The Painted Veil: Chapter 2

2

We walk slowly but deliberately, straight down the pristine sidewalks that line my Upper-Middle Position streets. We don’t look at each other, or talk, or try to cross the street, just move in the straight, clear line laid ahead of us. Walking with company doesn’t have the same cathartic effect as walking alone, and the silence is almost as painful as the awkward, small-talk filled conversations I’ve shared with other matches.

Finally, we get to the City Center, a bustling area filled with people. Mostly people with a High Position. Most of them are shopping, walking in and out of the stores that form the large circle of the center. We walk around the circle, staring into the store windows. At least I do. When I shift my gaze sideways to look at Will, I can see him staring straight ahead. In the very short time I’ve known him -known being a bit of a stretch, considering we only met the night before, and haven’t shared much conversation since-  haven’t seen him show much interest in anything. Despite his asking me to dance, and now for a walk, he barely registers interest. Compared to the intense interest and pursuit of other matches, this quietness and ambiguity of purpose is positively unnerving.

I see my chance to break the silence when we pass a shop with lace hanging in the windows. “Oh, how lovely.” I roll my eyes as I say it. I really couldn’t care less about lace. But it’s something that a proper lady should care about, at least according to Mother. When I turn around, I can see in Will’s eyebrows that my disinterest in lace is transparent.

“You have an interest in lace?” It isn’t a question; he’s calling my bluff.

I shrug, not wanting to show how uncomfortable I am; especially that he can read me so well. “Sure. I…” I think quickly, then decide to go with what comes the quickest to mind. “I like the patterns.”

“The patterns?” This time his tone doesn’t confront me, but urges me to continue.

“Yes,” I ease into it. “All the different patterns. We take them for granted, I think. But the patterns are so intricate, so complicated, it’s almost painful to look too closely to them.” I blush a little and swallow, thinking of what to say next. I hadn’t meant to say that much, hadn’t even known that I felt that way about lace. Usually, I tried to avoid thinking too deeply about anything. Why bother, when nobody takes anything women say or think about seriously?

“Go on.” It isn’t a command, despite his blank tone. When I look at his eyes, there is something that encourages me to go on.

Maybe I’m not the only one who tries to stay monotone because it’s easier.

“Well, I suppose it’s painful because of how hard the lace makers work,” I answer, taking the easy way out. In reality, I don’t know what makes it so difficult to look at, but everybody knows how hard tradespeople work, how years of doing intricate work leads to eyestrain and arthritis. Although it’s on my list of things I try not to think about, I certainly know about it.

“You feel for the plight of tradespeople?”  Will’s voice and expression are hard to read. He doesn’t seem to condescend or mock me for my concern, but he doesn’t necessarily give any indication of support for the working class himself. I decide to play it safe again.

“Who doesn’t?” I shrug.

“Oh, I could think of a few people. Society, mainly.” Will gives me a wry smile, and I can hear the closest thing to humour in his voice that I’ve heard since I met him.

“Yes, well, they’re hardly people, are they?” It’s probably the most honest comment I’ve made all day.

Will nods, and I wonder where this conversation is heading when I feel his hand in mine.

“Mr. Lane…” I adopt the formal name that we are supposed to use during the Courtship process. Part of me wants to snatch my hand away. Matches aren’t supposed to touch when not in the company of parents or chaperones, and not in motion. Yet the other part of me feels that he really hasn’t done anything wrong, not to me. And besides, it’s the most natural thing I’ve ever done with any of my matches.

“I’m sorry,” he looks into my eyes with sincerity, but doesn’t remove his hand. “This may seem fast, but I don’t have much time.”

What on earth is he talking about? I wonder, before he speaks again.

“You don’t really know me, and I don’t really know you. But I have spoken to you longer in these two meetings than I have any other matches. And I have never thought of any of those ‘matches’ as a true match for me.”

“Mr. Lane…” I try again, my voice cautious, warning, and questioning all at once.

“Please. Neither you nor I have much time. I am at the age of Choosing, and you are close to it. Besides that, I am moving to New Asia soon, to start a new post.”

Suddenly, I realize what he is suggesting. “You’re proposing to me.”

His ears colour slightly. “I suppose I am.”

“But…I don’t… know you.”

Will offers me the same wry smile as before. “And since when has anyone truly known anyone they married in the recent past?”

It’s the second blatantly true observation he’s made in the last ten minutes.

“I think you’d like New Asia,” he offers.

I consider this for a moment. My Choosing was always just another subject I’d tried to avoid thinking about. Could I live a life like my mother’s, the wife of a doctor? Could I spend my life planning mundane parties and trying to display a certain level of Position while maintaining a middle-class budget? Could I handle the mundanity of it, the everyday?

On the other hand, what choice do I have?

“Would you…would you let me think about it?”

Will shrugs in a manner that’s so indifferent, it’s as if he is asking me if I like sugar in my coffee, as opposed to one of the most important questions he would ever ask, and that anyone would ever ask me. “Of course. But I need to know soon. I’m due to start in New Asia in six weeks.”

Six weeks? Within seconds, I’ve gone from viewing my Choosing as some far off event, almost as if it would never happen, to something immediate. Within six weeks, I can be married, off to New Asia, and long gone from my parents’ home.

Long gone from my parents’ miserable home.

Long gone from my mother’s disparaging comments, from the constant lectures about how to be a proper lady, from the endless parade of matches.

But am I ready? Despite everything, my life had its own predictable routine. And what about love? Love and romantic feelings definitely aren’t a high priority to Society. They remind us that love is a nice addition, a nice side effect to marriage, but what is more important is to find someone. To be compatible, to share companionship and a partnership, a definite plus. Love is last on the list. Something that isn’t talked about, and doesn’t really factor into what marriage is about.

Still, I’ve heard about it. I know it exists. Not from personal experience. But I have heard about it. Maybe that’s why I’ve held out so long in finding a match, why I’ve risked a Society- arranged match. Because I’ve hoped that I could find love yet, that I could know what it feels like.

I question this all the way home, getting so deep in thought that I hardly notice when we’ve reached the front door.

“Please think about…about what I’ve asked you,” Will says, all traces of his dry humour gone. Now he is as awkward and formal as he was at the party the night before.

“I will.” I try to sound more together and less disconcerted than I am.

Will nods. “Well, Miss Garstin, thank you for your time.”

I give offer a light smile before I watch him walk away. Thank you for your time?

Nothing about that statement sounds romantic.

As I walk into the front hall, I hear the faint sound of Mother talking on the phone to my younger, married, sister, Doris. “Ah, yes Doris, pregnancy is a trying occupation to be sure.”

I roll my eyes. Only Mother could refer to pregnancy as an occupation.

“Kitty? No, still not serious about any matches. Well, that girl will dig her own grave that’s for certain. She’ll have to accept a Society-arranged match. A lost cause, that’s what she is.”

I freeze. A lost cause? I always knew that Mother didn’t have any real affection for me, but for her to be able to say it…

In the split second it takes for me to hear her, I make my decision. Who needs love? I think, my eyes stinging from repressed tears. What I need is to leave this house as fast as I can. Six weeks isn’t fast enough.

I remember what Will told me: “I think you’d like New Asia.”

I think you’re right, Will. I think I’ll like New Asia just fine.

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