A Place at the Table
Copyright ©2020 by Elder Road LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at ElderRoadBooks@Outlook.com.
Designed by Nathan Everett
Cover photo by WeAre, ID 721820632 licensed from Shutterstock.com
A Place at the Table
Elder Road Books Lynnwood WA
I GOT BACK FROM LONDON with Mother and Father Friday night and was looking forward to a quiet weekend before my eighteenth birthday on Monday. We flew in a jet airplane! Father says it’s the way of the future and the seven-and-a-half-hour flight meant he could go to London for a business meeting and return the next day. Sitting in an airplane in my suit wasn’t comfortable. I seem to have had a growth spurt and as soon as I sat down my trousers were up around my ankles.
I can see the attraction for crossing the ocean by jet. There isn’t much to see when you spend three days on an ocean liner. But it seems you would miss a lot flying over America from New York to Los Angeles. The train seems much better.
Of course, Grandmother wanted to have dinner with me and I would never slight her. Having an extra-long day with the time change won’t hurt me; I’ll sleep in tomorrow. In my life, Grandmother has always been my defender and friend. My parents have plans for me that I’m not quite resigned to. Father wants me to enter the business directly after my schooling at Elenchus Scholé is complete. Grandmother insists that I should go on to college so I’ll have a better grasp of the world. I prefer that plan.
So, I showered and shaved and put on the clothes Erich had laid out for me. He always had the right wardrobe for me. I’d missed him in London but he’d packed my bag carefully so that I’d be able to tell what was appropriate when. I’m sure if he’d left it up to me, I’d have dressed each day in Levi’s and a T-shirt. No. Not really. I just didn’t always know what difference which tie I wore made.
Nonetheless, I presented myself at Grandmother’s door at precisely seven o’clock.
“Liam! I’m so glad you could join me for dinner. I’ve been lonesome without you.”
“Grandmother, I am always at your service. I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to have dinner with you,” I said as I kissed her on the cheek. I’m not that tall, but somehow leaning down to kiss my grandmother made me aware of her age. “How have you been while I was traveling with Mother and Father?”
“Well now, have a seat and I’ll tell you all about it.” We sat and Ricardo placed salads with slices of apple and crumbled gorgonzola cheese over spring greens in front of us. I noted I had a glass of wine that matched my grandmother’s and was pleased that she was acknowledging my majority. “I’ve been very busy, as usual,” she said. “Most tasks were simple. Thorne Larson wanted to buy old Mr. Jacobson’s farm and the two could not agree on anything. When it came down to it, both wanted the deal to go through, but Mr. Larson wanted to think he’d gotten a good deal and Mr. Jacobson wanted to believe he’d made a profit on his years of toil. In the end, both were satisfied.” She finished the salad and then continued. “I discussed an interesting piece of legislation coming before the state house this fall with the sponsoring representatives. They were quite concerned that it actually accomplished what they’d set out to do. Unfortunately, they hadn’t really agreed on what they wanted to accomplish and decided they were not as far along in drafting the legislation as they thought. Oh, yes,” she said as an afterthought. “And I hired a personal assistant.”
“Is Isobel retiring?” I asked. My grandmother’s personal assistant had been with her as long as I could remember.
“Oh, no. I hired a personal assistant for you.”
“For me? Whatever for? What do I have to assist with?” And shouldn’t I have some say in hiring my own staff when the time comes?
“Don’t worry. Part of the reason is to get you used to working with an assistant. Another part is because life will be changing for you soon enough and you’ll need advice on what course of action to take. And lest you think you have been permanently saddled with baggage, I have hired her for a six-month probationary period. If you want to ditch her at that point, you can make your own hiring decision. But I assure you, I have carefully considered what you will need in the next six months from a position of knowing things to which you are not yet privy.”
I continued to eat in silence as Ricardo set a lovely chicken cordon bleu before us, complete with mushroom risotto and roasted asparagus and lemon butter sauce on the side. I learned my lesson about this dish some years ago. If you simply stick a fork and knife in it to cut, you are likely to spray ham, cheese, and chicken juices all over yourself—and possibly your companion as well. It requires you to gently stroke your knife across the meat rather than pressing down. The result, however, is heavenly. Cook’s rendition of the dish is superb.
Well, things could be worse. I would have a lovely young assistant to run errands and keep me company. Grandmother had said ‘she.’ Please let her be young and lovely!
“When will I be able to meet my new assistant?” I asked.
“She will attend your birthday celebration dinner Monday evening. It is always best, I think, to meet in a social setting rather than try to jump right into business without knowing each other.”
“Oh. Of course. Mother and Father…?”
“Have approved my choice. They would rather it had been a lawyer, I’m sure, but the interview process has been going on while you were still at school and they agreed I had found the best alternative for you. She is of the Advisor class.”
“Those I have met in that class have always impressed me as very level-headed and even-tempered. I’m sure I will learn a great deal from her,” I said. I wondered what subjects she could give me advice on. It seemed my first date of my life this spring had gone poorly. I’m pretty easy going and happy to interact with people except when I’m facing a single female one-on-one. Lonnie laughed at me and said I just needed to pick myself up and get out there again, as if I’d fallen off a bicycle.
“And what class have you evolved into?” Grandmother asked. Classes are very important in our society. In fact, much of our elementary and secondary education is focused on discovering our class and preparing for participation in it.
“It seems the boundaries between the classes shift back and forth a lot,” I sighed. “I think I could be a Leader, but sometimes I behave like a Commander. I find myself attracted to Inquirers, but not so much so that I can’t think of anything else. What do you think, Grandmother? Have my instructors made a suggestion?”
“Let’s start with the Dexters.” She reached for my hand and turned it palm up, showing it to be clean and soft. “I don’t believe you are physically bent toward working with your hands. Or really with any other part of your body, even though you do play sports. We’ll eliminate that. A Cognoscente? Yes, there is potential. I don’t think you would be satisfied with a mental task performed repeatedly, even if there were problems to be solved. You’d want more variety than that.”
“I know I’m not an Aspirant. I’m sometimes drawn to one vocation or another, but mostly to find out what it is all about. I don’t feel called to any form of service or any profession. And the same is true of Creators. I like to dabble with my drawings and paintings or play a bit on the piano, but I have no passion for it or any other field of interest.”
“We can leave discussion of vocation for another time. I’m sure you will find work that appeals to you. I don’t think you have as compulsive a drive toward order and regulation as a Defender would have,” Grandmother continued. “And much to your parents’ disappointment, you show only scant traces of being a Promoter. I’m sure your father has already been at you about joining the business and learning it from the ground up. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, but is probably not where your heart is. I’m sure you have some of the necessary entrepreneurial skills, but not the mindset to become a Promoter.”
“That brings me back to Leader or Commander,” I sighed.
Grandmother’s suggestion was disturbing. Advisors were always in the background, nudging people toward where they should go. Whether leading or directing people, I tended to like the spotlight. I found that aspect of my ego mildly disturbing.
“No,” Grandmother continued. “I didn’t think so. Leader or Commander. What do you think?”
“I probably have enough ego to be a Commander. But when it comes down to actually telling people what to do, I’m not that great. I can rally people to an idea, get everyone behind us, but it’s always Lonnie who starts assigning jobs and telling people what to do,” I said. Lonnie was my best friend, my roommate for the past eight years, but if I compared myself to him as a Commander, I was unlikely to come out favorably.
“So, a Leader. I believe your teachers agree. Now, it remains to find out what kind of a Leader you will be.”
“That is a problem. I’m not even sure what a Leader does. It seems I need to have a vision before I can get people to follow it.” I found our class structure to be confusing at times. Some of my schoolmates, who had truly settled into their class already, were incredibly proud of it, no matter what class they had discovered. It made sense. I’d heard in my schooling that there were various kinds of personality tests that would show your ‘true class.’ They were often used in the public schools. Elenchus Scholé spent much more time on discovering our class with educators trained in spotting identifying traits and encouraging their growth. But discovering one’s class when it was an integral part of one’s personality and character was often a long and sometimes painful process. Still there was something satisfying about knowing where you fit in society as a whole. It gave you tools for facing life.
“So, that will be your task for the next six months, and hence your need for an assistant,” Grandmother continued. “She will want things to run smoothly and to keep obstacles out of your way so that you can lead on a clear path. In order to do that, however, she will need to see what your path is. She will advise you when you have choices to make. She will discuss with you your philosophy of life. She will probe for your inner character and help you bring it out.”
“She must be very wise and mature.”
“In some things. In others, you will find her as naïve as yourself and you will use each other as a sounding board to find your way.”
“I will learn all I can from her and do my best to become a Leader you can be proud of, Grandmother.”
“I am already proud of you, Liam. Become a man you can be proud of.”
On Saturday morning, I rose at my usual time of five-thirty, despite the long day previous, to find Erich had already been into my dressing room to lay out my running things. I couldn’t believe how well my valet understood me. Better than any of the other adults in our household, including my parents. He’d been a constant for me since my tenth birthday. He didn’t follow me around, but seemed to always be where I needed him.
For example, the year I began attending Elenchus Scholé, a boarding school in Covington—I think it was a relief to my parents to have me out of the house, even though the school was scarcely twenty-five miles from home—Erich could not lodge and be near me at school, but my clothes were always laundered, my bed made up, and my room tidied when I came back from classes. At first, I thought Lonnie had been industrious, though it didn’t seem to be in his character. And his side of our room was just as tidy as mine. If there was a snack waiting for me, there was one waiting for him as well. It took both of us putting our heads together to realize Erich was coming in each day while we were in class.
Which was both a comfort and a pain. It was nice to have everything picked up and tidied and laundered, but it also meant that someone saw exactly how we lived. Lonnie didn’t seem to care. He felt he deserved to be waited on. Grandmother had cautioned me when I was living at home to never misuse my staff and to always try to make their jobs as easy as possible. By the end of my first year at Elenchus, I was making my own bed before I left the room for class in the morning. I made sure my laundry was picked up and in the bag provided for it. Lonnie discovered that after I started making my own bed, his remained unmade. We got a few demerits for leaving the room a mess before he got the message that he needed to take care of himself.
This morning, I needed to run. I needed to clear my head to think about what it meant to be a Leader. And how on earth was I going to relate to having a personal assistant? One thing I knew was that I didn’t dare misuse or abuse her any more than I would Erich.
As I pounded down the path with Leonard at my heels, I tried to figure out what having a personal assistant would mean to my relationship with Erich.
Oh. Leonard. What a perfectly stupid name for a dog. Especially a dog that was assigned as my bodyguard. He was a lean Afghan/Setter mix, reddish gold in color. Not what you’d expect as a guard dog. But Leonard had been at my side for as long as Erich. I’d received a horse and appropriate riding gear as a gift from my parents on my tenth birthday. When I went to the stables for my first riding lesson on Sim—Persimmon, but never called by his full name—Leonard had been in the same stall. We’ve been together ever since. When I was twelve, I decided I hated my family—my parents, really—and decided to run away. I ran to the farthest edge of the estate and started to climb the high fence. Leonard prevented it. Guard dog or babysitter? Well, he was still a good running companion.
Yes. Back to Erich and my assistant. I should have asked Grandmother for her name, but I was sure I wouldn’t know it anyway. That was one thing that would be different. Since she was a woman, she certainly would not be laying out my clothes or coming into my room to straighten things. I chuckled a bit as I passed the two-mile post on my running trail. Perhaps if she was extremely pretty, I might get her to… That wasn’t a good line of thinking. One did not become involved with a member of the staff. Better if she was much older and not so pretty.
What are the things I must do to discover what my role as a Leader is? There were obvious things like organizing a volunteer effort or, as Grandmother did, negotiating a real estate sale or a studying and guiding legislation. I knew Grandmother was a Leader. People simply came to her for help. She settled disputes and often spoke at motivational rallies. More than anything, a Leader brought people together with one mind.
That made me wonder what the difference was between an Advisor and a Leader. Perhaps they were not so far apart. An Advisor might suggest to a Leader where he should go and then fall in line behind him to follow. An Advisor more or less led from behind the Leader, then. In a strange way, that made sense. It still did not leave me any nearer to understanding what my personal assistant would do for me. I ended up in the shower, still unsatisfied with my progress.
“Ah. Erich?” It was Sunday afternoon and we were sitting with the newspaper on the patio having coffee.
“Yes, sir?” Erich was always respectful, even though we had been on a first name basis all my life, it seemed. I was certain he was at least seventy years old—almost a surrogate grandfather. We could sit comfortably with a soft drink on the patio to talk, or he could act as my chauffeur, even driving me on my dates. Date. I’d only successfully asked one young woman out and she politely told me afterward not to ask again. I think Lonnie had convinced her to accept a date with me in the first place. I never had difficulty going out with a mixed group, but facing a single girl gave me butterflies I couldn’t control.
“Do you know a great deal about classes and how they interact? I’m having difficulty understanding the role of my new personal assistant. All I know is that she is Advisor class and I’ve no idea how to interact with one,” I said. Erich laughed.
“What makes you think you don’t know how to interact? Are our encounters so stressful?” he asked.
“Our encounters?” I paused looking at the laughter in his eyes. I suddenly realized that I had no perception of class difference with Erich. I had always assumed that the staff were all Dexters—cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring. But there were also staff who kept the family accounts. There were staff who managed other staff members, planned parties or events, and even consulted with my parents and grandmother. “Erich! Are you an Advisor?”
“Well, now that you mention it, it’s the class I’ve belonged to for over fifty years.”
“But you do so many menial tasks. You collect my laundry and drive me to school. Why are you not advising me and, since I have you, why do I need another personal assistant?” I was completely confused. I knew in my head that occupation and class were two very different things. I’d even studied Leaders who were soldiers, presidents, and outback outfitters and guides. Why did it suddenly surprise me that my valet would be an Advisor?
“Who advises you regarding what you should wear?” Erich asked. “Who taught you table manners, provided dancing lessons, and suggested the venue for your first date?” The failure of that date had nothing to do with the perfectly sensible suggestion of taking her to a well-chaperoned school dance. Or my dancing ability.
“I must be the densest brat alive! I never thought of you in those terms. In truth, I most often think of you as my friend and don’t consider your job at all.”
“Then I have been successful and will be able to retire with pride.”
“Retire? Erich, are you leaving me?” Well, that sounded like a dramatic break-up of a marriage. I felt foolish. “I mean, I don’t want to lose you and I’m concerned that you are provided for in retirement. You’re not that old, after all.”
Erich laughed. He was a spry fellow, trim, a bit bald, always dapper.
“Liam, my young friend, I am seventy years old. I have had a life of helping young people become ladies and gentlemen. I have had, literally, generations of being an Advisor.” He sipped his coffee and tossed the newspaper aside. “Employment in the Cyning household is an honor. And I assure you, my retirement is well-provided for. I won’t abandon you. I’ll phase slowly out of my job as your personal assistant phases into hers. And I will always be your friend. You can always call upon me.”
I didn’t feel any different on the morning I woke up as an eighteen-year-old. In fact, it was a fairly normal day. I ran. I rode my horse for a while. I had a swim. I had luncheon with my parents. That wasn’t unusual, but we didn’t take all of our meals together. Sometimes I joined Grandmother and sometimes I simply ate at the kitchen nook where I wasn’t much bother to people. But this was my birthday, so my parents wanted me with them.
My parents, Lydia and Thomas Cyning, were not neglectful, though much of my life had been spent at boarding school or in the care of Erich—or before him, with a nanny. I’m much closer to Grandmother. But I’ve traveled the world with my parents.
“Your clothes no longer fit you.” Father observed, pointing at my trouser legs. He held a bit of pungent cheese to his lips and paused for another sip of wine. I drank coffee. My parents’ coffee was untouched as they settled in with their second bottle of Grand Cru Saint Émelion from Chateau Cantenac.
“Even the trousers you are wearing no longer have cuffs. Erich had them let out to lengthen the inseam.” Mother plucked a grape from the cluster and popped it into her mouth. “We’ve a card for you. Present this at Monsieur LeFevre’s shop in Covington and he will help you pick a new wardrobe. You’re old enough to shop for your own clothes now. I know your casual wear at Elenchus is Levi’s, but do not go overboard on buying them. You only need a couple of pairs for weekends. The card will let you charge common items at Browning’s as well.”
“Thank you, Mother. With luck the growth is over. I don’t think I’ll get much taller than my current height of five-eight.” They simply nodded.
“Nonetheless, be conservative in your initial choices and save some of the budget for next season, even if you don’t grow more. You never can tell how your needs might change.” Father was no taller than I. Even Grandmother was nearly five-seven when she was younger. I wondered if it was a family trait. There was a ‘big book of ancestors’ that sat in the library at Buxton House. I resolved to have a look at it.
“I will do as you say, Father. And thank you, Mother. I am becoming a bit self-conscious about my clothing. This will help immensely.” I learned long ago to appreciate any gift my parents gave me. Monsieur LeFevre might have been instructed to give me cruise wear for all I knew.
I dressed for dinner and looked critically at my pants legs. They barely touched the top of my shoes when I stood, and were around my ankles when I sat down. I would keep my feet under the table and absolutely never cross my legs. Erich was in the outer room and I presented myself for inspection.
“I know you are uncomfortable with your trousers,” he said. “You put on height rapidly, even while you were in England. We’ll get you shopping as soon as possible. Perhaps it is something you can get your personal assistant to help with.”
“That would be interesting. I’ll just have to stand straight and ignore it,” I laughed. “I think my feet grew, too. My shoes feel tight.”
“It is nearly time for guests to arrive,” Erich said. “Endure this night and as an independent eighteen-year-old, you can shop for new shoes later this week. What an opportunity.”
I left my room and turned right along the hall. There are a lot of halls and rooms, some divided into suites and others just rooms for guests. Buxton House is a monstrosity that was repeatedly built onto as generations of the family married and stayed. I was the only resident on the third floor now so I was surprised when I saw a tall, slender redheaded woman leaving the room just a few doors down from mine.
“Who are you and what are you doing up here?” I asked.
“This is my room,” she said, turning toward me. “I am the new…” We both froze in place.
“Oh, my God. Look who has come to make my life miserable,” I whispered.
I KNEW when I accepted the position that Liam would be a little put off. I hadn’t known his grandmother would not tell him who his new personal assistant was. I suppose she wanted to keep him from whining at her until I arrived. We had not always gotten on well.
“Mr. Cyning. My apologies for startling you. I had not expected to meet you until after five. I hope my appearance is not disconcerting to you,” I said. I would need to handle him carefully and try not to set him off just by being here.
“As long as you keep your fists to yourself, I’m sure I’ll learn to tolerate you,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not. On his tenth birthday, he’d been insufferable about wanting the boys to stay away from the girls. When he’d taunted me by calling me Meri the Savage, I’d punched him in the nose. Got it good and bloody, too.
“I’ve learned much sharper jabs since our last encounter. They don’t leave visible marks, though.” I was certainly not going to be cowed by him. I was an impulsive twelve-year-old when I’d struck him and Mrs. Cyning the elder had given me implicit permission to ‘set him straight.’ I think it was my first test on the path to becoming his assistant. I’d been trained for eight years for this day.
“Must I then be on my guard at all times?”
“No. Being on your guard means you expect me to be on the offense. I have no reason to attack unless you are being an insufferable prat. Even then, I’ve learned to ignore most malfeasance of that sort. I trust that even if rocky in spots, we will be able to develop a positive working relationship.” I held his eyes, even though I had to look up at him now, unlike when we were children and I stood nearly a head taller. Still, I guessed our heights were only two or three inches apart even now.
“We shall need to apply ourselves to the challenge.” He smiled a little. “Miss Sauvage, I am intrigued by the prospect of working with you. I have no doubt that you were chosen by Grandmother as a test of my maturity. I expect you will not be the last such test. May I escort you to the patio where guests will gather for drinks before dinner?”
“I would be delighted to take your arm, Mr. Cyning.” He offered and I accepted his elbow as we walked toward the stairs and the party that was already beginning. I would not often be on his arm. We would have to see if we could even stand being in the same room.
We walked down the stairs companionably, but when I saw that people had already begun to gather, I extracted my hand. Liam turned a questioning look on me.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cyning. I’m your assistant, not your date. It would not look right for me to appear on your arm,” I said. It was also my first day on this job and I didn’t want any of the Cynings looking at me and wondering what I was up to. I stayed near Liam, but not in an intimate proximity.
“Oh. I suppose so. The party is mostly old people. I see Lonnie and his girlfriend, though. Let’s go.” I laid a restraining hand on his elbow again.
“You are the host and even these old people are your guests,” I whispered. “Don’t ignore them.” He sighed, but nonetheless began working his way around the room, greeting each of the guests politely and introducing me as his new assistant. Eventually, we reached his friend and roommate, Lonnie.
“Quite the drag having to talk to everyone,” Lonnie said. “We haven’t met anyone since your parents greeted us at the door. Who is this with you?” Lonnie leaned around Liam to see me more clearly and I stepped out to greet him.
“Is that a way to greet an old school chum?” I asked as I extended my hand to him.
“My God! Meredith Sauvage? You certainly turned out to be a beauty. How did Liam manage to pick you up? Did he finally apologize?” Lonnie asked. His date looked petulant and pulled on his arm. “Oh, this is my friend, Susan Ritter. Susan, Meredith went to school with Liam and me back before we were all sent to boarding schools eight years ago.”
“I don’t believe I’ve met you before either, Miss Ritter,” Liam said. “Welcome to Buxton House and the party.”
“Thank you,” she said. She still looked a little angry at Lonnie. I thought she must be a bit younger than the rest of us. I was more than two years older than Liam and Lonnie was between us.
“Miss Sauvage is my new assistant,” Liam said. “I’m told that I’ll have increasing responsibilities this fall and her help will be much appreciated.”
“We need to get together then,” Lonnie said. “We could all go out and catch up on our lives.”
“By the way, Lonnie, did you meet Jack Lenova? I see him at the bar. Ladies, can we bring you drinks?” Liam asked. Susan and I gave our preferences and I suggested we sit at a nearby table.
“How do you happen to know Mr. Porras and Mr. Cyning?” I asked. I was going to try to get her to behave a little more formally. The four of us were certainly the youngest at the party and I guessed she was the youngest of us.
“Lonnie is my boyfriend,” she seethed. “I never met Liam before. Lonnie just said it was a birthday party and would be fun. There’s only old people here.”
“Mr. Cyning’s parents, I’m told, were responsible for the guest list. I doubt they know many young people.”
“Why do you call Liam Mr. Cyning? He’s younger than you are,” Susan said.
“It’s polite. And besides that, he is my employer. Age alone does not indicate one’s station in life. We should always try to be polite, especially until we actually know a person and are invited to familiarity,” I explained. I had a feeling my words were falling on deaf ears.
I looked for Lonnie and Liam and saw them just parting with an older gentleman I assumed was the Jack Lenova Liam had mentioned. He seemed vaguely familiar, but any memories I had of Buxton House were eight years old.
“Sorry it took us so long,” Liam said as the boys handed us our drinks. “I wanted to be sure Lonnie met Mr. Lenova, my father’s corporate attorney.”
“He could be important to my career,” Lonnie nodded.
“You don’t have a career. You’re just a student,” Susan chided.
“Well, let’s pretend that one day I shall have a career. Okay?”
“What are you studying these days, Mr. Porras?” I asked.
“Well, Father said that the best step into politics is law. I’m not completely convinced, but it can’t hurt and Elenchus has a pre-law specialty with just an extra year. It should at least give me a head start when I move on to law school.”
“Oh, sorry to interrupt,” Liam said. “Grandmother just arrived with Mrs. Grosvenor. Please, let me introduce you to her.” We stood, leaving our drinks on the table and followed Liam to his grandmother’s side. Of course, I’d been interviewed by her half a dozen times in the past few months and I was sure Lonnie was often a guest of Liam’s, but it was a nice gesture.
“Grandmother, I would like to introduce you to my friends, if I may.”
“Of course, Liam. I would love to meet them.” I always found myself at ease around the elder Mrs. Cyning, even though I was a bit in awe of her. I held back and let Liam introduce his friends.
“This is Lonnie Porras and his date, Miss Susan Ritter. Lonnie and Susan, my grandmother, Mrs. Cyning. And this is our friend, Mrs. Grosvenor.” His grandmother seemed to know a lot about Susan as well as the rest of us.
“I’m pleased to meet you again, Mrs. Cyning,” Lonnie said. “Mrs. Grosvenor, a pleasure.”
“Hi,” Susan added. Not the most elegant greeting or the politest response, but she was only fifteen, I’d discovered. And Lonnie was nineteen. I could make allowances for her.
“Miss Ritter, is your mother not Angela Ritter, the newspaper columnist and author?” Mrs. Cyning asked.
“Oh. Yes, ma’am. Do you know her?” Susan was suddenly standing straight and on her best behavior.
“I read her column every day. She is insightful. Perhaps one day you could arrange for us to meet.”
“Certainly, Mrs. Cyning. I’m sure she’d be happy to meet you.”
“Grandmother, may I present my… friend and new assistant, Miss Meredith Sauvage. I believe you have met before. Meredith, my grandmother, Mrs. Cyning, and our friend Mrs. Grosvenor.” It did not escape my attention that Liam was making a genuine effort to bring me into his circle of friends.
“It was so kind of you to allow me to return for this special occasion. I promise to be on my best behavior,” I said, grinning at the woman as she smiled back at me. I took her offered hand and dipped in a small curtsey.
“Welcome back, Meredith.”
“What’s that about being on your best behavior?” Susan asked as we began moving toward the dining room.
“Oh, please, Meredith. Let me tell the story,” Lonnie laughed. “After all, I’m the only impartial observer here to be sure the truth is told.” I laughed and nodded my approval as Liam hid his face in his hands.
“It was a bright and sunny day, exactly eight years ago, that half a dozen school friends and the usual array of adults gathered right where we just were on the patio to celebrate Liam’s tenth birthday. Liam had been given a horse as his birthday gift and was in the process of convincing the boys that we should ditch the girls and go to the stable. Meredith overheard the plot and stepped up to ask what we were planning to do.”
Liam looked at me and I could see the red blush on his face as he mouthed the words “I’m sorry,” to me. Lonnie was on a tear and laughing at being able to tease his roommate.
“Our Liam was a bit of a brat when he was that age and told Meredith it was only of concern to the men and not to stupid girls. He might have escaped at that point if he hadn’t punctuated by calling Miss Sauvage ‘Meri the Savage.’ At which point she delivered the best right hook I’ve ever seen and bloodied Liam’s nose. I did have a moment of heroism as I helped him to his feet and into the house to get cleaned up. When we returned to the party, the other five of our classmates, including Meredith, had left with their parents.”
“I never did discover where they went, but that was when Lonnie and I found out we were going to Elenchus Scholé and would not be returning to the public school with our classmates,” Liam said. We found our places at the table and waited for Mrs. Cyning to be seated before Lonnie and Liam pulled our chairs out and we were seated.
“As I have learned,” I said, “all six of us, Lonnie included, received full scholarship to private schools where we have been studying ever since.”
Next to Liam, a Mr. Ferguson engaged in a conversation involving Lonnie and Mr. Lenova across the table. It was a lively engagement and we were all included.
“I say we should keep them out of the country entirely,” Ferguson said. “We’ve enough of our own poor. We should not need to take care of poor immigrants as well. We can’t feed our own.” He stuffed another healthy bite of prime rib into his mouth. I saw Liam’s grandmother raise an eyebrow at Liam, nodding almost imperceptibly toward Mr. Ferguson. Liam put his silverware down quietly on his plate. I could see Lonnie’s eyes pop open and a look of expectation come across his face.
“Excuse me, Mr. Ferguson. May I ask a question of you?” Liam looked as innocent as he could when Ferguson turned toward him.
“Of course, young man. How are youth to learn if they don’t ask questions?”
“I’m intrigued by your statements. You say we can’t feed our own poor. Does our country not have enough wealth to feed its poor?”
“You need to understand the economics of it,” Ferguson plowed on. “When you give sustenance away to people, then they feel entitled to it without contributing. People who do work for their income become demotivated and eventually feel they should not need to work for their living either. Soon, no one is working and the entire economy collapses because there is no money to keep supporting them without work.”
“So, then the problem becomes one of employing the people who are poor so they can earn a living wage, does it not?”
“There are plenty of jobs.”
“Do those jobs pay enough to feed the poor?”
“If they are not living above their means.”
“Shouldn’t anyone who works be able to afford decent housing, food, and education?”
“People need to adjust their expectations based on what they are capable of earning.”
“What work do you do, Mr. Ferguson?”
“I own businesses and invest my money.”
“Isn’t that the same as being entitled to something that is paid for by other people? Is it not the Dexters who actually earn your income through their hard work? That in itself must be demotivating to poor people who see you enjoying a good life based on their efforts.” Liam maintained his innocent expression, gazing intently at Mr. Ferguson.
“I believe I have contracted a bit of indigestion. If you will excuse me, Mrs. Cyning, I think it would be seemlier if I retire from our current conversation until such time that we can continue it in private and not interrupt this august social gathering.” Mr. Ferguson stood to leave and tugged at his reluctant wife’s chair. With a sigh, she, too, stood.
“Of course, Mr. Ferguson. Please forgive us for not accompanying you to the door.” Mrs. Cyning smiled graciously at her guests. “My responsibility, as you know, is with the guests at the table. Ricardo will see you out.”
“Certainly. Good evening.” The Fergusons begged the pardon of the other guests and Mr. Ferguson paused to assure Liam that he would like to continue the conversation at a later date. When Ricardo returned to the room and nodded to Mrs. Cyning, she stood and began applauding. The other guests joined her applause, though some seemed hesitant.
“Happy birthday, Liam. It is nice to see that you are learning something at Elenchus Scholé.” She seated herself. “Mr. Porras, you were right in the middle of things and heard best the nature and context of the conversation. I understand you consider yourself an impartial third party when it comes to telling tales. As a classmate at Elenchus, please give us your analysis of this discussion.” Lonnie cleared his throat and glanced at Liam. Liam smiled and gestured for him to stand and take the floor.
“If I may say, ma’am, Mr. Ferguson was an easy target, caught up in his own fantasy of wealth and not expecting an ambush. Had he been prepared for this encounter, as I assure you, he will be the next time they meet, Mr. Cyning would not have gotten the edge with the questions he was asking.”
“Would you have had different questions?”
“It is easy to construct better questions after the fact than in the heat of debate. In retrospect, however, yes. Mr. Cyning’s questions took too long to get to the central question of the trickle-down theory and, in fact, did not quite get there before Mr. Ferguson excused himself. I believe he would have reached that point more expediently by directly asking Mr. Ferguson why he did not employ more of the poor and pay them a living wage. That is my opinion, ma’am, and I am certain our teachers would be equally proud of the way Mr. Cyning handled the conversation.” Lonnie sat back down and Regina Cyning looked around the table as if looking for consensus before she began applauding again.
“This is the brilliance of the Elenchus Scholé.” She silenced the applause. “These two young men have not been taught a series of facts to recite. They have been taught to question and discover. I am sure they will apply themselves in different directions as time goes by, but both have very sharp minds and will go far.” She raised her glass for a toast and everyone responded. “Again, happy birthday, Liam.”
After cake and champagne, dinner ended and the party began to break up. I had really only placed my travel bag in my room in order to dress for the party. The next day, I would need to go home and pack for a longer stay. I was unsure yet of all the protocol in the huge old mansion. I didn’t even know how to get a meal if someone didn’t invite me. I turned to say goodnight to Liam.
“Mr. Cyning, perhaps we should set a time to meet in the morning so we can begin a plan as to what our roles will be. I do not expect to be staying here full time, but I have been granted a room so we can spend time working together,” I said. I hope he didn’t assume we’d be working together in my room.
“An excellent idea, Miss Sauvage. Why don’t we meet for breakfast and then we can get on with our tasks for the rest of the day. Would six o’clock be suitable?” Liam asked. I looked at him in disbelief.
“Six? In the morning? Will rising at such an ungodly hour be a requirement of this job?” I couldn’t believe the suggestion. We had all day as far as I knew. Why would we need to start before I was even awake?
“I’m sorry. That was inconsiderate. I’m used to getting up at five o’clock each morning. But I have other things to do in the morning that don’t need to wait for breakfast. In fact, they seldom do. I was letting enthusiasm govern my suggestion rather than good sense.” He really did look apologetic.
“Are you so enthusiastic?” I asked.
“I find that I am. This day has awakened in me a sense of excitement for the future. And a bit of fear of the unknown. I’m hoping you can tell me what I’m supposed to do.”
“Perhaps we can discover that together.”
“What time would be comfortable for you to join me for breakfast?” he asked. I considered telling him noon, but I didn’t want to be that snide.
“Could we make it nine o’clock?”
“Brilliant! I’ll be able to get a full run in, shower, and shave before we meet. I’ll see you then.”
“Uh… Mr. Cyning… Where?”
“Oh! I usually eat in the kitchen. I have a table there for casual meals. I could… meet you in the hall at nine o’clock and show you how to get there.”
“That would be excellent.”
“Shall we walk up to our rooms? I’m ready to call it a night.” I wasn’t sure how to take that suggestion. Yes, my room was just a few doors down from Liam’s but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be saying goodnight at my door. The decision was taken from me.
“Liam, please come to the library. Your mother and I wish to speak to you,” his father demanded. Liam looked sadly at me and shook his head.
“Some other time,” he sighed. “Goodnight, Miss Sauvage.” He followed his parents into the library.
“LIAM, PLEASE COME to the library. Your mother and I wish to speak to you.” I looked apologetically at Meredith but she just shrugged her shoulders and said goodnight. I followed my parents into the library.
“Whatever came over you, Liam? It was unconscionably rude to challenge Mr. Ferguson at a dinner party filled with friends who came to celebrate the achievement of your majority.” Mother accepted a glass of scotch from Father as she scowled at me.
“Were those my friends, Mother?” At my birthday dinner, most of the guests had been my parents’ friends or people they hoped to impress with a dinner at Buxton House. I was merely an excuse for the event.
“This is not a debate,” Father snapped. “Keep your Socratic questions for your conversations with your grandmother. She is the only one amused by them. I happen to be in negotiations with Fergie that could be worth millions.”
“I’m sorry, Father. Do we need money?” Father scowled at me and I conceded defeat. They had long since learned how to handle my attempts to turn the conversation to my own ends. The Socratic method really only works well when you can control the flow of the conversation. It was time to make a straight-forward justification and explanation. “I’m truly sorry, Father. Mr. Ferguson was throwing around unsupported opinions and theories that were disproved decades ago. He was, in fact, directly insulting one of my close friends. Remy Fortier came to this country to get an education and seek the opportunities our nation is reputed to offer all. I could no more sit by and let my friend be insulted than you could help being offended by my treatment of your friend.”
“Remy Fortier does not fit the profile Fergie was describing,” Lydia interrupted. “He’s a good and talented boy and scarcely even has an accent. And he is a virtuoso on the violin.”
“In other words, because he is white?”
“We are not racists! I employ people of all races in my companies and treat them all equally. Their advancement is based on merit and merit alone.”
“Father, it is all too obvious that even assignment to a class has become culturally discriminatory. How can one develop into a Leader if there are no opportunities to lead? How can he become a Commander if all he has ever known is being bossed around and told what to do? We espouse the idea that classes are based on inner character, yet people like Mr. Ferguson continue to promote discriminatory practices under the guise of saying ‘It’s their own fault.’ That simply isn’t acceptable.”
“What is unacceptable is for you to challenge and insult people who came to honor you on your birthday. That is not the sign of a Leader,” Mother said. That stung a bit and I suspected she was probably right.
“I am eighteen years old today. Perhaps the next time there is a party to honor me, it might be with my friends and associates.”
“Go to bed.” Mother tossed down the rest of her drink before continuing. “We’ll discuss this with your grandmother. She egged you on. She can decide the appropriate punishment. If we punish you, you will automatically believe we are being unfair.”
I was relieved. I didn’t like these conversations with my parents. I’d grown to see, over the years, that regardless of class, they honored wealth. And I was a beneficiary of that. I lived in a mansion and never had to worry about anything. I had a feeling that wealth was an obstacle I would need to overcome in order to be a Leader.
I’M SURE THERE ARE DAYS in every mother’s life when she wonders what she did to deserve such a troublesome daughter. I’ve spoken to enough mothers to know in my head that it doesn’t last forever, but perhaps we could just skip the teen years. And having a precocious teen is even more problematic. She shouldn’t have grown up so fast!
I looked at the notes I’d made for next week’s articles. Being a daily columnist had its good parts, but I was itching to get started on my next book. A stack of research on “Leaders of Our Age” looked abandoned on the edge of my desk as I fought with the outlines for my series on “Influencing Class.” It was an ageless argument between the influence of heredity and environment on class determination. Our society had long abandoned the notion of a hereditary class system, and just as quickly abandoned classes based on wealth or position. “Inherent Character” was supposed to be the determination and most of our educational system was supposed to identify and enhance a student’s class characteristics.
I wondered, sometimes, how effective it was. Was there a reason that certain schools turned out large numbers of Dexters—people who were ‘happiest’ working with their hands and bodies—while other schools had more Creators or Commanders or Defenders? I had a stack of research on the teachers in those schools and still had little in the way of conclusive results.
I needed to know why. I guess that’s what makes me an Inquirer. I couldn’t identify anything in my own childhood environment that influenced my class. I had simply always wanted to know the Why and the How of things.
Currently, I wanted to know why my fifteen-year-old daughter was only now getting in at a quarter past midnight.
“They were so pretentious,” Susan answered my question about how the party was. I disciplined myself not to mention the rumpled state of her party clothes and smeared lipstick. “We weren’t allowed to take pictures and I had to leave my camera at the door. I only wanted a couple of snaps to show my friends I was really there. No one will believe me otherwise.”
“It’s an honor to be invited to Buxton House at all. I’m sure if you call, they would arrange a photo tour for you. It’s not polite to just point a camera and take photos of other people’s homes without an invitation to do so,” I said. I’d seen a notice that tours of the old mansion were available for groups, though I’m sure they were closely monitored and did not get to see private areas of the old house. It was one of the original estates that went back nearly two hundred years. It was architecturally grotesque as every generation seemed to add its own touch to the house and grounds. At one time, it was said, over a hundred people had lived there, including the staff. There were only four family members now. I wondered how many staff they needed to maintain the old monstrosity.
“Everyone was so formal,” Susan continued. “Mr. This and Mrs. That. There were only four teens there. Some celebration for an eighteenth birthday. We called each other by our first names, except Liam and Meredith. I mean Lonnie and I used their first names and they used ours, but between the two of them, they were Mr. Cyning and Miss Sauvage.”
“Meredith Sauvage?” I said. “So, she’s the one who won.”
“It’s long been assumed that Liam Cyning would settle into a class as a Leader, Commander, Promoter, or Inquirer. In any of those positions, he would require an assistant. It could even have been your Lonnie who got that job.” I had been reasonably certain the selection would be made soon but was unaware of a choice having been made. One didn’t probe deeply into the affairs of the Cynings, but rumors had surfaced nearly ten years ago that teachers were looking for classmates of Liam to train as assistants.
“Lonnie, an assistant? Hardly,” Susan scoffed. “He’d be Liam’s boss. But I don’t think Liam would make a very good assistant, either. He’s too full of himself. Do you know he started an argument with one of the guests? Rather than pursue the argument at the table, the guest got up and left.”
“Was the guest offended?”
“I don’t think anyone dares to be offended there. How do they rate? I mean, they’re rich, but so are Lonnie’s parents. And Lonnie’s house isn’t as big but it’s much prettier. Buxton House was designed by a dyslexic monkey,” she twittered.
“Oh? When did you see Lonnie’s house?”
“Um… We stopped by so he could introduce me to his parents. Once. They were quite nice.” My daughter was lying. Of course, unpleasant people can adopt an air of politeness when social niceties called for it. I was pretty sure they wouldn’t consider Susan as anything more than a convenient toy for their son and not worth the time of an introduction. Mr. Porras was a Senator and Mrs. Porras managed his career, his campaigns, and his money. “Oh, Lonnie said to be sure to tell you that Mrs. Cyning would like to meet you.”
“No. His grandmother. I don’t know why you’d want to meet that old lady.” My clueless daughter.
“Well, perhaps your relationship with Lonnie Porras will have some benefits after all.” I was afraid the relationship between the two was to be short-lived. A boy four years older than my daughter and screwing her on their second date. I did have sources of information. But what was I to do? Forbidding her to see him would simply mean she would sneak out to be with him. Still, I wondered how traumatic the breakup would be.
“So why do you want to meet her?”
“Regina Cyning may be the most important woman you will ever meet,” I said. “The thickest of my folders of research over there contains everything I’ve discovered about her. I’ve sent half a dozen requests to interview her. Regina Cyning has her fingers on the pulse of America. Not the pulse in the wrist, but the pulse in the neck.”
“What’s the difference? Don’t they both show how fast the heart is beating?”
“To that extent, yes. But if I placed my fingers on the pulse in your wrist and squeezed tight, it would hurt. Perhaps your hand would go numb. Cutting off the flow of blood might be serious enough to lose your hand. Compare that with the pulse in your neck. If I squeezed there hard enough to cut off the flow of blood, you would soon lose consciousness. You might even die.”
“Is she really that powerful? What does she do?”
“She leads. These days, she contents herself with working at a low level, negotiating agreements, reviewing legislation, even arbitrating disputes.”
“Like a judge?”
“Not so formal. People seek her out to resolve their conflicts and problems. In times past, she and her husband frequently met with presidents and dignitaries. Buxton House was the site where treaties were signed, trade agreements made, and even marriage partners introduced. It is a trait of true Leaders that people are willing to follow them.”
“So, do you think Liam will be having that kind of party in the future? I mean with presidents and dignitaries?”
“One doesn’t begin there. Even in leadership, there is a path from the simple to the great. Who knows how far along that path he might go?”
“Lonnie is far more commanding. He’s more likely to go places than Liam is. Even he seemed a little cowed by Mrs. Cyning, though.”
“And much though I wish it was different, you fit with Lonnie much better than with any Cyning. And not because I think you will go through life blindly following his orders, sweetheart. You think alike.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why did you choose Lonnie?”
“He’s a good catch. He’s rich and he’s going places. And I wasn’t about to let Josie Lebrun get her hooks in him.”
“So, you caught him. With sex.”
“Mother!” She stopped and looked me in the eye. There was no way she could deny it. “Yes, I made love to him. And I do it as often as possible. We like it. It’s not like I’m selling myself. I’m not a whore.”
“I didn’t say you were, dear. You are a woman. There was once a time in ancient days, when women had very little choice in the matter. Their value was as breeders. So, they used their sex to attract and capture the man who could protect and provide. We women opened our sex to capture the man and produced children to hold him. Sex has always been a transaction. But the times have changed. Our class system is now generations established. Within the classes, women are neither inferior nor superior.”
“Are the classes discriminatory? I mean… do men and women have an equal chance at being chosen for any class?” Susan was getting to the real problem. It is what I was studying so fervently.
“There are few compiled statistics that would answer that question,” I said. “On the surface, the criteria for evaluation are non-discriminatory. But are there inherent traits in women that indicate a tendency toward one class or another? Perhaps. Let’s take Defenders for example. At first glance, we might see the traditional military force as being a natural home for defenders and it is more likely to be male than female. But the determination to maintain order, discipline, and protect others can be seen as easily in housewives who spend all their time focused on the home and the children as it can be in a soldier. In that instance, women are far more likely to be classed as Defenders. The tasks are different but the class is the same.”
“I don’t want to be held down in what I can achieve. And I don’t want to be lumped into a particular class because I like having sex with my boyfriend.”
“That is less likely than you think. We women are strong enough and independent enough to not need a man to protect and provide. I earn three times what your father does. I bought this house. Why do I need him?”
“Are you talking about love?”
“That comes into play, but in our day and age, love is often an aftereffect of sex rather than a reason. Even after marriage in many instances. Your father has access to much of the Commander class, even though he, himself, is an Advisor. He opens doors for me. And over the years, I have come to love him. Even though my reputation has grown to the point that I might open most of those doors myself, if I ever mistreated him, I would find them slammed in my face.” I hugged my daughter to me and she sighed. How I wish she had not grown up so fast.
“You need to pay attention to Lonnie in more ways than spreading your legs or you will lose him. Much of the benefit of being with him is yet to come. He will open many doors and will go far. If you can show him you can open doors for him as much as he opens them for you, you will keep him.”
“I’m going to lose him. I could see it at the party tonight. He held my hand but he never took his eyes off that girl, Meredith Sauvage, even though she paid no attention to him or to anyone but Liam Cyning. It was obvious she was only there to set her hook in him. Why would Lonnie want her instead of me? I’m much prettier.”
Angela laughed. She couldn’t help herself. She threw back her head and let the laughter roll. Susan stood and stomped her foot.
“It’s not funny. I’ll fight her for him.”
“Oh, you won’t have to, daughter. Meredith Sauvage was bred and born to be with Liam Cyning. It would take someone far more persuasive than Lonnie to interfere with that.”
“You mean she has a marriage contract with him? Is that even legal?”
“I doubt very much they will ever marry. Possibly. She might help him pick his wife eventually. But no matter of that, she has a bond with him that will last a lifetime. They’ll have problems, no doubt. My research has shown significant areas that are a doorway to conflict. But essentially, they are complementary in much the same way you and Lonnie are. You could be his one true love, or you could lose him by being in contention with him instead of cooperation. It will be mostly up to you.”
“How do you know so much about these people?” Susan seemed to seriously be pondering whether she would ever be cooperative enough to stay with Lonnie. It was one of the reasons I regretted her having moved into this relationship so quickly.
“It’s my job and my passion. I am an Inquirer. I research and write about society, politics, and economics. I can see who the influencers and the manipulators are. I study them. I speak about them. I write books and columns about them. I have to know about them. And now, thanks to you, my dear, I will have an opportunity to know Regina Cyning.”
“You’ll write about the Cynings?”
“If she permits it. There are certain things I can never expose to the public. It would be a kiss of death. Hopefully, only to my career. But if she permits me to put my hand on hers, I, too, might feel the pulse of America.”
I STOOD QUIETLY outside Meredith’s door at five minutes until nine in the morning. Whatever else she might think, I didn’t want her believing she had to wait for me.
“Oh!” she said, startled to see me standing there when she opened her door. “Mr. Cyning. You are prompt.”
“I find it best not to keep others waiting for me,” I laughed. “Are you ready for breakfast?”
“Yes. Coffee at least. A little something to eat would be good,” she said.
“Are your quarters satisfactory? I could inquire about something more suitable if you find this… possibly… I mean… I hope you are not upset that our rooms are so close on the same hall. I’ve been living alone up here for so long that it startled me to see you in the hall yesterday and I could see you were startled by my presence this morning,” I said. For the past eight years, I’d attended an all-boys school. Seeing a woman on a residence floor was somehow scandalous.
“The room is lovely. I’ve not even explored it all yet. I agree that it was disconcerting to find a man in the hall. I’ve been at Green Hill Women’s College for eight years. The only men we see are those coming to pick up their dates.”
“Please don’t make any other arrangements for me, Mr. Cyning. It is simply something we must get used to. The proximity will serve us well if we are to work together.” She was being particularly charming this morning and I was having difficulty maintaining an employer/employee detachment. Even though I’d had no use for girls at the time, our clutch of friends seemed always to be together. We would probably have become friends if we’d stayed at the same school. I wasn’t even certain what else I would say to her this morning. If there were five girls there, it wouldn’t be a problem. I wouldn’t need to relate to any one of them. But with just one, I was having trouble getting my thoughts together.
We reached the kitchen and I pulled a chair out for her. I’d called down to Cook to let him know there would be two for breakfast. My parents took nearly all their meals in their private dining room and Grandmother even had a small kitchen in her suite. Only occasionally had I eaten a meal she cooked, though. Usually when I dined with her, Cook sent Ricardo with our meals.
I grabbed two cups from the counter and filled them with strong black coffee.
“Do you take anything in your coffee?” I asked as I set Meredith’s coffee in front of her.
“I believe everything is on the table,” she said pointing to a creamer and a sugar bowl. I didn’t take anything in my coffee and couldn’t remember seeing those on the table before.
“Here we are, Mr. Liam. Miss Meredith. Enjoy your breakfast and let me know if you need anything. I’m just getting ready to prepare the evening meal. Will you both be here or with either of the elder families?” Cook asked.
“I believe we’ll take the meal here,” I said. “No one has invited us anywhere else.”
“Very well. As usual, there will be luncheon items in the refrigerator for your convenience.”
“Thank you, Cook.” The meal looked incredible. Bacon, ham, sausage, a mound of hash browns, pancakes, and eggs. I dug in and really had no time for a pleasant conversation while we were eating. Perhaps, in fact, I was focusing on my food in order to avoid talking. I was sure Meredith noticed.
By the end of breakfast, my plate was clean while Meredith’s still had half the food left on it. “Did the breakfast not suit your taste?” I asked.
“I shall—just this once—cross into a subject that would not normally be discussed in polite conversation. Liam, how much do you weigh?”
“Me? Weigh? I suppose around one-forty or one-forty-five. And you?”
“I repeat, that is normally not considered a polite question. However, I started this to give you precisely that information. I weigh about one-oh-five. Now, considering a forty-pound difference in our weights, the fact that you have burned over twelve hundred calories in a morning run, and your athletic metabolism, how could I possibly eat as much as you?”
“Oh. Oh! I see. I’ll discuss the matter with Cook.”
“No, please don’t. This is for me to discuss with Cook. We are both on staff. Getting you involved would make him nervous.” I could see Meredith’s point. I’d never be able to address the issue without stumbling all over myself anyway. “Now that breakfast is out of the way, why don’t we have another cup of coffee and chat for a bit?”
I couldn’t avoid it any longer. Meredith and I needed to talk and I had no idea what to say. Erich had talked me through a list of conversation starters before my first date. I figured that was as good a place to start as any. As far as I knew, we had no work to do, so we might as well get to know each other better.
“Meredith, where do you go to school?”
“I attend the Green Hill Women’s College where I have studied for eight years,” she said. “The women’s college starts as a middle school and goes through a baccalaureate degree if one stays there long enough. I fancy it is not much different than Elenchus for boys. And by the way, that was a great question. Would you like to know what I study?” When I’d asked that question of my date last spring, she’d looked at me blankly and said, “High school stuff, of course. This is my school.”
“Yes, please. I have no experience with schools other than Elenchus and the public school where we first met.”
“My major focus is now Social Studies.”
I was puzzled. “Is that like Sociology?”
Meredith laughed at my comparison. “Not quite. Sociology is a science, sometimes considered a part of Social Studies, that deals with the development, structure, and functioning of human society. Social Studies is a broader and less scientific study of social interaction and the various roles people play in society. It includes history, government, economics, civics, sociology, geography, class structure, and anthropology. Green Hill is the only school in the state that has a program defined as Social Studies. Years ago, it was called women’s studies but it was expanded to the broader topic since everything at Green Hill is a woman’s study of some sort.”
“I like your laugh.” That was totally inappropriate. I needed to find more questions. What was next on the list?
“Thank you. I find many things amusing that others don’t. I was afraid I might laugh and offend you and you’d ask me to leave.”
“Why ever would you think that, Miss Sauvage? Am I such an ass?”
“Oh, no. I just didn’t want you to think I was laughing at you. We’re very different people. And I’m sorry to say that before we were split up and sent to different schools, we never really had a chance to become friends, though it seemed we were always in the same group of friends,” she said.
“I have to take the blame for that. I was decidedly antisocial when it came to girls. I can’t believe how stupid I was. It took me about six months at Elenchus to realize that I really missed having girls around. And now that I’ve been there eight years, I find that I have no idea how to interact.” That was probably more than I’d said to her at one time since we met the day before. It seemed so strange to have been apart so many years and now be next-door neighbors.
“It is typical of that age group. You were right on the cusp of learning to appreciate girls and I’d already started wanting to be closer to boys. It was probably for the best that we were sent to boarding schools. In many ways, we’ve lived in different worlds.”
“How so?” I was learning a lot about Meredith in this conversation.
“You’re an only child raised by Promoters in a Leader’s household. I am the youngest of five—all brothers—raised by Creators.”
“Was that difficult?” I tried to imagine what it would have been like to have siblings. I rather thought it would be fun.
“I wouldn’t call it difficult, exactly. It was certainly interesting. I think having brothers helped shape my determination to stand up for myself. And contributed to the power of my right hook.” We both laughed at that. It was still embarrassing but I held no ill will toward her for disciplining me. “Much to my parents’ disappointment, none of us turned out Creators. I like things more dependable and smooth running. Not to the extent a Defender would require. But I never knew when ‘the mood’ would strike my parents. They called it inspiration. I thought of it as mood swings.”
“They became depressed?”
“No. Not usually. For example, I might be all dressed and ready to go to an event with them, or even out shopping, and suddenly they’d disappear. It might be two hours later that we left or we might not leave at all.”
“Where did they go?” I didn’t even know what her parents did. Creators were often artists, musicians, or performers. Vocation was not the same as class, though.
“Oh, to the studio, the garden, the kitchen, the bedroom. Their passion leaks all over everything.” She laughed again. I found I wanted to hear that sound often.
“Miss Sauvage, I have no idea what I am supposed to be doing in life. I have an interest in many things but nothing grabs and holds me with the passion you describe.” I took a deep breath and plunged on. “Do you suppose it will be possible to recapture that lost moment from our childhood when we could have become friends?” Her green eyes bored into my own and for a moment, I was afraid I’d offended her. Then her expression softened some.
“I should like that, Mr. Cyning. I should like that very much.”
We relaxed as we chatted over coffee. It wasn’t the first time I’d talked to a woman one-on-one but it was the first time I could remember not being completely tongue-tied. Except Grandmother. I never had difficulty talking to her.
“So, since we don’t have a packed agenda this week and are still working on figuring out what we’re doing, I won’t be spending every night and every day here, if that is all right. I made a commitment to help with the Children’s Hospital Auxiliary this weekend. They are having a fund-raising and awareness festival at Patriot Park,” Meredith said. That sparked something in me. I was on my vacation and seriously doing nothing. I’d just been thinking this weekend about volunteer activities.
“Could you use help? I’m not skilled at anything, but I could run errands or help with games. Whatever.” I looked at her rather anxiously. “I’m not trying to push my way into something you’re involved with. It just seemed like a good opportunity to do something useful.”
“Really? You’d really volunteer? That’s wonderful! I’m sure we could use another person when it comes to rounding up a few hundred children and getting them involved in games. I’ll gladly arrange for you to help!” Her enthusiasm sounded genuine and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’ve been trying to figure out what I should do this summer to discover my… whatever I’m supposed to do. This past weekend, I was thinking that I could volunteer for something but I had no idea what. This would at least get me started,” I said. My relief was not only at her acceptance, but at the thought of having found something useful to do.
“Mr. Liam,” Erich said as he approached the table. We’d been sitting there most of the day. “Your grandmother has extended an invitation to dine with her this evening if you do not have other plans. Both you and Miss Meredith.”
“Oh. We need to tell Cook we’ll be with Grandmother instead of still occupying this table tonight. Miss Sauvage, are you available to dine with my grandmother and me?” I asked.
“That would be lovely,” she said.
“I’ll let Cook know,” Erich said as he left.
“I’ll need to freshen up before dinner,” Meredith said. “Do we have more you’d like to cover this afternoon?”
“I think this has just been a getting to know you day,” I laughed. “And I am delighted to get to know you. Would you like a quick tour of the house before dinner?”
“Oh, that would be nice. I had no idea where to get breakfast this morning until you invited me.”
We walked through the lounge.
“Tell me, do you find our house too ostentatious? I’ve been looking rather critically at my lifestyle lately.” I led Meredith through the main rooms of the house—lounge, formal living room, library, dining room, a small ballroom I didn’t remember ever having been used. I pointed down the first-floor hall toward my parents’ suite and paused on the second floor to point out Grandmother’s suite and the opposite direction to the resident staff rooms.
“Are you uncomfortable here?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t say that so much as that recently, I’ve begun to question how our society is organized. Your specialty, I believe. I feel a bit embarrassed by my family’s wealth, which I have had nothing to do with acquiring but certainly benefit from. It is a shift in worldview I am struggling with.”
“If you are asking if I live like this, no, not at all. My parents do not have a suite separate from the rest of the house. I grew up with four older brothers. That might be why, when younger, I thought an appropriate response to an insult was to slug a boy in the face.” We laughed over that and I felt we had truly gotten past it. “If you are asking if I would like to live like this, my answer would be a bit more ambivalent. It’s hard to imagine myself in a setting like this, but the thought is somehow pleasant. I guess I will discover during my tenure here, how much I do or don’t like it.” We walked on up to the third-floor hallway that, until yesterday, had been my sole domain. We paused for a moment to finish our conversation. “Now, if you are asking if most people live like this, you must understand that it is not only your wealth that sets you apart, but your class. You would be of the same class even if you were penniless, but being a Leader is a natural magnet for wealth. It is in your character.”
“It seems so unequal. Or should I say inequitable?” I puzzled over the idea of wealth in the hands of only a few people. I accused Ferguson of being unemployed and living off the work of others. I am just as bad.
“Helping a class to prosper does not require another class to suffer. Prosperity is not a limited resource.”
“Welcome, welcome,” Grandmother said when we presented ourselves at her door. We joined her immediately at the table where salads had already been set. We politely waited for Grandmother to begin with the first bite before we started. “I’m not going to make a habit of prying but I simply wanted to check in on how your first day has been. Are you going to manage to get along or should I have a boxing ring put in the ballroom?” We all laughed.
“I believe Miss Sauvage and I will avoid coming to blows, Grandmother. I hope that was a lesson that needed to be taught only once,” I said.
“We have both learned better use of our words,” Meredith agreed. “We’ve had a good day getting to know one another. Mr. Cyning has volunteered to help with the hospital benefit Saturday.”
“Excellent. Well done, Liam. Have you made arrangements to go shopping yet?”
“I didn’t even think of that. I rather dread facing Monsieur LeFevre and trying to describe what I need for school. I’ll probably end up with much the same things as always.”
“Perhaps I could assist your endeavor,” Meredith said. She looked at me. I was certain she had chosen that word intentionally.
“Is helping me shop for clothes a part of your portfolio?” I asked. “I would love your assistance if it is available.”
“Shall we plan tomorrow afternoon? I’ll make arrangements with Erich to drive us so we don’t need to worry about where to put your packages.” She was in control. I was amazed.
“Liam, what do you think a personal assistant is for?” Grandmother asked. I admitted I had no idea. “It is good that Meredith is thinking in terms of what she can do to help smooth out the path you travel.”
“I somehow thought I would need to identify tasks and ask her assistance,” I said. “Frankly, the thought terrified me. I would never have thought to ask for help shopping.”
“You will undoubtedly need to direct me at times,” Meredith said. “I’m not a mind reader. I will try to keep ahead when tasks have been identified.”
“I will identify one or two tasks to have you work together on,” Grandmother said. “The volunteer idea is a good one. You should continue to look for other ways you can be of service in the community. You have led a rather sheltered life, Liam. I believe you respond well and deal with other gentlemen without difficulty. I threw the two of you together so you would begin to relate to a woman. You should consider what other ways you can engage with individuals and groups. Two that come to mind are dating and parties. Put your heads together to figure out what social events could be arranged. We have the pool, the stables, the tennis courts, the patio, and acres and acres of trails. They’ve been terribly underused since you started at Elenchus. Have a party!”
“Grandmother… That is a great… I don’t even know who to invite, let alone how to plan a party!” Meredith raised her hand to about shoulder level and waggled her fingers at me. “Miss Sauvage, would you assist me in organizing some simple party?”
“I would be delighted, Mr. Cyning.”
“And how long are you going to keep that up?” Grandmother asked. I turned a blank look to her.
“You two are, hopefully, entering into a partnership that will last a long time. I know the probationary period is six months. I hope we will be able to measure your association in years. The time will be excruciatingly long if you continue to address each other as Mr. and Miss. Now, I don’t mean in public, of course. There is a time and place for everything. You should be able to plan a party and not be using last names.” She looked at us and I know I blushed. “Not now. This is something else for you to deal with in private. Is your office adequate, Meredith?”
“I’ve not even seen it yet, I’m afraid. I have an office?”
“Lupe will escort you to your room this evening and introduce you to your entire suite. I know you’ve scarcely brought anything with you so far but please understand that your rooms are yours for so long as you remain attached to Buxton House.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”
I’m afraid I was pretty quiet through the remainder of the meal and through coffee and dessert in Grandmother’s sitting room. There was much more to this whole personal assistant thing than I imagined. I thought of my father and his assistant. I only ever associated him with the office. I suppose that might be more of a professional assistant than a personal assistant? An association that would last for years?
I needed to examine this carefully. If ‘years’ was the expectation, I needed to be very sure I could tolerate an association with Meredith for a long time. And the ‘personal’ part of personal assistant obviously meant something more… intimate than I had imagined. Not that she and I would ever be intimate in one sense. But she was going shopping with me for my fall wardrobe! She would know my measurements, my taste in clothes, the style of my underwear! Could I allow her to get that close? Only Erich knew me so well.
And what of these other plans? Did Grandmother actually tell me that Meredith should help me plan dates and events at which I might meet other women? That would be… I could almost imagine Meredith waiting up for me in a rocking chair, knitting when I got home from a date. What a motherly thing to do. Would she ask if I had a good time? What we did? If I like the girl?
How could I possibly ever talk to her about things like that?
“Liam, you look a bit feverish,” Grandmother said. “Are you well?”
“Yes, Grandmother. I just feel a bit flushed. If you will forgive me, I think I will retire early this evening. I’m sorry to drag you away…”
“I am going to ask Meredith to stay for a bit longer so we can chat some more,” Grandmother said. “I’ll have Lupe show her back to her room and give her a tour.” I rose and kissed my Grandmother on the cheek.
“Until tomorrow, then,” I said to Meredith. “Why don’t we plan to leave about eleven and have a bite of lunch before we shop?”
“That would be lovely. Until then.” I left and rushed to my room.
“YOU HAVE CONCERNS?” Mrs. Cyning asked as soon Liam left the room.
“Of course,” I answered. “I am concerned about our ability to work together and worried that the honeymoon, so to speak, will be over before we really resolve our relationship. So far, I believe I have seen Liam on his best behavior and it is difficult to not imagine he will turn around one day and still be a brat. It’s worrisome.”
“Well, we all have our ups and downs. Do you believe you’ll be able to weather the storm when it breaks?”
“Yes. Oddly, I am more concerned as to whether Liam will be able to weather it. I don’t want to destroy what is being built. But I don’t dare let him walk on me. I appreciate your concern and the opportunity to vent about mine.”
“We shan’t have these talks often, I’m afraid. I don’t want Liam to think that you are running to me with stories about him. You report to him. I just wanted to confirm in my own mind that we made the right choice with you.” Mrs. Cyning paused for a moment and looked me hard in the eye. “I am confident we did. You’ve been carefully prepared for this responsibility which I do not place on you lightly. Do what you must to expose Liam’s leadership qualities. Help him to see them in himself. Goodnight, Meredith.”
“Goodnight, Mrs. Cyning.”
I stepped into the hall to find a woman waiting for me in a household uniform.
“Good evening, Miss Meredith. I’m Lupe. I was asked to give you a more extensive tour of your suite and let you know where and how to get meals, laundry, and help if you need it.”
“Thank you, Lupe. Today has been exhausting and I’ve not really taken time to learn anything about Buxton House.” She led me first to the kitchen and explained the protocol there. She also told me I could ask for a meal to be sent to my suite if I wanted. When we got to my room, she pointed out the huge walk-in closet and that she had already pressed and hung my clothes. In the dresser, my lingerie had been neatly folded. Fresh toiletries had been laid out on the bathroom sink. Unlike Mrs. Cyning’s suite, mine did not have a separate sitting and dining area. But there was a small table and chairs where I could eat if I wanted, and a lovely easy chair with a reading lamp. It was obvious the room was not set up for entertaining.
“This is your office,” she said, opening a door opposite the bathroom. “It is not completely set up yet, as we wanted your input on preferred décor and furnishing.” The room was large and had only a desk and chair in it, making it seem even larger. “The door here is to the hall so you need not take guests through your bedroom to reach the office.”
“And what is that door?” I asked. The third door was in the wall opposite my bedroom.
“That is a connecting door to Mr. Liam’s study. It is a security door and must be opened from both sides. You needn’t fear being interrupted or interrupting Mr. Liam.”
“Not much need for that, I think. If Mr. Cyning wishes to come to my office, he can use the hall door, like everyone else.”
“Yes, of course, Miss.”
I rose from bed, showered, applied makeup, dressed, and still made it to the breakfast table by eight o’clock. There was no sign of Liam. I went to talk to Cook.
“What would you like for breakfast, Miss Meredith?” he asked. “I can whip up nearly anything, but if you have a regular sequence of meals, it makes it go more smoothly.”
“Thank you, Cook. I’ll try not to be a pain. I feel awkward calling you ‘Cook.’ Do you prefer to be called by name?”
“I’m James Harrison, but I actually prefer being called Cook. It’s what I was called in the Army.”
“Then Cook it is. I eat lightly in the morning, preferring fruit, coffee, and some type of cereal, hot or cold. I’m not very picky.”
“That is not a problem at all. This morning, we have an assortment of fresh berries and oatmeal. Most of the staff just finished eating.”
“I’ll try to be earlier tomorrow. When does Mr. Cyning usually eat?” I followed Cook’s pointed finger to get a coffee mug and pour my own.
“He’s usually in and out by six-thirty when he’s here at Buxton House. Always has been an early riser.” I groaned. It would be hard enough to get to the kitchen while the other staff were eating but I was not going to suggest breakfast meetings with Liam.
As soon as I had finished my meal, I returned to my room. There was no telephone in my office but one sat by the bed. I looked up the number I wanted and called Elenchus.
“Good morning. This is Meredith Sauvage. I am assisting Mr. Liam Cyning in selecting clothing for the coming season and would like to ask about the uniform requirements and other clothing he will need at Elenchus Scholé this fall.”
“Of course, Miss Sauvage. I’m Ray Wellborn, the dorm parent for Mr. Cyning. On matters of fashion and dress, however, it would be better for you to speak to my wife. Will you hold, please?”
“Yes, thank you.” It took only a few seconds for Mrs. Wellborn to come to the phone.
“Miss Sauvage, so nice to meet you. I am Lucille Wellborn, dorm mother. I understand you wish to pick out clothing for Mr. Cyning. May I ask your role in this?”
“Of course, Mrs. Wellborn. I have been hired as Mr. Cyning’s personal assistant as he explores his class potential.”
“Oh, you’re the one. Wonderful! I am so glad he is moving smartly into his class. I’m sure you will have your hands full, but a finer young man you will never find. Here is what we have as our standard list.” Mrs. Wellborn read through the list of clothing. It included uniforms, what she referred to as ‘play clothes,’ and athletic wear. “I hate to see you spend a lot for a full closet of uniforms. We have noted that Mr. Cyning is expected to matriculate to the university after Christmas. I would suggest dropping at least one of the uniforms and preparing to purchase a few items for the less rigid university lifestyle.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Wellborn. I will take your advice. I do hope you have a pleasant afternoon. It has been a pleasure to discuss this with you.”
“Good day, dear.”
I looked at the list and reduced the uniform blazers from two to one. The standard uniform slacks were suitable for casual wear as well as with the uniform but would be boring if he had no other choices. Even though white shirts and ties could always be worn, Liam would need a selection of ties now instead of just the school tie. He would need at least one new suit for dressier occasions. He would look handsome in a Norfolk jacket and wool slacks, and the Norfolk could also be worn with jeans.
Yes, this would be fun.
Our first stop was at the Serenity Garden, a tea shop where we enjoyed a light lunch while I told Liam about the art of shopping.
“You need to drive the conversation when we reach Monsieur LeFevre’s. If he detects you are not in control of your own wardrobe, it will be the same as if you were shopping with your mother. I’ll support you and supply comments about things that would be nice on you or things that you should avoid. Shall we go?” We entered the shop.
“Ah, Mr. Cyning. I see you are shopping for your own clothes. And with a lovely companion. I have laid out all the usual attire if you would come this way.” We followed the tailor into a fitting room where an array of school blazers and slacks were hung. Monsieur LeFevre began by getting a new set of measurements as I browsed through the selection.
“You shan’t need as many school uniforms this year, Mr. Cyning.” I separated out just one jacket and two pair of slacks. “I’m told you will be starting at the University mid-term.”
“Really? I mean, of course. In that case, I’ll need fewer school uniforms and more casual attire for the University, Monsieur LeFevre. I’d prefer the bulk of my winter wardrobe to be more in keeping with the college atmosphere. I’m thinking I will need only one school blazer and would like two appropriate sport coats with an assortment of slacks to go with them. One of the jackets could be another blazer, but I’d like one to be a Norfolk style in an estate tweed. Will that be possible, sir?”
“Of course, Mr. Cyning. Let’s look at a couple of fabrics and see what you like. With your coloring, I would recommend you stick with the blue or gray as your primary colors. Don’t you agree, Miss?”
“For the more formal pieces, I agree, sir. I think though, Mr. Cyning could launch into browns for his tweed.” I fingered a wool fabric and tugged the corner out a bit to show Liam. It was amazingly soft. He smiled.
“I think I like this one, Monsieur. Do you think it would make up nicely in a Norfolk?”
“That is a very good fabric, Mr. Cyning. You have a good eye. This is Suri Alpaca wool from the Argentine Andes. The fabric is woven of natural colors and has not been dyed. It’s more durable than other alpaca wools and considerably warmer so it makes a very good jacket for cool days. Your choice of a traditional Norfolk will go excellently. And for your blazer?”