Another gosh darned book.
I often put the beginnings of books on my blog. They don’t always make it to the end, but I find it helpful. This is another Regency Romance. This time without grave robbing.
I’d love to hear what you think. The title is an allusion to the hero’s interests. There’s another one in the story, but you’ll have to know your chemical history to get it.
“That’s bloody torn it!” Miss Rachel Heppleworth, the youngest and only surviving daughter of Lord Hayforth, was rarely moved to rough language, but her ancient carriage finally failed on her way to London. On her one chance to join society and find a suitable, rich, and hopefully reasonably good looking or at least good mannered, husband. Preferably, not vicious, a non-smoker, though she approved of snuff, at most a moderate gambler, and willing to squire her to the occasional assembly. It would be an extra bonus if he were discreet in his affairs and sensible in his conversation. She and her maid stood while the rain soaked through their pelisses and trickled down their backs. They surveyed the wreck of their carriage. One postilion had ridden ahead to find help.
Lucinda, her maid, companion, and confidant replied, “Miss?”
“It’s raining, almost snowing, the thoroughbrace broke and the weight of the carriage body snapped the rear axle. We’re stuck, here in the middle of nowhere, and worst of all we were due in London by the end of the week.”
“Miss we can always send a letter. Lord Bromly would understand.”
“If the post runs out here.”
Lucinda shivered, the cold and damp had already penetrated her pelisse. Miss Rachel did not fail to notice the chill, nor did she ignore her maid and companion’s discomfort. She pointed to a massive pile of bricks and spires in the distance. “We could see if there is anyone living in that pile of stones. There seems to be a fire and lights.”
Lucinda followed her mistress’s gesture, and gasped, “It’s a mile off, at least. Down a muddy lane.”
“We’ll warm up on the way. You’re already blue from the cold, and there’s nowhere else we could go. I’ll leave a note in the carriage.”
A few minutes later, they started down the mucky lane. It wasn’t heavily travelled, which was a benefit. The mud was just mud and not that mixture of mud and manure the polite world referred to as slough. Still, it was slippery and stuck to the hems of their gowns. Their steps squelched in the mire. Rachel slipped and fell. When she arose, she was covered in the brown gooey slime. She smiled at Lucinda and said, “I hope they’ll send for our trunks.”
“I hope they’ll let you have hot water.”
Shortly after that, Rachel and her maid stood in front of the front door. The building was larger than it had looked from a distance. It was an ancient building that some recent owner had tried to refit into the Georgian style, with mixed success. It was a far more impressive building now that they were finally standing in front of it than it had appeared from the main road.
Rachel quailed at the thought of knocking on the door. Then she steeled herself and said, “Ready?”
Lucinda nodded, and Rachel pulled the bell. A dull ring echoed from the depths of the hall. It finished echoing and there was no response. Rachel pulled on it again. This time the door opened almost immediately. What had been a dull ring became unpleasantly loud.
A tall, gaunt man answered the door. He examined them, from head to foot, and then from foot to head, taking in the details of their dress and its apparent cleanliness. Finally having decided that they were less than genteel, he said, “Yes, Miss? We do not make donations or give alms from this house. The servants entrance is around back if you are desirous of employment. Though we do not need a scullery maid at present.”
“I am Rachel, Lady Hayforth and this is my companion, Miss Holloway. My, our carriage broke on the main road and we wondered if there were some shelter from this inclement weather. Common manners would suggest that we should be welcome.”
The man slowly nodded, and then said, “I see, Ma’am. If you will accompany me, I shall see what the master says.”
He opened the door and lead the two women into the dark hall, and then into a side parlour. One lined with books, books that appeared to have been used. A plethora, a veritable ark of stuffed animals decorated the room. This only added to its melancholy. After saying, “Please wait here,” he turned and slowly made his way off into the dim recesses of the building.
Lucinda turned to her mistress and said, “This is just like a Gothic romance. I’d not be surprised to find a skeleton behind that curtain.” Behind her water streaked down the windows. The storm had decided that rain was in order and now the heavens had opened. The darkening skies made the room grow ever more dim and full of shadows. Lucinda shook from the cold, her teeth chattering as her body tried to warm itself.
“Nonsense Lucinda. This is England, 1816 and not some strange foreign land.” Rachel strode to the curtain, looked at her maid, and pulled the curtain aside. “What did I tell you?”
Lucinda gasped, and Rachel looked. There was a skeleton, a human skeleton mounted as an anatomical display. She quickly pulled the curtain closed with a snap.
“I just hope they are open to visitors and not in deep mourning. I’m so famished that I’d gnaw on these bones.”
“I hope they have a good laundress. Your gown, Miss.”
“Not to mention my face. At least we’re out of the rain and the cold.”
Rupert was deeply into his latest experiment, electrolysing a molten salt to see what metal he could recover, when he was interrupted by a knock on the laboratory door. The windows in the laboratory were open to disperse the thick yellow gas that rose from one electrode, and a cold wind blew through the room. The thick coat he wore, because of the cold, concealed a wiry yet muscular frame. His dark hair was partially bleached from the caustic fumes which gave him unusual blonde streaks. The fumes had also bleached his face, giving him a ghastly white pallor. He wore goggles to protect his eyes. Without looking away from his apparatus, he said, “Edward, what is it, now?”
“Sir, there are two women at the front door. They asked for refuge from the storm, their carriage having had and accident on the main road.”
“You know my opinion about visitors. Send them away.”
“One of them is uncommonly pretty, sir. She would be a diversion.”
“I don’t want to be diverted, but,” he paused, “Are they suitable company?”
“One claims to be Lady Hayforth, the other her maid. They are young.”
“Suggesting something again, Edward?”
“I wouldn’t take that liberty, Sir. Still, may I remind you about the entail?”
“Yes, I know, I shall marry, sometime, if I ever meet the right woman.” Rupert shrugged, “Which seems rather unlikely. My experiment is at a critical stage. See that they are warm and send someone for their bags. I’ll be ready at the regular time for supper.”
“Sir.” Edward bowed. Then he shuffled off.
A few minutes afterwards, with Mrs Hobbes, the housekeeper behind him, he shuffled into the hall.
“Lady Hayforth,” he wheezed, “the Master says that we are to see to your comfort. Mrs Hobbes will escort you.”
Mrs Hobbes curtsied to Rachel, “Lady Hayforth. If you would follow me. We shall see to that gown.”
Lucinda asked, “Our baggage?”
“We’ll send a cart.” Mrs Hobbes smiled, “Don’t worry, the Master is friendly enough. At least when he’s not cooking something up in his laboratory. Follow me.”
She led them upstairs, “Lady Hayforth, this is your room. I’ll see that warm water is sent up.”
Not many minutes later, with her face, arms, and hands, cleaned and her gown drying by the fire, Rachel smiled at her maid from a warm bundle of blankets. “I think we’ve landed on our feet.”
“I don’t know Miss Rachel. This ‘Master’ seems to command almost oriental obedience from his servants.”
“And I don’t?”
Lucinda gave her mistress a playful tap on her shoulder. “You know what I mean.”
“I do, and believe me, I know you’d walk into the flames for me. Still, Lucinda, I can’t imagine inspiring such awe in you or any of my servants.”
“I just wish, Miss Rachel that we hadn’t broken down on the road. If it costs you your chance at a London season, that old carriage was a poor bargain.”
“What else could we have done, Lucy? There wasn’t enough of the needfull in that legacy to be worth investing in any other way and we couldn’t waste it until we get to the City. It will work. I’ll find a stupid rich young man who is tolerable and break the entail. Or failing that support us in the manner to which we are accustomed, if not better.”
“If you say so Miss.”
“You know, Lucinda, that I’ve never had much choice in the matter. Had my parents lived, they’d have sold me to the highest bidder. This way I get something of a say in who I marry. I intend to pick someone who is conformable to my wishes.”
“Yes, Miss. I still think this adventure is ill-fated.”
“Five hundred pounds in the four-percents would give me twenty pounds a year to live on. That’s barely enough to keep body and soul together, not enough to support a genteel life, let alone make me attractive to any sensible man. My, our, only hope is to find someone who thinks the manor is worth the cost of marrying me before the entail takes effect and we lose it. Failing that, at least some man I can tolerate, who isn’t too stupid, lazy or poor. And who, when he strays, is at least discreet about it.”
Lucinda’s response was delayed by a knock on the door. When she answered it, Mrs Hobbes entered, bearing a gown.
“Lady Hayforth. The cart that we sent for your baggage is stuck in the lane. Supper will be served within the hour.”
“Oh. My gown, it’s not dry and we’ve only scraped a little mud from it. I can’t be seen in my stays.”
“I thought as much. This gown, if you would, it was my Mistress’s, and I’m sure she would lend it to you were she still with us.”
“The Master’s late mother. She was about your size, and I sure if Miss Holloway would assist, we could fit you before your trunk arrives.”
“And in time for supper?”
“That too, My Lady.”
Between them, Mrs Hobbes and Lucinda had Rachel dressed in record time. The gown, while old-fashioned, was made of a fine blue silk. The colour complimented Rachel’s eyes, but when she looked at herself in the mirror, she said, “I wish I had the raven black or dashing auburn hair, this gown requires. Not this mousey brown.”
Mrs Hobbes stood back from her creation and said, “My Lady, I’d say it becomes you. My Mistress herself, before her illness, wore this gown to great effect.”
“Swain’s falling at her feet?”
Lucinda said, “Do be serious Miss Rachel.”
Mrs Hobbes attracted their attention, saying, “The Master does not like his supper delayed.” Then she pointed to the door, and added, “Shall we?”
The Master was waiting for them when they arrived. Having removed his goggles and the thick coat he wore in his laboratory, he was elegantly dressed.
He looked at Lady Hayforth in surprise, and said, “Mother?” before catching himself. There were no such things as ghosts, and in any case, his mother would never stoop to haunt her son’s home. It would have been so unbecoming and simply beneath her dignity. His late father, on the other hand would have enjoyed it, but then he would never have appeared as a female.
Mrs Hobbes curtsied to him and said, “Rupert, Lord Hartshorne, may I present Rachel, Lady Hayforth?”
He bowed and said, “Enchanted. I see Mrs Hobbes has seen to your needs. Mother’s dress becomes you.”
Rachel curtsied to him, and blurted out as she rose, “Your eyes, what did you do to them?” Then she blushed and said, “I’m sorry. That was impertinent of me.”
“Not to mention impolite,” he chuckled, “You most likely have noticed the rings from my goggles. I wear them in the laboratory to protect my eyes.” He paused, and then added, “From the fumes.”
Lucinda’s nose wrinkled at the sharp odour that emanated from him. She could not help but ask, “What’s that smell?”
“A product of my research. You get used to it.” Neither Rachel nor Lucinda was sure she wanted to get used to it.
“Is that what happened to your hair?”
His hair had a peculiar bleached look, blonde streaks among the dark black of his natural colour. It was offset by his deeply coloured eyes and eyebrows, which having been protected from the fumes, gave him a piercing glare.
“Well, yes. Rather dashing, don’t you think?” Then remembering his manners, he offered her his arm and said, “I presume you are hungry. Would you care to dine? You and your companion.”
“Miss Holloway, then.”
They turned to enter the dining room, and were promptly interrupted by one of the Master’s footmen. “Sir,” he said, “there is a person. He wishes to talk with Lady Hayforth. About her carriage.”
“Ma’am?” Lord Hartshorne said, “I do not like to be delayed.”
“Sir, I should attend to this. May I?”
“If you wish.”
Rachel followed the footman. Lord Hartshorne, uncharacteristically, decided to delay his repast and followed her.
The footman did not exaggerate, ‘a person’ somewhat described the local carriage-wright. Even Lord Hartshorne, his nose immune to many smells from its exposure to the less appealing aspects of the chemical arts, wrinkled his nose at the odour. It steamed off the man and filled the front hall with a distinctive miasma.
“Miss Heppleworth. That carriage of yours, it’s fair broke.”
“The brace snapped, then the body landed on the axle. Snapped one.”
“Close on fifty pound to fix. Almost as much work as building a new one.”
“Fifty pounds!” There weren’t fifty pounds to spare in Rachel’s calculations. Maybe, if she were lucky, fifty shillings, and in reality more like fifty farthings.
“Aye, if that little. Be a week at least before we can get to it. Have to wait out this rain. It’s well stuck in.”
Lucinda turned to her mistress, “What are we going to do? We’re due in London. Lord Bromly expects us.”
“If I may,” Rupert interjected himself, “is that all it will take? Only fifty pounds.”
Rupert looked at the two young women, one was decidedly pretty, dashed pretty at that, but still a distraction for his serious endeavours. “One hundred pounds, if you’re done tomorrow.”
The carriage-wright stared at him. Fifty pounds was an opening shot across the bows, in hopes that the price wouldn’t be bargained down to a more realistic twenty-five or even less. “One hundred, sir?”
“Only if the carriage is ready tomorrow. Next day, seventy five.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Sir.” For one hundred pounds, he’d undertake to move the mountain to Mohammed, with a soup-spoon.
“Excellent. Now Lady Hayforth and Miss Holloway, would you care to join me in our repast. If it isn’t too cold.”
Dinner was surprisingly simple, only one course, of a roast duck. That and little else, a few potatoes and some green mush that had once been a cabbage. The duck and potatoes smelled excellent. Their host expertly carved the duck. “Sorry, we weren’t expecting visitors. If you’re still here tomorrow, I’m sure my cook will be delighted to make something better. I’m such a spare eater that she seldom gets to exercise her talents.” After serving most of the duck to his guests, he took a small piece for himself. The green mush sploushed and splashed when he served it with a spoon. Rachel carefully moved it away from her duck to avoid contaminating it.
Rachel replied, only after consuming her portion and everything bar the green mush, “I see you know your anatomy. That skeleton-”
“The one in the library? My father’s. He was a great one for natural history. My interests tend to the chemical.” He coughed, “Unfortunately, I’ve been making a few fumes and gasses in my latest work.”
“Is that really what happened to your hair?”
“Oh, yes. My mentor, Sir Humphrey Davy discovered a new element, Sodium, by electrolysing molten lye. I’ve been exploring other salts … to see if there are other metals. Isolate a new element if I can. One of the products is a corrosive gas that will whiten almost anything. My hair, as you can see.” He gave a slight cough, “That’s a side effect of the fumes, Sir Humphrey thinks the gas is chlorine, but I’m not sure.”
“Is it dangerous?”
Her host shrugged, “Probably, at least if you’re not careful.”
“But you are careful, aren’t you?”
“Most of the time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have results to write in my logs.” Instead of allowing the females of the party to withdraw while he had a glass of port, he left.
“How very odd Lucinda. It’s as if he isn’t interested at all in us, in people.”
“I think he’s shy, and”
“You could do worse.”
Rachel’s stare indicated that she thought she could do much better. “Lucinda, please don’t indulge in these fantasies.”