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Thoughtful

the 22nd letter

Posted by valancy_s on 2006.04.20 at 16:34
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No. 12 Bricksworth Road
London

Wednesday, June 26th


Dear Alice,

I’ve held myself back from writing, thinking a second letter from you was bound to arrive at any moment, but it’s been five days since I received your last so I can only assume that you did not write again later in the day, or even the next day. Either that or I will shortly receive a letter from you with a week-old date and “apologies of the Post Office” scrawled across it. Such things have happened before! But I simply can’t wait to know: what is this exciting news you had to tell me? You can have no idea how much I regret tantalizing you with the bit about Walter’s kitten, since this is my repayment!

I shall atone by telling you the story immediately; and prepare yourself to be baffled. It was a Friday, you may recall, when I moved to my new boarding house (which I love already, although the little stove in my room does smoke and I must admit that for a room “to let furnished” there is a notable dearth of furniture). On Monday I gave my new address to the Reader, and on Monday evening I received my first male visitor – precipitate, no? It was, as I have indicated, Walter Davenforth. Mrs. Hamper sent her youngest daughter Mena up to deliver the message that “gentlemen callers” must be entertained in the downstairs parlor. When she knocked, I was sitting at the rickety little desk which leans against one wall of my room, pretending to look at dress patterns in a magazine but really resting my eyes. My supper that day had been less than filling (Mrs. Hamper had offered me a mutton stew, but you know I’ve never been able to relish mutton in memory of our old ovine friend Mr. Woolworth) and I was, I admit, feeling drained and not a little downhearted. The prospect of seeing Mr. Davenforth in such a languid, tired-eyed state was not a thrilling one, but after dawdling a bit and smoothing my hair I forced my feet to carry me downstairs.

In the parlor, Walter was waiting, sitting in an armchair so huge and sagging that it looked as if it was in the process of devouring him. When I came in he tried to stand but had some trouble extricating himself. At last he managed it, and I went through the usual sort of welcoming remarks, though it was an effort not to say “What on earth are you doing here?” I saw he was making an effort not to let his eyes settle for a moment on any of the humbler aspects of our surroundings, but the contrast to the location of our last meeting (Windleigh House drawing room) must have been as present to him as it was to me. As usual though, I couldn’t read his expression. Contempt? Pity? Respect? His manner was certainly all the latter.

“Miss Windleigh, I’m sure I don’t have to explain how I knew to find you here.”

I smiled. “I’ve certainly been at your father’s paper long enough to know that news is passed around more quickly than a plague could be.”

“Exactly,” he said, returning my smile a little nervously. “My father heard about your--change of situation a few hours ago, and he sent me over to ask if there was any assistance we might offer you.”

Though I knew Sir Henry would never have sent Walter over to remonstrate with me or ask me to resign (surely his other son would be the one for that job!), I still couldn’t believe a he would offer me assistance in what those on the spot must recognize as a dispute between a young woman and her rich, respectable grandmother. It occurred to me to wonder if Walter could possibly be using his father’s name but without Sir Henry’s knowledge.

“Your father?” I repeated.

“Yes,” he said, without a trace of embarrassment. “My brother mentioned the news over dinner. My mother was very distressed at the thought that you might not have found a suitable place to stay on such short notice. She wasn’t satisfied until I said I’d check--er, call and make sure you were well.” I must have appeared as astonished as I was, because he chuckled at the look on my face. “My father specifically said to tell you,” he continued, “that he can’t afford to lose such a valuable reporter. If you need anything, an advance on your salary--”

“No,” I broke in. “I’m fine, really. Financially and--and all. The owner of this house is the aunt of a friend, and they’re taking good care of me. Really.”

“Well,” he said, and then paused, this time allowing himself a thorough gaze around the room. His face had that look of precise calculation that it so often gets, the outer suggestion of a vast internal factory of whirling cogs and turning wheels. Then he nodded approvingly, more to himself than to me. “Well, if you find you do need anything, please come to us. As a friend of Mr. Windleigh, my father sees himself as standing in your father’s place while you’re here in London.”

Stammering out some sort of thanks, I stood, taking this last remark was a cue that he was about to go.

“Wait,” he said, and then stood himself and went around in back of the monstrous chair. He bent down and picked something up, and then appeared with the sort of small basket one might use to carry fish home from the market. It wasn’t hard to read his face now: his ears were positively pink with embarrassment.

What could this be? I wondered. Surely he’s not going to offer me money? Then I had to laugh at myself. Surely no one would carry money in a wicker basket!

“On my way over here,” he said in a voice as plainly embarrassed as his ears, “I was thinking that” (and his words became quick and barely audible) “you might be lonely” (he gulped and his voice steadied somewhat) “and a little girl had these in a washtub and I thought, well, maybe you would accept--”

At that precise and perfect moment, an unmistakable mew issued from the basket.

“Oh!” I cried, leaping forward and pulling off the lid. In the wicker nest sat a tiny kitten, black and fuzzy with white socks and a white shirt-front, blinking up at me with big grey-blue eyes. Walter’s hands held the basket steady as I reached in and lifted out the tiny creature. Alice, he weighed less than my little feathered hat. And he just gave another mew and nuzzled right down in my arms and didn’t seem frightened at all!

It took a minute or two before I had any attention to spare for Walter, but when I remembered my manners and thanked him I expected to see him look pleased over the success of his last-minute gift idea. Instead, he still looked embarrassed. “Really, he’s perfect,” I said politely. “And it’s amazing how much he looks like my dear old Gus. Just the same coloring. You have no idea how much I’ve missed having a kitty.”

I bent my head to give the squirming fluffball a kiss between the ears. When I glanced up again, the warmth had gone out of Walter’s face -- he was even white at the lips. Had I said something wrong? If so, I have no idea what it could have been. But it was plain to see that the usual withdrawn Walter had returned all in a moment. “I had better be off,” he said. “My father is expecting me.”

“Oh, but...” I floundered, “I must thank you, I never would have expected—” I had been about to continue, any friends of my Grandmother to be as supportive as your family has been, but I realized the impropriety of such a speech and fell silent. Perhaps he had some idea of what I meant to say, because his expression became even more withdrawn, almost pained.
“Goodnight, Miss Windleigh,” he said, bowed, and left.

I am puzzled, puzzled, puzzled. What kind of young man treats a girl like a terrifying ogre -- and then, when she is in difficulties, shows up like a modern knight errant to offer his aid and to give her a kitten -- and then reacts to her thanks as like a blow to the face and scurries out? There must be an explanation. One of these days I must simply have it out with him.

Well, I should really move on to more important subjects now, but I’m so excited for your big news I hardly know what to say. I’ve been busy with my Reader work, but I have started my tracking of Edmund Morrow and feel certain to have something interesting to report soon. Three times in the past four days I have seen him enter a shabby little building between a few of the lesser-renowned gentlemen’s clubs, not at all the sort of street you would expect to see Edmund Morrow on. On the last of these occasions, I know for a fact that he told Florrie and her mother that he was going to visit Miss Knatchbull. And she definitely was not with him. Suspicious! Now I must find out what that building is. Expect to hear more soon.

Oh, and I have called on your Mr. Bradford’s friend Grover Budge (I can’t think of a use yet for Mr. Fletcher of the Bank, but I intend to pump Mr. Budge about Edmund); he wasn’t home, but I left the letter of introduction with a note of my own, and he sent a note back a few days later with an invitation to tea on Thursday. So tomorrow evening will hopefully find me much better informed on the politics and machinations of Mr. Edmund Morrow!

Now for your letter. What you say about Grandmother is horrible, though not completely surprising (except the part about her giving up her trip to Oxford -- I would have thought she’d be more eager to go than ever, to abuse me in front of you all as much as possible). Her comment to Aunt Sylvia is of a piece with the venom I got to witness firsthand. Dear Aunt Sylvia -- as you say, it seems like a miracle she and Papa turned out as well as they did, until one remembers Grandfather. When are you going to visit Aunty and search Bath for hints on the Morrow case? I am almost certain you suggested doing that at some point, and it sounds like a very good idea to me. Though perhaps you won’t want to part from Mother again so soon.

Though you say you think it unnecessary, I still ask that you keep the specific cause of my rift with Grandmother a secret. Mother I’m sure knows well what Grandmother thinks of her, but Papa will have put it out of his mind and I would not be the one to put it back again. As for the hoax, I’m not surprised that cautious, logical, honorable you would be shocked that people believed in Papa’s involvement, implausible as it would be to anyone who really thought about it. What you forget is that when most people (educated or otherwise) encounter gossip, they don’t look it as a scientific hypothesis to be researched and proven or disproved. They simply take it in and pass it on. The science of humanity is one few are adept at.

Oops, I very nearly closed this letter without tell you what I’m sure you’re eager to know: the name I chose for the kitten! I’ve decided to call him Dick Whittington, “Whit” for short. (Maybe this cat will bring me as much luck in my London adventures as his namesake had!) Alice, he’s the darlingest thing ever. I thought Mrs. Hamper might not approve, but she seems to have a soft spot for pussies -- said dogs aren’t allowed, but that a cat could stay as long as he didn’t scratch the curtains. They are certainly safe until he grows large enough to reach them! I’ve got him up on the desk now and he’s batting at my pen. Forgive the bite-mark on the corner of this page!

I dearly hope your last letter wasn’t lost in the mail, because I am...


Dying of anticipation,

Polly

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