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AGAINST THE TIDE
By Elizabeth Camden
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2012 Dorothy Mays
All rights reserved.
Fifteen years later, 1891 The Boston Navy Yard
It looks like the Russian navy has just launched a new gunship," Lydia said.
It was hard to tell from the grainy photograph, but the ship looked different from the others reported in the Russian newspapers. Lydia rose from her desk and walked across the office to show the newspaper to Willis, whose encyclopedic memory of warships was astounding. She only hoped he would be willing to help her. She had been working at the research wing of the United States Navy for more than four years, but it still irked Willis that a woman had been hired for this sort of work.
Lydia handed Willis a magnifying glass to better scrutinize the photograph. "I don't remember the Russians ever having a rotating gun turret," she said, "but it looks like they have one, don't you think?"
Willis Colburn was so thin it looked possible to shred cheese off the blades of his cheekbones. He pushed his spectacles higher as he studied the picture. "You know, Lydia, you are supposed to be the expert on Russian," he said pointedly.
Actually, Lydia was the expert on Russian, Greek, Turkish, Italian, Albanian, and Croatian. Her job was to scan journals, technical reports, and anything else sent from southern Europe in search of innovations in ship design. When she first saw the job advertisement looking for someone with multiple language skills and an intimate knowledge of ships, she nearly levitated with excitement. Her first two years after leaving the orphanage were difficult, laboring at the fish canneries and packing tins with salted mackerel until she couldn't see straight. It was monotonous, smelly work, and at the end of the week she was barely able to pay the rent on a room in a boardinghouse, which was why she was so eager to land the job at the Navy Yard. The position called for someone who could read foreign documents and make sense of developments in ship design.
Lydia remembered everything about the sails, tack, and rigging of fishing boats, but when she first saw the imposing battle frigates in the Navy Yard, she wondered if she had overestimated her knowledge of ships.
Admiral Fontaine did not seem to care. A ruggedly attractive man who seemed far too young to have attained the status of admiral, he merely shrugged. "I can teach you the particulars of warships easier than I can train someone in half a dozen languages," he had said. "You are hired."
Who could have believed it? The little girl from Greece who grew up on rickety fishing boats and never had a decent pair of shoes was now a trusted assistant to an admiral in the United States Navy. Each day she walked past acres of towering ships docked in the Navy Yard before reporting to work. The office had a view over the dry docks where navy cruisers and battleships were overhauled and refitted for service.
And Lydia knew her job was vitally important. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, funding for the U.S. Navy had been slashed to the bone as resources were funneled to the army for a massive westward expansion. Other than providing basic coverage of domestic ports, the government lost interest in maintaining a navy. In the midst of one of the greatest technological booms in history, the U.S. Navy became stagnant while the maritime nations of Europe poured funding into ironclads, steamers, torpedoes, and long-range artillery.
It was only after an embarrassing incident when the United States was forced to back down from the Chilean navy that Congress was driven to act. A bureau to collect intelligence on foreign naval technology was created. Naval attachés were sent all across Europe to research shipbuilding technology. Most of the research was aboveboard, but some of it was clandestinely gathered. Whenever those officers found printed material of interest, they sent it home to Admiral Fontaine for a complete translation into English. Each week Lydia received stacks of newspaper clippings, product manuals, and technical journals. She translated, cross-referenced, and indexed every scrap of it.
Watching and trying to play catch-up with the great maritime powers was hardly the way to achieve naval superiority, but at least it provided funding for the team of translators sitting directly outside Admiral Fontaine's office.
"This Russian turret looks a bit like what the British use, don't you think?" Lydia asked Willis, turning the page of the pamphlet to show him the rest of the article, but he cringed and clasped both hands to his forehead.
"Lydia, please. The noise of that paper crackling is like knives across my skin." Yesterday the scent of the juice she had been drinking made him dizzy, and last week he complained that the weight of the air was making him suffer a rash. Yet when Admiral Fontaine was in the room, Willis always seemed to be as hardy as a mountain goat.
Lydia lowered the tone of her voice, which often placated Willis, and tried again. "Is this turret the same as what the British have, or is it something entirely new?"
"It is not new," Karl Olavstad said from his desk on the opposite side of the office. "The Norwegians have had such a turret for at least three years."
Karl handled the translation work from northern Europe and Scandinavia, while a young man named Jacob Frankenberg tracked western European developments. Willis was a naval historian from London, and his command of shipbuilding throughout the world was unparalleled. He kept track of developments in the British navy and provided insight for everything the team of translators brought to him.
"The Norwegians copied it from the British," Willis said in a tired voice. "The Norwegian navy would sink to the bottom of the sea if they could not emulate the British."
Lydia propped her hip against the side of Willis's desk, eager to see how Karl would respond to the salvo. When she first started work at the Navy Yard, the jousting between her officemates had confused and alarmed her. At the Crakken Orphanage when disagreements broke out among the children, Lydia ran for cover in the broom closet, but she soon learned Karl and Willis enjoyed matching wits.
"Let us hope the Norwegians don't start emulating British cuisine," Karl said. "They would perish from the sheer monotony of boiled cabbage, boiled peas, and boiled beef."
From his desk beside the window overlooking the dry docks, Jacob set down his German newspaper and joined the fray. "Don't forget boiled tongue," he said with a shudder. "The only time Willis invited me to his home, his wife served boiled tongue and pickled onions. I had only been in this country two weeks, and it almost sent me rushing back home to Salzburg."
Lydia knew it would never happen. Every person in this office was an immigrant, and yet each of them had already planted roots as tenacious as those of a mighty oak tree into the rich Boston soil. Was it because she had never had a place to call home that Lydia was so fiercely loyal to Boston and her employment at the Navy Yard? Her respect for Admiral Fontaine certainly had something to do with her pride in working here, but it was more than that. After years of anxiety and loneliness, first at the orphanage and then at the canneries, she had at last found a sense of belonging within the bustling harbor of the Navy Yard. Jacob, Karl, and even the maddening Willis were like a family to her, and she thrived amidst their unconventional friendship.
"What is the proper name of this gun turret?" she asked Willis. "And can you tell me if the gun is smooth-bore or rifled?"
Willis pinched the skin at the top of his nose. "Just tell the admiral it is a Hotchkiss quick-firing gun, modified for shipboard use. That will be adequate for his purposes."
Lydia fidgeted. She didn't want her reports to be merely adequate; she wanted them flawless. The report was due by the end of the day, and she needed Willis to cooperate. His teacup was empty, and she knew how much the man adored his Earl Grey blend.
"How about I brew you another cup of tea?" she asked Willis. "By the time I have the water heated, perhaps you can have a list for me of every British and Norwegian ship with the same type of Hotchkiss gun?"
"Deal," Willis agreed, as she knew he would. The office had a coal-heated burner in the corner of the room, which helped satisfy Willis's roaring dependency on Earl Grey tea. Lydia opened the trapdoor of the heater and added a few more coals.
"You could afford to ease up a bit, Lydia," Jacob said. "Not every report needs to be footnoted, cross-referenced, and triple-checked. You'll make the rest of us look bad. Besides, maybe the admiral fancies a girl who can relax for once."
Heat flooded her cheeks. That was the second time this month Jacob teased her about liking Admiral Fontaine a little too much. Which was ridiculous. "Jacob, your adolescent imagination is running away again."
"Come on, Lydia. Plenty of girls are carrying a torch for Admiral Fontaine," Jacob said. "The lonely widower. Powerful. Rich as sin. Half the girls in Boston are crying into their pillows over him."
She closed the door of the burner with a clang. Okay, maybe she had a tiny case of hero-worship for the admiral, but never once had she toyed with any ridiculous fantasies. Besides, the admiral's office was directly behind her, and for all she knew, he could be listening to every word. "First of all," she said tightly, "I never cry. Ever. And I haven't prepared my reports for the admiral with any more care than the rest of you."
Karl did not even lift his nose from where it was buried in the open pages of a Norwegian newspaper, but his voice was pointed. "You learned Albanian for him."
Jacob pounced on the opening. "Yeah, Lydia, you learned Albanian for him!"
She gritted her teeth. She hadn't learned Albanian for the admiral; she did it because they had a language deficit in the office and she was the one most likely to quickly master the language. It didn't mean she carried a torch for the admiral, and she couldn't afford to let this sort of talk get out of hand. She set the water in the kettle to heat, then moved to stand beside Jacob's desk. "Please, please don't tease me about this," she said, her voice uncharacteristically serious. "You don't know how hard it is for a woman to find professional employment, and any whiff of gossip could cost me my job. Can you understand that?"
Jacob blanched. He didn't have a mean bone in his scrawny body and never considered what his teasing could do to her. "Okay, sorry, Lydia," he quickly agreed, pushing his round spectacles higher up on his nose. "I'm sorry if I said anything—you know—stupid."
Now Lydia felt guilty for scolding. "No man who reads six languages is stupid." She gave him a cuff on the arm. "You idiot."
She returned to tend to the teakettle and added more water. "Make a whole pot, please," Karl said. "The Adonis is coming this afternoon, and you know how surly the admiral is after those meetings."
Her hands froze on the kettle. It was never a good thing when that man came to see the admiral.
His name was Lieutenant Alexander Banebridge, but Karl had dubbed him "The Adonis" because of the man's ridiculous beauty. None of them understood his mysterious business at the Navy Yard, but after each visit, the admiral was always grim and pensive. Moody, even. Anyone who caused the famously even-tempered Admiral Fontaine to become surly was someone Lydia instinctively mistrusted.
Lydia suspected Lieutenant Banebridge might be one of the foreign attachés funneling them reports about overseas ships, but there was no way for her to know. The man never said a single word to her. He merely breezed into the admiral's office and left a pall behind him with each meeting.
She couldn't afford to worry about the admiral's mysterious visitor. After setting the kettle over the burner, she opened the canister of tea and let the scent soothe her. If she lived to be one hundred, she would always love the mild scent of Earl Grey tea. Was it because it reminded her of the office? For the first time in her life, she had a job she loved and earned a respectable salary that allowed her to afford a safe apartment of her very own. That apartment had a solid floor, a ceiling that did not leak, and allowed her to fall asleep without fear of vicious children stealing her shoes if she took them off before going to bed.
The door of the office flew open, banging against the wall with a crash. Lydia was stunned to see Big John, the man who owned the coffeehouse on the ground floor of the building where she lived. His face was flushed, and he was barely able to get enough air into his lungs.
"Lydia, you are being evicted," he said on a ragged breath.
Lydia dropped the canister, scattering loose tea leaves across the floor. "What?" The word escaped from her throat in an ungainly screech.
"Workmen just arrived," he said. "They started putting your furniture on the street outside the building. I told them they can't evict you yet, but they started anyway."
"They can't do this! I have papers saying I can stay. Admiral Fontaine drew them up himself." Panic flooded her at the thought of losing her home. It was more than mere sentimentality tying her to her modest fourth-floor apartment in a building improbably named the Laughing Dragon. That apartment was her sanctuary, the first home in her entire life where Lydia felt completely safe.
She needed to get home right away. "Tell the admiral what is happening," she called to Jacob as she raced out the door, then clattered down the office staircase and into the street. She hauled up her skirts and ran as if her life depended on it ... which it rather did. Since the morning she left the orphanage, she had devoted every hour of her day to earning enough money to create a stable home for herself. Now that she finally had it, she would battle all the plagues of Egypt to keep it.
Excerpted from AGAINST THE TIDE by Elizabeth Camden. Copyright © 2012 Dorothy Mays. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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