"Unhand me, you brutes!" I ejaculated, as Jack Havock and I were dragged down the dark, echoing halls deep in the heart of the alchemists' secret underground lair. "Blackguards! Villains!"
Astonishingly, my maidenly cries had no effect on our captors, though you might have thought that the distress of a delicately-reared lady would have sent a thrill of sympathy through the heartstrings of even such hardened scoundrels as they were -- and the fact that they were steeped in wickedness one could tell from their total lack of care for the skirts of my new serge dress, as they pushed and shoved us along the horrid filthy rock floor.
Indeed, they showed no sign of hearing our protests or heeding our struggles, even when I demanded,
"Is this how a British gentleman should conduct himself towards a lady?"
"Reckon they think so," said Jack, as we were flung unceremoniously into a dark cell hewn out of the stone, at the end of the long narrow corridor down which my exclamations had echoed.
I had been holding out bravely until then, but when the great door clanged shut upon us, I gave into feminine weakness and wept.
"Chin up, Myrtle," said Jack, awkwardly patting my shoulder.
I shook his hand off, ignoring him.
"Oh, it is all perfectly beastly!" I said. But there was no-one to hear me -- besides Jack, that is, and he did not count, being a fellow prisoner and one, furthermore, with whom I was not on speaking terms.
For we were buried 40 feet underground 'neath the silver sands of the dark side of the Moon, and shout though we may, no friendly ear or tentacle would detect our screams to save us from the revenge of the alchemists!
That's quite enough of Myrtle. I am afraid she will have to come in rather a lot in this thrilling narrative, for this adventure was all her fault, but I shall try to spare you her tiresomeness as much as possible by recounting in my own words those events I was present to witness.
It was when two aether-ships started doing their best to blow us out of the aether that Dark Suspicion began to cast its shadow o'er my thoughts. What with trying not to trip over the shot rolling around the star deck, and manning the Rokeby-Pinkerton phlogiston agitators which were the Ladysilver's only defence, and shouting at Myrtle to urge the ship on in her flight from our attackers with all possible expedition, I scarcely had the time to wonder why we were being shot at by ships flying the British flag.
But even then, with no time to ask the question, the seeds of the answer were already planted in my mind. For though perhaps Myrtle's dismay when I visited her in London were only to be expected, Myrtle never having been in the habit of showing overmuch joy upon seeing the countenance of her dear brother, yet it had been jolly strange that she was in such a tearing hurry to be gone, and I did not feel quite comfortable in myself about our requisitioning the Ladysilver in our departure from Earth.
Myrtle had been in London for a year, studying with the Royal College of Alchemists. It was sixteen months since we had last seen Jack Havock, when Myrtle had vowed defiantly to become the best lady alchemist there had ever been, to show him what an error he had made in severing their connection. (A hopeless task, if you ask me, but I avoided expressing my sentiments after it became clear my boyish candour would only be rewarded with aching shins and stinging ears.)
Myrtle had been true to her word, for once Myrtle has decided to acquire an accomplishment, there is no turning her from her path. I have sad reason to know it, having endured her tuneless renditions of that song which should strike fear into the hearts of honest boys everywhere, 'Birdsong at Eventide'.
At first Myrtle had learnt Alchemy, as she had learnt her prayers, at my Mother's feet, for Mother, having once been a Shaper, finds Alchemy just as easy as snapping her fingers. I am sure none of the learned gentlemen at the College of Alchemists could surpass Mother in skill, but after Myrtle had conducted a few months' studies in alchemy at home, she declared that she was resolved to go to train in London, for she said it would not be proper to be an alchemist without having passed the examinations and gained the recognition of the College of Alchemists.
At least, that was the reason she gave, but if you ask me, I'd wager that Myrtle wanted to go to London just as much to buy pretty dresses and go out into what she calls civilised society, as to study the alchemical science in the company of the great men of the College.
All the same, to London she went, and when my parents decided to send me to St. Paul's School so that I could receive the public school education which is the birthright of every British boy, I thought I would visit Myrtle, for it had been so long since she had last snapped at me that I quite longed to hear an unkind word from my sister's lips.
I was not disappointed. Myrtle almost swooned when she saw me waiting at her lodgings, which surprised me, for I did not think she would be quite so pleased to see me again as to faint from joy. I was almost relieved when she came to herself almost at once, dragged me into her room and said crossly:
"What on earth are you doing here? How long were you waiting outside? You need not answer; you were waiting hours, I suppose, just to be provoking. You are the greatest pest that ever existed! I do not know why Mother and Father chose to have another child! Etc. etc."
"I thought I would come to see how you have been getting on with your alchemical studies," I said, looking around her room in wonder. You could not see the wallpaper for views of the Thames in watercolours, and there was scarce a flat surface in the room that was not covered with painted screens, card-holders, lace doilies and other such feminine fripperies.
"I say, you didn't pay for this?" I exclaimed, picking up a truly hideous silk purse, of a hue reminiscent of the internal organs of the giant sand-worm of Mars.
"I made it," snapped Myrtle. "You needn't gape in that foolish manner. Everyone knows such artistic pursuits are entirely appropriate accomplishments for young ladies, and anyway we must be gone."
Myrtle had taken out a carpet-bag and was throwing dresses and nightgowns and various articles of her toilette into it as she spoke.
"Gone? But I have only just arrived!" I said.
"That is not my fault. I am sure I did not invite you!" said Myrtle. She closed her carpet-bag and caught my hand. "But now you are here, they must not be allowed to find you. Hurry! There is not time to explain!"
I saw Myrtle intended to flee her lodgings, perhaps for good (and who could blame her, for the stoutest heart would shrink from the prospect of remaining in the same room as all that lace and frilliness), and that she was doing so for some mysterious, perhaps exciting reason. Yet as ready as I am for adventure in any season, I felt I owed it to my parents to attempt to make her see reason, for after all they had probably already paid the fees for my first term.
"But term begins tomorrow," I pointed out. "I cannot leave with you now, unless you mean to return me to school by bed-time tonight. I should almost certainly acquire a black mark against my name for being absent! That would be awfully improper, especially on my first day!"
"Don't use slang, Art; 'very' would do as well," said Myrtle automatically, but my speech had given her pause as nothing else would have done, for if there is anything Myrtle hates, it is to do anything improper. Yet it appeared the circumstances were so dire that even propriety had to be overridden, for:
"It cannot be helped!" said Myrtle. "Oh, you should not have come, Art! But you will forever be making a nuisance of yourself, so I shall just have to bring you along."
"Where are we going?" I said agreeably, for I felt I had satisfied the demands of conscience in attempting to reason with her, and could now settle down to enjoy the adventure.
"We are stealing a ship from the Royal College of Alchemists," said Myrtle. "For they have discovered my identity, and if we do not flee, I shall be -- murdered!"
Now here we were, speeding through the darksome deeps of the aether, with mysterious enemies hurling all manner of shot and ray at us -- for Myrtle had not yet explained who it was we were fleeing, or why they wished to kill her. As I said, some glimmer of the true explanation had even then begun to make itself felt at the back of my mind (the front of which was largely occupied with holding off our fiery death in the middle of the lonely aether).
But I might never have had the chance to discover the truth of the matter, for there was only one of us against two of them: two great, fully-manned brigs with pure white aether-wings and gleaming cannons, such as would be the pride of any Navy on Earth or elsewhere, and we in a small vessel, built purely for the purpose of allowing the students of the College of Alchemists to practise their arts in the Heavens.
Yet I did not give into despair, but stood firm at the phlogiston agitator, for if I was to die, I was determined to make an end of which my Mother and Father could be proud.
It was only when the agitator gave a genteel sputter that sounded extraordinarily like Myrtle when tea has gone up her nose, and broke down, that I felt I viewed my doom in its face.
"Go away!" said Myrtle, when I entered the wedding chamber so that I could have a glimpse of my sister before we were shot to pieces. "Why are you not shooting at them?"
I explained how matters stood, leaving out the part about the resemblance of the dying gurgle of our only weapon to Myrtle's snorts.
"I could recite the Lord's Prayer if you would like, Myrtle," I said helpfully, though I harboured grave doubts as to God's being on our side, for my conscience was reproving me keenly for having stolen a ship from the College of Alchemists. It was then that part of the truth came to me, though not all.
"Why, it is the Ladysilver, of course!" I cried, and went on, forgetting my grammar in my excitement: "It is alchemists who are pursuing us, because of this ship!"
Myrtle had selected the Ladysilver from the several trim vessels owned by the College of Alchemists which were docked at Rotherhithe, as having the most genteel name.
"If I explain that we only borrowed the Ladysilver for the nonce, so that we could escape from the villains who intend to murder you, surely the alchemists would leave off attacking us!" I said.
"Idiot," said Myrtle scornfully. "The alchemists are chasing us, indeed, but they are the villains who intend to murder me!"
"Oh," I said. I reflected. "I suppose negotiating would not work, then."
"Oh, go make yourself useful and see if I am outpacing them!" Myrtle said, looking positively diabolical in the pink goggles and rose-patterned rubber apron and gloves she wears when labouring over the great alembic.
I fled up to the star deck, lying close to the deck so that any shot would pass over me. Despair overwhelmed me when I saw that we were no longer being pursued by only two ships, but that a third vessel had joined them, and that I would die at the age of almost fifteen without ever playing cricket for the school!
But wait! There was something peculiar about the new ship. It did not seem to be pursuing us, but to be drawing close to our attackers. A broadside shook the Heavens, but this time it was not our Ladysilver which juddered from the blast. I lifted the glass again, and shouted for joy.
The third ship was none other than the valiant Sophronia, and on her deck, waving affectionate hands/claws/tentacles, were our old friends, Captain Jack Havock and his doughty crew!
What a clashing of giants there was then! What Jovian bolts of thunder, that issued from the cannons! What a boarding of the enemy ships by our friends and defenders, with knives between the teeth of those who had teeth, and guns in the hands of those who needed them, and a general appearance of being terribly desperate creatures indeed!
How Jack pummelled the men who poured onto the star deck of the enemy ship, and the Tentacle Twins hurled lightning at our foes, and Mr. Grindle let loose a string of oaths nearly as dreadful as his uppercuts! How my dear old friend Nipper betrayed his kindly nature so far as to pinch the villains with his claws, so that their howls travelled on the thin aether even to my avidly-listening ears, and Mr. Munkulus laid about him with his four arms whirling about him like four windmills, and Ssilissa swept the feet from under our enemies with her mighty tail!
Alas! Brave as our friends were, fierce as the fight was that they put up against the men who were pursuing us, they were too far outnumbered. Too soon, they were overpowered.
I could not bear to see our friends so treated by men who had the shamelessness to fly the British flag despite obviously being cowards, pursuing a small ship with two great frigates. Quite losing my head in my indignation, I stood up on the star deck and shouted:
"Rogues! We shall never surrender, and you may blast us out of the skies for all the good it may do you!"
But my honest manly outrage proved my undoing. As I raised my fist so that I could shake it all the better in their direction, a whistling sound filled my ears, followed by a dreadful crash, and I had scarce realised that the wet trickle down my temple was my own blood when darkness overtook me, and I knew no more.
"I am sorry we did not manage to rescue you," said Jack gruffly.
I blew my nose. I should have preferred not to have performed such an indelicate act in front of Jack Havock -- not that I cared a fig for him! It is simply more ladylike not to appear to possess any bodily fluids whatsoever in the presence of others and, if possible, at any time. The only substance it is genteel to expel is that of tears. Of those I had more than enough, so perhaps that made up for having to blow my nose.
"Poor Art!" I sobbed. "No doubt he has been killed! How shall I tell Mother and Father? I should have left him in London. Perhaps he might have escaped from the alchemists on his own. Perhaps they would not even have noticed him. Oh, I blame myself entirely!"
"I don't know as you should," said Jack.
"None of this would ever have happened if it were not for me!" I wept -- not responding to Jack, but since we were both inclined to dwell on how our imprisonment had come about, it was not surprising that our words should show some coincidental correspondence.
"That's true enough," said Jack. I stopped crying. "Still, it ain't your fault. I may be in Her Majesty's service now, and the Sophronia in the business of defending the British Empire, but that don't mean I approve of all the Empire's ways, nor ever did."
For a moment I could not speak. It was as if a cold hand had been laid on my heart.
"You know!" I choked out. The shock of it was so great I forgot my secret vow that I would not speak to Jack until he had begged my forgiveness for foolishly casting me off.
"Yes," said Jack. "And, Myrtle -- "
"How did you find out?" I said. A horrific thought struck me. "It was not -- it was not published in the papers?"
"Your mother told me."
"Mother knew?" My mind seemed to have turned into treacle; my thoughts struggled through it at a dreadfully slow pace. "Wait, why on earth were you corresponding with Mother?"
"'Twasn't me, I'm not much of a one for letters," said Jack.
"I know," I said darkly.
The light in our cell was too dim for me to be able to discern Jack's expression with any degree of certainty, but I thought that Jack looked embarrassed.
"Ssilissa's taken to writing to your mother," he said. "And Mrs. Mumby writes back, being a good kind lady, and knowing how Ssilissa feels the lack of any female companionship on the Sophronia. She told us, through Ssilissa, how she was concerned as you might have some little difficulty in prevailing on the Royal College of Alchemists to receive you when you went to study there, and so we got friends of ours Earth-side to keep an eye on you."
"As a favour to my mother," I said, and I could not help the bitterness which entered my voice. Once I should have said Jack needed no persuasion to take an interest in my welfare!
"'Tain't a favour, nor a duty neither, that's a joy to carry out," said Jack quietly. "Well, that's how we knew when they found out. Mrs. Shuttlehurst sent to us at once."
"Mrs. Shuttlehurst?" I cried. "My landlady?"
"Old Betsy Shuttlehurst, as helped us to many a Company merchantman back in the day," said Jack with a reminiscent smile, which dropped off his face when I said sharply,
"You mustn't cast back to your days as a marauding pirate so, Jack; I am sure it is vulgar to look back fondly on one's crimes against the Empire."
"Well, Betsy's a God-fearing, law-abiding British subject now, same as us of the Sophronia," said Jack hastily. "And all that's come of our past is that she's willing to do me a good favour whenever she can, and she did me one now, when she told us the alchemists had discovered that you were -- "
"Don't say it!" I covered my face with my hands. "Oh, don't say it! Goodness knows I regret it. It was wrong -- bold-faced -- terribly improper!"
"But it wasn't!" cried Jack. "I won't allow it to be. It was the bravest thing as you'd ever done, being the delicately-brought up young lady you are. We all knew it."
"The whole crew knows?" I faltered, though to be sure if anyone had to know, I should not have minded its being the crew of the Sophronia so much as if it had been anyone whom one considers polite society. "Oh, how can I ever show my face in the world again?"
"We were all in your corner, so when we heard the news, we went to Earth directly," said Jack. "The alchemists fancied they'd sent their ships off after you with no-one the wiser, but after so many years in the Secret Service, there ain't much that's secret to us! We found out what ships the alchemists had sent out, aye, and where they were going, too.
"We came haring after you, not bringing reinforcements because of knowing our advantage lay in keeping things quiet. The College wouldn't want news like this getting out. If we'd routed their ships and brought you somewhere secure, there'd have been nothing they could have said, for fear of forcing your hand -- you could have told the world any time you liked, and been all the safer for it, which was the last thing they wanted.
"It was a gamble, and I suppose we lost this round. Truly, I am sorry, Myrtle."
"I would never have told, I would never -- " I began to cry again. "Oh, oh, oh! M-my reputation!"
Yet -- it was strange: as deeply ashamed as I was, as weary and frightened and irritated (for adventures always put me out of temper), I could not help but be warmed by a small flush of pride in what I had done. Jack's look of admiration encouraged this, but it was caused mainly by a feeling that was all my own, that I had done something rather impressive, and had pulled it off successfully -- that is, nearly.
I suppose I am irretrievably wicked and unnatural. Indeed, I have suspected it for a long time. I would never admit this to Art, who is far too willing to disregard what is proper as it is, but it has ever been a source of shame to me that Alchemy, which whatever you may say is not an accomplishment which properly falls within a woman's natural sphere, has, since the first time I essayed its practice, come more easily and delightfully to me than cooking, or embroidery, or playing the pianoforte.
It must be some defect in my nature, coming of being the child of a Shaper. I love and esteem my dear Mother as highly as everyone must who knows her, but I cannot think it is quite ladylike to be a four-and-a-half-thousand-million-year-old entity of (formerly) almost unlimited power.
Since I seem doomed by my own blood never to be genteel however hard I may strive, I suppose I might as well recount exactly what I said that first day I arrived at the Royal College of Alchemists in London, and how the path led from those fateful words to my being imprisoned in the dark heart of the Moon, with my brother perhaps dead, and my friends utterly at the mercy of ravening alchemists.
"Now tell me, young lady," said Mr. Blennerhassett, "what d'you want us to do for you, eh?"
I had expected disapproval, obstruction and even impoliteness, but I had not expected this good humour. Mr. Blennerhassett spoke with the air of indulging a small, silly child.
I had requested to be taken to the Director of the College of Alchemists upon arriving at its august buildings on High Holborn. A gentleman who wishes to train to be an alchemist in the ordinary way does not usually require an audience with the Director. He need merely sit the examinations and endure an interview, which is required to ensure that his antecedents are as he presents, so that the art of Alchemy shall ever remain the sole province of Great Britain, and one of the first jewels in the Crown of the Empire.
But I, of course, was not an applicant in the ordinary way, so I thought I had best explain my situation directly to whomever was in charge, so that I might persuade him with my modest resolve that I was worthy to join the ranks of the Queen's Alchemists, though a mere female.
I had been brought to a large, well-appointed study, hung about with strange artifacts picked up by various alchemists on their journeys among the stars -- a beady-eyed stuffed Ionian Mynah-bird, which in life can speak at least three languages and generally has some other accomplishment as well, such as painting or elocution; a cardigan knitted by the goblins of Threlfall; a shrivelled Martian's head (from which I averted my eyes, shuddering, recalling my dear friend Mrs. Ulla Burton).
Behind the desk sat Mr. Blennerhassett, a jovial-looking gentleman, with a pink-and-white complexion despite his wisps of grey hair, and a shining bald pate. He smiled at me kindly when I took a seat at his request, yet when I looked into his shallow pale-blue eyes, which seemed to have no depth or expression whatsoever, I felt uneasy, and knew not why.
I flushed at his jesting tone, but since I had set my foot to this path, I could not turn back (only think how insufferable Art would be if I did!), and I said with all the composure I could summon,
"I wish learn Alchemy here, sir, if I may."
"What a notion!" cried Mr. Blennerhassett, his lips stretching in an upward curve as if he were immensely amused, though the smile did not reach his eyes. "What a very charming whimsy! How you shall lighten -- you will forgive the impertinence, Miss Mumby, in one so much your senior -- how you shall lighten the home of the fortunate gentleman who is given your hand, with this feminine sprightliness!
"But delighted as I am that the heroine of the Emergency in London has honoured us with a visit, we alchemists are, alas, busy men, so I must ask you if there is any business I may settle for you. If not, you will, of course, be given a tour of those parts of the building which visitors may enter. We have a dozen young men who would only be too willing to show you around, eh?"
"If you please, Mr. Blennerhassett," I said desperately, breaking in upon this stream of words, "the letters of introduction .... "
For the part I had played in the Emergency in London, it had been possible to obtain letters of introduction from some not inconsiderable personages. Mr. Richard Burton had kindly contributed a letter attesting to my resourcefulness and ability, and asserting that to refuse my induction into the alchemical arts would be tantamount to a betrayal of the Empire, in denying it my service. Father had prevailed upon his more liberal-minded colleagues to add their voices to the cause, and I had pinned most of my hopes on the pile of letters that lay on Mr. Blennerhassett's desk.
"Ah, yes -- yes, indeed -- a strong recommendation," said Mr. Blennerhassett. "Your family has some very respectable connections, indeed! And if your brother Arthur should ever wish to become an alchemist, we shall welcome him warmly, I assure you. We would account it quite an honour to receive a young gentleman of his parts into training! Do be sure to convey that message to him, Miss Mumby."
Anything else I could have endured, but to hear Art's abilities elevated in this manner, and mine held not worth consideration! It was more than flesh and blood could bear!
"But, sir, I wish to be received into training!" I cried, with a fervour which I daresay was unmaidenly, but which I could not disguise.
"Now, now, stop this foolishness, pray," said Mr. Blennerhassett, his tone still cordial, but his eyes hardening so that they were smooth and shiny as two blue pebbles. "I should not have to tell you, Miss Mumby, that the alchemical arts are far beyond the capacities of any woman. Your delicate frames, Miss Mumby, cannot withstand the tortures inflicted by the practice of Alchemy, which even men find it difficult to endure. The grandeur and breadth of the Alchemical Realm is quite beyond the ability of the feminine mind to encompass.
"Alchemy would, in its wild, unpredictable power, tear apart any female who dared to essay it! Even men must study for many years to be able to grasp the flaming brand of Alchemy and not be burnt. How can we then allow fragile Woman to so put herself -- and by extension, the future of the Empire -- at such terrible risk?
"You must see that it is quite impossible. Now, let us hear no more of this, Miss Mumby. One of our students will give you a tour of the buildings. The Routledge Collection is particularly fine, and should interest a young lady of such broad experience as yourself."
Mr. Blennerhassett stood up: the interview was over. I stood up as well, despair -- and something else -- overwhelming me.
I did not believe a word of it. I did not need Ssilissa's example, nor Mother's, to refute Mr. Blennerhassett's assertions -- I myself had ridden the golden tide of the Alchemical Realm at its fullest height, though it had been the Moob which had directed my actions. The power of Alchemy is not to be underestimated, but it may break a man as much as a woman, and a female may direct its strength if she knows how, just as much as a man!
"Why," I thought, "if this is what the College tells society, they are deceiving the world!"
The thought was deeply shocking. If such an august institution as the Royal College of Alchemists may tell such falsehoods, who else may not be lying to us? Could we repose the fullest confidence in the College of Surgeons? In Parliament? The Qu -- but I wrenched my thoughts away from such treason. Our dear Queen would never mislead her people if she could help herself, and misleading was what it must be, not deception.
Of course, the College of Alchemists had never seen alchemical abilities in a young woman before. I recalled Ssilissa's story -- had she not been examined by alchemists, who discovered her skill? But she was not human, and perhaps they attributed her affinity for Alchemy to the fact of her species. Once the College was shown a human female could master Alchemy, would it not change its tune, and welcome us as students and colleagues?
It was then that the idea came to me, though I scarcely knew what I meant to do until I said it. It was folly -- stark folly -- and O, how I regret it, but at that time it seemed the most remarkable stroke of brilliance, and I thought only of how it might best be done.
"I suppose you are right, Mr. Blennerhassett," I said, giving a small laugh at my own girlish silliness. "I am deeply grateful to you for your kindness. It shall be a great comfort to me to be able to assure my parents that they may have the utmost confidence in the warmth of your reception of my brother."
"Your brother?" said Mr. Blennerhassett.
"Did I not mention him? How absurd! I declare I am the most flutterpated creature I ever knew!" I gave another charming girlish laugh, though it sounded more nervous than tinkling to my own ears. "My brother Arthur is at Devonshire today, visiting our aunt, but he intends to come to London tomorrow, to request to be admitted as a junior member of the College. There is no objection that, I hope?"
"Certainly not," said Mr. Blennerhassett, though he looked anything but certain. Indeed he looked quite annoyed, but it seemed he could not think of any objection to Art's wishing to join the College.
"With such connections, and such a debt owed to the young man by the nation, we shall be very glad indeed to have him," he said. "Tell him to ask for Mr. Hamilton, and say Mr. Blennerhassett sent him. Knowles will give you a tour of the premises. Good day, Miss Mumby."
"Too kind," I murmured as I left the room.
Mr. Knowles brought me around the College building, and I made polite noises of interest, directing my gaze where Mr. Knowles advised and purporting to admire the architecture, but I saw none of it. My mind was racing, planning the details of my scheme.
For Art was not coming to London the next day to be an alchemist, of course (he is far too stupid to practise Alchemy). I would be accepted as a student of the alchemical science the next day, as Art Mumby!
Of the year I passed in London masquerading as my own brother for the sake of Alchemy I should prefer to say as little as may be. It now seems outlandish, even to myself, that I should have chosen to do such a thing, when all I had ever desired in life was to be elegant, and genteel, and to be received in polite society.
Indeed my life in London, which I had imagined when still living in Larklight as being composed of pleasant morning calls and evening visits to the theatre, of games of whist and intimate friendships with ladies of my own age, was even more deprived of society than my life had hitherto been.
I did not dare go into society as Myrtle, lest my deception be discovered, and of course I did not care to go about as Art. What time I had to myself I passed within the confines of my boarding-house, in sewing purses, painting fire-screens and card-holders, and in other such ladylike pursuits.
I daresay I should have quite expired from the unspeakable dullness of my existence, had it not been for the comfort and joy I found in my main occupation, that is, the study of Alchemy. Whatever else may be said of me, I could never be accused of being a bluestocking, and my feminine mind was scarcely equal to the mathematics and natural sciences and other such abstruse studies I was required to take on.
Yet the tears dripped on my copying-books and the extreme anguish of spirit I underwent daily when I had to put on beastly men's attire were amply rewarded by the opportunities I was given to put my skills into practice. For then, ah, then! With all the power of the Alchemical Realm at my call, cradled in that golden exultation, all my troubles fell away, and I felt any dissembling worth it, that enabled me to taste such joy!
For this shocking lack of proper feeling I can only point to the unfortunate accident of my birth for an explanation, and plead with those who would quite rightly judge me to remember what odds I struggled against! I am sure no other girl was ever so hindered by unexpected adventures -- so shot at by villains, attacked by drooling monsters and kidnapped in the course of vile schemes -- as I have been. It is my cross to bear, but you needn't think I enjoy it.
The only friend I had in London was a fellow student at the College, a Guy Howarth, a pale, peaky-looking young gentleman, with a profusion of gold curls at odds with his serious, scholarly countenance. Howarth (as I learnt to address him, in the manner of young men) very kindly took me under his wing when he saw how bewildered I was to find myself in a man's world, though of course he did not know the true source of my bewilderment. I explained my ignorance of the ways and customs of gentlemen by reference to my secluded upbringing in my celestial home (and I don't expect the real Art would have done any better among those fine young London gentlemen, so there).
The reserve between Howarth and me could never really be broken down while I kept my terrible secret, and I am afraid he was rather eccentric himself. He seemed subject to melancholy: many was the time I startled him in a brown study, when he had been gazing at me for a full five minutes without seeing me -- that is, I am sure he must not have been looking at me, but thinking of something else, for it is very rude to stare, and Howarth was the perfect gentleman.
Sometimes he would clasp my hand and ask me the most peculiar questions, e.g. what did I think of Plato, and did not the story of Damon and Pythias stir up the most passionate feelings within my manly breast, and had I ever heard of the Theban band. (To which the answers were: I could not say I ever thought of him; not at all; never.)
Yet despite these oddities of behaviour, Howarth was a staunch friend, defending me from the other students when they mocked me (how I do hate having boys laugh at me!). I patterned my conduct after his, so that after a sixmonth I had almost forgotten what it was like to be treated as a young lady, or to find joy in the little feminine trifles of dress and appearance which used to delight my heart, or to be called anything other than "Mumby".
Oh, it was dreadful! Every day I was haunted by the fear of discovery. I imagine a murderer, wondering when the body would be unearthed and his ghastly crime would be discovered, would suffer the same constant, wearing anxiety.
And discovery came at last.
I was in the library at the College, trying to make sense of logarithms and sines, when a strong hand grasped my shoulder. Before I could let out a shriek, a hand clapped over my mouth and I was dragged behind a bookshelf.
I opened my mouth to cry out, but:
"Hush!" said the man who had so mishandled me. It was Howarth, looking pale and desperate.
"You must go, Mumby -- you must flee at once. They mean to murder you!"
"What? Who do you mean, 'they'? What are you blithering about?" Even as I blustered, trying to keep up an appearance of boyishness for as long as I could, I was thinking as hard as I could. I was prepared for this eventuality, and if I could but reach my lodgings before they captured me, I could be packed and gone in a trice.
"Mr. Blennerhassett, and the rest of the Council of Fellows. You know how one of the meeting rooms adjoins Blennerhassett's study? Well, I was cleaning up the mess Dr. Waterhouse left after his demonstration on Tuesday, and I overheard them speaking. One of the chaps saw you returning to your lodgings, and spoke of it to the Fellows, and they have found you out. They spoke of the secrets of Alchemy being exposed to the unworthy, and said that you must be disposed of. God help me, but I came to find you the moment they were done."
"You have been a true friend to me," I said, deeply moved by his distress, for his face was white with anguish. I supposed it disgusted him to have discovered that a mere female had intruded upon what had been practically the sole province of men.
"But a bad friend to myself, and no better than a traitor to the Empire, to give you aid in your escape from justice," he said bitterly.
Sorry as I felt for him, I could not really agree with his opinions -- it is no betrayal for a British gentlewoman to learn the Art to which her brothers have free access! I could not argue, however, for I had not a moment to lose. I turned to leave.
"Wait! You owe me the truth, at least," said Howarth. "All this time I have lo -- I have been your friend, when you were hiding your true identity from me. I suppose you are -- French?"
"Don't be absurd!" I exclaimed, offended. "I may be a female, with all the weakness of my sex, but at least I am not a foreigner!"
"You're a girl?" cried Howarth, looking thunderstruck, but what he said next I do not know, for I fled, praying to He Who Watches Over Us to aid me in my flight from my would-be murderers. But when I returned to my lodgings unmolested, I realised my trials had only just begun, for there I found Art, who would choose the worst possible time to visit, and I knew I must take him along, lest the alchemists think he was somehow involved in my misdeeds, and execute him as a traitor.
"And I have been well served for my ridiculous capers," I concluded. "For I am trapped in this horrid little cell in the alchemists' underground lair on the Moon, and the Sophronia is captured, and Art is very probably dead, and I shall never see him or Mother or Father or the light of day ever again!"
"'Twas a fine, brave effort, and 'tis a pity it has come to this, but don't you worry," said Jack stoutly. "I'll find us a way out of this somehow. And if I don't, why, my crew will, and if they don't, then Art will, for he's a harder skull than you think, and that splinter did nought more than blood him."
I did not believe his reassurances, of course, but:
"Did you really think it was fine and brave of me, Jack?" I said timidly. "You are not too shocked?"
"It was," said Jack, adding, less gallantly, "Why, I never would've thought you'd had it in you!
"That is," Jack said, "knowing as how you like everything to be just so, and caring to be an elegant young lady as you do, I knew the sacrifice must have come dear to you."
"Your Myrtle would not have done such a thing," I hinted.
"Why, as to that," he said awkwardly, "I thought I spoke true at the time, but I ain't sure I was altogether right to say so."
"No," I said. Jack's praise had warmed my heart, but now another thought had entered it, and I felt sad and tired. "Do you remember what you said, all those years ago?"
It took but a glance at Jack's face for me to be able to tell he was extremely uncomfortable, even in that dim light, for despite all that had passed, his dear face was still as familiar to me as my own.
"I recall the gist of it, but I can't say as I remember it perfectly," said Jack, looking as though he wished he were anywhere but here.
I remembered. Perhaps because a woman's heart retains these things better than a man's, or perhaps because I had recorded his words in my diary on the day he had spoken them, whereas Jack probably does not keep a diary. Whatever the reason, I could have recited every word of the speech with which he had severed our connection.
"You said we were not meant for each other, for I was not suited for the sort of life you led, and if I were, I would not be your Myrtle any longer," I said. "Well, here I am. I am not quite the best lady alchemist there ever was, yet, and indeed for a year I could scarcely have been called a lady, but I think I have shown I can endure a life that is not quite to my tastes if it suits me."
"It was splendidly done," said Jack. "Myrtle .... "
I had pictured this scene so often, in girlish flights of fancy. I had planned exactly what I should say when I met Jack again -- it began: "How glad I was that I took up the study of Alchemy, for while you were gallivanting across the galaxy, at least I had my studies to distract me from my sorrow, etc. etc." but after I had told my tale and exacted a suitable measure of repentance from Jack, I had always seen myself being embraced by him. For had I not proved myself as dashing and bold as even an agent of Her Majesty's Secret Service could wish?
Yet I surprised myself, for the next words I spoke were not those I had thought for so long that I would say.
"Well," I said, "you were quite right. I am not your Myrtle."
And I stood up and walked away, though I had to stop after a few paces, or run into the wall, for our cell was not large.
How bitter the words were, even as they left my tongue! How awkward the ensuing silence! But I could have said nothing else, for I must be honest, and God be my witness, aught else had been a lie, and a betrayal of all I had done and suffered in the pursuit of Alchemy!
What ghastly stuff! We shall leave Myrtle to stew in her predicament and return to ME, for naturally I was not dead, but merely briefly incapacitated.
I awoke to see a blurry face hovering above me.
"Mmfurgle?" I said. My vision cleared; I saw that the face belonged to a young man, not much older than Jack Havock.
"You are awake! How do you feel?" he said.
"Ouch," I said distinctly. The youth helped me sit up, and I put a hand to my head. It was neatly bandaged, and ached a little, but apart from that I felt fit as a fiddle, and told him so.
"Good," he said. "Can you walk? Excellent! We must be gone. Your sister and friends have been imprisoned in the cells, and we must free them."
"But where are we? Who are you?" I looked around the room. It was windowless and dimly lit, but clean enough, though grey and bare. When I set my feet on the floor and stood up I realised that it was grey because it was hollowed from the rock, and a sniff of the damp air told me that we were underground.
"We are in the alchemists' secret hideaway on the Moon," said the young man. "It was used in the early days of Alchemy to conduct dangerous experiments far away from any inhabited area, and sometimes to essay experiments the government would not have allowed if they had known of them. It is abandoned now, but the College uses it still -- to imprison those who have discovered the secrets of Alchemy against the College's wishes. My name is Guy Howarth, and I am a friend of your sister's."
"Was it the alchemists who wished Myrtle dead?" I said.
"Yes. The College is protective of its secrets, and woe betide those who break through the walls it has put up to protect them," said Guy, and his face darkened for a moment. "Come. Those who captured you have returned to England to tell the Council of Fellows that they have carried out their orders. I and a few others were left behind, to guard the prisoners. I knocked out the others and tied them up, but they may awake and get free to raise the alert. We must leave as quickly as possible."
We hastened down the long, winding halls of the alchemists' secret burrow, making our way by the light of the phlogiston torches stuck at intervals in crevices in the walls. As we went, Guy recounted the tale of Myrtle's doings when she had been in London. I glanced at his face and was comforted by his appearance of sanity, for it occurred to me that it would be jolly uncomfortable to have been rescued from vexed alchemists only to be kidnapped by a madman.
"Are you quite certain it is my sister you were acquainted with, and not some other girl?" I said politely, for it does not do to be rude to your rescuer, even if you have suddenly been confronted with the unpleasant possibility that he ought to be in Bedlam, rather than being your companion in an adventure in the underground caverns of the Moon.
"You see," I explained, "Myrtle would never pose as a boy. She has far too much respect for the forms of decorum, and that sort of thing would not strike her as being at all decorous."
"I assure you, she was quite convincing," said Guy shortly. He did not seem to be in a humour to discuss the matter, so I said no more if it.
In the darkness of that chthonic labyrinth, echoing with the sound of dripping water, its walls covered with unearthly fungi that chittered as we passed, it was all too easy to imagine mysterious monsters looming out of the shadows to tear at our flesh and crunch on our bones. I was glad when, calling out the Sophronians' names, we heard answering cries -- the voices of those who were friends, and who had no desire to have us for supper.
We hurried to the cells from which the cries had issued, Guy wielding his set of keys like a weapon, and soon we were surrounded by the valiant crew of the Sophronia. It was an especially joyful reunion, for seeing me fall on the deck of the Ladysilver, my friends had thought me dead. Dear old Nipper put his claws about me and wept, and when he was done Ssilissa embraced me with such energy that she quite lifted me off the floor.
Mr. Munkulus patted me on the shoulder, blew his nose on a handkerchief, and said gruffly,
"Where are the Captain and Miss Myrtle?"
"If they have not detected our presence from all this noise, and cried out, they must be in the lower level, where the Minotaur prowls," said Guy. He looked pale. "Doubtless my colleagues felt it safer to do away with them, rather than run the danger of exposure of their mistreatment of a British gentleman and a lady. None who are confined in the Minotaur's lair survive."
"But what isss thisss Minotaur?" said Ssilissa.
"God willing, miss, you will never need to know," said Guy. For all that he seemed rather a prig, and possibly a lunatic, I must say in justice to him that he was perfectly civil, and did not seem at all disconcerted by the fact that we counted among our allies such strange beings.
When we had descended to the lower level, it seemed much the same as the one we had previously been on, with the same drip-drip of water, lively lichens and pervasive sense of doom. We hurried silently along the corridors, not daring now to cry out, but tapping on every door we passed.
Finally a shout answered our tap. Guy unlocked it, and Myrtle and Jack emerged blinking from their cell.
"Art! How glad I am that you are not dead!" said Myrtle. She rushed forward to embrace me, so she did not notice Guy until I had managed to get loose.
"Mu -- Miss Myrtle," said Guy. He stepped forward and held out his hand. Myrtle reached out, but instead of taking his hand she shoved him to the ground.
"Jack!" she shrieked, leaping out of the way just before the jaws of the Minotaur could close upon her.
The wavering light of the torches gleamed off the Minotaur's great segmented bulk. It was a monstrous centipede the size of a train carriage, with mandibles that clacked hungrily, and mighty curving antennae, so that the beast appeared to be crowned with horns, and evil black-tipped claws that dripped venom.
Weaponless, with scarcely even space in that tunnel to evade the Minotaur's swaying head or scores of legs, we were in a sorry situation indeed! Nevertheless I knew my duty as a son of England, and I girded my loins to fulfill it, adopting a posture of defiance and raising my fists in the approved fashion.
That the same readiness to throw themselves into a battle to the death was animating my comrades' spirits I knew from Grindle's shout:
"What do we do now, Cap'n?"
Jack looked thoughtful. I waited for his command, ready to leap upon the monster at a word.
"Run like the dickens!" he pronounced.
We took to our heels, keeping close to the wall, for the creature could not double upon itself and come at us in that narrow hall. As I ran, I whipped out the penknife I always keep in my pocket in case I ever need it to open a letter or to skewer a monster, and slashed its legs. The Minotaur roared. At least, I thought, it would not forget us quickly!
From the incandescent flashes of lightning that briefly lit the gloom, I knew that the Tentacle Twins were inclined to agree, and a bloodcurdling war-cry echoing behind me suggested that Grindle, too, thought the same.
"Blow it, you piratical savages, will you stop provoking the brute?" panted Guy. "It will hardly help matters to put it in a temper."
"To the contrary," said Jack, "if those d-----d alchemists return to see how we are getting on, they shall be served an unpleasant surprise! And much good I hope it will do them!"
He shot a look at Guy which was rather unpleasant itself: he seemed vexed with him for some reason. But Guy was too busy supporting Myrtle to notice it, for Myrtle loathes creepy-crawlies of all kinds, and kept uttering maidenly shrieks at the Minotaur's truly immoderate number of legs.
The beast surged after us as we clattered up the spiral stairs that led to the higher levels; through the dark halls down which Guy had taken me; up, up, and out, onto the silver sands of the Moon!
We burst out into the eternal night of the dark side of the Moon, illumined only by the soft glow of the stars. As the grasp of the underground gravity generators released us, we were able to make much better speed.
We bounced from dune to dune, following Guy's lead to where the alchemists had left the Sophronia, until our progress was halted by a shout from the rear: "Look, look!"
Ssilissa pointed to the Minotaur, which had pursued us out onto the surface of the Moon. It was, Guy later told me, no native of the Moon -- it had been hatched from an egg an alchemist had found in his journeys on the very edges of our solar system, and had passed the many decades of its life deep in the mazes of the alchemists' hideaway, for the alchemists rather fancied having a giant centipede as a guardian for their experiments and prisoners. Though an alien being, the creature was accustomed to British Standard Gravity, and now that it had fallen under the Moon's much weaker influence, free from the moderation imposed by sturdy British technology, it did not know quite what to do with itself.
It set one array of legs down upon the sand, but when it tried to take another step (or rather, another hundred steps, I suppose -- one for each leg), it traversed a league. Confused, it tried to retreat, but only got tangled in its legs.
"There will be a to-do when my colleagues return," Guy observed, as we watched the poor beast writhe in the air and bounce about on the sand, all the while yammering in wild apprehension.
"Which I'd liefer have no part in," said Jack sternly, "so take us to our ship, if you please, and step to it."
"But where are we going?" gasped Myrtle as we clambered into the Sophronia.
Jack look surprised.
"Why, to Larklight," he said, as though there were no other sensible course. "It's all gone beyond me now -- alchemists and gentlemen after us, and I shouldn't be surprised if there'll be politics to deal with Earth-side. But I'll warrant it won't be beyond your mother."
"Is Guy coming with us?" I said.
"He may if he wishes," said Jack, rather grudgingly.
Guy stiffened at that, and said haughtily, "If I am not wanted, sir, have no fear that I will impose my company upon those to whom it would be abhorrent -- "
"Oh, don't be silly, Howarth, just come along," said Myrtle, and I could see her point. No doubt it was very gentlemanly in him not to wish to intrude on a company of old friends, but better be indelicate than remain in a desert with a gigantic centipede, if you ask me.
The tread of space boots as the crew made the ship ready, the shouting of aethernautical jargon, the unearthly singing of the alchemical engines, then finally, the creak of the Sophronia's timbers and the whistling of the aether along the flanks of the ship as we lifted off the Moon -- and we were away, off into the star-studded skies, free again.
I had not dared voice my doubts at the time, but I had not quite had the fullest confidence in Jack's suggestion, for as wonderful as Mother is, I did not see how she could disentangle us from the mess Myrtle had created.
But sure enough, when we told her of the trials we had suffered at the alchemists', and (Guy speaking) suggested we should hide ourselves from them in some remote, uncivilized land beyond their reach -- on one of the moons of Jupiter, perhaps, or in the American colonies:
"Nonsense," said Mother. "There must have been some misunderstanding. I shall speak to the Director of the College. Mr. Blennerhassett is the name, you say?"
"But Mother," Myrtle protested, "you cannot change the minds of the entire College of Alchemists. They are quite the most obstinate cohort of gentlemen who ever lived!"
"My dear Myrtle, you are the heroine of the Emergency in London," said Mother. "If the gentlemen of the College wish to bar you from learning what you may there, and to persecute you for making the attempt, they must be prepared to give very good reasons for their conduct."
It is extremely difficult to persuade Mother of the impossibility of any course of conduct. Her ideas of what is possible and what is not are very much broader than those of any ordinary human being, and she has a way of calmly bowling one over, so that one finds oneself agreeing with her despite one's best efforts.
"And how do you propose to call upon the College to account for those reasons, ma'am?" said Guy, struggling nobly against being swept away with the tide.
"Why, as any Englishwoman would," said Mother. "I shall write to the Times."
I expect you recall the hullaballoo that was raised in the newspapers -- how Mr. Blennerhassett was sacked in the result, and the Council of Fellows made to resign -- so I shall not repeat the details of the fuss.
At any rate I shared in hardly any of the fun, for the minute it became clear that I was not in danger from murderous alchemists, Mother and Father said I should return directly to school. Jack said the Sophronia should convey me there, as well as Guy, who had remained with us for fear of being punished for his part in our escape if he returned to London.
On our last day in Larklight I found Guy in the conservatory, watering the song-flowers and looking glum.
"Hullo, Guy," I said. "Looking forward to being back at the College of Alchemists again?"
"It shall not be the same without Mu -- Miss Myrtle," he said, putting down his watering-pot.
For Myrtle had declared that she would rather continue her studies in Alchemy at home with Mother, the dreadful experiences associated in her mind with the College making her disinclined to return so soon. (So she said, but I think it was because she was embarrassed to return to a place where so many of her fellow students had seen her wearing trousers.)
"It will be quieter," I said comfortingly, but Guy merely shook his head, his expression becoming even gloomier.
I can't understand how fellows grow so attached to Myrtle. I suppose it comes of their not having sisters, and so not realising what a blight females are on a boy's existence.
Jack was afflicted with the same complaint. What with him casting woe-begone looks at Myrtle, and sighing heavily to himself, and being given whispered advice by Nipper in quiet corners, we had scarcely had the chance to exchange a friendly word since our reunion.
"Well, probably when you have had time to think it over you will realise you are well shot of Myrtle," I began to say, with the idea of raising Guy's spirits, but at that point we heard voices. I dived into the bushes, and Guy followed me.
"What are we doing -- ?" he whispered. I shushed him hastily, for it was Jack speaking.
"We are leaving today," he said.
"Oh?" said Myrtle's voice.
"Yes," said Jack.
The silence that followed had a strained quality. I ventured to peek out of the bushes, and saw that Myrtle was busying herself over the song-flowers (quite unnecessarily, for Guy had already watered them) with her back to Jack. Jack glanced at her, paused as if he were screwing up the courage to speak, then blurted,
"You said -- you aren't my Myrtle any longer. And you're quite right. I see that."
Myrtle's face twisted, but she said quite steadily,
"I'm glad you agree. I'm sure I wish you all the best, and I assure you I harbour no ill feelings -- "
"But, Myrtle," said Jack, breaking into her speech in a way that would have put her in quite a shocking temper if I had done it.
"Myrtle," he repeated. "Mayn't I be your Jack?"
He took her hand, and Myrtle turned around.
Chaps who haven't got sisters simply don't know they're born. It is quite bad enough when one's father and mother are soppy, but one allows for it because I suppose it is required of people who are married. When it is one's own sister kissing ....
I looked around, and saw that Guy shared my horror. I put my hand on his shoulder.
"Bear up," I said. "A cup of tea will help wash away the memory."
In my anxiety to console Guy I must have forgotten to whisper, for Myrtle went still and looked around.
And I shall draw a veil over what happened next, for there are some things too bloodcurdling, too nightmarish, too destructive in one's faith in the essential goodness of the universe, to chronicle, and Myrtle in a passion is one of them. All I can say is, I hope you are never so foolish as to fall in love, dear reader. It seems a rum do to me.