Saturday, May 2, 2015

Another try at steampunk

“Amanda Jane Elizabeth Grace, what have you done to yourself?” Lady Caterham wailed at her daughter. “You're covered in grease, and we must leave for the assembly in an hour.” They were together in Lady Caterham's room, where Lady Caterham sat at her dressing table. Amanda stood in the doorway, awaiting instructions. Lady Caterham's maid was waiting to put the finishing touches on her mistresses' gown and hair while Lady Caterham dressed down her slovenly daughter.
“I was just repacking the bearings. We don't want the wheels to fall off our carriage, do we? The roller bearings Sam and I put together turn so much easier than the old wooden axle, and I think you'll like the way we've sprung the box. It-.”
“And that's another thing young lady. Playing around with machines. Why, look at those hands. Even if Mary can clean the grime from under your nails, what man would look twice at you with those hands?”
“There's more to life than men, mother. There's steam and machines and engines.” Amanda's enthusiasm grew as she spoke.
“No there isn't, at least not for a young lady of refinement like yourself. Do you want to die an old maid, alone and forgotten?”
“No, not as such. It's just. Well. Oh dash it Mother, the man for me won't be upset with a little grease.”
“One more thing young lady, watch your language. Where did you ever pick up such an expression? Keeping company with that blacksmith?”
“Oh no Mother. Sam is very polite. At least when I'm present. Ask Mary about him if you want confirmation. It's Freddy and his friends, when they come in from the hunt, who use such expressions. I thought.”
Lady Caterham spat out, “You don't think. That's the problem.”
“I do. If my brother can say it, and far worse, then it's suitable language.”
“Suitable for a man that is. Now go, get cleaned up. We must not be too late for the assembly. Not if you want a dance.”
“Yes, Mother.”
Lady Caterham ignored the tone of that last remark and watched as her eldest daughter, a striking, tall, auburn-haired young woman walked off to change into the dress of a refined and cultured young lady.
“My Lady,” Millicent, her maid, pointed out, “Miss Amanda will have no trouble attracting male attention. She's a fine looking young woman. As you were at her age.”
“That's true, but she'd look so much better without that black grease streak covering her forehead and staining her hair, or that house-dress. It's just so torn and patched, stained with who knows what, and covered in grease. How can she stand to wear it?”
“I don't know Ma'am, but she'll be presentable. Mary will see to it.”
“I'm sure she will, but I so wish Amanda would focus on the important things in life. Like marriage, men and children. Get her head out of the clouds.”
“Or the steam, Ma'am. I've heard that the xxth regiment is stationed nearby. There should be plenty of fine young men, officers in their red-coats. That should catch her eye and turn her thoughts in the right direction.”
Lady Caterham thought for a few moments and then replied, “I hope so. Although last time, she ended up talking all night to an engineering officer from the artillery. A nobody, who was a captain just because he'd been to school at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich and knew how to move guns and build fortifications. It would have been better to leave her home.”

Much to Lady Caterham's relief, and fully justifying the expense of hiring her, Mary turned Amanda out dressed in the proper mode of a young lady. The grease was gone from her face and her hair was immaculate, as were her muslins. She wore a simple string of pearls, suitable for a young woman venturing into the wilds of society. While no amount of cleaning could restore her hands and nails to the pristine state that was so important in a fashionable young woman, she would be wearing gloves anyway. One did not hold hands without something between you and the young man.
Amanda did nothing that spoiled Lady Caterham's trip. While she may have cast an eye over the bearings, axles and springs, she didn't stop to play with them. Indeed, without the squeaks, the jarring and the shaking normal in a carriage, Lady Caterham arrived at the assembly in a remarkably refreshed state. When they arrived at the assembly, Amanda was swept away by one of the officers, a captain, onto the dance floor. All in all, it made for an outstanding start to the evening.
The vicar's wife, Mrs. Peabody, addressed Lady Caterham, while she and the other mothers watched their daughters perform the figures on the floor. “Lady Caterham, I know you suffer in the carriage rides and I was planning to offer to chaperone your daughter, but it looks like you're well. Did you find a cure for the travel sickness? I only ask because I suffer too.”
Despite her misgivings about Amanda's mechanical interests, Lady Caterham's bosom swelled with pride as she said, “It was Amanda's doing. She redid the springs and the axles on our carriage. It was such a smooth and quiet ride that I barely noticed we were moving.”
“She did? I must say, she is a clever girl.”
“And see, she's dancing with.” Lady Caterham stopped, “Who is that?”
“Oh, that's Captain James' cousin. He's studying divinity, at Oxford.”
“A suitable connection?”
“Absolutely, quite nearly related to the Fairfax's. They say he will inherit a sizable income. With his family connections, he's bound to become a bishop.”
Lady Caterham smiled at Mrs. Peabody. “In other words, a connection to be encouraged. I do so hope Amanda will find something other than machines to tinker with.”
“I agree, a husband and children will soon put her head straight. Settle her down.”
Their happy optimism about Amanda's prospects would have been tempered had they been able to hear her conversation with the young man. While good looking with blue eyes, dark hair and a firm visage, able to dance the figures with a natural athletic grace, polite, educated and well mannered, he was also a disappointment.
“Mr. James, you're studying divinity?”
“A suitable study for a gentleman, honorable and in the service of both man and God.”
“If you say so, but with a chance to meet Dalton or Henry or,” and here Amanda gave a frisson of excitement, “Even Faraday. You have the chance to study natural philosophy with such masters, and you choose divinity.”
“What's wrong with divinity?”
“Nothing, except.”
“Except what?”
“It's so commonplace. I'd cut off my right arm to study with any one of those men and you're just wasting the opportunity.”
Mr. James was nonplussed. Unable to think of anything witty, eventually he replied, “Please don't do that. You have a pretty, indeed beautiful right arm. It wouldn't look right, replaced with a hook.”
Amanda smiled back and laughed as she said, “I didn't mean it literally, but I'd kill someone for the chance you have and are throwing away.”
“Please don't do that either. I suppose I could try law.”
Amanda's grimace suggested that option was, if anything, even less appealing than divinity.
Still, Amanda couldn't help feeling disappointed when the dance drew to a close and it was time for the supper break. Mr. James bowed and returned to his cousin's company, while she found her mother.
Lady Caterham's interests and hopes were peaked, and she asked, “So, Amanda, what did you think of him? He has real prospects.”
“About Mr. James?”
“Who else?”
“He seems a nice enough man. Although I wish he were doing something with his education. Something worthwhile.”
“Damning me with faint praise?” It was Mr. James. He had walked up behind them and was carrying a second cup of punch. “Miss Caterham, I thought you could use this, after your exertions on the dance floor, and with the crush.”
Amanda blushed at his attention, then curtsied, accepted the punch from him and said “Thank you. I didn't mean to disparage you.” Her mother beamed at Mr. James, but fortunately remained silent.
He replied, “You didn't say anything that you hadn't told me to my face. It is true, divinity is dull work, but I never had any aptitude for philosophy or engines.”
Lady Caterham loudly whispered, cautioning her daughter, “Amanda, behave. Watch that tongue of yours.” Mr. James did not fail to notice Amanda rolling her eyes at the admonishment, nor that she kept smiling at him.
He added, “It may be a liberty, but could I ask for a third dance? That is if you are free.”
“She accepts,” Lady Caterham injected.
“Mother, please. That is so fast, to dance three dances with the same man. What about my reputation?”
“What harm can there be when the man is so obviously moral. When do you take orders, Mr. James?”
“Early next year, when I finish my studies at Oxford. Miss Caterham, if you would rather not dance with me, I'd be disappointed but willing to release my claim.”
“No, no, I didn't mean that. Yes, I'd love to dance with you again. Please. Even two more times.”
“That is excessive,” Lady Caterham added.
When the next dance started, another country dance that would let the participants converse between the figures, Mr. James asked, “So Amanda, tell me about these engines of yours.”
“I don't have any engines, right now. Sam and I are building another one. It will be a corker.”
“My maid's husband, a blacksmith.”
“So not a rival.”
Amanda laughed, “Good Lord, no.”
“Good. So if you don't have an engine, what else are you interested in?”
Amanda paused until the next chance to talk, and then replied, “Bearings, bearings and springs.”
“I want to go fast, very fast, so quickly that the axles would smoke and the wheels fall off with a regular carriage. Sam and I can build the engine and the gears, but need a carriage that will handle the power.”
“I suppose your family approves?”
“What they don't know won't hurt them.”
“If you say so, Miss Caterham, but I've found keeping secrets leads one into sticky situations.”

The evening ended well, at least the dancing did. Partway back to Caterham hall, when the carriage went over a steep bump, there was snap. It was followed by a gentle hiss and the box leaned to the right.
Lady Caterham was startled, “What was that?”
“One of the seals broke. Blast.”
“Amanda! What did I tell you about your language.”
“I'm sorry. It's just Sam and I put such a lot of effort into building the springs. To have one fail so quickly. It's highly annoying.”
'”I just wish, Amanda, that you would pay attention to the important things in life, marriage and men.”