A Gentleman of Means: A steampunk adventure novel
by Shelley Adina
Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.
Venice, October 1894
Upon her graduation from St. Cecilia’s Academy for Young Ladies at the age of eighteen, Gloria Meriwether-Astor had returned to the Fifteen Colonies believing herself to be the epitome of feminine charm, wealth, and beauty, and had been launched upon Philadelphia society with enormous success. When considerable expenditures of money and energy had not resulted in applications for her hand by either the scions of political families or barons of industry, she had swallowed her chagrin, boarded one of her father’s airships, and been conveyed back to London. When the following glittering Season bore similar fruit—or lack thereof—Gloria’s father Gerald had expressed his disappointment in no uncertain terms.
“I’ll not have you frittering away my money for anyone of lower rank than a baron,” he said one morning as she was pulling on her gloves in preparation for making that day’s calls. “You’re to be a ladyship and that’s that. If you can’t pull it off by the time the Season ends, you’ll go into the business with me and make yourself useful that way. I’m not throwing good money after bad, missy.”
Gloria could think of nothing more appalling than accompanying her father from boardroom to warehouse to ship’s deck and back again, but despite her best efforts and an attempt to elope with the third son of an earl, she was no closer to a wedding by the age of twenty-two than she had been at eighteen. Indeed, she was much farther away, for the successive waves of Buccaneers that had washed up on England’s shores dressed to the nines and ready to bag a peer had become increasingly younger and the competition consequently more intense.
So Gloria had boarded another of her father’s airships and commenced a world tour with him, which had taken her to the Canadas and brought her into renewed acquaintance with her former schoolmate, Lady Claire Trevelyan.
She had not paid much attention to Lady Claire at school. Despite her title and distinguished family, Claire was a brainy, mousy thing who hardly ever spoke, and when she did, it was to say something odd or so distressingly practical that one wondered what on earth kinds of books her father kept in his library. Julia and Catherine despised her, and so Gloria was content to despise her as well.
Until the Canadas. Until young Jake Fletcher McTavish had held the merciless mirror of his opinion up to her, and she had been found wanting for the first time in more important ways than merely looks or wealth.
And Gloria’s life had changed irrevocably.
If she did not know the full extent of her father’s web of intrigue and political aspirations, it was only because he hid them from her. She had been willing to be blind, for to see the truth would have destroyed her world. Or so she had thought, until Lady Claire had drawn her into her confidence and she had helped to save a man’s life in the Canadas. And now, as she stood at the viewing port of Neptune’s Fancy, one of the Meriwether-Astor fleet of undersea dirigibles, she was helping to save a man’s life once more.
Two, in fact: Captain Ian Hollys, of Her Majesty’s Royal Air Corps, and that same Jake Fletcher McTavish, navigator aboard a former pirate vessel called the Stalwart Lass.
She owed him one, and she was determined to see it through.
The tension inherent in doing so, however, was making her nerves vibrate like the strings of a cello.
“Is it not awe-inspiring?” Captain Barnaby Hayes gestured to the undersea view before them—the great gearworks upon which the city of Venice turned, its moving neighborhoods changing places in a clockwork dance of massive proportions every few days. It was Leonardo da Vinci’s masterwork, she had been informed by more than one man as they drifted under gears and arms the size of Buckingham Palace. But Gloria couldn’t concentrate on feats of engineering. Her ears strained for a sound from the torpedo tubes that would tell her that Lady Claire and her fiancé, the renowned scientist Andrew Malvern, had returned from their rescue mission. Her anxious gaze probed the wavering green depths for a sign—swimming figures, perhaps, or a stream of bubbles that would tell her they were on their way back with Captain Hollys and Jake.
Her present company, of course, did not know they and their ship were being used for a rescue mission. Captain Hayes believed Lady Claire to be recovering from a faint in her cabin, Andrew at her side pressing a cold compress to her forehead. Now he gave a quiet command and the vessel changed direction, thrusting gently through the water as though it meant to investigate a gargantuan piece of machinery whose vague outlines she could see in the distance.
She caught at his arm. “Oh, no, let us not go yet. Lady Claire will be recovered in just a moment, I am sure, and I would not wish her or Dr. Malvern to miss such a sight.”
“I am afraid we must, Miss Meriwether-Astor. I have strict instructions to convey you out to the fleet until the danger of the acqua alta is past and you can go back to your hotel.”
Gloria threw a desperate glance over her shoulder. “No, please, we must not leave.”
“Are you so interested in Renaissance engineering, then?” he asked with some interest. “If so, you are the most singular female of my acquaintance.”
He must have a very narrow acquaintance among the gentler sex, then, for her immediate circle here in Venice numbered no fewer than five who possessed an interest in engineering. But this was no time for such small talk.
“I must insist, Captain. Let us return to our previous location so that Lady Claire and Doctor Malvern may see it. I wish to share the experience with my friends.”
Before she could stop him, he had jerked his chin in the direction of the crew’s quarters, and a middy leaped to obey. “We shall inquire as to her health, then,” he said cheerfully. “I would see your mind at rest.”
Her mind would not be at rest, now or in the future, if they discovered the cabin empty. “Goodness.” She hurried after the middy. “How shocking for her to have two males in the cabin.”
But it was already too late. The middy stood in the open door, staring at the empty valises that had contained the breathing apparatus worn by each of her friends.
… to be continued