Etiquette & Espionage / Page 2

Page 2



Mrs. Temminnick pressed on. “We are certainly willing to provide compensation for your considering Sophronia. Mrs. Barnaclegoose told me, in confidence, that you are masterly with troublesome cases. You have an excellent record. Why, only last week one of your girls married a viscount.”


Sophronia was rattled. “Really, Mumsy!” Marriage? Already?


As yet, the crow had said nothing. This was a common occurrence around Sophronia’s mother. The stranger merely sipped her tea, the bulk of her attention on Sophronia. Her eyes were hard, assessing, and her movements very precise and sharp.


Mrs. Temminnick continued. “And, of course, there is dear Petunia’s coming-out ball to consider. We were hoping Sophronia might be presentable for the event. This December? Well, as presentable as possible, given her… defects.”


Sophronia winced. She was well aware she hadn’t her sisters’ looks. For some reason the fates had seen fit to design her rather more in her father’s image than her mother’s. But there was no need to discuss such a thing openly with a stranger!


“That could be arranged.” When the woman finally spoke it was with such a strong French accent that her words were difficult to understand. “Miss Temminnick, why is there india rubber wrapped around your boots?”


Sophronia looked down. “Mumsy was complaining I kept scuffing them.”


“Interesting solution. Does it work?”


“Haven’t had a chance to test them properly.” She paused. “Yet.”


The stranger looked neither shocked nor impressed by this statement.


Frowbritcher reappeared. He made a motion with one clawlike mechanical arm, beckoning. Sophronia’s mother stood and went to confer with the butler. Frowbritcher had a sinister habit of turning up with secrets. It was highly disconcerting in a mechanical.


After a whispered interchange, Mrs. Temminnick went red about the face and then whirled back around.


Oh, dear, thought Sophronia, what have I done now?


“Please excuse me for a moment. There appears to be some difficulty with our new dumbwaiter.” She gave her daughter a pointed look. “Hold your tongue and behave, young lady!”


“Yes, Mumsy.”


Mrs. Temminnick left the room, closing the door firmly behind her.


“Where did you get the rubber?” The crow dismissed Sophronia’s mother with comparative ease, still intrigued by the shoe modification. India rubber was expensive and difficult to come by, particularly in any shape more complex than a ball.


Sophronia nodded in a significant way.


“You destroyed a dumbwaiter for it?”


“I’m not saying I did. I’m not saying I didn’t, either.” Sophronia was cautious. After all, this woman wants to steal me away to finishing school. I’ll be there for years and then foisted off on some viscount with two thousand a year and a retreating hairline. Sophronia rethought her approach; perhaps a little less circumspection and some judiciously applied sabotage was called for.


“Mumsy wasn’t lying, you understand, about my conduct? The climbing and such. Although it has been a while since I tried to climb up a person. And the footman and I weren’t flirting. He thinks Petunia is the pip, not me.”


“What about the taking apart?”


Sophronia nodded, as it was a better excuse for destroying the dumbwaiter than spying. “I’m fond of machines. Intriguing things, machines, don’t you find?”


The woman cocked her head to one side. “I generally prefer to make use of them, not dissect them. Why do you do it? To upset your mother?”


Sophronia considered this. She was relatively fond of her mother, as one is apt to be, but she supposed some part of her might be on the attack. “Possibly.”


A flash of a smile appeared on the woman’s face. It made her look very young. It vanished quickly. “How are you as a thespian? Any good?”


“Theatricals?” What kind of finishing school teacher asks that? Sophronia was put out. “I may have smudges on my face, but I’m still a lady!”


The woman looked at Sophronia’s exposed petticoat. “That remains to be seen.” She turned away, as though not interested anymore, and helped herself to a slice of cake. “Are you strong?”


Down the hall, something exploded with a bang. Sophronia thought she heard her mother shriek. Both she and the visitor ignored the disruption.


“Strong?” Sophronia edged toward the tea trolley, eyeing the sponge.


“From all the climbing.” A pause. “And the machine lifting, I suppose.”


Sophronia blinked. “I’m not weak.”


“You’re certainly good at prevarication.”


“Is that a bad thing?”


“That depends on whom you’re asking.”


Sophronia helped herself to two pieces of cake, just as though she had been invited to do so. The visitor forbore to remark upon it. Sophronia turned away briefly, in the guise of finding a spoon, to tuck one piece away in her apron pocket. Mumsy wouldn’t allow her any sweets for the next week once she found out about the dumbwaiter.


The woman might have seen the theft, but she didn’t acknowledge it.


“You run this finishing school, then?”


“Do you run this finishing school, Mademoiselle Geraldine?” corrected the crow.


“Do you run this finishing school, Mademoiselle Geraldine?” parroted Sophronia dutifully, even though they had not been properly introduced. Odd, in a finishing school teacher. Shouldn’t she wait until Mumsy returns?


“It is called Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Have you heard of it?”


Sophronia had. “I thought only the very best families were allowed in.”


“Sometimes we make exceptions.”


“Are you the Mademoiselle Geraldine? You don’t seem old enough.”


“Why, thank you, Miss Temminnick, but you should not make such an observation to your betters.”


“Sorry, Madam.”


“Sorry, Mademoiselle Geraldine.”


“Oh, yes, sorry, Mademoiselle Geraldine.”


“Very good. Do you notice anything else odd about me?”


Sophronia said the first thing that came to mind. “The gray in your hair. It’s amiss.”


“You are an observant young lady, aren’t you?” Then, in a sudden movement, Mademoiselle Geraldine reached over and pulled out the small throw pillow from behind her back. She tossed it at Sophronia.


Sophronia, who had never before had a lady throw a pillow at her, was flabbergasted, but caught it.


“Adequate reflexes,” said Mademoiselle Geraldine, wiggling her fingers for the return of the pillow.


Bemused, Sophronia handed it back to her. “Why—”


A black-gloved hand was raised against any further questions.


Mrs. Temminnick returned at that juncture. “I do apologize. How incurably rude of me. I can’t comprehend what has happened to the dumbwaiter. It’s making the most awful racket. But you don’t want to hear of such piddling domestic trifles.” She put a great deal of emphasis on the word trifles.


Sophronia grimaced.


Mrs. Temminnick sat down, rubbing at a grease spot on her formerly impeccable gloves. “How are you and Sophronia getting on?”


Mademoiselle Geraldine said, “Quite well. The young lady was just telling me of some history book she was recently reading. What was the subject?”


So, she doesn’t want Mumsy to know she’s been throwing pillows at me? Sophronia was never one to let anyone down when fibs were required.


“Egypt. Apparently the Primeval Monarchy, which follows directly after the Mythical Period, has been given new dates. And—”


Her mother interrupted. “That’s more than enough of that, Sophronia. A headmistress isn’t interested in education. Really, Mademoiselle Geraldine, once you get her started she’ll never stop.” She looked hopeful. “I know she’s a terrible mess, but can you do anything with her?”


Mademoiselle Geraldine gave a tight smile. “What do you say to a probationary period? We’ll return her in time for that coming-out ball of yours in a few months and see how she gets on until then?”


“Oh, Mademoiselle Geraldine, how perfectly topping!” Sophronia’s mother clasped her hands delightedly. “Isn’t this thrilling, Sophronia? You’re going to finishing school!”


“But I don’t want to go to finishing school!” Sophronia couldn’t help the petulance in her voice as visions of parasol training danced through her head.


“Don’t be like that, darling. It will be very exciting.”


Sophronia grappled for recourse. “But she threw a pillow at me!”


“Oh, Sophronia, don’t tell fibs—you know how unhappy that makes me.”


Sophronia gawped, swiveling her gaze back and forth between her now-animated mother and the crowlike stranger.


“How soon can she be made ready?” Mademoiselle Geraldine wanted to know.


Sophronia’s mother started. “You wish to take her away now?”


“I am here, am I not? Why waste the trip?”


“I didn’t think it would be so soon. We must shop for new dresses, a warmer coat. What about her lesson books?”


“Oh, you can send all that along later. I shall provide you with a list of required items. She’ll be perfectly fine for the time being. A resourceful girl, I suspect.”


“Well, if you think it best.”


“I do.”


Sophronia was not accustomed to seeing her mother railroaded so effectively. “But Mumsy!”


“If Mademoiselle Geraldine thinks it best, then you had better hop to it, young lady. Go change into your good blue dress and your Sunday hat. I’ll have one of the maids pack your necessities. May we have half an hour, mademoiselle?”


“Of course. Perhaps I will take a little tour of the grounds while you organize? To stretch my legs before the drive.”


“Please do. Come along, Sophronia, we have much to do.”


Frustrated and out of sorts, Sophronia trailed after her mother.


Accordingly, she was given an old portmanteau from the attic, three hatboxes, and a carpetbag. With barely enough time to ensure a nibble for the drive—to goodness knows where, at a distance of goodness knows how far—Sophronia found herself being shoved hastily into a carriage. Her mother kissed her on the forehead and made a show of fussing. “My little girl, all grown up and leaving to become a lady!” And that, as they say, was that.


Sophronia might have hoped for a grand send-off with all her siblings and half the mechanical retainers waving tearstained handkerchiefs. But her younger brothers were exploring the farm, her older ones were away at Eton, her sisters were busy with fripperies or marriages—possibly one and the same—and the mechanicals were trundling about their daily tasks. She thought she spotted Roger, the stable lad, waving his cap from the hayloft, but apart from that, even her mother gave only a perfunctory waggle of her fingertips before returning to the house.


BEWARE FLYWAYMEN, FOR THEY ARE ILL-DRESSED AND ILL-MANNERED


The carriage was amazing, outfitted with the latest in automated roof removal, retractable footstool, and collapsible tea caddy. It was a hired transport but decked out like a private conveyance, with walls of midnight-blue quilted velvet to reduce road noise, and gold-fringed blankets to ward off the chill.


Sophronia barely had time to take it all in before Mademoiselle Geraldine banged the ceiling with the handle of her parasol and they lurched forward.


More startling than the decoration was the fact that the carriage was already occupied—by two other students. They had, apparently, been sitting patiently the entire time Mademoiselle Geraldine took tea and Sophronia fell out of dumbwaiters and packed all her worldly goods into a portmanteau.


Directly across from her sat a bright-eyed, lively-looking young lady, a little younger than Sophronia, with masses of honey-colored hair and a round porcelain face. She wore an enormous gilt and red glass brooch pinned to her bright red dress. The combination of the hair, the jewelry, and the dress made her look quite the scandal, as though she were in training to become a lady of the night. Sophronia was duly impressed.


“Oh, goodness!” said she to Sophronia, as though Sophronia’s appearance in the cab were the most delightful thing to happen all day. Which, for one left to sit idle in a carriage with no distraction or entertainment, it might well have been.


“How do you do?” said Sophronia.


“How do you do? Isn’t this a spiffing day? Really, quite spiffing. I’m Dimity. Who are you?”


“Sophronia.”


“Is that all?”


“What, isn’t it enough?”


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