Engineerium – Teaser Chapter
London, September 1895
“Can’t you at least try walking a little faster? We are almost there!”
The jarring sound of the horn announcing a new ship in the harbour cut off Jasper’s words. For the tenth time – or so he counted – in the last half an hour, he stopped to wait for Ivy Blackwell, for whom keeping up with him looked rather like an excruciating burden.
“Rats and caterpillars!” Ivy wailed, panting while wiping the sweat off her brow. “Are we running a race or going to see a bloody ship?”
“Not a bloody ship, but the Navy’s newest steamship,” Jasper corrected. “Which successfully made it to Sydney and back in almost half the time needed for a return trip to the Australian colonies. I must check the engine room and talk to the captain. Provided that you stop idling around to gape at every little thing on the way.”
They went down the iron stairs of the suspended walkway connecting the Tower Bridge skystation to St Katharine Docks, making their way among a motley assortment of dockworkers who were discharging the cargo from the newly arrived vessels.
The shouts and curses filling the air were only matched in intensity by the screeching and wailing of the wheels carrying the loaded carts on the iron tracks to the nearby warehouses.
“The Merryweather,” Jasper said, pointing at the sleek figure of a steamship whose passengers were disembarking on the pier. “That is our ship!”
“That is your ship,” Ivy muttered, shielding her eyes from the biting wind. “My plans for today didn’t include a marine engineering lesson. Much less when I have an assignment for The Skycradle at noon.”
“We call it research. What kind of engineer are you, so uninterested in the latest quadruple-expansion engine developed in England?”
“I am not an engineer, but an aviator. Had you not dragged me here, I wouldn’t have spent the morning in a steamer’s engine room, no matter how great an opportunity you consider it. Oh, there! What in the world are those trunks?”
Jasper followed Ivy’s gaze until he spotted a dockworker pulling a cart that carried two oversized wooden chests fitted with thick leather straps and several sturdy steel clamps and latches.
“Are those ice containers by any chance?” Ivy asked. “I’ve heard they use them on steamships to carry products from faraway colonies unspoilt, but I’ve never seen one.”
“No, those cannot be ice containers,” Jasper said, almost as curious as Ivy. “But they aren’t your average steamer trunks either. Someone must really love strange designs.”
To his surprise, the containers’ destination wasn’t a warehouse, as he had expected given their size, but a steammotor. A young woman in a dark blue travelling dress was standing next to it, her black curls partially hidden under a red ribbon bonnet. Her gloved hand was resting on the driver’s door handle.
Jasper squinted. From that distance he couldn’t be sure, but that profile was too familiar to him to be mistaken. He started towards her, but she disappeared inside the vehicle before he could take another step.
“What’s the matter?” Ivy asked. “Have you seen Captain Drake’s ghost lurking around the docks, perhaps?”
“Almost,” he replied. “Let’s go to the Merryweather’s engine room. They are waiting for us.”
It can’t be her, Jasper thought, glancing one more time at the steammotor that was leaving the harbour. No, it can’t be her. No, it is her.
DEFINITELY NOT HER BEST DAY, Ivy decided, her elbows on the railing, watching from the berth how the duke’s servants were loading chests and trunks into The Skycradle’s hold. She had spent the entire morning learning about the bloody quadruple-expansion engine; arrived at the airharbour much later than she had intended; and, worst of all, had to fly her airship to that insufferable woman confined at Herdforthbridge’s country estate in Surrey – no, definitely not her best day.
That conceited, old-fashioned bugger of a duke should have chosen another airship to send his sister’s things. Ivy wasn’t too eager to do any favours for the woman who had sent her into London’s underground innards for an unwanted adventure that could have killed her.
“Miss Blackwell, are you trying to scare my servants witless? You are glaring like a hawk.”
Startled, Ivy moved her gaze from the airharbour’s grounds to Oscar Bashford, the Duke of Herdforthbridge. He was standing beside her, blond, tall, and commanding, wearing a dark green ulster with the same elegance as if it were a formal dinner suit.
“Your Grace, what a surprise to see you here. Is it a habit of yours to supervise your staff personally?”
“I did not come to supervise my staff, but to accompany you to Herdforth Hall. Sending you there by yourself would be unwise. We should depart soon if we want to be back to London by nightfall.”
His unexpected presence made that trip much more tolerable and soothed her fear. Much as she wanted to think otherwise, she dreaded the prospect of meeting Emmeline Rexworth.
“I owe you an apology,” the duke said a while later, after Ivy retracted the anchorage grapples and The Skycradle was up in the air. “My reasons for commissioning your airship were selfish, but I needed your help. I could not send just any aviator to Herdforth Hall – not when my family is regarded as the latest entertainment in town and all eyes are on us after Emmeline’s divorce.
“My sister did something unforgivable, and I would have never dared ask you for such a favour. But the ton is always hungry for gossip, and I do not want to give them any more gossip fodder. I am immensely grateful you accepted, so coming with you was the least I could do.”
He was leaning against the gondola’s wall, facing her. Only a vast expanse of cloudy sky was visible behind him through the window of the covered viewing deck.
“Your Grace, I haven’t accepted this assignment for your sister,” Ivy said. “I did it for the money, and to return the help you offered me the night when you carried me out of that cauldron of hell.”
The duke turned to take in the landscape unfolding below through the gondola’s window – at least as much as the rain allowed. Judging from his absorbed look, she realised airships weren’t among his usual transport means.
Soon, the wind increased in intensity, clashing mercilessly into the envelope. Regardless of the advice and training she had received from Jasper in the past months, flying in such weather was not Ivy’s favourite thing.
She was starting to regret her decision to accept that assignment.
When the engine and left propeller failed to react to her commands, she was certain she regretted it.
“I have no knowledge about how airships work,” the duke said, coming beside her near the piloting board. “But shouldn’t we start descending? We are in Surrey, I see Herdforth Woods. Herdforth Hall is close, yet we are drifting.”
“That’s because the bloody propeller stopped working. We will start the descent, but I can’t control the landing. It might be in a field or in the middle of a road. It might very well be in a tree. But I doubt it will be at Herdforth Hall.”
JASPER LOOKED around before taking the leather binder that Theophilus Hollingsworth handed him. It was the same familiar view of the office he had visited so many times in the past. The tall bookshelves and cabinets filled with books, papers, and scale models lined the walls. The upholstered chairs were in their usual place. The windows offered the unchanged image of the clocktower across the Inspectorates.
Yet he couldn’t quite get used to seeing his Master instead of Benedict Quimby at the desk of the Senior Lord of the Engineers Order. Much as Edmund and the Order needed the royal mechanic as temporary Senior Lord, he would have rather had him spared of such a burden.
“Alistair Francis Montgomery.” Jasper read aloud the name on the binder. “Jeremiah Barnaby’s nephew? Wasn’t he studying abroad? The last I heard he was in Sydney.”
“He returned last week. This time we accepted him as a candidate for the Engineers Order. The proposal came from Barnaby.”
“Since when does the Senior Lord of the Aviators Order interfere with the Engineers Order’s affairs? Montgomery is not an eligible case for the Mutual Confidence Article.”
“Barnaby did not invoke the article. However, he did remind me about how Benedict Quimby rejected his nephew’s first attempt to secure a place in the Order a few years ago, without even asking the board. The boy never received a proper explanation for that rejection. It is only fair to accept the doubts surrounding Quimby’s actions and try correcting them. The board voted in Alistair’s favour.”
“I still don’t understand what Montgomery’s membership has to do with me.” Jasper leafed through the binder without the slightest interest.
“Our most important projects are in your care. Regardless of the changes and confusion after Quimby’s treason, the Laevium Works and The Cerulean Lady must follow the approved schedule. This is why Alistair requested you for his evaluation period. He will work with you, and you will assess him. You have about two months to decide whether Alistair Francis Montgomery is worthy of a place in the Engineers Order.”
“WE ARE fortunate it was at Herdforth Woods after all,” the duke said, following Ivy out of The Skycradle’s gondola. “Herdforth Hall is not far, and at least the rain stopped.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that we must deliver a mountain of chests and boxes to your estate. We must either repair the propeller or carry them ourselves.”
Ivy stared at her airship, whose anchorage grapples were tangled awkwardly in a bunch of trees at the fringe of the forest.
With her knowledge and a bit of luck, she should make the propeller hold until their return to London.
“I’ll try to make it work,” she said. “Now I must make sure my craft is secured. Those trees should do, but we need to check the grappling ropes.”
“We? Are you by any chance suggesting I should climb a tree to secure an airship rope?”
“Precisely, Your Grace.”
Before the duke could answer, the sound of a steammotor approaching made them turn in surprise. The vehicle stopped on the side of the road, and the driver’s door opened.
White gloves, dark blue skirts, a dark blue jacket, black curls, and a bonnet with red ribbons. Ivy recognised the woman with the weird containers from St Katharine docks.
“This is Octavia Blackwell’s airship, is it not? I thought you might need some help. Did you land without engines? Oh –”
The stranger stopped abruptly on the muddy stretch of land between the road and The Skycradle, but close enough for Ivy to see her clearly. That face with dark eyes, with the corners of her mouth slightly curled in dimples, and a small mole above the left side of her upper lip had appeared in many articles of the Engineers Order’s journal.
“But I know you! The engineer who designed the airharbour in Sydney! You are –”
“Miss Blackwell, allow me to introduce Annabella Philippa Hammond.” Herdforthbridge interrupted Ivy’s enthusiastic diatribe without looking at the unexpected guest. “I understand you are familiar with her endeavours as an engineer. But since we need no help, she will be on her way. Wherever that might be.”
“Good Lord, Oscar, you could at least pretend to be civil. While I am extremely curious to know what on earth happened to make you step into an airship, let alone fly in one, I shall not ask about your circumstances. However, given the state of this craft, sending me away would not be the wisest idea.”
“What the bloody hell are you doing here?” The duke’s harsh voice startled Ivy. It was unlike him to talk in such a manner to a woman, much less a lady. “If you were going to Herdforth Hall, you should know that my sister cannot receive guests.”
“I have a special permit from the Inspectorates,” Annabella Hammond replied while examining The Skycradle. “What is it? The propeller or the engine?” “
The left propeller,” Ivy said, grateful for the change of topic. “I could use some help to fix it.”
Especially from such an engineer and inventor as Annabella Hammond.
Ivy opened the engine pod’s hatch, granting her access.
“The propeller works fine,” Annabella announced a few minutes later, while Ivy was climbing the tree to check the anchorage grapples. “However, the transmission between the engine and the propeller is faulty, and the propeller’s efficiency has decreased to null. I wonder how you got this far in such weather.
“I can only improvise something to get you to London. But you need new gears and a new transmission belt if you want this ship to fly properly.”
For the following half an hour, Ivy waited beside the duke, who was staring in the opposite direction.
Annabella emerged at last from the engine pod with a triumphant grin, holding her bonnet in one hand, and her gloves in the other. Her tousled hair was blowing in the wind, a stray lock landing from time to time on her smeared face.
“My leather waistband proved an excellent replacement for the transmission belt,” she said. “I checked and oiled the gears as well. She should hold for the return trip. However, judging from her landing position, you are not going to London, but to Herdforth Hall. I can take you there in my steammotor.”
“That would be most wonder –”
“Absolutely not!” Herdforthbridge said pointedly, cutting off Ivy’s answer. “Miss Blackwell, need I remind you the purpose of our trip? Or what happened the last time you entered a stranger’s carriage?
“As for our plan to return to London this evening, I’m afraid it is no longer possible, given the late hour and this unpleasant incident. Please accept my invitation to be my guest at Herdforth Hall until tomorrow.”
“ANGUISH. Grief. Longing. And yet tranquillity and peace, like a lake covered with white lilies. Then, a sense of resolve overcoming the darkest depths of one’s soul. Chopin’s Nocturnes, Opus nine. I have yet to find someone who plays as you do. Your piano was among the few things I missed in Australia.”
Herdforthbridge remained still, with his long fingers on the piano’s keys. He had been too absorbed in his music to notice Annabella Hammond.
“Why did you come back?” he asked, turning to her. She was standing in the doorway of the music parlour, dressed for dinner, gazing at him with the same ecstatic eyes she had each time he played the piano. “Has Australia become too boring for your adventurous soul?”
“Oscar, you are an intelligent man.” Annabella took a few tentative steps inside the room. She was swathed in the warm glow of the chandelier, her gown and long earrings gleaming in subtle shades of green and silver. “With all that happened in the Engineers Order, you knew I would return to England. You knew they would summon me. If, as I suspect, your friend Wyverstone is involved in the investigation against Quimby, you knew the Order would want all its members in London sooner or later. I do hope you do not expect me to believe my presence surprised you.”
No, it did not, you damned shrew.
“Do not flatter yourself. You or the Engineers Order were the last things I bothered myself with. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must prepare for dinner.”
Herdforthbridge started towards the open door of the parlour.
“As an engineer, I was curious about the laevium and The Cerulean Lady,” Annabella said, with a tinge of bitterness in her voice. “However, if I were to choose, I would have never left Sydney. I loathe my presence here as much as you do.
“But perhaps you could help us both and tell me what Wyverstone is after. The sooner I know, the sooner I leave England again. His Office of Classified Affairs is investigating Quimby’s case, is it not? What is he searching for?”
He turned to her again, his eyes locked on hers for the first time since her arrival.
“Annabella, your matters with the Engineers Order are of no interest to me. Disappear from my sight. Return to Sydney, London, or the deepest pit of hell for all I care. I am a reasonable man, so I shall not throw you out of my house – as I would very much like to right now. But after this night, you shall stay away from me.”
THE ATMOSPHERE in the dining room at Herdforth Hall was heavier than a ballast bag.
A most natural conclusion one could draw from the way Annabella Hammond and the Duke of Herdforthbridge avoided each other. Or from the irritated glances Emmeline threw her brother once in a spoonful of pudding.
Ivy wondered – for the hundredth time since the first course was served – what she was doing there. Much as she loved a good meal, she would have rather missed out on that one.
“Annabella, I do hope you are returning to Australia before spring,” Emmeline said. “You would not want to see England becoming the laughingstock of the Engineers World Gathering.”
“Lady Rexworth, whatever do you mean by that?” Ivy asked, without waiting for Annabella’s answer.
The evening was turning from insufferable to intolerable.
“Miss Blackwell, do you really believe a young and inexperienced aeronaut and a former alcoholic who had avoided his workbench for almost three years are adept to oversee the project that will represent our country at the most prestigious engineering event in the world?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” Ivy replied, glaring at Emmeline. “Our proposal was approved almost unanimously. Furthermore, Jasper is an excellent engineer, whose past should be no one’s concern but his.”
“I pity the current state of the Order,” Emmeline said. “Benedict Quimby’s methods were wrong, I admit that. But at least he had a vision for the future. Which Theophilus Hollingsworth and Jasper Asher have not, since for them obeying Her Majesty always comes before the development of our country.”
“Emmeline, I suggest you choose your words more carefully,” the duke interfered. “Perhaps I should remind you that the only reason you have not shared Quimby’s fate was Her Majesty’s leniency. Edmund and I asked for her mercy, and she was kind enough to grant it. Be grateful and refrain from uttering anything that could pass as treason.”
“Dear brother, I only said that because I hoped Annabella would finally receive the recognition she deserved. The Order sent her to the other side of the world and ignored many of her outstanding achievements. Which you undoubtedly are aware of, are you not?”
Herdforthbridge stood up. He had barely touched the food on his plate, and his glass was still full.
“Miss Blackwell and I are returning to London tonight. It would be inappropriate for me to spend the night under the same roof as Miss Hammond. I apologize for my carelessness.”
“Oscar, are you insane?” Annabella turned to him with a baffled look. “Flying in the dark with an engine pod half broken? You do not understand how dangerous it is.”
“Miss Blackwell, can you do this?” the duke asked. “Can I trust your competence to bring us back?”
“Your Grace, I hoped you would ask that,” Ivy replied, grateful for the new turn of events. She wanted to run as far as she could from that house. “I would be delighted to fly The Skycradle back to London tonight.”