Lady of Devices - By Shelley Adina

Chapter 1

London, 1889

To say the explosion rocked the laboratory at St. Cecelia’s Academy for Young Ladies might have overstated the case, but she was still never going to hear the end of it.

Claire Trevelyan closed her eyes as a gobbet of reddish-brown foam dripped off the ceiling and landed squarely on the crown of her head. It dribbled past her ears and onto the pristine sailor collar of her middy blouse, and thence, gravity having its inevitable effect, down the blue seersucker of her uniform’s skirt to the floor.

Shrieking, the other students in the senior Chemistry of the Home class had already flung themselves toward the back of the room and away from the benches directly under the mess. “Ladies!” Professor Grünwald shouted, raising his arms as if to calm the stormy waters, “there is no cause for alarm. Collect yourselves, please.” His gimlet eyes behind their gleaming spectacles pinned Claire in place like a butterfly on a board. “Miss Trevelyan. Did I not, just moments ago, tell you not to add the contents of that dish to your flask?”

“Yes, sir.” She could barely hear herself over the squawking of her classmates.

“Then why did you do it?”

The truth would only net her another grim punishment, but there was no other answer. “To see what would happen, sir.”

“Indeed. I seem to remember you gave Doctor Prescott the same reply after the unfortunate incident with the Tesla coil.” His jaw firmed under its layer of fat. He addressed the back of the room, where the others huddled against the cabinets in which he kept ingredients and equipment. “Ladies, please. A compound of root beer and peppermint will do you no harm. You may adjourn to the powder rooms to rearrange your toilettes if you must.”

Several of the girls stampeded from the room, leaving behind Lady Julia Wellesley, Lady Catherine Montrose, and Miss Gloria Meriwether-Astor, who watched her humiliation with as much wide-eyed delight as if it were the latest flicker at the theater. Claire straightened her spine. She should be used to this. Fortitude was the key.

Another gob of foam landed on her shoulder. Behind her, Lady Catherine stifled a giggle.

“And are you satisfied with your newfound knowledge?” Professor Grünwald was not finished with her yet.

“Yes, sir,” Claire said with complete truth.

“I am delighted to hear it. In future, when I tell you not to do something, I would like the courtesy of obedience. You are here to learn the chemistry of the kitchen, not to engage in silly parlor tricks.”

“But sir, it would be helpful if you had told us why the compounds should not be mixed.”

In the ensuing moment of silence, she heard an indrawn breath of anticipation from the gallery.

“I am sorry to have incommoded you in your quest for information.” His sarcasm dripped as unpleasantly as the substance now forming a sticky mass on her clothes. “By tomorrow morning, you will provide me with one hundred lines stating the following: ‘I will obey instruction and curb my unladylike curiosity.’ Repeat that, please.”

Claire did so in a monotone as faithful as any wax recording.

“Thank you, Miss Trevelyan. You will now go and inform the cleaning staff that their assistance is required here.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you will stay for the remainder of the period and help them.”

Claire clamped her molars down on the urge to further defend herself. “Yes, sir.”

“Ladies, class is dismissed. Thank you for your patience.”

Patience? He was thanking them? Claire kept her face calm above the storm in her heart as she turned toward the door, the heel of her boot slipping several inches in the foam. Lady Catherine giggled again—Claire suspected she couldn’t help herself, being the nervous sort—and the other girls followed her out, careful to keep their clean skirts from touching hers.

“Nicely done, Trevelyan,” Lady Julia Wellesley whispered. “We have a half period free thanks to you.”

“I must say, that brown substance suits you.” Lady Catherine’s overbite became more prominent as she smiled. “It’s the exact color of your hair.”

“Next time, perhaps you’ll be less inclined to show off your superior intellectual powers,” Gloria Meriwether-Astor added, her flat vowels emphasizing a colonial drawl.

Claire tried to keep silent, but this was just too much. She turned to glare at the new heiress from the American Territories, who had fit in with the other girls from the moment of her arrival like an imperious hand in a kid glove. “I don’t show off at all. I—”

“Oh, please,” Lady Julia waved her fingers. “Spare us the false humility. But Copyright 2016 - 2021