Karyn Monk - the Author's Official Site

Every Whispered Word
Chapter One

London, England
March 1885

If only she’d had her pickax handy, she would have made bloody good use of it.

She kicked the black door in frustration instead, then stifled a curse as pain shot through her foot.

I hate this bloody place.

The door groaned and retreated slightly, exposing a narrow view of the entrance hall beyond. She stared at it a moment, swiftly analyzing her options.

No doubt the proper thing to do would be to pull the door firmly closed. People in London probably didn’t expect their doors to be kicked open in broad daylight, she reflected, especially by relatively respectable-looking young women. But what if Mr. Kent was actually at home, and had simply not heard her knocking? Perhaps he was engaged in some area of the house where it was difficult to hear someone pounding incessantly upon the door. Then again, she mused, a man of his social stature probably employed a butler. Well then, why had this servant not responded to her knocking?

Because he was old and deaf as a post, she promptly theorized. Or maybe he was a secret tippler and had collapsed on his bed, utterly foxed. Or suffered a dreadful attack of some sort and was lying helpless upon the floor, too weak to call for help. How tragic it would be if she just callously closed the door and left, abandoning the poor old, deaf butler to suffer alone and die.

“Hello,” she called, flinging the door wide open. “Mr. Kent? Are you in?”

A banging sound thundered from somewhere within the house. It was eminently clear why no one had responded to her knocking. Someone had to be in the house to be making such a racket, although what activity he or she was involved in she could scarcely imagine.

“Mr. Kent?” She stepped into the entrance hall. “May I come in?”

The foyer was strangely void of furnishings, as if the owner had only just moved in. A battered, spindly-legged stool stood at the side of the hall, upon which a precarious tower of books and papers had been carelessly erected. More stacks of worn leather-bound volumes and notes were scattered in untidy hills across the floor and up the staircase, forcing her to step carefully as she navigated her way further into the hall.

“Mr. Kent,” she called again, trying to be heard above the clamor, “are you all right?”

“That’s it!” shouted someone, triumphant. “I knew it! I knew it!”

The voice was coming from the kitchen below, suggesting that it did not belong to Mr. Kent, but to one of his servants. That was better, really. A servant could tell her if Mr. Kent was in the house. If so, Camelia could then be issued into the drawing room to wait while the servant formally announced her. A formal presentation was much more desirable than having the renowned Mr. Simon Kent suddenly come upon a strange young woman standing uninvited in his home amidst the clutter of his personal books and papers.

Assuring herself that she was actually pursuing the more socially acceptable course of action, she closed the front door. Then she straightened her hat and brushed her gloved hands over the emerald-and-ivory-striped fabric of her skirt. There was no mirror handy for her to check the state of her hair, but the multitude of pins she had clumsily poked into place were already working their way loose, causing her inexpertly crafted chignon to droop against the nape of her neck. Zareb was probably right, she realized in frustration. If she was going to stay in London much longer, she would probably have to resort to the hiring of a lady’s maid. The thought of such a frivolous expense irritated her. She jammed several hairpins back into place and marched through a door leading off the entrance hall, then she descended the narrow flight of stairs leading to the kitchen.

“Yes, yes, that’s it, that’s better now!” shouted the deep voice, ecstatic. “Bloody hell, you’ve got it!”

A man of considerable height stood in the middle of the kitchen with his back to her. He was dressed in plain dark trousers and a simple white linen shirt, the sleeves of which were carelessly shoved up to his elbows, and the fabric of which was sodden and clinging to him. This was not surprising, given the extraordinary heat and moisture suffusing the kitchen. A fine, silvery mist wafted about, giving the chamber a faintly ethereal quality. It was a bit like being in the jungle after a heavy summer rain, Camelia thought, wishing she wasn’t dressed in so many suffocating layers of rapidly wilting feminine attire.

A loud banging and gasping roared from an enormous apparatus beside the man. A steam engine, she realized, feeling a surge of excitement. It was turning a massive crank, which was facilitating the movement of a series of revolving wheels. These gears were part of an intricate structure that was connected to a large wooden tub, but Camelia could not make out exactly what the extraordinary piece of machinery was doing.

“Wait now, bide a bit, steady, steady--not too fast, now, you’ve got to keep it steady!” coaxed the man, speaking to the contraption as if it were a child learning a new skill.

He braced his lean, muscled arms against the rim of the wooden tub and stared inside, intently focused upon whatever was taking place within. “A little more, a little more--that’s it--yes--that’s it--brilliant!”

Intrigued, Camelia moved closer, making her way through a maze of long tables which were crowded with strange mechanical devices. Stacks of books were piled everywhere, and the tables, floor and walls of the kitchen were covered with intricately drawn sketches and notes.

“A little faster,” urged the man, excited. “No, no, no,” he scolded, raking his hand through the damp waves of his coppery hair. He began to swiftly adjust a series of levers and valves on the steam engine. “A little more--a little more--come on now, we’re almost there--that’s it--”

A deafening blast of hot vapor belched from the apparatus. The crank began to turn faster, which in turn caused the gears to rotate with rapidly increasing speed.

“That’s it!” he shouted, elated. “Perfect! Brilliant! Marvelous!”

The wooden barrel started to shiver and shake. Water sloshed over its sides and onto the floor.

“Too fast.” Shaking his head, he frantically worked to readjust the changes he had made to the steam engine. “Hold now, slow it down--slow down I say, do you hear me?”

Camelia watched with mounting concern as the enormous barrel shivered and shook and sent waves of soapy water spraying through the air. Whatever the contraption’s purpose might have been, it was clearly not meant to completely drench the person operating it, as it was now doing.

“Stop now, hold, cease, do you hear?” the man commanded, blinking water from his eyes as he scrambled to readjust the settings on the machine.

The crank and wheels were spinning at an alarming rate now, and the great barrel was quivering and quaking as if it might break apart.

“Hold, I say!” the man shouted, banging upon the recalcitrant contraption with his wrench. “Stop this nonsense before I take a bloody ax to you!”

Suddenly sopping wet garments exploded from the barrel in every direction. A sodden pair of drawers smacked hard against Camelia’s face and she stumbled backward, momentarily blinded. The table behind her gave way, toppling the one behind it. A dreadful crashing filled the room as she landed hard upon her backside.

Stop, you worthless piece of junk!” roared the man, who was still frantically trying to get his contraption under control. “That is enough!”

Camelia pulled the wet drawers from her face just in time to see the machine give a final, defiant huff. The man stood before it, dripping wet, his legs apart, wielding his wrench like a menacing sword. His shirt was unfastened nearly to his waist, exposing the taut contours of his chest and belly, and the considerable breadth of his shoulders was clearly defined beneath the virtually transparent mantle of linen. Camelia thought he looked like a mighty warrior poised for battle--except for the limp stocking dangling from the top of his head.

He waited a long moment, breathing heavily, watching to see if the machine was going to give him any more trouble. Evidently satisfied that it was not, he slowly lowered his wrench and turned, shaking his head in disgust. He glowered at the sight of the overturned tables, the smashed jumble of inventions, and the litter of notes and books strewn across the sopping wet floor.

Finally his dark gaze fell upon Camelia.

“What the devil do you think you’re doing?” he demanded, incredulous.

“I’m trying to get up,” she returned, hastily pulling her wet skirts over her legs. Her bruised dignity marginally restored, she held out her hand and regarded him expectantly.

“I mean what on earth do you think you’re doing here?” he clarified, ignoring her outstretched hand. “Are you in the habit of just marching into people’s homes uninvited?”

She struggled to maintain an air of polite formality, which was enormously difficult, given the fact that she was sprawled on the floor and the man was glaring at her as if she were a common thief. “I knocked,” she began primly, “but no one came to the door--”

“And so you decided to just force your way in?”

“I most certainly did not force my way in.” Since it was clear he lacked the basic manners of even the most inexperienced butler, she decided her interrogator had to be one of Mr. Kent’s apprentices. While she could appreciate that it was probably difficult to find reliable assistants who were sufficiently skilled in mathematics and science, that did not excuse his utter discourtesy. “The door was already open.”

He yanked the wet stocking from his head and threw it aside. “And so you decided that meant you were welcome to sneak in and spy on me?”

As it was obvious he was not going to assist her in getting up, she pushed herself to her feet with as much dignity as she could muster, given the challenge of managing her bustle, petticoats, reticule, and awkwardly tilting hat. Once she was upright she met his gaze with cool disdain.

“I can assure you, sir, that I did not sneak in, but rather walked in after knocking upon the door for several long minutes, and then calling out loudly to announce my presence. The door was open, as I have already mentioned--a careless oversight of which I’m sure your master would not approve, were he to hear of it from me.”

The man’s blue eyes widened.

Good, thought Camelia with satisfaction. I can see I have your attention.

“As it happens, I have an appointment this afternoon with Mr. Kent,” she continued crisply, affecting an air of supreme importance.

She was only embellishing the truth a little, she assured herself. In fact she had written to Mr. Kent asking for an appointment exactly five times. Unfortunately, he had not responded to any of her letters. But she had been advised by certain members of London society that the esteemed inventor was a bit odd, and could sometimes go for weeks without either being seen or responding to any of his mail. And so instead of waiting for Mr. Kent to write back, she had taken matters into her own hands, penning a note in which she informed him that she would be calling upon him on that particular day, at that exact hour.

“You have an appointment with Mr. Kent?” The man arched a skeptical brow, which only served to further irritate her.

“Indeed I do,” Camelia assured him firmly. Obviously Mr. Kent wasn’t at home or he would have come rushing in by now, to find out what had made such a tremendous racket in his laboratory. “Regarding a matter of great import.”

“Really?” He folded his arms across his chest, unimpressed. “What?”

“Forgive me, sir, but that is not your concern. If you will just advise me as to when you expect Mr. Kent to be in tomorrow, I shall call upon him then.”

She had decided that she should not wait for the inventor to appear. Although there was no mirror in the kitchen, she was certain the effect of being hit in the face with a wet pair of men’s drawers was not estimable. She could feel her enormous hat listing dangerously to one side, and her hair was falling in a tangled damp nest beneath it. As for her carefully selected outfit, which she and Zareb had labored so hard to iron into a state of neat perfection, it was now a soggy, wrinkled disaster. If Mr. Kent were to take her proposition seriously, she could hardly appear before him looking like a waif who had just blown in from a gale.

“I’m Simon Kent,” the man informed her brusquely.

Camelia stared at him in disbelief. “You’re not.”

“Am I not quite what you expected?”’

“To begin with, you’re too young.”

His brow creased. “I’m not sure whether I should be flattered or insulted. Too young for what?”

The barest flicker of amusement lit his gaze, making it clear to her that he was simply making sport with her. Well, she was not that gullible.

“Too young to have earned several degrees in mathematics and science from the University of St. Andrews and St. John’s College in Cambridge,” Camelia pointed out. “And to have lectured extensively on the subjects of Mechanisms and Applied Mechanics, and to have written two dozen or more papers published by the National Academy of Science, and to have registered patents for some two hundred and seventy inventions. And obviously, too young to be responsible for all of this,” she finished, gesturing to the room full of scientific activity around her.

His expression was contained, but she could see that she had surprised him with her knowledge of his employer’s accomplishments. Good, she thought, perversely satisfied that she had managed to put him in his place.

“Given the disastrous results of the experiment you just witnessed, I fear I have forever damaged your too kind opinion of me. However, since you just barged into my laboratory uninvited and unannounced, I’m afraid I cannot be held responsible for that. I don’t customarily permit anyone to see what I am working on until I am relatively confident it is not going to explode and start shooting undergarments about.”

Camelia stared at him, speechless. He was not so young after all, she realized, suddenly noticing the furrows in his forehead and between his brows, which suggested countless long hours spent in study and deliberation. He was certainly thirty-five, or perhaps even a year or two more. While that was relatively young for a man to have accomplished all that she had just described, it was not impossible. Not if the man was exceptionally brilliant, disciplined, and driven. A terrible sinking feeling enveloped her as she realized she had just insulted the very man she had so desperately hoped to impress with her visit.

“Forgive me,” she managed, wishing that the floor would open up suddenly and swallow her whole. “I did not mean to intrude. It’s just that I very much wanted to meet you.”

He tilted his head to one side, his expression wary. “Why? Have you come to interview me for one of those irritating rags that takes such inestimable pleasure in dismissing me as a mad inventor?”

His tone was sarcastic, but Camelia detected a thread of vulnerability that suggested he had not been impervious to being described as such.

“No, nothing like that,” she assured him. “I’m not a writer.”

“Not a writer, and not a spy. That’s two counts in your favor. Who, then, are you?”

“I’m Lady Camelia Marshall,” she said, grabbing her hat as it started to slide off her head. “I’m a great admirer of your work, Mr. Kent,” she added earnestly, holding fast to keep the heavily flowered confection from flopping over her face. “I’ve read several of your papers and have found them to be most intriguing.”

“Have you indeed?”

If he was impressed by the fact that a woman had actually read some of his work, or claimed to find it intriguing, he gave no sign of it. Instead he walked behind her and lifted the first table that Camelia had knocked over.

“What a bloody mess,” he muttered, bending to pick up some of the dozens of tools, pieces of hardware and wads of notes that lay strewn about the wet floor.

“I’m terribly sorry about knocking your tables over,” Camelia apologized. “I hope nothing is broken,” she added, stooping down to assist him.

Simon watched as she awkwardly picked up a small metal box. She gripped it with one soiled, gloved hand while the other held fast to the enormous monstrosity of her sagging hat. That done, she started to rise. Unfortunately, her balance was compromised by the heavy weight of her wet bustle. She abandoned her grip on her bonnet and flailed around with one hand, her expression suddenly panicked, still holding his invention safe against her breast.

Simon reached out and grabbed her as her hat dropped in a riot of wilted roses over her face. As she toppled against him the scent of her flooded through him, an extraordinary fragrance unlike any he had ever known. It was exotic yet vaguely familiar, a light, sun-washed essence that reminded him of wandering in the woods on his father’s estate during a summer rain. He held her fast, drinking in her fragrance and acutely aware of the delicate structure of her back, the soft gasp of her breath, the agitated rise and fall of her breast as it pulsed against the damp linen clinging to his chest.

“I’m so sorry,” Camelia apologized again, horrendously embarrassed as she wrenched her hat up off her face. Finally free of its pins, the treacherous headpiece fell to the floor, dragging whatever semblance of a coiffure she might have retained down with it, until her hair was spilling across her back in a hopeless mass of tangles.

Simon stared down at her, taking in the smoky depths of her eyes, which were wide and filled with frustration. They were the color of sage, he realized, the soft green shade of wild wood sage, which grew in the dry, shady heaths of Scotland. A fine fan of lines surrounded her lower lashes, making it clear that she was well past the girlish bloom of her early twenties. Her skin was unfashionably bronzed and sprinkled with freckles, and her honey-colored hair was streaked with the palest threads of gold, indicating she was well accustomed to being in the sun. That he found surprising, given the quality of her attire. In his experience most Englishwomen of gentle breeding preferred the protection of either the indoors or shade. Then again, he reflected, most women of gentle breeding didn’t march boldly into a man’s house, uninvited and unescorted. He was vaguely aware that she no longer required his assistance to stand, yet he found himself strangely reluctant to release her.

“I’m all right now, thank you.” Camelia wondered if he thought she was incapable of staying upright for more than three minutes. Not that she had given him much reason to think otherwise, she realized miserably. “I’m afraid I’m not accustomed to wearing such a big hat,” she added, feeling he must require some kind of explanation for her inability to keep the confounded thing on top of her head. She declined to mention that a wet pair of drawers had knocked her in the face, challenging the integrity of her awkwardly arranged hairpins.

Simon didn’t know what to say to that. He supposed a gentleman might reassure her that the hat was quite fetching on her, but he thought the bloody thing was ludicrous. There was no denying she looked much better without it, especially with her sun kissed hair loose and curling across her shoulders.

“Here.” He picked her hat up and handed it to her.

“Thank you.”

He turned away, suddenly needing some distance from her. “So tell me, Lady Camelia,” he began, trying to focus on his disaster of a laboratory, “do we actually have an appointment today of which I am unaware?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Camelia replied emphatically. “We most certainly do.” She coughed lightly. “In a matter of speaking.”

Simon frowned. “Meaning what, exactly?”

“Meaning that our appointment was not confirmed, exactly. But it was certainly set, there can be no doubt about that.”

“I see.” He had no idea what she was talking about. “Forgive me if I seem obtuse, but just how, precisely, was this meeting arranged?”

“I wrote you a series of letters asking you for an appointment, but unfortunately, you never replied,” Camelia explained. “In the last letter I took the step of informing you that I would call upon you today at this time. I suppose that was rather forward of me.”

“I believe it actually pales in comparison with marching into a man’s house unannounced and unescorted,” Simon reflected, slapping a sheaf of soggy notes onto the table. “Are your parents aware that you are wandering around London without a chaperone?”

“I have no need for a chaperone, Mr. Kent.”

“Forgive me. I did not realize you were married.”

“I’m not. But at twenty-eight I’m well past the age of coming out, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to be constantly arranging for some gossipy elderly matron to follow me about. I have a driver, and that is sufficient.”

“Aren’t you concerned for your reputation?”

“Not particularly.”

“And why is that?”

“Because if I lived my life according to the dictums of London society, I would never get anything done.”

“I see.” He tossed a wooden pole with a metal attachment onto the table.

“What’s that?” asked Camelia, regarding it curiously.

“It’s a new type of mop I’m working on,” he said dismissively, bending to retrieve something else.

She moved closer to examine the odd device. “How does it work?”

Simon regarded her uncertainly, not quite believing that she was actually interested in it. Few women had ever ventured into his laboratory. Of those that had, only the women in his family had demonstrated a genuine appreciation of his often-outlandish ideas. Yet something about Lady Camelia’s expression as she stood there tempered his initial impulse to simply brush off her question. Her sage-green eyes were wide and contemplative, as if the odd tool before her were a mystery that she genuinely wanted to solve.

“I’ve attached a large clamp on the end of a mop-stick, which is operated by this lever,” he began, picking it up to show it to her. “The lever pulls this rod, which tightens this spring, causing the clamp to close tight. The idea is that you wring out the string end of the mop without ever touching it, or even having to bend over.”

“That’s very clever.”

“It needs work,” he said, shrugging. “I’m having trouble getting the tension on the spring right, so that it squeezes out the mop sufficiently without snapping the lever.” He placed it back on the table.

“And what is this?” Camelia indicated the metal box she was holding.

“A lemon squeezer.”

She regarded it curiously. “It doesn’t look like any of the lemon squeezers I’ve ever seen.” She opened it to reveal a wooden fluted nob surrounded by a ring of holes. “How does it work?”

“You put the halved lemon on the mount, then close the lid and press down firmly, using the handles to create more pressure,” Simon explained. “The hollow in the lid squeezes the lemon hard against the mount, extracting the juice without the need for twisting. The juice flows through the holes into the chamber below, free of pits and pulp, which get trapped in the chamber above. Then you pull this little drawer out and there you have your lemon juice.”

“That’s wonderful. Are you planning to manufacture it?”

He shook his head. “I made it for my family because I’m always trying to find ways to lighten their work a little. I expect others would think it was a piece of nonsense.”

“I believe most women would welcome anything that makes their household tasks easier,” Camelia argued. “Have you at least registered a patent for it? Or for the mop?”

“If I stopped to register patents for every little thing I came up with, I’d spend my life buried in paper.”

“But you have some two hundred and seventy patents.”

“Only because some well-meaning members of my family took it upon themselves to take my drawings and notes on those particular inventions and submit the necessary documents and fees to the patent office. I have no idea what has been registered and what hasn’t. Frankly, it doesn’t interest me.”

She regarded him incredulously. “Don’t you want to know that your ideas have been properly registered, so you can receive credit for them?”

“I don’t invent things for the sake of receiving credit for them, Lady Camelia. If someone else wants to take one of my ideas and improve upon it and invest the time and the capital necessary to put it into production, so be it. Science and technology would never advance if all scientists hoarded their theories and discoveries as if they were gold.”

He hoisted the second table back onto its legs and began to pile onto it more of the wet papers, tools, and various inventions that had fallen to the floor. “So tell me, Lady Camelia,” he said, shaking the water out of a tangled nest of wire, “what is it that led you to write all those letters asking to see me?”

Camelia hesitated. She had imagined conducting her meeting with Mr. Kent seated in a richly velvet-draped drawing room, where she could expound at a leisurely pace upon the importance of archaeology and the evolution of man, perhaps while being served tea on a silver service by some suitably deferential servant. It was now abundantly clear to her that Mr. Kent didn’t employ a servant, given the numerous stacks of greasy dishes piled high upon the stove and in the sink on the other side of the kitchen. She considered suggesting that she return on another day, when he might not be preoccupied with the task of restoring his laboratory to some semblance of order, then quickly rejected the idea.

Time was running out.

“I’m interested in your work on steam engines,” she began, bending to pick up a few more items from the floor. “I have read one of your papers on the subject--in which you discussed the enormous benefits of steam power when applied to the pumps used in coal mining. I thought your thesis that steam power has yet to be used effectively was most compelling.”

Simon couldn’t believe she was serious. Of every possibility that might have explained her presence, the subject of steam engines and coal mining would have struck him as amongst the least likely. “You’re interested in steam engines?”

“As they apply to the challenges of excavation and pumping,” Camelia explained. “I am an archaeologist, Mr. Kent, as was my father, the late Earl of Stamford. No doubt you have heard of him?”

A glimmer of hope flared in her eyes, which for some reason Simon was loathe to extinguish. However, he disliked the idea of lying to her.

“Unfortunately, Lady Camelia, I’m not very well acquainted with the field of archaeology, and I don’t typically attend functions where I might have had the pleasure of meeting your father.” His tone was apologetic.

Camelia nodded. She supposed she couldn’t really expect him to know of her father. Given everything she had heard about Mr. Kent, it was apparent he spent most of his time cloistered in his laboratory.

“My father dedicated his life to the study of the archaeological riches in Africa, at a time when the world is almost exclusively interested in the art and artifacts of the Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. Very little has been done in terms of recording the history of the African people from a scientific point of view.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know very much about Africa, Lady Camelia. My understanding is that its people are basically nomadic tribes who have lived extremely simple lives for thousands of years. I didn’t think there was anything of value there--except diamonds, of course.”

“Africa does not have the abundance of ancient buildings and art that have been found elsewhere in the world,” Camelia allowed. “Or if it does, we have not yet found them. But my father believed Africa was home to civilizations far older than those existing anywhere else in the world. When Charles Darwin proposed his theory that human beings may have descended from apes, most of the world laughed. My father, however, grew more convinced of Africa’s singular importance in the evolution of mankind.”

“And how does that apply to my work with steam engines?”

“Twenty years ago, my father discovered an area of land in South Africa in which there were many indications that once an ancient tribe lived there. He purchased some three hundred acres and began an excavation, which produced many exciting artifacts. I am now continuing my father’s work and I need your steam powered pump to assist me.”

“I thought archaeological digs were basically carried out with a shovel, a bucket, and a brush.”

“They are. But excavating in South Africa has unique challenges. Once you get below the first layer of relatively soft ground, the crust becomes extremely hard and difficult to break. Then you the have the problem of water seeping into the hole as you approach the water table. And then there is the rainy season, which can last from December through March. At this moment my dig is completely flooded, making it impossible for my workers to continue.”

“Surely there are steam-powered pumps available in South Africa,” Simon suggested.

“They are actually somewhat difficult to come by.”

Cassandra was careful to keep her tone light. She did not want Simon to know about the extraordinary problems she had encountered in trying to secure a pump for her site. If he knew that her previous equipment had been sabotaged, or that she believed the De Beers Company had instructed the pumping companies not to lease her any more machinery, he might decide it was too risky for him to supply her with his own unique pump.

“There is a water-pumping monopoly in existence, which is controlled by the De Beers Mining Company,” she continued, “and its priority, understandably, is providing services for pumping the diamond mines. At this point, I am unable to either purchase or lease a pump, which has brought the work on my site to a halt. But after reading your article, I am convinced your pump would be far superior to anything currently in use in South Africa. That is why I have come to you.”

“And just what makes you think my pump is better?”

“In your paper you dismissed current steam turbines as extremely inefficient. You proposed that far greater energy could be harnessed if the steam could expand gradually, instead of in just one step, enabling the turbine to move at an extraordinary speed, which would in turn result in a much more powerful and rapid pumping action. Since the artifacts I am excavating can be damaged by prolonged exposure to water, and because I am extremely anxious to progress with my work, I believe your new steam pump is the best solution for clearing my site.”

So she had actually read the article, Simon reflected. Even more surprising, she apparently had understood it. He raked his hands through his hair and gazed about the room, trying to remember where he had put his notes and drawings on steam engines. He began to rummage through several piles of drawings scattered on the floor, then moved to one of the tables that had not been upended by Lady Camelia’s spectacular fall and continued searching.

“Why were you making this engine shake this tub?” Camelia asked while he searched.

“The engine wasn’t supposed to shake the tub. It was supposed to turn the paddles inside, which in turn would force the water through the clothes. Unfortunately, it didn’t work as well as I had hoped.”

Camelia stared at the enormous contraption in astonishment. “You mean this is a giant washing machine?”

“It’s an early prototype,” Simon told her. “Current machines employ a wooden tub and paddles that are turned by a crank. I’m trying to make a machine that will operate with steam power, freeing women from the exhausting job of turning the crank by hand.”

Although her experience with washing clothes was limited, Camelia could certainly appreciate that for a woman in charge of an entire household’s attire, a steam-powered machine would be of enormous help. “That’s a marvelous idea.”

“It needs a lot of work,” he admitted, casting an irritated glance at the soaking wet garments strewn about the kitchen. “A steam engine is difficult to operate, and I’m having trouble getting it to give me a good, steady rotation. Also, it’s too large and expensive. Gas power is another option, but few homes are connected to gas. Electricity is also a possibility, but most homes don’t have it yet.” He began to burrow beneath a towering stack of unwashed dishes, which looked as if they might come crashing down upon his head at any moment. “Here it is,” he said, extracting a crumpled sketch from beneath a frying pan.

Camelia moved closer as he cleared some space on a table and attempted to smooth out the badly creased, stained drawing.

“The basic premise of a steam engine is that it places steam under enormous pressure, then permits it to expand, creating a force which can be converted into motion,” Simon began. “Using a piston and cylinder, a pumping effect is created, which can be used for many tasks, including pumping water from coal mines and pits. I was trying to improve the engine’s efficiency by having the steam expand through a series of stages, thereby significantly increasing its pressure.”

“Did you succeed?”

“I managed to break down the movement of the steam and intensify its pressure. Unfortunately, it was not enough to make a substantial difference in terms of the pump’s efficiency.”

Disappointment filtered through her. “Did the pump you built work well enough to clear water out of a pit?”

“Of course,” Simon assured her. “I made a few adaptations to it, so that the action was better than what most pumps can achieve. It just wasn’t enough to warrant manufacturing it on a large-scale basis. The materials I used were costlier than what is generally employed, and the machine takes longer to assemble, which means no manufacturer would consider the design economically viable.”

Camelia supposed that a somewhat improved pump was better than nothing. “Would you be willing to lease it to me?”

“Unfortunately, there is nothing to lease. I dismantled most of it, because I needed the pieces for other things.”

She stared at him, crestfallen. “How long would it take you to build another one?”

“More time than I have right now,” Simon replied. “I am currently working on too many other projects. Besides, that machine had several problems which I couldn’t seem to solve.”

“But that is what should compel you to devote more time to it,” Camelia argued. “As a scientist, you should be motivated by challenge.”

“Look around you, Lady Camelia. Do you honestly believe I don’t have enough challenges already demanding my attention?”

“I’m not saying that the other inventions you are working on are not important,” Camelia assured him. “But you can scarcely compare lemon squeezers and washing machines to something that will help me unearth a vital piece of human history.”

“That depends entirely upon one’s point of view,” Simon countered. “For people who collapse on their bed every night exhausted by the overwhelming burden of their daily chores, any invention which makes a task easier to perform is an improvement on their life. Potentially improving the lives of thousands strikes me as far more important than digging up a few disintegrating bones and broken relics in the wastelands of Africa.”

“Those disintegrating bones and relics tell us about who we are and where we came from,” Camelia returned, infuriated by how he was denigrating her work. “The discovery of our history is of critical importance to all of us.”

“I’m afraid I am more interested in devoting my time to inventions that will make the present and the future better. While I respect the field of archaeology, Lady Camelia, it is a rarefied area of interest mainly for a few privileged academics. I don’t believe you are about to discover anything that will improve the lives of thousands of people. Since my time is extremely limited, and I am already working on far more projects than I can manage, I’m afraid I cannot help you.” He began to pick up more of his scattered inventions and papers from the floor.

“I will pay you.”

He paused and eyed her curiously. Her expression was composed, but her hands were gripping her reticule so tightly her soiled gloves were stretched taut against her knuckles. Clearly, pursuing the work of her father meant a great deal to her.

“Really? How much?”

“Very well,” she assured him. “Handsomely.”

“Forgive me if this seems somewhat uncivilized, but I’m afraid you will have to be a little more precise in your terms. How much, exactly, does ‘handsomely’ mean?”

Camelia hesitated. Her financial resources were severely strained. She had scarcely enough funds in the bank to keep the handful of loyal workers who had remained on her site from quitting over the course of the next two months. But Mr. Kent mustn’t know that. The disheveled man standing before her appeared to be having financial troubles of his own, given his modest, sparsely furnished home and his apparent inability to employ anyone to assist him, either with his inventions or with the avalanche of crusted pots and greasy dishes piled around the stove and sink.

“If you will build me a pump immediately, Mr. Kent, then I am prepared to offer you five percent of my profits over the next two years. I believe you must agree that is very generous.”

Simon frowned. “I’m sorry, Lady Camelia, but I’m not clear on what that means. Profits on what, precisely?”

“On whatever I find at my site.”

“I wasn’t aware that there was a flourishing market for bits of bone and broken pots.”

“There is if they are of archaeological significance. Once I have had the opportunity to study and document the pieces, they are sold to the British Museum for its collection, with the understanding that I am to have continued access to them should I ever wish it.”

“I see. And just how much you have managed to earn in the past five years while engaged in this pursuit?”

“What my father and I earned in the past is of no consequence,” she informed him firmly. “At the time of his death six months ago, my father was on the verge of an extremely important discovery. Unfortunately, rain and water seepage have made progress on the site extremely slow, and my workers have had difficulty accomplishing much.”

Actually, most of them had become convinced that the site was cursed and fled, but she saw no reason to share that particular piece of information with him.

“With the help of your steam pump,” she continued, “I will be able to excavate the site a hundred times faster than I could using only manpower for removing the water and mud. Then I will finally find what my father spent so many years looking for.”

“And what was that?”

Camelia hesitated. There had already been rampant fear amongst her own workers as to what it was she sought. When the accidents occurred, that fear had ignited into a firestorm of panic. Of course Simon Kent was an educated man of science, who probably didn’t believe in curses and vengeful spirits.

Even so, the less he knew, the better.

“My father was searching for the artifacts of an ancient tribe that inhabited the area of our site some two thousand years ago.” That was certainly true, she assured herself. It just wasn’t the entire truth.

Simon looked decidedly unimpressed. “A few smashed bits of ancient tribal artifacts? No secret stashes of gold or diamonds? No mysterious ancient powers trapped in a jewel-encrusted chest?”

“The value of these particular artifacts will be enormous.” Camelia struggled to keep her temper in check. “My father spent his last twenty years on the cusp of an important scientific discovery, which is certain to open the door to an entire new area of archaeological study.”

“So what you are offering me at present is essentially five percent of nothing,” Simon observed bluntly, “given that you and your father have so far failed to find this so-called ‘significant discovery.’” He began to gather up the sopping wet garments strewn about the kitchen and toss them back into his washing machine. “Forgive me if I seem ungrateful, Lady Camelia, but as marvelously tempting as your offer is, I’m afraid I shall have to decline.”

Camelia glared at him in frustration. Simon Kent was nothing like she had imagined. She had envisioned him as a refined, elderly man of science and letters, who was driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, as her father had been. She had believed Mr. Kent would welcome the extraordinary opportunity to participate in her exploration, in which one of his inventions would be used to further the world’s understanding of its own origins. She had convinced herself that he would be nothing like the other British men she had met upon her return to England, most of whom seemed to think that South Africa was nothing but a scrubby plot of dirt inhabited by barbarians, a land just waiting to be ravished for diamonds and gold.

“Ten percent then, over two years,” she offered stiffly as he continued to hurl garments back into his infernal washing machine. She hated the fact that she needed his assistance so desperately. “Will that satisfy you?”

“It isn’t just a matter of the money.” Simon was impressed by her obvious determination. Clearly her desire to honor her father’s life’s work and succeed where he had failed was admirable. “Even if I built another steam-powered pump for you, which would take several weeks at the very least, who would operate it for you once it was shipped to South Africa? You have already described the significant challenges of the geography and weather. The steam pump I would build would be different from anything currently in use. It would have to be adapted to address the problems that would undoubtedly arise. Someone would have to be trained to operate and maintain it, otherwise you would find yourself saddled with a completely useless piece of machinery.”

He was right, Camelia realized. The one steam engine she had managed to lease for her dig right after her father had died had suffered countless breakdowns during the few brief days it had actually worked. Then it had mysteriously fallen over and smashed its gears, destroying it completely. The leasing company had demanded that she pay for the ruined machine, then refused to lease any equipment to her again.

Mr. Kent’s machine would be useless unless someone with adequate knowledge of such a piece of equipment could be engaged to run it.

“Would you be willing to come to South Africa and train someone to use it? You would only need to stay a week or two,” she hastily assured him. “Just long enough to demonstrate how the machine works and familiarize someone with its maintenance.”

“Someone might be able to master operating it in two weeks, but learning to maintain it and repair it would take weeks or even months beyond that,” Simon pointed out. “I’m afraid I don’t have the time or the inclination to sail to Africa to do that--I have far too many other projects demanding my attention at this time.”

“Of course I would offer you more, to compensate you for your time,” Camelia added. “I would increase your stake in the profits to ten percent over five years--surely this would satisfy you for the time I am asking you to invest.”

“Lady Camelia, I’m afraid I do not share your fascination with scrabbling around in the African dirt. I hope you understand.”

Camelia pressed her lips tightly together. What a complete and utter waste. She had spent two weeks poring over his articles in The Journal of Science and Mechanics while writing him letter after letter, politely asking him for a visit. In that time she had convinced herself that she would be able to persuade the reputedly odd but brilliant Simon Kent to provide her with the steam pump she so desperately needed. Two precious weeks lost, with absolutely nothing to show for it. Panic flared within her.

Her gaze fell to the greasy sketch on the table before her.

“Of course I understand,” she said calmly. “I hope you will forgive me for entering your home unannounced, Mr. Kent, and I thank you for your time.” She placed her enormous hat on her head. “Oh, dear,” she exclaimed, feeling about helplessly at the back of it, “I seem to have lost my pearl hat pin. It must have fallen on the floor--do you see it anywhere?”

Simon scanned the littered floor. “Here are some hairpins,” he said, bending to pick up a half dozen wire fastenings strewn amidst the remaining debris, “but I’m afraid I don’t see…”

“Oh, here it is! It was just caught in the top of my hat.” She jabbed the pin into the loose tangle of her hair and moved swiftly toward the stairs leading to the main floor.

“I’ll see you out,” Simon offered.

“That won’t be necessary,” Camelia assured him airily, mounting the staircase as quickly as her damp, heavy skirts and bustle would permit. She strode across the entranceway and flung open the front door. “I hope I have not caused too much of a disruption to your day, Mr. Kent.” She gave him her sweetest smile, then turned and proceeded to make her way down the stone steps to the street.

Simon watched as she hurried along the sidewalk toward an elegantly appointed black carriage, her crinkled skirts swishing heavily about her, her pale blond hair falling in a tempest of waves beneath the wilted roses of her ludicrous hat. He wondered why her driver had not waited with her carriage directly outside his door. Perhaps she had instructed him to park a little further down the street so that she might enjoy a brief stroll. Whatever the reason, her stride was quick and determined as she walked, her beaded reticule swinging from her gloved wrist. The mauve and pewter colors of early evening swirled in a dusky veil around her, and as she reached the carriage she turned and waved.

Then she opened the vehicle’s door and climbed inside, evidently so anxious to depart that she did not wait for her coachman to climb down and assist her.

Simon closed his door and stood in his front hall a moment. The leaden light had fallen like a caul over the barely furnished area, making it seem unusually oppressive and gloomy. He debated lighting the gas lamp fixture on the wall, then decided against it. He rarely ventured from his laboratory until the middle of the night anyway, and with all the straightening up he still had to do, he would probably be down there until the early hours of the morning. As he headed back down to the kitchen he noticed that his trousers were wet and clinging to him, and his sodden shirt was open nearly to his waist.

Wonderful, he thought dryly. Now on top of being labeled reclusive, absent-minded and profoundly eccentric, he could add being an exhibitionist to his list. Lady Camelia had not seemed to mind his state of undress, he reflected, or if she had, she had been extremely adept at masking her discomfiture. Perhaps her time in the wilds of South Africa had desensitized her to the proprieties of English society. It was doubtful that the native workers she employed labored in the scorching heat in a starched shirt, waistcoat and jacket.

He lifted his experimental mop from the table and set to cleaning the floor, trying hard not to think about her sage-green eyes, and how gloriously soft and warm she had felt in the achingly brief moment he had held her.

* * *

“Good Lord, madam, whatever do you think you’re doing?” demanded the beefy-faced gentleman staring at Camelia from the opposite side of the carriage. “This isn’t your carriage!”

“It isn’t?” Camelia looked about its wine velvet interior, pretending to be confused. “It certainly looks like my carriage--I recognize the curtains--are you certain you haven’t made a mistake and climbed into the wrong one?”

“Quite certain,” the man returned adamantly, “since I’ve just returned from the country and have been sitting in this very seat for the last three hours. I was just about to disembark when you climbed in.”

She cautiously peered out the carriage window, watching as Simon went back into his house and closed the door.

“Then I must beg your forgiveness, sir,” she apologized, opening the door. “I told my driver to wait for me here, but it appears he must have moved a little further down the avenue. I regret causing you any inconvenience.” She disembarked and fled down the street, tightly clutching her reticule.

Her heart pounded against her ribs as she raced along, fearful that at any moment Mr. Kent would discover she had stolen his drawing and chase after her. A heady mixture of triumph and fear kept her breaths shallow and her steps swift. She might not have Mr. Kent’s newfangled steam- powered pump, but she had an extremely detailed sketch of it. She would find someone else to build it for her--someone who would share her vision of advancing the field of archaeology. There were other inventors in London--men who were interested in loftier pursuits than trying to use steam power to launder underclothes or wring the last bit of juice out of a lemon.

She came to the end of the street and crossed, then slipped down a narrow alley that ran behind a row of homes, weaving her way back to where she had left Zareb with the carriage. Her African friend had argued vehemently with her when she had insisted that he could not drive her directly to Mr. Kent’s home, but ultimately he had relented. They couldn’t afford to rouse any attention, and Zareb by his very appearance never failed to draw a fascinated audience wherever he went.

She held her hat with one hand and her reticule safe against her chest with the other, despising the iron grip of her corset and the cumbersome cage of her bustle and petticoats. When she finally got back to Africa, she would take great pleasure in burying them both. Some archaeologist a thousand years hence would no doubt think they were instruments of torture.

“Hello there, duckie.” A heavyset man appeared suddenly in front of her, blocking her path. “Where are we off to in such a hurry?”

Before she could respond an enormous hand clapped roughly over her mouth, cutting off the enraged protest in her throat.

© Karyn Monk.
All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction is permitted without express consent of the author.

Every Whispered Word
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