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?’
‘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.’