Etiquette & Espionage / Page 13

Page 13

“What if she didn’t hide the prototype but gave it away?” Sophronia suggested.

Dimity was prosaic. “Well, no sense in speculating. We’ll simply have to find out more.”

Unpacking complete, the girls prepared for slumber—Dimity’s nightgown was bright yellow!—and settled down for the evening.

Bumbersnoot sat next to Sophronia’s cot with a little wheeze of distress. She picked him up and put him at her feet. He wasn’t exactly cuddly, and she was sure to bark her shin if she rolled over, but the little mechanimal seemed pleased, and the mini steam engine within made him quite an excellent foot warmer, if nothing else. Sophronia wondered idly if he required a diet of coal and water, and if so, where she would get the coal. The airship must have a boiler room. The last thing she heard as she closed her eyes was the tick-tock of Bumbersnoot’s mechanical tail wagging back and forth.

Unlike her fellow students, Sophronia awoke early in the morning and decided she might take the opportunity to explore. She supposed there would be mechanicals trundling about and sounding the alarm if they encountered her, so she determined to figure out a way around the massive ship that did not cross any tracks. She chose her most basic dress, with the fewest underskirts and the shortest top skirt, and pulled on her boots with the india-rubber strapping.

She had to use the hallway to get to any exterior decks, so she ran as quickly as possible, sticking to the sides of the passage, away from the tracks that ran down the center. Luckily, she didn’t stumble upon any mechanicals. This allowed her to escape out onto one of the lower decks and over the rail to cling on the outside with no one, human or constructed, the wiser. She was left breathless and leaning out and in a manner she was certain would be thought most unladylike.

In the early morning, the moor below was still mist-shrouded, but there was no longer any other cloud cover. Sophronia looked down, considered for a moment, and then decided it was probably better not to look again.

She inched around the banisters and along the outside of the railing. The deck extended around the dirigible’s side and then in, before another deck rounded back out again, like flower petals. The difficulty was how to get from one to the next, over the small gap in between. Sophronia had a system developed soon enough: a little twisting movement as she thrust herself willfully over the abyss.

Several of the decks, smaller and more like private balconies, did not have mechanical tracks. Sophronia climbed over the railings of these and explored, peering in at the round windows. It would be good to know, for secrecy’s sake, which balconies were safe from mechanical spies, not to mention vulnerable to attack because they lacked mechanical defense. She was also nosy.

As Sophronia made her way, one deck at a time, around the edge of the ship, she eventually left the students’ residential section and found herself in the classroom section. There the decks changed, some of them made of strange and mysterious materials, and they did not always have rails. She passed the one that featured Sister Mathilde’s greenhouse, and another with long tassels and fancy wicker furnishings that must belong to Lady Linette’s classroom. Funny; Sophronia hadn’t noticed a door from the classroom out onto the balcony during lessons.

Lady Linette’s was the last classroom before the next balloon. There was another balcony, almost touching it, in the forbidden section. There was a little walkway to that balcony.

Lavishly decorated, thought Sophronia, so probably Lady Linette’s private quarters. She had, as yet, not determined how to get up or down to any of the upper or lower decks, but from the sculpted railing of that particular private deck, a tempting rope ladder hung down to the lower levels.

Sophronia hesitated. She couldn’t see any tracks, and she guessed Lady Linette wasn’t an early riser. It was a risk. She didn’t want trouble on her very first day. Then again, there was that rope ladder.

Sophronia made the switch to the forbidden section, shimmied along the outside of the railing over to the ladder, and began to climb down.

The ladder was pegged inward at the next level. Sophronia considered getting off there, but at the very bottom of the ship there had to be an engine room. She could see the steam emanating from below. And where there was steam, there would be boilers. And where there were boilers, there must be coal. Bumbersnoot was probably hungry. So she kept climbing down. There were no decks at the bottom level; only small portholes which she could press her face against. The glass in these was too filthy to see through, and not from the outside world, but from something within.

The ladder ended at a hatch in the side of the ship. After a brief hesitation, Sophronia twisted the handle and climbed inside. Boiler room!

The boiler room of the school was loud, and hot, and as soot-covered as Professor Lefoux’s classroom had been after the fake prototype exploded.

Sophronia’s entrance caused little reaction. It had to have been noticed, for she let a blast of light and fresh air into the dark, musty interior. But there was a controlled chaos all around her, and very few bothered to acknowledge her presence.

There were a number of larger men, who must be the firemen or engineers, and two dozen or more very grubby boys, covered in black soot, running about with coal and scurrying up and down stacks of boxes, piles of coal, and ladders to the upper levels. A few of these doffed their caps as they passed Sophronia, but none bothered to stop or properly greet her.

She simply stood, taking in the bedlam and the massive boilers and wondering why the place was not staffed by mechanicals. Perhaps the tasks are too complicated? Or too vital to entrust to machines? The work seemed to be quite labor intensive, yet once or twice a bark of laughter issued forth from one side of the room, where a group of boys were hard at work shoveling coal into an immense boiler.

Sophronia made her way cautiously over to them, bending to scoop up some small pieces of coal, which she stuffed into the pocket of her pinafore.

“What’s that one run?” she asked, once she arrived at the group.

“Propeller,” came the answer, and then, “What-ho! What’s an Uptop doing messing about down south?”

“Only curious,” replied Sophronia. “No lessons until the afternoon, so I thought I would explore.”

“You mean, you’re an actual student?”

“ ’Course she is, don’t she look as like?”

“Naw, her dress ain’t fancy enough by halves.”

“Well, thank you very much,” said Sophronia, pretending hurt.

“Asides, students ain’t permitted south.”

“Well, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Sophronia. And you are?” She figured introducing herself couldn’t be considered impolite, given that these were manual laborers and, judging by their accents, from equally manual upbringings.

“Ships’ sooties, us, miss.”

A yell of “Oy, up!” came from behind them, and the boys scattered like a group of very excitable quail. Sophronia followed their lead. A new sootie, riding astride a great pile of coal in some kind of wheelbarrow-like contraption, came hurtling toward them. The wheelbarrow rattled headlong at the maw of the boiler. The boy remained proudly atop it, whooping enthusiastically. The others hooted him on.

Sophronia gasped, certain the thing would go crashing right into the impossibly hot boiler, dumping both coal and boy inside. At the last minute, the sootie jumped off and somersaulted away, leaving the cart to rush forward; tip in, unloading all of its coal inside; and bounce off.

“Pips! It worked!” The boy jumped to his feet.

The others all returned and gathered around him, proving that he was taller than most.

“Takes you twice as long to load it full. We’re still stoking more per hour,” commented one.

“Yes,” said the tall one, “but ain’t this invention?”

“How’d it bounce back like that?” Sophronia asked, joining the crowd as if she had always been there.

The boy turned in her direction. In addition to being taller than the others, he seemed to be more thickly coated in soot. His eyes were startlingly white in a dark face. Her question solicited a flash of equally startlingly white teeth. “Ah, yes, a spring rebound mechanism without india-rubber fixings. Vieve worked a whole week on that. Wait a minute there…. They letting girls be sooties now?”

“She’s an Uptop.”

“Came exploring.”

“Found us.”

“Ah, not so good at exploring, then?” The tall boy hooted at his own joke.

“I beg your pardon!” Sophronia took mild umbrage.

“No offense meant, miss. We sooties aren’t exactly upmarket chappy chaps.”

“Yet that contraption of yours was rather topping. Not to mention your dismount. I’m Sophronia, by the way.” Sophronia decided to practice a bit of her eyelash-fluttering lesson.

The tall one didn’t seem overly impressed by the eyelashes. “How-d’ye-do, miss? I’m Phineas B. Crow.”

Sophronia gave him a curtsy, and for the first time since she’d arrived at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School for Young Ladies of Quality, no one commented on its poor implementation.

“Though everyone calls me Soap,” added Phineas B. Crow. “Because I needs it more than most.”

Sophronia continued batting her eyelashes at him.

“You got some soot in your eye, there, miss?”

Clearly I haven’t mastered the art yet. “No, practicing.”

“What, miss?”

“Never you mind.”

“That india rubber you got wrapped about them little stompers?” Soap’s tone was full of avarice.

“Yes. Got it off a dumbwaiter. But you can’t have it; I need it.”

“What’s an Uptop need with india-rubber shoes?”

“Climbing, of course.”

“That how you got here? Never heard of a girl who climbed afore.”

Sophronia shrugged, pleased at the compliment. Soap, she thought, has a pleasant smile.

A yell came from behind them. One of the large men—Supervisor, most likely—marched in their direction.

“Oh, blast it,” said Soap. “Greaser. Scatter!”

The boys ran in various different directions. Soap tugged Sophronia after him, to crouch down together behind a huge mound of coal.

“We ain’t got long back here afore they suss us out.”

“Is this what you do all day—shovel coal?”

“Ain’t a bad life. Used to work Southampton docks,” replied Soap with one of his grins. “Still can’t eat fish.”

Sophronia said, “You know, it is nice to meet you, Mr. Soap. I got myself an unexpected mechanimal, so I imagine I might have to pop down here regularly.”

“After the coal, are ya?”

“Rather. Poor Bumbersnoot; he must be starving by now.”

“I thought them mechanimals weren’t allowed.”

“Said he was unexpected, didn’t I?”

Soap let out a bark of laughter that was sure to attract attention even in the noise of the boiler room. “You’re all right for a girl, Miss Sophronia. Pretty, too.”

Sophronia snorted. “I only recently made your acquaintance, Mr. Soap. No need to fib.”

“Whoa ho ho,” said a booming voice, “what have we here?”

Soap stood immediately, his back ramrod straight. Sophronia followed his lead.

“Just taking a breather, sir.”

“Soap, you ain’t never doing just nothing. Who’s that you got with ya?”

Sophronia stepped forward. “How do you do, sir? Sophronia Angelina Temminnick.”

“An Uptop? Down ’ere? Best get her along right quick, before the Junior Sixth Assistant Engineer sees ya. I’ll pretend you was never ’ere, shall I?”

“Thank you very much, sir,” said Sophronia with a curtsy.

Soap led her back to the hatch. “He’s not a bad kind of greaser, Old Smalls.”

“It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Soap.”

He twinkled at her. “Aye, it was, miss. Supposing I’ll be seeing you again.”

“Perhaps.” Sophronia let herself out.

Before she could close the hatch, Soap’s dark head stuck out. “Oh, miss, best change that pinafore. Wouldn’t want people knowing you went south.”

Sophronia looked down at her front. The crisp white of her apron was covered in smudges. “You’re probably right.”

In the bright light of the morning sun, Sophronia noticed something else about her new friend. He wasn’t simply dirty; he was actually black. Sophronia had heard, of course, of people with odd-colored skin, but she’d only seen pictures in her papa’s books. She’d never actually met one before. But Soap is just like normal boy!

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