We meet Lord William
I started my preparations for the ball with a gloomy outlook, but Mary would have none of it.
‘Shouldn’t you be helping Miss House, Mary?’
‘No miss, Alice is helping her tonight.’ She said this with a tone that implied Alice’s help might be more of a hindrance. ‘Miss House said that I should help you tonight, that you might need some cheering up.’
‘Ah, so you have heard of my misfortune.’ I had long suspected that Charlotte’s relationship with Mary was unusual for mistress and maid.
‘Yes, but in confidence of course, miss. And if you want to hear my thoughts, you’re better off here than as a governess.’
I turned my head to look at her and Mary jumped back with the curling iron in her hand.
‘Careful, miss, this thing is hot.’
I ignored her caution and asked, ‘And why am I better off here?’
‘You’re a lady … of quality. I could tell that the first day we met. But a governess, she’s not fish or fowl. No one in a household ever likes the governess; and you’d be miserable, teaching some brat.’ She said all this quickly and then lowered her eyes and added: ‘miss.’
I looked at her in amazement of her effrontery, but after a pause laughed a quick bark, not unlike Charlotte’s. Mary kept her eyes downcast but I could a smile creep onto her face. I turned back toward the mirror and said, ‘Well, get a move on girl. I mustn’t be late for the ball.’
Inside the carriage on the way to assembly room, Charlotte and Mrs. Fitzhugh sat opposite me, both looking concerned.
‘You look so pretty, my dear,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh said, for probably the third time that night. Charlotte nodded in agreement.
‘Thank you, both, and I am in much improved spirits. Mary worked her wonders on me,’ I said, looking steadily at Charlotte, who quickly assumed an attitude of nonchalance.
‘I certainly hope we meet Lord William tonight,’ I said, wanting to move past my disappointment. ‘What do you know of him, Mrs. Fitzhugh?’
‘As I said before, very little. I have met him and he is quite handsome and polite, paying me such little compliments as befits a more … mature lady like myself.’ I heard a little snort from another corner of the carriage, but it must have been a creak from the springs.
‘Surely you have more details than that.’
She sighed, and said, ‘He is in late thirties but appears younger, about Charlotte’s height, dark colouring, when no one is watching he looks languid, almost torporous, but when he is noticed becomes very affable. He looks very intently at the person to whom he is speaking, like … like …’
‘Like Charlotte?’ I supplied.
‘Yes, that’s it, just like Charlotte.’
I heard another snort from the springs, and then we arrived.
I shall not belabour the spectacles of yet another ball, except to say that the dancing was spirited, the gowns beautiful and the men charming, but in truth I did not notice any of this because I was too engaged trying to spot Lord William. Perhaps my failure at securing a position had made me even more determined to apply myself as Charlotte’s assistant, and the light banter in the coach had done much to improve my spirits.
But for most of the evening, my efforts were in vain. We soon found Mrs. Ashby and her daughter, however, and I must admit her daughter’s character left something to be desired.
‘Miss House, I’m so happy you’re here. Mamma has told me all about you and I’m sure you’ll do everything you can to stop whoever is trying to ruin my chances with Lord William.’
Charlotte took her regal tone with the effusive Miss Ashby. ‘Of course, Miss Ashby. We shall do everything in our power to’ — she moved closer to her and dropped her voice — ‘stop these completely unfounded rumours.’ As she said this she glanced sharply at Mrs. Ashby who, after a moments hesitation, vigorously nodded.
Miss Ashby did not seem to comprehend the silent conversation taking place between my friend and her mother. She was a ripe and energetic young woman of rosy cheeks and warm auburn hair.
‘She’s fair to bursting out of that gown,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh said to me confidentially. ‘Mind you, she is young and only taking advantage of that which nature so …’
‘Generously gave her,’ I finished for her. We laughed and our laughter brought us to the attention of Charlotte.
‘Forgive me, Miss Ashby, for being delinquent in introducing my friends, Mrs. Fitzhugh and Miss Woodsen. They are as solicitous of protecting your honour as am I.’
‘The more the merrier,’ the young woman said, somewhat distracted by a young military man who was claiming her for the next dance. ‘Pardon me, but Mr. … um’
‘Henshaw, at your service,’ the young man said.
‘Silly me. Mr. Henshaw has claimed this next dance.’
She was led off, leaving us with her mother, and as a group, we three looked steadily at her.
‘My daughter has high spirits, despite the trouble that afflicts us,’ she said.
‘She bears her burden well,’ I said.
‘She is young and foolish, but that is not a crime,’ Mrs. Ashby said.
‘No, that is nature,’ Charlotte added. ‘But to business. I think I see Lord William yonder.’
I looked in the direction indicated and saw Lord William. I heard a little cry from Mrs. Ashby who gazed at the man enraptured. No little wonder, I thought, 10,000 a year in his own right if the rumours be true and the eldest son of a earl; she had a right to be enraptured at the thought of her daughter making such an alliance. And he was a fine figure of a man, taller than Charlotte with jet-black, thick hair and refined features atop a muscular physique that spoke of athletic pursuits.
He soon saw Mrs. Ashby, aided by the semaphore of her handkerchief, and approached our group.
‘My dear Mrs. Ashby, how delightful to see you,’ he said, with a sweep of his arm to accompany his bow. ‘But where is the fair Miss Ashby?’
‘You see her dancing to Highgate, Lord William.’
‘Ah, of course, the spirited girl with the roses in her cheeks. And these ladies, why are they not dancing?’
‘Pardon me, Lord William. I should like you to meet my friends, Mrs. … um, Fitz … hugh, Miss House and Miss Woodsen.’
‘Mrs. Um-Fitzhugh,’ Lord William cheekily said with his bow, ‘and Miss House … I’ve heard of you … and Miss Woodsen. Delighted.’
‘Lord William, it is an honour,’ Charlotte said.
‘Nonsense, I am the one honoured here. Ah, the dance is ending, and as my dear Sophia has left me alone, would you do me the further honour of the next dance.’
Charlotte assented as Miss Ashby joined us.
‘William, I did not see you enter,’ Miss Ashby cried, as she ran to him and claimed his arm.
‘You were too busy enjoying yourself to notice me,’ he said with mock hurt.
‘Silly, that is your fault if you arrive so late, but dance with me now.’
‘No, I have already claimed Miss House and she has kindly agreed. You, my dear, need some refreshment. You are flushed and could hardly sustain another dance.’
‘I am rather beat,’ she agreed. ‘Mamma, let’s let William have his dance while we find some negus.’
Lord William led Charlotte to dance while Mrs. Fitzhugh and I remained.
‘We are to be the wallflowers, then,’ I said.
‘I think you have no reason to fear,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh said, and nodded in the direction of a man who approached us.
‘Miss Woodsen, I hope I am not too late to claim this dance?’ the man asked, whom I recognized but whose name I could not recall.
‘I am sure Jane would be delighted to dance, Mr. Wallace,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh said. I stared at her in wonder, for it was the first time she had called me by my given name, and in gratitude for reminding me of the gentleman’s name.
‘Yes, of course, Mr. Wallace, how kind of you to ask.’
Mr. Wallace led me to the dancers and we took our positions at the far end of the line from Charlotte and Lord William. Charlotte caught my eye and nodded to me as the dance began.
‘You forgot me, Miss Woodsen,’ Mr. Wallace said just before we separated.
‘I forgot your name, sir. I did not forget you,’ I said as we rejoined.
He smiled. ‘I am glad to have found you tonight,’ Mr. Wallace said. ‘I have wanted to thank you for the aid you offered my cousin that night.’
‘And how is Miss Williams? and Mrs. Williams?’ I asked before we separated again.
‘She is well. They are well. Lucy is to marry Mr. Tattersall after all.’ Again we separated and again rejoined.
‘I am happy to hear it,’ I said, although I remembered well adding the notice to Charlotte’s commonplace book.
‘It is due to you and Miss House that the marriage is to take place.’
‘She deserves all the credit, Mr. Wallace. I was a mere player.’
‘You caught her as she fell.’
‘And you caught me.’ We exchanged partners again and rejoined.
‘It was my pleasure.’
‘I enjoyed it too,’ I said, amused at my sudden boldness. I thought my reply caught him off guard for he seemed to trip as we exchanged partners, coincidentally with the young man who had been the partner of Miss Ashby earlier.
‘My apologies,’ he said after he caught up. ‘I was worried that you had left Bath.’
‘I was unwell for a time but have recovered.’
‘I was unsure where I might call.’
‘I stay with Miss House.’
‘Then I might call upon you?’
‘Yes,’ I said, quickly adding before another separation, ‘Number 3 the Royal Crescent. That is the address.’
All too soon the dance ended. Mr. Wallace made his goodbye and promised again to call. Charlotte collected me and we returned to Mrs. Fitzhugh.
‘Jane has reconnected with Mr. Wallace,’ Charlotte told Mrs. Fitzhugh.
‘He did not know where I lived,’ I said. ‘He wanted to call.’
‘Your spirits certainly have improved.’
‘There is nothing like the expectation of a man,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh added.
I noticed the archness of their tone and said, ‘Yes, well, all right. And how did you enjoy your dance, Charlotte? Lord William certainly showed an interest in you.’
‘He is an excellent partner,’ she answered. ‘Let us find a place to sit and I’ll tell you of our conversation.’
We found a place and Charlotte started: ‘He repeated that he knew of me and of my employment. “You are the court of last appeal,” he said — I rather like that – “but what need arises that involves you in my betrothal to Miss Ashby?”
‘I told him that it was merely coincidence that we met and that I was surprised that we had not met earlier.
‘“Oh, but you are a dangerous woman, Miss House,” — I rather like that as well — “and it is not wise to make the acquaintance of dangerous women.” Utterly charming and designed to put me off my guard, which I am sad to say it did.’ I was forced to talk of inconsequential matters.’
‘I’m sorry you learned little,’ I said.
‘I would not say that. I learned quite a deal of the young lord’s character. You will remember a moment of clumsiness during the dance?’
I had hoped no one had noticed Mr. Wallace’s clumsiness, but of course Charlotte would.
‘Do not blame your young man. Lord William tripped Mr. Henshaw who bumped into Mr. Wallace.’
‘What?’ I cried. ‘How uncouth!’
‘On the contrary, it was brilliantly done. I am sure Mr. Wallace and Mr. Henshaw are both blaming their own clumsiness when it is Lord William to blame. In fact, I don’t know how he did it, for I did not see it, but the look of satisfaction on his face made his guilt clear.
‘I fear our young lord is a contradiction. He appears on the surface affable and charming but underneath he can be petty and vindictive. I fear he uses people for his own ends without consideration of their … why are you looking at me in that way?’
‘I really must get some refreshment,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh said. ‘Will you accompany me, Jane.’
‘I should be happy to, Margaret,’ I said, and allowed her to lead me away from the puzzled Charlotte. In fact the rest of the night we tried to avoid looking directly at Charlotte and from that point Mrs. Fitzhugh and I were fast friends.