The gentleman standing at the top of the steps of the National Gallery held a prominently displayed copy of The Lady’s Choice. He squinted his eyes as he was looking for someone holding the same newspaper.
A small beige figure hurried across the Trafalgar Square with rolled-up newspaper in one hand. When she noticed the man standing at the top of the stairs, waving at her with his own copy, she ran up the steps towards him.
All the gentleman could see was, that the person was small and female. She was covered from head to toe, wearing a loose light brown alpaca coat, broad rimmed felt hat with her face obscured by an opaque chiffon veil.
“Bonjour m’sieur,” she greeted him. “You are Doctor Ben Solo, aren’t you?”
“The very same, madam. And you are?” He said with a small bow.
“I am from zee Lady’s Choice, of course,” the veil was fluttering with each of her exhale. Doctor Solo almost laughed out loud at her absurd fake French accent.
“As I understand it, sir, you want to pay for ze service of matchmaking, is zat correct?” She almost broke the character, but tried her hardest to push through. Using some sort of accent was very useful for disguising voice.
“I had expected to meet in a more private place. Perhaps an office of some sort,” the doctor said, nervously glancing around at their very public surroundings.
“Our zee offices are not open to zee public, m’sieur,” she said plainly. “Now, in zee museum are many private places we can talk business.”
They walked through the high ceiling atrium and up the stairs. Doctor Solo would let his guide show the way. After many stairs and turns, they finally reached a room which the veiled lady had in mind filled with many works by medieval painters. In the centre of the room was a circular couch around which other visitors orbited while admiring the oil paintings.
She motioned for him to sit on the couch and folded the newspaper on her lap.
“’Ere it is quite private, what do you think, m’sieur?” She declared and Doctor Solo had to admit the circular sofa provided them an intimate bubble that felt far removed from the rush in the museum. Ben sat down beside her, and a wave of her perfume hit him, some exotic fragrance resembling cinnamon. All of a sudden, he had an unexplainable urge to remove the veil from her face.
Rey turned her veiled head towards him, studying him for the first time up close. He was a very big man, tall, however he carried himself with unexpected gentleness and caution as if he didn’t want to be noticed. His coat stretched around his shoulders broad with muscles, like an athelete would have, or a boxer, a wrestler. A bump on his nose suggested it was broken once, further supporting her theory. Each of his facial features were uneven on their own, but together they created harmony all set above a plush wide mouth. His unruly black hair was ruffled by the wind.
Rey suddenly became aware of the long stretching silence which she spent assessing his appearance, when she met his intense gaze framed by dark chocolate eyes. She cleared her throat, but he started talking first.
“As I explained in my letter, I am in need of a spouse.”
“That is all you say, however. We need more details of your situation and what you look for in a spouse before we can help you with your search.”
“There are only two essential qualities I require. Apart from those, I am very flexible,” he said, as he removed his black leather gloves and unfastened his tightly wrapped scarf. He seemed to find the room too warm despite the non-existent heating. Rey thought, that perhaps such a large man also generates extra body heat and fought hard not to shiver under her many layers of coat and scarves.
“The spouse I’m looking for must be first and foremost rich.”
Rey didn’t respond yet, merely regarding him through her veil. She begun to have a bad feeling about this man.
“As I mentioned in my letter, I am a doctor. I am in process of opening a surgery since I only recently moved from Edinburgh. Setting up a medical practice is expensive and my wealthy patients will expect to be treated in luxurious surroundings by a practitioner who can afford the best for them.”
Rey detected a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“And secondly, I need someone who is well socially established to help me to advance my practice as quickly as possible… I would expect my spouse to persuade hypochondriac ladies and duchess to come to me with their non-existent illnesses as well as all the lords and honourable gentlemen who need medical care purely because of their own laziness and gluttony.”
“In short, m’sieur, you need a sponsor and a manager, not a spouse,” Rey stated with disgust.
She was so enraged, she didn’t even stop to think if she was being too offensive. He was a paying client after all and it was her job to listen to him. She didn’t have too much time to worry about this, because he replied almost instantly.
“Yes, you understood my situation exactly. I prefer to be direct with my needs,” he tried to peer under her veil, “Is it possible for you to show me your face, madamme?”
“Absolutely not, m’sieur!”
“I don’t like doing business with people I can’t see to eye with. Could you at least drop that ridiculous accent?”
Rey bit her lip. Of course, she didn’t expect him to not see through her accent, but she sure didn’t expect him to call her out on it. She needed her voice obscured, to keep her identity secret if they ever met face-to-face. She decided to ignore his request and instead asked him with as much ice in her voice as she could muster.
“You do not have interest in marriage where affection or respect is important? You only care about money and connections?”
He frowned and gathered his gloves in one hand.
“I am first and foremost a practical man,” a frustration was beginning to show on his face.
Rey’s instinct told her to refuse this man as a client without further questions. However, she couldn’t make such decision without consulting her sisters first. She could hear their voices clearly in her head now.
This is a business, Rey, ever practical Paige loomed over Rey’s left shoulder.
There are people who would find this arrangement convenient, Rey, Rose loomed over Rey’s right shoulder.
“Our business is over for today, m’sieur. You will hear from us within ze week,” Rey concluded the interview with sour voice and stood up, “Au revoir, Doctor Solo.”
She left him in the gallery, before he had time to respond.
He took a step after her in anger, but lost her in the crowd of visitors, before he could demand an apology for her rude behaviour.
Now he saw, that for all the progressive views expressed in The Lady’s Choice, the writers and editors were probably all educated, but also well-off women, who knew nothing of the poverty of East End of London, where people lived in wooden shacks, where rats were almost bigger than the starving children and stench from outhouses poisoned the air and where he also opened his new medical practice very recently. It was one thing to write about female suffrage from a cosy sitting room warmed by a fireplace and another to put it into practice in the poorest parts of society.
He couldn’t see a reason why some rich aristocrat couldn’t spare a few pounds to improve lives of the suffering men, women and children. He, with his medical skills, would do all the menial work anyway. All his spouse would have to do was host parties and persuade their rich friends to go to him, which would provide him with enough resources to help those really in need.
Of course, he hadn’t confessed the other side of his grand plan. It wasn’t relevant to the service, so he kept it to himself.