Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Episode One: Suspended In Amber

Amelia Stodge cursed under her breath and set to untangling the keys and fixing the ribbon on her typewriter, trying desperately to hold onto the genius sentence in her head. It took a certain amount of talent to bring sparkle and flash to something as tiresome as the Periwinkle Society’s annual Spring Rooftop Garden Exposition. But Amelia had endeavored to inject some of her youthful enthusiasm into essentially a gathering of old women showing off their prized petunias and grandchildren while collecting dusty bits of gossip over weak tea. Some of the flowers had been truly extraordinary, especially Mrs. Honeyweather’s exotic orchids. Amelia wished she had talent for horticulture, but that particular trait seemed to leapfrog generations in her family. Her mother had had a plant lover’s soul that delighted in all things green. Her little window planter always overflowed with blooms and leaves and shoots, her pots of herbs always thrived.

Had
 always thrived. Until Amelia undertook their care after her mother became permanently indisposed. Now the rosemary was a crispy twig stuck in parched soil, the basil a wilted accusation of her ineptitude. The only things that survived were the red geraniums in the window planter, fending off death with admirable obstinacy.

Amelia sighed and set the ribbon. At last, she whispered, and wriggled her fingers over the keys in expectation.

But the sentence was gone, like a wisp of steam from the sky trolley. She cursed again, this time out loud.

“What ladylike language you employ, Miss Stodge,” a male voice said behind her. The voice belonged to a Mister Gavin Graves, Esq. Amelia scowled at her typewriter, then plastered on a complacent smile as she turned to greet her coworker.

Mister Graves was wearing goggles around his neck, something that Amelia considered a ridiculous slavery to fashion. But if Gavin Graves had become a slave to something, the fashion of the Adventurers was at least not a lonely type, even if he did tend to take things a bit far. While in no way a gentleman pilot, he chose to wear the accoutrements of one: radiant white linen shirtsleeves, waistcoat festooned with chains attached to gleaming brass compass and pocket watch, unspoiled riding boots that likely had never experienced grass, let alone a horse. His top hat was tucked in the crook of his arm. Amelia was reluctant to admit, however, that he pulled it off. Mister Gavin Graves could pull off just about anything he chose, according to the office girls.

Amelia had silently declared war on Mister Graves the day she met him. Though hired only days after herself, he had already written articles that made the front page, while her articles languished in the bedlam of trivial nonsense that constituted the Social Activities section of the Metropol newspaper. The newspaper editor, Mister McGoffery, insisted that Amelia only needed to bide her time and pay her dues and any number of other metaphors and she would have a story that might require more than one column of space five inches long. Maybe even a by-line.

Mister Graves was speaking, but Amelia’s thoughts drowned out his babble. He could carry a one-sided conversation with a stump for all she cared, but breeding required she not appear openly rude. Reluctantly, she reigned in her attention and focused on what he was saying.

“…and so I’m off to the Exporium for a quick write-up and I wondered how your — ahem — Periwinkle Society article is going.” He attempted to conceal a smirk behind one immaculate leather-gloved hand.

Amelia pulled her lips into a semblance of a smile. It felt like a snarl.

“Tops and tails!” she replied, perhaps a bit too brightly. “Can’t say enough.” No truer words had been spoken.

Gavin smirked outright as he touched the brim of his hat and turned to go, his figure cutting a larger portion of swagger than propriety allowed.

Amelia wanted to lob her typewriter at him. Instead, she bashed out the rest of her article.

***

Mister Quinn McGoffery, Ed., perused Amelia’s Periwinkle Society article with the same lack of enthusiasm that he showed all of her pieces, the same disdain for the mundane 1 x 5 events he assigned to her. After a minute’s vague contemplation, he stamped it approved and tossed it in the tray for typesetting. Without a word of thanks or dismissal, he returned his attention to pressing matters.

Amelia waited. After a few moments, she offered a discrete cough to signal her continued existence. Finally, she threw aside all social stricture and addressed her employer directly. “Sir, do you have another assignment for me?”

McGoffery’s head snapped up, the fragile lens-bearing arms of his head-mounted magnification apparatus bobbing. He stared at her for a moment, one pale grey eye seeming to bulge grotesquely through the lens. Trick of the glass, Amelia thought, but found herself staring at the bleary eye with mingled disgust and wonder. One slender vein zigzagged through the white of his eye, appearing to puncture the iris. She imagined it had sucked the color from his eye. She wondered if it had hurt.

He blinked, then, his thoughts suddenly finding their appropriate track. A bluster of throat clearing and indistinguishable mumbles later, he sighed and pawed through few stacks of paper on his desk before finding the list of social activities and leaning back in his chair with an air of being thoroughly put upon.

“Let’s see,” he murmured, flipping lenses with well-practiced flicks of his fingers. “The Amateur Watercolor Society is having their Annual Expo and Baked Goods event. Five-inch story, probably. Have you any experience with watercolors?” He looked up at her with the empty expression and lank mouth of expectation.

“Well,” Amelia searched her brain for any memory that might correlate to watercolors aside from finger painting and came up blank. “I was actually hoping for something not wholly related to ladies societies.”

“Were you?” McGoffery said, the corners of his lips curling slightly. He lay down the social events list and picked up another list at random. “Well, perhaps you can cover the Bankers’ and Brokers’ Conference on Exchange Street next week. Or,” he took up another list, “you can report on the rugby club’s new manager. How would you like that? Or perhaps you can write an eye-opening expose of the meat-packing manufactories. Under cover, perhaps? Would you like to work in an abattoir for a month or so? Get to know the laborers? Maybe learn to boil the feathers off a chicken?”

Amelia struggled to maintain a neutral expression. She had written for the Metropol for over two months, and had asked for more substantive assignments only a handful of times. Her first request had ended with her carefully concealing a fit of rage behind a resting expression while Mr. McGoffery voiced his doubts about her capabilities, having had no formal training and being, well, of the female persuasion. All that had prevented her from resigning that instant was the knowledge that her only alternative was to write for the ladies papers, which the Gods knew meant certain death for her fledgling career.

Granted, she could move back with her parents. Sometimes the option carried more merit than Amelia cared to acknowledge, especially when she attended yet another Chastity Society luncheon and listened to another bland speaker call for increased modesty through the proper use of table skirts to hide piano legs. Or when Gavin Graves returned from an Inventors’ Consortium banquet and bragged for days about the number of cards and dinner invitations he received. Or when her boarding housemates returned late at night discussing social reform in raucous fits of absinthe-induced ecstasy. At home, she would have a quiet room and meals without paying rent, could read as often as she chose and could write what she pleased without space constraints or content limitations. She could have decent clothing that didn’t need to be patched and mended. It was tempting.

But then she would remember why she left in the first place. Her parents insisted that their daughters’ future happiness depended more on social artistry than accomplishments. Her mother had had the great good fortune of marrying well above her social rank due in large part to her ability to enliven any gathering with her beauty and wit, not to mention her talent for inserting herself into socially advantageous circumstances. Quite her match, Mister Stodge kept an active social schedule at his club and felt at a loss whenever he lacked a conversant partner. Together, they endeavored never to lack entertainment or company. In the evenings, the Stodges either hosted or attended a card gathering, dinner party, or ball, always with an eye toward the coveted invitations to the Regent’s Ball, the culmination of the Season’s events. Indeed, everything the Stodge family did for a full nine months of the year occurred with the Regent’s Ball in mind.

When Amelia took her room at the boardinghouse, she attempted to leave all of that nonsense behind and focus on her career. Unfortunately, it followed her from her parents’ home through the streets and soaring sky trolley tracks of the city to Mr. McGoffery’s office.

“There are only certain places ladies can go, Miss Stodge. Only certain stories they can tell. I’m afraid you simply aren’t qualified to pursue the types of assignments you want. Men won’t take you seriously as a reporter.” McGoffery dropped the lists back on his desk and shook his head.

Amelia’s façade cracked. “Tripe, Mr. McGoffery. Pure tripe. If women aren’t allowed to tell the stories they want to tell, it’s because men like you relegate them to the society pages and parlors where they can do the least amount of damage to your blessed reputations. Give me something worth my time and talents or I will find a newspaper that will.”

Mr. McGoffery flipped his lenses up and stared at her as if to silently chastise her for an empty threat. Sighing, he shifted through his papers and removed a card, fanning it lightly for a moment as though weighing his options.

“As I said, Miss Stodge, there are only certain places where a lady of print is welcome. You may not accept this fact, but your disapproval hardly changes the matter. Still, I’ve received more compliments from society chairwomen about your articles than I’ve received about any other reporter I’ve assigned to these types of events.” He held out the card to her.

Amelia felt her face and neck flush from the praise. You don’t blush well, my dear, her mother would say, not like our Margaret. Her sister had inherited their mother’s alabaster complexion, a feature that Margaret, at Mrs. Stodges insistence, maintained through use of a parasol at all applicable times. Amelia, on the other hand, contracted a spray of freckles across the nose and cheeks from her father’s sister. As nothing could be done save judicious application of maquillage, a rather outré practice at the moment, Mrs. Stodge surrendered to the fickle hand of heredity and hoped Amelia’s shapeliness provided enough compensation to secure a decent husband.

Her freckles didn’t affect her ability to write, however. Unlovely blush aside, she speculated on the kind of assignment such Editorial praise would inspire. Flustered from conflicting emotions, she took the offered card.

It was an invitation for a Gala Ball at the country residence of Colonel Raymond Pell.

“A ball,” she said, face slack in disbelief.

McGoffery spoke carefully, glaring his warning. “Colonel Raymond Pell is financier to nearly all of the celebrated personages in the city, in particular, Mister Franklin Thomas Merriday of the Argonauts. He is hosting the ball as a fund raiser for Mister Merriday’s latest endeavor into the wilds of the Amazon. It is the event of the season, as Colonel Pell’s galas tend to be, and it promises to be the making of a society writer such as yourself.”

“Indeed. Only I don’t wish to be a society writer.” She tossed the card on the desk.

Mr. McGoffery slapped the desk with one meaty hand. “You confound me, Miss Stodge. You demand from me a more substantive assignment after only a few months in my employ, but when I offer you the opportunity to undertake an event that would make your career and open the door to a level of society that many would dream of, you snub it. You are not an established journalist, miss. You’re an apprentice for all purposes with no prior experience. You have no latitude to make demands."

She jabbed her finger toward the closed door. “Mister Graves had as much experience as I had when he was hired, and he has had cover page stories!”

“Mister Graves is also the son of a prominent board member.”

Deflated, Amelia gobbed like a fish. “Rubbish.”

“Fact.” He planted the tip of his ink smeared forefinger on the desktop. “Now I’m giving you one more chance to make the right choice. Cover Colonel Pell’s gala. It’s bigger than 1 x 5 and it will give you a by-line, even if it might not make the cover page. Do it justice and you will have established yourself as more than a social events writer. Or snub it and see yourself out.”

She hesitated, then picked up the card. “Thank you,” she whispered.

McGoffery nodded curtly and, flicking his lenses into place, resumed his business in silence.

***

Kettery Depot, the steel and glass hub of the sky trolley system, rose a few blocks from the newspaper offices via elegant wrought iron and concrete trellis bridges that arched between the major buildings on several levels. Designed to allow pedestrians to walk about without danger from the residents, vehicles, and grime of street level, the elevated paths crisscrossed the in-city sky and teemed with parasols and canes. Some businesses had capitalized on the elevated path system by creating promenade malls through buildings. Amelia Stodge walked through one such promenade on her way to the Kettery to choose a suitable gown for Colonel Pell’s ball the next evening.

She thought briefly about asking her mother, who always had impeccable taste in gowns, for assistance. That meant returning to her parents’ home, however, which also meant an inquisition from her father and the probability that her mother would insist on accompanying her to whatever social engagement that required a new gown. The promise of monetary and fashion assistance in no way compensated for these eventualities.

As she examined the displayed gowns, she wondered again if Mr. Graves wasn’t perhaps a better match for the event. Even if he didn’t have the same social standing as the other guests, he would hardly let that affect his cheerful, if self-important, demeanor. She had spent more time than she cared to admit in near panic over whether the ball gown of a woman attending this event would have more ruffles and tucks — denoting the ability to afford lavish decoration — or a simpler, more refined style that emphasized quality over elaborate finery. Would the trend toward subtly striped fabric make her look too nouveau, or would a solid colored fabric appear outré? Did a dress exist that would coordinate with the clunky quill cuff she had to wear? Questions like these had caused many a feverish night when she was freshly debuted and believed perfection was not only possible, but mandatory. Her male counterparts required only a modicum of effort where apparel was concerned and hadn’t a quarter of the components to coordinate and manipulate. Mr. Graves would have sauntered about in his Explorer’s garb or something to that effect without a moment’s hesitation. Amelia envied him that freedom.

Bound as she was, however, by the certain knowledge that she would chastise herself for her choice either way, she selected a gown, arranged for its alteration and delivery to the boarding house, and left the shop before she had an opportunity to change her mind. It cost more than she was quite comfortable with and didn’t meet half of her exacting specifications, but considering she was a guest of the print, she wouldn’t be expected to present as fashionably as the more esteemed patrons. The guests of the Colonel’s gala, the scientific and artistic aristocracy of the burgeoning territory, were of a quality quite separate from and well above those Amelia met among her general acquaintance. She would never be their equal, especially as a reporter. Somehow, this knowledge failed to pacify.

Though she had lived in-city for months, and had taken the sky trolleys nearly every day, Amelia found the Kettery’s beauty still inspired breathless awe when she neared it. Dedicated to Wilmont Justice Kettery, founding member of the Argonauts, and designed to draw the eyes upward, the building was a collection of cascading glass and steel arches some twenty storeys high erupting from the expansive surrounding plazas. Trolley tracks crisscrossed overhead, and hanging trolleys glided to and from the building through gothic arches of steel in every direction. In the main plaza, elegant curving marble stairs led to the first two levels, while elevators slipped up a central spire to each of the remaining levels and to the new Daedalus Port for dirigibles. As Amelia watched, a red-ballooned dirigible glided into port, its gleaming wood and steel body and polished brass accents flashing in the sun. She wondered if she would ever have an opportunity to ride in one, imagined floating over the harbor into the sunset, the city far behind her bathed in red-orange light. Then she remembered how her stomach still lurched at times when she was on the trolley or when she looked over the rails of the elevated paths and contented herself that she fared best on the ground.

She rode an elevator up to the seventh level to catch the trolley home. People packed in with her, a hodgepodge of middle- and upper-middle-class specimens, some in travel dress, some in the more faddish in-city garb, some in business attire. When she had first moved in-city, Amelia had considered it odd that the trolley passengers were rarely of the lower classes. One of her boardinghouse mates, Miss Kelley, a Literature student at university, had explained one evening that the lower classes used the circulator trains on an entirely separate system. The fares were cheaper, but the track was situated just above street level, and passed through the smoke of steamcar boilers in-city and the grime of the industrial sector elsewhere. Some of the Uni students, especially the Social Philosophics majors, liked to take the circulators as a matter of principle, but otherwise, the train travelers and the trolley passengers rarely mixed.

Amelia’s boardinghouse was situated near the Uni, which was as close to in-city as her parents would allow her to reside. The vast majority of her housemates were Uni students, a fact her father barely tolerated. Mr. Stodge had attended University long before the current waves of social progress opened the halls for a wider population, including women. He refused Amelia’s request to attend writing courses there, afraid his daughter would become a revolutionary, or worse, a suffragette.

“University students have delusions of classlessness,” he had once said. “They mingle with the lower classes and criticize their betters as equals.” He often spoke of the need for structure, for clear demarcation of status to maintain peace. Like the vast majority of his peers, he considered the Progressive movement a threat to civilization. He considered Amelia’s venture into journalism nothing more than a whim, a product of having grown up in the wake of the Women’s Movement, without the perspective of hindsight. One day, her father believed, she would understand her duty and embrace it, returning to the drawing rooms and parlors where she belonged.

Amelia thought her father was a relic of his time, a petrified stump in a world careening forward. Like her housemates, she envisioned a more just and balanced world unhindered by the demarcations that currently dominated her life. But as Mr. McGoffery, editor of the Metropol and Amelia’s employer, demonstrated not an hour hence, the scientific and academic world ran far ahead of the social.

“Only certain places, indeed.” Amelia muttered with a glower. An older lady beside her, a sprout of feathers wilting from her hat, blinked at her in befuddlement.

The trolley glided along its track, leaving the bustling in-city behind and alighting at the University substation, a softly glowing two-storey echo of the Kettery’s gothic arches. Amelia walked the last blocks to her boarding house in the company of some of her housemates returning from a nearby café. One of the Social Philosophics professors had spoken about the role of the laborer in the Progressive Movement, and Amelia’s housemates were still discussing it as they walked.

“How is the news world?” Kurt asked her. “Any more thrilling flower shows to write about?”

“Hardly,” she replied. She wanted to tell them about the gala assignment, but knew it would only incite a riot, considering their current topic of concern. Kurt, a “reformed” gentleman of twenty who abdicated his minor title after his first semester at Uni, often remarked about Amelia’s soft assignments, usually attributing to them some mark of classism that one could hardly dismiss.

“It’s too bad you don’t attend Uni,” he said. “You would be a proper journalist, not just a society writer.” Never mind that no woman yet had successfully completed the journalism program. Amelia mentioned this fact.

“You would be the first,” he replied, attempting to put his hand around her waist. Amelia suspected he had mislaid his common sense in a bottle of wine and used two fingers to extricate his hand from her person.

“And, with your understanding of social mechanisms,” Kurt continued, “you could explain how they only serve to keep women locked in the drawing room. I could assist, should you have need of a more nuanced perspective. I have, as you know, written a considerable amount about…such things. I’m sure women of consequence haven’t altered significantly since I surrendered my title.”

Neither have you, I’m afraid
, Amelia thought as she hurried into the house.

Miss Kelley sat curled in a tufted chair in the common room, reading, when the group arrived. The evening newspapers lay in an untidy pile on the floor beside the chair.

“Dinner’s an hour off still,” she said without looking up.

“Who asked? Are you finished with this?” Kurt said, flouncing sideways on the threadbare settee and picking up the top newspaper. “Professor Whitenham graced us with his wisdom at the Winding Wheel. A great shame you missed him.”

“You usually ask about dinner before you’ve even said hello,” Miss Kelley replied. “I’ve just learned to anticipate. Yes, I have read them all. What did our good professor have to say?” She turned down her page corner and dropped the book in her lap.

“Nothing out of the usual, really,” Kurt replied, ruminating on the ceiling tiles. “I find his theories increasingly irrelevant, though they have their merit vis a vis already established complexities. He is the backbone of the movement, after all. In a year or two, though, I predict progress will have already greatly outstripped his scope of comprehension. He’ll need fresh perspectives, and I intend to provide one.”

“Anything of general interest to those of us not attempting to usurp social progress for personal gain?” Mister Warren, who studied economics, asked.

“He did express disappointment in how few females were in attendance.”

As Amelia settled in a cushioned armchair to observe, Mr. Betteredge, a maths student, stuck his head around the door jamb. “That’s because he can’t seduce the lads.”

“Can’t,” mused Kurt, “or won’t in public? One hears rumors.”

“Rubbish,” Miss Kelley said. “He’d be completely discredited.”

“Can’t have that,” Kurt said with a wink. Miss Kelley made to throw her book at him but thought better of it and settled for an indignant scowl.

Mr. Betteredge returned with tea things. “Compliments of Mrs. Frey,” he said as he placed the tray on the table.

“I’ll pour,” Miss Kelley said petulantly. “You two always miss the cups and douse the biscuits.”

“That’s a darling,” Kurt said, though he hadn’t moved to help.

“How’s news, then, Amelia?” Betteredge asked, passing her a cup of tea. “Any more Periwinkle Society expositions?”

She shook her head. “I confronted Mr. McGoffery again, however. I have another assignment for this weekend, but it’s still a society event. Colonel Pell’s Gala.”

Kurt snorted. “Oh, a gala! Good for you! At least you’ll be in your element.”

“Shut it, Kurt. You’re hardly coal stock.” Miss Kelley said. “But it is exciting. Pell’s guests are always quite amusing from what I’ve heard. Why does he want reporters there, I wonder?”

“It’s a fund raiser. I’m sure he hopes others will contribute, even if they aren’t invited to attend.” Amelia dipped a biscuit in her tea, a guilty pleasure she learned from her house mates. Her mother would have chastised her for such a display of ill-breeding, which only made the pleasure sweeter.

Kurt tossed and caught a small velvet pillow over his head. “I wonder if it’ll be on his balloon. A magnificent soiree floating about the city. Wouldn’t that be a grand farce?”

“The invitation allows an escort,” Amelia said with an arched brow. “Would you like to accompany me?”

Kurt scowled in response. “Why not ask Mr. Graves? Two reporters, one ballroom. You could write about who attended and what they wore, and he could write about things that actually matter.”

Amelia contemplated smothering Kurt with his pillow.

*** 

The next morning Amelia checked the house’s telegraph station. She saw, with an inward groan, that she had received an invitation from her parents to dinner that evening. The Brinkleys were to join them for an impromptu evening of cards, which meant that her mother and Mrs. Brinkley had planned the gathering some time ago and had waited for an evening when Amelia couldn’t refuse without appearing impolite to spring their trap.

As she passed the common room, she saw Miss Kelley curled in her oversized chair devouring yet another book and softly penciling notes in the margins. The morning newspapers lay in their customary place beside the chair.

“Good morning, Sophia,” Amelia said, stopping by the tea table. “Do you mind if I join you?”

Miss Kelley looked up with a welcoming smile and closed her pencil in her book. As the only two female borders in the house, Amelia and Miss Kelley became instant friends despite a significant class difference. Miss Kelley was the fortuitous recipient of a university scholarship for women of the labor class, and intended to become a professor of literature. While the male residents approached their education with casual lassitude, Miss Kelley devoted all of her time and her not insignificant intellect to her studies. She also made a point to read the morning and evening newspapers every day.

Amelia sat in her favorite chair with a sigh.

“Sighing already?” Miss Kelley asked. “Not bad news I hope.”

Amelia nodded and held up the telegram. “An invitation to dine with my parents tonight.”

“My condolences, then. I still find it odd that your parents feel compelled to invite you to your own home, even as an afterthought.”

“It’s hardly an afterthought. The Brinkleys will be there, and Mamma and Mrs. Brinkley still hope to see me married to Alexander. It’s her only consolation for my dismal prospects this Season. Of course, since neither Alexander nor I intend to marry each other, it’s a fragile consolation. But we haven’t informed her of this yet.”

Miss Kelley shook her head in amazement, as she often did when Amelia described the mechanics of her family and social life. “Why not?”

“Pragmatism, to be honest. We never want for a dance partner, and since our futures are already settled, we aren’t burdened by the anxieties of courtship. ”

“Indeed,” Miss Kelley said. “I meant why don’t you intend to marry each other?”

Amelia took a moment to consider. “Alexander is a dear, dear friend, but our affection is more like that of siblings than lovers.”

“You aren’t attracted to each other at all? I find that difficult to believe.”

“For my part, I was amenable.” Amelia hesitated for a moment, unsure if she should continue. “He, however, found that, were we to marry, the nature of his desires would create more heartache for me than he was willing to countenance.” She watched her friend carefully.

Miss Kelley simply nodded. “I see. He intends to remain a bachelor then.”

“He does,” Amelia said, releasing a grateful breath. “But breaking our implied engagement requires explanations that he is not prepared to make. We decided to carry on as though nothing had changed.”

“And hope a solution develops.”

Amelia shrugged. “He could break the engagement now and use my wayward behavior as an excuse. I wouldn’t resent him for it. I might suggest it tonight.”

“Will you tell your parents about Pell’s gala?”

“Absolutely not!” Amelia cried, grateful for the change in topic. “Telling them would result in an evening of advice and scheming even before the guests have departed. My mother would use it as a bargaining chip for a Regent’s Ball invitation. Then she would innumerate my flaws and explain how best to hide them while my father encourages me to maneuver introductions and collect cards to display in their drawing room. Despite disapproving of the circumstances responsible for the opportunity, my parents would welcome the benefit it provided.” She shook her head. “No, I would rather inform them afterward and endure their disappointment.”

“Surely Alexander would welcome the news.”

Amelia smiled. “He would.” A spark of mischief began to form in her mind, and her smile widened. “But how much more fun would it be to let him discover it like everyone else!”

***

The trolley ride from University station to Electo Park station a few blocks from the Stodge’s home took nearly an hour with all of the intermediate station stops and transfers, and, should one have the good fortune of a window seat, afforded a stunning aerial view of the sprawling park. Summer hadn’t surrendered to autumn yet, and only a few impatient china berry trees had begun to don their glorious golden apparel, but the setting sun glimmered on the lake with a promising richness. Amelia watched the park glide by and begged whatever deities that might listen to give her an excuse to skip the dinner. A delay of fifteen minutes would suffice, since it was the epitome of rudeness to arrive at a dinner party after the dinner had begun. A minor track malfunction would do the trick, and then she would be free to wander aimlessly through the trees and gardens before returning to the boarding house.

Alas, the trolley arrived at the station without mishap. Amelia checked her watch, made some calculations, and began her measured stroll toward her parents’ home. She walked as slowly as she dared for the first two blocks, careful to greet every passerby of her acquaintance, as perceived rudeness would reflect badly on her parents. Then, at a predetermined point, she casually checked her watch again, feigned surprise, then rushed the last block or so.

She joined her parents and their guests in the drawing room only minutes before dinner was announced, as her mother was arranging the guests into the procession. A quick kiss on the cheek for her parents, and she took her customary place next to Alexander Brinkley with a grateful sigh and greetings for the other guests. Her mother was so busy arranging her guests that she didn’t have time to notice her daughter’s dress was a year out of style.

“Miss Stodge, would I be amiss to hazard that you’ve been running?” Alexander murmured as the company went through to dinner.

“A lady never runs, Mister Brinkley, at least not in full view of the street. I was severely pressed for time.”

He held Amelia’s chair for her as she sat. “After a leisurely stroll from the station?”

“Whatever do you mean?” She feigned an imperious smugness. “Are your family returning to the country next month?”

“We should need to. My mother always needs at least a month of peace and quiet to recover from the Season. I’m amazed how your family manages remaining in town all year.”

“I assure you, peace and quiet would be the ruin of this family.”

“Perhaps you can join us for a month? My sister will be debuted this Season, and she could benefit from a stabilizing female influence.”

Amelia paused. They had previously decided against a long visit, considering it implied, at least for young couples, an imminent marriage. “A newspaper writer would be a stabilizing influence for a fifteen-year-old girl? Perhaps you are referring to my sister.”

“You don’t intend to keep up this newspaper fantasy past this Season, do you?” He hid an expression of reproach behind his wine glass.

Though disappointed and rather shocked at Alexander’s implied disapproval, Amelia composed her face to maintain the appearance of a lighthearted conversation. She could feel her mother’s gaze, and any sign of displeasure would be scrutinized and addressed later. “Of course I do. And I thought I had your support, or has that changed?”

“Circumstances change. Perhaps we were being naive.” He, too, maintained an expression of interest and levity, but Amelia couldn’t interpret the pleading quality of his eyes as he spoke. Something was very wrong. Rather than address it in company, however, Amelia changed topics.

“I hear that your father intends to build a dirigible and hangar on your grounds. How uncharacteristically modern! Will you be learning to fly?”

“Yes, I intend to,” he said with relief. “It’s a gift, you see, for my graduation. Construction should take a month, maybe two, and in the meantime, I will be taking lessons from one of my father’s acquaintances. It is another reason why I hope you will visit us. I thought you would enjoy a floatabout.”

She didn’t mask her genuine excitement. “I would, indeed!”

***

An hour of whist with her mother, Mrs. Brinkley, and her sister Margaret exhausted what little stores of sociability Amelia had left. Her smile felt brittle and she found her patience chipped away with every chime of the mantle clock. She began sabotaging the game, intentionally misplaying her hand, which only served to irritate her sister, who was her partner. Once she established her pattern of mistakes, she excused herself from the table and escaped to the sofa. Another willing guest took her place at the table.

Not many minutes passed before Mrs. Stodge resigned her seat to another guest and joined her daughter on the sofa. 

“I’m delighted that you could join us this evening.” Her well-composed face belied her words. Amelia could see deepening shadows under her mother's eyes, the only sign that the evening had taken all of her waning strength. She knew the next day, perhaps even the day after that, her mother wouldn't leave her bed. For a moment, Amelia felt ashamed for thinking so ill of her.  She thanked her mother for the invitation.

“Mrs. Brinkley said at dinner that you looked very well under the circumstances, though she expressed concern that perhaps you are overworked, arriving as you did in such a rush and without time to properly dress for the occasion.”

Amelia bit back a tart remark and apologized instead.

“Your father and I have accepted that this Season has been irreparably lost. The Trewes have already secured their invitation, considering Admiral Neville, Lord and Lady Dunn, and Lady Venerable attended their latest dinner. They declined our invitation this evening for understandable reasons. Miss Eloisa Trewe, I heard, has accepted Mister Goddard, as well, as we expected, which secures her invitation regardless.” She sighed and adjusted the fall of her gown. “Nevertheless, we shall rebound! Next year, my dear, depend upon it. Once you relinquish this writing nonsense, the more consequential members of society will once again feel inclined to accept our invitations. It may require some additional sacrifices, but if we rally, we may be able to salvage Margaret’s chances.”

“Once I relinquish this writing nonsense,” Amelia echoed.

Mrs. Stodge gathered herself into her characteristic statuesque detachment. “Your father and I agreed to support you at the boarding house only because the ignominy of a daughter living in poverty surpassed that of a daughter chasing a whim. We assumed you would tire of it in a month and repent. You haven’t. On the contrary, you seem to enjoy living beneath your worth in a misguided attempt to shame us. But we have decided that we cannot endure another floundering Season. Your sister cannot endure it. Mister Goddard transferred his attentions from Margaret to Miss Eloisa Trewe because he feared the ramifications of association with you. Margaret lost many potential beaux because of your selfishness.”

Amelia flared, but maintained her composure. “Mister Goddard is an arrogant — ”

“Mister Goddard is the heir to a baronetcy and has never missed a Regent’s Ball since his debut. He has fifteen thousand a year. Margaret might have enjoyed prestige and wealth, and she would have raised our prospects as well. But now Miss Eloisa Trewe has that luxury, and the Trewes will benefit instead.

“But you have your little position at the newspaper that doesn’t pay for your little room at the boarding house. I trust this more than compensates for any harm you may have caused. But it is over. We are withdrawing our support. We will no longer pay for your childish fantasy.”

Before her daughter could respond, Mrs. Stodge rose and began visiting each table, beginning the process of drawing the evening to a close.

***

At the end of the evening, as had become custom, Alexander offered to escort Amelia to the trolley station. Out of view of parents, they relaxed their behavior and walked a good distance in relative silence, both lost in thought. They neared the station, but Alexander suggested a detour to Electo Park. As they walked along the flickering gaslamp lit paths in a silence that had long grown awkward, Amelia feared what her friend had meant about circumstances changing, about perhaps being naive. What had seemed odd at first took an ominous shape with her mother’s declaration.

In the weeks after Amelia moved to the boarding house, only Alexander’s support allowed her to brave her parents’ fury. Without their shared conviction, she wouldn’t have withstood the first weeks of her mother’s silence, her father’s reproach. She had scarred her family’s reputation, made them the subject of gossip just as the Season began, ruined their chances for a Regent’s Ball invitation and all that invitation entailed. Surely, Mrs. Brinkley would recognize that she wouldn’t want her son associating with a wayward woman living and working in-city, if even for a few months.

Amelia felt she and her friend were wandering quite separate from each other. She knew better than to interrupt her friend’s train of thought when he was in this state, but something felt even more distant and awkward than usual. This never boded well, but Amelia resolved to let Alexander determine when he required her confidence.

It didn’t take long.

“I enjoy reading your articles in the paper,” he said, drawing her arm through his. “And I can always recognize which ones are yours. Only you can make a Vestal Society luncheon sound intriguing.”

“I try,” Amelia responded with audible pride. “Writing the article was the only enjoyable part of that assignment.”

“Does it pay well enough to be worth your time and effort, though? It can’t be enough to cover your expenses.”

She ignored the sting. “It doesn’t. My parents are still paying for my room and board, a fact they like to address whenever I appear ungrateful or decline an invitation.” She hesitated to tell him of her conversation with her mother. Mrs. Stodge’s deteriorating mental state often resulted in miscommunications, and though Amelia doubted this was one of those instances, she didn’t want to admit what that ultimately meant.

“We are at their mercy, are we not?” he remarked. “Do you think you’ll ever be independent from them?”

“I intended to, but I’ve learned politics has more influence than merit. One of my peers writes front-page articles because his father has influence. My meagre income barely supplies my extraneous needs.” They walked a bit in thought. “Still, I hope my assignment tomorrow night will improve my chances for better in the future.”

He halted. “You have an assignment tomorrow night? You didn’t mention it earlier.”

“I try not to speak to my parents about my press engagements. It tends to amplify their displeasure if they know one of their acquaintance will see me there.”

“Damned inconvenient,” he muttered darkly. “It won’t do.”

“I apologize if my good fortune has caused you trouble,” Amelia said, thankful that the shadows provided cover for her weary and irritated countenance. She longed for the solitude of the trolley. “But if I have been scheduled for some social engagement without my knowledge I have to decline.”

“There was indication that we would be joining you again tomorrow evening. I thought you already knew. Our mothers agreed upon it.”

“As they have done for most of our lives, and without our consent. I cannot, under any circumstance, miss this assignment tomorrow evening. My chances of independence rest on it. If I am to have any hope of success, I need this assignment. Can we postpone? A day later?”

“I have something to discuss with you. Something of utmost importance. I fear an extra night of consideration will drain me of my determination altogether.”

“Good heavens! If it’s so very important yet so very ephemeral that 24 hours will be the death of the both of you, then by all means, spare yourself the agony and speak your mind now.”

Even in the shadowy lamplight, Alexander’s face visibly paled. Amelia feared that she had somehow overstepped the limits of her friend’s modern persuasion, and she clamped her lips closed before she shocked him to an early grave.

Mr. Brinkley regained enough composure to stammer and gape like a fish. “I’m afraid — I’m quite — unprepared at present to adequately…”

Oh, dear. I’ve broken him
, Amelia thought as her friend continued to ramble. It wasn’t particularly difficult to crack his composure, as she had learned as a child when the shadow of rebuke launched him headlong into a detailed confession of an otherwise well-wrought tartlet heist.

“Mr. Brinkley,” she said, laying a calming hand on his arm, to no result. His rather irrational behavior attracted attention from other pedestrians. Amelia smiled to dismiss their curiosity. “Mr. Brinkley, please.” He continued to sputter about family obligations, independence, financial security. Amelia listened for a few more moments, hoping her friend would regain his wits. When it seemed his spiral was infinite, her long-held composure cracked. “Do quit babbling, Alexander, or I’ll see myself to the trolley station.”

“Miss Stodge,” Alexander huffed, then spoke each word deliberately, “will you marry me?”


2 comments:

  1. Good evening, Milady. First of all, I tried to follow, but it didn't take. I'll try again periodically. Meanwhile, I am going to list this site on my Friends Do Great Work column, because I am quite favorably impressed. If someone had described this to me, I wouldn't have bothered to take a look, but having come over here and read it, I have a very different take; I'm sure there's a lesson there somewhere... You've captured the reader with humor from the first sentence, and as the obstacles build and multiply in front of this young lady, you keep reading because you want to see how she's going to overcome them. Very well done, indeed.

    I am already sorry there are only three installments, but I will save them for the quiet moments, and savor them like fine bacon. There aren't many quiet moments around here in December, though. It is filled with birthdays, an anniversary, a quinceañera, and, what else... Oh yeah, Christmas! But I'll be checking in regularly, and recommending your work to my friends. Looking forward to more as you find the time and interest. Great work!

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    1. You made my day. Maybe my week. Thanks so much!

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