The steam-punk book I'd put aside is showing signs of returning to life.
1. Distant Thunder.
Miss Marianne Milton busied herself around the rectory. Her brother, the Reverend Henry Milton and his new wife, Mrs. Ruth Milton ne Ascwith were expected to arrive on the morrow. He was starting his first preferment in the little Thames-side village of Pangbourne, just a few miles upstream from Reading. It was an excellent living and one that was unusually large for a young vicar. The wonder was that it was still unoccupied. Ruth insisted that her old friend and new sister-in-law stay with them at least until they were settled in. She explained that since Pangbourne was so close to Reading that they could visit the assemblies there together. If they failed to find her an eligible husband there, the hunting grounds at Newbury, Oxford and Bath were but a day's carriage ride away.
Their belongings and small furniture had arrived the day before. While the servants were able to unpack most of it, there was an unending stream of questions about where things should go. Getting to know the servants, especially the cook and the manservant, occupied most of the rest of her time. It would never do to greet the newlyweds with an ill-cooked meal and a domestic dispute underway. Finally, in the late afternoon, she was able to retire to the parlor, put up her feet and enjoy a spicy romantic novel with a cup of tea.
Unfortunately, it was just at this moment that the door knocker sounded. Her maid answered it, and after a few moment's discussion escorted the callers to her.
“Miss Milton, Mr. Willis and his man, Mr. Morgan, are here to see you.”
Mr. Willis entered, bowed, and then said, “Miss Milton, just a call of courtesy. Morgan and I were passing and noticed the rectory was now occupied.”
Marianne looked at the pair. Mr. Willis had a bright, almost burnt, red face. It was complemented by frizzled hair that shot back from his forehead in what could best be described as looking like a goose that had been pulled through a chimney to clean it. His valet had done his best to comb it into a stylish Brutus but with mixed results. Most striking of all he work large wire-rimmed dark glasses. It seemed that even the subdued light of the late afternoon irritated his eyes. He carried a cane, and unlike most dandy's he appeared to need its extra support, at least sometimes.
Mr. Morgan was unusual as well. Unlike most of the valet's she had seen, who tended to be slight well-dressed men with an elegant sense of style, Mr. Morgan was a large muscular man with the cauliflower ear and broken nose of a prizefighter. The combination of valet's uniform, quiet manner and sheer physical presence gave him a decidedly menacing air.
Marianne said, “I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Willis. My brother Reverend Milton and his new wife should arrive tomorrow.”
“I'm sorry to have missed him. In any case, may I be the first to welcome you to our pleasant little village.”
“I trust you are moved in. Is there any question I may answer or way that I can be of service?”
“No, not yet anyway. But thank you for asking.”
Since he knew that staying past a few minutes when making a courtesy visit was rude, Mr. Willis was about to excuse himself when the building shook. The windows rattled and her tea cup chattered. A few seconds later a distant rumble of thunder followed. He pulled an unusually large watch, a chronometer, from his pocket and counted the time as the house was buffeted four more times. Marianne asked him, “What was that?”
He ignored her and said to his valet. “Uniform twenty second intervals. Excellent. I think they are finally getting the timing under control.”
Mr. Morgan nodded, but only said, “Sir, remember that we are not inside the park.”
“Yes, I see. Sorry.”
Marianne again demanded, “What was that? Do you know?”
Mr. Willis shut the cover on his watch and carefully replaced it in his pocket before he said, “Nothing. Don't worry about it. It was nothing at all.”
Marianne was not convinced and was about to repeat the question when Mr. Willis rose and bowed to her. He said, “It has been pleasant to meet you. I hope we will see each other again, possibly at one of the assemblies. I dare not overstay my welcome on a first visit. Not if I'd like to have a second. Come Micheal, let us continue our walk.” With that he and his valet left.
After her guests left, Marianne resumed reading her novel, but somehow Mrs. Radcliffe's words seemed not to grip. She found her maid and told her that she was going for a walk, “I should like to explore towards Sulham. Could you tell the cook that I might be a little late?”
“Yes, miss. Did you want me to come with you?”
“Only if you wish. I need the air.”
Her maid said, “There's still much for me to do, so I'd rather stay.” Besides which, being London born, walking was not her favorite activity. Especially not walking as far or as fast as her mistress.
Marianne left the rectory and found her way to The Street1. She followed it away from the river and towards the wooded hills that defined the boundary between her brother's parish and the next. It did not take her long to reach the junction in Tidmarsh between The Street and Mill lane. She turned up Mill lane and was watching the Pang river from the bridge when she was accosted.
“I see, Miss Milton, that we meet again.” It was that Mr. Willis and his companion.
“Yes, I suppose we do.”
“Had I known you were interested in exploring the countryside, I would have offered our services as guides.”
“Do you know this countryside well?”
“Well enough, although not as well as I would like. I'm afraid my work keeps me occupied.”
“Does your work have anything to do with those explosions.”
Michael coughed, and Mr. Willis looked at him. Then he said, “I understand, Mr. Morgan.” Turning again to Marianne, he continued, “There isn't anything I can tell you about them.”
“Oh. I suppose you have your reasons.”
“I do, and it would be best if we don't continue discussing them.”
“Best for whom?”
“Is that a threat?”
“No. Not at all. It's just.” He paused, then said, “It's just there are some things best left alone, and those explosions are one of them.”
A loud continuous roar stopped Marianne from asking further questions. The ground shook for a full minute. When it was over Mr. Willis looked at his companion and said. “Michael, that's bad. It sounds like something has gone wrong. You need to get to the park.”
“Sir? What about your safety.”
“Miss Milton will see to that, won't you my dear?”
Marianne started, and said, “Me? Your safety? I'm just a young woman.”
Mr. Willis smiled, “Michael's job is to keep me out of trouble while I recover from,” he paused to carefully consider his words, “my latest accident. Surely you can do that. Unless, of course, you're a French agent?”
“No, I'm just a lady of quality. My brother's a vicar, so how could I be otherwise?”
“Then I think, Michael, I shall be safe. Please go, they will need you at the park. I promise I won't get into any trouble while you're away.”
Michael gave Marianne an unsettling inspection. It was cold, impersonal, but thorough. “I suppose she will do. Miss Milton, Mr. Willis is recovering from an unfortunate event. Please keep him from getting too excited.”
“I'll do my best.”
Michael said, “Thank you, Ma'am. Mr. Willis, I shall meet you back at the inn or perhaps,” and here he smiled at Miss Milton, “the rectory.” Then he started running towards the source of the noise.
Mr. Willis offered his arm to Marianne. “Miss Milton, would you care to continue?”
“What was that about?”
“The explosions or Michael's care?”
Mr. Willis took a deep breath, started to answer her, and then blithely ignored her question. He pointed to the birds circling in the distance, “I see the kites are out. Some poor farmer has lost another sheep.”
Marianne was not to be deterred so easily. While she accepted, indeed enjoyed, Mr. Willis's supporting arm, and suggested that they walk back up the hill towards the woods, she planned a careful set of questions to shuck the pearl of information from the oyster of his silence.
“Mr. Willis?” she asked, “Did your accident have anything to do with the explosions?”
“The ones just this afternoon?”
“Those, no. I was with you.” He paused, then said, “Would you mind if we rested here? I'm tired and this hedgerow is a good place to look for tit's.”
They sat in silence and watched the small birds play among the bushes. Finally, Marianne asked a question that Mr. Willis could directly answer, “Your accident, were you seriously hurt?”
A brief flicker of a smile passed over his face. It was followed by a wince and then his face returned to its wonted impassivity. “Seriously enough to be sent to pasture for a few weeks. That's why I'm here.”
“He's both my bodyguard and my valet.” He pulled out his unusual watch again, “I say, look at the time. We really must be getting back to Pangbourne.”
“Must we? There is nothing waiting for me at the rectory. Since my brother and his wife are not due until tomorrow, the cook has no plans.”
“If you would, I can offer you the hospitality of the Cross Keys. It's where I'm staying and the food has been more than passable.”
“Isn't that a common pub?”
“I'll hire a parlor, and arrange for a maid. For proprieties sake.”
The walk back to Pangborne, though a couple of miles, flew past in what seemed only a few minutes. Mr. Willis was soon in negotiation with the landlord, a Mr. Ellis.
“Mr. Ellis, I would like to hire a parlor this evening.”
“Mr. Willis, isn't the taproom still good enough for you?”
“The taproom is fine for me, but I have company, a Miss Milton, the new vicar's sister. It's not suitable for her.”
“Ah, I see, and I presume you would need a maid to keep Miss Milton company?”
“If you could.”
“My daughter, Millie, is active in the parish. Would she do?”
“I expect so. Now as to price?”
Shortly afterwards, Mr. Willis escorted Miss Milton upstairs to a private parlor. Given the likely chill of the evening a fire was burning in the grate and to ward off the incipient dusk the candles had been lit. Wax candles, not cheap tallow ones with their smoke and smell. Miss Milton noticed that her host had arranged for the inn to produce its finest. Even the tablecloth was clean. He introduced Millie to Miss Milton, and they were just sitting at the table, when there was a loud knock on the door.
It was Micheal, and he was accompanied by a tall, thin woman with her black hair pulled back. It gave her a severe and dour look reminiscent of the school mistress she once was. Several red-coated soldiers were behind them in the hall. Evidently Mr. Willis knew her. He rose and said, “Mrs. Hobbes, what brings you here?”
There was no answer, but Michael strode forward and handed Mr. Willis a note. He quickly scanned it. Then he nodded at Michael and said, “I see. I'll be ready momentarily.” After that he tore the note into strips and burned them in the fire. He used the poker to knock the ashes into tiny fragments. Finally, he bowed to Marianne and said, “Miss Milton, I'm truly sorry, but I must go. Mrs. Hobbes will look after you and see that you are safely returned to your home.”
Marianne watched as Mr. Willis and Micheal left. One soldier followed them, but the other two took up guard positions outside the room.
Marianne asked her companion, “Mrs. Hobbes, what is it? Is my friend in trouble.”
“No. The food will be here shortly. I've been informed that the Cross Keys does a good meal. Let's enjoy it.”
“Seriously, Mrs. Hobbes, what is going on?”
“Miss Milton, was it?” Marianne nodded, “I cannot tell you. It is best if we not discuss it. Are you looking forward to life at the vicarage?”
Marianne was not to be dissuaded that easily. “Is it an,” she paused and said in a low voice, “an asylum for lunatics or a prison?”
Mrs. Hobbes laughed, “You might call it an asylum. I'd say that's accurate.”
“And Mr. Willis, is he an inmate there?”
“One of the chief ones.” The waiter arrived with their meal, and Mrs. Hobbes called their attention to it. “I'm sure you're hungry after your walk. I certainly am. Shall we give a blessing and then eat?”
Having little in common, and given Mrs. Hobbes strong disinclination to answer questions, conversation lagged during the meal. Eventually it finished and Mrs. Hobbes rose. She said, “Miss Milton, may I escort you home?”
“It's not far, I can go by myself.”
“No miss, I will escort you. It is for your safety.”
“I shall be safe.”
“Yes you shall. I will see to that.” She opened the door, gestured for Miss Milton to leave first, then followed her with the two soldiers for company. The process reversed itself at the vicarage, where Mrs. Hobbes invited herself in and then rigidly sat upright on a chair in the parlor. Marianne accompanied her, unsure of how she should treat this unusual guest. They sat silently until the faint noise of a distant drum broke the air. It was followed by the sound of a professional musket volley. There was a second drum roll and volley. Mrs. Hobbes visibly relaxed and said, “I think they found them. Good.”
Mrs. Hobbes sat and looked sterner than she did before, as if that were possible. Then she looked at the watercolors that were hanging in the room and said, “Are these paintings yours, Miss Milton?”
“Yes. From happier times.”
“I see. You have a good hand and a fine eye. Much finer than most of my students ever were.”
“I ran the Abbey school in Reading, until I was needed at the park.”
“I though you looked like a school-mistress.”
“Thank you. I'm glad I still do. That's what I hope to return to, eventually.”
There was a loud banging on the vicarage door, and Micheal strode in. He said, “Mrs. Hobbes, we were lucky. The all-clear has been sounded.”
“Good.” She rose and curtsied to Marianne. “Miss Milton, it has been a pleasure to share your company.”
“Has it? We've hardly conversed at all.”
“It has. I hope to see you again under more favorable circumstances, but now I must take my leave.” Followed by Michael, she swept out of the room. They only paused to pick up the two soldiers who had been standing guard and vanished into the night.
1'The Street' is both where she walked and the name of the street she walked.