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Southanger Abbey by Renfair
Chapter 4 : In which Our Heroine is painfully unobservant
 
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Since somewhere in the middle of their copious correspondences the day before, Catherine and Isabella had made plans to meet the afternoon following the ball at The Pump-room, Catherine took the Allens’ Floo directly there following her luncheon. Though the day had dawned a fine one, and Catherine probably would have enjoyed the fresh sea air walking up the hill to the spa on foot, she had decided the time she would waste travelling there in such an uneconomical manner would be much better spent reading the one-hundred-paged prologue to the book her friend had lent her the day before, The Purest Blood. Though the vampire hero Demetrius couldn’t hold a matchstick let alone an entire candle to Rudolpho, Isabella had been right in that it was a real page turner.

Fortunately, Catherine had dressed and groomed herself appropriately for her outing before her midday meal. She had decided to sneak in a few more pages between eating and leaving for the spa, and it was only the clock chiming the hour of noon that alerted Catherine to the fact she was in imminent danger of being late for her meeting with Isabella. Before the twelfth bell had sounded, Catherine had thrown down her book, taken up her purse, and been whisked away through the magical flames to The Pump-room’s entrance hall.

After hurrying through the calming pale blue-papered hallways, Catherine soon located Isabella at the same table she herself had occupied with Mrs Allen two days prior on their first meeting. One of the female aesthemagicians, swathed in a lovely draped robe of silk the same colour and pattern of sea-grass, was just laying a cup of herbal tea and a slice of white cake topped with strawberries in front of her.

“Well, finally!” Isabella declared with a melodramatic rolling of her eyes when she saw Catherine approaching the table. “I have been waiting ages for you!”

“Have you? I’m terribly sorry, I thought I was on time,” Catherine said apologetically. As she placed her purse on the table and took her seat facing her friend, Catherine noted that the clock on the wall behind Isabella showed it to be only three past twelve. She actually believed she had made rather good time, all things considering, and couldn’t imagine Isabella could have been waiting very long at all if her tea had only just arrived. The staff of the spa were very speedy with the filling of orders in the tearoom, believing that the more time customers spent waiting for their refreshment, the less time they would have for things like the Pump-room’s famous kraken-tentacle leg massage.

“I will forgive your tardiness on the sole condition that it was because you were utterly transfixed by the book I leant you yesterday,” Isabella said with sweeping magnanimity as she squeezed the nectar from the honeycane blossom that had been resting on her saucer into her tea.

“Oh, could it be for any other reason?” Catherine declared breathlessly, heartily glad that it was because of her reading that she was slightly unpunctual, for in that case, she was hardly able to take the full blame for it. “I was just at the part where Demetrius has first met Irina. I just know he will give into his passion and be completely unable to resist the temptation of bringing her across so they can be joined forever in eternity … But don’t tell me if he does or not! I shall cry either way if you tell me ahead of time.”

“I won’t spoil it for you, though the temptation for me is practically as irresistible as Demetrius’s,” Isabella said with a sly smile.

“It was quite wicked of you to lend me such an addicting novel when you know perfectly well I am here in Hidden Springs to see some of the world, not spend it sequestered in my bedroom reading like I would back home.”

“I am indeed wicked, for once you finish The Purest Blood, I have the rest of your summer reading completely planned out for you. Next, you simply must read The Dark Lighthouse, followed by The Curse of the Dementor, Seriously Black Intentions, The Boggart’s Bride, Escape from Nurmengard, and A Case of Stolen Virtue, all in that precise order.” Isabella nodded her head decisively as she took a sip of tea to show that she would brook no refusal from her friend to read these vastly prolific works of literature.

“My word! You must truly be the wickedest witch of all time to burden me with such a lengthy list, having the foreknowledge that I have no willpower at all to refuse the recommendation of books with titles like those, especially when that recommendation comes from my dearest friend whose taste in novels is irreproachable.”

“Oh, you are much too kind in your compliments. I merely am passing on the list I had last year from Eliza Andrews. How I long for you to meet Eliza! She is my most treasured friend, apart from you, and positively the sweetest creature alive. I was constantly having to tell off all the boys in our House at Hogwarts for not properly admiring how lovely she is.  Why, at the Solstice Ball our seventh year, I had to flat out refuse to dance with Obadiah Pendragon until he publicly admitted she was the loveliest girl in the entire Great Hall.”

“Do you really tell off boys like that? I would be much too afraid of causing offence to do such a thing!” Catherine’s perfectly arched eyebrows nearly disappeared under her curled fringe with her amazement at her friend’s audacity and confidence.

“But most boys are really in such dire need of a good telling off, being away from their mothers for so long at school,” Isabella explained. “I hope you do not think me brazen, for my actions come not from a desire to create scandal with my behaviour but instead to show these boys that we girls hold our friends closer to our hearts than even our own family. They seem to think that our sex is spiteful and prone to flippancy, but I would defend the honour of my friends with my very life and never hesitate to chastise anyone who spoke ill of them. I have done so on many occasions for Eliza and would, of course, do the same for you, though I cannot imagine you would ever be in need of my defence, being already so popular with young men.”

Catherine flushed bright pink at Isabella’s allusion, assuming she was referring to the attentions she had been paid by Remus the night before. But just in case she was mistaken, Catherine asked coyly, “Why, Isabella, whatever could you mean by such a comment?”

“Only that your fiery and passionate disposition cannot help but attract desirable suitors to you like salamanders to a phoenix ablaze. You are so unlike Eliza in that respect. She can really be quite insipid at times, and her low opinion of herself has the tendency to drive one quite mad. But your charming modesty does you credit, dear Catherine, for I am certain you must be aware that I am trying to delicately reference the occasion of you holding the attention of a very handsome man quite transfixed last night as though you had cast a Sticking Charm to keep him directly at your side all evening. I certainly cannot be the most wicked of the pair of us, for you are the one who has let an entire five minutes of our time together elapse without fully explaining yourself!”

Catherine blushed even redder and embarrassedly murmured a few words of apology for her frightfully rude behaviour the night before regarding her failure to meet up with Isabella at the ball. Isabella laughingly brushed Catherine’s excuses aside, saying that she would have done the same thing in her position and how it had taken the attentions of ten men, that large of an assembly being required for none of them were near as handsome as Remus, to distract her from searching out Catherine herself.

Another aesthimagician was slowly making her rounds throughout the room, checking to see if there was anything she could do for her clients to make them more comfortable, for a small nominal sum, of course. Catherine was thinking of hailing the woman to bring her a some tea like Isabella when her friend placed down her cup on its saucer resolutely and declared that she had finished, and the pair of them should make their way down to the shops. There was a fine pair of yeti-fur boots Isabella had been admiring in a window display day before last—the fact that it was now August the first meaning it was high time to start thinking about winter wear—and she wanted Catherine’s opinion of whether they were worth the splurge or if she should settle for faux-kneazle instead. Catherine agreed to the plan, figuring she really didn’t need to be wasting money on things like tea when there was real shopping to be done. She followed Isabella from the tearoom after the former tossed a handful of Sickles down on the glass table beside her untouched cake.

Since she had planned on taking the Floo back to the Allens and had thus shod herself in her pink platform stilettos, which were fabulous for elongating her ankles while she sat elegantly drinking tea but were not suitable for strenuous activities such as walking, Catherine stopped outside on The Pump-room’s sprawling cedar porch to reach into her charmed purse to remove and change into a more appropriate pair of kitten-heeled, kelpie-skin pumps. Isabella also took a moment to do a complicated little manoeuver where she wiggled her wand jerkily which resulted in it appearing to elongate and sprout petals like an enormous flower. After a moment Catherine saw that Isabella had merely Conjured a large parasol, which she shook fully open after storing her wand back in the drawstring bag she carried around her wrist. Isabella apparently shared Catherine’s desire to maintain her perfectly pallid complexion.

As they walked down the winding paths from the spa to its towering gate that opened onto the High Street, they shared the shade of Isabella’s parasol while discussing The Purest Blood in greater detail. Isabella more than once had to resort to shoving her pale fist into her mouth and biting down to keep herself from divulging too many hints of upcoming plot twists. Catherine also told Isabella the little bit she knew about Remus. Her friend was not familiar with the Lupin family, though she said with a laugh she was very glad to hear that Remus had an older brother who was bound to be just as handsome as he was.

Talk of the ball diverted the pair so much that before they even realised it, they were amidst the hustle and bustle of downtown Hidden Springs. Besides the numerous other holidaymakers taking the airs and window-shopping on foot, dozens of people on broomsticks tore up and down the street, meaning one had to virtually take her life in her hands if one needed to cross to the other side on a corner. Isabella declared that she found all of the broomstick traffic very disagreeable and would love nothing more than if the riders would please keep their bothersome traversing to high above the rooftops where it belonged. Catherine did note that Isabella did not seem to mind quite as much when the passing rider was a young man, for her eyes would shoot sideways when one zoomed by to keep him in her line of sight as long as possible.

As though drawn to her complaining, Catherine and Isabella were nearly bowled completely over when they stepped onto the curb in front of the shoe shop at the precise instant two young, male riders alighted on the sidewalk after pulling out of a set of daring dives of such breakneck speed that the ladies had no time to register their approach. The dexterousness of the men’s reflexes prevented an actual collision, but one was so narrowly avoided that the young women felt that they had certainly just avoided a brush with death; Isabella went so far as to shriek and stumble slightly as though coming over faint from the excitement of it all.

But she soon recovered her wits and cuttingly remarked to the young men, whose backs were to them and didn’t seem to even notice they had almost killed two of the most delicate girls in town, “Oh, do have a care! This is a sidewalk, after all!”

Catherine was about to offer some censure of her own when she was distracted by the extraordinary revelation before her as both riders turned towards them after removing their sleek flying helmets and protective eyewear.

“Why, it’s my brother!” both she and Isabella declared at once. They then turned to stare at each other in surprise.

The two men finally realised that they had nearly caused a serious accident and bowed low while grasping their upright broomsticks. One of them was indeed James Macmillan, Catherine’s eldest brother, and after apologising profusely for their carelessness and rising from his genuflected position, he declared with delight, “Can you believe it?! Catherine and Isabella! What on earth are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same question, James,” Catherine said, looking askance at Isabella, whose face was now blushing as deeply as Catherine’s had been back in the tearoom. She had had no idea her brother and new friend were at all acquainted and wondered why Isabella hadn’t mentioned a connection between their two families existed when she and Catherine were introduced two days before. “I am here for the summer with Mr and Mrs Allen.”

“What a fine joke! And here I was, speaking with John just this morning about how I wished we had some other acquaintance in town whose hospitality I could encroach upon to get you out here to stay for a visit. But forgive me, I don’t think you two are introduced, though I see you know Isabella already. This is her brother and my best mate, John Burke,” he said, gesturing with his free hand to the man beside him, whose full attention was fixed on the face of a large, golden watch he had removed from his robes pocket. “John, this is the eldest of my younger sisters, Catherine.”

“How do you do, John?” Catherine asked, forcing politeness since it seemed neither Burke was going to help her out on that score. Isabella was still fidgeting embarrassedly with the drape of her skirt next to her, and John only glanced up to nod curtly at Catherine before resuming his intense scrutiny of the time. Besides his blatant rudeness, John’s general appearance did not recommend himself well to Catherine, either. Though she would never admit it to him, James was very good-looking with his long, swept-back brown hair and tall, lean frame. John, on the other hand, was short and on the plump side with hair the colour and texture of mouldy straw that had been hacked short with a blunt scythe. The way his head was tilted down to stare at his watch also made him appear to have several chins.

“I hope you’ve been well, Isabella,” James asked with genuine concern. Isabella finally looked up to meet James’s eye, and if Catherine had been more of an astute sort of person, she could not have failed to notice that the recognition in their shared gaze was much more serious than if Isabella were simply the younger sister of James’s good friend.

Before Isabella could reply, her brother finally broke his heretofore complete silence by declaring, “That’s time, James!” and snapping the cover shut on his watch. “It is now one o’clock precisely, and since we left Chudley at half past eleven, that would put our average speed at around seventy-five miles an hour.”

“I think you would find our speed to be more akin to sixty, John, since it is nigh ninety miles here to Hidden Springs,” James corrected his friend.

“No, certainly not, it cannot be so. Look here, my flightometer clearly reads our distance to have been well over one-hundred and thirty miles. I am one hundred per cent certain you would never expect me to believe your own calculations could be more accurate than the instruments of my Astrocaster.” John emphasised his point with a sharp jab of a gloved finger at a set of shiny gadgets attached to his broomstick. He refused to alter his conclusion, even after James pulled out an enchanted map of the county which squeaked the distance of “ninety miles!” aloud when James traced their route on it with the tip of his wand.

“This brother of yours, Catherine, would have me believe that scrap of parchment over mechanical precision! Have you ever heard a suggestion more ludicrous? Just look at my broomstick! Is it not the very picture of performance and speed?” John held out his broom in front of him as if his friend’s sister couldn’t desire anything more fiercely than to take in every clipped twig and polished wooden whorl.

“Truly, I know very little of such things, though it certainly looks very fine,” Catherine replied. She didn’t make it a habit to closely study broomstick models, even though her father’s occupation was selling them and James’s was flying as a reserve player for the Appleby Arrows Quidditch team.

“I should say it’s fine! It had better be for a thousand Galleons! But what is a trivial matter like price when it results in owning such a work of craftsmanship or even, dare I say, art? The bristles are cut and calibrated for optimum aerodynamics, the instruments detailed in faceted adamantine, that is to say nothing of the handle, which is solid redwood, eleven inches in circumference and a full seven feet long.” John ran a hand down the handle as though stroking the back of a prized, cup-winning steed. Not knowing what exactly to say, Catherine settled for nodding her head vigorously.

“Do you enjoy flying, Catherine?” John asked with an ironic leer, as though anyone could ever be so droll as to not think it the most enjoyable mode of transportation ever invented.

“Oh yes, I find it very exciting. James used to let me ride his old broom on occasion when we were on holiday from school.”

“Then I shall consent for you to fly with me daily, and you will not be able to ever stand riding on a subpar broomstick again like that Silver Arrow your brother insists on sporting.” John looked aside at James’s broom and sniffed disdainfully. Catherine did not think she would like being seen flying around town daily with John—it was likely observers would soon start to think the two were involved with each other—and she also found herself already bristling with annoyance with the young man after only meeting him five minutes ago. Though their father was able to get most broomsticks at a wholesale price, it was still impossible for James to afford an international standard broom like an Astrocaster on his present salary, and she thought it wasn’t very tactful of John to point that out.

Without even allowing Catherine to reply, John barrelled on, “I insist that you allow me to fly you out to Mermaid Shoals this evening. James and I were planning on having a clambake with our team to celebrate the end of the Quidditch season. Granted, he was only allowed to fly in four matches as opposed to my seven, but that certainly is no reflection on either his skill with the Quaffle or the quality of his broom.” He dug into James’s side with his elbow and laughed like a horse, James smiling faintly and rubbing at his bruised ribs.

“I would simply love a clambake, John! Though I don’t know if your broom would carry three …” Isabella finally chimed in.

“Of course it wouldn’t! And I didn’t come to Hidden Springs to fly my sisters around!” John retorted hotly, his flaccid cheeks mottled with spots of crimson. “You’ll have to rely on James for a ride.” This didn’t seem to bother Isabella at all, and she blushed again.

“I’m very sorry to have to decline your kind invitation, but I already had plans to attend the theatre this evening with my hosts, the Allens,” Catherine said quickly, glad she had a legitimate excuse to throw him over. Though a clambake with her brother’s Quidditch team, many of whom she knew to be very handsome young men, did sound like fun, she was certain having to travel there clinging to the back of John Burke’s corpulent form removed much of the appeal for her.

“Oh, well perhaps we can all meet up sometime very soon,” James suggested, with a slight tone of disappointment. “John plans to only stay in Hidden Springs a few days, and it would be great fun to go on an outing with all four of us.”

“Yes, certainly!” Catherine agreed with added enthusiasm. Though it is common for elder brothers to often consider younger sisters to be a plague rivalling those of Ancient Egypt, Catherine had always been very close with James and felt guilty about how she was already trying to concoct a good reason why she would be otherwise engaged for the next several days until John left town. Though she was very anxious to spend time with her brother, she would prefer it to be without the elder Burke in attendance.

“We’d better get on, James,” John said impatiently. “I want to give my broom a good looking-over at home. I think I may have scratched it when I decapitated that gull on our descent over the bay.”

“Yes, let’s hurry home!” Isabella insisted, taking hold of her brother’s arm and squeezing it, all thoughts of shopping suddenly thrown to the wind. “You haven’t been back to visit us in ages, and Mama will be so surprised since you gave us no indication you would be coming here, you sly thing!” She turned to James at her side. “I assume you will be staying with us again, won’t you, James?”

Again? Catherine thought to herself.

“Well, your brother had generously invited me to, but I confess I had no idea that the plan had not already been discussed and approved by your mother,” James replied with slight embarrassment.

“Oh, Mama won’t care about that. She loves you nearly as much as though you were another son. Will you come along and join us for tea, Catherine?” Isabella asked.

“I wouldn’t want to intrude on your reunion,” Catherine said, “and I really should be getting back to the Allens soon since I’m not sure at what time we will be departing for the theatre.”

“Why don’t I go back with you, Catherine, to give the Burkes a few moments alone? I would dearly love to say hello to the Allens myself. I can be back to your house by teatime, if that’s agreeable,” James said to John while Isabella pouted beside them at the suggestion of James not accompanying them back to their own house instantly.

“I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be. See you in a while,” John said, then turned to walk back up the street with his sister.

“It was very nice meeting you,” Catherine called after him, not entirely truthfully but believing firmly in good manners. John looked back over his shoulder and nodded slightly with a raised hand before turning back to his conversation with Isabella, the snippets of which Catherine was able to catch over the rush of the sea breeze seemed to be mostly about what an incredible nuisance it was to carry his broomstick all the way home since Isabella was not properly attired for riding.

“Would you like to walk or Apparate? I fear you’re not exactly dressed for flying, either,” James asked Catherine.

“Oh, walk for certain, if you don’t mind. I never got around to passing my Apparation test,” Catherine admitted with embarrassment. James laughed good-naturedly at her confession.

“Why ever not? You are such a goose, Catherine. I don’t mind walking in the slightest, but if you wish to return more quickly, I could send my broom on to the Burkes’ house and bring us back with a Side-Along.”

“No, really,” Catherine insisted. “I haven’t bothered with the test because I simply detest the sensation of having my entire body compressed into nothing, no matter how convenient the result. It leaves me feeling quite ill.”

“Very well, then, walking it is!” James said and deftly Vanished his broomstick to where he would be staying. Catherine had always been rather jealous of James’s knack with advanced magic and had never been able to get the hang of Vanishing and Conjuring herself. She assumed John Burke must have a similar difficulty since she could just barely see him turning a corner far down the street, still lugging his broomstick over his shoulder.

Now unencumbered, the pair walked away in the other direction from the retreating Burkes, across several cobblestoned roads until they were back on the main thoroughfare that would take them back to the Allens’ house. The walk was long but very pleasant since the weather was vastly agreeable and neither brother nor sister had been in possession of much free time for catching up with each other in a great while. As they idly strolled past the perfect lawns of the more grand houses, being kept verdantly lush in the summer heat by imperceptible Hydrating Charms, James declared John Burke to be the most amiable chap he had ever met and asked Catherine’s own impressions of him. Catherine likewise agreed that John was very affable, not wanting to hurt her brother’s feelings and assuming it was quite unlikely she would see much of the other man in the future anyway, considering the apparent brevity of his stay in town.

After a while spent discussing their own family and the growth and general status of their numerous younger siblings, James asked Catherine’s opinion of Isabella, to which his sister was able to answer with genuine and adamant approval, saying she could not have hoped to meet a more wonderful and devoted companion during her stay in Hidden Springs. James appeared even more relieved to hear this particular endorsement and spent the remainder of their walk back with a small smile on his handsome face. Catherine, of course, did not notice this slight change to her brother’s countenance.



Author's Note: No seagulls were harmed in the writing of this chapter.


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