There is dancing

It fit. If fit better than anything I had ever worn, and I thanked Mary for her efforts. ‘It is a lovely color, Mary.’

‘The green matches your eyes, miss. I couldn’t help but notice.’

‘Green! You call this green! It is emerald; it is the sea; it is the forest primaeval. But how could you find this?’

‘Oh, that was easy. Miss House told me to go to her dressmaker and see if they had anything that would suit you. It’s actually parts of two different dresses, three if you count the pelisse, which I thought you might like, being it’s cool tonight.’

‘You are a wonder, Mary, and a very clever girl.’

‘Please miss, don’t move, I need just a few more stitches to make sure you don’t pop out all over. There, done!’

I admired myself in the mirror and couldn’t help but think of the shift in my fortunes.

‘You’d better hurry. I’m sorry it took me so long to make those changes,’ Mary said.

‘You are right. I shall have to run to make it in time.’

‘Run? No, a sedan chair is waiting outside. We can’t have you running.’

Mary hurried me out and the chairmen brought me swiftly to the Assembly Rooms with time to spare. Miss House and Mrs. Fitzhugh were waiting for me just inside.

‘My dear, you are a vision,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh said.

‘I agree,’ Miss House said. ‘Clearly Mary has outdone herself.’

‘Thank you both. I feel … I feel …’

‘Yes, my dear,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh prompted.

‘I feel that anything is possible.’

‘And so it is,’ Miss House confirmed.

‘Let us go in,’ Mrs. Fitzhugh said. ‘There is dancing.’

Her words proved to be an understatement. I had never seen so many people in one place for this was the height of the season; and the day and the clemency of the weather ensured that all of society gathered in this one room. We entered as the couples marched before the start of the country dance, unfortunate timing as it might mean that we would be denied partners for a full thirty minutes, but I did not mind. I enjoyed watching the leading couple as they assuredly set the tone of the dance and feared I would never match their skill and grace. But Miss House was eager to claim seats and she firmly held my hand as we navigated the room.

I was soon glad of her firm hand as we threaded our way through the crowd and claimed what looked to be the last two seats available. We were only barely seated, however, when Mrs. Fitzhugh returned with a pleasant young man in tow. We rose and Mrs. Fitzhugh said, “Miss Woodsen, may I introduce Mr. Harrington, a very nice young man whose family I have known since the Flood.’

He bowed and I returned the favor. ‘Charmed, Miss Woodsen.’

Turning to the gentleman, our companion said, ‘And you, of course, know Miss House.’ They acknowledged each other as well and exchanged pleasantries before Mr. Harrington addressed me again. ‘Miss Woodsen, may I have the pleasure of the next dance?’

Obliged as I was, I stole a look to Miss House for I also felt an obligation to her and did not wish to precede her enjoyment. She quickly nodded her assurance with a smile and I returned my attention to the gentleman.

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I look forward to it.’

And the course of the evening was set. I danced the cotillion and the reel and to my relief but not my surprise Miss House was not unaccompanied, though she towered over one partner. We several times exchanged smiles and I laughed at the pleasantries of my partners and clapped at the success of the dances.

The room grew ever hotter and we retired for refreshment and joined a group obviously well known to my friends. Mrs. Fitzhugh especially knew everyone, and soon Miss House and she were exchanging confidences with those at the table.

After a time Miss House returned her attention to me. ‘I’m sorry, my dear, I’ve ignored you.’

‘No, I am glad of a moment to enjoy my own thoughts.’

‘I’m glad you are enjoying yourself then. But if I may ask a favor, would you decline the next dance? I had promised that you would see the outcome of your efforts this morning.’

‘Yes,’ I said, louder than I had intended. ‘I wish to know what you are about.’

‘Good. Mrs. Fitzhugh, might we return and attend to our friend in need?’

Mrs. Fitzhugh agreed and we returned to the ballroom, which by this time had quieted somewhat in favor of dances that would allow the participants to cool themselves. Thus our progress through the room was quicker and we soon found ourselves in a corner where a family was seated. They rose as we approached.

‘Mr. Williams, Mrs. Williams, Miss Williams, Mr. Wallace, may I introduce …’

Etiquette and Mrs. Fitzhugh were ignored however, when Mrs. William asked, ‘Do you have them, Miss House?’

Seeing her distress, my friend quickly said, ‘I do. All is well.’

‘Thank God!’ Mrs. Williams cried loudly, drawing everyone’s attention, but as I was closest to her, I saw Miss Williams swoon. I rushed to her side, however her weight was unsupportable and I staggered. Suddenly I felt strong arms holding me upright and then the gentleman, Mr. Wallace, was carrying Miss Williams to a chair.

‘Thank you sir,’ I said to Mr. Wallace, who merely nodded to me, his attention to the young lady. Her mother, however, pushed him aside and sat beside her.

‘Catherine, it is all right, we are saved,’ she told her daughter, patting her hand. Catherine opened her eyes and smiled faintly at her mother. The tension was drained from our group. Within a few minutes everyone was smiling and they thanked Mrs. Fitzhugh and my friend. Mr. Wallace, however, turned to me.

‘I apologize Miss …’

‘Woodsen … Jane Woodsen,’ I said.

‘John Wallace,’ he said in return and bowed, and I curtseyed.

‘I apologize for …’ and he made a vague gesture with his hands. His discomfiture was quite becoming in contrast to his sturdy, capable appearance.

‘There is no need. Thank you for …’ and I made a similar gesture.

He started to laugh but was cut short by a voice.

‘You! Miss House!’

I turned and saw Lady Dalrymple approach, trailed by the woman I took to be her niece.

‘Lady Dalrymple, so good to see you,’ Miss House said, and curtseyed, followed by myself and Mrs. Fitzhugh, but not Mrs. Williams, who returned hostility with hostility. Mr. Wallace and Mr. Williams bowed but I could tell they did not like it.

‘I thought I made clear that the matter is at an end,’ Lady Dalrymple, oblivious to our presence, told Miss House.

‘But the world turns regardless of your wishes, Lady Dalrymple, and your saying black is white does not make it so. And if your nephew chooses to marry Miss Williams and she chooses to accept, then you can have no objection, for there is no impediment to their union. I repeat, there is no impediment. If there ever had been one, it no longer exists.’

She was magnificent. Boadicea herself could not have appeared more magnificent. Lady Dalrymple shrank. She opened her mouth to speak and thought better of it after noticing the attention her words had attracted. She turned quickly, almost colliding with her companion, and walked away.

The Williamses again thanked Miss House, and Mrs. Fitzhugh and me, although they could not have known what little part I played. Hands were pressed and kisses were exchanged — Mr. Wallace was excessively charming — and when it was over, we three watched the Williamses, now a happy party, leave.

Miss House leaned her head toward me and said quietly, ‘And that is my employment, Miss Woodsen. That is what I do.’

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A singular woman

I quickly moved my few belongings to No. 3 the Royal Crescent, which Miss House had rented for the season. I found everyone eager to welcome me, the servants being very concerned for my comfort. But Miss House was not there to greet me.

‘No miss, she’s away,’ Mary the maid told me, while she saw to my things. ‘She’s off on her calls and was very sorry that she could not be here. But she told us, ‘Make sure that Miss Woodsen is very comfortable and has everything she needs.” And, of course, we were all delighted that Miss House had company.’

‘Does she have many guests?’ I asked.

‘She has many visitors, of course, but apart from her brother, not many guests.’

‘You like your mistress, I think?’

‘Oh, we do, miss. She is very kind and fair to us. And so we are happy to see her with a friend.’

Mary’s words took me aback. ‘I only met Miss House two days before, and although she has also shown me great friendship, I don’t know whether I can claim her as friend.’

Her posture stiffened slightly. I couldn’t tell whether Mary was offended by my words or doing an imitation of Miss House’s impeccable posture. ‘She certainly thinks of you as a friend, miss. She told us, ‘Treat Miss Woodsen as my particular friend and see that she wants for nothing.”’

‘It is a great honour then that I can claim her friendship, Mary.’

She turned to me and smiled and her posture relaxed. ‘I’m sure you’ll be the best of friends, miss.’

I might now call Miss House friend, but she was certainly an absent one whom I did not see again for another two days. And despite the kindliness of the servants, I could not help feel an interloper in the house. That feeling and the novelty of my situation confined me to my room, even at dinner, which over the protestations of the housekeeper, I asked be sent to my room. But by the second day, curiosity got the better of me. I spent my time acquainting myself with the house and learning a little of my benefactor.

In the sitting room, I found miniatures of Miss House and her brother. In their likenesses, I found them not alike. His hair was dark to her light, and the artist had caught a jovial, almost fatuous good humour at odds with his sister. I also found a framed, quick pencil sketch of a naval officer with a lock of dark black hair pressed against the glass.

The piano keyboard was open and the sheet music displayed a difficult piece, Bach’s The Art of Fugue, with many notations in what I believed to be Miss House’s hand. The sheet music was incomplete, with several pages handwritten. On the writing desk, I found scattered another incomplete printing with similar notations, and several pages on the floor. The effect was that of an artist, caught in the embrace of a muse who dashes out the door, with strict instructions to the servants not to tidy her work, although the rest of the room was immaculate.

The library was similarly instructive. It was well stocked by the owner, with the perfunctory classics that had never been read, a ladder that had never been moved and a globe that had never been spun. But the fine furniture in the room had been moved aside for two large, plain deal tables on which were spread newspapers and other periodicals going back at least six months. There were Bath, Bristol and London papers, even one from America. Several clippings were scattered on the table as well, primarily betrothal and wedding announcements, again with many notations, such as ‘This will not do!’ and ‘But what about the previous engagement!’ and ‘How do we know a living is ensured?’

There were also other more curious clippings: ship arrivals, war despatches, the death of a baronet and even postings in the agony column. In the baronet’s death announcement was penned, ‘Could M__ be his child?’

In several piles, tied with bright red ribbon, I found Miss House’s traveling library, which was again singular. In one untied bundle, I found Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, of which I had heard but never read, and The Monk and The Castle of Otranto, both of which I had read. At the top of another bundle was an Italian translation of a Galen anatomy text. And next to the textbooks were two large cases of pinned butterflies.

Most prominent, however, was about a dozen large books obviously composed of past clippings. The most recent chronologically contained an announcement of my father’s death.

I sat down at the table and stared at the page that contained the announcement. It was dated the day we had met. What sort of woman is she? I wondered. I am a complete stranger to her and yet she invites me to her home and immediately catalogues me with the other esoterica of her mind.

I could not dislodge the feeling that I was a butterfly pinned in Miss House’s collection. Whatever my feelings, I earnestly wished for her return, hoping that I would find reassurance in the pleasant manner she had earlier shown me.

It was not until late that evening, however, that Miss House arrived. I was in my room, reading the Laclos, when I heard the commotion of the servants. I hurried downstairs and found my hostess in the hallroom. I found my benefactor and another woman in the foyer, being attended to by the servants.

‘Oh Miss House, you are wet and cold.’

‘And hungry, Mary. Ask cook to lay on something substantial, despite the hour.’

‘We know your habits by now, miss,’ Mary said, while helping Miss House remove a very travel-stained cloak, to reveal mud-stained skirts. Her companion was equally begrimed.

Miss House noticed my presence upon the stairs. ‘My dear Miss Woodsen, please forgive me. But as you can see, I’ve been away and busy.’ She gestured to the older woman. ‘And before I forget my manners, I would like you to meet my dear Mrs. Fitzhugh, a family friend.’

We acknowledged each other, and then Mrs. Fitzhugh stepped toward me. I could see that though she was older than Miss House, neither her dark hair nor her cheerful smile betrayed her age. ‘Miss Woodsen, it is a pleasure to meet you. Miss House has told me all about you.’

‘The pleasure is mine as well,’ I said, overcome by the warmth of her greeting.

Freed of her traveling clothes, Miss House joined us. ‘Miss Woodsen, I apologize for not greeting you on your arrival, and I hope Mary has not been horrible to you.’ She flashed Mary a smile, who quickly cast down her eyes while lifting the corners of her mouth.

‘No, Miss House, Mary and everyone in this household have shown me the greatest kindness.’

‘Please forgive me while I change, and although you’ve doubtless already dined, would you join me later while I dine.’

‘Of course, it would be my pleasure.’

‘Good,’ she said, as she rushed up the stairs, leaving me behind. I looked at Mrs. Fitzhugh and Mary, still holding her mistress’s cloak.

‘She does rather leave one breathless,’ I said softly to myself.

Mary nodded and said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful, miss?’

Mrs. Fitzhugh also left, and I retired to the sitting room to wait what I thought would be a considerable time while they composed themselves, but it seemed only minutes before Miss House joined me, dressed like a lady who had spent the entire day doing nothing more exhausting than answering her correspondence.

‘Mrs. Fitzhugh does not join us?’ I asked.

‘No, she’s rather tired after our labours, and she also had the wisdom to eat while I can never suffer food when traveling.’

We went into the dining room where we found a meal sufficient for an army awaiting Miss House. I limited myself to tea while she attacked a cold roast.

‘Pardon my manners, Miss Woodsen, I am famished. I can’t remember when last I ate.’

‘You have been traveling this whole time?’

‘Yes, my inquiries led me to Bristol.’

‘Bristol!’ I said alarmed. ‘Whatever could take you to Bristol?’

She stopped eating and looked at me intently.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘It is none of my business.’

‘No, no, I like your directness. I’ll tell you someday of my business in Bristol. Why don’t you tell me instead how you find the house?’

I told her that I found my situation agreeable, without mentioning the feelings I had experienced in the library.

‘Then everything is to your liking? Your room?’

‘Yes, of course, it is more than I could have hoped.’

‘And when you saw the clipping on the death of your father?’

I froze and for a space said nothing. ‘How did you know … ?’

‘Before I joined you, I looked into the library and saw the Laclos was missing. You’ll find it an enjoyable read. And I ask again, what did you think when you saw the clipping?’

‘I confess I did not know what to think,’ trying to hide my discomfort by lifting my cup.

‘You did not think yourself a butterfly pinned to a collection?’

I spilled my tea and I fear I stared at her open mouthed. She laughed.

‘Oh Miss Woodsen, I am sorry. It was a guess and I did not think it would affect you so strongly. You are the victim of my machinations. I staged that tableau like a trap and then like a hunter I spring the trap.’

I put down the cup and said, trembling, ‘You are most unkind.’

My statement wiped the smile from her face. ‘I am,’ she said, ‘but I wanted to know the measure of my friend, whether she is made of glass or of iron, whether she will wilt before my nature or will challenge me in my own home.’

She has done it again, I thought. She has turned my righteous anger into eager forgiveness. She has turned the kindness of her offer into rudeness by her absence into … into whatever it is I feel now.

‘You forgive me. I feel it now, Miss Woodsen. I have turned the corner in your estimation.’ She said this with a pleading in her voice that was so charming.

I still did not know what to say, but I gave her a slight nod in return.

‘And now it is your turn. Tell me what you think. Tell me your impressions about me.’

‘You are the most singular person I have ever met,’ I ventured to say.

‘Hah! That is not helpful. In a long life, you might say that again and again. Give me details.’

Thus challenged, I said, ‘You must be a gifted pianist to tackle so challenging and obscure a piece as the music I found in the sitting room. You devour the news like you devoured that roast. You like the sensational, witness your choice of reading material and you have an interest in the social news that matches the most inquisitive spinsters of my village. You read Italian medical texts. And I almost get the impression that you have … an employment.’

‘Oh this is fun,’ she said. ‘But you should remember to distinguish between observation and conclusions. A bad pianist can murder Bach as easily as a gifted one can praise him. Although you are correct, I am judged a gifted pianist. And I do read Italian, badly. And you are correct in your most important conclusion. I do have an employment.

‘But the hour is late and that roast you say I have devoured weighs heavily on me. And I did journey to Bristol and back. Let’s retire and we will continue our talk to-morrow.’

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The Start of the Affair

Caught in the act

‘You know you’ll never get away with it,’ a soft voice said.

I turned with a start toward the voice and saw a tall, elegant woman standing next me, but not facing me.

‘Those gloves look very nice on you, but not at the cost of the ensuing embarrassment,’ she said, again not addressing me directly. Then she turned and looked at me and gave me a quick, brilliant smile. She continued in a louder voice: ‘Why don’t you let me repay you for the kindness you did me last summer? I insist on buying them for you.’

She laid her hand lightly on my arm and moved me toward the shop counter and what I feared would be the certain accusation of the shopkeeper. I don’t know why I obediently followed her; all I knew was that her will could not be disobeyed.

‘Ah, Mr. Bruce, don’t you agree these gloves look charming on my friend,’ the woman said, moving her hand to behind my back and propelling me closer to the counter. Only now did I notice that the shopkeeper had been looking steadily at me as I approached the counter. But my companion’s address commanded his attention.

‘Oh, Miss House, I … of course. You are the arbiter of taste.’ The shopkeeper said, seeming startled. Then a crafty gleam shone in his eyes. ‘Shall I put those on your account?’

My companion laughed lightly and said, ‘Yes, my account Mr. Bruce. By all means, put them on my account. Good day to you sir.’ She turned quickly, not acknowledging his hasty bow, and immediately placed her hand behind my elbow and moved me to the shop door.

Once outside she released her hold on me and laughed again. ‘On my account! The man is priceless. And you, my dear, really should pay more attention to shopkeepers if you plan to turn to a life of crime.’

I felt my face flush red and to my shame, rather than explain myself or plead forgiveness, I asked, ‘How did you know?’

She smiled and said, ‘You came in wearing very threadbare gloves and I see you trying to leave wearing new gloves. Oh, I’ll credit you with enough sense to choose an almost identical pair. But come, let’s go and have some tea, rather than loiter outside the scene of the crime.’

She attempted to move me again but this time I held firm.

‘I cannot thank you enough, Miss …’

‘Miss House. And you, I believe, are Miss Woodsen.’ We curtseyed, or rather she seemed to regally accept my existence while I clumsily tripped on my skirts.

‘You have me at a disadvantage, Miss House. I apologize that I was unaware that we are acquainted.’

‘Again, let’s not stand forever in front of Mr. Bruce’s door,’ Miss House said. ‘Walk with me, please.’

I agreed and together we walked down the street, slowly, for the rains had made the street muddy and because Miss House had to stop several times to acknowledge friends. And each time she kindly introduced me to her friends.

‘And it’s not your fault, Miss Woodsen,’ she said, as we paused to allow a street sweeper to clean our path. ‘We were introduced three years ago, here in Bath, and I have not seen you since. So your lapse is excused, although I must admit to chagrin. Once met, I am not easily forgotten.’

I smiled and had to agree. She was easily as tall as any man I knew and with her golden hair and deep, blue eyes very striking. And now that my fear of arrest had waned, I found it hard not to observe her.

‘I’m sorry, Miss House. There is much about my last visit to Bath I have tried to forget. I regret I lost my memory of you as well. But again, I really cannot thank …’

‘Tut. Think no more of it. It is my fault really that I allowed you to be in that position. I could see Mr. Bruce watching you the whole time and it amused me to let the scene play out. I am afraid he’s suffered from a very persistent thief lately. Why only yesterday someone took a very nice scarf practically from under his nose.’

‘But how would you know that?’ I asked.

‘It’s simple. I am his thief. Oh here we are.’ She stopped us outside Ballard’s Tea Room. ‘Come, Miss Woodsen, it’s my treat.’

But I could not move. ‘You … you …’

‘Yes, I, now let us go inside. I think tea will do you good.’ She led me inside and caught the attention of a girl who seated us, all the while nodding to several women on the way to our table. She quickly ordered tea, scones and jam while I awaited a chance to question her further.

Once alone I asked in a hushed voice: ‘How could … why would … why would you’ — I lowered my voice even further — ‘steal?’

‘Like any skill, thievery needs practicing to stay on top of one’s game. Besides, it’s a small enough repayment for all the times Mr. Bruce has “put something on my account” without my request. By the by, these gloves would look much better on you.’ She then produced a pair of gloves from her handbag. I had seen them in the milliner’s but hadn’t dared take them because they were of so much better quality than my own gloves.

I must have appeared stunned because I heard a voice asking Miss House, ‘Is your friend all right, Miss House? She looks unwell. I do hope nothing is wrong.’

‘Nothing is ever wrong here, Mrs. Ballard. It’s just the exertion of the walk. No doubt tea will set her right.’ The matronly woman was obviously anxious to please her guest.

‘Oh, where is the girl?’ the woman said. ‘Ah, here she is. Please see to Miss House and her guest. It’s always a pleasure to see you, Miss House,’ she added, as she backed away from our table. The image of the woman backing away brought a rush of memory.

‘I do remember you … at the ball. You were so kind to my mother and me. And everyone was so … deferential … to you. I really am most ashamed that I …’

Miss House reached across to me. ‘Please … if you apologize or thank me another time, I shall begin to find you tiresome. Now, take the gloves and put them in your reticule. I don’t want them and I can hardly take them back. And then we can address what is obviously on your mind. You are thinking, “Who is this extraordinary woman? And why is she being so kind to me?” Is that not so?’

I nodded.

‘Good. I am Miss Charlotte House and you are Miss …’

‘Jane,’ I supplied.

‘You are Miss Jane Woodsen. And I watched you come into the shop with a look of resignation on your face that was then replaced by a look of determination. It was writ plain on your face: I must do what I must do. And then you’ — she lowered her voice — ‘slipped off your gloves and put on the new ones. And you did it remarkably quickly.’

I nodded again, reliving my crime, this time with the pretense of shame.

‘You had obviously practiced. And you kept your back to the counter to block Mr. Bruce’s view of what you were doing, which was a good tactic for an amateur. When stealing, I always try to be as brazen-faced as possible. But you unconsciously brought up your shoulders to further conceal your activity and that brought you to his attention.’

‘That’s amazing,’ I said, a little too loudly, and in a quieter voice, ‘you are a professional thief.’

‘I am nothing of the kind. Thievery is a mere peccadillo, and my, what a fun word that is. And it’s a peccadillo that I have found useful from time to time. No, what you see before you is a wealthy — and I am very wealthy — bored, beautiful — and I am very beautiful — member of elite society. My brother believes himself someone important in the government while I believe myself someone important in Bath society. And what about you, Miss Woodsen? You are here for the season?’

‘Me? I am nothing interesting.’

‘Oh please,’ she said, in a tone that made me uncomfortable. ‘Do I not merit full disclosure?’

I dropped my head in shame. ‘Yes, of course,’ I said, looking up. ‘You do. And I am eternally’ — she gave me a warning look — ‘I am at a low end. My family … my father has … he has died and the estate, what there is of it, is entailed. There is only my younger sister, Elinor, who is staying with friends in Bishopstone, and myself.’

‘And where do you stay in Bath?’

‘With other friends, Colonel and Mrs. Wallingford. But I fear I have overstayed my welcome with them, now that I am no longer of their station.’

‘Your prospects then are bleak?’ she asked.

‘It would be charitable to call them bleak. I had to come to Bath to gain a position as a governess but have been repeatedly rejected. Nothing discourages an employer more than someone who needs to be employed. I fear I have the stink of poverty.’

‘Nonsense, pretty young girl like you. There are many men who would find you … you shake your head.’

‘I misled you. My father did not die. He killed himself, rather than face the wrath of his creditors, or the humiliation of debtor’s prison. My life is over, Miss House.’

Miss House said nothing while I wiped my tears. After I composed myself, she said, ‘It is a sad story. But I have the cure, or at least a temporary solution. Rid yourself of the accursed Wallingfords and stay with me. Find yourself a husband or a position as a governess. I would recommend against pursuing your career as a thief, however.’

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