Chapter 2 : In which Our Heroine forms an expedient acquaintance
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After a late brunch of delicately flaky pastries and coffee (Catherine’s hosts, it turned out, also enjoyed sleeping rather late when on holiday), Mrs Allen escorted her young charge out the door for an afternoon of shopping and sightseeing. Because it was such a lovely summer day, the gusty breeze off of the ocean keeping the noon temperature from feeling too oppressive, the pair decided to take the airs and walk into town instead of allowing the Floo to whisk them into the shops directly. Fortunately the distance was not too far, since none of the fashionable shoes Catherine had packed could be called sensible. But even though her toes felt slightly pinched, Catherine was glad to finally see Hidden Springs itself.
The resort was situated on a gently sloping hill, the Allens’ cottage sitting about halfway up along the main paved road that ran straight down to the beach far below. All along the High Street were grand homes like the one Catherine was staying in, most of the impeccable lawns subtly divided from the tufty roadside grass by hedge fences, behind which more staid ironwork defences could be just seen if one peeked through. Though the incline of the hill was not steep, Mrs Allen nevertheless commented on their walk down that they would most likely take the Floo back once their outing had concluded. The comfortably plump woman cited her belief that a trek back up to the house would likely finish her off for the rest of the week.
There were many other people out walking and enjoying the sunshine and fresh air. Mrs Allen and Catherine greeted everyone they passed with polite comments about the weather or wishes of a good day. However, Mrs Allen soon confided in her companion that she didn’t actually know any of these neighbours. Though she was quite familiar with everyone in their home county and also many of her husband’s acquaintances from the Ministry, apparently the general populace of Hidden Springs had changed greatly in recent years. Since the downfall of You-Know-Who four years before, many more witches and wizards were inclined to travel from home to holiday during the summer. Those who resided in Britain were suddenly much less suspicious of their own countrymen, and foreigners, who had avoided the country during the previous times of troubles, now flocked to places like Hidden Springs in spades. Catherine was a bit disappointed to hear of Mrs Allen’s unfamiliarity with the neighbourhood families but put it aside with a certainty she would recognise some people at a larger assembly in town.
Such a gathering was soon approaching, Catherine discovered, by both listening to people’s conversations in the first shop they entered and by reading the placards around town which advertised “The Birthday Ball” being held in a week. She was finally able to glean from the excited chatter of other shoppers that the reason for this party, and the “special anniversary” Mrs Allen had mentioned a while back in Berkshire, was Harry Potter’s fifth birthday on the last day of the month. Catherine figured she probably should have known this, since the little boy was the same age as her brother, Ernie. Though The Boy Who Lived had long since disappeared from wizarding society, the grateful magical people he left behind were still finding any excuse to throw sensational parties in his name at every available opportunity.
So Catherine was unfortunately not introduced to any handsome, available wizards straight off on her first full day in town, but the outing was far from completely unsatisfactory. After a little browsing in several fashionable boutiques, Mrs Allen had taken Catherine to lunch at a quaint café on the beach then treated the girl to a hairstyling at the older woman’s favourite salon. Catherine, of course, wouldn’t permit the stylist to take even an inch off of her precious mane but did quite enjoy the scalp massage and how the Shining Serum infusion made her curls even more glossy than usual. After their beautifying was complete, the pair took the salon’s Floo back home to show off their new coiffures to Mr Allen. He was very polite and commented that both women looked even more radiant than before even though, in all honesty, he couldn’t truly see a difference.
The rest of the week passed in rather the same fashion. Catherine would never have guessed that she could become bored with shopping, primping, and dining, but bored she soon grew. She began to long for just a few moments’ peace from Mrs Allen’s constant chatter about every woman’s hat that they passed and her complaints that she did not know anyone at all they saw. Every time Catherine awoke in the late morning, Rudolpho taunted her from her bedside table; she had barely any time to read since Mr and Mrs Allen were usually very late to retire in the evening, and Catherine thought it rude to go to bed before her hosts. She was rather relieved, therefore, when the day before The Birthday Ball, Mrs Allen suggested they spend the day at The Pump-room, the most exclusive spa in town; because Mrs Allen was very curious to try the spa’s newest lip-plumping treatment, she suggested her young protégé bring a book to entertain herself since she would be unable to talk for several hours.
Though Catherine had become convinced during the past week that she would be blissfully happy never having to listen to a chatty hairstylist ever again, she found being pampered at a spa was something she could easily do every single day for the rest of the summer. The Pump-room was a lovely building, picturesquely located at the very top of the hill in Hidden Springs and surrounded by fresh cedar trees. Fragrant cedar also made up the stark, unfinished walls of the spa, which nevertheless made the atmosphere have an instantly calming effect on the mind. The town’s titular hot springs bubbled forth in the direct centre of the complex, where separate baths for men and women were sunk deep into the ground and screened with delicate partitions of woven reeds. An explanatory pamphlet Catherine was handed by the spa’s greeter explained that the natural odour of sulphur was kept away from the guests’ sensitive noses by way of Purifying Charms and the veritable bushels of flowers that were refreshed daily.
The greeter escorted Catherine and Mrs Allen to the ladies’ half of the building, where they changed into plush white dressing gowns. The pair decided to indulge in a spot of tea before they began their respective treatments, which was fortunate because it would have been difficult for Mrs Allen to participate in the exchange that arose only moments after they were served their refreshments in the spa’s tearoom with her lips coated with triple-filtered Bubotuber emollient.
Catherine was pouring Mrs Allen a cup of spicy chai when she noticed a tall, willowy older woman step up to their table. She wore her monogramed spa-robes like a queen’s mantle, and not even the Diaphanous Slugs stuck to her cheeks lessened her effluent dignity.
“Why, it couldn’t possibly be Hatty Jennings?” the tall woman asked a in lofty tone. Catherine assumed Jennings must have been Mrs Allen’s maiden name since her first name was indeed Harriet.
Mrs Allen turned and replied with a surprised smile, “Why, Emma Steele, I do declare! How long has it been? Oh, but I do believe that you go by the name of Burke now, do you not?”
“I do, though poor Mr Burke sadly left us last winter,” Mrs Burke said, yet with not quite the full amount of sorrow one would expect from a recently widowed woman. “I can’t imagine we’ve met more than once or twice since we left Hogwarts all those years back. You married Flavius Allen shortly thereafter, I believe?”
“How kind of you to remember, my dear Mrs Burke! I am so sorry to hear of your recent loss. Flavius was appointed to the Wizengamot five years ago, and his numerous duties have often kept us from being able to keep track of all the news in town.” Catherine was rather impressed with the delicacy of Mrs Allen’s bragging and mentally filed the technique away for later use.
“Yes, Mr Burke’s business often kept him away from home. He had sold his half to his partner not long before he passed and was barely able to enjoy his retirement. Spattergroit at his age …” Mrs Burke shook her head slightly with a tut, the invertebrates clinging to her face swaying ever so gently with the motion. “I have been kept quite busy myself with all of my delightful children. Is this your eldest?” Mrs Burke raised her eyebrows and looked to Catherine, who was still trying very hard to not stare at the slowly pulsing creatures dangling from the older woman.
“Oh, forgive my rudeness! No, Mr Allen and I do not have any children. This is in fact Catherine Macmillan, the daughter of my neighbours, who graciously agreed to keep me company this summer.”
“How do you do?” Catherine said politely.
“Macmillan? What does your father do, child?” Mrs Burke asked shrewdly.
Forcing herself not to bite her cheek at the diminutive appellation, Catherine replied, “He own Quality Quidditch Supplies in Diagon Alley.”
“Ah! Indeed! And you must still be at Hogwarts, I take it?”
Catherine shook her head. “I finished this past month, ma’am.”
“So you are eighteen.” Mrs Burke seemed to consider the statement to herself for a moment before calling back over her shoulder, “Isabella!” A girl sitting at the far side of the tearoom raised her head from the book she was reading alone at a table. “My eldest daughter. She left Hogwarts several years ago herself and has been completely dying for companionship since we arrived here in Hidden Springs,” Mrs Burke explained as Isabella crossed the room to them.
Introductions were made all around once more. It happened that Isabella was twenty-one, so she had been several years ahead of Catherine at school. Mrs Burke declared that she was the most lovely of her three daughters and so accomplished, though the young lady had yet to settle on a career since she simply had too many talents to choose just one to focus on! Catherine did think that Isabella was quite pretty, with pale blond hair almost as long as Catherine’s own, though stick-straight like stalks of wheat. The two older women soon excused themselves from the table, owing to the fact that they both had scheduled lip-plumping treatments in coincidentally identical time slots, allowing them more time to catch up while utterly unable to form coherent words. Mrs Burke also commented that she should have her slugs changed since these were practically half-dried out already, and Mrs Allen declared she would positively love to try out a pair as well.
Catherine found herself slightly at a loss being suddenly left alone with Isabella, whom she vaguely recognised by sight from Hogwarts but knew nothing about. Fortunately for her, one of Isabella’s many talents appeared to be a knack for steering conversation in a direction that suited Catherine as well. Helping herself to a cup of tea at her new table, Isabella instantly began gushing about the book she had been reading before her mother called her over, the newest novel by one of Catherine’s similarly favourite Gothic authors. Catherine had not read that particular story yet, and Isabella instantly promised to drop her copy off at the Allens’ residence the moment she was through because the younger girl simply could not go all summer without reading about the heart-wrenching romance of the rich vampire Demetrius and the beautiful, though penniless, female ward of his family.
Isabella then noticed Catherine’s own brick-sized book lying to the side.
“Are you reading The Mysterious Count Rudolpho? Why, I positively adore Rudolpho!” Isabella declared delightedly.
“It’s my favourite novel of all time! I believe this is my eighteenth time reading it, though I haven’t been very diligent at keeping an accurate count,” Catherine admitted. Isabella reached across the table to grab the book so as to peruse the cover, which was a painting of the raven-haired count standing on a rocky cliff’s edge, throwing back his long, black cloak to reveal his wand emitting dark purple sparks while cerulean lightning crackled across the stormy sky behind him. Though the jacket was quite swoon-worthy in itself, Catherine would cover it with plain paper once in a while when the flash of the lightning began to annoy her delicate sensibilities. She now tried to not fidget as she watched Isabella throw open the book without much consideration for the delicate spine.
“I can’t say I’ve read it quite that many times myself, though I would gladly wish to. After I returned it once during my sixth year to the school library, I was never able to locate it in the stacks again,” Isabella said with a sly look sideways at Catherine while running a pale, manicured finger over the “Ex Libris Hogwartis” stamp on the inside of the back cover.
Catherine covered her embarrassed giggle with her hand. “Oh, I’m so sorry! I simply couldn’t bear the thought of giving it back once I’d discovered it.”
Isabella laughed as well. “Quite understandable! No bother, Mama recently put in a request to Flourish and Blotts to track down a copy for me. Can you believe it has gone out of print?” The girls spent the next five minutes angrily berating general society, most of whom could not possibly be worth knowing if they didn’t appreciate such a fine body of work as Rudolpho.
The conversation soon meandered over to Hogwarts itself, Isabella confiding that she truly had not cared for school one jot and reassuring the younger girl that things were bound to become more interesting now that her time was no longer restricted by dull things like learning and writing. Catherine was relieved to hear this and assumed Isabella must know what she was talking about since she had already been in high society for three whole years.
Only one minor bump occurred in the smooth paving of their road to instant friendship when Catherine asked Isabella, “You were in Slytherin, weren’t you?”
To which Isabella replied in a voice as cool as her icy blue eyes, “Certainly not. I was a Ravenclaw.” Catherine could have sworn she remembered last seeing the older girl in relation to a green and silver uniform, but she must have been mistaken. After all, she truly did not know anyone outside of her own Hufflepuff House besides her differently Sorted siblings. But Catherine’s unreliable memory was soon forgotten as Isabella launched into a long explanation of just what Catherine could soon look forward to with regards to party invitations and dance partners. Now that they was bosom companions, Catherine’s expectations could only vastly improve from such a fortuitous alliance.
It soon grew time for Catherine’s dragon fertiliser mud-soak. Isabella professed the treatment sounded perfectly heavenly, and she decided she would accompany Catherine and splurge on a soak herself; surely Mama would not mind adding it on to their credit. Therefore the two new chums strolled over to the mudrooms arm in arm, each one’s available appendage clasping her respective novel tightly against her chest. Fortunately the warm mud was only heaped up neck-high on each girl, so they were free to continue their intense discussion of novels, fashion, and of course, handsome young men.
Isabella flushed slightly behind her masque of rehydrated shivelfig paste and confided in a breathless rush that there was already a young man of her acquaintance whom she found herself quite partial to. However, she would not divulge any specific details of the young man’s identity under the premise that Catherine would surely think her the silliest girl in Hidden Springs should she do so. The elder girl hinted that she might be persuaded to drop a few innocent clues once she got some punch into her at The Birthday Ball the following evening, which she would naturally be attending with her mother and proclaimed herself simply overjoyed to learn Mr and Mrs Allen were escorting Catherine there as well.
After a rinsing off and a final soak in the hot springs, Catherine and Isabella were forced to part when Mrs Burke came to collect the latter. The girls clasped pruned hands and promised to meet up the moment they arrived at the ball. Mrs Allen soon tracked down Catherine as well, her lips not appearing much plumper but certainly improved greatly since the treatment had cost eight Galleons. A slight additional charge on their tab arose when it became apparent on checking out of the spa that Mrs Burke had not actually paid for Isabella’s impulsive mud-soak. The spa had therefore billed Mrs Allen’s account, assuming the party was all together since they had spent the entirety of their visit in each other’s company.
Mrs Allen gladly paid the erroneous fee, guessing that it must have just slipped Mrs Burke’s mind in the midst of all their delightfully garbled conversation. Relieved that both she and Catherine had finally made acquaintances in town, Mrs Allen decided to not even mention the oversight to Mrs Burke. It was the least she could do for such a dear old friend, who had, after all, just suffered an unimaginable loss with the death of her husband. Catherine certainly could not mistake Mrs Allen’s relief for any other emotion since her neighbour talked of nothing else to anyone who would listen, including Collins, for the remainder of the evening. However, Catherine tolerated Mrs Allen’s heartfelt sentiments with great amicability since they were also mainly her own. Thank the heavens for Isabella! Through her new best friend’s seemingly well-connected family, Catherine was certainly bound to meet some handsome young wizards now!
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