Claire felt so nervous about her upcoming meeting with her old school friend, she could hardly keep steady on the horse's back; if only Ethel knew how important a role she had played in Claire's leaving England...! But no, she wouldn't tell her anything about that. If she wanted her plan to succeed at all, she had to be very careful and be a convincing Mrs. Parker, even if that meant lying to someone as dear to her as Ethel.
Ethel lived in a cosy, two-storey house, on the outskirts of town. There was nothing outstanding or fancy about the building, but it had that welcoming feeling that was lacking in the residences Claire had known herself, luxurious as they were. As she got off the horse and approached the front entrance, she thought she could very easily get used to this new environment. Then, she took a deep breath, and finally gathered enough courage to knock on the door.
Upon receiving her into her home, Ethel affectionately took Claire's hands in hers, and detached from her a little so they could make eye contact. "Well, well, let me take a look at you. Oh, my. You are no longer that dreamy-eyed girl I once knew. You look so much more..., how to put it?... sedate." Claire faintly smiled at the remark, but her expression was short-lived, as her friend continued with her tirade. "I guess that is what growing up does to people. Or perhaps it is just that I find it difficult to picture you clad in mourning." Claire tensed up a bit at the mention of her outfit. "I'm sorry, how inconsiderate of me; you know I always speak a word too much." Ethel made amends. "I'm so sorry for your loss. Had you been married for a long time?"
"It's all right. No need for you to apologize. And thank you." Claire put Ethel's mind at ease, artfully ignoring her question at the same time.
After a moment of silence, Ethel invited Claire to sit at the table, where tea, along with a variety of sweet treats, was already served. "I was very surprised upon receiving your letter, after so much time of not knowing anything about you." Ethel sounded cheerful, but then her tone changed a little. "I was really worried when you didn't show up for that term at school, and no one there seemed to know anything about you either. I wrote to you many times, but you never answered me..."
Claire could perceive that Ethel was still the good-natured and warm woman she remembered, even if a little too exuberant at times; however, she could not make up her mind as to whether her remark had a hint of reproach in it. She couldn't blame her if that was the case. "I am so sorry I never wrote to you again after I left school." Claire looked away. "Truth is, I never received your letters." That much, at least, she could tell her.
"They were stacked in a long-forgotten drawer, and only found them after my father died, three years ago. It seems he never thought they were important enough to give them to me. And then, I just guessed that, after so much time, it made no sense any more to answer them..." She didn't know how to make her excuses.
"So, that's what it was." Ethel's face lighted up a bit again. "Anyway, I would have loved to have your notice, even so belatedly. And..." For the first time, Ethel seemed to hesitate. "Why did you not come back to school after that summer?"
"My father did not want me to." And that was the only answer Claire was ready to give. Fortunately for her, Ethel appeared to notice her discomfort and changed the subject.
"Well," Ethel sighed, "let's not dwell in the past, and just be glad we have found each other again." A broad smile spread her face as she said that.
After finishing their food and drink, conversation continued on the sofa.
"Claire, are you sure you don't want to stay with us, for a while at least? My husband would not mind, and my children are such little dears, you would hardly notice them at all..."
"The rooms I've rented suit me perfectly. Besides, I must learn now to become independent..." Her polite smile suddenly turned into a grimace at the realisation of her newly acquired freedom, of which she knew so little, and which at times scared her. She recovered quickly, though, when she noticed her friend's eyes fixed on hers. "Well, I mean...," she hesitated, "that the money I have left will not last me forever."
They were interrupted by the sound of steps approaching.
"Have you finished your lessons?" Ethel addressed the two little girls who were timidly approaching them. The eldest one nodded her head in response. "Good girls! Come, come meet this friend of mine." She talked to Claire again. "These are my daughters; Caroline, who's five..." The girl sat on her mother's lap as she introduced her. "And Becky, aged three." The little one, imitating her sister's previous gesture, made herself comfortable onto Claire's lap.
Soon, the children were playing with each other, unaware of the two adults warmly smiling at them. Ethel then resumed her earlier conversation with Claire, and asked her. "You must be looking for a job, then?"
Claire was startled by her friend's bold remark. "I know I have to earn my living, the problem is... I am nothing but an untrained woman. Who would hire me?"
"Perhaps I can help you with that..." Ethel answered with a smile.
And there was something else on her mind. Did Ethel really knew what she was doing when she told her to apply for that job? She didn't feel worthy enough to be working for a man, she'd surely do everything wrong, as she always did, and then... Nevertheless, she had to give it a try; who knows?, perhaps she was lucky and Ethel hadn't been too biased when praising Dr. Stuart.