THE POISON PEN AFFAIR
‘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.