Louisa Edwards considered herself the consummate woman of the times. She cared for the house, directed the servants, and occupied herself with the appropriate hobbies and charitable contributions. She presented herself and her house in the best possible image, and often entertained rich neighbors and influential people. If she heard the muttering of “middle-class pretensions” and “nouveaux riches” that some made around her, she simply ignored it. It was the wife’s duty to further the status and the influence of her husband, and therefore her own, by any means necessary.
Her success in these endeavors helped her to forget the one great failure in her life: despite numerous attempts, over twenty years of marriage, she had failed to provide her husband with any children. She consoled herself with the utter conviction that, had God been willing to give her any children, she would have raised them to become upstanding citizens.
The proof of this bold statement lay in her ward, Rose Fraser. Rose had been the daughter of her husband’s sister, and Mrs. Edwards graciously took her in when she found herself orphaned, fifteen years ago. Rose was everything Mrs. Edwards could have hoped for in a daughter: she was proper, obedient, and demure. A lifetime of work and prayer had led to this moment, the apex of any girl’s education: the marriage mart. It could be their magnum opus, or their swan song. Mrs. Edwards was so determined to achieve the former, that the possibility of the latter never entered her mind. When a neighboring lady, who happened to be a peer of the realm, extended to Rose an offer of patronage for the London season, she did not see this as a gift from God, or even as a good omen: she saw it as no more than her due.
She had not expected any opposition, especially not from her husband. Mr. Edwards had allowed for the girl to have a lady’s education, paying for governesses and tutors with no hesitation. But now that she was ready for her season, the end of the journey, the moment they all were waiting for, now he objected?
“The governesses came here,” he explained impatiently when his wife questioned him. “I could see to both their wages and my business at the same time. London is almost 200 miles away; just the getting there will take three days at least. And to stay there for the whole summer? I won’t have a business left when I return!”
As she took in a deep breath, Mrs. Edwards reminded herself that she was grateful that her husband had been present to take over the business after his father’s tragic hunting accident, that she would undoubtedly find the life of a military wife exceedingly uncomfortable, and that she did not wish he had remained in the Pacific after the Crimean war. As she slowly exhaled, she plotted her arguments to convince him that his presence was necessary. It would be very awkward, and potentially dangerous, for Rose and herself to travel so far without any male protection.
“Well, you know best, my dear.” Mrs. Edwards appeared resigned to her fate. “Of course, Rose and I must go. To refuse this invitation from the viscountess would be a great insult. But, since you cannot be spared from your business, I am sure we shall manage without you. I trust you have faith in my ability to act on your behalf? Someone will have to receive the offer of marriage for Rose, should any be made.”
Mr. Edwards did not reply. His jaw was clenched; his complexion was turning to an unbecoming shade of red, which darkened even further as he spied his wife’s slight smirk. He turned to the main object of the discussion. “Rose,” he called. “What do you think of this affair?”
Rose had hoped that her guardians could settle the matter between themselves, without calling on her. She strongly disliked having to choose a side in their conflicts. Her opinion would not make any difference, and the only result would be to hurt or anger the person she sided against. Hurt her uncle or anger her aunt. Neither bode well for Rose.
She tried to be diplomatic. “I am sure that you and my aunt will do whatever is in my best interest.”
Her aunt would have none of it. “The viscountess invited you to London, and offered her patronage for your London season. Do you wish to insult the viscountess by refusing her?”
“No, my aunt.”
“The only way to politely refuse this invitation is to already have an agreement with a gentleman. No such gentleman came to your uncle and me to express his intentions. Have you been carrying on with someone in secret?”
“No, of course not!”
“I thought not. Since you have no serious prospects here, there is no reason for you not to go to London, is there?”
“No, my aunt.”
Mr. Edwards abruptly left the room, declaring that he had arrangements to make. Mrs. Edwards, pleased to have gotten her way, instructed Rose to write to the viscountess and formally accept her invitation, informing her that they could be expected in town in a fortnight. She then rang the butler and began to make arrangements of her own.
Many frenzied days later, the Edwards and their ward left for London.
The first dinner in town of the Edwards family was a simple, rich, and tense affair.
While they did send word of their arrival, they reached the house which the viscountess helped them secure, on Charles Street, at nearly five. By the time they were settled in, it was too late to call on anyone. Not that they knew anyone in town worth calling on other than the viscountess, according to Aunt Edwards.
The viscountess, though she could not call on them herself, took care of furnishing the house and providing all the necessary servants. The staff was thankfully flexible enough to include the few servants whom the Edwards brought with them, such as Eliza, Rose’s maid, and Robinson, their butler, who had been with the Edwards for as long as Rose had lived with them. The usual cook, however, had been replaced by a French chef, who prepared a meal unlike any Rose had ever eaten.
Despite the deliciousness of the meal, and the wonder of finding herself in a new town, the tense atmosphere around the dinner table made Rose feel uneasy. As soon as their carriage had stopped in front of the house, Uncle Edwards had jumped out and declared that he was off to Arthur’s, a nearby gentleman’s club. Aunt Edwards tut-tutted him; the club was nowhere near prestigious enough to satisfy her, but she did nothing to stop him. He stayed out for two hours, only coming back at dinnertime.
Rose had hoped that the hours spent at the club this afternoon would have soothed her uncle’s displeasure in coming to town, and that the satisfaction of being here would have pleased her aunt enough to lift her spirits. She had hoped for a pleasant dinner, but that hope was in vain.
Her uncle was obviously still upset. His posture was rigid, his expression somber, and he only opened his mouth to eat. Her aunt appeared to not eat at all; she was too busy making plans. They had to visit the shops, of course; Rose did not own anything fit to wear to a concert or a ball, and only possessed a few decent day dresses. Rose was expected to put on her very best dress the next day, when they were shopping. There were also calls to be paid, and it would not do for Rose to look like a pauper on her first day in town, or indeed, ever.
Rose stopped listening as her aunt expressed, once more, her displeasure at arriving in town so late in the day. Rose had heard the complaint often enough in the last few hours. Earlier in the journey, her uncle had pointed out that they would have arrived in town sooner had they taken the train. To which her aunt invariably replied that trains are noisy, dirty, and fit only for cargo, and that they were taking their carriage, as civilized people do. Perhaps Uncle Edwards made the observation once more; if he did, Rose did not hear.
Instead, she let her mind drift along the sounds of the household: the clopping of feet on the floor, the whooshing of someone rushing through a corridor, the clanging of silverware and china being gathered, the soft humming of a maid. She thought she heard a knock at the front door, but it made no sense; the Edwards weren’t expecting anyone. Perhaps it was someone knocking next door.
“That is quite enough, Rose!”
Her aunt’s sharp tone brought Rose’s attention back to the dining room table. She looked down and saw that she had eaten half her plate. Her aunt had very decisive opinions on the appetite of a lady, and Rose usually paid better heed to them. She put down her knife and fork.
“Leave the girl alone,” her uncle replied, speaking for the first time in hours. “She’ll need her strength to go through the circus you’ve planned for her.”
“What good would it do for her to be strong if she can no longer fit into her dresses?”
“Aren’t you going to the shops anyway? Let her buy bigger dresses and be done.”
To say that Aunt Edwards was shocked was to put it mildly. “You… insufferable… Do I walk into your factories and tell you how they should be run? No, I do not. This is my affair, and you will kindly let me run it my own way. I know best.”
The sound of a throat clearing interrupted the discussion.
“Begging your pardon, madam, sir” said Robinson.
“What it is?” asked Aunt Edwards.
“A message was just delivered for Miss Rose.”
“Well, take it back! Whoever sent it should have better sense then to deliver messages during dinner time. Let him come back at a more decent hour.”
Aunt Edwards’s tone was harsh. Harsher, perhaps, than it would have been had she not been so upset with her husband. But, regardless of the tone used, the lady of the house had spoken, and all Robinson could do was leave the room, with a small bow and a quiet “Yes, madam.”
The table was cleared, dessert was brought up, and Rose was left with the difficult task of calculating exactly how much of said dessert would be too much, and therefore further upset her aunt, and how much would be too little, which would in turn insult the chef.
After dinner, the family retired to the sitting room. As Uncle and Aunt Edwards each took a seat in their respective chair, Rose made her way toward the piano.
“Rose.” Her aunt’s call stopped Rose in her tracks. It was not as harsh as the dinner reprimand; the tone was conversational rather than chiding.
“May I not play the piano tonight, my aunt?” Rose knew the answer, even as she asked the question, but she held out hope nonetheless.
“No, you may not,” replied Aunt Edwards. “I have told you before, child, you are much too proficient on the instrument as it is. No one wants a braggart for a wife. Take some needlework instead.”
She would have preferred to play, especially on that night, when the mood was so dark. Rose had so much on her mind: being in town for the first time, the current state of disharmony between her aunt and uncle, the necessity to find a husband who would get her guardians’ approval, the hope that her fiancé would be a man she can have a loving relationship with, the fear of making such an utter fool of herself that she would ruin her chances of happiness forever. Music would express her worries better than words could, and she had much hope that by driving her disquiet into the world and out of her mind, she would find some peace.
But it was not to happen, not at that moment. Aunt Edwards had spoken. Rose picked up the needlework she had started back in Yorkshire, and took a seat.
Her uncle read the evening newspaper. Her aunt read from a small book of poetry. Rose embroidered a handkerchief. The silence was oppressive.
It was Robinson who broke the tension once more. “I’m terribly sorry for the interruption, but there is the matter of Miss Rose’s message.”
“Have you not sent it back?” The news did nothing for Aunt Edwards’s mood; as mistress of the house, she expected her orders to be obeyed without question.
“I intended to, madam, but I’m afraid that I returned to the door to find the messenger gone.”
“Well, bring it in,” said Uncle Edwards. “Oh, do not frown at me, my dear. I know you are as curious as I am to find out what this mysterious missive says, and who sent it.”
Rose laid down her needlework as Robinson approached her. He handed her an intricately folded piece of paper, bearing her name.
“Well?” asked Aunt Edwards, as Rose was silently reading the note. A more observant person than Mrs. Edwards might have noticed that Rose was struggling to control her breath and her voice, or how tightly she was holding the paper, until her joints were white and her hand was trembling.
“It only says welcome to town.”
“Who sent it?”
“I do not know, my aunt. There is no signature and no seal.”
“Robinson, who delivered it? What can you tell us about his appearance?”
“Nothing, madam. He was but a street urchin.”
Before her aunt could express her displeasure at the butler’s unsatisfying report, and at the idea that anyone would use a street urchin to deliver any kind of message, Rose asked permission to retire for the night.
“Oh, very well. Remind Eliza to prepare your sea green day dress for tomorrow. You must be especially careful with your appearance, since you have already been noticed.”
Rose promised that she would, and, after wishing a good night to her aunt and uncle, she left the room while her aunt resumed her interrogation of Robinson.
Rose was pacing in front of the fireplace in her room, holding her anonymous note. It was no more than that, a note, much too short to deserve the name of letter or missive. It was only a few lines, but those lines chilled her to the bone.
And so you arrive, Miss Fraser, to London town,
Like a little country mouse walks into the viper’s nest,
Beware, you meek and feeble thing, not to be swallowed whole
Rose could not decide what to do. She told herself that she was overreacting. It was a jest, nothing more, a jest of poor taste, and she ought to throw the note in the fireplace and forget all about it.
Yet she could not bring herself to do it. A jest this may be, but people did not act without a reason, and she could not fathom an explanation for someone, anyone, sending her this note. The best she could hope for was to uncover the identity of her… she was not sure what to name the person who wrote this. “Admirer” was altogether the wrong term. “Tormentor” felt too strong, after only one note. “Correspondent” suggested that she was writing back to him, which she had neither means nor intentions of doing.
The… taunter, as she finally settled on, would not stay anonymous very long. She had seen enough little brutes playing this kind of game to know. He would want to get a better look at her reaction, enjoy the fruits of his labor, so to speak, and he would betray himself. When he did, she would be able to face him and get some sort of explanation.
He would probably deny it, of course, unless she could provide some proof. So she kept the note, put it in a drawer, and resolved to put the matter out of her mind for the night.
But as she lay in her bed, falling into an uneasy sleep, she could not shake the suspicion that something more sinister than a mere jest was afoot.