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.’