It was not very long before it was time for Mr. Sandwell to return home to attend to his sick or unsociable wife. Yet Lord Lipton did not have any reason to leave quickly. His conversation with the flattering vicar and his enjoyment of food had not left him with the time to socialize with the family of Lord Sydney as much as he wanted. And it was soon clear that they had much to ask him about as well.
“Tell me,” queried Sarah. “How have you remained without a wife so long?”
“I hardly think I am qualified to explain it.”
“Why do say that? Surely no one should know better than you, save perhaps in heaven above.”
“Let us not assume that I have been a Viscount forever. As I told the good vicar, for most of my life I have been a mere Mr. Hartley, involved in secret business, surrounded by traitors and enemies, and not someone anyone was inclined to view as anything special.”
“Surely you have loved a woman before. You do not seem to me to be someone who would have a cold and hard heart that would not be warm to the charms of an attractive young lady.”
“You judge me well for someone who has just met me.”
“In that, at least, you do not seem to be hard to judge. I know what a flutter you had when we ran into each other this morning.”
“Well said, you speak true.”
“So, how come someone who has loved before could remain unmarried?”
“Simply because you are right that I have loved, does not mean that I have often been loved by those who loved me back, or that I have loved those who were suitable to wed.”
“Those are two separate problems.”
“Indeed there are. Which of the problems do you wish to discuss first?”
“I can hardly blame you for the second. If you were disguised as a person of low birth, you could hardly be blamed if you found yourself surrounded by low women whose charms you found interesting but who could not be your wife. It is all the worse for them, and better for the one who does before your wife.”
“You are not offended by such a thing?”
“Not at all. You do not strike me as someone who would seek out such sin. Surely my father would not have invited you to eat with us if you had been someone who deliberately sought the company of those you could take advantage of.”
“Very well said. I am not someone who spends my seed and treasure in a brothel, nor who seeks the company of low women who feel impelled to gratify my desires without being able to receive my praise of their virtue and worth to be more than a temporary or secret companion. That is not to say that I have been immune of such entanglements, but only that I have not sought them out.”
“I can well understand that.”
“Even at your age?”
“I have certainly observed much of what has gone around me. And though I am a foster daughter of a fine family, this is not the only experience that I have known.”
Lord Lipton looked at her with something that approached but did not reach the realm of pity. It was more along the lines of understanding and compassion, and a deep personal acquaintance. She returned to him a look at the same, and it struck Lord Lipton as striking and wholly unexpected that a young woman who had seemingly lived such a short and sheltered life had seen the sort of evils that even now occasionally haunted his nightmares and robbed him of sleep and cheer and at least some of his good health. She looked at him, in return, with evident goodwill as well. After some silence, anything but awkward, she spoke again.
“We have talked enough about the second case. Let us talk about the first.”
“Do you wish to ask me of it?”
“Certainly, what about those who you have loved who have not loved you back?”
“What would you wish to know about them?”
“Did you tell them of your love?”
“I must admit I have not been good at that, but in most cases it has hardly been necessary for me to speak of my love and devotion.”
“By the time I would speak of my love to someone and express my suit, the young lady in question already knows, has talked about it to her siblings, discussed it with her parents, written and gossiped about it to her friends, counseled about it with her spiritual advisor, and come upon the solemn plan of fleeing to another country, or perhaps over the seas to distant and unknown lands, the further to be away from me and my unwelcome and awkward courtship.”
This led the table to erupt in laughter.
“Surely it cannot be so bad as that,” Lady Sydney replied.
“That is how it has been so far, at least,” Lord Lipton answered in a deadpan fashion.
“But may not always be this way.”
“It need only go differently one time. That would be enough for me.”
“I would hope so,” Lord Sydney said, smiling at how the evening had gone thus far.
“I still wonder something,” Sarah pondered.
“What is it you wonder?”
“How could it be that others could see the state of your heart before you understood it well enough to speak it plainly? Surely you are a man of good sense, observant about your ways. Why would it be so hard for you to recognize when you were drawn to another?”
“I have often pondered that myself,” Lord Lipton answered. “My internal feelings tend to be complicated, and while it is easy enough to see when I am attracted, it is hard to know how deep and how far that attraction spreads. Between the complicated mixture of fear and desire, of longing and anxiety, it is hard to know where the stronger feelings lie, and as I am in the process of weighing and sorting those feelings, my beloved is left to figure out how she will respond to that which has not yet been asked of her.”
“And it has never been a favorable answer?”
“Not yet it has not.”
“I scarcely see how that is the case.”
“Yet here I am. If there had been a favorable response I would not remain unwed.”
“And you hope for such a favorable answer still to come?”
“If I did not have hope I would not be here, and not be speaking to you as this.”
She looked at him seriously and nodded her head.
“I must say I am somewhat surprised with you,” Lord Sydney said.
“What surprises you?”
“I am struck by how such an honest and candid man as yourself could survive behind enemy lines. I took you for a man well acquainted with deceit to be able to handle your tasks, but you do not strike me as the sort of man I expected to find.”
“What do you think of that? Do I disappointed you?”
“No, you do not disappoint me,” he said. “You do surprise me. You strike me as someone who it would be easy to underestimate.”
“That has often been the case.”
“I am not surprised of it. If you can deceive, it is not active deception but rather concealment. And no honest man–and you are obviously an honest man–can conceal something from someone else unless you can first conceal it from yourself. And because you conceal much about your feelings from yourself, a hard habit acquired through painful necessity, it is easy for others to assume that your feelings do not exist at all, until you open yourself to them and they face the full heat of the fire that burns within.”
“I suppose you are right.”
“It means that we will have to know more of you.”
“I have no problem with that.”
“I am glad for that. It is good that your wish to be known better by us and our wish to know you better are as one.”
“I am glad you wish for me to know you as well.”
“Let us hope it remains this way.”
The rest of the evening passed in pleasant but far less consequential chatting among the party. Lord Lipton read a book to the Sydney’s young son before it was time for him to go to bed, and discussed some of the books and newspapers that were available in London that had not yet reached Yorkshire. Lord Lipton made a note of which books he wanted for his own library, which newspapers it would be worthwhile to subscribe to stay abreast of all that was going on in the city, and with pleasure he prepared to leave to return to his own townhouse and allow his hosts to enjoy their own sleep. But there was yet one more surprise.
“Please, do give me a hug,” Sarah asked.
“You want a hug?”
“Yes, I do.” She looked at him earnestly and he took her to be serious. She stood up from her chair and the two of them embraced each other closely for what seemed like some time. He could feel her strong arms holding him close and his arms held her strongly as well. After they parted, Lord Lipton bid the family farewell and told them that while he would have to attend to business in Yorkshire soon, that he hoped to see them before too long. They likewise expressed their desire to see him, and with that they parted.
Lord Lipton was struck to find that he could still feel the lingering of the embrace long after he had left the house. He could feel it in the carriage as he went home, could feel it as he returned home and told his servants he did not need anything else for the night, and could feel it for some time as he thought about the night and about the conversations he had enjoyed before he went to sleep.
And had he known it, it is possible he would have slept still less early than he did had he known that the conversation among the family of Lord and Lady Sydney continued long after he left, first with Sarah, who then found her way to bed where she had reason to wonder what had led her to hug a man boldly, to know that he was as man who was filled with deep if rather awkward affection, a man who could speak virtue, tell painful truths about himself, and appreciate the love of someone else. Lord and Lady Sydney spoke to each other and pondered that it might be come very necessary to find far more out about Lord Lipton and the state of his life and to share with him such information as might allow him to decide widely his own course of action.
It struck them as deeply unfortunate that they did not have a contact who was sufficiently close with Lord Lipton other than themselves to engage in determining this information. Yet, as it happened, their servants quickly had an understanding of what had happened, for it was the habit in many good households that the servants of one household would discuss matters with the servants of another as they went to purchase goods at the market or as they walked to and from services and other events, and the servants of the household of Lord Sydney were pleased to know that Lord Lipton was a gracious man to his servants, and one who made few demands of others while also remaining of good and virtuous conduct. It was a pleasure to see that the same picture that they saw of him in a few hours had been seen longer by his own servants, and made them confident that they had some measure of the man, as indeed they did.