Having decided to spend one of his last days in San Francisco at the Legion of Honor art museum, Steed emerged from the special exhibit on prints that copied Titian’s works chuckling to himself about the time he told Mrs Peel that her “Titian tresses” were the reason he got distracted and caused them to get into the car accident that was their introduction to one another. He consulted the map of the museum, then decided to go into the wing containing Medieval and Renaissance art next.
He was brought up short in his examination of a fine wood panel painting by Fra Angelico when he heard a voice. He hadn’t been able to catch the words, the words of a docent in another room giving instruction to a group of museum-goers, words in a familiar voice….
Steed sighed and shook his head. The indolence of the past two weeks must be affecting him. Without a problem to solve, his brain must have started making one up. But still, he had heard the voice. Hadn’t he?
Willing himself not to look in the direction of the voice, which continued faintly in the distance, the words inaudible, Steed ambled into another room to continue his perusal of the museum’s fine collection of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art. He was examining the exquisite carving on a piece of late medieval sculpture when he heard trooping of many feet entering the room through the door at the opposite end of the room behind him. And then the voice, clear as day:
” … and if you look above you, you will see a very fine example of Spanish wood carving, in a ceiling piece that dates from about 1500.”
Yes. It was that voice. Her voice. Steed remained rooted to the spot. He daren’t turn, in case it wasn’t actually her. Or maybe because it was.
The voice continued explaining the art. Apparently she hadn’t noticed him. He certainly couldn’t escape without attracting attention. And if it was indeed her, he didn’t want to surprise her in front of her tour group. But he had to know. He moved on to the next exhibit, turning slightly so as to see who the speaker was.
He was right. It was her. But she hadn’t seen him because her back was to him. Apparently she had walked backwards into the room so that she could face her students while she spoke.
There was no mistaking that upright, feline grace. The strong shoulders and nearly masculine hands. The golden hair coiled into an elegant knot at the back of her neck.
It was Cathy. Catherine Gale, PhD, holding forth on medieval art for a museum tour group in her own quietly authoritative manner.
Steed found that he momentarily had stopped breathing. After all those years, to see her, here of all places, now of all times….
And then she turned, beginning a gesture towards the next piece of art in her itinerary. She turned, and saw him gazing at her, hat in his hands, and she froze.
Their eyes locked, and time stood still for how many heartbeats—five? ten? more?
And then she turned back to her group and continued her lecture as though nothing had happened. Or not quite—Steed thought he caught a slight tremor in her voice, a slight frisson down that graceful spine.
She didn’t want to speak to him now, or maybe she couldn’t. Steed wasn’t sure he’d have been able to answer even if she had. He continued his circuit of the room, staying on the fringes, out of Cathy’s way and out of her sightline as much as he could, long practice at assuming roles giving him the control to maintain a façade of nonchalance. He was nothing more than an urbane, cultured, middle-aged man spending an afternoon among San Francisco’s art treasures.
Steed didn’t turn in her direction until she gathered up her charges to lead them into the next room. This time she walked with her back to them, unspeaking, striding firmly away from Steed and the fifteenth century, the sonic space taken up by footfalls and the respectful murmurs of the museum patrons exclaiming their appreciation for what they had just seen and learned.
Two hours later, Steed sat on the bench in the middle of the room, facing some paintings of saints, but not really looking at them. His mind was occupied elsewhere. Cathy hadn’t said anything, hadn’t even acknowledged his presence, but his blood hadn’t stopped singing even so. He wasn’t sure what he had expected after her departure, but somehow he didn’t have the heart for more of the museum, and part of him seemed to think that if he stayed put, somehow having seen her would turn out not to have been a dream. Or maybe he thought that staying would allow him to savor that one quick glance, because even the memory of it would fade as soon as he walked out of the room.
A chime pinged over the museum’s PA system, followed by a smooth voice announcing that the museum would be closing in fifteen minutes and inviting patrons to start making their way towards the exits. Broken out of his reverie, Steed closed his eyes and sighed, then beat his fedora against his leg and stood to go. The way to the exit lay to his right. He wound his way around the edge of the bench, and when he looked up towards the archway that led to the room beyond, for the second time that day his heart skipped a beat. Cathy was standing framed in the archway, tense, hands clasped.
“Steed?” she said.
Why did he always feel a lanky teen in front of her, all hands and feet, breathless and mute? All he could do was gaze at her, and her enigmatic expression. What did he see there? Wonder? Annoyance? Joy? He couldn’t tell. He knew he should say something, but words failed him, until she took two tentative steps into the room.
“Mrs Gale,” he said at last, his voice miraculously not cracking. “How very pleasant to find you here, of all places.”
Steed walked slowly towards her, and when the gap had sufficiently closed, she held out her hand, which Steed clasped. It was the handshake of two colleagues, old friends, but it still somehow had a trace of old intimacy in it. Steed had to force himself not to bend over that elegant hand and kiss it. Cathy never was much of a one for that kind of gallantry.
It was Cathy who dropped her hand and her eyes first.
“I never would have thought to see you on this side of the Atlantic,” she said. “What brings you to San Francisco?”
“Work,” said Steed, and when Cathy cocked her head in that classic gesture of disbelief, he continued: “Enforced holiday. The Ministry’s new personnel officer is chasing us all out of the shadows and into the sunlight and fresh air like a mother hen.”
Cathy chuckled, then became suddenly serious.
“Did you—” she began.
“Know you were here? No. You seemed not to want to be found after you went to Paraguay, so I stopped trying to keep up with your wandering ways.”
A moment of silence passed between them, and then the announcer reminded patrons once again that the museum was about to close.
“I really must go,” said Cathy, although she seemed to show no real desire to leave.
“Would you do me the honor of dining with me tonight?” said Steed.
“Oh, Steed, I would love to, but I’m afraid I’ve an engagement that I can’t possibly break. For work,” she added, sensing him becoming crestfallen. “But I’m free tomorrow for lunch.”
“Thank you. Where shall I meet you? I’m afraid I haven’t a car at the moment; otherwise I could pick you up.”
Cathy gave him the name and address of a restaurant in Berkeley and directions on how to get there from the City as a security guard came in and stated firmly that patrons had to leave now.
“May I walk you out?” said Steed.
“No, thank you, I have a few things I need to finish here before I can go.”
Steed nodded and smiled.
“Until tomorrow?” he said.
Steed bowed to her, then allowed himself to be shepherded out by the guard. He swore he could feel Cathy’s eyes on his back the whole way down the length of the room, until finally he and the guard rounded the corner and he was ushered into the lobby and then out into an early evening that had already been gently invaded by fog.
So now that you know who it is that Steed meets, click on this link to find out why I chose that title.