Four Years Later
For some months now, it had been increasingly difficult for Charity to run around and keep up with the games and pranks of her little son. She did her best, of course, but she grew tired and short of breath so quickly, and the insistent shouts of ‘faster, mamma, faster!’ could not possibly have been obeyed.
So she had learned instead to set herself up in a comfortable deck chair and take pleasure in watching her child at play instead.
Freddie — christened for the uncle that he had never known — was an active child, with the boundless energy only a little one of three years old can possess. His father did his best. Since Charity was now once again with child, and the time for the new arrival was drawing near, she could no longer rush around after her little son the way she had previously.
It gave her just as much pleasure, however, to simply watch her son, Freddie, at play. He could occupy himself for hours and continually amuse his mamma and papa with his capering and babbling.
This afternoon, an afternoon in which late spring was turning decisively into summer, he was playing with a red ball.
The ball had been a gift from his grandpapa.
Relations with Charity’s father had thawed somewhat six months after their wedding when the old Duke of Mornington quietly passed away. Suddenly Charity found herself a Duchess, and everyone was trying to maneuver her with some request or supplication.
Her father, however, became an anchor amidst the whirlwind of her ever-changing pastimes, including impending motherhood.
At first, when she had gone away with Adam to travel to Europe, they had written very little.
Yet Charity found herself longing for a correspondent, and Esther was rather too much taken up with the occupations of her own new marriage to be a particularly prolific letter-writer, although she was a regular and devoted one. As such, Charity found herself sketching out little word-portraits of the things she had seen and done and sending them to her father.
She wrote to him of the promenades of Paris, of the heat and elegance of Rome, of the breathtaking beauty of Florence and the stately splendor of Vienna. She told him of coach rides and river journeys. They went to all the places that were considered fashionable, of course, but they left those places quickly so they might better explore this remarkable new world in which they found themselves.
For the first, time Charity found herself using the French and German that she had learned all her life, and employing the drawing skills she had worked so long to perfect to sketch the great cathedrals. Her refinements grew in the foreign climes.
In short, she went away as young Mrs. Harding, and returned as the Duchess of Mornington.
For his part, her father for his part claimed to feel as though he were experiencing every delightful moment of the journey with her through her letters.
He did not write back very extensively, yet his restrained correspondence nonetheless betrayed a desire to hear more about what she was experiencing. Little by little, she found herself falling into a written conversation with her father, a discussion of two curious minds which far exceeded any they had ever shared while living under the same roof.
When she returned to England after six months’ travel, by that point with child, she had found that her relationship with her father had transformed in her absence to something far more equal and considerably warmer than any they had ever known before.
The relationship had warmed still more when little Freddie was born. Charity had noted with gladness — though perhaps still a tiny bit of hurt — how warmly her father had taken to the boy - much more warmly, she felt, than he had treated her when she was a little girl.
Any bitterness, however, was far outweighed by the pleasure that she took in seeing her son’s adoration of his grandpapa. Noting Adam’s parents had passed and her father widowed, she found comfort seeing her father shower her son with much needed grandparental attention.
Her father, in response, tenaciously pampered her little boy with gifts, which he always offered gravely to the little lad, which he inspected with equal gravity, before laughing in delight, dashing off with his grandpapa in close pursuit.
In moments such as that, it was almost possible to forget that her father had done what he did, or that he had lied to her so terribly. —almost, but not quite.
Freddie and the Reverend Miller were throwing the ball back and forth to each other, crowing with delight at every catch. For her part, Charity was seated in a deckchair at the lakeside. Adam had been drifting between the two, at her side some of the time and joining in with the game at intervals. He never liked to leave her alone for long when she was in her condition, protective as he always was.
The only person with whom they had not reconciled in the slightest, nor did they ever plan to, was the barbaric Sir Toby. He remained as unpleasant as ever, and since their marriage, had grown very fat and developed gout. He had never married but was still causing the young debutantes of London a great deal of distress with his boorish behavior.
Charity and Adam were talking idly about nothing in particular, the way they so often did. It came down to enjoying the sound of each other’s voices, rather than having anything in particular to say.
They were half-listening to their little boy’s shrieks of delight, not paying much attention to the game taking place a hundred yards or so away from where they sat.
But Charity turned her head just at the crucial moment when the world strained at its foundations and looked ready to collapse.
In the time it took for the ball to bounce off the pier and into the lake, Charity could only rise clumsily from her chair.
She did not hear herself scream, but she felt the force of it passing through her lips.
Adam was running, running faster and more desperately than she had ever seen him run, but Freddie was already at the end of the pier, was already leaning into the water, was already falling…
The scream she heard when the splash came was from the nurse — her own breath was far too caught in her throat to be able to make any noise at all, let alone a sound that stopped time and curdled the blood.
Her boy was splashing, splashing in the water, his little hands reaching above the surface…
…and then there was a blur of black cloth.
She had never seen her father move so swiftly in all her life.
Seemingly without any thought at all, he had thrown himself off the little pier and was in the water and… yes…with her heart in her mouth, she could see that her father was holding the child in his arms, though both were struggling to keep above the surface of the lake.
There was another great splash, and then Adam was in the lake too, having reached the end of the pier with a swiftness that Charity could only have described as miraculous.
And then Freddie was in his arms and across the lake, and Charity could hear the little boy’s piteous cries as he wailed into his father’s soaked shoulder.
She usually hated to hear her child cry, but at that moment it was music to Charity’s ears. Those cries meant that he was not drowned, he was not hurt; he was in good enough health, indeed, to make quite a racket.
She could see also that Adam had her father by the collar and that he, too, was safely above the surface of the water. She knew that his abilities as a swimmer had significantly deteriorated with age, especially recently. Hisis health was in the sort of delicate state that could scarcely withstand any shock to the system, let alone a bodily leap into cold water.
The fingers of fear grasped at her heart, though none could grip so tightly as the initial terror of seeing Freddie fall.
With the help of a nearby groom and the nurse and Charity herself, although she heard —do not exert yourself, Charity! You must not do yourself any harm! We are all alright, there is no harm done — and the three in the lake were gathered safely to the shore.
It took some time — maybe twenty minutes or half an hour — for Charity to be reassured that her child really was quite well. It was only when he sat up in her arms and said, in a tone of childish indignation, “But mamma, where is my ball?” that Charity was entirely certain that she had nothing to fear.
The relief that she felt at that moment eclipsed any other sensation that she had ever felt in her life.
At first, Charity feared greatly for her father. After all, he was past seventy, and men of his age were generally ill-advised to fling themselves into chilly lakes in springtime without the least thought for their own safety.
But after a few minutes when he lay on the pier and really seemed frighteningly cold and silent, he appeared to revive himself. As soon as he became adequately conscious, he demanded to know that Freddie was safe, and appeared to be unsatisfied with all reassurances until he had seen the boy himself.
The sight of his grandson, safe and well, seemed to provide a far better tonic than any amount of stimulant any quantity of warm blankets, both of which were being pressed upon all of those who had entered the lake (though not the brandy, in Freddie’s case).
She had other things to attend to, of course, even though Freddie was providing ample evidence of his health and wellbeing. For one thing, the nurse was sobbing her heart out.
“He ran so quickly, Your Grace. So quickly… so quickly….”
It was as though she were trapped by her own words, as though she could not move beyond that moment of frozen horror that they had all felt, as though they had experienced it in one body.
“There there,” Charity said, patting the girl on the arm. “I know how fast Master Freddie can move. It is not your fault. Do not distress yourself.”
She still had not said anything to her father, who was still standing with the water streaming from his clothes and tears streaming from his eyes.
“I saw it all again,” he said. For the first time in Charity’s whole life, she heard a trace of a sob in her father’s voice. “I saw everything. All over again, as though it were a dream…”
“But it was not a dream, Papa,” Charity replied, using the tender epithet that she had not been accustomed to using for her father since she was a little girl. “Freddie is quite safe, and it is all thanks to you.”
For the first time in four years, Charity stepped forward and wholeheartedly embraced her father unprompted, burying her face in his shoulder.
“Thank heavens you were there, Papa,” she said and began to sob herself heartily. “If it had not been for you…”
She did not dare to finish the sentence, nor did she need to. They were all well acquainted with what might have taken place, had her father not been there to stop it.
Everyone had dried off now and dressed in fresh clothes. Little Freddie had been dispatched to bed so that his nurse could ensure he would suffer no lasting damage from his fright in the lake.
Charity had scarcely been able to tear herself away from the bedside of her sleeping son, yet she had known what needed to be done.
After her father and Adam had been supplied with fresh clothes, they had both returned to the lakeside, as though they had been drawn there by some spell.
She found them standing side by side, although not speaking, with both of their gazes turned to the lake. The surface was so still now, so harmless and serene. It seemed impossible that it could possibly have ever been a place of evil and sorrow and had come so close to taking another innocent life only an hour or two before.
“We shall have a fence put up tomorrow,” Adam was saying, slightly dazedly. “I can scarcely believe that I have not attended to it before now. It is only lately that Freddie has learned to dash about so quickly. I do not think that any of us were expecting it.”
His tone was utterly disconsolate, and it was evident to Charity that he blamed himself for what had taken place — or rather, what had been only narrowly avoided — that day. She slipped her hand into his; he squeezed it gratefully.
“I am so sorry, my darling,” he said, looking down at her with tortured eyes. “I almost let harm come to our son. How can I look you in the eye?”
“It was not your fault,” Charity replied warmly. “It was an accident. An unhappy one, but the sort of thing that can well happen when one has a little monkey such as him to care for. All I can say is that I suppose all of us must take more care for the future. You would do well not to dwell on it any further, my dear.”
“How can I not?” Adam replied bleakly. “He is my child, my son. It is my task to care for him, and I failed in that today.”
“Well, then let us thank heaven that my father was there,” Charity interjected. It seemed to her that Adam would have to deal with his guilt in his own time, and there was little that she could say at present that might console him today. “We are only human, and we have our faults, but little Freddie is safe, and that is all that matters.
“You cannot blame yourself,” her father said, still staring across the lake.
“You are quite right, Papa,” Charity said. “Adam can no longer blame himself for our Freddie’s accident, and I believe that the time has also come that you, too, must stop blaming yourself for what took place five years ago.”
“It is quite unlike,” her father replied. The echo of a sob had entered his voice once again. “It is quite unlike, for that truly was all my fault. If I had acted more quickly then, those two innocent souls would still be with us today.”
“You acted quickly today,” Charity replied firmly. “You learned from the past and atoned in the present. I cannot do as God does and forgive you of your sins, but I do believe that the time has come for you to forgive yourself.
“I cannot forgive myself,” the old Reverend said, and Charity noticed for the first time how much of a hold the years had taken on her father, the way that his face was lined and turned a sort of greyish color so that it bled into his skin. It struck her that ever since Mary and Freddie had died, the life seemed to have been sucked out of him, little by little.
And, also for the first time, her heart began to ache for him. She felt a great pity for him, for a life that had known relatively little joy when her own was so thoroughly infused with happiness.
The three of them stood there, looking at the lake and silently voicing their gratitude that it had not claimed another victim on that day. It seemed as though history would not be allowed to repeat itself, and sometimes - just sometimes - people were capable of change.
After a while of looking in silence, Adam glanced at the sky and said, “It grows dark. I think that we had better go back into the house. There is Freddie to attend to, and you really ought to rest, my dearest Charity. All of this excitement cannot have been good for you, particularly in your present condition.”
Nodding, half-distractedly, Charity tore her eyes away from the surface of the water and glanced across to the opposite shore.
Just for a second, she thought that she caught sight of two figures standing by the water’s edge. The taller was a young woman with glorious russet hair, her fair hand resting on the little shoulder of a small boy with tight blond curls.
A little way away from them, stood an old bent woman, who wore an expression of perfect peace on her venerable features.
All three were smiling.
Charity blinked, and the three figures were gone. But the sense of peace that entered her heart as she saw them remained.
She and Adam walked back to the hall together, hand in hand, to kiss their son goodnight.
Ah, before you go...
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