'I needed a habit filthy enough to make me feel clean, so I took up smoking,' she returned lightly. 'Do have a seat, dear Mr. Silas.'
He acquiesced, and chose the seat nearest the door. She laughed quietly and took another drag on her cigarette.
'How are you?' the man called Silas asked her. His question caused a change in her: her features narrowed and her beauty drew in on itself, denying any expression to cross the planes of her face.
'I am as well as can be expected, given my present situation in life.' She stared challengingly at him before continuing. 'Aunt Grace came to see me. We exchanged words. I do not think-' she caught herself. 'How ill she was named. Graceless would have been more appropriate.' She allowed a self- deprecating laugh to slip from her lips before continuing. 'And how are you, my dear friend?'
Mr. Silas studied her before responding. 'I am as you see me,' he said simply.
When he said nothing more, she took up the initiative. 'Prosperous? Content? In the best of health, society, and-'
Her mouth twisted and she turned her face away from him.
'Mary asked me to send you her regards,' Silas ventured, watching her face closely, but it seemed she would slip no more for the day.
'Please send her my sincerest regrets that I could not attend the wedding,' she said calmly. 'Stephanie Grotney told me all about it. Were there really sixteen bridesmaids? I had no idea that Kittie had so many friends.'
He said nothing.
'Of course,' the lady continued, holding her cigarette in front of her and examining it intently, 'I would be a bridesmaid if it meant I could have a purple velvet dress. Aunt Grace always said purple was very becoming on me. Was it a wine-purple, or was it more of a pink-purple? I just can't abide garish purples, you understand-tell me, were they very garish, the bridesmaids' dresses?'
Mr. Silas' sharp intake of breath was audible. 'You could have been the bride, you proud foolish girl! Why talk of me to dresses when-' He broke off.
'When what, Mr. Silas?' The lady eyed him intently. When he said nothing, she shook her head sadly. 'I'm sure it was a fine affair, in any case.' Her careful emphasis on the phrase fine affair did not escape him, and when he arched an eyebrow she had the grace to blush before sweeping all emotion from her face, much as a chimney sweep attempt to rub the soot off his face and merely ingrains it deeper into the skin.
Mr. Silas shifted on his chair. 'My dear Ms. Chimes, I must speak frankly. It breaks my heart-it breaks all of London's heart-to see you here, like this! If you would listen to reason-surely you see-'
The lady straightened her slender frame and glared at her guest. 'Just because I am humbled-did you come to laugh at me then, good sir? No, if you have come here to insult me-well I shan't have it. Please leave me, at once.'
Mr. Silas stood, his dark eyes leveled with hers. 'I meant no offense, I merely was trying to give you a bit of advice,' he said quietly, as he tested the door handle. She looked at him silently.
'Good-day, Mr. Silas,' she said, the contempt in her voice thinly veiled.
'Good-day, Ms. Chimes,' he said, and let himself out of the dusty apartment.
- - -
Mr. Silas looked up at her window when he got out onto the street. The boarding house face glared down at him, but he located her window on the third floor by its vase of violets. Trust Cora to bring a touch of beauty to the place, he thought. He turned his feet towards his office without another backwards glance.
- - -
Cora Chimes sat in front of her small mirror, and considered what she saw in its warped surface. She eyed her dark hair, touching it lightly with her forefinger. She frowned at the slight lines beside her mouth, then the forefinger was there, stroking away the worry lines. Cora was, undeniably, one of the most beautiful women that had ever conquered London society. Her mother's mother had been Indian, and her mother's father had been English. Her mother had been quite pretty, but dark; unfashionably dark. Her father, Arthur Chimes, was aristocratic, wealthy, and British, and had met Cora's mother at an Italian opera. Shortly after, Chimes declared that he would have the woman for his wife, and none other. His parents stood in opposition to the match, but Arthur Chimes silenced their protests and continued wooing the girl. Kiran soon married the man, and became Ann Chimes, dropping her Indian name for an English one. Cora had inherited her mother's dark hair and eyes and delicate facial structure, and her father's pale skin and tall build. She was rather elfin in appearance, and as she grew to womanhood, there had been no lack of suitors at her parents' doors. This steady stream of 'ready and willing' men had bore testimony not only to her loveliness, but the enchanting quality that kept her young.
'Mirror, mirror on the wall, even the fairest respond to age's call,' she murmured wryly before standing and moving to the window. She looked out into the street but could not see Mr. Silas; perturbed, her hands flew again to the fine lines around her mouth.
Cora sat down on her narrow bed, feeling the strain of the half hour spent in her adversary's company. Sometimes, she wondered if it wouldn't be easier to just go home-go back-
But no! she cried silently. Return to the abhorred house of her childhood? After all that had happened? Never, never! Not I! Not Cora Chimes!
She jumped off the bed, and strode about the room. I-will-not-surrender, she fumed in her head. I-will-not.
- - -
What exactly it was that she refused to surrender to is a bit of a mystery. But Mr. Silas was able to shed some light on the matter.
'How'd it go, then?' his secretary asked when he got back to the office.
'Not well, James, not well at all.' The gentleman threw off his coat and scarf, then dropped into his leather chair.
'She didn't take to it, then?' James the secretary inquired.
'Didn't take to it!' Silas cried. 'Didn't take to it, you say! Why, she didn't even let me put it there in her way! I was warming to it, and she says to me, she says, "I may be humbled, but you needn't take it upon yourself to remind me-now get out!" So out I got, and out I'm staying. I've washed my hands of it, James; that's all there is to it. Such women, well, what can you do with them?'
'But whatever would you do without them?' James pointed out in his logical way.
Silas shook his head. 'Get a bit of peace an' quiet, I should think.' He turned to the papers on his desk before a burst of passion stirred him to add-
'What should I do without them, James? Why, I should go mad-quite mad-mad as old man Morris when his lady wife died. I think I should run out into the ocean and never come back-I should jump a train, but only when it was approaching-I should take a bullet and-' His passion spent, he sputtered to a stop.
James eyed him uneasily. He had had no idea that his master had so much pent up poetry and passion in him, and the idea unnerved him ever so slightly.
'Old man Morris, how did his wife die?' the secretary asked.
'Oh you know about the Morris affair,' Silas said despondently. 'Mrs. Morris didn't quite die, you know; it's just that she ran off with that chap from Venice, and Mr. Morris convinced himself she died and went quite batty over it-quite as batty as Ms. Chimes will make me by the end-' He shook his head and began reviewing the papers on his desk.
'So she won't go back, then,' James murmured. 'Can't help but admire a girl with a backbone like that.'
'Ha! Ha!' cried Silas savagely. 'See what backbone gets a girl, man! Turned out of her home, sent to live in a boarding house-yes that's right, James, a boarding house-with commoners and the whole lot, and what's to show for it? Just because the young Mr. Anders had a bit of fun with her over Kittie.' Silas let the sentence linger suggestively, and James turned to him with shock written all over his face.
'Is that what it's all about-' the little secretary cried, '-about Mr. Anders' affair with Kittie Bogart?'
Mr. Silas sat with a sad look on his face, then slowly nodded, once, twice. 'She's not Ms. Bogart anymore, James. She's Mrs. Guy Silas now. But yes, back when she was Ms. Bogart, there was a bit of trouble,' he said reflectively. 'You see, James, it was like this.'