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'A post, my lord. I believe it may be the reply you've been awaiting.'
Rodgers' words created a tightness in Guy Wakefield's chest he couldn't quite explain. While it was true he'd been waiting for a response to an enquiry he'd made, he had no reason to believe that this, any more than the dozens of other avenues he'd pursued during the last five years, would provide the information he sought.
'Would you read it to me, Rodgers?' He was pleased that his voice reflected none of his inner turmoil.
'Of course, my lord.' There was a slight delay before his butler added, 'The candles, my lord. If I may?'
'Of course,' Guy agreed, waiting again until Rodgers had lit enough to read the letter by.
The butler cleared his throat before he began, the unfamiliar words laboriously sounded out, while the easier ones were rushed. Rodgers was proud of his ability to read, unusual for someone in service, and it had proved invaluable to his master since his return from the Peninsula.
Major General Roland Abernathy's first paragraph said all that was polite regarding the Viscount Easton's military record, and expressed a hope for his lordship's continued good health. It wasn't until the second paragraph that the reason for their correspondence was addressed. And, despite Rodgers' stumbling performance, the answer Guy had sought was rather quickly delivered.
If one could consider five years 'quickly.'
'The only English gentlewoman I am aware of in St Jean de Luz during the period about which you enquire was Captain William Stowe's wife, Isabella. I cannot, of course, be certain this is the lady you seek, but I can tell you that on several occasions Mrs Stowe, whose grandmother was Portuguese, proved invaluable to the allied efforts. I am also unable to provide you with Mrs Stowe's location. As she is now a widow, and entitled to her husband's pension, it is quite possible Captain Stowe's regiment may be able to give you her direction.'
Although Rodgers continued to read the Major General's closing remarks, Guy found that his mind had stuck on those salient to his quest. He now had a name for the woman whom he credited with saving his life that December night. Isabella Stowe, whose grandmother had been Portuguese. And who was now a widow.
The images that formed in his brain as a result of that information were contrary to those he had previously entertained. Whatever else she might be, the woman whose words had rescued him from what could only be described as the depths of despair was unlikely to be typically English. Other than in one important respect.
Like hundreds of others widowed by the war against Napoleon, she might very well be living in straitened circumstances. That, at least, was a situation he could do something about.
And even if she were not, he could at last express his gratitude for what she had done for him. That, of course, was the impulse that had driven his enquiries. Now that he had a name, the object of his search seemed finally within his grasp.*
Isabella lowered her head, closing her eyes with her thumb and forefinger. It didn't help her headache. Or the reality the stack of bills before her represented.
There was no help for those, it seemed. Not in her late husband's pension and certainly not in her own failed efforts to supplement that meagre income. And if she could no longer put food on the table
'A good cup a tea will soon put you to rights, my dear.' Her housekeeper pushed aside the shopkeepers' duns with the familiarity of long service to set the teapot down on the desk before her. 'Storm's a-brewing. That's all that's wrong with your head,' she went on cheerfully as she poured. 'My grandfather was the same way. He could always tell you about the weather.'
There was a storm brewing, all right, Isabella acknowledged as she lifted the steaming cup. One that didn't involve wind or rain.
'What did Mr Winters say to you when he delivered this?' She raised her eyes to assess the honesty of her servant's reply.
'I gave him a piece of my mind, I did,' Hannah said stoutly. 'The likes of him making demands on Mrs Stowe, I said. You should be ashamed, I told him. And he should be.'
'For wanting to be paid? You can hardly blame him for that. He has a family to feed.'
'And have you ever not paid him? As long as we've given him our trade? He'll get his money. I told him so, too.'
Except this time there was a very real possibility that he wouldn't, Isabella acknowledged. Neither he nor the others who had given her credit through the winter. A winter during which the roof had had to be replaced and the apothecary had been called for both Hannah and her husband, who saw to the workings of her household beyond the kitchen and the parlour.
After five years there was nothing left of William's estateno income at all other than the pittance due her from his regiment because of his service. And that was nowhere near enough to maintain this house, small though it was, or provide a livelihood for her staff.
'There now,' Hannah said. 'That's better, isn't it?'
'Thank you.' Isabella managed to find a smile for the housekeeper, who had been like family these last few years.
How Hannah and Ned would get on if she were forced to sell the house, Isabella couldn't imagine. They were well up in years and, as evidenced by this past winter's illnesses, no longer strong enough for the demands of service.
Perhaps she would raise enough from the sale to buy them a cottage where they could live out their days? Unconsciously she shook her head, knowing that even if she were by some miracle able to provide a roof over their heads, she could not support them as well as herself.
She must have made some sound in response to the realisation. Hannah turned from the fire she'd been building up to look at her.
'Shall I rub your temples? Or perhaps a kerchief dipped in vinegar? My mother swore by that. Troubled by headaches, she was, until the day she died.'
'It isn't my head,' Isabella confessed. 'In truth ' She hesitated, hating to share the very painful realisations she herself had been forced to face this morning. 'I don't know how we shall get on,' she finished weakly.
It wasn't for herself that she feared. Not only was she wellborn, she had also been well-educated. And she had travelled extensively during a period when that pastime had been denied to most Englishwomen. Even in these troubling economic times she had no doubt she could find a position as a companion or even as a governess, although her experience with children was very limited. Hannah and Ned, on the other hand
'We'll be fine, love. Don't you trouble your head about us. As long as we've a roof over our heads and something for our tea, why, what more could we want? Ned was saying just the other day that plot to the side that gets the morning sun would be perfect for planting some more vegetables. There's no telling what else he could grow if he set his mind to it.'
The knock at the front door took them both by surprise. Hannah put down the poker she'd been wielding to wipe her hands on her apron. 'Now, who could that be in this rain?'
She was right, Isabella realised. The storm now pounded against the new roof. She said a silent prayer that the costly repair would hold against it as Hannah disappeared towards the front of the house.
Her eyes fell to the stack of bills again. Please, God, it's not one of these demanding payment.
She could hear Hannah's voice, but not that of the caller. A neighbour, perhaps? Or a traveller seeking directions? Apparently not the dunning she had feared.
'A gentleman, Mrs Stowe,' Hannah said as she re-entered the room. 'He insists on speaking to you.'
'Did he give you his name?'
'Wakefield, he said. Doesn't seem to be from around these parts. Too fine, if you take my meaning.'
Isabella wasn't sure she did, but she rose, brushing at the wrinkles in her skirt. It was her second-best dress, but it had already been carefully darned. If the gentleman at the door was as fine as Hannah indicated, then she should have had the housekeeper direct him to the parlour. She didn't do that because she couldn't imagine a real gentleman would come calling on her.
More than likely he'd been sent by someone whose accounts she'd been trying to figure out how to pay. If that were the case.
'I'll go to him,' she announced.
The housekeeper's mouth opened and then closed, but by that time Isabella had already pushed by her to walk towards the front door. Hannah was right, she decided as she got her first glimpse of their visitor. He was too fine to fit into any of the categories she had mentally assigned him.
Although she'd hesitated before entering the hallway where the housekeeper had left him, the man somehow became aware of her presence. He turned to face her, destroying the lingering possibility that he might be some tradesman's messenger.
From the intricately tied cravat to the gleaming Hessians he was every inch the gentleman. The beaver he held in his hands had probably cost more than she'd spent maintaining her household during the past year.
The quick upward tilt of his lips caused a very peculiar sensation in the pit of Isabella's stomach. Not only was her visitor impeccably turned out, he was rather shockingly handsome.
His coal-black hair was touched with grey at the temples, which seemed to belie the youthfulness of his features. The most striking of which, she realised, was a pair of blue eyes rimmed with lashes that would have been the envy of any London beauty.
'How may I help you, Mr.. Wakefield, is it?' Although her hand had nervously found the throat of her gown, she managed to resist the ridiculous impulse to touch her hair, which she knew was in complete disarray.
There was a brief hesitation before her caller responded. 'That's right.' As he agreed, he stepped towards her.
It was only then that she saw the scars, which had been concealed by the dim light of the hallway until now.
'I know you,' she whispered.
She did. This was the boy she'd given water to while he'd awaited transport at the harbour of St Jean de Luz.
A boy no more, she acknowledged. If he had been then.
One long-fingered hand lifted to touch the marred area on his right cheek. 'I wasn't certain you'd remember.'
'Of course I remember.' She was beginning to get her bearings, finally able to put this into perspective.
Mr Wakefield was here because she had attempted to succour him in an hour of need. Just as she had done with so many others during the years she'd spent in Iberia.
He was not the first of those to seek her out. Especially after William's death had become known to the soldiers who had fought with him.
'I see you have recovered from your injuries,' she said with a smile. It was always gratifying to see someone who'd survived, given the rather ghastly odds against it. 'Despite my fears.'
The answering tilt of his lips disturbed the emotional equilibrium she had just congratulated herself on achieving. And she couldn't quite decide why.
'If I remember correctly, those fears were well justified.'
'Perhaps, but ' He hesitated again, the smile in his eyes fading. 'If it were not for you'
'I offered you water and some words of comfort,' she interrupted briskly, well accustomed to dealing with unwanted gratitude. 'I wish I could claim that I believed them, but I had in all probability offered the same meaningless phrases to the man lying beside you.'
He smiled at her again, something she found she was enjoying a little too much. Too long out of the company of attractive men. Out of the company of any men, she amended.
It's amazing I'm not bowled over by the butcher. And if I pretended to be would he give us something for the table?
She tried to arrange her features into some appropriately sincere mode, determined to let Mr Wakefield express his gratitude as he'd clearly come here to do. When he had done so, there would be time to decide what to do about the butcher.
'I am not, however, so certain of that as you seem to be,' he continued. 'Our conversation was quite specific, I assure you. And your remarks too apt to be given by rote.'
'Or perhaps I had grown very good at telling sorely wounded men what they needed to hear.' A skill she had rather not have had occasion to develop.
'I was taught never to argue with a lady. And I promise you that debating our memories isn't why I've come.'
'Whatever you've come for' she began, only to be interrupted.
'I had hoped to express my gratitude in some.tangible way.'
'I'm afraid I don't understand.'
Actually, she was very much afraid that she did. And, despite the stack of duns on the table in the kitchen, she felt her temper rise.
'I was told your husband succumbed to a fever in the last days of the war.'
'A pinprick.' Her bitterness over the stupidity of it came through in her tone. 'All the times he'd been injured This was nothing. Less than nothing. Maybe if it had been he would have let me see to it in the beginning. Instead.' She paused again to control her emotions. 'Instead the wound began to suppurate, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. My husband was gone in three days, his body burning up before my eyes.'
Only the prolonged silence after her words made her realise that she had told this stranger more about William's death than she had ever confessed to anyone else.
'I'm truly sorry,' he said softly. 'From all accounts he was a fine man. And a fine officer.'
'Yes, he was.' Unconsciously she lifted her chin, a reaction to her embarrassing display. Was she not a soldier's wife?
'It can't have been easy for you since his death.'
Her chin inched upward another notch. 'Thank you for your very kind concern, Mr Wakefield, but I assure you it is quite unnecessary. My husband provided for me very well. You need have no fear on that account.'
Another silence, during which she held his eyes, daring him to offer an additional bit of unwanted solicitude. Thank God the man had sense enough to realise he had overstepped his bounds.
She held out her hand, suddenly eager to be done with this. 'Thank you for coming to see me. I'm so very glad that what you feared that night did not come to pass.'
Again there was a heartbeat's hesitation, and then he touched her outstretched hand, bringing it to his lips. They brushed her skin, lingering not a second longer than politeness dictated.
'Thank you for my life, Mrs Stowe. I confess I should have been very loath to lose it.'