I will sit as quiet as a lamb. King John
London, September 1889
"Julia, what in the name of God is that terrible stench? It smells as if you have taken to keeping farm animals in here," my brother, Plum, complained. He drew a silk handkerchief from his pocket and held it to his nose. His eyes watered above the primrose silk as he gave a dramatic cough.
I swallowed hard, fighting back my own cough and ignoring my streaming eyes. "It is manure," I conceded, turning back to my beakers and burners. I had just reached a crucial point in my experiment when Plum had interrupted me. The table before me was spread with various flasks and bottles, and an old copy of the Quarterly Journal of Science lay open at my elbow. My hair was pinned tightly up, and I was swathed from shoulders to ankles in a heavy canvas apron.
"What possible reason could you have for bringing manure into Brisbane's consulting rooms?" he demanded, his voice slightly muffled by the handkerchief. I flicked him a glance. With the primrose silk swathing the lower half of his face he resembled a rather dashing if unconvincing highwayman.
"I am continuing the experiment I began last month," I explained. "I have decided the fault lay with the saltpeter. It was impure, so I have decided to refine my own."
His green eyes widened and he choked off another cough. "Not the black powder again! Julia, you promised Brisbane."
The mention of my husband's name did nothing to dissuade me. After months of debating the subject, we had agreed that I could participate in his private enquiry investigations so long as I mastered certain essential skills necessary to the profession. A proficiency with firearms was numbered among them.
"I promised him only that I would not touch his howdah pistol until he instructed me in the proper use of it," I reminded Plum. I saw Plum glance anxiously at the tiger-skin rug stretched on the floor. Brisbane had felled the creature with one shot of the enormous howdah pistol, saving my life and killing the man-eater in as quick and humane a fashion as possible. My own experiences with the weapon had been far less successful. The south window was still boarded up from where I had shattered it when an improperly cured batch of powder had accidentally detonated. The neighbour directly across Chapel Street had threatened legal action until Brisbane had smoothed his ruffled feathers with a case of rather excellent Bordeaux.
Plum gave a sigh, puffing out the handkerchief. "What precisely are you attempting this time?"
I hesitated. Plum and I had both taken a role in Brisbane's professional affairs, but there were matters we did not discuss by tacit arrangement, and the villain we had encountered in the Himalayas was seldom spoken of. I had watched the fellow disappear in a puff of smoke and the experience had been singularly astonishing. I had been impressed enough to want some of the stuff for myself, but despite numerous enquiries, I had been unsuccessful in locating a source for it. Thwarted, I had decided to make my own.
"I am attempting to replicate a powder I saw in India," I temporised. "If I am successful, the powder will require no flame. It will be sensitive enough to ignite itself upon impact." Plum's eyes widened in horror.
"Damnation, Julia, you will blow up the building! And Mrs. Lawson dislikes you quite enough already," he added, a trifle nastily, I thought.
I bent to my work. "Mrs. Lawson would dislike any wife of Brisbane's. She had too many years of keeping house for him and preparing his puddings and starching his shirts. Her dislike of me is simple feminine jealousy."
"Never mind the fact that you have created a thoroughly mephitic atmosphere here," Plum argued. "Or perhaps it is the fact that you keep blowing out the windows of her house."
"How you exaggerate! I only cracked the first lot and the smoke damage is scarcely noticeable since the painters have been in. As far as the south window, it is due to arrive tomorrow. Besides, that explosion was hardly my fault. Brisbane did not explain to me that sulphur is quite so volatile."
"He is a madman," Plum muttered.
I pierced him with a glance. "Then we are both of us mad, as well. We work with him," I reminded him. "Why are you here?"
Plum snorted. "A happy welcome from my own sister."
"We are a family of ten, Plum. A visit from a sibling is hardly a state occasion."
"You are in a vile mood today. Perhaps I should go and come again when you have sweetened your tongue."
I carefully measured out a few grains of my newly formulated black powder. "Or perhaps you should simply tell me why you are here."
He gave another sigh. "I need to consult with your lord and master about the case he has set me. He wants me to woo the Earl of Mortlake's daughter with an eye to discovering if she is the culprit in the theft of Lady Mortlake's emeralds."
I straightened, intrigued in spite of myself. "That is absurd. Felicity Mortlake is a thoroughly nice girl with no possible motive to stealing her stepmother's emeralds. I am sure she will be vindicated by your efforts."
"That may be, but in the meantime, I have to secure for myself an invitation to their country seat to make a pretense of an ardent suitor. This would have been far easier during the season," he complained.
"Can you put the thing off?" I asked, wiping the powder from my hands with a dampened rag.
"Not likely. The emeralds are still missing, and Brisbane said Mortlake is getting impatient. Nothing has been proved of Felicity, but until his lordship knows something for certain, he cannot be assured of her innocence or guilt. One feels rather sorry for him. Of course, one ought rather to feel sorry for me. Felicity Mortlake detests me," he said, pulling a woeful face.
I felt a smile tugging at my lips. "Yes, I know." I remembered well the time she upended a bowl of punch over Plum's head in a Mayfair ballroom. Not his finest moment, but very possibly hers.
I bent again to my experiment. "The French now have a smokeless gunpowder," I mused, sulking a little, "and yet I still cannot manage to perfect this wretched stuff."
Plum edged towards the door. "You do not mean to light that," he said as I took up a match.
"Naturally. How else will I know if I am successful? You needn't worry," I soothed. "I have taken precautions this time," I added, gesturing towards the heavy apron I had tied over my oldest gown. I had already ruined three rather expensive ensembles with my experiments and had finally accepted the fact that fashion must give way to practicality when scientific method was employed.
"I am not thinking of your clothes," he protested, his voice rising a little as I struck the match and the phosphorus at the tip flared into life.
"If you are nervous, then wait outside. Brisbane will return shortly," I said.
"Brisbane has returned now," came the familiar deep voice from the doorway.
I looked up. "Brisbane!" I cried happily. And dropped the match.
The fact that the resulting explosion broke only one window did nothing to ameliorate my disgrace. Brisbane put out the fire wordlesslyor at least I think it was wordlessly. The explosion had left a distinct ringing in my ears. His mouth may have moved, but I heard nothing of what he might have said until we returned to our home in Brook Street that evening. Brisbane had ordered dinner served upon trays in our bedchamber, and I was glad of it. A long and fragrantly steamy bath had removed most of the traces of soot from my person, and as I approached the table, I realised I was voraciously hungry.
"Ooh! Oystersand grouse!" I exclaimed, taking a plate from Brisbane. I settled myself happily, and it was some minutes before I noticed Brisbane was not eating.
"Aren't you hungry, dearest?"
"I had a late luncheon at the club," he said, but I was not deceived. He plucked a bit of meat from one of the birds and tossed it towards his devoted white lurcher, Rook. For so enormous a dog, he ate daintily, licking every bit of grease from his lips when he was finished with the morsel.
I laid down my fork. "I know you are not angry or you would be shouting still. What troubles you?"
He passed a hand over his eyes, and I felt a flicker of alarm lest one of his terrible migraines be upon him. But when he opened his eyes, they were clear and fathomlessly black and focused intently upon me.
"I simply do not know what to do with you," he said. For an instant, I felt sorry for him.
"Four explosions in a month's time are a bit excessive," I conceded.
"Five," he corrected. "You forgot the house party at Lord Riverton's estate."
"Oh, would you call that an explosion? I should have called it a detonation." I picked up my fork again. If we were going to retread the same ground in this argument, I might as well enjoy my meal. "The oysters are most excellent. Pity about Cook giving notice in order to live in the country. We shall never find another half so skilled with shellfish."
Brisbane was not distracted by my domestic chatter. "Regardless. We must do something about your penchant for blowing things up, my lady."
The fact that Brisbane used my title was an indication of his agitated state of mind. He never used it in conversation, preferring instead to employ little endearments, some of which were calculated to bring a blush to my cheek.
He poured out the wine and took a deep draught of it, then loosened his neckcloth, an act of dinner table impropriety that would have affronted most other wives, but which I strongly encouraged. Brisbane had a very handsome throat.
I applied myself to the grouse again. "It is the same dilemma that always afflicts us," I pointed out. "I want t...