Tuesday, December 7, 2010

My first client

The next week I resumed my calls with Charlotte and Mrs. Fitzhugh, and the first person upon whom we called was Mrs. Ashby, whose daughter had been engaged to Lord William Hickham, son of the Earl of Middleborough. A week later, we received a call in return from Mrs. Ashby.

‘Miss House, I am sorry I was out when you called,’ Mrs. Ashby said to my friend, who then introduced Mrs. Fitzhugh and myself. Mrs. Ashby was a stout woman of fair complexion and hair and I could see that she was probably a great beauty in her time, but it was obvious that she had been under a great strain of late. She held a small linen that she twisted and untwisted while talking.

‘I am so very glad to meet you and I am sorry that I have been so remiss in paying you a call, but after the announcement of my daughter’s engagement, I have been … I have been so busy. And so many kind things have been said of you, Miss House, that I felt I must … I hoped that you might …’

‘My dear Mrs. Ashby, it is obvious something is troubling you. Please, if we may be of service,’ Charlotte said. ‘You are among friends.’

Mrs. Ashby dabbed her eyes with her linen. ‘My friend Mrs. Willoughby said I should call, that you had been very kind to her.’

‘Of course, it was very good of her to suggest it.’

‘And then I saw that I had your card,’ Mrs. Ashby said, casting her eyes downwards and dropping her hands to her lap.

‘Yes. It was providential,’ prompted Charlotte. But Mrs. Ashby continued to stare downwards.

Charlotte sighed and turned to Mrs. Fitzhugh. ‘Margaret, would you please ring for some tea?’

We waited awkwardly for the tea. Mrs. Ashby occasionally repeated her gratitude and again mentioned Mrs. Willoughby and the fortuitousness of our call. It was not until that she’d had some tea that we could progress.

‘Mrs. Ashby, please tell what has happened,’ I said.

‘Letters. Horrible letters.’

I confess I leaned forward with interest, as did my friend. Even Mrs. Fitzhugh stopped stirring her tea.

‘What do these letters say, Mrs. Ashby?’ Charlotte asked.

A sob of anguish escaped the poor woman. ‘They accuse my daughter Sophia of indiscretions. They say that she is not … she is not a maid.’

Charlotte sank back in her seat and I saw that the accusation had affected her deeply. Mrs. Fitzhugh left her seat to comfort Mrs. Ashby, but I noticed that she too seemed more interested in our friend.

Charlotte then let out a long breath, brought her shoulders up and then slowly relaxed them, and I again saw detachment steal her expression before she addressed the poor woman. ‘Mrs. Ashby, I do not wish to be unkind and you can be sure of our sympathy and help however you answer, but I must know, is there any truth to this accusation?’

‘No!’ cried Mrs. Ashby. The clarity and strength of her reply startled Mrs. Fitzhugh. ‘My daughter may not be the model of discretion, but she is a good girl.’

‘And why is your daughter not here with you?’

‘The strain of it keeps her at home. She is excessively upset as am I.’

‘I quite understand,’ Charlotte said, ‘but I need to know more if there is to be any hope. Have you the letters?’

‘Yes, I brought them.’ She opened her reticule and produced the letters, much folded to fit in the bag.

Charlotte took the letters and examined them quickly. ‘A woman’s hand,’ she said. ‘Left-handed I think, that is significant. The paper is fine. No watermark. Cut from a larger sheet.’ She passed them to me and I saw that they were identical:

We read that Lord William seeks fallen fruit already sampled by Mr. Jenkins. Is it not wiser to take the apple from the tree? For fruit that has fallen may already have been sampled. Best to put it back and choose another before it is too late.


‘There are only the two?’ she asked. Mrs. Ashby nodded.

‘And to whom were they sent?’

‘To my sister, Mrs. Landsdowne, and my cousin Mrs. Mapplethorpe.’

‘And you are sure there are only the two?’

‘That is the matter! How would I know for sure?’ Mrs. Ashby wailed.

‘Precisely,’ Charlotte said. ‘Now, how were they delivered? Were they in the post?’

‘They were found in the morning, slid under the door.’

‘And your sister and your cousin immediately brought them to your attention?’

‘Of course,’ Mrs. Ashby answered.

‘When was this?’

‘Two days after the announcement,’ replied Mrs. Ashby.

Charlotte paused in her questioning, and I used the opportunity to refresh Mrs. Ashby’s cup, which she gratefully accepted.

Charlotte resumed. ‘You are very close to your sister?’

Mrs. Ashby nodded.

‘And to your cousin?’

‘Yes,’ Mrs. Ashby answered, ‘she is a widow with no children and has always taken a special interest in my daughter.’

Charlotte asked ‘And it is well known that you are close to your sister and cousin? You are frequently seen together?’

‘Yes, of course, but what bearing can that have?’

Charlotte ignored the question and continued: ‘And the gentleman in the letter, is he known to your daughter?’

‘What, Mr. Jenkins? They have been introduced, but he is not comely and does not dance well and is a younger son and my daughter has always been rather particular.’

Charlotte gave one of her quick smiles at this. Then she asked, ‘And what does your daughter say of this?’

‘She says nothing, of course! She is in a very nervous state.’

‘And you have no … enemies? Neither you, your husband, your daughter? Any members of your family?’

‘Enemies? No, that is absurd, we are universally well liked.’ That remark produced a sound from Mrs. Fitzhugh that I can only describe as a snort. Mrs. Ashby did not seem to notice, and asked, ‘Do you have any advice for me, Miss House? Oh, I feel so silly, asking such a young woman advice for so delicate a matter.’

Mrs. Fitzhugh took Mrs. Ashby’s hand. ‘You can have every confidence in Miss House. I have known her all my life and can tell you there is no more capable person than she.’

‘And I will do everything I can to help as well,’ I added, much affected by the poor woman’s plight.

‘I think I can offer some hope,’ Charlotte said.

We all looked at her and Mrs. Ashby asked, ‘But how? Who knows how far this slander has spread? If the countess hears of this …’

‘Please, Mrs. Ashby, do not distress yourself further. You must keep up appearances that all is well. Rest assured that we will do all in our power to help and again, I think I can offer some hope that the slander has not spread — yet.’

‘Oh, Miss House, if I could believe you.’ Mrs. Ashby said, ‘but your words do give me some hope.’

Charlotte stood. ‘I am glad that I can at least offer that aid. Now we must begin our inquiries and you must return to your family and try to reassure them.’

We all stood and I saw to Mrs. Ashby’s cloak. When I returned, I saw that she was much improved in spirits and was thanking everyone profusely. But before she left, Charlotte cautioned her.

‘One last thing, Mrs. Ashby. Immediately inform us if you are aware of any further letters. And under no circumstances are you to inquire about any other letters. And I shall need to retain these letters.’ Charlotte fanned the letters before her.

Mrs. Ashby had been nodding her assent the whole while until the last statement, when she suddenly clutched her reticule to her bosom.

‘I have been so afraid not to let them out of my sight and yet I was about to leave without giving it a thought. Yes keep them if you need them but I would rather see them burned.’

‘Which they will be once they are not needed,’ Charlotte assured her. We saw her to the door after that and then returned to the sitting room.

‘What do you make of it, Jane?’ Charlotte asked me.

‘A terrible tragedy to befall them.’ I said.

‘Yes, but what strikes you as relevant? Do you see no inconsistencies?’

Charlotte looked at me intently and I shifted uncomfortably beneath her gaze. ‘No,’ I said meekly.

‘Tchah!’ she said. ‘Think of it, why send letters to the two people most likely not to believe them?’

‘But there are other letters!’ Mrs. Fitzhugh said.

Charlotte said nothing and looked at me.

‘There aren’t other letters?’ I ventured to say.

‘No, I don’t think there are. That is why I offered her some hope.’ She saw the confused look on my face and sighed. ‘Why do we go to the assembly rooms? Why do we talk to maids and cooks? Why? To gather information. And even if the daughter has been indiscreet …’

‘But,’ I cried, ‘her mother most vigorously denied …’

‘There is something you must learn, Jane. Everybody lies. They do it as unconsciously as breathing. But as I was saying, even if the daughter has been indiscreet, we have heard no news of it, and it is a very advantageous match. Lord Middleborough’s son? The envy of it should fan the flames of a rumour like this. The fact that we have heard no intimation of this gives me some hope.’

‘But why send only two letters then?’ Mrs. Fitzhugh asked.

‘Yes, that is a mystery,’ Charlotte confirmed, ‘and it will remain so until we gather more information.’

I sighed and said, ‘So it is to the market again.’

Sunday, November 28, 2010



An explanation

‘You have questions from last night, no doubt,’ Miss House said the following morning, after we had breakfasted.

‘Yes, Miss House, you confirmed last night that this is your employment. But what is it exactly? What is it that you do?’

‘I suppose you could say that I am a consultant. Mothers come to me and ask my aid in the matter of their daughter’s matrimonial prospects.’

‘I see,’ I said, puzzled. ‘And for this service …’

‘I am not in trade, my dear.’

‘Of course not,’ I said, hurriedly. ‘There was no question. I merely meant …’

‘I get satisfaction, you see, when a suitable match proceeds.’

‘And if an unsuitable match?’ I asked.

She made a face that suggested displeasure and shook her head. ‘I never seek to stop a match. I try only to further love’s interests, not impede.’

‘It is a noble calling.’

She smiled brilliantly and said, ‘I thought you would understand.’

‘And as to last night,’ I said, ‘who was …’

But she stopped me with her hand. ‘Alas, I can answer few question as to the particulars of last night. Although I know that I can place my confidences with you, Miss Woodsen, the Williamses and the other players in this … affair … do not know you. They did not have an opportunity to form a good opinion of you and in all frankness, I should have not included you in the matter. But you arrived at such an opportune moment to act as my agent when I could not remain home, and I wanted to show you the happy outcome. However, with that caution, if you ask questions that I can in good faith answer, I will.’

I sat quietly for a minute, arranging my thoughts before asking. ‘The parcel — the letters that you received — that was the impediment.’

She also thought a moment before answering. ‘I confirm that to be a reasonable hypothesis.’

‘And the contents of the letters were such that …’

She wagged her finger at me.

‘Very well,’ I said. ‘I think I can arrive at my own conclusion. But the means by which your obtained the letters?’

‘I cannot tell you the particulars, but you will in time meet some of those … er, means.’ She wrinkled her nose at the awkward construction and smiled. ‘I hope they will also place their faith in you as they have placed them in me.’

‘But why me?’ I asked, getting to the question that I had been too long in asking. ‘Why do you place your faith in me?’

Miss House stood and smoothed her dress, turned away from me and walked about the room, stopping beside the miniatures of her brother and herself and the sketch I had noticed earlier.

‘I have no particular friend, Miss Woodsen. My position in society, my natural reticence and disinclination to favor the vain, stupid and petty have left me, apart from my brother, without a confidante.’

‘Mrs. Fitzhugh …’ I supplied.

‘Is a dear family friend and one in whom I have complete trust, but she is not a … she … she has never been unhappy, except possibly from worry of me.’

She put her hand on the mantelpiece, near the sketch. ‘But you have known sadness; you felt your life was over. As have I.’

She retook her seat. ‘In short, Miss Woodsen, I seek a friend with whom I can be honest and on whom I can depend and to whom I would provide the same benefit.’

‘I would be happy to be your friend, Miss House,’ I said.

‘Then perhaps you should call me Charlotte.’

‘And I should … would be happy were you … will be …’ I shrugged in frustration, and said finally, ‘Call me Jane.’

We laughed and a bond of friendship was formed that although severely tested at times, has never faltered.

I soon learned my friend’s employment carried considerable burdens, although I know many women in society would find it odd to call them burdens. In the morning, we went out in the company of Mrs. Fitzhugh and called at the homes of those who had announced a betrothal. But we also called at homes where Charlotte had anticipated an announcement and none had been published.

And we did not restrict ourselves to homes of quality. As part of our good works, we visited many of meagre means and brought them such comfort as we could. It was obvious Charlotte was not unknown to these people and they welcomed her warmly, and she, to her credit, returned their warmth.

Of course, we also received many callers. Most were merely the compliments of other members of society returning the favour of our calls. But some calls were prompted by the concerns of mothers who feared for their daughter’s prospects. In most of these situations, Charlotte merely reassured them for in truth, most of these women fretted for no real reason. And in some situations, Charlotte simply offered her advice. And in a very few situations, Charlotte offered to act on their behalf, but only after extracting assurances that her efforts would remain private.

Our callers also included those who arrived by the servant’s doors. Charlotte interviewed many cooks, maids and footmen under the fiction of employment — ‘If I have one stain upon my character it is that I accused of stealing good help’ — but her actual goal was to learn the customs and tenor of their current or previous employer.

In all her interactions, Charlotte’s attitude was always kind and friendly, but at times I noticed a certain detachment, as if her smile was but a veneer or an artifice. Once I caught her eye at such a moment and later she told me, ‘Thank you my dear. I told you that I needed a friend who would keep me honest.’

Our mornings began far earlier than our calls, of course. Charlotte soon had me helping in her researches and I learned to peruse the periodicals for those items, from the outré to the mundane, that would interest her. She taught me her method of filing these items in her commonplace books as well, and soon we were pinning butterflies together.

Social obligations continued into the afternoon and evenings, of course. We three spent a great deal of time at the Lower Assembly Rooms, which Charlotte called the agora, circling endlessly and absorbing the gossip of Bath.

Naturally we also attended a number of dances and balls, but even these, I soon found, were not opportunities for pleasure but for information. Very quickly that which I had found a great joy became merely work. In reward, however, my social standing improved considerably, for I was the particular friend of Miss House, and I was to be the entrée of many a young man eager to meet her. She flattered their attentions, but never danced more than once with each and never showed one more favour than another, and I followed her lead.

As mentioned, I found our social schedule tedious, even though many a young woman would find it to their liking. It also led to some unpleasantness between Charlotte and myself when I felt ill one evening and begged her go without me.

‘But who shall be my accomplice, my dear? Who shall be Pollux to my Castor?’

‘Please, Charlotte, all eyes are on you. No one shall notice my absence.’

‘Nonsense, this will not do. I cannot go without you and I must go.’

‘I am unwell and should be miserable company,’ I lamented.

‘Very well, stay,’ she said. ‘I should hate it to be said that I force anyone to enjoy themselves.’

She left abruptly and I felt very low that I had failed in my duty, and that night I took a fever. I awoke late the next day and found Charlotte sitting beside my bed, looking very tired, but she smiled when she saw me stir.

‘You are awake! Oh, Jane, please forgive me. My behaviour was unpardonable. How could I doubt that you would not join me only if you were greatly unwell? I am so sorry, I …’

I stopped her with a plaintive — and I must admit overly dramatic — cry for water, and I did enjoy the way she hurried to attend to me. In fact, she did not leave my bedside that day and all that week she abandoned her usual routine. The incident left me knowing that beyond doubt my friend cared for me greatly, but that she could also be unkind when things did not go her way.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

There is dancing
It fit. If fit better than anything I had ever worn, and I thanked Mary for her efforts. ‘It is a lovely color, Mary.’
‘The green matches your eyes, miss. I couldn’t help but notice.’
‘Green! You call this green! It is emerald; it is the sea; it is the forest primeval. But how could you find this?’
‘Oh, that was easy. Miss House told me to go to her dressmaker and see if they had anything that would suit you. It’s actually parts of two different dresses, three if you count the pelisse, which I thought you might like, being it’s cool tonight.’
‘You are a wonder, Mary, and a very clever girl.’
‘Please miss, don’t move, I need just a few more stitches to make sure you don’t pop out all over. There, done!’
I admired myself in the mirror and couldn’t help but think of the shift in my fortunes.
‘You’d better hurry. I’m sorry it took me so long to make those changes,’ Mary said.
‘You are right. I shall have to run to make it in time.’
‘Run? No, the carriage is waiting outside. We can’t have you running.’
Mary hurried me out and the carriage brought me swiftly to the Assembly Rooms with time to spare. Miss House and Mrs. Fitzhugh were waiting for me just inside.
‘My dear, you are a vision,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh said.
‘I agree,’ Miss House said. ‘Clearly Mary has outdone herself.’
‘Thank you both. I feel … I feel …’
‘Yes, my dear,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh prompted.
‘I feel that anything is possible.’
‘And so it is,’ Miss House confirmed.
‘Let us go in,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh said. ‘There is dancing.’
Her words proved to be an understatement. I had never seen so many people in one place for this was the height of the season; and the day and the clemency of the weather ensured that all of society gathered in this one room. We entered as the couples marched before the start of the country dance, unfortunate timing as it might mean that we would be denied partners for a full thirty minutes, but I did not mind. I enjoyed watching the leading couple as they assuredly set the tone of the dance and feared I would never match their skill and grace. But Miss House was eager to claim seats and she firmly held my hand as we navigated the room.
I was soon glad of her firm hand as we threaded our way through the crowd and claimed what looked to be the last two seats available. We were only barely seated, however, when Mrs. Fitzhugh returned with a pleasant young man in tow. We rose and Mrs. Fitzhugh said, “Miss Woodsen, may I introduce Mr. Harrington, a very nice young man whose family I have known since the Flood.’
He bowed and I returned the favor. ‘Charmed, Miss Woodsen.’
Turning to the gentleman, our companion said, ‘And you, of course, know Miss House.’ They acknowledged each other as well and exchanged pleasantries before Mr. Harrington addressed me again. ‘Miss Woodsen, may I have the pleasure of the next dance?’
Obliged as I was, I stole a look to Miss House for I also felt an obligation to her and did not wish to precede her enjoyment. She quickly nodded her assurance with a smile and I returned my attention to the gentleman.
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I look forward to it.’
And the course of the evening was set. I danced the cotillion and the reel and to my relief but not my surprise Miss House was not unaccompanied, though she towered over one partner. We several times exchanged smiles and I laughed at the pleasantries of my partners and clapped at the success of the dances.
The room grew ever hotter and we retired for refreshment and joined a group obviously well known to my friends. Mrs. Fitzhugh especially knew everyone, and soon Miss House and she were exchanging confidences with those at the table.
‘I’m sorry, my dear,’ Miss House said, ‘I’ve ignored you.’
‘No, I am glad of a moment to enjoy my own thoughts and enjoyment of the moment.’
‘I’m glad you are enjoying yourself then. But if I can ask a favor, would you decline the next dance? I had promised that you would see the outcome of your efforts this morning.’
‘Yes,’ I said, louder than I had intended. ‘I wish to know what you are about.’
‘Good. Mrs. Fitzhugh, might we return and attend to our friend in need?’
Mrs. Fitzhugh agreed and we returned to the ballroom, which by this time had quieted somewhat in favor of dances that would allow the participants to cool themselves. Thus our progress through the room was quicker and we soon found ourselves in a corner where a family was seated. They rose as we approached.
‘Mr. Williams, Mrs. Williams, Miss Williams, Mr. Wallace, may I introduce …’
Etiquette and Mrs. Fitzhugh were ignored however, when Mrs. William asked, ‘Do you have them, Miss House?’
Seeing her distress, my friend quickly said, ‘I do. All is well.’
‘Thank God!’ Mrs. Williams cried loudly, drawing everyone’s attention, but as I was closest to her, I saw Miss Williams swoon. I rushed to her side, however her weight was unsupportable and I staggered. I felt strong arms holding me upright and then the gentleman, Mr. Wallace, was carrying Miss Williams to a chair.
‘Thank you sir,’ I said to Mr. Wallace, who merely nodded to me, his attention to the young lady. Her mother, however, pushed him aside and sat beside her.
‘Catherine, it is all right, we are saved,’ she told her daughter, patting her hand. Catherine opened her eyes and smiled faintly at her mother. The tension was drained from our group. Within a few minutes everyone was smiling and they thanked Mrs. Fitzhugh and my friend. Mr. Wallace, however, turned to me.
‘I apologize Miss …’
‘Woodsen … Jane Woodsen,’ I said.
‘John Wallace,’ he said in return and bowed, and I curtseyed.
‘I apologize for …’ and he made a vague gesture with his hands. His discomfiture was quite becoming in contrast to his sturdy, capable appearance.
‘There is no need. Thank you for …’ and I made a similar gesture.
He started to laugh but was cut short by a voice.
‘You! Miss House!’
I turned and saw Lady Dalrymple approach, trailed by the woman I took to be her niece.
‘Lady Dalrymple, so good to see you,’ Miss House said, and curtseyed, followed by myself and Mrs. Fitzhugh, but not Mrs. Williams, who returned hostility with hostility. Mr. Wallace and Mr. Williams bowed but I could tell they did not like it.
‘I thought I made clear that the matter is at an end,’ Lady Dalrymple, oblivious to our presence, told Miss House.
‘But the world turns regardless of your wishes, Lady Dalrymple, and your saying black is white does not make it so. And if your nephew chooses to marry Miss Williams and she chooses to accept, then you can have no objection, for there is no impediment to their union. I repeat, there is no impediment. If there ever had been one, it no longer exists.’
She was magnificent. Boadicea herself could not have appeared more magnificent. Lady Dalrymple shrank. She opened her mouth to speak and thought better of it after noticing the attention her words had attracted. She turned quickly, almost colliding with her companion, and walked away.
The Williamses again thanked Miss House, and Mrs. Fitzhugh and me, although they could not have known what little part I played. Hands were pressed and kisses were exchanged — Mr. Wallace was excessively charming — and when it was over, we three watched the Williamses, now a happy party, leave.
Miss House leaned her head toward me and said quietly, ‘And that is my employment, Miss Woodsen. That is what I do.’

Friday, November 19, 2010


I awoke the next day with an optimism I had not felt for a long time. My apprehensions had been replaced by curiosity and I hurried to breakfast. Miss House, however, was again missing, but Mary provided me with a letter.


Miss Woodsen, how it grieves me to continue to fail in my duty as hostess, but again I and Mrs. Fitzhugh are off, but I will be gone only shortly, I promise. In fact, it would give me great pleasure if you could join me at the Lower Assembly Room for tea this afternoon.

Yours in friendship, Charlotte House

PS There may be callers asking for me — or you — throughout the morning. If you would be so kind as to see to their comfort and relay any messages when we meet?


Curious, and even more curious still, I thought to myself. And the visitors to the house that morning were very curious indeed. Calling at eleven was a portly gentleman who did not stay but simply left his card; at twelve a querulous old woman with a cat who required tea, for both her and the cat, and did not leave a card or name; and at a twelve-fifteen a small boy who came round the servants entrance with a parcel addressed to Miss House. And finally at one a richly dressed older woman, who did not give her name to the servant to be announced, arrived. She was attended by a meek young girl whom I guessed to be a niece, and demanded to see Miss House or myself.

‘You must be Miss Woodsen,’ the older woman said, inspecting me through her lorgnette, and sniffing slightly, as if she had caught a whiff of my straitened circumstances.

‘I am,’ I replied. ‘How may I help you, ma’am?’

‘You are the confidante of Miss House.”

‘I am,’ I said again, unsure of the truth of the matter, but by this point I was willing to agree to anything.

She took a long time to reply, perhaps doubting the veracity of my statement. ‘Very well, please relate to her that I am … done with the matter and that I consider this contretemps at an end.’

‘And who should I say makes this statement, Madame,’ I said, trying in a small way to match her hauteur.

‘Do you not know who I am?’

‘I do not,’ I said, ‘as you did not offer your name to the servant who answered the door.’

At this she fluffed up like a pigeon taking a chill. ‘I am Lady Dalrymple, as you doubtless know, child.’

‘Indubitably,’ I replied, although I think I may have mangled the word slightly. Mrs. Dalrymple wouldn’t have noticed, however, for she had already swirled round to collect her niece and was making for the door.

I sat, feeling that I did not need to attend her on her way out, and tried to collect my thoughts. Whatever does all this mean? In what … business, for I cannot call it anything else … is Miss House engaged?

But I no longer had apprehension, just curiosity. I eagerly awaited the next visitor, but no one else arrived. Nevertheless, I delayed my departure for my date with Miss House until the last moment and in consequence was in a considerable hurry.

I arrived at the tearoom flushed by the cold and my exertions and found my hostess already waiting for me.

‘Goodness, you look very excited, Miss Woodsen,’ my friend said, after we had called for tea and buns.

‘Yes, I am sorry to keep you waiting, but we had such a number of visitors and I waited until the last possible minute to leave.’

She gave me a quick smile, so fast I would have missed it during a blink.

‘Good, tell me then of our visitors.’

‘First came a gentlemen about 11 o’clock. He said little, but left this card.’ I handed her the card, at which she glanced for but a moment.

‘Can you recall exactly what he said?’

I closed my eyes to recollect and quoted him, ‘Tell Miss House I have no opinion on the matter. Here is my card, good day.’

‘And that is all he said?’

I opened my eyes and looked at her. ‘Well, he might have said, “Please tell Miss House I have no opinion on the matter.”’

‘Good, excellent. And do you have a parcel for me?’

‘Yes,’ I said, producing the parcel, and passing it to her, ‘although I did not receive it myself. A boy delivered it to the servant’s entrance.’

She looked up at me and shook her head slightly. ‘My erstwhile housekeeper Mrs. Hutton needs to be chided again. The boy had instructions to deliver it personally to me, or my agent.’ She returned her attention to the parcel, untied it and produced several letters tied as a bundle. ‘No matter. I have what I wanted.’

‘And a rather disagreeable old woman named Dalrymple came.’

‘Ah, now we come to the heart of the matter. What did she say?’

‘She considers the matter to be at an end … excuse me … she said precisely that she is “done with the matter” and considers “this contretemps at an end.”’

Miss House absorbed all this and then smiled broadly. ‘Thank you, Miss Woodsen, I knew that you would serve me well.’

‘Oh, I almost forgot,’ I cried. ‘A strange woman with a cat arrived and insisted on tea for both herself and her cat.’

‘Odd, I expected no woman with a cat. No matter. I’m sure you were all politeness. Now, we are done with our tea and I must leave you again for a short time. However, I should consider it a great pleasure if you would join me again at eight, in the Upper Assembly Rooms, and you will see the outcome of all your efforts to-day.’

I looked down at the table. ‘I would like to join you, but … I have no nothing suitable for … I left my home …’

‘I understand, Miss Woodsen. Please do not think it presumptuous of me, or of my servants, but I know that you arrived with … comparatively little … and I have arranged to have something suitable available. Mary has been busy all day and I hope that using your other clothing as a guide, she has found something for you to wear. If it does not fit or you find it not to your liking, then don’t come. You must not feel any obligation.’

‘You are too kind, Miss House, and I should decline.’

‘But you won’t?’

‘I hope that it will fit,’ I said.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A singular woman
I quickly moved my few belongings to No. 3 the Royal Crescent, which Miss House had rented for the season. I found everyone eager to welcome me, the servants being very concerned for my comfort. But Miss House was not there to greet me.
‘No miss, she’s away,’ Mary the maid told me, while she saw to my things. ‘She’s off on her calls and was very sorry that she could not be here. But she told us, ‘Make sure that Miss Woodsen is very comfortable and has everything she needs.” And, of course, we were all delighted that Miss House had company.’
‘Does she have many guests?’ I asked.
‘She has many visitors, of course, but apart from her brother, not many guests.’
‘You like your mistress, I think?’
‘Oh, we do, miss. She is very kind and fair to us. And so we are happy to see her with a friend.’
Mary’s words took me aback. ‘I only met Miss House two days before, and although she has also shown me great friendship, I don’t know whether I can claim her as friend.’
Her posture stiffened slightly. I couldn’t tell whether Mary was offended by my words or doing an imitation of Miss House’s impeccable posture. ‘She certainly thinks of you as a friend, miss. She told us, ‘Treat Miss Woodsen as my particular friend and see that she wants for nothing.”’
‘It is a great honour then that I can claim her friendship, Mary.’
She turned to me and smiled and her posture relaxed. ‘I’m sure you’ll be the best of friends, miss.’
I might now call Miss House friend, but she was certainly an absent one whom I did not see again for another two days. And despite the kindliness of the servants, I could not help feel an interloper in the house. That feeling and the novelty of my situation confined me to my room, even at dinner, which over the protestations of the housekeeper, I asked be sent to my room. But by the second day, curiosity got the better of me. I spent my time acquainting myself with the house and learning a little of my benefactor.
In the sitting room, I found miniatures of Miss House and her brother. In their likenesses, I found them not alike. His hair was dark to her light, and the artist had caught a jovial, almost fatuous good humour at odds with his sister. I also found a framed, quick pencil sketch of a naval officer with a lock of dark black hair pressed against the glass.
The piano keyboard was open and the sheet music displayed a difficult piece, Bach’s The Art of Fugue, with many notations in what I believed to be Miss House’s hand. The sheet music was incomplete, with several pages handwritten. On the writing desk, I found scattered another incomplete printing with similar notations, and several pages on the floor. The effect was that of an artist, caught in the embrace of a muse who dashes out the door, with strict instructions to the servants not to tidy her work, although the rest of the room was immaculate.
The library was similarly instructive. It was well stocked by the owner, with the perfunctory classics that had never been read, a ladder that had never been moved and a globe that had never been spun. But the fine furniture in the room had been moved aside for two large, plain deal tables on which were spread newspapers and other periodicals going back at least six months. There were Bath, Bristol and London papers, even one from America. Several clippings were scattered on the table as well, primarily betrothal and wedding announcements, again with many notations, such as ‘This will not do!’ and ‘But what about the previous engagement!’ and ‘How do we know a living is ensured?’
There were also other more curious clippings: ship arrivals, war despatches, the death of a baronet and even postings in the agony column. In the baronet’s death announcement was penned, ‘Could M__ be his child?’
In several piles, tied with bright red ribbon, I found Miss House’s traveling library, which was again singular. In one untied bundle, I found Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, of which I had heard but never read, and The Monk and The Castle of Otranto, both of which I had read. At the top of another bundle was an Italian translation of a Galen anatomy text. And next to the textbooks were two large cases of pinned butterflies.
Most prominent, however, was about a dozen large books obviously composed of past clippings. The most recent chronologically contained an announcement of my father’s death.
I sat down at the table and stared at the page that contained the announcement. It was dated the day we had met. What sort of woman is she? I wondered. I am a complete stranger to her and yet she invites me to her home and immediately catalogues me with the other esoterica of her mind.
I could not dislodge the feeling that I was a butterfly pinned in Miss House’s collection. Whatever my feelings, I earnestly wished for her return, hoping that I would find reassurance in the pleasant manner she had earlier shown me.
It was not until late that evening, however, that Miss House arrived. I was in my room, reading the Laclos, when I heard the commotion of the servants. I hurried downstairs and found my hostess in the hallroom. I found my benefactor and another woman in the foyer, being attended to by the servants.
‘Oh Miss House, you are wet and cold.’
‘And hungry, Mary. Ask cook to lay on something substantial, despite the hour.’
‘We know your habits by now, miss,’ Mary said, while helping Miss House remove a very travel-stained cloak, to reveal mud-stained skirts. Her companion was equally begrimed.
Miss House noticed my presence upon the stairs. ‘My dear Miss Woodsen, please forgive me. But as you can see, I’ve been away and busy.’ She gestured to the older woman. ‘And before I forget my manners, I would like you to meet my dear Mrs. Fitzhugh, a family friend.’
We acknowledged each other, and then Mrs. Fitzhugh stepped toward me. I could see that though she was older than Miss House, neither her dark hair nor her cheerful smile betrayed her age. ‘Miss Woodsen, it is a pleasure to meet you. Miss House has told me all about you.’
‘The pleasure is mine as well,’ I said, overcome by the warmth of her greeting.
Freed of her traveling clothes, Miss House joined us. ‘Miss Woodsen, I apologize for not greeting you on your arrival, and I hope Mary has not been horrible to you.’ She flashed Mary a smile, who quickly cast down her eyes while lifting the corners of her mouth.
‘No, Miss House, Mary and everyone in this household have shown me the greatest kindness.’
‘Please forgive me while I change, and although you’ve doubtless already dined, would you join me later while I dine.’
‘Of course, it would be my pleasure.’
‘Good,’ she said, as she rushed up the stairs, leaving me behind. I looked at Mrs. Fitzhugh and Mary, still holding her mistress’s cloak.
‘She does rather leave one breathless,’ I said softly to myself.
Mary nodded and said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful, miss?’
Mrs. Fitzhugh also left, and I retired to the sitting room to wait what I thought would be a considerable time while they composed themselves, but it seemed only minutes before Miss House joined me, dressed like a lady who had spent the entire day doing nothing more exhausting than answering her correspondence.
‘Mrs. Fitzhugh does not join us?’ I asked.
‘No, she’s rather tired after our labours, and she also had the wisdom to eat while I can never suffer food when traveling.’
We went into the dining room where we found a meal sufficient for an army awaiting Miss House. I limited myself to tea while she attacked a cold roast.
‘Pardon my manners, Miss Woodsen, I am famished. I can’t remember when last I ate.’
‘You have been traveling this whole time?’
‘Yes, my inquiries led me to Bristol.’
‘Bristol!’ I said alarmed. ‘Whatever could take you to Bristol?’
She stopped eating and looked at me intently.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘It is none of my business.’
‘No, no, I like your directness. I’ll tell you someday of my business in Bristol. Why don’t you tell me instead how you find the house?’
I told her that I found my situation agreeable, without mentioning the feelings I had experienced in the library.
‘Then everything is to your liking? Your room?’
‘Yes, of course, it is more than I could have hoped.’
‘And when you saw the clipping on the death of your father?’
I froze and for a space said nothing. ‘How did you know … ?’
‘Before I joined you, I looked into the library and saw the Laclos was missing. You’ll find it an enjoyable read. And I ask again, what did you think when you saw the clipping?’
‘I confess I did not know what to think,’ trying to hide my discomfort by lifting my cup.
‘You did not think yourself a butterfly pinned to a collection?’
I spilled my tea and I fear I stared at her open mouthed. She laughed.
‘Oh Miss Woodsen, I am sorry. It was a guess and I did not think it would affect you so strongly. You are the victim of my machinations. I staged that tableau like a trap and then like a hunter I spring the trap.’
I put down the cup and said, trembling, ‘You are most unkind.’
My statement wiped the smile from her face. ‘I am,’ she said, ‘but I wanted to know the measure of my friend, whether she is made of glass or of iron, whether she will wilt before my nature or will challenge me in my own home.’
She has done it again, I thought. She has turned my righteous anger into eager forgiveness. She has turned the kindness of her offer into rudeness by her absence into … into whatever it is I feel now.
‘You forgive me. I feel it now, Miss Woodsen. I have turned the corner in your estimation.’ She said this with a pleading in her voice that was so charming.
I still did not know what to say, but I gave her a slight nod in return.
‘And now it is your turn. Tell me what you think. Tell me your impressions about me.’
‘You are the most singular person I have ever met,’ I ventured to say.
‘Hah! That is not helpful. In a long life, you might say that again and again. Give me details.’
Thus challenged, I said, ‘You must be a gifted pianist to tackle so challenging and obscure a piece as the music I found in the sitting room. You devour the news like you devoured that roast. You like the sensational, witness your choice of reading material and you have an interest in the social news that matches the most inquisitive spinsters of my village. You read Italian medical texts. And I almost get the impression that you have … an employment.’
‘Oh this is fun,’ she said. ‘But you should remember to distinguish between observation and conclusions. A bad pianist can murder Bach as easily as a gifted one can praise him. Although you are correct, I am judged a gifted pianist. And I do read Italian, badly. And you are correct in your most important conclusion. I do have an employment.
‘But the hour is late and that roast you say I have devoured weighs heavily on me. And I did journey to Bristol and back. Let’s retire and we will continue our talk to-morrow.’

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Caught in the act
‘You know you’ll never get away with it,’ a soft voice said.
I turned with a start toward the voice and saw a tall, elegant woman standing next me, but not facing me.
‘Those gloves look very nice on you, but not at the cost of the ensuing embarrassment,’ she said, again not addressing me directly. Then she turned and looked at me and gave me a quick, brilliant smile. She continued in a louder voice: ‘Why don’t you let me repay you for the kindness you did me last summer? I insist on buying them for you.’
She laid her hand lightly on my arm and moved me toward the shop counter and what I feared would be the certain accusation of the shopkeeper. I don’t know why I obediently followed her; all I knew was that her will could not be disobeyed.
‘Ah, Mr. Bruce, don’t you agree these gloves look charming on my friend,’ the woman said, moving her hand to behind my back and propelling me closer to the counter. Only now did I notice that the shopkeeper had been looking steadily at me as I approached the counter. But my companion’s address commanded his attention.
‘Oh, Miss House, I … of course. You are the arbiter of taste.’ The shopkeeper said, seeming startled. Then a crafty gleam shone in his eyes. ‘Shall I put those on your account?’
My companion laughed lightly and said, ‘Yes, my account Mr. Bruce. By all means, put them on my account. Good day to you sir.’ She turned quickly, not acknowledging his hasty bow, and immediately placed her hand behind my elbow and moved me to the shop door.
Once outside she released her hold on me and laughed again. ‘On my account! The man is priceless. And you, my dear, really should pay more attention to shopkeepers if you plan to turn to a life of crime.’
I felt my face flush red and to my shame, rather than explain myself or plead forgiveness, I asked, ‘How did you know?’
She smiled and said, ‘You came in wearing very threadbare gloves and I see you trying to leave wearing new gloves. Oh, I’ll credit you with enough sense to choose an almost identical pair. But come, let’s go and have some tea, rather than loiter outside the scene of the crime.’
She attempted to move me again but this time I held firm.
‘I cannot thank you enough, Miss …’
‘Miss House. And you, I believe, are Miss Woodsen.’ We curtseyed, or rather she seemed to regally accept my existence while I clumsily tripped on my skirts.
‘You have me at a disadvantage, Miss House. I apologize that I was unaware that we are acquainted.’
‘Again, let’s not stand forever in front of Mr. Bruce’s door,’ Miss House said. ‘Walk with me, please.’
I agreed and together we walked down the street, slowly, for the rains had made the street muddy and because Miss House had to stop several times to acknowledge friends. And each time she kindly introduced me to her friends.
‘And it’s not your fault, Miss Woodsen,’ she said, as we paused to allow a street sweeper to clean our path. ‘We were introduced three years ago, here in Bath, and I have not seen you since. So your lapse is excused, although I must admit to chagrin. Once met, I am not easily forgotten.’
I smiled and had to agree. She was easily as tall as any man I knew and with her golden hair and deep, blue eyes very striking. And now that my fear of arrest had waned, I found it hard not to observe her.
‘I’m sorry, Miss House. There is much about my last visit to Bath I have tried to forget. I regret I lost my memory of you as well. But again, I really cannot thank …’
‘Tut. Think no more of it. It is my fault really that I allowed you to be in that position. I could see Mr. Bruce watching you the whole time and it amused me to let the scene play out. I am afraid he’s suffered from a very persistent thief lately. Why only yesterday someone took a very nice scarf practically from under his nose.’
‘But how would you know that?’ I asked.
‘It’s simple. I am his thief. Oh here we are.’ She stopped us outside Ballard’s Tea Room. ‘Come, Miss Woodsen, it’s my treat.’
But I could not move. ‘You … you …’
‘Yes, I, now let us go inside. I think tea will do you good.’ She led me inside and caught the attention of a girl who seated us, all the while nodding to several women on the way to our table. She quickly ordered tea, scones and jam while I awaited a chance to question her further.
Once alone I asked in a hushed voice: ‘How could … why would … why would you’ — I lowered my voice even further — ‘steal?’
‘Like any skill, thievery needs practicing to stay on top of one’s game. Besides, it’s a small enough repayment for all the times Mr. Bruce has “put something on my account” without my request. By the by, these gloves would look much better on you.’ She then produced a pair of gloves from her handbag. I had seen them in the milliner’s but hadn’t dared take them because they were of so much better quality than my own gloves.
I must have appeared stunned because I heard a voice asking Miss House, ‘Is your friend all right, Miss House? She looks unwell. I do hope nothing is wrong.’
‘Nothing is ever wrong here, Mrs. Ballard. It’s just the exertion of the walk. No doubt tea will set her right.’ The matronly woman was obviously anxious to please her guest.
‘Oh, where is the girl?’ the woman said. ‘Ah, here she is. Please see to Miss House and her guest. It’s always a pleasure to see you, Miss House,’ she added, as she backed away from our table. The image of the woman backing away brought a rush of memory.
‘I do remember you … at the ball. You were so kind to my mother and me. And everyone was so … deferential … to you. I really am most ashamed that I …’
Miss House reached across to me. ‘Please … if you apologize or thank me another time, I shall begin to find you tiresome. Now, take the gloves and put them in your reticule. I don’t want them and I can hardly take them back. And then we can address what is obviously on your mind. You are thinking, “Who is this extraordinary woman? And why is she being so kind to me?” Is that not so?’
I nodded.
‘Good. I am Miss Charlotte House and you are Miss …’
‘Jane,’ I supplied.
‘You are Miss Jane Woodsen. And I watched you come into the shop with a look of resignation on your face that was then replaced by a look of determination. It was writ plain on your face: I must do what I must do. And then you’ — she lowered her voice — ‘slipped off your gloves and put on the new ones. And you did it remarkably quickly.’
I nodded again, reliving my crime, this time with the pretense of shame.
‘You had obviously practiced. And you kept your back to the counter to block Mr. Bruce’s view of what you were doing, which was a good tactic for an amateur. When stealing, I always try to be as brazen-faced as possible. But you unconsciously brought up your shoulders to further conceal your activity and that brought you to his attention.’
‘That’s amazing,’ I said, a little too loudly, and in a quieter voice, ‘you are a professional thief.’
‘I am nothing of the kind. Thievery is a mere peccadillo, and my, what a fun word that is. And it’s a peccadillo that I have found useful from time to time. No, what you see before you is a wealthy — and I am very wealthy — bored, beautiful — and I am very beautiful — member of elite society. My brother believes himself someone important in the government while I believe myself someone important in Bath society. And what about you, Miss Woodsen? You are here for the season?’
‘Me? I am nothing interesting.’
‘Oh please,’ she said, in a tone that made me uncomfortable. ‘Do I not merit full disclosure?’
I dropped my head in shame. ‘Yes, of course,’ I said, looking up. ‘You do. And I am eternally’ — she gave me a warning look — ‘I am at a low end. My family … my father has … he has died and the estate, what there is of it, is entailed. There is only my younger sister, Elinor, who is staying with friends in Bishopstone, and myself.’
‘And where do you stay in Bath?’
‘With other friends, Colonel and Mrs. Wallingford. But I fear I have overstayed my welcome with them, now that I am no longer of their station.’
‘Your prospects then are bleak?’ she asked.
‘It would be charitable to call them bleak. I had to come to Bath to gain a position as a governess but have been repeatedly rejected. Nothing discourages an employer more than someone who needs to be employed. I fear I have the stink of poverty.’
‘Nonsense, pretty young girl like you. There are many men who would find you … you shake your head.’
‘I misled you. My father did not die. He killed himself, rather than face the wrath of his creditors, or the humiliation of debtor’s prison. My life is over, Miss House.’
Miss House said nothing while I wiped my tears. After I composed myself, she said, ‘It is a sad story. But I have the cure, or at least a temporary solution. Rid yourself of the accursed Wallingfords and stay with me. Find yourself a husband or a position as a governess. I would recommend against pursuing your career as a thief, however.’