Storm and Silence (Storm and Silence #1)(3)

by Robert Thier

‘Can you read and write?’

‘Yes, but…’

‘Do you have employment?’

Again, I had to work hard to stifle a giggle.

‘No, Sir, but…’

‘Well then it’s settled. Be at my office, nine sharp Monday morning.’

He walked forward and held something out to me.

‘Here.’

As he approached, the tendrils of fog uncurled around him, and for the first time I could see him clearly. My mouth experienced a sudden, inexplicable lack of saliva.

For a man he looked… quite acceptable.

Hard. That was what he looked like. That was what you first noticed about him: a hard, chiselled face, like that of some ancient Greek statue. Except of course that all the stone statues I had met at the museum looked a lot more likely to suddenly smile than he did. They, after all, were made of marble, which was really a quite soft kind of stone, maybe capable of a changeable facial expression. He, on the other hand, wasn’t soft. He looked as though he were hewn from granite. Like most of his fellow statues in the museum, he wore no beard. Against the current fashion, his face was meticulously clean-shaven, making it appear even more angular and stark. And then, finally, there were his eyes… His dark blue-green eyes that I had already seen through the mist. They were dark pools of immeasurable depth, pools you could drown yourself in and never again come up for air.

All right, all things considered he probably looked slightly better than just ‘acceptable’.

I instantly and absolutely mistrusted him. I disliked all men as a matter of principle, but handsome men, especially ones with a strong chin and overbearing manner, were at the top of my ‘things to exterminate to make this world a better place’-list. This particular specimen of manhood in front of me looked like just the kind of fellow who might have come up with the brute force argument.

‘Hello, young man? Are you listening to me?’

I shook my head, trying to chase away my wandering thoughts and concentrate. I was in disguise! This was a test, and I had to act accordingly.

‘Err… yes. Yes, I am,’ I stuttered. ‘You just surprised me, Sir. I must admit,’ I added truthfully, ‘that it’s not every day I get an offer like that.’

‘See that you’re not “surprised” too often when you are in my employ,’ he said without moving a muscle of his angular, stony face. ‘I have no use for baffled fools standing around gawking for no good reason.’

Fools, was it? His capacity for politeness seemed about equal to his ability to force a smile on that statue’s face of his. I had a sudden, mad urge to ask him what he thought about point number four. Maybe it really had been him…

Again, he stepped closer and jerked his hand forward.

‘My card,’ he said, his voice curt and commanding. Only then did I notice what he was holding out to me: a small rectangular piece of cardboard. I took it and examined it. In clear, precise lettering without any embellishments were printed the words:

Rikkard Ambrose

Empire House

322 Leadenhall Street

Nothing else. No titles, no embellishments, no profession.

I looked up at him again. Ambrose, hm? Like the stuff the Greek gods used to eat for breakfast? Well, he certainly looked good enough to eat, I thought as my eyes swept up and down his lean form appreciatively.

No! What was I thinking? I didn’t want or need men. I didn’t need anyone who thought my brain was too small to understand politics, thank you very much! I was a proud suffragette[2] and should be thinking about promoting women’s rights, not the contents of men’s tights! Did men even wear tights under their trousers? I would have to ask my twin sisters about that. They would probably know from personal experience.

‘Don’t be late,’ he added, his dark eyes flaring. ‘I don't tolerate tardiness.’ Then, without a further word, he turned and vanished into the fog, his long black cloak flapping behind him. The others who surrounded him silently followed, as if he were the centre of their little solar system and they all revolved around him. I stared after him, flabbergasted.

The nerve of the man! He didn’t even wait to hear me say yes or no? He just left, expecting I would do his bidding. Who was he? Some industrialist with too much money for his own good? No, that didn’t fit the cut and colouring of his clothes, which was very simple: sleek black from head to toe. So was he just a simple tradesman? But then again… He had all those attendants with him. That suggested someone important.

Maybe he was a government official. I snorted, staring intently at the card. Yes, that would fit! One of those fellows who were to blame for me being out here in this strange getup in the first place. I should just chuck his card away and be done with it. It wasn’t as if I intended to go there on Monday.

I hesitated for a moment.

Then I pocketed the card and turned to the polling station again.

Why was I feeling so annoyed? I should be happy. This had been an excellent test. I had been in the company of one of the most masculine men I had ever met, and he hadn’t noticed I was in fact a girl. Great job!

Yet, deep down, I knew exactly why I was peeved. It was because I had been in the company of the most masculine man I had ever met and he had completely, I mean absolutely and completely, not noticed that I was in fact a girl!

Be sensible, I chided myself. A moment ago you were worried about looking too feminine. Now you’ve been proven wrong. Problem solved.

Yes.

There was definitely no reason for me to feel annoyed. No reason at all.

Banishing all thoughts of the strange Mr Rikkard Ambrose from my mind, I again started towards the building at the end of the street. The fog lifted slightly and revealed the menacing figure of a police officer posted outside the door. Sweat broke out on my forehead despite the cold, and for a moment I was convinced he was stationed there for the express purpose of catching young ladies daring to try and vote against the supreme will of the British Government.

Then I remembered he was probably not there for the women, but for the millions of men who still weren’t allowed to vote either, because they didn’t have a penny in their pocket. Women were probably not even important enough to be taken into consideration. Well, I would show them!

As I walked up the steps to the front door, the bobby took off his hat respectfully. ‘Good day, Sir.’

Oh God! He’d lifted his hat in greeting. Why hadn’t I thought of this? What should I do? Take off my hat in return? I couldn’t do that, considering the mass of hair that was piled up underneath it like a haystack crammed into a shopping bag. So I just nodded silently. Better to be thought rude than to be polite and subsequently arrested.

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