Etiquette & Espionage / Page 14

Page 14

She wasn’t certain it was polite to mention, but she couldn’t help herself. “Why, you’re all over soot-colored by nature!”

“Yes, miss. A creature from darkest Africa. Wooo, wooo.” He weaved his head around, pretending to be a ghost.

Sophronia had read about Africa. This was a subject upon which she was fully conversant. “Oh, my, is that where you’re from?”

“No, miss. Tooting Bec, South London.” At which he returned to the noisy, musty darkness of the boiler room.

Sophronia made her way back to her quarters safely from balcony to deck, spending only a brief time running through the hallway. No one was awake upon her return except Bumbersnoot. He was absolutely delighted by the piece of coal and dish of water she placed before him. He nibbled and slurped away happily, tooting small gusts of appreciative steam. Sophronia changed her pinafore and checked the state of her face and hands. Luckily, the maids had brought in the washing water and, being mechanicals, had not registered her empty bed. After much scrubbing, most of the boiler room’s smudges were eliminated.

She practiced batting her eyelashes in the small hand mirror for the next half hour, until Dimity finally awoke.

“You’ll never guess what I did!” said Sophronia while her friend blinked blearily and stretched.

“No, probably not. Could I wake up first, please?”

“Certainly.” At which Sophronia paused. She had no idea how to dispose of her dirty bathing water. At home, she would have simply tossed it out the window, but here there was no window to their chamber. She excused herself, took it to the privy, and returned to hand the basin to Dimity.

Dimity poured herself some fresh water out of the pitcher and said, “Well?”

“I visited the land of soot and fire.”

“Sophronia, really. Do you mean to traumatize me with riddles first thing in the morning? If so, I should warn you, I’d consider that grounds for rescinding all offers of friendship.”

“It’s almost noon. I’ve been up for ages.”

“A habit you may come to regret.” But then Dimity put it all together. She emerged from washing her face with a gasp. “Sophronia! Did you visit the boiler room?”

“Yes!” Sophronia casually leaned back on both elbows.

“You aren’t allowed to do that!”

“So I learned.”

“But all the engine parts down there are exposed. A girl can see exactly how things work. It’s undignified.”

“It’s full of boys.”

Dimity paused, giving that statement its due consideration. “Yes, but the wrong class of boy, to be sure? I really wouldn’t if I were you. Terribly bad for one’s reputation. Then again, I don’t suppose there are any proper boys on board this school at all.”

“Not unless you count Professor Braithwope.”

“Certainly not. Now, Captain Niall, mind you, I’d count him.”

A knock came at their door. Sidheag stuck her head in. “Breakfast in ten minutes.” The tall girl looked much the same as she had the day before—her dress dowdy and her hair in one simple braid. She positively lounged against the doorjamb.

Sophronia wondered how she would fare during posture class.

“We won’t have him for a few days at least,” said the Lady of Kingair.

“Have who?”

“Captain Niall, of course.”

“Have him for what?”

“Lessons, silly. Did you think they only kept him on retainer for ground support?” With which the tall girl drifted away.

Sophronia and Dimity exchanged startled looks.

“What on earth could we girls possibly learn from a werewolf?” Sophronia wondered.

“How to keep a hat on no matter what the circumstances?” hazarded Dimity.

“We need to nip to the post,” Sophronia stated firmly as they left breakfast.

“We do?” Dimity was confused.

“My soiled glove, remember?” She produced the offending article from her reticule.

“Oh, yes, we were going to send it to my problematical brother for analysis. I should warn you, it’s unlikely anything will come of it. He’s very forgetful, my brother. Rather a nascent absentminded academic.”

Sophronia hesitated a moment, and then approached one of the older girls. “Pardon me, could you point us in the direction of the postal service?”

The girl looked down her nose at her. “Head steward handles that.”

“And where would I find him?”

“Steward’s quarters, of course,” she said and turned away.

I guess we have been dismissed. “Dimity, any idea where the steward’s quarters might be?”

Dimity cocked her head. “Well, on a boat it’s one of the upper decks, midship, you know, to catch people boarding and the like.”

“But we boarded from below.”


Sophronia frowned. The steward would be in charge of all the mechanicals for servicing and maintenance, as well as all the human household staff. “We need to find the main hub.”

“Follow the tracks?” suggested Dimity, pointing down to where the single track became multiples at the entrance to the dining hall, allowing various maid and footman mechanicals to service the tables.

The servants’ quarters of any house are an odd place to explore, full of derelict machinery and broken tracks, not to mention the personal items of the human staff. Not wishing to be late to class, Sophronia and Dimity moved along the main hallways quickly, following the track when it split off and delved to the side into what was clearly a servants’ area.

“Uh-oh, look,” Dimity said, pointing.

Ahead of them, rounding a far corner in the narrow hall, they could see the back of some very flowery skirts of the kind no human maid, and certainly no mechanical, would wear. It was a dress familiar to them both, for there had been praise of it over breakfast.

“Monique,” hissed Sophronia. “I wager she’s trying to get a message off the ship, too.”

Dimity nodded wisely. “To tell her contacts the location of the prototype, perhaps?”

“Or warn them of the delay. If I were her, I’d wait until I was free to hand it over in person. Too many other people want it. Any message, even one in code, could be intercepted.”

They drew back and followed the older girl at a discreet distance.

Peeking round the corner of the next corridor, they spotted her entering a large white door and closing it firmly behind her. After an exchange of glances, Sophronia and Dimity ran to the door. On it were written the words, STEWARD’S OFFICE, CORRESPONDENCES SENT AND RECEIVED, MECHANICAL MISBEHAVIORS HANDLED, NO SILLINESS.

Sophronia cracked the door, and the two girls put their ears to the gap.

“But we must be going near Bunson’s before then!” they heard Monique whine.

“Not for three weeks at the very least, miss.”

“But I must get a message home to my mama. It is vital. This season’s glove order!”

“I understand, miss, and yet, the float is away, nothing to be done.”

“Couldn’t Captain Niall…?”

“The captain is not your personal message boy, young lady.”

Monique switched to a more wheedling tone. “Well, could I leave it with you, to send as soon as possible?”

“I can’t make any guarantees, miss.”

Sophronia pushed Dimity away from the door and down the corridor. It seemed like the conversation would be ending soon. They made it round the corner just in time to hear the door open and peek out to see Monique striding quickly, and in a most unladylike manner, back the way they had come. She was clutching a letter in one hand, clearly having decided against leaving the missive in the dubious care of the steward.

“I bet he has to report messages to one of the teachers,” said Dimity.

“Or one of them has him on the payroll,” said Sophronia.

“Bribery? How crass.”

“Useful, though.”

“Shall we still try to send the glove?”

Sophronia considered the dangers and implications. “Best not, I think. Try again later. We’re late for class.”


The schedule proceeded much of a pace after the chaos of that first day. Sophronia came to accept the un-finishing-school aspects of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s. The lessons were mostly un-lesson-like, the teachers were mainly un-teacher-like, and the routine was more that of a London dandy than that of any proper educational system.

The girls commenced their mornings—which were really early afternoons—with a light repast, nothing too heavy, on the insistence of Mademoiselle Geraldine. “Breakfast,” she said, bosom heaving, “should never be luxurious.” Thus all they had to select from was tea, bread and sweet butter, porridge, ham and broiled mushrooms, rabbit pie, fricandeau of eggs, mayonnaise of prawns, and spiced beef. “Now, ladies,” said the headmistress every day from the front table. “I know this is quite the meager selection, but breakfast comestibles should be undisruptive, nutritive, and effortlessly digested. You must watch your figures. Watch them!”

Sophronia, uncertain how she might do such a thing, ate bites between staring down at her own chest, and selected only what she might have eaten back at home—a little porridge with molasses. They all ate meals together, although separated into tables by age or inclination. The dining hall was stretched to capacity with four dozen or so students, plus assorted teachers. The ship’s complement and personal staff ate beforehand, of course, and the sooties and other menial laborers ate belowdecks.

After breakfast, all the girls stood to recite, with religious solemnity, the school motto—ut acerbus terminus—three times over.

“What does it mean?” Sophronia wanted to know.

“ ‘To the bitter end,’ imbecile,” said Monique de Pelouse.

After breakfast they were separated according to skill level and drifted off to their first set of lessons. Three days a week the debuts took mathematics and household management with Sister Mathilde, along with a number of older girls. They learned more in the manner of lists and organization than sums calculated on slates. There were no apparent exams, and yet Sophronia found herself intrigued into learning simply by the puzzles Sister Mathilde proposed. Algebra was far more interesting when it was a matter of proportioning out mutton chops so as to poison only half of one’s dinner guests and then determining the relative value of purchasing a more expensive, yet more effective, antidote over a home remedy. Sophronia was a mite disturbed by the context, but could not help being intrigued by the macabre nature of the calculations.

On the other two days, they had physical culture with Lady Linette during the first time slot. This involved, much to Sophronia’s shock, climbing, running, and even some light tumbling—in petticoats. There were also battledore and shuttlecock, tennis, croquet, pass the slipper, and wink-wink. Sophronia had the advantage of brothers. Who would have thought I should ever consider them an advantage? Which turned her, as Monique pointed out disgustedly, into rather a sporting lady.

“Ugh, Sophronia, you’re so very country,” she said.

“Well, yes, I was raised there.” At least I don’t have horsey teeth, like you!

“Next you’ll be crying out, ‘Tallyho!’ from the squeak deck.”

“Oh, now, be fair. Only when I have the dogs out after you, dearest Monique.” Sophronia grinned slyly, and Monique gave her a nasty look.

Lady Linette completed a somersault across the carpet, ending in front of them and causing Sophronia and Monique to snap their mouths closed and pay attention. She seemed almost embarrassed as she guided them through the steps. “Now, ladies, remember this is for use only when strictly necessary, and you must be absolutely certain not to muss your hair. For the most part, you should delegate physical exertions to a willing, or unwilling, accomplice. We will discuss bribery and blackmail techniques later. Alternatively, you might arrange things so that fleshy activity does not become necessary at all. However, a lady is always prepared. Speaking of which, show me your handkerchiefs!”

The girls all stopped what they were doing, which had been preparing—in various states of distress or, in Sophronia’s case, delight—to try their own versions of the somersault, and began patting about for handkerchiefs.

“What did I tell you yesterday? A lady always has her handkerchief on her person. A handkerchief is endlessly useful. Not only is it a communication device, but it can also be dropped as a distraction, scented with various perfumes and noxious gases for discombobulation, used to wipe the forehead of a gentleman, or even bandage a wound, and, of course, you may dab at the eyes or nose if it is still clean. Dab, mind you! Never blow. I don’t tell you these things for my own amusement, ladies. Now, books on heads while I do the inspection.”

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