April 26th, 1866, Thursday
Well, this is not what I thought it would be, Katherine thought to herself. To her left, Mrs. Brigham-Morris was patterning on about her middle son and to her right, Major Howard nodded in his warm, fatherly way. He wasn’t paying the woman any attention; the old man had perfected the understanding nod. To be honest, Katherine was certain that he could nod in his sleep with his eyes open, perfectly amenable, perfectly friendly. She envied that very much.
She smothered a yawn. Being a trustee meant meetings and meetings about exhibits and the inevitable balls to raise funds for the museum were about as tedious as anything that she had experienced. Early on, her bright suggestions that the trustees go forth and seek out new exhibits themselves had made her the object of amused stares and gentle mirth. She had since figured out that her purpose was to fill a chair until she aged enough to have a suitable opinion.
Not that Gwyndolyn Markham George would ever let that happen. The other Eldren on the board, she had made it quite plain in her many inferences that she did not trust Katherine any further than her dainty hands could toss her. When they had walked through the Egyptian exhibit on one of their private tours, Mrs. George had almost gotten apoplexy when Katherine had reached out to touch a hieroglyph-covered tablet.
“That is a curse,” she had remarked sharply to Katherine in a whisper. “You need to be careful. Be aware of your colouring, child. Do not invite trouble. I respect your father greatly, but he obviously has not instructed you as he should.” She had hovered near Katherine for the remains of the tour, tsking and frowning whenever Katherine neared a forbidden object. It had taken the length of the tour before Katherine realized that the woman spoke of the superstition of the red-haired Eldren.
Sighing softly, she smiled at Mrs. Brigham-Morris. The poor woman was trotting out her son’s pedigree and accomplishments as much for her as to impress the old man. But Katherine had not the slightest interest in John Phillip Brigham-Morris nor had she had the slightest interest for much of any suitor that had been paraded through card and dance through her life. So far, most had been boring or promised a life of constriction and wifely repression that she just could not bring herself to accept. She looked around the mahogany table after composing her face into a pleasant mask, noting the same people that she had seen so often before.
A moment later, she frowned. A slender man, bespectacled and serious sat at the other end of the table. He was handsome and clean-shaven and seemed quite content to look around the room. She watched him, noting as he seemed to be taking mental notes of the people and their conversations and affiliations. He was new and exotic to the world of the board and lost in her fascination with him, she failed to notice that he had noticed that she was staring at him. His eyes met hers and she blushed, casting her stare to the warm, reddish-brown knot that marked her seat. Neecy would fuss; such directness of gaze was her constant failing and now heaven knew what the man would think.
Ezekiel sat at the table, doing his best to keep track of who was who. It would be important to know if he wanted to have any effect on the museum's path. Politics in this as in all things, he thought to himself.
Ezekiel was not sure what exactly he had expected from this meeting, but this conversational dinner party equivalent was not it. He had been excited to have been asked to join the Board. He adored the museum, he would not deny that. But up to now, he had spent his time using his historical knowledge gained from his search for Excalibur to better be able to assist with setting up exhibits. That, and as part of his occasional travels in search of the blade, he had brought back small items for the museum's benefit. But fundraising? Politics? His outspoken opinions on things were not a strength when it came to those elements of the museum. All the stranger that he had been asked to join.
He looked around at the other board members, all of them with at least thirty years on him. Except for the red-headed Eldren girl across the way from him. Woman, he corrected himself. She was young, but so was he and he would not want to be referred to as a boy. He did not normally pay much attention to appearances, but she was quite beautiful. And almost as out of place here as you, he thought to himself. He had started to run through his mental notes to see if someone had mentioned her name when he noticed she was staring at him. She had a very serious look on her face, as if she were unable to fit him into the standard molds that most of the board members belonged to. Or perhaps it was just simple curiosity, a trait that was, as far as Ezekiel could determine, shockingly lacking from the members of a Board devoted to a scientific and historical institution.
When she blushed and looked away, he was intrigued. He could use a friend on this Board, someone that would not necessarily mind his very un-noble like philosophies. Everyone else on this Board was nothing different - as predictable as the tide. But she was different, that much was clear.
He waited for her to look back up and over in his direction again. When her eyes finally caught his again, he raised an eyebrow slightly and let a small smile pass across his face, as if to say, I know you're not like them.
The smile erupted on her face before she could stop it. She immediately glanced down to study her fingernails to compose her face, only glancing at him sidelong for a moment to let her eyes twinkle at him. Finally, her face moved back to its serene mask, she caught his gaze in full and acknowledged him with a gracious nod. O, he might be a friend, she thought with excitement. And heavens, let them get on with this meeting! The sooner they began and finished the boring work of planning the winter ball, the sooner that they might meet.
Her suggestions for trips had been studiously ignored or politely sneered at. Maybe this new young man would be an ally for her cause. If Gwendolyn allowed it. She glanced at the Eldren woman and found her lost in conversation with Nelson Pettigrew. Sighing, she settled back and waited for the beginning of the meeting. Mrs. Brigham-Morris was still talking, her voice louder and higher than before. Katherine frowned. It was not about the middle son anymore and she bit her lip. Obviously her disinterest had encouraged Mrs. Brigham-Morris to put forth another son. She turned her attention to the woman. Heaven help her, she will have to have to force the eldest to divorce his wife if I don't pay her any mind, she thought to herself and prayed for a quick meeting.
The red-headed woman's face just lit up when she smiled, Ezekiel noticed. Definitely a breath of fresh air in this stale room. Pulling his father's watch from his vest pocket, he noticed that they had already run fifteen minutes over the starting time. Impatient with the meaningless conversation and pointless delay, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
He took his cane from its resting point next to his chair and banged the elaborate carved handle up against the mahogany table. Raising his voice over the din of conversation, Ezekiel loudly said, "I believe it is time for this meeting of the Board to be called to order." As he said it, he looked pointedly at Lord Roger Franklin, the theoretical head of the Board. Lord Franklin was a short, rotund man with a nasal voice who seemed more interested in the minute prestige involved with the position than in the duties it entailed.
As the hush fell over the crowd, Katherine allowed a supportive smirk. Saved! Lord Franklin drew himself up, looking startled and chastised but for a moment. "Yes, yes!" And clearing his throat, the meeting started. As per her wont, Katherine daydreamed for the length of it, only noting the day and time of the ball. The rest would be drawn up in the meeting minutes. She kept finding her eyes drawn to the young man, helpless to keep from studying his face. It took all her discipline to keep forcing her gaze back to Lord Franklin and to keep moving her gaze to the other speakers and nodding appreciatively; new and appealing, the new young man was fascinating beyond her ability to resist. When the gavel was struck to end the meeting, she almost leapt up from her chair to make her way to the refreshments that were inevitably served to the Board. Instead, she waited until Mrs. Brigham-Morris stood and allowed the woman to tuck her arm in hers and allowed the woman to continue to patter about her shockingly single sons.
As the meeting ended, Ezekiel stood up smoothly, not needing the assistance of his cane today. He made a deliberate effort to go to each board member and congratulate them on a smoothly run meeting. No point in burning bridges because of my impatience. He left her for last, of course. He made his way over to where she stood by the refreshments, giving them more attention than she had paid to the meeting. Not that he blamed her.
"Excuse my forwardness," he said calmly as he reached for her hand and brought it to his lips, "but I do not believe I have had the pleasure of being introduced. I am Ezekiel Drake and it is an honor and a pleasure to meet you." He deliberately left the title off of his name. He found people's reaction to its lack much more intriguing than their reactions to its presence. He already had some expectations about how she would react, but he had learned long ago not to trust in expectations, only in actions, observations, and study. And in the Host, of course.
She paused a moment, considering whether or not she knew that name. But her memory so often failed her and for now, her little mental librarian was clearly snoozing. "Lady Katherine Fleming," she returned politely, meeting his eyes with a directness that would have sent Neecy into a swoon. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance." She knew that he would have to lead the conversation a bit; the women were eyeing them already, especially the ones with eligible sons. She would have to be meek and rather coy. And that irritated her. She had her father's directness in spades and though she understood the game, she very rarely liked it. She cast a glance at the matrons around them and then gave him a practiced, benign smile, hoping that he took the hint.
"Fleming," he said, musing over the name. Being a decidedly lower class of the gentry, he did not keep himself familiar with the names of the prominent nobles. But Fleming rang a bell. Sir William Fleming, he remembered. Quite wealthy and powerful. Much outside Ezekiel's normal circles. Did he have a daughter? Or was this perhaps his wife? "Forgive me for the rudeness of my question, but are you by any chance related to Sir William Fleming? I am afraid that I should know you, but the circles I tend to traverse do not often cross with those that contain the population of this Board."
"He is my father, sir," she replied. "Do you know him?"
"Of him," he gently corrected. "I am certainly not of the proper family or political persuasion to know your father. In fact, he might be somewhat shocked to find you having a conversation with a known believer in the Chartist movement." He picked up a small cake from the refreshment table and placed it on a napkin as he offered it to Katherine. "Cake?"
She almost clapped her hands. "A Chartist? Truly? Then you are in strange company, sir." She stole a glance around the room; the little witches had almost lost interest, but a few still gave baleful glances. "Yes, I'd love a piece of cake, Mr. Drake." She took the proffered treat and after a small bite, stole another glance. Now just Mrs. Brigham-Morris gave them notice. Well enough then. "Tell me about Chartism, Mr. Drake. I am not as familiar with it as I should be.”
"Put simply," he said, reaching down for a cookie of his own, "Chartism is founded on the principle that all people should be able to chart their own destiny, regardless of their social status or gender. Hence the name." He leaned a little closer and lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "Some of us even believe that we were lucky to be born into nobility and that does not somehow make us inherently better mortals. Shocking!" He then quickly straightened up and took a bite of his cookie.
"Combine that belief with my distinctly unfashionable position of being a religious man and it quickly becomes apparent why many might frown upon our conversation. But we are both Board members, so let the many scoff. It only raises their foolishness in my eyes, I must say."
Her eyes sparkled. "Sir, are we not adventurers? I see that as adventuring in the mind as well as the body." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "I will admit to you that there are many times when I believe that the nobility would be well-served by bringing in the blood of a few of the lower classes. As a species, we are quite inbred. If we were a line of fine horses, then one would recommend some hybridization." She blushed a bit, but caught his gaze. "Keep aware of the women, sir. You are new prey for them to foist their daughters on. From your comment, you are of our wondrously boring class?"
He laughed softly as she compared the nobility to breeding horses. Intriguing was definitely the word for her. At her question about his status, Ezekiel nodded briefly. "A third son, normally sent to the clergy. Instead, I took the religion and not the robes. The Host has other callings for me, adventuring being one of those callings." He looked back at the rest of the members of the Board, participating in their own stilted conversation. "However, I am afraid that most of the members' idea of adventure is trying a new tea, but with the traditional scones, of course."
"Oh no, dear sir. English tea only. Maybe a new jam on the scones, but never a new tea." She looked at him in mock horror. "You, Mister Drake, will be all the more interesting for the matronly of our illustrious Board to set upon you with young females, sir. A lovely young man, of good breeding and of high, religious morals. . .perfection for their heretofore unmarriageable daughters and nieces. Your dangerously American Chartist views will be overlooked as a charming idea of your youth and my, your precocious forwardness on tea will make you seem dangerous and appealing to their innocent daughters." She looked up at him from under her eyelashes. "You must turn down your dangerous charms, my new friend, and guard your modern tongue."
He made a little tisk-tisk noise at her. "Ah, but I do not have the income or family wealth to maintain these women in the fashion to wish they deserve. Besides," he said, growing a little serious, "I have not yet found the woman who would be a suitable wife. My idea of what is suitable does not mesh well with society's." He smiled at Katherine. "I must say, if it will not get me in trouble, that you are delightful. A warm wind in a stale room. Perhaps sometime I could provide you with a tour of the historical swords collection of the Museum. If you are interested, of course."
He paused, realizing that he had overstepped his bounds. "And with a proper guardian of course. I would not want you to lose face to your suitors." And as he said it, he realized that he had no idea if she was already married. He quickly scanned her hands for a ring and finding none, breathed a small sigh of relief. He had almost put his foot in his mouth there.
Her laugh was soft and muffled behind her free hand. "Sir, there are many and none have precedence over the other since none have appealed to me. Many would say that I am unfortunately free, sir, and many more would wonder why a sane man would want me." She leaned close then. "I am cursed according to the Eldren and a bit flighty for most everyone else. But my name and position still make me pursued more than I like by some of the most pretentious and boring beings that anyone could be cursed with." She pulled back and smiled. "You are different Mr. Drake. If you do not mind the chatter of another woman, maybe we could ask one of the lovely ladies here to accompany us. Mrs. Bowden-Grey is old enough that her children are married off, but young enough to enjoy the attentions of a young man. Maybe she can accompany us if you would wish to tour tonight. Otherwise, I can have Neecy come with us. He is my manservant," she clarified before he could ask. A fleeting concern crossed her face. She wanted a friend, not another suitor. Looking at him, she studied his face again but found none of the fawning need that she was accustomed to.
Cursed? That seemed an odd thing to say. Katherine was beautiful, smart, and wealthy. An ineffective curse if there was one. She would find her suitor soon enough, he imagined - somewhere amongst the truly wealthy there was bound to be someone interesting enough for this woman.
Ezekiel nodded in response to her comment about her manservant. "I am happy to conduct the tour whenever you wish and with whomever you deem appropriate. I just hope that I do not bore you to tears going on and on about the swords. They are a hobby of mine, one might say."
She winked at him, very quickly. "I believe that I will survive," she answered with a wry smile. "One can wax enthusiastic about one's hobbies and I am certain that you will lend some of your enthusiasm to me." Looking around, she nodded in the direction of the punchbowl. "Would you be so kind?" she asked. "The cake is quite good, but a bit on the dry side.”
"Of course. I have been frightfully inattentive." He walked the few steps over to the punchbowl and set his cane down long enough to pour Katherine a glass three-quarters full. Retrieving his cane, he walked back and handed the glass to her carefully. "Your punch, mademoiselle," he said with a small smile. "Should I have my man bring my card by so that you might fit the tour into your calendar? I would not want to inconvenience you."
"I would greatly like your card, Mr. Drake," Katherine answered with feeling. "There will be no inconvenience to me. Instead I will be looking forward to your call." She had watched him surreptitiously as he walked away and watched him carefully as he walked back. There was an ease to him that relaxed her, an awareness of his surroundings without nervousness or prejudice. Beyond the fact that he seemed to only emote friendly interest, he fascinated her as a man both in place and out of place at the same time. She took the cup from him, nodding her thanks, and drank deeply from it. Another thing that would have sent Neecy to the floor, but heavens, the cake was just miserably dry. Sipping just was not going to slack her thirst. She had a private amusement. If that alone was the thorn that drove Mr. Drake away, well then so be it. The corners of her mouth twitching, she looked at him full in the face and asked, "So why did you join the Board?”
Why indeed? he thought to himself. "I hope to take a stronger role in the museum, which I love quite dearly. This," he said, motioning around the room with his cane, "is not my strength, to be sure. But perhaps I will be able to help determine which direction the museum takes in the future. I do not have the kind of wealth necessary to influence from a distance, so I will do what I can."
An eyebrow raised as the irony struck her. She was of the wealth, but had not the sex. She tried to suppress her mirth, but the softly strangled laugh finally erupted despite her best efforts. She could only laugh softly behind her napkin until she was done and hope that she had not offended him. She dabbed at her eyes, aware that with her behavior, it would be best for his reputation and hers that she end the conversation and hope for more later. She had monopolized him long enough and her amusement had reset all eyes on them again. "I'm so sorry," she told him in a low voice, searching his face and eyes for the cool anger that she knew would be there. "This is not my strength either. But I've got access to the funds, but not the favor of gender. You have the gender but not the access to the funds. We need a Dr Frankenstein to cut us apart and put us together as a more successful person. Maybe we need to work together? You as my voice, I as your support?" She tittered again behind her napkin. "Now you think I'm mad, speaking of such bohemian things and books. Please forgive me. I will not be offended if you do not call on me."
She had a delightful laugh and for a brief moment, he wished he had the wealth to court her. But the moment was indeed brief and he quickly returned to the reality where he and she could be friends, but never anything more. The Host would provide someone to stand by his side. He would just have to be patient.
"It only makes me more interested to call you, if I may be honest with you. Remember the Chartist philosophy. In the world we envision, women should have equal say with men." It would turn the world topsy-turvy, but Ezekiel was of the opinion that the world needed to be turned upside down every so often to shake loose things that would hold mortalkind back.
"Well, then." She could not hide her surprise. "I look forward to your call, Mr. Drake." Looking around, she fixed her eyes to his. "Lest there be talk, Mr. Drake, you need to spread your attention to the other ladies. We will cause talk and as your unofficial second, sir, I do owe you the honor of giving you good advice. The men will soon retire to cigars and they will assuredly tease you for chasing after youthful prey, but the older matrons are already planning your wedding to their younger daughters and nieces. They will want your attention for a modicum of time to trot out their pedigrees. You do need to mix a bit more before your escape." She looked around, putting on a festive smile. "Well," she announced a bit louder, "how delightful to have made your acquaintance, Mr. Drake. I wish you a good evening." She held up her hand for him to kiss, aware that she would be chastised later for such behavior.
"Thank you for the sage advice, Miss Fleming," he whispered before taking her hand and kissing it. He then said in a voice for everyone to hear, "It has been my pleasure, Mademoiselle. I look forward to seeing you at the next meeting." He then looked for Mrs. Leedon-Smith, who he seemed to remember had several daughters. He strode in her direction, thinking all the while about the new fascinating friend he had just discovered.