An ever-rotating wheel of information
I earlier recounted that I found our social obligations a burden, but I felt differently on this visit to the Lower Assembly Rooms, because this time I was working on someone’s behalf. I began to understand why we visited these rooms again and again.
We joined the society taking a turn in the large ballroom and whereas before the image of prisoners pacing in their cells always came to mind, to-day I saw the crowd as an ever rotating wheel of information, like some vast clockwork mechanism that will reveal secrets if only the separate wheels can be aligned. As usual, we three started as a group but over time we became became two parties, alternately sharing Mrs. Fitzhugh, so that we might converse with as many people as possible.
Of course, we had to be discreet in our inquiries: ‘Mrs. Crawford, so nice to see you again. We were just speaking of you last night to Mrs. Ashby. Why yes, I had heard of the engagement?’ Or: ‘It is a pleasure to make the acquaintance of so fine a gentleman as yourself. But stay, are you not a friend of Lord William Hickham? I believe him to be recently engaged.’
These inquiries were repeated again and again, but we heard little detrimental other than envy about Miss Ashby and her family. After we became three again we even asked our master of ceremonies about the match.
‘Ladies, ma’am, a great pleasure as always,’ he said. ‘And it is good to see you well, Miss Woodsen.’
‘Thank you, Mr. King,’ I said. ‘You are kind to notice.’
He gave a little bow and then Charlotte said, ‘We do not see Mrs. Ashby here to-day. We had hoped to offer our congratulations on the engagement of her daughter to Lord William Hickham.’
‘Hickham, yes,’ he said with a harrumph, ‘high time that young man found himself a wife.’
‘There are many who think the match most advantageous for the Ashbys,’ I said.
‘I dare say it is. But Hickham … Lord William … has remained single far too long for an eldest son. Noblesse oblige, as the French used to say.’
Mrs. Fitzhugh returned, ‘And why is that, I wonder?’
He looked at her puzzled. ‘Well, the revolution might have …’
Charlotte stopped him. ‘No, I think my friend wondered why Lord William is so late in marrying.’
‘Oh, sorry. Well, I don’t know. There have been … Miss House, I take you into my confidence. I …’ He stopped and then looked at me.
‘You may depend on Miss Woodsen’s discretion as you do mine, Mr. King.’
‘Well that’s all right then,’ he said, looking at me before turning back to Charlotte. ‘We have cooperated before on matters of some discretion, Miss House. As I was saying, there had been earlier expectations that Lord William would take a wife and that came to naught.’
‘I was unaware of this,’ Charlotte said. ‘Doubtless those families are now disappointed.’
‘Yes, the Spensers and the Winslowes especially. Don’t see much of them as a matter of fact. I should call on them. Speaking of which — if you will excuse me ladies, I also have my duties at the upper rooms.’
Mr. King left us with something to think about.
‘I don’t think Mr. King will have much luck with the Spensers,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh said. ‘They stopped coming to Bath two seasons ago.’
‘I vaguely remember them,’ Charlotte said. ‘Pretty girl but a little too high spirited.’
‘And the Winslowes?’ I asked Mrs. Fitzhugh.
‘They are here in Bath, but I do not recall seeing them lately. Mr. Winslow died I believe, which may be the reason for their seclusion.’
‘Our next step then is clear,’ I said. ‘We must call on the Winslowes.’
Which did not prove easy, because although the Winslowe’s did, at least at one time, live in Bath, we could not find their present address. We inquired again in the upper and lower assembly rooms, at the Pump Room, at the theatre and at every occasion we attended, but no one seemed to know where the Winslowes lived.
In the meantime, we were again visited by Mrs. Ashby.
‘Another letter!’ she cried, once seated in the sitting room. ‘We are ruined!’
‘Calm yourself,’ soothed Mrs. Fitzhugh.
‘Yes,’ I added, ‘we have found no proof that this rumour has spread.’
‘But it has. My best friend Mrs. Clausen brought me this letter only this morning.’
Charlotte looked briefly at the letter and handed it to me. Mrs. Fitzhugh joined me in reading it.
Tell Mrs. Ashby that her cat wants to be let out of its bag. Tell her at once or the cat will be lost to her forever.
‘That is quite … odd,’ I said. I looked at Charlotte who was smiling.
‘Ruined!’ Mrs. Ashby said again.
Charlotte dropped her smile before addressing the hysterical woman. ‘Courage, Mrs. Ashby. There is nothing to fear if the recipient has not received the previous letter. And besides, you say Mrs. Clausen is your best friend.’
Mrs. Ashby nodded vigorously. ‘We have known each other since childhood.’
‘And she can keep this secret.’
‘And no one else has come forward with letters.’
‘Then I think the matter remains contained,’ Charlotte said. As usual, her words had a calming effect on Mrs. Ashby.
‘You really think the rumour has not spread?’
‘Yes, after our inquiries, I think I can safely say that you are the only intended recipient of these letters. Now, if you are calm, perhaps you can answer some questions.’
‘Yes, of course, Miss House.’
‘Now, can you tell us how your daughter and Lord William were acquainted?’
‘It was at the start of the season, one of the Monday night balls.’
‘And how were they introduced?’ Charlotte asked.
‘By Mr. King, after my husband …’
‘After your husband had a word with Mr. King,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh supplied.
‘Were you aware of Lord William’s previous understandings?’ Charlotte asked.
‘You are acquainted with the Spensers? Or the Winslowes?’ I asked. Charlotte shot me a look of annoyance, which puzzled me, but Mrs. Ashby did not notice the exchange. I also caught Mrs. Fitzhugh shaking her head at me.
In answer to my question, Mrs. Ashby said, ‘I don’t know the Spensers, and I don’t think I know the Winslowes … although the name does sound familiar. We have not been too many seasons at Bath, you see. We were at Tunbridge Wells last season. Are these people important?’
‘We believe that Lord William had understandings with the daughters of these families.’
‘That cannot be. Lord William is quite charming and forthcoming and told us that he had no interest in marriage until he met our daughter.’
‘Perhaps he …’ I started to say, but stopped when I again saw Charlotte give me a look.
‘Of course, Mrs. Ashby, I must be mistaken. Lord William sounds a delightful man and I should like to meet him.’
‘Yes, that would reassure you, Miss House. I had thought it best not to go to the next ball because of these … but if you are really sure.’ Charlotte nodded. ‘Then I shall introduce you.’
After the plans were made for the ball, Mrs. Fitzhugh assisted Mrs. Ashby in leaving, while leaving Charlotte and I behind in the sitting room.
‘Really, Jane, you must not interfere when I am questioning someone,’ she said, as soon as we were alone. I could see that she was quite annoyed.
‘Is that why you gave me that look?’ I asked. ‘I am your accomplice, am I not.’
She sighed when she heard her own words echoed back to her, and the annoyance left her face. ‘Yes, Jane, you are my partner in crime. But you must recognize when I am trying to induce a state of susceptibility.’
‘You must have noticed the effect that I can have on people.’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I have noticed it upon myself.’
‘It is a practiced skill. By patient questioning and a commanding tone I can put someone at ease, especially in an intimate setting. I needed Mrs. Ashby in a calm state to ask my questions and I wanted her to hear only my voice.’
‘Mrs. Fitzhugh asked a question,’ I said, petulantly.
‘I know, I know, it made yours that much more annoying.’
I decided to broach a subject that had been bothering me.
‘Do you truly want a friend on whom you can rely, or someone who merely agrees with you?’
‘That is a frank question.’
‘And one I must ask. I realize my position is perilous. You are my benefactor; I exist on your generosity. But I must be allowed to speak my own mind.’
‘And I want you to. Just not when I’m …’
‘… controlling the minds of the susceptible?’
Charlotte had looked quite cross until now, but now she laughed heartily as I heard the sitting room doors open. ‘Are you two still friends?’ Mrs. Fitzhugh asked.
‘I think we are,’ Charlotte said.
‘Did she upbraid you for interrupting her — what d’you call it — mesmerism?’
‘You mean her penetrating gaze and commanding tone?’ I added, and laughed.
‘Yes, she can be quite forceful,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh said, also laughing.
Charlotte looked at us both, this time with mock annoyance. ‘Ha, ha. Very droll. But it does work.’
We ignored her and instead gave each other penetrating and commanding looks.