On the day appointed for Georgiana’s secret arrival, Charlotte devised an evening visit to her good friend Anne Tomkins, who lived in town with a frail, elderly aunt. During such visits, Aunt Constance often demanded more of Charlotte’s attention than did Anne, but was also generous with her carriage to convey Charlotte home at the end of these long evenings.
Charlotte had, in arranging the visit, shared a few essential details with trustworthy Anne, so as they settled around Aunt Constance’s divan in the parlor, Charlotte was guaranteed a seat near the window, which Anne had insisted should be cracked open, ostensibly for fresh air that Aunt needed, but in fact allowed Charlotte to listen carefully for the arrival of the evening coach. They had been sitting together for an hour when she caught the early rumbles of the large coach and quickly stood. “My goodness, Aunt Constance,” she exclaimed. “The time has escaped from me. I promised my mother to be home shortly – now she shall fret.”
“Come now, girl.” Aunt Constance emitted her version of a laugh – a gravelly wheeze – and continued, “That mother of yours has too many children to allow herself to fret over one of them, especially one as capable as you.” She took hold of the bell stationed near her waist and rang it sharply, once. “Morton shall call for the carriage, dear. You may wait here and tell me more of Sanditon.”
Anne spoke. “Aunt, I had asked Charlotte to examine the way Morton has arranged the kitchen, to see how it compares to the new health schemes in Sanditon. Charlotte, I hope you wouldn’t mind doing that now, before you depart? It would certainly set my mind at ease with regard to our plans for Aunt Constance’s diet and digestion.”
“Of course, Anne.” Charlotte moved quickly toward Aunt Constance. “Aunt Constance, I will write with my observations, and even consult with Dr. Fuchs by letter if you have no objections.”
“How wonderful, Aunt!” Anne exclaimed, taking Charlotte by the elbow and guiding her out the door. She called back, “Isn’t it kind of Charlotte? Let us make sure that she has all the information she needs.”
Aunt Constance barely had time to raise her hand in farewell before the two girls had escaped through the door and downstairs.
“Let us pass through the kitchen,” Anne whispered, “so that my deceit isn’t so complete.”
Georgiana was just stepping out of the carriage as Charlotte hurried toward the White Hare, Anne following. Georgiana’s dark head was covered with a large bonnet, and her face further obscured by a silk scarf wrapped around the bonnet and her neck, but once she settled on the ground and lifted her face, Charlotte recognized her and ran forward to embrace her friend.
“Dear Georgiana,” she whispered. “It is so good to see you again.”
“And you, Charlotte,” Georgiana responded. They stepped away from each other. “Look at us,” Georgiana smiled. “The last time we parted, our dejection weighed on us so heavily. And today, I believe that both of us are in a far better state.”
“Indeed, Georgiana, I know it is true for you,” Charlotte said, grasping her friend’s hand. “You do look so happy.”
“In another day, I shall be the happiest I have ever been.” Georgiana’s smile grew wider. “And I have such a surprise for you.” She turned slightly to reveal her fellow passenger stepping out of the carriage behind her.
A tall, well-dressed gentleman stepped down with hesitation, his head bent and face hidden for a moment by the brim of his hat. For a brief moment, Charlotte allowed herself to believe that Sidney Parker was the Good Friend who had accompanied Georgiana, and she prepared to flee so that she might not have to face him and all the confusion that would follow. But then the gentleman looked up directly at her, and smiled.
“Mr. Stringer!” she cried. Charlotte was so surprised that she couldn’t think of another thing to say. “Mr. Stringer!” she repeated.
He came forward, and they shook hands. “I hope that you don’t mind the surprise, Miss Heywood,” he said.
“Not at all,” she affirmed. “I should have anticipated from Georgiana’s letters that the Good Friend might be you.”
Georgiana took Charlotte’s arm. “We will tell you all about it. But first — can we hire a carriage directly to your home, Charlotte? I’d like to spend as little time in the village as possible. The fewer who notice us, the better.”
“Of course. In fact, my dear friend Anne has arranged her own carriage for us.” Charlotte made the hasty introductions as they gathered Georgiana’s small trunk and Mr. Stringer’ s smaller bag, and hurried back toward Aunt Constance’s home. The carriage was just pulling up, and in a moment the two new arrivals were hidden safely in it.
“Charlotte.” Anne delayed her friend outside the door of the carriage. “This is all so terribly exciting! I wish they could stay longer here in Willingden. They’d be the toast of our little town!”
“Perhaps upon their return,” Charlotte suggested, “they can linger, and Miss Lambe will bring her new husband, if all goes well. Otherwise, it may be a very long time before I may see Miss Lambe again.”
“Oh, then I shall pray for their success,” Anne promised.
Once Charlotte had settled in the carriage next to Georgiana and across from Mr. Stringer, the latter reached his long arm out to tap the side of the carriage, and they were off. Mr. Stringer watched with satisfaction as the girls chatted, offering a few words here and there as necessary.
Georiana explained: After Charlotte had left Sanditon, Georgiana had heard the general concern regarding the welfare of the workers whose income before, working for Tom Parker, had been unreliable, but now had dried up completely since the fire. Most of the workers were single young men who simply packed up and moved on, but James Stringer had grown up in Sanditon; and his guilt over his father’s death anchored him even further to the place. Georgiana spoke with Sidney about employing Mr. Stringer to work on repairs at the house that Mrs. Griffiths had rented. The landlord readily agreed, especially considering that Georgiana would shoulder the expense, and Mr. Stringer was grateful for the work to fill his mind and his pockets.
The small tasks ranged around the house for a week, and in that time he and Georgiana found themselves having quiet conversations, frequently interrupted by Mrs. Griffiths. But Georgiana recognized a kindred soul who might sympathize with her situation and agree to help her as an accomplice.
“And, as you see, he did agree,” Georgiana said happily. “Especially when he found out we would make our escape through Willingden.”
“Well, Miss Lambe,” he interrupted, “I think we were both pleased to have the opportunity to see Miss Heywood again.”
“Very pleased indeed,” Georgiana agreed, squeezing Charlotte’s hand, and adding a wink.
Georgiana explained the scheme behind their financial wherewithal, which involved the interception of bank notes she had arranged, through Sidney, to arrive in order for her to pay Mr. Stringer for this and other anticipated projects; the total sum was not a great amount, but enough to get them to London, where friends would be able to help. And Georgiana’s maid had played her part as well, scheming with the Parkers’ maid to “borrow” a winter suit from Tom Parker, who was of a similar size and build, and which would not be missed for several more months.
“I still feel most like a thief,” Mr. Stringer said, running his finger between his neck and the collar. “Miss Lambe did not inform me of the suit’s origins until we were well under way, when I had no other options but to keep it on.”
Charlotte perceived his discomfort, both in the wearing of the suit and in its provenance. “Mr. Stringer, be consoled: I believe that it would bring Mr. Parker some comfort knowing that he could assist you in this small manner, considering how much he owes you and others in back pay.”
“Thank you, Miss Heywood,” Mr. Stringer replied. “It is a consoling if you think it a right thing. Or, at least, not a terribly wrong thing.”
Their merriment lasted all the way to the Heywood’s house. Charlotte had given no forewarning to her family, but the sound of the carriage always inspired curiosity, and by the time the three occupants of the carriage disembarked, an impressive array of Heywoods had assembled just outside the entrance of the house, squinting in the deepening twilight. The shock of the children in meeting Miss Lambe was almost as great as hers in seeing the enormous family, ranging in age from adult to toddlers, and including two pairs of identical twins; she had never in her life seen identical twins and these stood patiently for her inspection.
The visitors were heartily welcomed, and places found for them at the supper table some time later. Mr. Heywood insisted on having Mr. Stringer sit on his left, and the rare times that Mr. Stringer was able to meet Charlotte’s eyes, she saw that some of the grief etched on his face had been replaced by delight in the keen interest of Mr. Heywood in his life and work.
Meanwhile, Miss Lambe deftly fielded questions from the Heywood children with her sharp wit, which eventually was softened by the charm and lack of guile of the rowdy household. Mrs. Heywood had long ago realized that unless there was something generally worth hearing, each child considered his or her own voice and topic the most interesting; this was not something with which she could disagree; therefore, she typically did not interfere with the din that accompanied their meals. Today, however, she watched and listened with satisfaction as the children sat transfixed by Miss Lambe’s stories of the West Indies, of her family there, and the nature of the slave trade. What Charlotte’s days’-long attempt at forming new abolitionists could not accomplish, Georgiana’s short, simple, personal story did within an hour.
After dinner, Mr. Heywood shepherded Mr. Stringer into his library, while the older girls and Mrs. Heywood gathered in the sitting room. Before joining them, Charlotte and Georgiana took a walk down the path that led between the house and the wood nearby.
“Of all the things I was looking forward to during this visit, Charlotte, one of them was to see your face when I arrived with my dear friend,” Georgiana whispered.
“Of course I was pleased to see him,” Charlotte replied. “After the death of his father, it is good to see him express an interest in new things.”
“He does appear to have a particular interest,” Georgiana said. “Perhaps not so new.”
“If you are suggesting that Mr. Stringer may have romantic interests toward me,” Charlotte said, “please be aware that my interests are not so inclined. I am quite determined to avoid the marital state.”
“What an extraordinary decision! I suppose the blame must lie with Sidney Parker.” Georgiana grasped her friend’s hands. “My warning about him came far too late. Your heart was already in his hands. The blame lies with me.”
“It was not merely that particular experience.” Charlotte still could not bring herself to mention his name. “Sanditon taught me that it is difficult to ever fully trust a person. I watched so many people move about like pieces on a chess board, moving in a way that was to their advantage. I had never imagined it possible for selfishness to be so great a guiding principle for so many people.”
“I have heard that every young woman has her heart broken at least once. The mending of it makes it stronger.”
“I have no need for further breaking or mending. I have been blessed with a large family, which loves me without motive, and needs me without expectation. I therefore shall devote myself to them.” Charlotte made her voice as firm and resolute as possible. “I hope you will be a good friend to me and trust that I have made the right decision, just as I am supporting you in yours.”
“Of course Charlotte. I am sorry for my presumptions. Especially now on Mr. Stringer’s part, because I do believe he admires you very much. But perhaps men’s hearts mend twice as fast,” she added, and the girls laughed.
“Fortunately, I believe his heart belongs to a more pliable and responsive creature,” Charlotte suggested. “His designs and his career in architecture will never turn their backs on him. If he holds me in any regard, it is because of my encouragement in his work.”
“I cannot disagree. Despite his resolution to continue his father’s trade, I sense Mr. Stringer’s desire for something greater. Perhaps we can encourage it.”
“I very much agree. Come,” said Charlotte, turning back toward the house. “I believe it is time to tell Mama of your plans. She will never forgive me if she unconsciously aided an act that she considers wrong.”
A short while later, Mrs. Heywood was finally debriefed on Georgiana’s situation. Charlotte found herself holding her breath as she awaited her mother’s response to the intrigue.
“Charlotte, you have met this young man whom Miss Lambe plans to marry?”
“What is your assessment of his character? Are you pleased for your friend, or concerned?”
Charlotte paused, and looked at Georgiana’s happy face. “Mother, I met him briefly, but I saw a young man who was ready to put Georgiana’s interests before his own – unlike many of the people of purportedly better quality that have imposed themselves on my friend.”
Mrs. Heywood nodded once, and turned to Georgiana. “Miss Lambe, you have landed in a fortunate place. We are practical people, but romance and adventure also runs in our blood. We will offer you what assistance we can.”
“You are so very kind, Mrs. Heywood,” Georgiana replied with emotion.
“Let me add this.” Mrs. Heywood took Georgiana’s hands in her own. “You are very much an orphan, and I am very much a mother, so let me be like a mother to you now, and offer you the blessings that your own poor mother cannot. Blessings for a happy marriage, a fruitful one with mutual respect.” She leaned forward to kiss Georgiana on the cheek.
Georgiana was now weeping quite freely. Mrs. Heywood held her hand and turned to her daughter. “Charlotte, would you please ask your father to join us here, so that I may explain the circumstances? And, once you’ve freed Mr. Stringer, please show him to his room. He’ll need to bunk with the middle boys tonight. It’s likely the best place for him.”
“Of course, mama.”
Charlotte left the sitting room, and paused outside the door of the library, where she heard her father ask, “But Mr. Stringer, what has kept a man of your skills and intellect from pursuing your education in a more formal way?”
“Well, money, sir, I suppose is one key element. And my father was never keen on rising above one’s station. I did all my reading out of his sight. Imagine me as a young lad, slipping away from a building job to find a place to eat my apple and read my Shakespeare.”
“Ah, Shakespeare!” repeated Mr. Heywood. Charlotte heard him rub his hands together. “Do you read Shakespeare?”
“When I can, Mr. Heywood. And other things. Lord Denham had an impressive library when I was a boy, before he died. He caught me in there reading, once, instead of repairing the fireplace. He sent me home with the book – Gulliver’s Travels, it was – and an order to come back whenever I liked for more. He was a very good man.”
“Indeed, he must have been,” Mr. Heywood agreed. “Yet, it would have been in his power to serve as your patron. It is a shame he did not.”
“I can’t let it be said that he did not try,” Mr. Stringer corrected. “I have only some understanding of this, but I believe he intended to send me to school. Unfortunately nothing was put in writing, and I certainly had no claim. I never learned what happened. After his death, no one said a word about his wishes to me.”
“And I don’t suppose you felt inclined to pursue the matter with the family,” Mr. Heywood said.
“No, certainly not, sir. I was barely a man. My only grief is not knowing whether his affection for me was altered in some way, if perhaps I had offended him in some way.”
“I can’t imagine that, Mr. Stringer, even though I’ve known you only a little.”
“Thank you, sir. And Sir Denham was a very good man,” he added with emotion in his voice. Then he added, with a touch of wryness, “And my other grief was that Lady Denham closed the library to anyone outside the family.”
Mr. Heywood generously made noises about the injustice of this, and Charlotte stepped into the room. “Father, would you please join mother in the sitting room? She would like to speak with you about Miss Lambe’s travel plans.” Charlotte cast a quick glance at Mr. Stringer, who averted his eyes.
Mr. Heywood looked disinclined to leave his new protégé, but he sighed. “Very well. Mr. Stringer, we will speak further, I am sure.”
“It would be my pleasure, sir.”
Once her father had left the room, Charlotte turned to Mr. Stringer. “Mr. Stringer, I’m obliged to inform you that tonight you must share a room with three of my brothers. Through their graciousness, you shall at least have a bed to yourself, but I regret to say that it might not be the peaceful night you are used to.”
“I grew up with only my father,” Mr. Stringer said jovially. “I always dreamed of what it might be like to grow up with brothers and sisters.”
“But perhaps with not so many as I.”
“Perhaps no so many. But nearly as many.”
This made them both smile. “I shall show you the way,” Charlotte said. She took a candle and led him through the doors and up the stairs. He followed quietly, and Charlotte felt the need to fill the silence – and to learn more about this young man. “Have you ever been to London, Mr. Stringer?”
“Never. I find myself looking forward to the adventure. And you?”
“When I was a child, I accompanied an aunt a few times; and a few times more recently.” She did not elaborate on her foolish expedition that also involved Georgiana and Otis. “I pray that this visit to London is as successful as Georgiana hopes.”
“As do I. I fear that my participation, if discovered, might cause the Parker family to turn against me.”
“Oh, Mr. Stringer! I did not even consider the impact on your reputation in Sanditon. This was a risky undertaking for you.”
“A risk worth taking,” he said easily.
She stopped in front of her brothers’ door, where she could hear some shouts. She looked up at Mr. Stringer with an apology in her face, but when he smiled broadly, she couldn’t help but smile as well.
“Georgiana is fortunate to have a friend willing to go to such measures for her.”
“Well, then, it’s a strange thing, Miss Heywood. I’ve been feeling the fortunate one since we’ve arrived in Willingden. Good night, Miss Heywood” He inclined his head, and before she could say another word, he had slipped through the door. She then heard the raucous sounds of her brothers’ teasing, and some easy banter on Mr. Stringer’s part in response, before the conversation lulled. She’d longed to continue their conversation, and to learn more about his boyhood, his reading, and the disappearance of Sir Denham’s patronage. It would have to wait until tomorrow.