ugly and dull I am.’
‘I shall be sure to suggest it.’
She nearly laughed. ‘You should go back to bed. I don’t think I could sleep, I should like to stay.’
‘No, I will join you, then. If you’d like. I’ll get you proper food and we can talk. Or not talk. Whatever you like.’
She nodded gratefully.
‘Only…’ Edward added, ‘I just need to do something. I shall be back in no time.’
Edward found Alfred in his room sitting on the window ledge, deep in thought. Alfred heard him come in, turned towards him, and their eyes locked. Edward’s legs carried him to the window, swiftly closed the curtains to shut the bloody world out, and kissed Alfred with all the love he had.
‘I should have told you,’ Alfred whispered against Edward’s lips. Oh, to be held by the man he loves! It was a better remedy for any ache and ail.
‘Yes you should have,’ Edward replied in turn, resting his forehead against Alfred’s just like when they first kissed by that lake.
‘What must you think of me now…’
‘I think nothing different of you, of course. Why would I?’
‘Oh, Edward, you dear man… because of what happened, because of how different my past was compared you yours, I feel as if I am not good enough for you,’ Alfred admitted after struggling to find the words.
Edward was completely bewildered. ‘Not good enough?! Alfred… you cannot think… what makes you think…?!’
‘Well, you hadn’t been with anyone before. Whereas I… I can’t imagine what you must think of me now.’
‘But that’s… that’s ridiculous,’ Edward said, hearing himself laugh. ‘I don’t think either good or bad about how many men you had been with before we met. I envy them, the lucky fools to have known you at all, and I pity them for not having seen you as I do, but I do not care a fig about them. I do care that they hurt you, particularly that absolute loathsome cad Peel!’ Edward seethed. ‘I swear the next time he dares to cross my path I shall not be responsible for what I might do. I might strangle the scoundrel!’
Alfred chuckled. ‘How gallant you are, my darling. I feel a knighting is due.’
‘I will not let him near you ever again.’
‘Near me? He doesn’t want anything from me, never did. It’s you on whom he has his eyes.’
Edward wanted to agree but he thought back to that night at Peel’s estate and the way William stepped away so easily. And the strange way he stared at Alfred’s lock of hair in his locket…
‘Alfred… I think… Perhaps…’
‘What is it?’
‘Alfred, I owe you a confession, too.’
And Edward, though reluctantly, recounted to Alfred that unseemly night time encounter with William in full.
After he was done, Alfred found he wasn’t angry. He was flabbergasted and in disbelief.
‘He was acting,’ he said once he had heard the whole story. ‘Trust not a word of his. He must have been playing with you, as he always does.’
‘I can’t think why he would do so. He didn’t get anything out of it.’
‘Maybe he thought he might still do, if he gained your sympathy. You’re a good man with a kind heart. People like William prey on that, they use it to their advantage. He just wants to make trouble, he thrives on that, especially if he can get a fetching young man or two in his bed in the process. Before he gets on his ship and flees any consequences.’
‘I have seen many a malicious person such as the ones you are describing, my love. But I do not think Mr Peel is quite as bad as that. Truly. I would definitely strangle him for what he did to you, make no mistake about that,’ Edward added, prompting Alfred to both smile and pinch the bridge of his nose, ‘but perhaps he does or did feel more about you than he lets on.’
Alfred remembered what William said earlier at the Palace. Has it ever occurred to you that I do not care for Drummond? If he wasn’t after Edward, he was…
‘It is a surprise to me that he is capable of feeling at all. Now,’ Alfred said, wanting to put a closure on the whole topic, ‘you mustn’t keep Charlotte waiting.’
‘We must not.’
‘Don’t you want to be alone with her? Sibling time…’
‘Seeing as it is your single-handed success that she has revealed what she has been going though, I believe we cannot get through this night without you. Let’s make a party out of it. Just us, no servants, we’ll play cards, make our fun, anything we want. What do you say?’
‘Who are you and what have you done to Edward Drummond?’
‘Are you coming or not?’
Alfred smiled widely and followed Edward downstairs.