And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
-Rupert Brooke, "The Soldier"
The last omnibus had just left and Catherine had missed it. Cursing under her breath, she took out her purse and counted the coins left in it. Not enough to catch a cab, either. The rain poured off of her wavering umbrella as she closed her eyes and took a steadying breath. Getting her umbrella under control, she turned towards home and started to walk.
Her concentration on keeping herself as dry as possible meant that she did not notice the large automobile which had pulled up alongside her. A peremptory honk – once, twice – finally caught her attention. She turned her head and peered through the downpour to see who was attempting to hail her.
"Miss Winslow, is it not?"
The male voice was familiar, but as though from another life. That was a common feeling for her these days, now that the war was over. Experiences, people, everything that had happened before the war was seen by her as though through a veil. So much had happened, so much had changed.
She moved a little closer to the car as the window inched down and a face she thought she'd never see again became visible through the rain.
"Well, Sir Robert Morton. What a pleasant surprise!" She was vaguely surprised how calm and collected she sounded considering the amount of water now sluicing down the back of her mackintosh.
"May I drop you somewhere? This is hardly the weather to be taking a stroll in."
She hesitated only a moment before inclining her head and stepping back as the door swung open. She climbed into the blessedly dry and spacious interior of the car and endeavored to keep as much water as possible from splashing her benefactor.
Once she was seated and her very wet umbrella was on the floor at her feet, she was free to observe her rescuer. It had been four years since she'd seen Sir Robert Morton. He’d been leaving their house by the back garden gate, to avoid the press of reporters at the front. He’d done a great service to her family, and had given up much to do so. Though they had not much in common, she had felt an attraction to him then. He had almost intimated the possibility that he returned it. But four years of war and separation had passed and whatever feeling there had been surely must have faded, she thought.
After inquiring as to where she would like to be dropped, and her supplying the address of her cousin Margaret's house, he said, "It has been too long, Miss Winslow. You are well, I trust?"
"Yes, Sir Robert, I am well. And yourself?"
"Very well indeed, as you see. Whole in limb and mind, I thank God."
"I wish the same could be said for poor Ronnie."
Her bluntness startled him, as it always had, she thought with a small smile.
"My dear Miss Winslow, I am sorry to hear it. I had heard that your brother Richard had died, and your esteemed father, but I had not heard about Ronald. How bad is he?"
"He is still in hospital, his mind is too unsettled to be able to go home as yet. I go to see him on the weekends. It is a lovely place, in Cornwall near where my mother lives now. In Penzance."
He nodded. "Ah, beautiful country, Cornwall. If he is meant to get better, I cannot think of a more suitable surrounding. What have you been doing with yourself these four years, if I may ask?"
"You may, and I shall even give you an answer." Goodness, thought Catherine, but it felt good to banter like this again. There had been so much solemnity and sadness in her life, she had quite forgotten the simple joy of badinage. "I have been a VAD nurse, mostly here at home. I was in France for a little while, though not too close to the fighting. I made a good wage, and managed to save a bit. Though I may have to retreat to Penzance for good, to live with mother and Aunt Jane, if I can't find some gainful employment soon. I had hoped to continue on with my nursing, but apparently that's a non-starter. So I'm beginning to pound the pavements in search of some sort of secretarial work, just to keep myself going."
"I take it then that the family finances were in utter ruins."
"I'm afraid so. And the war just sort of finished us off, and of course, Father's passing--“ she paused, the pain of that passing still so fresh for her – "but luckily Aunt Jane took Mother down to live with her, and I had my room and board with the nursing. Ronnie was conscripted almost immediately after he finished school, and then ended up in the hospital, after he was wounded slightly at Passchendaele. We're lucky that a rather generous relative is paying his hospital fees."
"I am relieved to hear that, at least. I am sorry you are between employments. I might be able to look out for a situation for you if you like."
"Oh, would you? I would be so grateful. As I said, anything in the clerical line. I am very efficient and had high marks during my time as a VAD nurse."
"I am sure that you did. I shall be happy to inquire for you. I can't of course guarantee anything, but things are still a little understaffed, so you never know."
She continued to watch him , his face now in light, now in shadow as the vehicle moved through the darkening lamp-lit rainy streets. His eyes were just as fine, though a delicate mesh of lines and wrinkles had begun to creep out at the corners. He had grown a small moustache, which gave a certain panache to his overall demeanor. There was a tiredness about his expression that was all too common in the aftermath of such a terrible time.
"And yourself, Sir Robert? What were you in the war?"
"Deputy to the Judge Advocate General. Court martials, desertions, and other such unfortunate cases so common in wartime. I was going to join the Army, but the JAG called me up before I could. Essential work of course, but I do feel a bit too lucky."
"Nonsense, Sir Robert. There's no such thing as too lucky. After all the broken bodies I've seen over the past four years, it's a positive joy to see someone, particularly someone I know, in one piece, bodily and mentally." She'd almost said "someone I care about" but had stopped herself in time. She was not ready to own to this man how wonderful it was to see him whole and relatively happy.
"I am grateful for your reassurance on that point, Miss Winslow." A genuine smile transformed his weary features for a moment and then he resumed his normal serious expression. "So where is this I am taking you?"
"My cousin Margaret's house. She lost her husband at the Somme and she has two children so I came to stay and hopefully be of some use. Not with the children, but to be there to as a shoulder to lean on. She's had a rough time of it. She and Reggie had a good loving marriage, and she feels his loss very much."
"You must be good for her. Your calm wisdom is just the sort of balm someone in her position needs."
His casual way of complimenting her, as always, made her only slightly uncomfortable, but in rather a good sort of way. She felt a warmth in her cheeks that she had not felt for a good long time. None of the soldiers who flirted with her over bedpans or winked at her as she checked their bandages ever gave her this feeling. She realized now how much she'd missed it, missed it as she had missed the easy comfort of their old home in Kensington, the gentle sternness of her father, the sweet steeliness of her mother.
She wanted to move closer to him, feel his hand on hers, lean her head on his shoulder, be close to a man again. John Watherstone was the last man she'd really been close to, been at all intimate with. She wondered now, had she ever loved John as much as she should have? Would they have made as good a match as she had once thought? His behavior over the whole trial business had proved to her that he was not as strong as she'd believed him to be. That weakness might have brought down the marriage.
There was nothing weak about Sir Robert, she was sure. He had emotions that caught him off guard now and then, like that smile a few moments ago. But he had a tight rein on them, so they would never be a serious handicap to him.
She glanced over at him, and caught his eye. He looked away too quickly, as if caught in some sort of guilty act. She smiled and teasingly said, "Yes, Sir Robert? Did you want to ask me something else?"
"No, no. I was only thinking, 'Goodness, she's done it again. Even with a war just over, she's found another charming hat. How does she do it?'"
"Oh, ribbons and fake cherries are still cheap, and I've had this hat since before the war."
He smiled approvingly. Then turning serious again, he said, "Miss Winslow, might I – Well, that is, I—I wondered if I might see you again, call on you perhaps and take you to tea."
"Tea?" Catherine's lips quirked teasingly. "Oh, my, Sir Robert, should we venture something quite so dangerous? Perhaps a simple trip to the pictures."
His lip positively curled. "I regret to say I have never been to the pictures and I never shall. Odious, flickering things."
"Ah, well, tea it will have to be then. We'll just have to live dangerously."
His genuine smile came and went again as the car pulled up to the terrace house on Tite St. He took her hand and held it. "I shall call on you then, Miss Winslow, tomorrow, if that would suit?"
"I shall wait with bated breath, Sir Robert," she said, teasingly, and arming herself with her umbrella once more, climbed out of the car and ran up the steps and into the house.
Once inside, she stuffed the umbrella into the elephant-foot stand, and turned to watch the car pull away before she closed the door.
The house was in an uproar. The children were crying and both Margaret and the nursemaid were doing their best to calm them. There had been some sort of fight as to who got the last of the bread-and-butter at teatime, and this was the aftermath. After they had finally been soothed and comforted and sent off to have their baths, Margaret collapsed in her chair in the parlor.
"Goodness, those children are just getting to be more of a trial. I know they miss their father's guiding hand, Catherine. But what am I to do?"
"Get Violet to make us some tea and cakes and let me tell you how I came home today."
Her telling, which left out much of her own feelings about Sir Robert, nonetheless diverted Margaret from her chaotic afternoon.
"Well, Catherine, it must have been such a relief to have a warm dry ride home, with such a distinguished man. I'd forgotten your family knew him."
"Not just knew him, we owe poor Ronnie's reputation to him. He fought for the case to be brought to court, and then he restored not only Ronnie’s good name, but that of our entire family, and all in the name of letting Right be done." She was amazed to hear herself being so forceful in her explanation. Margaret's eyes narrowed a little.
"Hmm, Catherine, do I spy out a little attraction there?"
"Oh, for goodness' sake, Margaret, no. Well, perhaps a little, but we are too much opposite in our beliefs and our opinions. He has no time for the suffrage movement, and he put a very worthy trade unionist behind bars. I'm sure he has no interest in shackling himself to someone he associates with all those wild-eyed devotees of the Pankhursts."
"And yet," Margaret said, disingenuously, "he is coming to take you to tea tomorrow afternoon."
"No doubt he wants to see if I'm just as crazy as he thought I was before the war."
"Oh, no doubt," rejoined Margaret, mockingly serious.
"Stop it, Margaret. I don't expect he'll even remember to come. And perhaps I shall conveniently remember a meeting of the Womens' Suffrage Association and simply not be here, if he does call."
Margaret shook her head and left it at that. Catherine knew that her cousin wanted to see her settled and happy, even if it did mean she would lose her – what had Sir Robert called it? – calm wisdom, was it? The compliment continued to warm her as it had when he'd first said it in the car. She would have liked to revel in that feeling a bit more, but Margaret had begun to tell her the rest of her somewhat awful day, so she put her feelings away and listened to Margaret's tales of woe.
The next day was dry and clear, crisp and cold, as a day in February ought to be. Catherine had been busy all morning, writing a letter to Mother and trying not to plan what she would wear for the tea with Sir Robert. She was not the sort of woman who primped and preened for a man. She wore what she wore, and if her companions liked it, well and good.
At two o’clock, she gave up a little and decided which hat she would wear. It being cold, she settled on the little fur hat that she had bought just before the war. Luckily they were still somewhat in fashion, and it fit so nicely with her hairstyle, which also hadn't changed much over the four years. Some of her friends in the nursing dormitory had daringly discussed bobbing their hair, and one brave curly-haired girl did it. The matron gave her a dressing-down, but it was too late to fix it. Catherine had secretly thought it looked rather nice, but with her own very straight hair, it would take such a lot of time and effort to make it look that nice, so she had abandoned the idea.
Her hat decided on, she went to get dressed, knowing that Sir Robert would pick her up promptly at three o’clock. He had rung up and left that message with Violet.
She dressed in her usual skirt and blouse, with sensible low-heeled shoes and stout woolen stockings against the cold wind. Over that she wore the matching jacket for the skirt and pinned her grandmother's cameo pin on the lapel. She wore no other jewelry, because most of what she and her mother had had was long since sold, and she hated costume jewelry.
Downstairs she put on her wool coat and gloves and topped it off with the fur toque. She thought about pinning a feather or a brooch to the hat, but decided that would be far too flattering to Sir Robert's ego, if he were to figure out that it was put on just for him.
At three o-clock precisely, the doorbell rang. She answered the door herself, and called out a farewell to Violet who was polishing the banister. Sir Robert was pleased, if a little taken aback, to see that she was not only ready but out the door before he could greet her.
He complimented her on the hat, as she had expected he would. Really, she thought, his fascination with her hats in particular (and ladies hats in general) was rather interesting in a man of his distinction and probity.
He took her to tea at Gunther's. He would have plumped for the Ritz, he shared with her, but he opined that that might be a pleasure saved for a later afternoon.
She arched an eyebrow at him at this assumption. "So there are to be more teas on further occasions then, Sir Robert?"
"If that would be a pleasant idea to you, Miss Winslow."
"Look here, I think you should start calling me Catherine. I know it's been four years since we had any actual contact, but it's the modern day, and I do think that what you did for my family constitutes enough of a basis for first names."
He seemed yet again knocked back by her forthrightness, but he quickly rallied and said, "Of course, Catherine, I should be pleased to do so, and I hope you will call me Robert."
She had a twinkle of teasing in her eye as she said, "What? I mightn't call you Bobby, as your friends and foes in Parliament used to?"
"Still do, actually, but no. I prefer Robert."
"Then Robert it shall be. Thank you. This chocolate cake is delicious. I suppose Gunther's is exempt from rationing?"
"Best not to ask such questions," he said, his severe expression compromised by the slight quirk at the corner of his mouth.
"Now then, to business," he announced, suddenly.
"Business, Robert? What can you mean?"
"I may have found you that situation you've been searching for. A friend of mine in the Civil Service is looking for a secretary and he said you sounded like you'd do. I arranged an interview for you on Monday of next week. I hope I have not been too precipitate. It seemed best to strike while the iron was hot."
She tried to contain her glee, to force it back into civilly, politely expressed pleasure, but this was just too wonderful.
"Oh, Robert! That is perfect! A perfect situation! I am so grateful, really. And so quickly! You really do seem to be the savior of this family!"
His discomfort at her overt gratitude was acute, but he strove to master it, and to respond to it in kind: "You are most welcome, my dear Catherine, but honestly I am no savior. The position is not yet yours, I will point out. I merely pave the way for the possibility."
"My profound thanks, then, for your paving efforts, Robert. I'm sure that they will smooth the way. It's still not easy for women to obtain employment, even in the wake of our minor victory last year."
Robert gave a wince, but followed it with a smile. "I thought of you immediately when I read the news. Of course, it is a partial victory, and one that does not include you, as you do not own property."
"But I am over 30. Ah well, perhaps we will win the rest of the victory soon, so that all women over the age of 21 can vote."
"Do you still work for the cause then?"
"I still believe in it, but I cannot afford to work for it. There are no paid positions at any of the Women's Suffrage organizations now. I will still be seen on picket lines and in the Ladies Gallery—at least for now."
Robert drained the last of his cup of tea and subtly indicated the need for the check to the passing waitress.
Catherine continued, "But I'm sure you are still uninterested in our struggles."
"On the contrary, Catherine. Since my encounters with you before the war, I have had much occasion to witness women in many different occupations and situations that required the utmost in physical and mental strength. And I found none of them were deficient in either capacity. I must therefore now affirm your movement's essential appeal for equality. Though it will be a long and hard battle, I have no doubt that you and your fellow feminists will prevail."
Catherine had a moment in which, uncharacteristically, she found her breath literally taken away. She quickly regained her composure, however, and said, "My goodness, Robert, you do know what to say to turn a woman's head. If I were as mistrustful of your character as I once was, I would think that you had capitulated on this topic, only for your own gain."
"What gain could I possibly get from changing my views on this topic, do you think, Catherine?"
She looked into his eyes and the warmth of feeling she saw there made her look away for a few moments. Then, when she turned back to him, there was an answering warmth in her own eyes, along with a teasing smile on her lips. "Well, if I were able to vote, I'd think that was your gain, but I think perhaps it might be something a little closer to the region of the heart than the head. Would I be correct, Robert?"
At first, he seemed about to dissemble. But then he took her hand in his, looking down at it as he said, "Yes, Catherine, I think you would."
"I thought as much," Catherine said as she placed her other hand atop his.