The Wrong Way To Build A Bridge, or The Memoirs of Lady Lydia Parker-Wright, artificer and explorer
Vol IV. March 24th
Our visitor arrived promptly 9am, and was a most unwelcome interruption to morning tea. I was seated, as was my habit, in the parlour of our London residence, with mother and Aunt Maude, discussing matters of gay triviality, when we heard the commotion outside, and we rang for a servant to come and gaze out the window to identify its source.
“Two Coppers, milady, beggin’ your pardon, by which I mean the automata of the Metropolitan Police. They appear to be accompanying a naval officer heading to our front door.”
“Well, tell the officer to leave a card, and to take his monstrosities elsewhere.” Mother was most particular on these matters. Since my fortunate intervention in the flight of the Sacramento some days prior, we had been visited with regularity by most of society, and it was a fair assumption that the officers of law wished to interview me.
Mother, as was her right, acted as gatekeeper to these intrusions into our private existence. She had rebuffed a most insistent fellow with a kinetoscope who wished to make a moving picture of my likeness, and agents of at least two papers who had inquired after lines of comment. Others who failed to pass Mother’s strict guard included a Presbyterian who wished to pray with me, several members of society without title, and a man of questionable morality who – sporting a gammon colonial accent – enquired if I were willing to model my plight in a most objectionable state of dress. I believe Mother set the hounds on him, followed by the ever-loyal Sykes and his weathering staff.
Conversely, several did make it through Mother’s strict appraisal. This included a visit the Lord Boston; brunch with Duchess Teague; and several visits from Viscount Carlingsteed, who (with no thought or desire for scandal) requested to chaperone me in a turn around Hyde Park once my fame dispersed.
My thoughts lingered on these previous guests, who I confess were most admirable in my esteem, until I was interrupted by the maid’s return some minutes later.
“Excuse me, milady, but the gentleman downstairs is most insistent he speak with Lady Lydia. He says it is a matter of national import.” She curtseyed at that, and hurried meekly to mother to leave the gentleman’s card.
Mother eyed it with suspicion, then passed it back to the maid. “Very well, he may attend us. Though he shall leave his gastly contraptions outside. I shall not have a brass creature roaming freshly laid linoleum.”
“Yes, milady.” She headed off again, quiet flushed by my mother’s suggestion that she had permitted an automaton inside a private dwelling, though not willing to deny it. Mother had a most efficacious effect on the serving class.
Our visitor did not delay in attending the parlour. He was a bold young man of some thirty years, black hair slicked in modern fashion, with the clean-shaven visage of a nautical fellow. His uniform made him look most spendid, with the golden epaulettes and neat, anchor-stamped buttons of the Royal Navy. He entered with his cap tucked under his arm, his shoes, gleaming with polish, halting at the edges of the Persian rug.
Commander Kyle Dale, R. N., was a most brisk fellow of Scotch blood, at once both charming and forceful. He paid us the compliment of being blunt, and did not for a moment consider us weaker or wearisome because of our sex. Instead he politely requested to interview me alone, and proved so deliberate in his purpose and design that Mother actually relented (an astonishing feat in itself). He then interviewed me with regard to my inconvenience, but did so with such perspicacity that I felt as if I were confiding in him. Only once did his manners lack, when he exclaimed the tea was “d—-ed fine”, and at once apologised for his sailor’s tongue.
After discussion of the incident, Dale’s topics seamlessly moved on. He discussed my upbringing, and where I had gained my knowledge of the mechanical (he also ventured to entertain certain concepts of natural science, though theory is far less engaging than practical engineering). I explained my father’s fascination with the artificers, and my own natural inclination toward the machinist’s art.
It was, in the absence of Mother’s disapproval, a most liberating conversation, and one which the Commander manipulated most expertly. Indeed, it was only after our third cup, a full two hours later, that it suddenly occurred to me that he had not once stated the purpose of his visit. And, charmed though I was, I felt it only proper to enquire his interest in my case.
“You no doubt appreciate Her Majesty’s dirigibles are under the command of the Fleet Air Arm? And the Admiralty is based at Tower Hill, your destination. So, you see…” at this, the Commander trailed off. I watched with polite restraint as he selected his words. Then, with a sigh and shrug of his epaulettes, he relented his secrets to me.
“D’y’know,” he continued, “I can’t say I have the patience for obsfuscation. Not a boon in my line of work. Why am I interested in you, m’am? I shall tell you. I work for a branch of Naval Intelligence that is singular in its defence of the British Empire. You know of the customs of the hindoo, of the Japanese, of the African nations? Superstitious rot and the like? Well, madam, just because we consider it guff don’t mean the natives do. Quite the contrary. The Indian Mutiny sparked because some swami linked biting bullet cartridges with the end of the world, and that virtually drove John Company off the subcontinent.”
“I am familiar with these legends,” I replied, trying to be reserved in my commitment.
“Good. Well, that’s my business, m’am. I learn of these prophecies, stories and high tales, and nip ’em in the bud before they blossom to harm the Empire. If a swami says Queen Victoria is the Devil and tries to stoke up a rebellion, why we take action to see such problems are removed.”
“Is that not the role of a Witch Finger?” It was a remarkable revelation, but I was determined to probe for deeper explanation. After all, I had been educated, as had every child, of the celebrated Witch Finger’s unique role in society. The men and women of the Witch Finger, under sponsorship of the Church of England, held it as their solemn duty to enforce the Witchcraft Act of 1735, and crack down on any vagabond or charlatan that claimed to have powers of prophecy, wizardry or other irrational transmutation.
Dale shook his head.
“Not a bit of it, m’am. A Witch Finger is concerned with the act, we are concerned with the consequence. A Witch Finger cares about the supposed supernatural on our sovereign soil; we are concerned with threats foreign and domestic. And, despite capturing the public’s imagination, in his day of modern invention the Witch Fingers are a vanishing breed.
“Automata have made their roles difficult, you see. Should a Witch Finger smash a fortune-telling machine? Or clap in irons a futurist predicting the next great invention? Of course not. Although the Witch Fingers are popular in lore and the Penny Dreadfuls, in truth there are only four left in England, and only one in the capital. And, may I say it madam, that while Truelove – that’s the chap’s name – is a worthy sort, he’s entirely of the wrong breeding for a role in the Empire’s service.”
“He did not attend Oxford or Cambridge?”
“And may I enquire why your role brings you here?”
“Simple enough, m’am. The dirigible was not faulty. It was sabotaged.”
I blanched. It was a most terrible suggestion that someone would contemplate such a murderous act, let alone carry it out. “Sabotaged?” I asked, repeating his words in, I confess, a moment of shock.
“Yes. Oh, not to kill you, m’am. Another passenger was the target. And if not for your timely intervention, the plot would have succeeded.”
It was an astounding claim, and I completely forgot propriety. “Who? The dear reverend? The Colonel? What rotter would do such a thing! And my second favourite petticoat! It was ruined! The scoundrel!”
“Indeed, m’am,” Dale said, taking another sip of tea. “My purpose here was, I confess, to determine whether you were involved. It is plain to me that you were not. And furthermore, it is plain that you have a certain skillset most useful to your country. Artificers are all to often lost to their creations; a woman of such skills and blessed with the independence to take on commissions as required would be a valuable asset. It therefore falls upon me to extend to you a warrant of service.”
This, I confess, was most improper. However, I admit a deep excitement was sparked within, and I felt the delightful giddiness of passions stirred.
“And what is that, sir?”
“Lady Lydia. I have resolved to recruit you in service of your country for a matter most pressing. Should you accept my proposition, I promise you only two things. First, that you shall be privy to work on some of the most miraculous devices of our age. And second, that you shall know whose sinister hand almost caused your demise. I urge you to accept, though I will not compel you. Some countries press gang their agents, or tickle their feet until submission. But I am an agent of Her Majesty, and I shall accept your decision with good grace.”
The Commander need not have been so concerned. It was not an offer I was inclined to refuse.