Etiquette & Espionage / Page 1

Page 1


Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea. Mrs. Barnaclegoose had arrived with a stranger in tow. Meddling old battle-ax. With the hallways patrolled by siblings and household mechanicals, eavesdropping was out of the question. The only way of overhearing her mother, Mrs. Barnaclegoose, and the stranger was from inside the dumbwaiter. Mrs. Barnaclegoose had decided opinions on reforming other women’s daughters. Sophronia did not want to be reformed. So she had pressed the dumbwaiter into the service of espionage.

The dumbwaiter disagreed with the whole idea of stopping at the ground floor, and instead kept on going—up all four stories. Sophronia examined the windlass machine at the top. Several lengths of india-rubber strapping made up part of the drive mechanism. Perhaps, once the strapping was removed, the dumbwaiter might shake loose?

The dumbwaiter had no ceiling; it was simply a bit of platform with a support cable on the inside and a pulling cable on the outside. Sophronia reached up and liberated the strapping. Nothing happened, so she took more.

It was while she wrapped the india rubber protectively around her boots—her mother had been complaining about the state of Sophronia’s shoes of late—that the dumbwaiter started shaking.

Sophronia squirmed over to the pulling cable, but before she had a chance to grab it, the dumbwaiter began to descend—fast. Very fast. Too fast. The loading door on the third floor sped past, and then the one on the second. Perhaps removing the rubber was not such a brilliant plan.

As the top of the next loading door appeared, Sophronia dove forward, tumbling through it and into the family’s front parlor. The top skirt of her dress caught on the lip of the door and made an ominous ripping sound.

Unfortunately, Sophronia’s grand escape coincided with one of the maids loading a half-eaten trifle into the dumbwaiter.

Sophronia hit the pudding on her dismount. The maid screamed. The trifle arched up into the air, scattering custard, cake, and strawberries all over the blue brocade and cream furnishings of the well-appointed parlor.

The bowl landed, in glorious perfection, atop the head of Mrs. Barnaclegoose, who was not the kind of woman to appreciate the finer points of being crowned by trifle. Nevertheless, it made for quite the spectacle as the bowl upended the last of its contents over that good lady’s bonnet. Until that moment, the bonnet had been rather smart—red with black velvet ribbons and crimson ostrich feathers. The addition of a trifle, it must be admitted, made it less smart. Sophronia, with great restraint, held back a triumphant giggle. That’ll teach her to meddle.

Mrs. Barnaclegoose was a large woman of progressive inclinations—which is to say she supported vampire and werewolf social reform, played a good deal of whist, kept a ghost in her country cottage, and even wore the occasional French gown. She accepted that dirigibles would be the next great means of transportation and that soon people might fly through the aether. She was not, however, so progressive as to accept flying food. She squealed in horror.

One of Sophronia’s older sisters, Petunia, was playing at hostess. White with mortification, Petunia rushed to the aid of the older woman, assisting her in the removal of the trifle bowl. Mother was nowhere to be seen. This made Sophronia more nervous than the fact that she had just assaulted an aristocrat with a trifle.

Mrs. Barnaclegoose stood, with as much dignity as possible under the circumstances, and looked down at Sophronia, sprawled on the plush rug. Most of Sophronia’s top skirt had ripped off. Sophronia was mortified to realize she was in public with her underskirt on display!

“Your mother is occupied in an important private audience. I was going to await her leisure. But for this, I shall disturb her. It is 1851, and I believed we lived in a civilized world! Yet you are as bad as a rampaging werewolf, young miss, and someone must take action.” Mrs. Barnaclegoose made it sound as though Sophronia alone were responsible for the disreputable state of the entire British Empire. Without allowing Sophronia a rebuttal, the lady waddled from the room, a plop of custard trailing down her fluffy skirts.

Sophronia flopped over onto her back with a sigh. She should check herself for injuries, or see to finding the rest of her dress, but flopping was more dramatic. She closed her eyes and contemplated the possible recriminations soon to emanate from her upset mother.

Her musings were interrupted. “Sophronia Angelina Temminnick!”

Uh-oh. She cracked a cautious eyelid. “Yes, Petunia?”

“How could you? Poor Mrs. Barnaclegoose!” Stepping in as understudy mother today, we have elder sister. Fantastic.

“As if I could plan such a thing.” Sophronia was annoyed by the childish petulance in her own voice. She was unable to control it when around her sisters.

“I daresay you would if you could. What were you doing inside the dumbwaiter? And why are you lying there in your petticoats with india rubber wrapped around your feet?”

Sophronia hedged. “Uh, um, well, you see…”

Petunia looked inside the open cavity of the dumbwaiter, where the remains of Sophronia’s skirt dangled merrily. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, Sophronia. You’ve been climbing again! What are you, a ten-year-old apple boy?”

“Actually, I’m right in the middle of a recovery period. So if you wouldn’t mind shoving off until I’m finished, I’d appreciate it.”

Petunia, who, at sixteen, considered herself all grown up, was having none of it. “Look at this mess you’ve created. Poor Eliza.”

Eliza, the now trifle-less maid, was trying to put some order to the chaos that had resulted from finding an unexpected Sophronia departing the dumbwaiter.

Sophronia crawled over to help with the strawberries and cake that now covered the room. “Sorry, Eliza. I didn’t mean it.”

“You never do, miss.”

Petunia was not to be distracted. “Sophronia!”

“Well, sister, to be perfectly correct, I did nothing.”

“Tell that to the poor woman’s lovely bonnet.”

“The trifle did it.”

Petunia’s perfect rosebud pout twisted into a grimace that might have been an attempt to hide a smile. “Really, Sophronia, you’re fourteen years old and simply unfit for public consumption. I refuse to have you at my coming-out ball. You’ll do something dreadful, like spill the punch on the only nice-looking boy there.”

“I would never!”

“Oh, yes, you would.”

“No, I wouldn’t. Besides which, we don’t happen to be acquainted with any nice-looking boys.”

Petunia ignored that jibe. “Must you be so tiresome? It’s always something.” She looked smug. “Although I believe Mumsy has finally determined what to do with you.”

“She has? Do? Do what? What’s going on?”

“Mumsy is indenturing you to vampires for a proper education. You’re old enough now for them to actually want you. Soon you’ll be putting your hair up—what else are we to do with you? You are even starting to get décolletage.”

Sophronia blushed with embarrassment at the very mention of such a thing, but managed a sputtered protest of, “She never!”

“Oh, yes! Who do you think she’s talking to right now? Why do you think it’s such a secret meeting? Vampires are like that.”

Mumsy had, of course, made the threat when any of the Temminnick children were being particularly wayward. But never could Sophronia believe such a thing actually possible. “But it’s tea! Vampires can’t be here. They can’t go out in daylight. Everyone knows that.”

Petunia, in her Petunia-ish way, dismissed this defense with a careless flap of one hand. “You think they would send a real vampire for the likes of you? Oh, no, that’s a drone Mumsy is talking with. I wager they’re drawing up the papers of servitude right now.”

“But I don’t want to be a vampire drone.” Sophronia winced. “They’ll suck my blood and make me wear only the very latest fashions.”

Petunia nodded in an I-know-more-than-you manner that was highly aggravating. “Yes. Yes, they will.”

Frowbritcher, the butler, appeared in the doorway. He paused on the threshold while his rollers transferred to the parlor tracks. He was the very latest in domestic mechanicals, about the size and shape of a daphne bush. He trundled over and looked down his beaky nasal protuberance at Sophronia. His eyes were jet-colored circles of perpetual disapproval.

“Miss Sophronia, your mother wishes to see you immediately.” His voice, emanating from a music-box device deep inside his metal body, was tinny and grainy.

Sophronia sighed. “Is she sending me to the vampires?”

Petunia wrinkled her nose. “I suppose there is a possibility they won’t take you. I mean to say, Sophronia, the way you dress!”

The butler only repeated, without any inflection whatsoever, “Immediately, miss.”

“Should I make for the stable?” Sophronia asked.

“Oh, do grow up!” said Petunia in disgust.

“So I can be a puffed-up poodle-faker like you?” As though growing up were something one could do contagiously, caught through associating with officious older sisters. Sophronia trailed after Frowbritcher, nervously brushing her custard-covered hands against her apron. She hoped the pinafore would hide the disreputable—well, absent—state of her skirt.

The butler rolled down the hall, leading her to her father’s library. An elaborate tea service was arranged there, including lace tablecloths, sponge cake, and the family’s very best china. This was far more effort than was ever spent on Mrs. Barnaclegoose.

Across from Sophronia’s mother, sipping tea, sat an elegant lady wearing a sour expression and a large hat. She looked like exactly the kind of woman one would expect to be a vampire drone.

“Here is Miss Sophronia, madam,” said Frowbritcher from the doorway, not bothering to transfer tracks. He glided off, probably to marshal forces to clean the parlor.

“Sophronia! What did you do to poor Mrs. Barnaclegoose? She left here in a dreadful huff and—oh, simply look at you! Mademoiselle, please excuse my daughter’s appearance. I’d tell you it was an aberration, but, sadly, it’s all too common. Such a troublesome child.”

The stranger gave Sophronia a prim look that made her feel about six years old. She was painfully conscious of her custardy state. No one would ever describe Sophronia as elegant, whereas this woman was every inch a lady. Sophronia had never before considered how powerful that could be. The strange woman was also offensively beautiful, with pale skin and dark hair streaked with gray. It was impossible to discern her age, for, despite the gray, her face was young. She was perfectly dressed in a sort of spiky lace traveling gown with a massive skirt and velvet trim that was much more elegant than anything Sophronia had ever seen in her life. Her mother was more a follower of trends than a purveyor of fine taste. This woman was truly stylish.

Despite her beauty, she looks, thought Sophronia, a little like a crow. She stared down at her feet and tried to come up with an excuse for her behavior, other than spying on people. “Well, I simply wanted to see how it worked, and then there was this—”

Her mother interrupted. “How it worked? What kind of question is that for a young lady to ask? How often have I warned you against fraternizing with technology?”

Sophronia wondered if that was a rhetorical question and began counting up the number of times just in case it wasn’t. Her mother turned back to their guest.

“Do you see what I mean, mademoiselle? She’s a cracking great bother.”

“What? Mumsy!” Sophronia was offended. Never before had her mother used such language in polite company.

“Silence, Sophronia.”


“Do you see, Mademoiselle Geraldine? Do you see what I must endure? And on a daily basis. A bother. Has been from the beginning. And the other girls were such little blessings. Well, I suppose we were due. I tell you this in complete confidence—I’m at my wit’s end with this one. I really am. When she isn’t reading she’s taking something apart or flirting with the footman or climbing things—trees, furniture, even other people.”

“That was years ago!” objected Sophronia. Will she never let that go? I was eight!

“Hush, child.” Mrs. Temminnick didn’t even look in her daughter’s direction. “Have you ever heard of the like with a girl? Now, I know she’s a little brazen for finishing school, but I was hoping you might make an exception, just this once.”

Finishing school? Then I’m not being sent to the vampires? Relief flooded through Sophronia, instantly followed by a new horror. Finishing school! There would be lessons. On how to curtsy. On how to dress. On how to eat with one’s finger in the air. Sophronia shuddered. Perhaps a vampire hive was a better option.