Just when everything at the Poor Relation Hotel seems to be running smoothly, Sir Philip brings in another poor relation, Mrs. Budge. When
Sir Philip presents his paramour, Lady Fortescue swears great oaths and says the woman is probably related to half the costermongers in London and certainly does not possess one rich relative. Mrs. Budge does nothing but eat all day and refuses to do any work around the hotel.
Worst of all, Miss Tonks seems to be taking the romance between Sir
Philip and Mrs. Budge quite hard.
In the middle of all this commotion, a certain Lady Carruthers and her daughter Arabella come to stay at the hotel. Lady Carruthers is a widow trying to pass herself off as much younger than she actually is. To this end she dresses poor
Arabella, who is all of nineteen, as a young schoolgirl and refuses to bring her out. It is up to the poor relations to deal with the lazy Mrs.
Budge, find Arabella a husband, and trounce her terrible mother!
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
Oh, I see said the Earl but my own idea is that these things are as piffle before the wind.
— DAISY ASHFORD
The atmosphere in the Poor Relation in Bond Street was glacial. It was as if the owners meant to banish the vulgar air emanating from Mrs. Mary Budge by producing an aristocratic frost — the owners with the exception of Sir Philip Sommerville, who had been instrumental in introducing Mrs. Budge to the hotel.
Even the servants found Mrs. Budge gross and vulgar. She was fat, not cosy armfuls of fat, but solid, rather threatening fat, with two huge bosoms like stuffed cushions pushed up under her many chins. Although lodged in the sitting-room of the apartment next door to the hotel, which the owners used as their living quarters, she went on like a guest, demanding meals to be served to her at all hours of the day.
The hotel had been founded a few years before by Lady Amelia Fortescue, whose former home it was; Lady Fortescue, tall, white-haired and still upright and elegant in her seventies. At her right hand was Colonel Sandhurst, an equally handsome seventyish with silver hair and childlike blue eyes. Also an owner was Miss Tonks, spinster, still slightly faded-looking and inclined, now she was in her forties, to mourn in private over the state of marriage that never was, but her sheeplike face carried a certain newfound air of authority. Her descent into trade had benefited her character. There had been six of them at the start. Now there were four, and four who might have been happy had not Sir Philip fallen in love with the quite dreadful Mrs. Budge and brought her home to roost.
The other three, that is Lady Fortescue, Colonel Sandhurst and Miss Tonks, held a council of war one afternoon when Sir Philip was out driving with his lady-love. The thing that hurt Miss Tonks most of all was that the elderly Sir Philip, before the advent of Mrs. Budge, had seemed to be becoming affectionate towards her. Added to that, Sir Philip had cleaned himself up for the horrible Mrs. Budge the way he had not bothered to do for her. The improved fortunes of the former poor relations who ran the hotel meant that they had money to dress well, and Sir Philip, albeit still like an elderly tortoise, looked, well, almost a gentleman in a new swallow-tail coat of Weston's tailoring and sporting a nut-brown wig which actually looked real.
Lady Fortescue was also feeling piqued, although she would not admit it to herself. For Sir Philip, before he had gone off to Warwick for the wedding of one of the former owners, had shown every evidence of being enamoured with her. Only Colonel Sandhurst simply wanted Mrs. Budge out because she was vulgar and offensive and, as he said, with a little flick of his new silver snuff-box, "Common as a barber's chair and bad for trade."
What if the Prince Regent, who had recently honoured them with a visit to their now famous dining-room, should decide to return? Mrs. Budge had been banned from the dining-room, but on a couple of occasions had coerced Sir Philip into squiring her there for a meal. Lady Fortescue and Colonel Sandhurst, who made a show of waiting table, part of the cachet of the hotel being that the guests were served by aristocrats, had refused to serve her on the last occasion, which had resulted in a waspish scene with Sir Philip.
The three owners were in the small office at the back of the entrance hall.
"I am sure it is Mrs. Budge who is beginning to turn away customers," said Lady Fortescue. "The Rochesters and Bensonhursts have cancelled. I know it is not the Season, but we had hoped to be booked up all year round, and now this. Two of our best apartments lying empty!"
The colonel longed to say there was an easy way out of all this. He and Lady Fortescue should marry, sell the hotel and retire to the country. He had thought Lady Fortescue had been going to agree to this plan, and only a few weeks ago, but the Prince Regent had come to dine, and Lady Fortescue had promptly forgotten all plans of marriage.
Instead he said, "Sir Philip will tire of her soon. He has always been generous with other people's money. He will become tired of her leeching on him."
"But the expense of that dreadful woman is being borne by all of us," said Miss Tonks.
"Then, as a first move," said Lady Fortescue, "we will take a careful account of everything that Mrs. Budge costs us, including her share of rent, and we will deduct the bill from Sir Philip's share of the proceeds."
A flash of rare malice shone in the colonel's eyes. "That should fix him."
"How could he?" asked Miss Tonks, not for the first time. "Her very presence humiliates us all."
"He is grown silly in his old age," said Lady Fortescue. "He went off in a rage because for some reason he thought we should have told him about the Prince Regent's visit, but how were we to get word to him? I gather that you, Miss Tonks, and Sir Philip broke your journey from Warwickshire at some inn in Chipping Norton. How were we to know that? But he stamped out and that was when Mrs. Budge found him, in Hyde Park, and took him home to that squalid flat she has in a mews, a flat which she promptly let before moving in with us."
"There is another, graver, problem," said the colonel. "We have all been guilty of theft in order to finance this hotel, either by direct action or by association. If Sir Philip ever tells his lady that, then even if he tires of her, she is in a position to blackmail us into letting her stay. Worse, she could go to the authorities and we would all end up swinging on the end of a rope outside Newgate."
"A pox on the silly old fool," raged Lady Fortescue. "How can we stop him?"
"I told him the other day if he ever breathed a word of what we had been up to I would shoot him," said the colonel. "I think he believed me, but I am not sure. He is so besotted, he does not seem to realize that it is his neck he has to worry about as well. But I will tell him on his return about Mrs. Budge's bills."
"No, I think I would like to do that," said Lady Fortescue. She looked up as the hotel footman appeared in the doorway. "What is it, Jack?"
"There is a Lady Carruthers has called and is desirous to speak to you, my lady."
Lady Fortescue rose to her feet. "Put her in the coffee room and Colonel Sandhurst and I will be with her directly. Your arm, Colonel."
Miss Tonks bit her lip. Everything had changed. Her friend and former partner, Mrs. Budley, was now married and on her honeymoon, Sir Philip was crawling around after that dreadful woman, and the colonel and Lady Fortescue often went on as if she, Miss Tonks, were one of the hotel servants instead of a partner.
Lady Fortescue and Colonel Sandhurst, the one as tall and erect as the other despite their advanced years, made their stately way to the coffee room. A lady dressed in the height of fashion was sitting on a chair by the window, her maid standing to one side, and a footman at the other end of the room holding her pug-dog.
Lady Carruthers was as highly painted as a trollop, but that was not unusual in this age of transparent dresses and rouged faces. She had perhaps been a beauty at one time, but discontent had given her thin mouth a petulant droop, and social hauteur her eyes a steely look. Her bonnet was as feathered as any Indian's head-dress and her silk pelisse was edged with ermine. She did not rise at the approach of Lady Fortescue and Colonel Sandhurst, contenting herself with a small inclination of her head which made the feathers in her bonnet dance and quiver.
Lady Fortescue did not curtsy but inclined her own head and raised her thin black eyebrows. "Lady Carruthers?"
Lady Carruthers nodded again. Lady Fortescue sat down opposite her, with the colonel standing behind her chair.
"How may we help you?"
Trying to remind herself that these were mere hoteliers, Lady Carruthers was nonetheless impressed.
"The roof of my town house fell in last night," she began. "I am desirous of finding accommodation until the repairs have been effected."
"We have a fine apartment by chance," said Lady Fortescue. "Will Lord Carruthers be joining you?"
"My husband is dead. I am very young to be a widow, I know."
Lady Fortescue judged Lady Carruthers to be nearly forty. "My daughter is with me," went on Lady Carruthers. "My little Arabella. Such a dear child and such a comfort to me. My maid will need a room, and also I must have at least one footman."
"There is accommodation for your servants."
Lady Fortescue opened her reticule and took out a gilt-edged card which she laid on the table in front of Lady Carruthers. "Our terms," she murmured.
Lady Carruthers fumbled in her bosom for her quizzing-glass. She looked at the prices and her eyes widened. But a hotel patronized by the Prince Regent himself naturally would have high rates. Affecting indifference, she pushed the card away. "Quite," she said. "It would suit me to move in today."
"Our pleasure." Lady Fortescue inclined her head again and the colonel gave a little bow from the waist.
"Hotel life might amuse my little Arabella." Lady Fortescue got to her feet. "And it is hard to amuse schoolroom misses these days."
* * *
Miss Arabella Carruthers stood at the window of the drawing-room and looked idly down into the street. She was not often allowed in the drawing-room of the town house, being mostly confined to the schoolroom, which was on the top floor. But the roof had fallen in and the schoolroom was no more.
Although she was nineteen years old, Arabella looked considerably younger. Her mother liked to pretend her daughter was a mere schoolchild, and so Arabella wore smocked dresses and her long brown hair down her back. She enlivened the tedium of her days by reading a great deal. She was not encouraged to have friends; any friends of her own age might damage the fiction that she was considerably younger than nineteen.
She had accepted this state of affairs, not really having any other way of life to set against it. She had lived in the country until the death of her father the previous year. Her mother and father had never at any time seemed very close, each going their separate ways, her father immersed in sport, her mother in competing with other landowners' wives for social ascendency. Arabella had progressed tranquilly from nursemaid to governess, living, apart from the company of servants, a fairly isolated life.
She looked idly down into the street below, not aware that her life was about to change dramatically and that this change was to start with falling in love. As she watched the carriages come and go in the fashionable square, she noticed a very smart phaeton driven by a tall gentleman rounding the square. It came to a stop at the house next door. The driver called to his tiger to go to the horses' heads and then jumped down. A lady and her maid came along the pavement. He swept off his hat and stood talking to them.
The sunlight glinted on his golden hair. He was wearing a long biscuit-coloured coat of superb cut with many capes. The lady and her maid moved on. He turned to enter the house next door and then, as if aware of the steady gaze looking down on him, he stared up, full at Arabella.
His face was lightly tanned, his eyes very blue. He suddenly smiled and raised the curly brimmed beaver he was holding in his hand in salute. And then he went on indoors.
Arabella stood transfixed. He was the man of her dreams. She turned and ran from the room and down to the hall, where one of the footmen was lounging on a bench.
"Who lives next door?" she asked.
He stood up. "Old Lady Marchant, miss."
"No one else?"
"Her companion, a Miss Tipps, I believe, also elderly."
"Oh, but a very grand and handsome man has just called. His carriage is outside."
The footman smiled on her indulgently. "You just wait there, miss, and I'll go and ask his servant."
He was back in a few minutes. "The gentleman you saw, Miss Arabella, is the Earl of Denby."
"And he does not live in this square?"
"Not this square, no. Berkeley Square."
"Thank you, John."
Arabella went slowly up the stairs. Now, if she were to have a proper Season as befitted her age, she would have a chance of meeting him. Perhaps he was married! But at least she had someone to dream about and that was one small comfort. But whether she would even get a chance to see him again was surely highly unlikely.
* * *
Sir Philip that evening looked down wrathfully at the bill Lady Fortescue had just presented to him. "This is outrageous," he spluttered.
Lady Fortescue's voice dripped ice. "We are hardworking hoteliers and cannot afford such luxuries as supporting the greedy indulgences of your paramour. There is not only her rent there, but her dressmaker's bills, her mantua-maker's demands, not to mention those of perfumer and milliner, and so on."
"But I have yet to pay Weston!"
"Then you must economize. We were fortunate in letting one suite to Lady Carruthers today. But the other best one lies vacant. You know our guests are at best notoriously slow at paying their bills. Neither myself nor the colonel nor Miss Tonks wants Mrs. Budge here. She lowers the tone of the place."
"I will not listen to any criticism of my Mary."
"Your Mary. Unless you get rid of that female, I shall sell this hotel from under her!"
"It is still my house."
"But we are partners!"
"The majority decision will hold. Miss Tonks is distressed and the colonel wants me to sell anyway. Perhaps while I am making up my mind exactly what to do, you can begin to attend to your duties here as before. It is time you waited in the dining-room again and gave the colonel an evening off."
"Is this all the gratitude I get?" howled Sir Philip. "Who raised the wind to get this place started? Who stole —?" He broke off in confusion. He had stolen a valuable necklace from the Duke of Rowcester and replaced it with a clever copy. He had not told any of the other poor relations what he had taken. The jeweller he had sold the necklace to still had it in keeping, and Sir Philip was paying him a weekly sum to do so in the hope that one day he could buy it back and replace it. For sooner or later the duke was going to take that necklace out of its glass case in the muniments room to show someone, and that someone might be sharp enough to recognize a fake.
"Stole what?" demanded Lady Fortescue sharply.
"Never mind," muttered Sir Philip. He glanced up at her. He still felt a tug at his heart when he looked at her and a desire to please her. He picked up the bill. "If I can find someone to take the other apartment, may I delay payment of this until after I have settled my tailor's bill?"
"Very well." Lady Fortescue grasped the silver knob of her stick and leaned forward, her black eyes suddenly kind.
"I can understand a man of your years being easily prey to infatuation, Sir Philip. But try to stand back a little and survey Mrs. Budge as she really is."
He stood up. "Mrs. Budge is warm and affectionate, ma'am. She cares for me. I have been alone too long. I am ... I am thinking of marrying her."
"If you do, then you must definitely leave the hotel or we must sell," said Lady Fortescue quietly.
When Sir Philip had left, Lady Fortescue sat and thought briefly about poisoning Mary Budge. She could only hope that Sir Philip would come to his senses.
Miss Tonks walked into the office, looking flustered and nervous.
"Miss Tonks, what can we do for you?" asked Lady Fortescue. She automatically used "we," not like royalty, but because she was so used to having the colonel next to her.
"I wish to ask Monsieur André to arrange my hair."
Monsieur André was the court hairdresser.
Lady Fortescue looked surprised. "The decision is yours, Miss Tonks. The colonel showed you how to open an account at the bank some time ago and I believe you to be thrifty. If you wish to spend your money on such luxuries, it is your decision. But why? We have no important social engagements, although" — she gave a sigh — "the only social engagements we have these days is when we are asked to cater at some house."
"I felt like doing something," said Miss Tonks, looking flustered.
"I know you had a sad adventure where you shot that highwayman on the road to Warwickshire," said Lady Fortescue. "But did something else happen? You have not been yourself since your return, Miss Tonks."
Miss Tonks thought briefly of the journey back with Sir Philip when they had been friends and when she had hoped that they might marry and that at last she would have the right to put the magic title of "Mrs." before her name. But she said, "I am a little tired, that is all. Did you present Sir Philip with his bill?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sir Philip's Folly"
Copyright © 1993 Marion Chesney.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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