Lady of Devices—Excerpt
To say the explosion rocked the laboratory at St. Cecelia’s Academy for Young Ladies might have overstated the case, but she was still never going to hear the end of it.
Claire Trevelyan closed her eyes as a gobbet of reddish-brown foam dripped off the ceiling and landed squarely on the crown of her head. It dribbled past her ears and onto the pristine sailor collar of her middy blouse, and thence, gravity having its inevitable effect, down the blue seersucker of her uniform’s skirt to the floor.
Shrieking, the other students in the senior Chemistry of the Home class had already flung themselves toward the back of the room and away from the benches directly under the mess. “Ladies!” Professor Grünwald shouted, raising his arms as if to calm the stormy waters, “there is no cause for alarm. Collect yourselves, please.” His gimlet eyes behind their gleaming spectacles pinned Claire in place like a butterfly on a board. “Miss Trevelyan. Did I not, just moments ago, tell you not to add the contents of that dish to your flask?”
“Yes, sir.” She could barely hear herself over the squawking of her classmates.
“Then why did you do it?”
The truth would only net her another grim punishment, but there was no other answer. “To see what would happen, sir.”
“Indeed. I seem to remember you gave Doctor Prescott the same reply after the unfortunate incident with the Tesla coil.” His jaw firmed under its layer of fat. He addressed the back of the room, where the others huddled against the cabinets in which he kept ingredients and equipment. “Ladies, please. Adding peppermint to an infusion of dandelion and burdock will do you no harm. You may adjourn to the powder rooms to rearrange your toilettes if you must.”
Several of the girls stampeded from the room, leaving behind Lady Julia Wellesley, Lady Catherine Montrose, and Miss Gloria Meriwether-Astor, who watched her humiliation with as much wide-eyed delight as if it were the latest flicker at the theater. Claire straightened her spine. She should be used to this. Fortitude was the key.
Another gob of foam landed on her shoulder. Behind her, Lady Catherine stifled a giggle.
“And are you satisfied with your newfound knowledge?” Professor Grünwald was not finished with her yet.
“Yes, sir,” Claire said with complete truth.
“I am delighted to hear it. In future, when I tell you not to do something, I would like the courtesy of obedience. You are here to learn the chemistry of the home, not to engage in silly parlor tricks.”
“But sir, it would be helpful if you had told us why the compounds should not be mixed.”
In the ensuing moment of silence, she heard an indrawn breath of anticipation from the gallery.
“I am sorry to have incommoded you in your quest for information.” His sarcasm dripped as unpleasantly as the substance now forming a sticky mass on her clothes. “By tomorrow morning, you will provide me with one hundred lines stating the following: ‘I will obey instruction and curb my unladylike curiosity.’ Repeat that, please.”
Claire did so in a monotone as faithful as any wax recording.
“Thank you, Miss Trevelyan. You will now go and inform the cleaning staff that their assistance is required here.”
“And you will stay for the remainder of the period and help them.”
Claire clamped her molars down on the urge to further defend herself. “Yes, sir.”
“Ladies, class is dismissed. Thank you for your patience.”
Patience? He was thanking them? Claire kept her face calm above the storm in her heart as she turned toward the door, the heel of her boot slipping several inches in the foam. Lady Catherine giggled again—Claire suspected she couldn’t help herself, being the nervous sort—and the other girls followed her out, careful to keep their clean skirts from touching hers.
“Nicely done, Trevelyan,” Lady Julia Wellesley whispered. “We have a half period free thanks to you.”
“I must say, that brown substance suits you.” Lady Catherine’s overbite became more prominent as she smiled. “It’s the exact color of your hair.”
“Next time, perhaps you’ll be less inclined to show off your superior intellectual powers,” Gloria Meriwether-Astor added, her flat vowels emphasizing a colonial drawl.
Claire tried to keep silent, but this was just too much. She turned to glare at the new heiress from the American Territories, who had fit in with the other girls from the moment of her arrival like an imperious hand in a kid glove. “I don’t show off at all. I—”
“Oh, please,” Lady Julia waved her fingers. “Spare us the false humility. But tell me, how on earth do you expect to attract a husband looking like that?”
“She’s trying to impress old Grünwald.” Lady Catherine giggled. “He’s single.”
He was also forty if he was a day, overweight, and his receding hairline perspired when he was under pressure, which was nearly all the time. Besides which, marrying anyone below the rank of baron was out of the question, never mind a man forced to earn his living by teaching the next generation of society’s glittering lights.
Not that these particular glittering lights wanted to be taught anything but how to embroider a handkerchief or pour a cup of tea. Though if there were a class devoted to the art of landing a titled husband, she had no doubt every one of them would sign up for it and never miss a moment. Of course, Lady Julia could probably teach such a class. Rumor had it that as soon as she descended the platform on graduation day next week, Lord Robert Mount-Batting would go down upon one knee on the lawn and propose. Claire rather doubted that rumor had its facts in order. Lady Julia would never miss her presentation at court in two weeks, nor any of the balls and parties to be held in her honor afterward. If there were to be lawns involved, it would probably be the one at Ascot, or the one at Wellesley House, sometime before the shooting season began in August.
Julia, Catherine, and Claire herself were to be presented to Her Majesty during the same Drawing Room. Claire’s imagination shuddered and refused to venture there. Who knew what fresh humiliation those girls could dream up in that most august company?
Finally ridding herself of the maddening crowd, Claire went to Administration and sent a tube containing Professor Grünwald’s request down to the offices of the staff. No point in cleaning herself up or changing her clothes if she was to be doomed to pushing a mop for the next thirty minutes. This benighted school hadn’t the wit to obtain the services of a mother’s helper to take care of the worst of the mess. Armed with a ladder, mops, and buckets, it took her and the two chars the rest of the period to clean the sticky foam off the ceiling, benches, chairs, and floor of the laboratory.
Thank goodness the professor had retired to his office. She was able to laugh at the chars’ comments on his marital prospects with impunity.
After Claire helped them carry the equipment back to the basement, she changed into her spare uniform in the gymnasium dressing room as fast as she could. Still, she arrived at her French class late with half her blouse’s hem sticking out of the waistband of her skirt, much to the amusement of Lady Julia and Gloria.
“Never mind them,” Emilie Fragonard whispered from the desk behind her as she reached forward and tucked in the offending article. “You’re all right now.”
Dear Emilie. Though her friend’s hair was drawn back in an practical braided bun instead of a flattering pompadour, and her spectacles were, in Claire’s opinion, too heavy for her delicate features and hid her fine eyes, she was the soul of kindness. And kindness, heaven knew, was in short supply at St. Cecelia’s.
After class and before the midday meal, Claire and Emilie took refuge in the dappled shade under a grove of trees on the far side of the lawn. Over the ten-foot granite wall that separated the sheltered young ladies from the bustle of London, the rattle of carriages and jingle of harness could be heard on the road, along with the voices of passers-by and the occasional distinctive chug of a new steam landau. When she heard that sound, Claire could hardly contain the urge to run to the gates and stare. They were such fascinating engines, each one different, yet operating under the same marvelous principles.
“Don’t even think about it.” Emilie’s tone told Claire she’d been caught. “Ladies do not gawk after steam landaus or those who drive them.”
“I don’t care about who drives them. I drive one myself. I just like to look at them.”
“You do not. Drive one, I mean.”
“I do indeed. Gorse is teaching me.”
“Claire Elizabeth Trevelyan!” Emilie put a pale hand against the trunk of the largest of the elms for support. “I thought your escapade with the quadricycle was bad enough. You cannot tell me you are actually piloting one of those dangerous things!”
“They’re not dangerous, if you know their proper operation. Which I do. One’s speed and direction are merely a matter of the correct application of steam. The explosions of the first models are a thing of the past.”
“That’s lucky, knowing how you are about explosions.”
Claire’s good spirits cooled like a fire left too long without fuel. “You heard.”
“The entire school heard. Honestly, dear heart, you’ve got to curb this unhealthy tendency to blow things up.”
“That ridiculous excuse for a professor wouldn’t tell us what would happen. How can I be blamed for the silly man’s stubbornness? If there’s anything I hate, it’s someone telling me ‘don’t’ without saying why.”
“And one must know the reason why for everything.”
“Not everything. But certainly something as simple as why one cannot add a peppermint to dandelion and burdock. One adds peppermint to cookie batter and tea with no harmful effects whatever.”
“Thanks to you, everyone in school now knows why. And by breakfast tomorrow, everyone over at Heathbourne will, too.”
Heathbourne was the equivalent of St. Cecelia’s on the other side of the square—and where she would have gone had she been born a boy and her father’s heir. “I don’t care about the opinions of schoolboys.”
“You will in a few weeks, when you’re at your come-out ball at Carrick House and none of them ask you to dance.”
“You sound exactly like my mother.” Why had no one told her the bow on the front of her middy blouse was lopsided? She pulled it out and began to retie it.
“In this she’s correct, and you know it. Claire, please consider.” Emilie’s tone became gentle. “It’s a fact universally acknowledged that a young lady of good fortune must make a suitable marriage.”
“Do not quote the mores of our grandmothers’ generation to me. Besides, not every young lady wishes that.” Her own appearance taken care of, she reached over to anchor a celluloid hairpin more securely in Emilie’s bun. If it could not be lovely, at least it should be secure.
“Every one who wishes to be received in good society does. You don’t want to be one of those dreadful Chelsea people, like poor Peony Churchill, do you?”
As a matter of fact, Claire coveted and envied the intellectual explorations found in the salons and lecture halls of the Chelsea set, known in the papers as the Wits. It was led by Mrs. Stanley Churchill, Peony’s mother, and populated by explorers and scientists from the Royal Society of Engineers as well as artists, musicians, and the most independent thinkers of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s empire. Their philosophy that the intellect trumped the bloodline flew in the face of most of society. But no one could argue that the Prime Minister himself was one of them. The fact that a scientist or explorer could be granted lands and a title when noble bloodlines were getting more inbred and in some cases dying out altogether was an indication which way the wind blew.
And Claire had always loved the wind. Was it mere coincidence that the family estate in Cornwall was called Gwynn Place, from the Cornish plas-an-gwyn, meaning manor of the wind? Perhaps not. Perhaps it was a sign.
A shadow blotted out the sun and she and Emilie looked up to see not a cloud, but an enormous airship passing far overhead. The eleven-thirty packet to Paris had left its mooring mast at Hampstead Heath exactly on time.
Deep in the marble and sandstone halls of the school, a bell rang. “There’s lunch,” she told Emilie, turning from the wonderful sight of the ship and neatly evading the answer to her friend’s question. “Come along or we’ll be late.”