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All Men of Genius
By Lev AC Rosen, Liz Gorinsky
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2011 Lev AC Rosen
All rights reserved.
VIOLET and Ashton's father was leaving for America to help decide where time should begin. It was Violet's duty to retrieve her brother and bring him to the door to say good-bye, but he was not paying her any attention. Instead, he was absorbed in his piano playing. If she had been luckier, she thought, her twin brother would have inherited her father's obsession with time, at least insofar as learning to play the piano with some sense of it.
"Ashton!" she shouted. He ignored her. "Ashton!" she shouted more loudly. She was standing by his shoulder. He could clearly hear her, but was pretending not to.
"If music be the food of love, play on!" Ashton yelled over his rackety playing. Then he attempted to sing the same lines along with the music — to think of it as "in tune with the music" would imply that the music had a tune. Violet, impatient, tapped him on the shoulder with a little force.
Ashton finally stopped playing and turned to look at his sister. "I think I play the piano rather well. Perhaps not technically well ..."
"Or well at all," Violet said, smiling.
"If I were speaking to someone who was about to do me a very large favor — indeed, who was about to assist me in a most unorthodox scheme — I think perhaps I'd be a little nicer."
Violet narrowed her eyes. She did need his help, so she forced a falsely cheerful smile. "Anyone can play technically well, brother," she said sweetly. "But you play with real feeling."
"Thank you," Ashton said with a large grin. "Your compliments mean ever so much to me."
"Father is about to leave, and we must say good-bye."
"Ah," Ashton said, and closed the piano. He stood, took Violet's arm, and walked with her toward the door. The two of them were as attractive a pair as two seventeen-year-olds of fine English breeding could be. Violet was a lovely specimen of her gender, with dark auburn hair, which always seemed to have the look of having been blown in the breeze for a while. She was fair, with rosy cheeks, and though she was a bit tall, she had a fine, womanly figure. Her strong-jawed oval face showed her great intelligence in both the sparkle of her clear gray eyes and the sharply arching smirk of her bow-shaped lips. She seldom took pains with her appearance, and so possessed a carefree beauty that would not have been out of place in a gothic romance of the sort she loathed. Ashton, also with pale skin and auburn hair, had a more dandyish appearance — as carefully dressed as Violet was careless. He often carried a cane, and wore outlandish bespoke jackets made by a tailor in London.
Their father, Dr. Joseph Cornwall Adams, was one of the leading astronomers in the country, and Violet and Ashton had grown up crawling the winding tower of stairs to the observatory on the top of their manor, where they would stare at the various devices that moved lenses and recorded images of the night sky. But each of the children had learned different things from this. Ashton had focused on the romance of the stars and the night sky, and as he grew, devoted his energies to poetry and the arts, whereas Violet saw the brass instruments her father used and decided she would be the next to design such devices. By the age of eight she had fashioned herself a lab in the basement of the manor, where she taught herself the Great Principles of the Sciences: natural, chemical, and especially mechanical. To deny her genius would be to deny the truth, for she was truly gifted. Since then she had managed to create many marvelous inventions, much to the delight of her brother and the chagrin of Mrs. Wilks, their governess.
Ashton and Violet headed to the entry foyer and watched the servants load their father's coach in the rain. It was difficult for Violet to hold still, as she was anxious for her father to go. It was not that she wanted him gone — in fact, she already missed him, and was sad at his parting — but she had spent the past few weeks orchestrating a great scheme, which would help her to fulfill her dreams, and she could not begin it until her father had left.
"Children," Mrs. Wilks said from behind them, "come away from the door. It's a little drafty, and you'll catch cold." She beamed at them until they moved away. She had been their governess since birth, and their mother's maid and friend before that. She had named the twins after their mother died in childbirth, and had raised them as a foster mother. And though she was filled with love for them, she was also filled with worry. Consequently, the twins often regarded her as they would a maiden aunt who loved them nearly to the point of suffocation and would have preferred they stay safe, probably bundled with many quilts and tied to their beds, where nothing bad would ever happen to them and where she could spoon-feed them her love and possibly also homemade pea soup.
When the carriage was loaded outside, the three of them looked up the stairs as if expecting Mr. Adams to appear with a flourish, bid them all good-bye, leap out the door and into the coach, and drive it away himself. Had that actually happened, however, they all would have fainted from shock, as Mr. Adams was not one for flourish. A moment later, Mr. Adams came carefully down the stairs, holding a bulging briefcase in one hand and a few loose papers in another. He read them as he walked, trusting his feet to find the next step.
"Father, do be careful," Violet said.
"Ah. Violet, Ashton, Mrs. Wilks," he said, as if he were surprised to see them all standing there.
"The coach is ready, sir," Mrs. Wilks said. "If you don't leave soon, you'll miss the airship."
"Ah, well, I have time to say good-bye, don't I?" Mr. Adams asked. Mrs. Wilks nodded.
"Are you excited, Father?" Violet asked, giving him a hug. "America must be wondrous."
"Indeed, I am rather excited. Not just to see America, but also for the conference. All the great minds in the field of astronomy and cartography will be there. It seems a great number of them feel that the proper place to put the First Meridian is in Greenwich. Ha!" And here he laughed a little; a sweet, cheerful, sort of coughing laugh, suitable to a man of his years and his temperament. "It is a good thing that we will have a global meridian, of course, but it was a mistake placing England's in Greenwich. I certainly hope we can fix that by placing it somewhere else for the entire globe." He smiled, making the creases around his eyes wrinkle into deep lines. Violet smiled also, for her father's amusement made her happy. He was a short man, about fifty years of age, with a long, gray, bushy mustache. His shoulders were often thrown back a little too far, and his chin was always a little too high, perhaps stuck that way from constantly gazing up through his telescope. His clothes were usually shabby and too loose, but he knew how to dress himself well if he were going to meet anyone outside the household. His eyes, once a sharp gray like his children's, had become softened and blurry over time, like dissolving clouds. He blinked perhaps more often than is common, and sometimes had to force himself to smile, because in truth, although he loved his children, he always felt a little sad for having lost their mother, whom he had loved more than the stars.
"Will you bring me back an arrowhead?" Ashton asked, also hugging his father.
"One for me as well!" Violet said.
"Oh? Well, yes, if I find any."
"You're going to be there a year. The conference won't take that long, will it?" Violet asked.
"Well, the conference doesn't even start until October of 1884. But there are a series of smaller conferences beforehand, and some ridiculous social meetings of various astronomers...." Mr. Adams looked off distantly, as if dreading interacting with his peers.
"So you can explore! And bring us back arrowheads," Ashton said, satisfied.
"I'll see what I can do. Now, you children must promise to be good, and listen to Mrs. Wilks." Their father smiled, and they smiled back. They needed him to be comfortable and trusting for what they had planned next. Luckily, he was comfortable and trusting, and his head was so filled with the night sky that he couldn't see the small deceptions his children would sometimes practice on him.
"Actually, Father, Ashton and I have decided to spend the season in London."
"Well, Mrs. Wilks will go with you, then."
"Oh no, Father. Mrs. Wilks needs to stay here to look after the manor. I'll get a maid more suited to city life. One who knows the most modern hairstyles, and about dresses and hats and things."
"Hats?" her father asked.
"I know about hats," Mrs. Wilks said.
"I hear they're very fashionable. Last time he went to the city, Ashton brought me back a gray top hat with a green ribbon and a white veil. He says all the women were wearing them." Ashton nodded.
"Were they? Well ... I haven't really noticed."
"Mrs. Wilks knew nothing about it, either. So you can see why I'll need a new lady's maid."
"I know about hats now," Mrs. Wilks said, crossing her arms.
"I suppose," Mr. Adams said, a finger on his chin.
"This seems a sudden decision," Mrs. Wilks said, frowning. "Perhaps we could discuss it more thoroughly through the post. The children and I will send you a note explaining why they want to spend the season in town —"
"I want to spend the season in town so that I am ready to come out at the end of the year," Violet said, batting her eyelashes.
"Come out?" Mr. Adams's eyes shone with happiness. Finally, his daughter was going to start behaving like a proper girl, get married, and give him grandchildren, which he secretly desired, because he loved the way babies smelled like flour, and how they would reach out and touch all his astronomical instruments because the stars were still new to them. He had been hinting around the subject for years, afraid to suggest it, in case she was offended. But now, she had decided upon it herself, and he could already imagine the tiny grandbabies in his arms. At that moment, he would do anything for his daughter. He blinked, and planted a kiss on her forehead. "If those are your plans, dear child, then you should enact them. Mrs. Wilks, you shall tend to the household here. Come February, Violet will find a maid in town, and her brother shall take over the sometimes difficult task of guarding her reputation. Doesn't that sound wonderful? You can have a break from them."
"I don't know, sir —," Mrs. Wilks said, raising her hand up as if to stop the conversation from going any further.
"Oh, don't worry so much, Mrs. Wilks. I promise to be very good," Violet said, lowering her eyes. She would need to be in town long before February, but Ashton had a plan for that. "And I will write to you every Sunday so you know we're safe and sound. You should stay here, though, and rest. Think of how hectic the season is in London, and how it would afflict your nerves."
"My nerves are quite fine, I think," Mrs. Wilks said.
"Don't worry, Mrs. Wilks," Mr. Adams said, clapping her on the shoulder. "They'll be quite all right."
"If you say so, sir." Mrs. Wilks looked more anxious than usual. She started to twist a stray brown curl around her finger.
"And I know they will look after each other. You will, won't you? A girl with your sister's beauty is liable to catch the attention of all the rogues in London. You must pay careful mind that she is always on guard."
"I'll watch out for her, Father," Ashton said. Violet held back a snicker at this. "In fact, I was thinking that in order to better acquaint her with how the season works, we could both go down to London as early as October, for the little season."
"Little season?" Mrs. Wilks asked.
"Yes," Ashton said. "It is the season before the season — attended by bankers, civil servants, and small gentlefolk who don't have estates out of town. And, more important, artists, poets, painters, literati, and the like. There will be readings and small exhibitions."
"Will that be appropriate?" Mrs. Wilks asked. "I doubt there will be many ladies among the literati."
"Why, some of the bankers have wives, and the wives of the small gentlefolk and civil servants will be there. Besides, Mrs. Wilks, you speak as though poets don't have wives, or indeed, that poets cannot be ladies."
"A woman poet is hardly a lady," Mrs. Wilks said.
"I think it's a splendid idea," Mr. Adams broke in. "It will be a good example of how ladies in society behave, even those of lesser society. We can't have you talking only about springs and levers during the season, now, can we, dear?" he said, his eyes twinkling.
"Of course not, Father," Violet said sweetly.
"Very well. You may go in October. But, Ashton, mind the art she sees is all ... decent."
"Of course, Father," Ashton said, grinning at Mrs. Wilks, whose brow was furrowed.
"Have a safe trip, Father," Violet said. "And, if you can remember, make a note of the operating system of the airship — steam powered, I'm sure, but is the steering mechanism spring based or does it use additional tanks of compressed air? And if so, how many? And where are they located on the ship?"
"I will try to remember to find that out," Mr. Adams said, sighing. "Now, come wave good-bye to me as I go."
The three of them walked outside into the rain, which had lightened considerably. The carriage was waiting, loaded up with Mr. Adams's luggage, and pulled by two strong black steeds. Violet thought, not for the first time, how convenient it would be if her father would just buy one of the new, steam-powered coaches which did not require horses, and moved very quickly, but he had thus far denied all her requests for one.
Mr. Adams hopped into the carriage before he could get very wet. With one final look at his children, he rapped the window. The driver took off, pulling the carriage out of the courtyard and down the drive. Violet and Ashton stayed outside, Ashton even waving his handkerchief, until they couldn't see the carriage any longer.
Mrs. Wilks still stood in the doorway, her lower lip wobbling slightly. "So you're goin' to London, are you?" she asked, her eyes widening, as if already seeing the dangers that awaited them.
"Yes, Mrs. Wilks, but not till the season starts in October. So you will have us all summer!" Ashton said with a smile, then bounded forward, kissed her on the cheek, and ran inside to try his hand on the harp, which he insisted he was picking up a real talent for.
Violet tried to slip past the stunned Mrs. Wilks, but she caught her arm. "You'll be a good and proper young lady, won't you?" Mrs. Wilks asked, putting her other hand on Violet's arm. "Your father is a good man, but he doesn't see how dangerous the city can be to a young girl. You won't do anything that might shame him?" She looked Violet up and down, a pleading look in her eye, her chin jiggling slightly.
"I'm always a good daughter," Violet said with an innocent smile. This did not fool Mrs. Wilks, who had long ago learned that mischief was native to Violet's soul. She knew Violet had a good heart, but also knew Violet was willful and independent, and not in the least bit ordinary. She loved Violet, in her way, but she also feared that one day Violet's forthright nature would land her into the sort of trouble from which Mrs. Wilks could not extricate her. So she stared at Violet a little while longer, hoping to transfer some of her own reserved nature into the girl through eye contact, until Violet smiled again, curtseyed, and left the hall, heading toward her bedroom.
The estate, called Messaline, was one of those large and traditional manses of the gentlemen scientists of the day, just outside of London. Though originally decorated in natural hues which suited the late Mrs. Adams' taste, in recent years, Ashton had made changes to modernize the décor, creating striking contrasts of ivory and ivy, brown and gold.
Though he had often tried to bring his sensibilities to Violet's bedroom, Violet insisted it remain untouched by Ashton's renovations. It was a room unencumbered by the sorts of dolls and pillows that were so often found in young ladies' bedrooms of the time. The only indication that this was in fact Violet's room was the many books piled up on her dressing table, texts by Babbage and Ada Byron, John Snow, and of course, Duke Algernon of Illyria, the great scientific mind of the age. All his books, from his first, The Mechanics of Biology, published in 1840, until his last, Transplantation of Living Organs to Better God's Creatures, published a few years after his death, lined the shelves where another girl would have kept her powder and sewing supplies. Several large, shabby notebooks were piled on her writing desk, their pages frayed and sticking out from under the worn leather covers.
Excerpted from All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen, Liz Gorinsky. Copyright © 2011 Lev AC Rosen. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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