Chapter 3 – Millicent Gets a Cup of Coffee


London  – July 1862

Millicent got an early start at 7:30 and hailed a cab from the Savoy and gave the University as the destination. The jolting ride took about 15 minutes through the crowded streets. The cabbie was good at maneuvering, but there was only so much one could do with a horse and a good size buggy.  Millicent paid the cabbie a schilling and a few coppers for a tip and proceeded across the quad to the Engineering building. A nip in the air indicated that fall was in full swing in this Northern City. Students hustled between classes bundled with scarves and steam just showing in breaths.  She arrived at the three story brick building and headed inside. A grand stair case headed to the second floor where the administrative offices were. Lecture halls were on the first floor, faculty offices and small labs were on the third. More complex labs resided in the basement.  Millicent entered the Deans office near one of the corners of the long building.

“Hello again, Miranda”

“Hello Millicent. I trust your hotel is fine?”

“It is fine as always and the park trees are just beginning to turn. I really should have you over for a tea and proper conversation.  “

Miranda sighed. “How long are you in town for this time?”

“That depends on the lists. Have you got the addresses?”

“I have one list which is for your competitor. The professor had me write it up for you. He said your list might take a bit more research and could you please come back in a day or two? Your desire for scholarship students not presently employed means he has to figure out who actually got jobs – not always easy.  The other gentleman wanted engineers who would be available, but didn’t specify scholarships. It seems he is less discriminating.  ”

“I am hoping that is case. I am sure I can make it back tomorrow. It will take me awhile to chase down these people anyway. Since I will be in town for a couple of weeks I absolutely must take you out on the town for an afternoon. I will send over a time and we shall make it a date. “

“I will be charmed. I haven’t done anything like that in ages,” Miranda said with some enthusiasm.

“Excellent, we’ll plan on it then. Give the professor my best and expect to hear from me.”

After her meeting with the Dean, yesterday and now having one list, Millicent needed to spend a time reflecting and she knew just the place.  She left the building and headed back across the leaf strewn quad. She walked briskly past the bundled students.  She headed up a street that ran into the center of the University. She headed a few shops down the block and then slipped into the tea and coffee shop “Du univers meilleur café, thé et pâtisseries”[1].  Millicent smiled at the hidden joke and entered the cafe.   A bell on a metal spring jingled announcing her arrival. There was a sizable crowed at the counter waiting to be served. The inside suffered from an excess of doilies and bad lighting, but that seemed the current fashion.  She glanced over the shelves. The tea selection was excellent and the aromas of baking had her mouth watering. Other patrons were enjoying a morning croissant. She hoped the proprietress would be pleased to see her, but that was not a certainty.

A thin woman dressed in black with a white apron came out of the back through the swinging doors.  Her graying hair was pulled into a serious bun, but a few strands had escaped as if to protest the appearance of formality. She glanced in Millicent’s direction.

“Millicent? Millicent Astra – come here right now.” Millicent was quickly enveloped in a hug. The woman called into the back. “Sortir maintenant. J’ai quelqu’un, vous devez satisfaire..“[2]A slightly taller and stockier woman in chefs’ garb came out of the back. “This is Millicent. I have told you some about her. Millicent, this is my partner Alice”

Millicent bowed, grabbed the cook’s hand and said “Je suis s’il vous plaît de vous rencontrer .”[3]

The cook’s eyebrow raised and said “Vous parlez français ? “[4]

Millicent smiled and said “A bit.” She looked back at the first woman “Abigail, you look comfortable, radiant even. It seems shop life suits you well. Business is good? You have enough capital to manage?”

Abigail laughed a bit and touched Millicent’s arm lightly. “You haven’t changed. The first time I see you in years, and you ask about business almost immediately.  Business is very good. The location is perfect. I get harried students and professors in the morning; local shop keeper s and clerks for luncheon and a few retired folk and more professors for afternoon tea. My capital mostly went to the location and getting top rate barista and baking equipment. But enough remains that we are comfortable.  I have a new (well new to you) partner and she manages the baked goods, whilst I manage the business, supplies and coffee and tea side.” The cook retired back to the kitchen as the exchange continued.

“I am always looking for good investments. Let me know if you need a bit more backing.”

“My allotment plus your bonus allowed me to buy the location without a loan AND get the coffee and tea works. I brought in Alice as well and we got the ovens. There is some left in the allotment, but I own everything and the business is thriving. In fact, we are thinking of starting some delivery of baked goods.”

“Do let me know if you need capital. It simply won’t do for one of my retirees to be destitute.”

Abigail laughed. “Hah. Some retirement. But I am comfortable and happy. However, I am also busy with the morning rush. Find a table and I will send something out. Tea or Coffee?”

“Let’s test the barista. I will have a cappuccino. “

Millicent took a small table by the window and took out two notebooks and her list of the other’s candidates.  The first notebook was a standard leather bound set of sheets. She took out a pen to write her competitor’s list onto the page. There were 5 names. The skills listed were similar although there were two whose skills included training in weapons.  Apparently, this was not her client who was only interested in artistic expression rather than competition.  She looked about and opened her second notebook. That notebook looked like another leather bound assembly of pages, but it was markedly different.  That notebook had its own pen. Rather it was a stylus that appeared as a pen.  The pages were thicker and sturdier and when she wrote on them, images would appear. This “notebook” allowed her to function on Earth in the 1800’s while still having access to vast resources of her ship.  She moved to an early page in the second notebook. She wrote Earth, London, and the date on the page. In a short while, a map appeared that to all appearances was appropriate to the era. A small (and barely noticeable) red dot indicated her location. A second blue dot indicated the location of her vessel.  At that moment, a child of 9 or 10 appeared with the espresso and a still warm croissant and she quickly closed this special notebook.

“Here you go ma’am-your cappuccino. And mum said you really need to try Aunt Alice’s croissant”

Millicent looked at her for a moment.  “Why thank you.  What is your name young one?”

“I’m Athena.  Mother says she is the goddess of wisdom. Aunty says she is the goddess of courage.”

“I don’t see why she can’t be both. What a beautiful name. Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“I take my lessons at home. Mother and Aunty teach me. When I was in the local grammar school, it was boring and Mum and Aunt were always fighting with the teachers and the head mistress.”

Millicent smiled. “Your mother was never very good at compromise. So do you do lessons when your Mum and Aunt are working?”

“I get some reading in the morning and a question or two to write on. During lunch I do work on numbers.  And after lunch, I get to work on science.  Mum says that the teachers would never be able to teach me science right. “

“Your mother is quite right on that.  Is that your favorite?”

“I like science best. Mom tells me I have to know my numbers to do science right. I’m not sure about that, but I like to figure things out. “

“You really are quite the child. I have some work to do at the moment. But will you ask your Mom or Aunt if you can stop by my table later and I shall give you a puzzle to solve.”

The young girl’s eyes brightened she quickly skipped off to Abigail and began pleading.  Abigail looked over at Millicent with a warning look. Millicent tried to look innocent, but Abigail knew too much to be fooled by such a façade. Still Millicent’s intents were honest. Abigail had done well for her and had been very loyal. She had a life with challenges and Millicent felt within her rights to assist a little.

Millicent returned to the notebooks. In the first, convention notebook, she wrote down the addresses next to the names as well as skills that had been noted. Then in the second notebook, she turned to the page which now had the map and wrote the addresses again.  For each address, a yellow dot appeared. Two were in South London. Two were near Kings Cross train station. The fifth was in a suburb in the North West.  She pressed a symbol with the stylus and the dots disappeared but had been retained by the notebook. She continued to jot down notes as she considered how to best deal with the competitor. The first order of business would be to visit these people and assess them.

Abigail sat down with a pot of tea. Her apron was off and the stray hairs returned to captivity.

“Jotting a few notes?” Abigail asked innocent.

“You should know. One can never stop observing and learning.” Millicent closed the notebook and looked up.

“Oh I know. Were you jotting similar notes before you recruited us?”

Millicent paused before answering. She took a sip of cappuccino and a bit of croissant.

“This is most excellent. Your partner must have trained in France. I’ve never had one so flaky outside of Paris”

“She’s French. You’re avoiding my question as ever.”

“I was not aware of siblings when you joined, let alone French ones. Although I suppose I might find some lineage somehow. “

“It is a façade to make life easier on Athena. Don’t be disingenuous as well obscure. I had hoped you might be less mysterious when I saw you here. Apparently I was wrong, ” Abigail said tartly.

Millicent laid her hand on Abigail’s. “I am sorry. I forget how much you know. You have kept your word here in retirement.  I need to learn to trust more. So to answer your original question – yes I prepared similar notes prior to recruiting you. Let me check something.”

Millicent went to her second notebook. “Ah yes… skilled in systems management, architecture and small machines. Warm personality at first, but prone to over sensitivity leading to conflicts.”

“Good lord, you’re making that up.”

“On the contrary, the clients like a bit of drama. You are an excellent engineer and could manage projects. Why do you think you were chosen to lead?”

“I was more thinking of the ‘overly sensitive and prone to conflicts’”.

“Really dear, shall I replay that last two minutes? You’re better. I like to think your contract helped. I would guess that Alice and Athena provide a grounding as well. “

Abigail blushed for a moment. She drank her tea and looked out the window.  “I never said thank you after you brought me back” she said quietly.  “I travelled for a year. I was afraid of nothing. I saw the world: the spice bazaars of Arabia; the mountains of India (you simply must have tea there); the temples of Japan; America. Oh America! Crass, wild, loud.  I wish England were as optimistic. “

Millicent sipped some tea and continued to listen.  Her business had its edges and too often her contractors got “lost”. People couldn’t adjust to leaving or coming home.  Or they tried to exploit their knowledge when they came home and she had to step in.

Abigail continued, “I stopped in Paris. The city is alive: the music, the artists, and the food. I spent some time in Montmarte. Claude Monet and Paul Gaugin are doing some amazing things.  I modeled; I attended salons; I drank absinthe.  One day I walked into a bakery and saw Alice behind the counter. I kept coming back for two weeks until she agreed to dinner. “

Pausing for a drink of tea, she continued. “I was angry: angry with the lost time; angry because you left me; angry at the game. Then I came back and became angry because the world hadn’t changed enough. It still seemed to hate me for who I love. Alice saw through all that and managed to let me be me. “

Millicent chanced a comment. “You seem happy. Few of my retirees seem to get that. I can be grateful to Alice for giving you that.” The two continued to sip their teas in silence. A bird stopped by the window and ate a few crumbs from a dropped pastry.

Millicent asked “Do you regret your choice?”

Abigail glanced at her, “I thought you didn’t ask such things.”

“Now who is avoiding an answer?  Though, to be perfectly honest, I believe you are the first retiree with whom I have had such a conversation.  The business demands…a certain distance.  Such professionalism means I only get to deal with problems.  I try to keep tabs on you all. But, when retirees settle, business prevents me from seeing if any of you have really made it. I am finding the remoteness starting to wear thin.“ Millicent glanced around the shop as if assessing it. “The shop is perfect and I must complement you on your location.” Millicent persisted this time, “So again, do you regret your decision?”

“The price was heavy – I never saw my family again. I am not sure anything could have prepared me for that disappointment. Coming back, I am limited in what I can do with what I know. But I saw the galaxy.  I have seen such wonders others may not even imagine. I was able to create miracles and hear praise for my work.  How could I regret such things? I’ve found Alice and we have Athena. I would make the same choices again.”

Millicent closed her eyes and then opened them again, “I am doing some recruiting again. I guess I can feel a bit more honest asking such a sacrifice.”

“If it helps you.  I have some regrets, but I would not trade the years. Now I have to get ready for lunch. Keep the table for as long as you like.”

Millicent considered how she was going to approach these other candidates.  This was new territory for her. She hadn’t had a competitor where she was curating before.  Such things were frowned upon – strongly. But such things happened.  She didn’t have a whole lot of options. She could sign them up for herself, but these candidates hadn’t fit her profile and probably didn’t fit her sensibility.  She could “buy them out” – sign a contract that binds them but not exercise the other contract. That practice would quickly become expensive.  Depending on how much she was willing to bend rules, there were other options, but some of those could get quite ugly. In the meantime, she needed to figure out what to do with this interloper. John Smith staying was simply not acceptable.  Following lunch, she would visit one or two of his candidates and assess the situation.  She reviewed information on the second notebook whilst jotting some ideas in the first notebook.  The morning transformed into late morning. Professors and staff started to file into the shop and order sandwiches or soup on the cold morning.  Athena stopped by the table with another cappuccino.

“So what is my puzzle?”

“Ah yes… your puzzle. Fetch me a sturdy square of paper and a pair of scissors. “Athena returned with the items quickly.

“Now go to your Aunt and ask her when I might get to talk with her a bit.  I shall have your puzzle when you return.” Athena headed off to the kitchen and Millicent quickly cut the shapes out of the square and arranged them on the table next to hers.  In a moment, the woman known as Alice was being led by Athena who seemed to be dragging the woman.  She wore cooking whites with a poorly starched torque whose pleated top drooped to one side. Blond hair was tucked underneath the hat.  Her apron was dusted white, but held stains of berry and other dark substances.  She stood taller than Abigail and her cheeks were red from the heat of the kitchen.

<Hello Madame Millicent. The child insisted on me meeting you properly. I am told your French is flawless?>

Athena piped up,” Soyez gentil, Tante. Elle m’a premis un puzzle”[5]

Millicent responded “C’est la sur la table. Faire un carre des pieces”[6] she then turned to Alice <Abigail can exaggerate my abilities. But I can get by in French. I wanted to let you know how happy I am that she found you. She deserves love.>

Alice glanced around a moment nervously. <I thank you and it relieves me. But Please. Be careful. Not everyone shares such enlightened views.  Your French really is flawless. There is a trace of an accent, but you would be at home in the salons of Paris>

<I doubt few within a block, speak this. And of those, I’ll wager all know of you two. And I’ll wager again that those who know you, have made their own peace.  But I will be discreet.>

Athena concentrated on the pieces, shifting them one way and then another. Alice sat at the table and switched to English with a noticeable accent.

“Abigail has said so little of her journey with you. I always wonder what she had to hide.”

“The secrecy is my requirement, I confess. And I am most insistent on it. Abigail understands the reasons and has agreed to my requirement.  What does she say of the time?” Millicent asked.

“That it was an incredibly long journey. That she saw wonders I could not imagine.  That she built great things. But little more. ”

“All of that is true and more.  She did all that. “

“But she cannot speak of it.”

“Those are my rules. I will bend them a bit for you and ask that you not speak to anyone of this. Athena this goes for you as well because I know you are listening.” There was a small squeak from the neighboring table. “I took her to places where the rock flows like a river. She has seen places where all the plants are red.  She built buildings with materials as light as a spider’s web yet stronger than steel.”

“Why can she not tell anyone?” Alice asked.

“Two reasons. How much do you know of Africa or the Americas and the people who lived there?”

“Just that they are savages. “

“Ah well. That is a discussion for another day.  Now imagine if we brought the steam engine or, worse repeating rifles, to those people. What would happen?”

“They wouldn’t understand it or they would destroy themselves. “

“Why do you say that?”

“They are uneducated and barbaric,” Alice said harshly.

“I’ll grant you the first, but vehemently deny the second.  Now imagine that Abigail has access to information and technology in the same fashion as the Europeans have over Africa or the Americas.  What would happen if she were to use this information here?”

There was a quiet. Then Athena said softly “we wouldn’t understand or we might destroy ourselves.”

Alice protested, “Surely no.”

“Do you think so? Abigail has abided by my rules.  There are consequences and others have tried to break them, but Abigail has been steadfast. You might ask her if she wants to talk about it.”

“She has kept this from me for all these years, “Alice sounded hurt.

“You must not blame Abigail. If she were to break confidence, the consequences are quite severe for Abigail and for everyone else. This is the price she pays for having been my contractor. I beg you not hold her in blame for the secrets I require.” Alice still looked bothered.  Athena came over and sat next to her and held her hand.  Millicent asked, “Does Abigail express regrets for her time with me?” Alice looked at Athena and gently brushed her hair.

“No. In fact, she says she values our family as nothing else in the universe and would not leave us for a moment. She said that wonders grow old and journeys tiresome, but that she has found a home with me, with us.”

Millicent looked away from the child and mother and watched the bustling people walk by. So that is belonging. This is what love is.

“I am truly grateful she found you. You give her happiness that her time with me made difficult to achieve. The world I put her in was harsh and demanding. She was accepted, be she had no one and I was on other ventures. She has found happiness here and I could wish no more.”

“I confess I have been a bit jealous of you – the former woman.”

Millicent laughed lightly. “Abigail was a contractor for me. It would have been horribly bad business and tainted negotiations with her patron if I had any relations with her. And after her contract was finished, she just wanted to go home to her family. And I denied her that small courtesy.  She was quite angry with me. Again, I am glad that she found a new home” and smiled as she looked at Athena.  Athena sensing a tension leaving Alice returned to her puzzle anew.

“Your history is so strange and mysterious. Did you love her?” Alice asked.

“Now who is not being discreet?” Millicent replied with a twinkle. “For reasons that are impossible for me to explain, I will say that is not possible. I have learned to care for my contractors and that is more than most in my profession.”

From the side table, Athena exclaimed, “Mamen, Miss Millicent. I’ve got it. I made a square.”

Millicent admired, “Oh well done child. Not a single hint from me. The puzzle is an Ancient Chinese puzzle. It started as a square. But there are many shapes you can make with it.” Millicent shifted the shapes around. “A duck.” A few more shifts “Here, a star”. Millicent turned to Alice, “It is time for me to do some work. Please thank Abigail for all of your hospitality.”

“Please join us for dinner. Perhaps you can talk of your current work. We meet so few people who understand us,” Alice asked with intensity. “I would like to hear of your life as you can speak of it.”

“Please Ms. Millicent. I can show you my science experiments”, Athena begged.

After a pause, “How can I refuse? I shall return. What are you cooking? I shall bring a proper wine. “

Alice smiled, “I think a duck comfit with fall vegetables.”

“Well then, I will bring a proper wine. And for you, young lady, I shall have a book of diagrams of shapes you can make with that puzzle. What time is dinner?”

“We serve at a proper 8PM. And we are sans ceromonie”

Gathering her belongings, she stood up and bowed to each. “Au reviour, Alice, Athena. We shall talk tonight.”

She put on her hat, grabbed her satchel and headed out the door.  She should have done this sooner.  She straightened her skirts and looked for a taxi. There were people to find and she had a long day ahead of her. But the prospect of a pleasant dinner and companionship made it seem a bit shorter.

 

[1] The Best Coffee, Tea, and Pastries, in the Universe

[2] Come out, I have someone you need to meet.

[3] I am pleased to meet you

[4] You speak French?

[5] Be nice, Aunty. She is giving me a puzzle

[6] It is on the table. Make a square of all the pieces.

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One thought on “Chapter 3 – Millicent Gets a Cup of Coffee

  1. Pingback: New Chapter Added | The Finder's Saga

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