A Temporary Engagement: Chapter 2

Chapter 2: A Position Is Advertised

As she walked towards the Astoria Café, and her afternoon tea with Alan Harding, Kate discovered that a good deal of her usual composure had returned. The consternation produced by the morning’s events had receded after her visit with Sissy Darling, as she had been certain it would; her friend had a marvellous propensity for putting things into a proper perspective. Taking stock of her situation again, Kate’s spirits rose. Compared to her erstwhile employer, she was fortunate. Life will go on, she reflected. The unpleasantness of being without employment would be temporary, as would be that of adjusting to a new position. Such inconveniences were, on the whole, to be considered educational. They tested one’s mettle, and Kate strongly believed such testing to be beneficial, even as she was prepared to concede that it was not always enjoyable. Thankfully, she had no pressing material concerns. Her savings, though by no means substantial, were sufficient for her present needs; she could afford a few weeks – perhaps a month – of job-seeking without the spectre of destitution hanging above her head. She might have stretched her resources even longer, but she was not minded to dally in her search. She enjoyed the structure that work brought to her day; it made the evenings – when she permitted herself to transform into a social butterfly – all the more delightful. The juxtaposition of her two selves amused her acquaintances, who failed to understand, however, that Kate herself saw no conflict in her character. In her own mind, she was above all a pragmatist, serious or not as the circumstances demanded. It vexed her when people familiar only with her matitudinal  exploits assumed that she was a Puritan, since she considered it a sign that they perceived her to be humourless. In this regard, again, she admitted that Sissy managed matters far more ingeniously than her. No one would ever mistake Sissy for a Puritan, nor think her a frivolous ninny once she decided that their opinion mattered. Kate did not envy her friend’s opulent lifestyle, but she did occasionally find herself invidious of Sissy’s reputation, which was above reproach and beyond criticism. The Puritans, of course, might have felt differently, but they were, for the most part, safely away in the distant corners of the Republic. Closer to home, Sissy had nothing except admirers; even the President himself was known to enjoy the opportunity to dine, en famille, with the glamorous Darlings. He had joked about it once in the High Assembly, earning a rare “What, what” from the Royalists’ bench, headed by David Saxe-Coburg himself. Not surprising, perhaps, since David was a close friend of the Darlings too.

Kate herself did not mingle in such august company except on rare occasions. She had no particular taste for pomp and panoply, finding them indigestible even with the benefit of a few strong cocktails, and preferred to partake in Sissy’s more low-key amusements. She hoped that evening’s affair would prove to be of the latter kind; the brief diversion would be a welcomed interlude before she turned to tackling her practical concerns. She was not worried, precisely, but she was conscious that she had reached a small but perhaps not insignificant crossroads in her life, where the paths which lay before her were disconcertingly numerous and uncharted, such that she could not afford to be careless in her next steps. Accustomed to being self-sufficient since her parents’ death some eight years before, Kate nonetheless continued to harbour doubts of her own competency. Though she had not, at the advanced age of twenty-eight, as yet encountered any obstacle too great for her wits or her perseverance to overcome, she could not say with absolute confidence that there might not yet be such a one. The uncertainty was galling. As a consequence, she was always vigilant – for opportunities to prove herself. For adventure. Kate smiled; she rather liked the idea of being as the adventurers of old. It was the sort of fancy she knew she ought not indulge, but since she was unable to resist its lure completely, she was determined to keep a strong grip upon the reins of her imagination.

As she strode into the Astoria Café very much in command of herself, Kate caught sight of Alan’s head, his fair hair neatly combed to a familiar gleam. His handsomeness never failed to please her; it was deliberate and flawless, and perfectly calibrated to appeal to her love of all things orderly and English. Though he was a good decade older than her, nothing in his appearance specified his age; he might have been anywhere between thirty and forty-five, and looked as if he had never been anything else. When he saw her, his demeanor immediately softened with a smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes most attractively; he waved to her, and she hastened to their table escorted by the stares of several disappointed cafe patrons.

She had met Alan for the first time shortly after her parents’ funeral. Georgina and James Seto had died abroad, on vacation in Mallorca, when their tourist bus had been caught in a rock slide, and pushed into the sea. It had been such an improbable accident that, at first, Kate had had trouble believing that her parents were truly dead. The enormity of this reality, when it had finally impressed itself upon her, had left her momentarily dazed. An only child, she had never been especially close to her parents; each of the three members of the Seto household had had temperaments particularly unsuitable to close habitation with the other two. Georgina and James had made do, as their matrimonial vows required of them, but Kate had been relieved to leave home at the earliest opportunity. The small amount of assistance she had received from home, along with a generous scholarship at Chattingham’s, had ensured that Kate had been more or less independent for a number of years before her parents’ untimely death. Even so, she had felt their loss most acutely at first; they had been an essential, if not always central, part of her life, one whose constancy she had not thought to question at the age of twenty. It was the loss of her youthful obliviousness that she had been mourning on the day she had  walked into the discreetly plush offices of Harding, Lawler & Firth to be advised of the contents of her father’s will. And there, across a finely varnished walnut table, it had been the lot of the firm’s most junior solicitor to inform Kate that she had been left not only penniless but also homeless for all intents and purposes – the sale of her childhood home being required to settle the debts of her parents’ estate and the death taxes. Alan had managed this disagreeable task with an aplomb which, even in the midst of her agitation, Kate had not failed to remark. They had remained in touch afterward; not frequently, but often enough to stay apprised of the general course of each other’s lives. She had waited for news of his marriage in more recent years, and she’d had the distinct sense that he had done the same for her. But if neither had abandoned their single state during that time, they never spoke of the matter together either, despite their respective friends’ conviction that they would both profit from such discussion.

They would be uncommonly well-suited to each other – that much Kate was prepared to admit, though she was wont to mentally annotate the statement: perhaps a little too much so. She kept the latter observation to herself since others were bound to find it puzzling. She rarely had to explain herself to Alan, and never had cause to find him disagreeable; it was a distinctly congenial quality in a friend, to be sure, but she wondered at its suitability in a spouse. Life would be wonderfully easy – so easy that they would hardly even need to speak to each other to arrange it to their mutual satisfaction. Too easy. Kate knew her reservations to be perverse; Sissy would have been appalled to hear her friend express scruples about marrying a man for being too agreeable, and Kate could not entirely fault her. She was being less than rational about the whole business. Still, she was inclined to think that she could only benefit from acquainting herself with the chaos that might be found in the world at large before wedding herself to order – once and for all. She knew that she could love Alan, faithfully and contently – in fact, she was sure that she probably already did, a little bit. But whether there might be room for more between them, she didn’t know – and she rather thought there needed to be. It was a niggling thought, but one she was unable to talk away, no matter how much she tried. How can one know what is enough – or too little? She would need to live longer, and see far more of the world, before she could be sure of the answer.As she approached the table where the subject of her musings waited for her, she decided to accept the wisdom of her own indecision for the time being.

“Hello, Alan.”

“Hello, Kate. You look lovely,” he replied as he waited for her to take her seat, and then followed suit. “I trust you are well?”

“Yes. No. That is, yes in the general sense, although it has been rather a trying day.”

“Would you like to tell me about it, or shall we have tea first?”

“Tea, please. Oh, and do ask them to bring out their clotted cream and scones – I’m famished.”

“Already on their way.”

“You are clever. Sissy was right, as always. We were talking about you just before I came here,” Kate explained. “I hope your ears were not burning altogether too much.”

“Only ever so slightly warm. Dare I ask why?”

Kate threw him a coquettish look, but did not reply immediately. She took a sip of her tea, and looked around the room.

“As a matter of fact, Sissy wanted me to ask you to join us tonight, at one of her haunts.”

“The new bar at the Rubicon?”

“The very one. I had no idea you were so au courant with the fashionable stomping grounds of the hoi polloi, Alan. I thought you were one of us little people,” Kate remarked teasingly.

“I am,” Alan insisted. “I only know about the Rubicon because Sissy dragged me there one night last week to keep her and Harry Pratlees company. I say, he’s not coming again tonight, is he?”

“No, it’s Marcus Tallifer’s turn tonight. Why, what is the matter with Harry?”

“Nothing, apart from the fact that he’s a dull ass, and listening to him for an entire evening is exceptionally tiresome. He has only one topic of conversation.”

“Ooh, do let me guess! The Linnaean taxonomy of birds from the southern counties?”

“No such luck. He kept asking me if I agreed that Francesca Darling is a hell of a woman, and inquired as to my opinion on the odds that she might give a fellow a break,” Alan replied in a fatuous tone which Kate correctly assumed to mimic that of Sissy’s uncouth admirer.

“Oh dear.”

“I can’t imagine why Pratlees would expect me to know, much less answer. Then again, he was sloshed,” Alan added, reluctantly prepared to make allowances.

Kate admired his generosity; she had very little patience for people who drank more than their constitutions permitted them to bear with grace.

“Tallifer’s tolerable, at any rate,” Alan went on, “unless he’s also decided to go and fall in love with Mrs. Darling.”

“I’m afraid that might be the case,” Kate warned him.

“Good God! How many beaux can one woman possibly have?”

“Too many to count, if that woman happens to be Sissy,” Kate replied. “I shall be there tonight, however – if that makes a difference.”

Alan gave her a look that mixed reproach and blandishment in charming fashion. “You know very well that it does. You need not have said more – I will gladly chaperone entire hordes of Mrs. Darling’s inamorati.”

“Even Harry Pratlees?”

“Only if you insist.”

Just then, the waiter arrived with their cream tea and, in her haste to sample the Astoria’s famous scones, Kate forgot to reassure Alan that she required no such sacrifice. He observed her zeal with kindly bemusement for a few minutes, then frowned at a sudden recollection.

“You never told me why you’d had a trying morning,” he exclaimed.

Kate had only just placed a jam-laden morsel in her mouth, and found herself unable to respond promptly.

“It wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with Chariot Press being sold, would it?”

“How did you know?”

“Entirely by happenstance. I bumped into Nicky Castlemain at the Forrester Club this morning, and he mentioned it. Some tycoon from Upper Canada bought it, it seems. I rather doubt he shall want to go on printing the works of Mr. Thompson’s illustrious Puritans, but I don’t suppose that you will be greatly saddened by that.”

“Mr. Thompson is dead, I’m afraid. It happened just after lunch,” Kate informed him. Her voice wavered with emotion she thought she had overcome.

“Kate, I’m very sorry,” Alan replied immediately. She sensed that it was only his innate decorum which kept him from reaching out to take her hand. To her surprise, she found herself wishing that he would.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes, quite. I’m sorry, Alan, I didn’t mean to sound sniffly just now. I’m perfectly fine. It is very sad, of course – poor Mr. Thompson.” Kate paused. It struck her as unseemly to lament excessively the death of a man to whom she had been bound neither by the bonds of family nor by those of friendship. She was certain that Alan would understand her economy of grief.

“What will happen now, do you think? They will need a new editor, whatever they plan to do with the business,” he observed.

“That’s all arranged,” Kate replied glumly, making no more than a poor attempt at looking cheerful. “We were told this morning. The new editor will be Erika Adrien,” Kate added with careful emphasis.

“Ah. I see. And you –?”

“I shall be unemployed. Only for the time being, however. I am starting my job search momentarily. In fact,” Kate sat up, and threw him a penetrating glance, “it may as well start immediately. I don’t suppose you know of any position that has lately become vacant, do you? I have my typing, and I’m not half bad at dictation. And, of course, they do insist on a quite thorough modern education at Chattingham’s.”

“I wish I could help – I really do. But I don’t know of anything worthy of your talents.”

“I don’t have nearly as high an estimation of them as you do, you know. I’m quite prepared to work,” she assured him.

“Of course! Kate, you know that I …” Alan paused, and Kate was taken aback to detect a faint colouring on his perfectly smooth cheek. “I think very highly of you. It would never cross my mind to question your abilities, or your dedication to your vocation.”

“Oh, Alan, you’re terribly sweet. I’m not sure I have a true vocation, you know – not unless you count devotion to reason and good grammar as one. But I do like being useful. And I’m not afraid of hard work – or a good challenge.”

Alan let out a low chuckle. “It’s funny you should mention that – the part about a good challenge. I was talking to Martin Redwynne the other day. He is an old chum, from my days in Kent. Don’t give me that look, Kate – I will not be judged for my misspent youth,” Alan remarked with a gentle finger wag. “We toiled together for a few years, before he went back to work for his old man in Exeter and I came here to do the same. Anyway, Martin was telling me that a client of his father’s had advertised for a tutor for his young nephew. The man lives in the middle of some God-forsaken moorland near the coast, and is having little success in his endeavor.”

“Devon is hardly the Mongolian wasteland. They have reliable trains there these days, and I believe even the zeppelin service is running.”

“I don’t think the remoteness of the location is the primary drawback in this case. The man himself – a Mr. Blackthorne, I believe – is reckoned to be a rather trying character, and the child is perhaps similarly inclined. Martin seemed to think that the previous candidate had not lasted the month, and the one before seemingly left on less than happy terms.”

“A question of temperament, perhaps,” Kate suggested.

“Perhaps. But you know, come to think of it, this won’t suit in any case. The fellow specifically asked for a tutor. Martin thought it peculiar, as the last person to be employed had been a governess.”

“I don’t see why that should make a difference. Tutor or governess, it’s all just a matter of semantics. I don’t see why men should have a monopoly on teaching the impressionable minds of our landed gentry’s youth, in any event.”

“Well now, there may be other reasons why the position is unsuitable for a woman. Really, I don’t think this would do for you at all. I only mentioned it in jest, and I see now that I shouldn’t have.”

“Nonsense! I should like to know more about it. Alan, promise me that you will send me the details.”

“Kate –”

Kate raised a cautionary finger, but could not keep the mischievous glint from her eyes. As she had expected, no more was required. Alan acknowledged his defeat gracefully, and poured her another cup of tea.

“Has anyone told you lately that you are most provokingly headstrong?”

“I can’t imagine that anyone would find it necessary to inform me of things that are plain to observe,” Kate replied with a half-smile. “Let us talk of others things now, since I fear we shan’t get a chance tonight.”

Alan made a sweeping gesture, indicating his willingness to accommodate her curiosity. “What would you like to talk about?”

“I won’t ask you about work. All the papers were full of the verdict in the Matheson case. And then Sissy and I spent a good deal of time studying your closing argument – the New Times Observer had the whole thing on page 2, you know.”

“I hope it met with your approval,” Alan murmured quietly, but Kate could see that he was pleased by her interest.

“My opinion hardly matters more than that of the judges, but naturally I thought it was quite brilliant. I would not have expected anything else.”

“Your opinion matters a great deal more to me than most people’s, as you well know. Thank you, by the way. It is always satisfying to see the law applied as it ought to be.”

“By the by, I have also heard that congratulations of a more personal nature are in order.”

“You mean Matilda. Yes, of course. We expect that she will be very happy with young Talbot. She and Mamma are exceptionally busy planning the nuptials. It is shocking, really, how much work appears to be involved. I have had capital cases which did not require such extensive preparation,” Alan observed with a wry smile.

“So I have heard. Sissy was terribly occupied for a full nine months beforehand, which as you might imagine was trying for everyone else involved. But we survived, and I am certain that your sister shall manage perfectly well. It shall be a lovely wedding, I’ve no doubt.”

“You will come, of course.”

“Yes, I should very much like that … if I am to be invited.”

“Kate, don’t be silly!  Naturally you shall be. I will speak to Matilda myself, but I expect that she has already arranged for it.”

Kate felt her cheeks redden against her will, and frowned at her body’s unconscionable betrayal. She was not a particular friend of Matilda Harding’s, and if the young woman had thought to make Kate a guest at her wedding, there could be only one reason for it – and Kate was sitting across from him.

“When will the wedding take place,” she asked, eager to distract herself from such musings.

“The seventeenth of October. You will be in town, I hope?”

“I expect so. Even if I shall have to travel down from Devon to do it,” Kate replied archly.

Alan laughed.

“Very well. You have my express promise. I will send Martin Redwynne a telegram this afternoon, and will report back dutifully tomorrow.”

“You’re an angel.” Kate looked at her wristwatch and gasped. “Oh dear!”

“Are you running late?”

“I’m afraid so. I’m sorry,” Kate said as she got up from the table. “Thank you for the tea. It was just what I needed.”

Alan stood up, and came around to help her into her coat. Kate kissed him lightly on the cheek, inhaling the faint scent of shaving cream and expensive cologne. It was a decidedly pleasing smell, and she was rather sorry when they stood apart once more.

“I shall see you tonight, then? At nine, at Sissy’s,” she reminded him. Alan bowed his head, and she accepted the gesture with a surge of satisfaction.

Later, as she hurried in the direction of Stafford Street, where she had an appointment with her dressmaker, she found that she was in a positively cheerful frame of mind. Her momentarily straitened circumstances did not, at that moment, weigh upon her unduly, and the realization brought her a brief pang of guilt. She wondered if it might behoove her to be more prudent in her spending, which would mean that the dress for which she was about to be fitted would have to be given up. On further reflection, she decided that such drastic measures would not be immediately necessary. She loved clothes, and especially enjoyed the thrill of wearing new ones. Indeed, the dress itself – pale blue wool trimmed with black grosgrain – might prove most suitable for the cooler temperatures which one might expect to encounter in the wilds of Devon for example. She did not know why the position that Alan had mentioned should engage her interest, except for the fact that Alan himself had seemed to be opposed to the prospect. He ought to have known such opposition would only make it a more interesting proposition, she reflected. She put the matter from her mind, resolved to tackle it the next day. With a smile, she sped up her pace, and walked on, her thoughts pleasantly engaged in anticipating the evening which lay ahead of her.


Copyright 2016 – Aren D. Piada


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