Beth and the Mistaken Identity: Free Chapter
As Beth clutched her carpetbag in the inn taproom, she waited patiently to be noticed, terrified and defiant at once. If she dropped her chin now it would be the end of her. There were a few working men standing at the board where the ale was distributed, a few gentlemen drinking around tables and a buxom lass of about sixteen serving the gentlemen. Beth was reassured that there were so many persons of elegance. A table by a mullioned window seated two gentlemen of the most superior attire, with a driving coat of many capes cast over a chair, not yet hung on the pegs allotted for same by the door. Beth had a ridiculous desire to put this right. This inn was used frequently by the ton, as well as by professional gentlemen, and she had chosen it carefully. She put her chin a little higher in the air as she waited to be attended to.
A gentleman from the window table attempted to put his arms around the red-haired serving wench, and she neatly dodged him, but did not succeed in avoiding the pinch he aimed at her behind. Facing her, Beth saw the girl’s face blush, but to her surprise the serving girl giggled towards the gentleman, but removed herself further from his orbit, losing the smile as she turned away. Beth’s eyes opened wide. Was this the fate that awaited her, too? She had visited this respectable inn twice before, but then she had her duties to attend to, or was with Miss Sophy, and no such behaviour came within her orbit. But now … The world away from Foster Hall was a terrible place.
His companion, the elder and more handsome of the two had not witnessed this, he having strode over to the fire to warm himself, gazed into the depths thoughtfully. He turned, and she met a pair of sapphire blue eyes. In shock, she could not look away soon enough, but after three long seconds managed to drop her eyes to the floor. ‘Desist, you termagant, there is a lady present,’ she heard the gentleman say to his companion. He had, somehow, noticed then.
The blond-haired gentleman, a little younger, looked over his shoulder and said in a drunken drawl. ‘Beg your pardon, dreadful behaviour, I’m sure-’
‘Yes, that is quite enough!’ said the other tersely.
She nodded, blushing, and realised that her simple but stylish dress and pelisse, only two seasons old, had given the gentleman quite the wrong impression. An impression of the kind that had already had her pitched her out of her respectable life and into this terrifying other existence, whose pitfalls loomed large. How did I get here? she asked herself again. But she knew how. Miss Sophy. Obeying, or not obeying, Miss Sophy was bound to lead to this end.
She looked back towards the board, where three leering grooms were adding to her new vision of hell, and was glad when a bustling figure of a round man, with thinning red hair about a genial face, came out. He plastered a smile of welcome on his face as he saw her, and said, ‘How can I help you, miss? I’m afraid we have but one chamber left — I could have a truckle bed set up for your maid.’
‘My — maid?’ How on earth was she to tell him now that she had come to ask for work? Especially after she had seen the treatment meted out to his serving girl, who from her round face and red hair had to be his daughter. Her misery made her do the Second Most Stupid Thing in her life. ‘My maid fell ill and I had to leave her behind at the last stage, I’m afraid.’
‘Well,’ said the landlord with a slight change of tone. ‘I’m not sure we can accommodate you—’
‘Nonsense, my dear Stopes, the young lady must be accommodated,’ said a suave voice.
The landlord bowed lowly, ‘Very good, my lord. Would you wish any refreshment to be brought to your chamber, miss? A little supper perhaps?’
Beth was starving, but this was not the best use of the coin in her purse. ‘That is not necessary, thank you.’ She turned with Miss Sophy’s demeanour, if a little more stiffly, to the owner of the sapphire blue eyes. ‘I thank you, my lord, for your intervention, and now I must retire.’
The landlord looked not at her, but at her aristocratic companion, who wore a buff cutaway long tailed coat over a high necked waistcoat. His eyes, set in a handsome face with a deeply cleft chin, looked at her kindly. ‘Take a seat with me here.’ He indicated a settle by the taproom fire, removed from the gentlemen he had been seated with. It looked inviting, and it was public after all, but Beth stiffened even more. ‘Bring the young lady some tea and cake, Stopes, and perhaps some chicken?’
Everything today had gone wrong, and this was the first kindness shown to her for a long time. Beth considered that eating on the gentleman’s shilling seemed sensible, as she was now to pay for a room because she was too proud and afraid to do other. So she sat, still stiff, waiting while he joined her at the opposite end, a respectable distance between them. ‘So, should we begin with the maid? There is no maid, is there?’ Beth’s eyes flew to his in terror. His eyes were gentle. ‘What is it? Have you run away from school?’
Beth was nineteen now, seven years into her erstwhile orderly career, but she knew she looked sixteen. ‘Yes — no — sir — I mean my lord.’
‘My name is Tobias Brunswick, Marquis of Wrexham. May I have the privilege of knowing yours?’
‘I — I —’ Beth stalled. Her copy of Miss Sophy’s accent, if not in her superior tones, was holding, but she sounded much more hesitant, more like the fifteen-year-old schoolgirl he thought her. He was a marquis. Even in Foster Hall or in London, Beth had never met such lofty a personage. Yet those eyes were true, and somehow reminded her of her brother, Jem.
‘You need not tell me if you do not wish to. But I would like to help. Funds running a little low?’ Beth stiffened once more, not meeting his eyes. ‘Oh don’t pucker up, my lady, I don’t wish to pry. But if you are returning to London, I could help you.’ He laughed as she clutched her hands together more firmly and looked away. ‘That did sound ominous! I should tell you that I am awaiting my sister here and we shall all be travelling on to London tomorrow. So you shall be royally chaperoned. My sister is a princess, you see!’
He’s making fun of her, she was sure now, and she resolved to leave, but at this moment some victuals arrived on a table before her. Nothing much could happen in a public taproom, she supposed, though she looked to the neighbouring table and saw that the serving girl was once more attending to the rowdy young gentlemen. With a swift look to them, the man he had called ‘termagant’ said something in a low tone to the young redhead and her smile froze. She widened it however, and left, the smile dropping like a hot coal as she turned away. Beth’s eyes met the girl’s and as hers tried to convey her pity, the girl blushed her thanks.
‘I did not know that a girl in a respectable inn could be so treated,’ she said, with hardly a thought, but still in Miss Sophy’s accents.
‘Oh, Stopes, you mean? He has his eye on the proprieties. He would have given you the chamber eventually, I’m sure.’
‘No. Your friend.’
‘Did he talk to you? I didn’t think — oh you mean to the servant? It is kind of you to notice her.’
Her eyes flashed fury at him before she could help herself. Of course, a servant was not a person, most especially, she thought, to a marquis. She dropped them quickly. She trembled. What was she thinking, showing her thoughts? Yet another Very Stupid Thing. Her absolute terror of her fate was making her unbalanced and all the discipline she had learnt was crashing around her.
She looked up fearfully. The gentleman had raised his eyebrows. But he did not look angry, on the contrary he looked even more kindly. ‘You have suffered such treatment yourself. Was it at school — did you run away because some blackguard offered you an insult? Never mind, you may be quite comfortable now.’
Beth thought about her little attic bedroom, with the ample blankets and sometimes even a hot brick, if Nancy had a minute, that she would never see more. Would she be so safe again? She shook herself and began to eat the food provided. As the marquis had ordered it, extra care had been taken, and she set upon it as elegantly as she could. She was hungry, yes, but she was also aware of the need to stuff herself against future lack. She remembered hunger very well.
His Lordship’s attention was diverted by a shout in the yard. A coach was pulling up and a great many people seemed to attend it. The Marquis raised an eyebrow and smiled at her. ‘My sister, I believe. She never arrives quietly. He got up from the table and bowed as a cry of ‘Wrexham! Where are you, can you see to everything? Trixie has been most fearfully sick on my pelisse.’
As the gentleman attended the vision in a bronze French pelisse with a fur stole slipping from her shoulders and the highest poke bonnet Beth had ever seen, the young girl slid her gaze round the room and stuffed her bag with two apples, and wrapped three small cakes in a napkin before adding them. The red haired girl emerged from the kitchen before she had finished and caught her, a slight crease at her brow. Beth looked piteously at her and she smiled.
My dearest Lady Ernestine, (the missive read),
I have written to you with an express purpose, though I must first of all say that I hope that you are all well at Horescombe House and that the weather is seasonable with you and with your esteemed and venerable grandfather whose noble character and unremitting kindness to me, a distant family member on his mother’s side only, and that a family perfectly respectable in our own county, but normally far beneath the notice of such a distinguished peer of the realm, whose own family has been in England since the Conqueror no doubt, and who had no need to notice my second cousin Albertina, except for his kindness and her own beauty. Please give him my every sincere expression of respect and also affection, if he did not find the latter presumptuous, which is a fault that Florencia says I must seek to quell in myself. ‘Pride cometh before a fall’ and heavens knows I should not like to give way to pride so I pray you will withhold any expression of affection, which I do of course hold for your grandfather, that noble lord, who is never far from all our thoughts and prayers, I assure you, especially on market day when his beneficence adds once more to our comfort and good health. It seems such a short time ago when he came riding to meet us, though it was a full twenty miles from London, coming to claim our dear Albertina as his betrothed. He was such a handsome young man, with flowing golden locks, and is still as handsome I am sure, though I have heard that his hair has left him like that of many blond men, and he is restricted to the house with gout which is something that Papa suffered from, too, and whilst it is such a dispiriting malady for the sufferer, Florencia holds that it is also painful for those who live among them, for there is no use in saying that Papa had an equable temper, for he had not. This is not to say that His Lordship will behave in any way less than his nobility demands, whatever the circumstances, even if it is a dreadfully painful condition which would drive a less elevated mind quite mad.
This may be a little tied up, but I hope you will say all that is proper to your grandfather and not repeat any of my absurdities, which I beg of your generous spirit to ignore or pardon, whichever is the most appropriate. And you too, my dear, I beg your pardon, I’m being presumptuous again, pray take my sister’s, and my very best sentiments and gratitude for all your endeavours on our behalf, which I assure you are not forgotten and most earnestly appreciated. Florencia is calling for dinner and as you can judge the matter is urgent, though I know that for you it is not probably as urgent as it is for me who is not in the thrust of London performing the important duties, and social engagements that you do which I can have no notion of, never having visited the metropolis in my life, Florencia saying that I was extremely selfish to wish to do so when young, as it burdened my dear Papa with guilt that he was unable to take me even to see the Wild Beasts in the Exchange for a day, so I have of course quelled this insensitivity on my part and I hope that poor Papa did not hold that dream of mine against me before he died, thirty years later.
I shall leave you to judge whether there is anything to be done about this situation which I hardly liked to mention to you were it not for your unlooked for attention to me and my sister in writing every month, and I promise that I will only mention the subject this once, which Florencia has insisted on most forcefully, and I agreed of course. As you can imagine to such a temperament as Florencia’s, it is almost unbearable to ask anyone for support and I assure you that we would not, except that we are in need of another opinion, a more worldly view, which if your youth precludes you from providing perhaps you might ask some other, mentioning no names, of course, and not at all wishing to be presumptuous. I must hasten to finish this or it will not catch the mail coach and it would not do to miss it, as I did with the order for faux silk stockings which unpardonable delay caused Florencia to have to attend church with a darned toe which was not at all visible but which chafed her sorely I assure you.
I remain your most affectionate and respectful cousin,
Lady Ernestine Horescombe, in a striped day dress of a most fashionable cut, some black curls escaping beneath a complexly wrapped bandeau of the same fabric, read the letter again, ‘Of all the absurdities! Miss Fosdyke has written-’
‘Which one?’ said a tall, elegant old gentleman, with hair loss as described in the letter, but showing no trace of gout-induced bad humour today, thankfully.
‘The youngest, Grandpapa.’
‘Thank the lord. The other terrifies me, even from a distance,’ he mumbled into his journal.
‘She writes to ask my advice, she sounds worried—’
‘What concerns her?’
‘That is the absurdity, she does not say. I wonder—’ Lady Ernestine stopped. She looked at her grandfather, who looked up at her with enlightenment dawning.
‘Sophy!’ they both said at once.
‘Good heavens — what has she done now?’
Lord Wrexham’s sister greeted Beth with an outstretched hand. She was tall, even without the help of the poke bonnet, and slender as a reed. ‘Now where do I know you from?’
Beth could feel her eyes widen, as she tried without success to wonder if she had ever sewn on a lace trim or retied an errant ribbon for this young lady at some house party in Foster Hall or London, but she did not think she could have forgotten this vision of elegance. She managed a faint, ‘I do not think we have met—’
‘We have and recently!’ pursued that young lady.
‘You remind me that I have not the privilege of knowing your name,’ said the marquis, when Beth hesitated to answer. ‘You must know,’ he said pleasantly to his sister, ‘that our young friend is rather shy and I believe she may have run away from school and does not trust us with her name.’
‘I beg pardon, my lord,’ said Beth rather desperately, ‘My name is Elizabeth - Elizabeth-’ she looked around for inspiration and saw the Fox and Hound Inn sign through the window, ‘Fox.’
‘No,’ said Wrexham’s sister, handing a pug dog to him and removing her bonnet, ‘that’s not it.’
‘You must excuse my sister, Miss Fox,’ said his lordship, narrowly avoiding the sharp teeth of the pug, ‘she has no manners at all. Royalty, you know. Miss Fox, may I present my sister Princess Emmeline Herzberg-Wittgenstein.’
Shrugging off her fur and handing it to the young gentleman who’d accompanied Wrexham, who took it with a bow, ‘Princess!’
As Beth widened her eyes, the green-eyed beauty, now displaying her rich brown hair tied in a complex coiffure, said, ‘Oh, ignore the title, it amuses my brother. My late husband was prince of the tiniest principality in the world, which I left as soon as ever I could, I assure you. Thankfully, we had no children to tie me to the dratted place and his brother is now safely installed as ruler, and I need never go there again.’
Beth deepened her curtsy while the young woman looked amused. ‘I must marry again, someone untitled I think, so that I may be plain Lady Emmeline once more. I assure you my rank causes hostesses everywhere a problem with precedence. I mean, do they really want to upset the Duchess of Devonshire or someone by putting me before her?’
Beth thought of Mr Larkins, the butler of Foster Hall, and her late employer being faced with this problem and smiled. ‘Oh, yes!’ she gasped unintentionally.
The young woman narrowed her fascinating eyes again and said, ‘Now, where have we met?’
Beth was now quite afraid. Had she encountered this lady before? And if the princess remembered, as she seemed determined to do, Lord Wrexham would be angry and have her thrown out of the inn, to walk the country roads in the dark. She shivered at the thought. ‘I think I must be more tired than I knew. Thank you for your kindness, my lord, your highness, I must retire to my chamber.’
Bobbing a curtsy to them all, Beth turned. ‘Miss Fox! We will meet at breakfast! We leave for London at ten of the clock and there is room in the carriage to spare, for Mr Tennant and I are on horseback.’
Beth, achingly aware of her small resources, thought it insanity to refuse this offer, for with this hope of a position gone, London seemed the next best hope, but the memory of the princess might return. She sufficed by saying, ‘You are too kind, my lord.’ Which he may take as acquiescence if he wished.
In her room, Beth was tired by her own fear. Not much of this was her fault. She remembered the day, a year ago now, when she had been appointed lady’s maid to Miss Sophy. She had been so proud and later, when she got to know her young lady better, had felt so fortunate to have such a beautiful and vivacious mistress who had taken her into her confidence at once, who dispensed clothes and gifts to her maid with great regularity, who was a triumph to dress and coiffure. The full disaster of her appointment did not become apparent until a month or so. For Miss Sophy was a devil.
She had just removed her dress when a knock sounded at the door. She opened it a crack, trembling. Princess Emmeline stood there, her green eyes dancing.
‘Your name is not Elizabeth Fox!’
To read on...