This is the first half of the chapter I’m working on in the steampunk novel the Mysterious Mr. Willis. Still not sure how far to go into the details of steam engines. (Treveithick’s got to 145 psi+- or 10 atm+- which was pretty darn good for a wrought iron boiler. Mr. Willis will have to do better by a fair margin for his turbine.)
This is also the first chapter where Major Hogan and Mr. Willis lock horns. They’re sort of “sparing for wind” so far in this chapter, but things will develop.
A Dance at Prospect House.
The announcement letters arrived on Monday. The Child’s were finally having a dance at their mansion just outside of Reading, Prospectpark place. The ball would be in honor of the local militia and the imminent reconstitution of the second division of the 62nd foot in Devizes. These brave men were all that stood between Napoleon’s hordes and English civilization. Ample opportunities would be available for men of good character and sound body to sign up and join their brave comrades. There would be martial music and country games for the common folk during the day followed by a civilized evening for the gentry in the evening. Weather permitting, the affair would start at on Saturday morning and feature a balloon ascent from the wide field that spread below the house.
Early Tuesday morning, Marianne broke her fast with the guest at her home, Major Hogan. While her Monday had been one of chores broken by anticipation after receiving her invitation, his had been one of accompanying Henry as he explored his new parish. Having carefully buttered his roll and spread it with jam, he paused before eating it to ask Marianne, “What do you do for entertainment around here?”
“I don’t know. I like to walk. We could explore the countryside.”
“Is that all? How boring.”
“Boring? Maybe for you, but I haven’t had time to be bored yet. Ruth and I must go to Reading soon, to furbish our gowns for the ball. They suffered sadly on the trip from London.”
“Fabrics? I suppose I could accompany you to the milliner’s, that’s if you don’t wish to walk along the river.”
“I would love to walk along the river, but.”
“There’s something odd going on upstream. I found a warning sign last time I tried to walk there.”
“Is that all?”
“A balloon, and someone knocked me out.”
“Knocked you out?”
“With a chemical. It sort of smelt like cheap gin, only not quite. It was sweeter.”
“Interesting. If you’ll excuse me.” Major Hogan left and a returned in a few minutes with a small bottle that contained a clear liquid. He put a tiny drop on a napkin and gave it to Marianne. “Did it smell like this?”
“Why, yes! That’s the smell exactly. What is it?” Her head swam from the small amount she inhaled.
“Ether. Dehydrated alcohol. It makes people unconscious.”
Marianne frowned, “But why? Why me?”
“Evidently you were about to discover something you shouldn’t.” Major Hogan gave her a serious look, then said, “There is something dangerous afoot. It could be treason. One reason I’m here is to investigate it.”
“A secret Bonapartist camp. The French are a dangerous and subtle foe. This Frenchman you saw, Mr. Fournier, was he a short chap with black hair?”
“No. He was short, but brown-haired, and he had an impressive mustache.”
“Then he’s not the man I’m thinking of. Shall we try a stroll upstream to Goring this morning?”
“I would love it. We can stop at the Cross Keys and see if Millie can come.”
“Miss Ellis, the inn keeper’s daughter. She’s a bit common, but likes to walk with me. She knows the countryside and is great fun otherwise.”
“If you insist.”
“Major Hogan, I will not go walking with you without a chaperon. What would people think?”
“That you were extremely fortunate.”
“That I was fast, and I’m not. Besides, I’m the vicar’s sister and must set a good example for the community.”
Major Hogan was less than thrilled with the idea, but agreed.
They walked to the Cross Keys and asked Mr. Ellis if his daughter was interested in a walk, ideally upstream towards Goring. Before he could answer, Millie popped her head in and said, “I’d love to, but you’ll have to give me a few minutes to finish hanging out my washing. This is such a nice day that I washed my aprons.”
“Are you sure I can’t help you?”
“No, Miss Milton. It isn’t your place. Besides that, I think the gallant Major desires your company – not my father’s.” She smiled at Marianne, curtsied and started up the stairs.
Major Hogan caught the hint, and said, “Miss Milton, why don’t you help your friend, or at least keep her company. The faster she finishes the sooner we can walk.”
“If you don’t mind.” Marianne called after Millie, “Let me help.” Then she started up the stairs after her. Millie waited, then when she caught up said, “I’m glad you came. This is much more fun with a friend.” Marianne asked, “Where are you hanging them?”
“On the roof?”
“It’s out of the way, with plenty of wind and sun.”
Millie pushed open a hatch and they climbed out onto the roof. They attached the aprons to the line and started back down. Marianne didn’t notice the flag dip and raise on a house to the north of town, nor did she see the rider start off for the park. Millie did.
Once back at the bar, Millie asked Major Hogan, “I hope my father hasn’t been tedious.”
“Nay lass. We’ve had an interesting and informative discussion. He says that the recruiting should be good over towards Wallingford or up near Dorchester.”
Marianne said, “Good. Now should we go for a walk. I’d like to explore upstream if we could.”
Millie replied, “I don’t see why we shouldn’t.”
They followed the Oxford Road and then when it veered away from the Thames, the river bank path. Unlike last time there were no warning signs or strange noises. Indeed, it was a thoroughly boring walk. Boring that is, until they were about half-way to Goring where they met Michael and Mr. Willis. Mr. Willis and his companion were carrying fishing rods and working their way downstream. When they met, Mr. Willis bowed and said, “Miss Milton, how fortunate that we met. I was hoping to see you soon, at least before this Saturday’s fete at Prospectpark House.”
She curtsied to him and said, “Are you going to it?”
“Going?” He laughed, “I’m one of the main attractions, at least during the afternoon. I’m hoping to dance in the evening with you, that is if Major Hogan can spare you for a dance?”
Major Hogan shot Mr. Willis a venomous glance, then said, “I think Miss Milton will be fully occupied.”
“Oh well, I’m sorry to hear that. I don’t believe we have been introduced.”
Marianne said, “I’m so so sorry. Mr. Willis, this is Major Hogan.”
Major Hogan gave his new acquaintance a short stiff bow, which Mr. Willis returned. Mr. Willis said, “Major Hogan, now where have I heard that name?”
“I’m raising the 2nd division of the 62nd foot.”
“That’s right. In Devizes in a few weeks. Dashed exciting, what. Why are you in Pangbourne?”
“I am a friend of Reverend Milton.”
Mr. Willis looked from the Major to Marianne and then back again. Then he said, “Oh, I see. Still, I intend to have a good time at the dance even if I cannot pay you attention Miss Milton. There should be plenty of partners and I’m in the dire need of diversion.” He paused, “As is Michael.”
Marianne asked Mr. Willis, “What exactly do you do here?”, and Major Hogan listened carefully to his response.
“Not much. Right now I’m looking for a good place to catch some Dace or other coarse fish.”
“You said you were one of the attractions in the afternoon, so you must do more than that.”
“Since you ask.” He paused and looked at Michael. Michael nodded his head. Then Mr. Willis said, “I work on gases. I have ever since I was at university.”
“We’re planning an ascension and as I’m the expert on gas, I get to fill the balloon.”
Major Hogan gave him a skeptical look, “No steam engines?”
“Steam engines?” Mr. Willis looked around himself and then said in a quiet conspiratorial voice, “We’ll have a steam engine and things like that. A copy of Trevithick’s puffing devil if you must know. But please keep that quiet, it’s quite a secret and we don’t want to spoil the surprise.”
“She, I guess technically, it moves by itself. We’ve made a few changes in the design and can move a little faster than the nine miles an hour Mr. Treveithick achieved.”
Major Hogan asked, “What changes?”
“Now that would be telling. Patent applied for and all that. Still she does well enough. Scares all the horses though.”
“If you say so. Now if you’ll excuse us, we were headed upstream, to Goring.”
“You won’t get far that way. The bridge is out.”
“Over the stream at Basildon. It’s too big to jump across. Best to take the Oxford road until you’re past the little village, then cut down to river if you want.”
Marianne asked, “Are you sure? I so much want to explore the river bank.”
“That’s the way we came isn’t it, Micheal?”
Micheal nodded. Mr. Willis continued, “Still if you wish, we’ll escort you there.”
The combined party started upstream. It wasn’t long before Major Hogan asked Mr. Willis, “Why haven’t you signed up?”
“Signed up, for what?”
“The army or at least the militia. Are you scared?”
“No. It’s just I’ve been rather busy.”
“Busy? Isn’t that what they all say?”
“I supposed, but I really have been detained with other activities.”
“What other activities?”
Micheal watched Mr. Willis struggle for the best words, then relaxed when he found them. “This and that, but fishing mostly.” He left unsaid that he was fishing with explosives and not a line.
“Yes. A noble pursuit, fishing.”
They arrived at the mouth of a small stream that fed into the Thames. It opened into a wide area away from the bank, where two run-down buildings served as boat houses. They conveniently screened the rest of the wide area from view. As Mr. Willis said, the stream was too wide for jumping. The whole scene projected an air of neglect and decay.
Marianne asked, “Could we try fording it?”
Millie replied, “Swimming more likely Miss Milton. I think we must turn back.”
Micheal and Mr. Willis escorted them back to where they’d met. Then Mr. Willis bowed to the two woman and said, “Delighted to have assisted you, but we must stick the line in the water if we’re to catch anything.” They curtsied in return. Then he offered his hand to Major Hogan, and said, “See you some other time, perhaps, when there are fewer,” he paused, “ah distractions, say what?”