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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About Jennifer

Newly come to Jane Austen and writing a book that combines Austen with Sherlock Holmes
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