The Finishing School.
The part I skipped.
Lord Grey and his niece Alice rode in his carriage from Easterly to the London road. It was, due to the poor quality of the thoroughfare, a painfully slow and tedious trip. The team tired far more quickly than it would have on the excellent post highway that connected London to Bristol. So they stopped at a hedge inn to let the team rest, as hiring a quality replacement team was out of the question until they reached the post road.
“Alice,” Lord Grey said, “this is a low hostel. Undoubtedly without the quality of ale I am used to, let alone a mode of refreshment suitable for a young woman of quality.”
“I’m rather fond of farm ale, Uncle.”
“Indeed.” He paused, “Still, I should like to walk with you. I need the exercise, and a pleasant stroll in this beautiful countryside with my niece is perfect for that.”
Alice shrugged, long walks in the country held less fascination for her than riding in a coach and four. “If you wish, Uncle. It’s a shame Sally fell ill and cannot come with us.”
“Yes, isn’t it?”
“I hope she’ll recover.”
“I’m sure she will, just a touch of an upset stomach.” Alice gave her uncle a sharp glance. No one had said what was wrong with Sally, just that she was too ill to come with them.
He led her away from the inn and its prying ears. Once out of earshot he said, “Alice, there is something I must ask you.”
“I thought as much. It was obvious that you needed or wanted to talk with me away from the servants.”
“In a few miles, we will come to the London road.”
“I know, it’s so exciting. I dimly remember the city from when I was little.”
Lord Grey coughed, then he said, “There are two ways we can take when we get to that turn. To London or to Bristol.”
“Bristol, why Bristol?”
“That’s what I need to discuss. I’ll dub you the readies for your season one way or another, but I have a request, an important one.”
Alice glanced daggers at him, “You’re not proposing to set me up in an establishment, are you?”
“God no! I know you’re observant. Can you be discreet, keep a quiet, still tongue?”
“Yes.” Alice studied her uncle’s face for clues to his meaning.
“We’ll see. What I am going to ask you to do cannot be discussed with anyone other than me, or my direct superiors. Please understand that if you tell anyone, ever, about what we are going to discuss, you can be, will be, thrown in the tower. Do you agree to these terms?”
Alice’s jaw dropped, then she said, “You’re a spy, aren’t you Uncle?”
He wouldn’t say one word about that, but simply repeated, “Do you agree?”
Alice nodded, then squeaked out, “I agree.”
“Good. Excellent, capital indeed. No I’m not a spy, but I run agents. That’s not quite correct, but it will do for the moment. I’m recruiting you to help me.”
“Doing what? Madame Renne says my French is tolerable, but I don’t have the accent.”
“Identifying French spies. I’m, well, my colleagues and I are involved in the defensive part of intelligence. Sniffing out their spies.”
Her uncle smiled, “We run agents. The French have spies. Although, I suppose they see it the other way around.”
“Is it safe?”
“Most of the time. Did you think I’d sign my sister’s only child up for something that I thought would get her hurt?”
“Is this what you, mother, Mr Willis and Madame Renne were talking about the other afternoon? I distinctly had the impression that my mother did not want you to ask me to do this.”
“Little escapes your notice, does it?”
“There’s a corner of my room, where, if I lie on the floor, I can hear everything that is said in the front parlour. Sally was most amused to watch me at it.”
“Then you heard me when I promised her, on my honour, that I would not ask you to do anything I would not do myself.”
“You’ve done this yourself?”
He nodded, “That’s how I know Madame Renne.”
“It’s also why she warned me about you. She said you weren’t to be trusted.”
“She has her reasons. I’m afraid we failed her, badly.”
“Tell me the truth about what happened to her.”
Lord Green paused, looked up at the sky for a few moments while he thought, and then said, “She and her husband ran a safe house in France, near the Belgian border. Their ‘Directory’ decided to clean house. We got her out in time, but not him.”
“A safe house, what’s that?”
“That’s what they’ll teach you in Bristol. It’s a place where agents can meet, and relay messages.”
Alice thought for a few moments, then asked, “Why me? Surely you have suitable men.”
“Yes, and no. We have reason to believe.” He paused, “Good Lord, how pompous I must sound. An occupational hazard I suppose. Alice, we know at least some of the French spies are female emigre’s who work in the dress trade. Can’t sent a dashing young man into a mantua makers, can I?”
“No, but I gather sending a stylish young lady wouldn’t raise anyone’s suspicions.” Alice smiled at him, “I’ve so longed to shop for stylish dresses at all the best places.”
“Precisely. So which will it be Bristol, or London?”
“Training. You wouldn’t think I’d just let you loose on the world without instruction. You’ll learn the latest dances and practice your manners at either place. It’s just that you’ll learn a few other things in Bristol.”
“Bristol it is.”
“Excellent. Shall we see if the horses are rested?”
“If not, I could use some refreshment as well.”
“Even execrable country ale?”
They had returned to the inn and sat drinking their pints. When they were nearly finished, Alice said, “By the way, what did you give Sally?”
“You figured that out?”
Alice stared at him, “Yes. It was rather obvious.”
“A pinch of Jalap resin and calomel, in several of those Turkish Delights. I’d be surprised that she’s not better already. How did you guess?”
“Madame Renne was right, you aren’t to be trusted.”
“Then why did you agree to my proposal?”
Alice smiled at her uncle. “Must be my father’s reckless blood. What a jest it would be to spy on everyone.”
Lord Grey gave his niece an intense stare and then said, “Mark this Alice. It’s not just fun, and you’re right you should not trust anyone in the business.”
“Not even you?”
“Not even me.”
Alice shrugged and then said in a deadpan tone of voice, “You know, two can play at that.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll find out.” Alice tilted her head and smiled at her uncle. “I hope you enjoyed your bitter.”
He looked at the dregs at the bottom of his pint. “You didn’t?”
Alice simply smiled at him once more. More of a knowing grin that just a smile.
Lord Grey slowly turned greenish, and then dashed off for the necessary. Half an hour later he returned, having thoroughly evacuated himself.
“I should say, Miss Green. That was uncalled for.”
Alice continued to smile at him and said, “I didn’t do anything, but you’re right when you said I shouldn’t trust anyone in this business. Neither should you.”
Lord Grey would have had further words with his niece, only one of the drivers came in and said, “My Lord, if we are to make the city tonight, we had best be on our way.”
Lord Grey rose, then said, “Alice, shall we? No more of your tricks, please.”
“Yes, Uncle James.”
As they walked out of the inn, he added, “It seems to me, niece, that you are a natural for this role.” Then as they were boarding the coach, when the driver inquired, “Where to, My Lord?” he replied, “Bristol, Mrs Hudson’s.”
“As you desire.” The driver tipped his hand to his hat in a salute.
They rode on slowly, until they reached the main road. Then they turned right, towards Bristol. Neither Lord Grey nor Miss Green felt like talking to each other.
A few miles before arriving at Bristol, the carriage took a road to the north. Alice asked, “This isn’t the Bristol road, we just turned off it. What’s going on?”
Lord Grey replied, “Miss Green, the start of your training. Mrs Hudson lives in Chipping Sodbury.”
Even in the afternoon, market day at Chipping Sodbury filled the wide street of the village with noisy and noisome crowds when they arrived. It also made driving directly to Mrs Hudson’s rooms impossible. So Lord Grey had the carriage stop at the edge of town, and escorted his niece on foot. Eventually, and with no little difficulty, they threaded their way to the side street where she lodged and knocked for admittance.
A slatternly maid opened the door and said, “Who is it?”
“Lord Grey, with a new,”
He didn’t get to finish before the maid broke into a smile and said, “New blood. Come in.” She started to lead them upstairs to Mrs Hudson’s rooms. The dirt in the hall and on the stairway did not inspire confidence.
Alice whispered to her uncle, “New blood. What’s this about?”
“Nothing, my dear.”
Upstairs, the hall opened into a set of clean, well-lit rooms. The maid led them to the last room and curtsied, “Mrs Hudson, Lord Grey is here. He has a new victim.”
Mrs Hudson, a tall, older woman with grey-streaked brown hair frowned at her maid, “Lucinda, please get cleaned up and back into your normal clothes. Then report back here to help me orient our new student.”
“To hear is to obey,” Lucinda curtsied and left.
“How is Miss Haytor working out?” Lord Grey asked, “She should be nearly ready.”
“Other than her deplorable wit, I should think she will be an acceptable agent. She needs to control that tongue of hers. Though I have my concerns about her seriousness.”
“Uncle,” Alice asked, “That maid, I don’t understand.”
Mrs Hudson answered for Lord Grey. “Miss?”
“Green, Alice Green.”
“Miss Green, one of the skills we will teach you is the art of blending in. There are times when looking like a servant means the difference between success and,” she paused, “not success.”
“Oh.” Alice paused, “So it’s like playing dress up.”
Miss Haytor, dressed as a respectable gentlewoman and with a clean face, knocked on the door.
Mrs Hudson said, “Enter.” Then she inspected the young lady. “You’ve done well enough, but it took you two whole minutes to change.”
“I wasn’t hurrying.”
“I should make you repeat the change until you are faster, but there isn’t the time right now. Miss Haytor, I should like to you meet Miss Alice,” Mrs Hudson paused, “Alice, do you have a preference for a last name?”
Alice answered, “Mapleton.”
Remembering the name of her unsuitable mill-owning suitor, her uncle cast her a sharp glance. Alice added, “It’s a name I can remember. Not fondly, but well.”
“Miss Alice Mapleton.”
Alice asked, “Why don’t we use my true name?”
“Security. Miss Haytor and the other students won’t be able to identify you.”
“They will, if they remember my face.”
Miss Haytor added, “It’s to help you get used to using a work name.”
“That will do, Miss Haytor.”
Lord Grey coughed and then said, “Mrs Hudson, I shall leave Miss Mapleton in your care. She is to send me weekly letters, unsealed, by express.” He pulled a sheaf of papers from his coat and handed them to her. “These will do for her to get started, and I’ll see that other, suitable, letter drafts are sent to you. Keep me informed on her progress.”
Then he bowed to his niece and said, “Miss Mapleton, I hope you have an interesting experience. Miss Haytor, I expect I shall see you in London shortly.” With those words he left.
Alice shouted after him, “My trunk, what about my clothes?” The sound of the door to the house closing was all the answer she received. Almost involuntarily, her face started to frown, the first signs of a cry.
Mrs Hudson ignored the incipient signs of Alice’s distress and said, “Lucinda, will you see Miss Alice to her room. Number 5 is open. Lessons will start in the morning.”
Lucinda led Alice down the hall to the rooms where the students slept. She asked, “Lonely or homesick? I was.”
“Not yet. Worried, maybe. Angry and upset, a little. I didn’t expect to just be left here.”
“Mrs Hudson will see that you’re rightly set up for the game. It’s fun.”
“You were dressed as a servant. I’ve done my share of sweeping up, why more, why here?”
“That’s boring enough, I’ll admit. That’s just the start.”
“The start? What else is there?”
“Codes, dead drops, the quick change, oh various interesting things… and how to kill someone.”
Lucinda smirked. “You’ll see.”
Moments later she threw open the door to room number 5. It was sparely furnished, with a bed, a table, a dresser, a chair and little else. Except, maybe a ewer and a gazunder.
“You’ll have to get your own water in the morning, and the gazunder. That’s your responsibility too.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“Cheer up, it’s worth it. Supper’s at six. They ring a bell. See you.”
Alice sat on the chair, and stared at the wall. Tatty stained wallpaper sagged from the damp. What have I let myself into? She tried to look out the window, but the warped glass panes, all made from the cheapest bullseye panes, made it impossible to see out. Nor for that matter was it possible for anyone to see in.
Her dark thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of a bell. I’m not hungry, I’m angry. Lucinda peeked around the door, “Coming?”
“Do I have to?”
“Come on. The food’s not bad, and the company’s better.”
Rising like an old woman, stiff and in pain, Alice joined her. “Hey, that’s good. You’ll be a natural agent.”
Downstairs, the students and their instructors ate at a large table. When Alice entered, Mrs Hudson rose and told them, “I should like to introduce our newest member, Miss Alice Mapledurham.”
“That’s right, Miss Alice Mapleton.”
Someone at the table whispered, sotto voce, “Fresh meat. Who’s for the chop?”
Mrs Hudson glared at the speaker, “Mary, if you cannot keep a civil tongue, then maybe you are.”
“Remember, it’s not just a civil tongue you will need to survive but a quiet one.”
Alice found the conversation bewildering. Words like rectangular grid, ink, developer, dead drop and safe house floated around her. Terms she, presumably, would learn. Her neighbours wrote out a rectangle of letters and one showed the other some detailed way of using it to hide a message.
Her request, “Can I see?” was met with stony silence. “Guess not. I’m the new girl.”
Alice awoke in the morning, having slept surprisingly well for her first night in a new room, a new bed and an uncertain future. She rose and after pulling the blinds open, herself, annoyed that there was no servant to do it, saw that the only dress for her was a maid’s. It lay, neatly folded on the chair. A note, saying ‘wear this’ was pinned to it. There being no other choice, either dress as a maid or wear her nightdress, Alice put on the clothes.
Wearing that dress, Alice stormed into Mrs Hudson’s room. “Mrs Hudson,” she demanded, “why do I have to dress as a maid? Surely you have maids, and this is beneath my dignity.”
Mrs Hudson ignored her and continued reading her correspondence. Alice stood, fuming, and ignored.
“This is the ultimate limit. Are you deaf?”
“Then why don’t you answer me?”
“I’m busy. Now be silent, like a good housemaid.”
Eventually Mrs Hudson put her work away, taking care to lock it in a strong box, and looked up at Alice. “Are you ready to converse like a rational creature or are you still ranting?”
“I’m still angry.”
“I’m not surprised, new girls usually are. Please control it. There is a reason.”
“A reason, for what?”
“For all this. I see you can control your anger. Good.”
“I’m surprised, I presume it’s not simply to humiliate me. Can you tell it to me?”
“Certainly. First, why are you here?”
“To learn to be an agent, a spy.”
“Very good. Now what is the first thing you must do to survive?”
“To watch, no,” Alice studied Mrs Hudson as she thought, then said, “To not be noticed.”
“You really are your uncle’s niece. Exactly. Now who can pass unnoticed almost anywhere?”
“Precisely. Before I, we, can teach you anything else, you must learn to blend in, to hide in plain sight.”
“Did you notice the servants on your way to twit me?”
“No. There weren’t any.”
“Are you certain?”
Alice thought for a few moments, “Actually, there were three, two housemaids sweeping the hall and another carrying a basket.”
“Very good. But not good enough. There were four. You missed -”
A knock on the door interrupted her statement. It opened and the senior instructor, Miss Aldershot said, “Mrs Hudson, Miss Jones is feeling ill. I’ve let her rest this morning.”
“So there were three after all.” Mrs Hudson paused, then added, “Miss Aldershot would you see that Miss Mapleton is instructed in Miss Jones’ duties. You will find her a willing pupil. That is unless Miss Mapleton desires to return home.”
Miss Mapleton nodded, rose and the followed Miss Aldershot.