Life is finally looking up for the poor relations. The Prince of Wales’ coat of arms gleams over the hotel entrance. All but one of the rooms are filled by the open-handed Prince Hugo and his entourage. The owners have taken on a new partner, Mr. Jason Davy, a popular actor. Even curmudgeonly Sir Philip hasn’t uttered anything loathsome for days. They have finally reached a position comfortable enough to allow them to consider offers to buy the hotel.
The poor relations’ hard-earned success, however, is in stark contrast to the plight of their latest guest, Lady Jane Fremney. The slight, beautiful youngest daughter of the Earl of Durby has been cast out of her family for refusing to marry the man her father has chosen. Lonely and bankrupt, Lady Jane has decided to commit suicide. But when Miss Tonks uncovers her plans, the poor relations go into action again to rescue Lady Jane from suicide, her father, and her intended husband.
About the Author
M. C. Beaton has won international acclaim for her New York Times bestselling Hamish Macbeth mysteries, and the BBC has aired twenty-four episodes based on the series. Beaton is also the author of the bestselling Agatha Raisin novels, which aired as an eight-episode dramatic series on PBS, starring Ashley Jensen. M. C. Beaton’s books have been translated into seventeen languages. She lives in the Cotswolds. For more information, please visit MCBeaton.com.
Read an Excerpt
The poor always ye have with you.
— THE BIBLE
THE POOR Relation was no longer an apt name for what had become London's most fashionable hotel. The Prince of Wales's coat of arms gleamed over the entrance with that magic legend "By Special Appointment." In residence and taking up every guest- room except one for his retinue of friends and servants was Prince Hugo Pani?, from some Middle European country which everyone swore they had heard of but no one seemed to know anything about.
The owners of the hotel had been poor relations themselves when they founded it, that despised shabby genteel class eking out a difficult living. But Lady Fortescue, Sir Philip Sommerville, Colonel Sandhurst, and Miss Tonks, the owners, had made it prosper, at first by theft from their relations, and then by a combination of guile, hard business and luck. An actor, Mr. Jason Davy, had recently bought his way into shared ownership, and yet, because of old Sir Philip's jealousy and dislike of him, had never felt he was one of them.
The open-handed prince paid hard cash as he went along and the hoteliers felt their days of penury were truly behind them. This gave them an added happiness and sparkle, and even Sir Philip had not been heard to utter anything loathsome for quite a number of days.
But their very happiness intensified the black misery of the occupant of the one apartment not taken up by the prince or his entourage. The occupant was Lady Jane Fremney, youngest daughter of the Earl of Durby. Through her refusal to marry the man her father had picked out for her, she had been cast out "until she came to her senses." That, her father considered, would not take very long as she had only one small trunk of clothes and none of her jewellery.
Lady Jane had used what was left of her pin-money to travel from Durbyshire to London. She thought back on her miserable, lonely childhood, thought of her bullying governess, thought of the family servants who had treated her harshly because her father, the earl, encouraged them to do so. "You have to break a woman's spirit to make her a good wife" was one of his favourite maxims, and Lady Jane often wondered whether that was why her mother had gone to such an early grave, when she herself was but two years old.
So she decided to put an end to her life. She had told the owner of the Poor Relation that her maid would be arriving shortly. Her empty jewel case was weighted down with stones.
She ate by herself at a corner table in the dining-room, only half interested in the noisy, garrulous prince who sat at the centre table with his equally noisy mistress. She picked at the delicious food which the hotel always served, hardly tasting what she ate. She did not notice the owners much, and a London hotel being such an anonymous sort of place, she supposed that they barely noticed her.
In this she was wrong.
Four days after her arrival, the owners were gathered in their private sitting-room at the top of the hotel. They looked very different from the threadbare people who had first banded together to share their lot. Lady Fortescue, in her seventies, tall and erect, wore a cap of fine lace on top of her snowy, impeccably coiffured hair, and a silk gown of expensive cut. Colonel Sandhurst, very grand in Weston's best tailoring, and occasionally glancing down at the shine on his flat pumps, fiddled with a diamond stickpin in his cravat and beamed around at everyone with his mild, childlike blue eyes. Also in his seventies, his one ambition now was to sell the hotel and marry Lady Fortescue.
Sir Philip Sommerville, equally old, was quite the dandy in a padded coat and enormous cravat. His tortoise-like face looked unusually benign, but then Sir Philip claimed that money could make a saint out of anyone.
Miss Tonks, fortyish, or, as Lord Byron put it, a lady of certain years, years uncertain, had a certain elegance, not entirely due to French taffeta and the clever hands of the royal hairdresser. She no longer blinked nervously or hung her head. She was as erect and confident a figure now as Lady Fortescue, and her gentle, sheeplike face turned from time to time towards the door, awaiting the arrival of the man of her dreams, Mr. Jason Davy.
Just when she was beginning to think he would never arrive, Mr. Davy entered. He was a middle-aged man, slim and nondescript, with bright eyes and thick brown hair streaked with grey. He, like Colonel Sandhurst, was impeccably dressed, and the only person who thought that he never could, never would look like a gentleman was Sir Philip Sommerville. Sir Philip had marked down Miss Tonks to take care of him in his declining years, but the "silly" spinster did nothing but make sheep's eyes at the actor.
And Miss Tonks then proceeded to dent Sir Philip's new-found euphoria by saying eagerly, "I am so glad you are come, Mr. Davy. We have a problem."
Mr. Davy smiled and sat down next to her. "What problem?" demanded Sir Philip with a scowl.
"Why, Lady Jane, to be sure," said Miss Tonks.
"Oh, that one. I am sure she hasn't a feather to fly with, and what's more, doesn't mean to pay her bill." Sir Philip tapped his nose. "I can smell poverty. But does it matter? We're in funds. She's a beautiful lady, so we may as well be charitable for a change. She's in the poorest rooms. She can stay for a month and we'll give her a bill and if she don't pay it, we'll kick her out."
"That is no answer to the problem," said Lady Fortescue. "I, too, have remarked on Lady Jane's downcast looks. She is the daughter of the Earl of Durby and yet no one calls on her, nor does she call on anyone. The maid she spoke of has not arrived. She seems to walk and move in misery."
"Do you mean she might commit suicide?" asked Mr. Davy.
"Here now!" Sir Philip sat up straight, his pale eyes registering alarm. "That would be a disaster. Get a suicide and the place is damned. Our prince would take himself off and it would be ages before anyone else would come. But what has she to commit suicide about? She may be poor and obviously in trouble with her family, but she is beautiful."
"Perhaps she does not know it," said Colonel Sandhurst. "What lady so sunk in misery as she obviously is can think of her looks? How old is she, would you say?"
"Nineteen or twenty," said Lady Fortescue. "Her father is a brute, I believe, her mother dead, her four brothers in the military."
"Let's get back to this suicide business." Sir Philip was becoming increasingly worried. "I mean, how do we stop her?"
"Perhaps," volunteered Mr. Davy, "she might confide in one of us."
"Meaning you?" jeered Sir Philip. "Always the ladies' man, hey."
"I was thinking of Miss Tonks here," said Mr. Davy, casting a forgiving smile on Sir Philip, which irritated that elderly gentleman every bit as much as Mr. Davy had meant it to do.
"I have tried twice to engage her in conversation," said Miss Tonks, "but she looks at me with such blank eyes that I cannot go on. But I will try to watch her as closely as I can."
"You can't be with her every minute of the day and night," pointed out Colonel Sandhurst. "Would not the best course of action be to write to her father? He cannot know she is alone and unchaperoned in London."
"Let us see what Miss Tonks can find out," said Lady Fortescue. "We have had enough trouble in the past. It is time to enjoy comfort and to look after ourselves. Someone as young and as beautiful as Lady Jane may be distressed for the moment, but suicide! No, I think not."
Miss Tonks slept late the following day. She had recently become accustomed to that luxury because the hotel had now a highly paid, efficient staff. It was well known among the servant class that the Poor Relation paid for the best and would sack anyone who was not willing, bright and efficient.
But her first uneasy thought was about Lady Jane. She washed and dressed hurriedly in her room in the apartment which the hoteliers rented. It was next door to the hotel.
When she entered the entrance hall, a heavily veiled figure walked past her and out into Bond Street. Sure that it was Lady Jane, Miss Tonks turned about and followed in pursuit.
Ragged clouds raced over the dingy sky above. Miss Tonks hoped it would not rain, for rain turned the streets of London into slippery, muddy hazards, and she was not wearing pattens, those wooden clogs with the high iron ring on the sole, so useful in wet weather. A strong wind was howling down the narrow streets and sending streams of smoke snaking down from the whirling cowls on the chimney-pots. Ahead of her, the slim figure of Lady Jane moved easily and quickly, heading always in the direction of the City. By the time Miss Tonks and her quarry reached the bottom of Ludgate Hill, Miss Tonks was feeling tired. Up the hill went Lady Jane and then turned off into one of the narrow lanes where the apothecaries had their shops. Miss Tonks saw her go into one of these shops and hesitated outside, peering in over the display of leeches in jars and coloured bottles of liquid. She saw Lady Jane buy two flat green bottles of something. She drew back into a doorway as Lady Jane emerged, and then, as she watched her hurrying off, Miss Tonks wondered what to do. After a little hesitation, she pushed open the door of the apothecary's and went in.
"I wonder," said Miss Tonks to the assistant, "whether my lady's- maid has just been here. I sent her to buy something for me, but as I was in the City, I thought I would find out, you see, whether she had bought it. A heavily veiled woman."
"I have just sold two bottles of laudanum to a veiled lady," said the assistant.
"Oh, really? Yes, that is it. I have great difficulty sleeping at night." And Miss Tonks chattered her way out of the door, discoursing all the while on her mythical sleeplessness.
On Ludgate Hill, she hailed a hack to take her back to Bond Street, where she called her partners together and told them of Lady Jane's purchase.
"A lot of ladies take laudanum," said Mr. Davy.
"Fool!" said Sir Philip. "Not two whole bottles of the stuff. I have it. We'll get Jack, the footman, to collect her as soon as she has deposited the stuff in her room. I'll take her into the office and say that bills should be settled monthly, a new policy, and we will be presenting her with her account at the end of the month. I will hold her in conversation. Perhaps then Lady Fortescue and Miss Tonks can go to her room and change the mixture for something innocuous."
"But why not confront her with the fact that we suspect she plans to do away with herself?" said the colonel.
"All she has to do is lie," said Sir Philip. "She'll leave a note for her father. Bound to. I know, leave enough laudanum in the bottles to knock her out. We'll keep checking on her and as soon as we find she's left a note, then we'll have her and out she goes."
"Oh, no, we cannot do that," exclaimed Miss Tonks. "It would only add to her shame and wretchedness. Yes, we find her out and then we try to do something to help!"
Sir Philip groaned and clutched at his wig so that it slipped sideways. "Look, we're happy and rich and we've got our generous prince to thank for it. Why bother ourselves with some mad girl?"
"Because it is our duty," said Lady Fortescue awfully, and that silenced Sir Philip.
Lady Jane walked along Bond Street. Rain was beginning to fall, an appropriate day to end her life. She could feel the dragging weight of the two bottles of laudanum in her reticule. She had found her way to Ludgate Hill because one of the maids had drawn her a map. She would write a letter to her father and beg him to settle her account at the hotel. A smart carriage moved past. A pretty girl looked out of the window. Two soldiers on the pavement stared at her boldly. Three young matrons followed by their footmen and lady's-maids sailed into the hotel, no doubt to take coffee, because the Poor Relation was really the only place in London outside of Gunter's, the confectioner's, where ladies could meet.
In her rooms, Lady Jane unpinned her hat and veil and threw them on a chair. She put the two bottles on the toilet-table and then crossed to the writing-desk in her small sitting-room. She was just sharpening a quill with a penknife when there came a scratching at the door and Jack, the footman, walked in.
"My lady," he said, "Sir Philip Sommerville requests the honour of your presence in the office."
Lady Jane stood up. "Where is this office?"
"At the back of the entrance hall, my lady."
"Very well, I will follow you shortly."
Jack hesitated on the threshold, remembering his instructions, which were not to leave her alone for a moment. "I beg pardon, my lady, but Sir Philip said the matter was pressing."
Lady Jane gave a little sigh. They had probably guessed that she had no maid following on. They would have noticed that no one called on her. They would be anxious to find out whether she could meet her bill or not. Well, it didn't matter any more. All she had to do was tell more lies.
"I will come with you," she said.
Colonel Sandhurst and Mr. Davy were also in the small office. They stood up as Lady Jane entered.
She was wearing a plain grey gown of some shimmering stuff which seemed to highlight her extreme pallor. She was, despite the shadows under her eyes and the look of strain on her face, still very beautiful. Her skin was without blemish and her eyes, very large and grey, were fringed with thick lashes. Her mouth was perfect.
"Do sit down, my lady," urged Sir Philip. "May we offer you some tea, or wine? Perhaps a glass of negus or ratafia?"
"Nothing, I thank you." She sat down with an unconscious grace. "I believe you have business to discuss with me. What is it?"
"We have a new policy in this hotel," said Sir Philip, speaking very slowly and hoping Lady Fortescue and Miss Tonks were fast about their work. "We expect bills to be settled at the end of each month. I hope this does not disturb you."
"Not at all," said Lady Jane with the fleeting shadow of a smile. "Is there anything else?" She began to rise.
"Yes, yes," said the colonel hurriedly. "We hope you will not consider this an impertinence, my lady, but because of your extreme youth and because you are unchaperoned, we are naturally concerned for you."
Her voice was quiet and even.
"I do consider it an impertinence."
Mr. Davy spoke for the first time. His voice was kind. "Do not be angry with us. We have noticed your sad looks. When one feels most alone, one should always remember that there is someone to help."
Lady Jane's eyes were lit with a flash of anger. Why couldn't they leave her alone? She was angriest at Mr. Davy for his kindness, for arousing that anger in her, for she preferred to stay wrapped in dull numb misery which would make what she had to do the easier.
She rose to her feet. Making an obvious effort, she said, "I thank you for your concern, but it is not necessary, I assure you. Good day, gentlemen."
"And that's that," said Sir Philip gloomily. "I hope she doesn't run into Lady Fortescue and Miss Tonks in her rooms."
Lady Jane actually met both of them in the corridor outside. Lady Fortescue and Miss Tonks smiled and curtsied. She bowed her head and scurried past them and into her rooms. She locked the door behind her and then went to the writing-table. She sharpened the quill with swift, efficient strokes and drew sheets of writing- paper towards her. Should she blame her father for what she was about to do? No, she could not leave him with that misery. Perhaps he thought he had been doing only what was best for her. When she had turned out of her home, she had told him defiantly that she was going to stay with her old nurse in Yorkshire. The nurse, Nancy Thistlethwaite, had been the only person in her short life who had ever been kind to her and who had been fired as a result. Her father had laughed at her and had said that a poor existence in a cottage with that fool Nancy was just what was needed to bring her to her senses and agree to the marriage he had arranged for her.
So she wrote a letter saying simply that she had taken her own life and that she would like him to settle her hotel bill. Then she wrote another letter to Sir Philip Sommerville, apologizing for having committed suicide in the hotel and assuring him that her father would settle her bill. She sanded and sealed both letters and propped them up on the writing-table.
Then she brushed down her hair and took off her clothes and put on her night-gown. She poured the contents of both bottles into two glasses and, pinching her nose, swallowed down the contents, one glassful after the other.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Back in Society"
Copyright © 1994 Marion Chesney.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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