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 My apprehensions had been replaced by curiosity and I hurried to breakfast.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.