The Counterfeit Guest
ON THE SUFFOLK
coast some eight miles east of Woodbridge stood what had once been a priory for women adhering to the Cistercian order. Its appearance had changed over the centuries, and the nuns had long since departed. Yet it was called White Ladies in their memory and, in the spring of 1796, it was to be restored to female rule. A young woman named Mary Finch had inherited both the estate and a considerable fortune, and she had resolved to make her home there.
This resolution could not be enforced immediately. Miss Finch had come to Suffolk under somewhat unusual circumstances, and the lawyers had only recently determined that she was indeed the rightful owner of White Ladies. Various practical matters would also have to be settled before she could take up residence. So, for the time being, she remained at nearby Lindham Hall, as the guest and protégée of its owner, Mrs. Tipton.
Lindham Hall was another sphere of feminine influence, a fact to which Cuff, the only masculine member of the household, could testify. Cuff held the offices of coachman and porter, and between Mrs. Tipton, Peggy the maid, and Pollock the cook (“them old cats,” as he was wont to call them, when he thought no one was listening), he rarely had a moment’s peace. Mary Finch also made occasional demands of him, but he did not mind these, somehow. Indeed, sometimes he went so far as volunteering his services, and he joined her in the flower garden on a sunny May afternoon without the least prompting. Observing the slim, straight figure poised on the edge of the lawn, a figure that managed to exude energy even when motionless, he reflected that Miss Mary surely had a way about her.
Mary was deeply engaged in horticultural matters and did not
hear him approach. Fashionable ladies, she was convinced, spent a great deal of their time arranging flowers, and she knew little of the art. As a first step in her education she must learn the names of all the likely blooms, and now she repeated, “Wallflower, windflower, cowslip, narcissus, rockfoil,” in the direction of the items in her basket.
“Just so,” agreed Cuff, nodding and touching his hat. “And that one there?” He pointed at the colorful bed with the toe of his boot.
“Lungwort—what an unpleasant name! Like something witches might use for their spells.” A breeze lifted the curls that had escaped confinement while Mary’s attention had been elsewhere, and her smile was similarly mischievous.
Cuff bent and plucked a pale blue flower to add to her collection, and Mary said, “Forget-me-not. I did not pick any, as they are so small.”
“No, best left where they are, perhaps.” After a moment Cuff added, “Nothing for him, then, miss?” removing his pipe from between his teeth and frowning, as if its failure to draw had something to do with his question.
Mary shook her head, and her voice lost a little of its enthusiasm. “Not yet.”
The rather complicated logic of Cuff‘s remark had not confused her. “Him” referred to a Royal Artillery officer of their acquaintance named Robert Holland. He was part of the unusual circumstances that had first brought Mary to Suffolk and had set in motion what she still privately called her “Adventure.” Few people were privy to everything that had happened during those strange weeks in October when she had helped to defeat a French spy, and those few had been sworn to secrecy. For his part Cuff knew only that there was a sort of understanding between miss and the captain, and that he, old Cuff, meant to help it along.
The help he provided was of a particular nature. The two young people wished to maintain a correspondence, but they could not do so openly. Holland’s letters to Mary, therefore, arrived under
cover to Mr. Josiah Cuff, and Mary’s to Holland were posted by the same J.C. (Mary had also coached him in a likely story should a letter be queried, for she had no confidence in his innate powers of deception.)
“It has been less than a fortnight,” she explained, fretting with her scissors. “I mean . . . not quite yet.”
“You know best, miss.”
Mary nodded, but she was far from certain that she did
know best. It was all very difficult. She had not actually seen Holland for more than six months, and their communications in the meantime had been very sparse. In part this was because words did not flow easily from the captain’s pen. Indeed, he seemed to hesitate over every line. His efforts had also been restricted, however, by circumstances beyond his control. He held a staff appointment at the regimental headquarters at Woolwich—a place known as the Warren—but in November he had been sent to Gibraltar, ostensibly to oversee an extension to the great siege tunnels. This had not been the only, or even the primary, reason for his employment there, but the epistolary effect had been the same—the mail did not travel very quickly between Gibraltar and Suffolk, and there was always the chance that shipwreck or enemy action might disrupt it altogether.
The character and frequency of Holland’s correspondence had naturally affected Mary’s. She could hardly answer his cautious reports, in which details of fortress routine featured prominently, with wild displays of emotion. Her letters must mirror his, with accounts of her days at Lindham Hall, or the progress of her legal affairs, or references to the weather. Nor could she reply too promptly. If he
waited a month between letters then so must she. None of this was the result of indifference or coquetry on her part, but rather a halfunderstood notion that she must not commit herself any further than she had done. What did she really know of Captain Holland, after all? A correspondence like theirs was not strictly proper—not proper at all, in fact—and people who did improper things often
suffered for them, or at least were found out. And being found out, especially whilst she was under Mrs. Tipton’s authority, was not a pleasant prospect.
Squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin, the latter a particular gesture of decision, Mary told herself not to think about Captain Holland and informed Cuff that she must go inside. He agreed, saying it was just like Peggy to come out for a squint, and then they’d catch it. They parted on those wise words, Mary to the Hall, where she intended to arrange her flowers, and Cuff to the stables to give the harnesses a thorough clean, by which he meant that he was going to have a nap.
Mary pushed the heavy front door closed behind her, kicked off her old boots, and retrieved the neat leather slippers she had left in the passage. She had promised Mrs. Tipton to give up ineligible footwear, but with a private exception for gardening, long walks, and any activity that might prove particularly wet or muddy. Others of Mary’s station might not have taken such a frugal view, but she could not easily forget a girlhood of genteel poverty and, until very recently, the prospect of a straitened adulthood. Perfectly good shoe leather—or boot leather—oughtn’t to be wasted.
Having made the necessary change, she dropped her boots into the large urn that held a collection of walking sticks, a sword that had allegedly seen action at the Battle of Sedgemoor, and Mrs. Tipton’s umbrella and proceeded with her flowers to the kitchen. From there she was ordered to the pantry by Pollock, who suspected that worms and other undesirables were concealed among the blooms, and she wouldn’t tolerate none of them crawlies in her
kitchen. It was from the pantry, therefore, that Mary emerged some time later, clutching two jugs of tastefully arranged spring flowers. One she placed on the sideboard in the entrance hall, and the other she carried into the parlor. This was strictly the second parlor, for the first parlor was grim and uncomfortable, as befits a room preserved for “best” and, consequently, almost never used.
As Mary crossed the room Mrs. Tipton awakened. She had been
“resting her eyes,” but now she sought to ward off any suggestion that she had been asleep and might have missed something. She was a small, sharp, imperious old lady, and she blinked at Mary from behind steelrimmed spectacles. “Ah, there you are at last,” she cried. “What have you been doing?”
“Gathering these flowers, ma’am, as you asked. I hope you are pleased with them? The garden is looking lovely in the sunshine.”
“Yes, yes—very pretty. And where is Mr. Cuff? He ought to have been helping Peggy to lift the stair carpet, but I expect he has made himself scarce, as he generally does on such occasions.”
“No, ma’am, indeed, he was helping me,” said Mary, loyally, although she had heard something about the carpet project and suspected that it had stimulated his interest in the garden.
Mrs. Tipton made a scoffing sound and then declaimed pointedly on Cuff ‘s several shortcomings, all of which threatened to undermine the smooth operation of the household. “Something will have to be done about it,” she decreed. “That is how all the trouble started in France, you know.”
“In France, ma’am?” asked Mary, trying not to smile.
“Certainly. Servants getting above themselves, and people unwilling to take a firm hand. And what has been the result? Revolutions, and guillotines, and now this fellow Bonaparte. Well, I shall soon put an end to it. We shall have no Rights of Man
at Lindham Hall, nor any other nonsense.”
Mary had to bite her lip to maintain her countenance. “Oh dear.”
“It is a serious matter, and one must regard it as such. Heaven help us if we go the way of the French—the whole country in an uproar and men taking off their breeches.”
Mary knew rather more about the political situation in France, and she attempted to explain. “I think, ma’am, that you mean—”
men with no breeches,” Mrs. Tipton repeated, her eyes flashing. She disliked being interrupted. “Sans culottes,
they call themselves.”
“Yes, but they—”
“A perfectly ridiculous practice when it comes to governing a
country, but history provides us with many instances of men behaving foolishly, and this is but the latest. In fact . . .” She hesitated as it suddenly occurred to her that this was not the best topic of conversation to pursue. Young persons were impressionable, after all. “. . . your letters have arrived,” she finished.
“Yes, certainly—on the table.” Mrs. Tipton gestured irritably. She also disliked being misheard or misunderstood.
Mary likewise decided to abandon the sansculottes,
albeit for different reasons. Instead, she gathered the small pile of neatly folded and sealed papers and sat down on the sofa. She was used to her friend’s crotchets, and she quite enjoyed receiving letters, particularly those that did not engender anxiety. Before she had come to Suffolk a letter had been a rare event. Her circle had consisted of other penurious females, and no one else had had occasion to write to her. Her circle was still small but lately she had begun receiving invitations to dinner parties, and dances, and musical evenings, often from people whom she did not know, but always expressing an earnest desire for her presence. This was what came of being well off, and it was really very charming.
Mary smiled as she glanced at the first message, and Mrs. Tipton’s own gaze softened into complacency. Almost since Mary’s arrival at Lindham Hall Mrs. Tipton had entertained an ambition for her—that she should succeed in County society. This ambition might have had something to do with Mrs. Tipton’s lack of a daughter to mold and influence. On the other hand, she liked to mold and influence most of the people with whom she came into contact. However it had come about, Mary Finch was her particular project, and Mrs. Tipton was not displeased with the changes she had wrought during the past seven months. Mary had always been a pretty girl, but pretty in spite of her dowdy, unadorned gowns and ingenuous manner. No one could have mistaken her for anything but a schoolmistress or governess. Yet now her celery-colored muslin might have been described in the
pages of the Lady’s Magazine
, and the color set off her auburn curls admirably. That is what a pretty girl needs
, mused Mrs. Tipton, a proper setting. And now that those rascally lawyers have consented to turn over her inheritance, who can say what might happen?
It was fortunate that Mary had neither the freckles nor the pale complexion that often accompanied red hair—no, auburn
, she corrected. And as for the sharp temper . . . “Well?” she demanded, nodding at the letters in Mary’s lap. “What is the tally?”
“Dinner at Woolthorpe Manor in a fortnight.”
“Yes, very well.”
“A card party at Miss Carmichael’s.”
“Negligible, and she will undoubtedly attempt to throw that nephew of hers in your path, which is tiresome. When is it to take place?”
Mrs. Tipton pursed her lips. “Do not reply straightaway. Something better may arise.”
“And there is to be a concert at Ickworth Lodge. The countess of Bristol begs we will attend.”
“Hmm. The Herveys are curiosities and not in the best of taste, but a plain refusal might do you harm in other quarters. We must consider how best to respond. What sort of concert?”
Even when she remembered to control her smiles or frowns, Mary’s eyes often testified to her state of mind, and now a sense of fun shone through the green depths. “ ‘In the Italian style.’ “
“Good Lord,” complained Mrs. Tipton with a shudder. “A decent collection of letters, however. What is that thick one?”
“It looks,” said Mary, turning over the wrapper, “to be from Storey’s Court, but I do not think it is Sir William Armitage’s hand.”
Mrs. Tipton urged her to open it. “If they are planning a ball you must certainly attend. With Susannah Armitage as good as married there may be some excellent opportunities. There is the carriage to consider, for I do not know that Mr. Cuff can drive such a
distance . . . his rheumatism, you know, but I daresay something can be contrived.”
“I beg your pardon? Oh, yes,” agreed Mary, absently, as she continued to examine the packet. Was it really a ball? She had received a letter from Sir William quite recently, and he had said nothing about any sort of entertainment. Of course, he might have forgotten. She could almost hear him gaping at Lady Armitage and murmuring, “A ball, my dear? Here? Ah, certainly, but remind me when it is to occur?”
She smiled. Sir William had proven himself an exceedingly good friend. He had been ever so helpful about her Adventure; it was because of him that Mrs. Tipton had never been alarmed or distressed by it. He had managed to charm her, which was no mean feat, and he had not minded her outrageous hints about helping Mary to find her place in society. On the contrary, he had immediately invited Mary to spend Christmas at Storey’s Court! Were it not for Sir William she would never have met Susannah and Charlotte, and of course he was Captain Holland’s cousin—
All at once Mary experienced that prickly, shuddery feeling that Peggy said was caused by someone walking across your grave. That was nonsense, but might something have happened to Captain Holland . . . and Sir William had learned of it? Gibraltar was probably a very dangerous place—there were tunnels, after all—and if he had
received bad news, dear Sir William would certainly write to her straightaway . . .
Her fingers were shaking. Something had
happened, and she had been bothering about card parties and Italian singers!
“They might send a carriage and servant for you,” mused Mrs. Tipton. “It would be a thoughtful gesture on Sir William’s part, and I am sure that if he were reminded . . .”
Mary tore open the seal; the paper inside had a black border. “He is dead!”
“. . . of our situation. What
did you say?”
Mary was reading quickly, and now she frowned in confusion.
The color had drained from her face, and she felt stricken and relieved at the same time. “It is . . . dreadful news . . . Lady Armitage writes, and there is a message from Susannah as well. It was an apoplexy, they believe, and . . . the doctor says he did not suffer.”
“But what is
it?” demanded Mrs. Tipton.
“It is poor Sir William . . . He is dead.”