“There is a Thomas Wilker to see you, ma’am,” said the footman.
I glanced up from my papers in surprise, then looked down with some alarm at the condition of my dress. My skirt was quite irretrievably rumpled from kneeling on the floor where I had spread the proofs, the lace at my wrists was darkened with ink and charcoal, and, I noted wearily, the milky remains of my son’s last meal had left damp patches across my front. I had paid little enough attention to the glass that morning, but I had seen enough to know my face was haggard and blotched with lack of sleep. On the other hand, Mr. Wilker had seen me in much worse state in Vystrana.
I made one abortive motion to straighten my skirt, then let my hands drop to my lap. “Please show him in.”
Natalie gave the sheaf of pages she had been reviewing a quick tap, setting them neatly on the table beside her. She, at least, looked fresh and tidy, her face lit with enthusiasm for our work. “Has he come to look at the proofs?”
“I don’t believe he knows they exist,” I replied. “I expect it’s something to do with another project we’re engaged in, though why he wouldn’t simply have written--Mr. Wilker, please come in.” I rose to greet him. He cast an incredulous eye across my library, which showed no more to advantage than I did; I had not allowed the maid in for the last several days. He schooled his expression quickly enough and navigated the piles of sketches and manuscript paper with only a little difficulty. “You know Natalie Oscott.”
“Miss Oscott,” he said, with a slight bow.
I gestured, somewhat inadequately, at the cluttered floor and tabletops. “Natalie is helping me review some proofs.”
“A Journey to the Mountains of Vystrana,” he read, picking up the title page from its place near his left toe.
“A monograph I hope to publish. Nothing scientific, you understand; sketches and impressions only.” The explanation felt both defensive and obscurely apologetic, but he nodded readily.
“I wish you luck with it,” he said.
I had not seen him in person more than once or twice since our return from Vystrana, though we had corresponded frequently during his search for a chemist to synthesize artificial dragonbone, and since then he had supplied me with regular bulletins on Kemble’s work. He looked much as I remembered--a little cold-pinched and windblown from the driving rain, but the expression of general disapproval was the same. I arranged my own features into a pleasanter one. “And may I wish you a blessed Haslentide?”
He looked faintly startled, as though he had forgotten it was the eve of the winter solstice. “Thank you, Mrs. Camherst. The same to you and yours.”
“You’ve come well out of your way in such foul weather,” I remarked, attempting with only moderate success to keep the curiosity from my tone. “May I offer you something fortifying? Spiced wine, or a cup of tea?”
“No, thank you.” He sat gingerly on the chair I had indicated, the page still clutched in his hand. “I’m afraid I come with bad news.” He cast a wary glance toward Natalie. “Kemble’s latest attempt has failed.”
“Oh, no,” I said involuntarily. “He had such hopes.”
Mr. Wilker nodded. “As did I. He tells me it has at least been an instructive failure, but--this won’t astonish you--an expensive one. He’s requested additional funds for fresh supplies and equipment.”
“Naturally he has.” I did some rapid mental arithmetic and sighed. “I think it can be managed, provided he can wait until next week.”
“I’m surprised Lord Hilford could spare you tonight,” I said, by which I meant his intelligence could as easily have been communicated in writing. “I understand you are both deep in preparation for the expedition to Nsebu.” It was a pleasantry, no more, but Mr. Wilker’s jaw tightened perceptibly.
“Sir Alfred Clerkenwell has just presented his paper on the physics and physiology of dragonflight.” Of this, I was perfectly well informed. “This evening, the Philosopher’s Colloquium is hosting a reception in his honor. His lordship will attend.” A reception to which a man of Mr. Wilker’s class would not, of course, have been invited. As a woman, I could not even have attended the presentation. A hot, ineffectual spark of injustice kindled within my breast; but the restrictions of gender were no more Mr. Wilker’s fault than those of social status, even if I had wished to argue the point. I tamped the anger down with an effort. By his quick, observant glance, I took it that he noticed my reaction as I had his. I spread one dismissive hand, and his mouth quirked in acknowledgment.
Oblivious to these undercurrents or choosing delicately to ignore them, Natalie said, “How interesting! Grandfather had an early copy of that paper, and he let me read it only last week. Sir Alfred’s analysis is sound in general--Isabella and I were discussing it just this afternoon--except of course for those minor errors in calculation. I do hope someone pointed them out before he presented today. I am very sure they could be corrected quite easily.”
“Errors in calculation?” If she had been offering a deliberate distraction, it was successful; she had his complete attention.
“Oh, yes,” she replied. “When he speaks of the amount of force necessary to propel an Akhian desert drake from a resting position into full flight, which we are told they accomplish with very little difficulty--” She turned one of the page-proofs over, took up a pen, and began scribbling figures. Mr. Wilker stood to examine them. I watched as his look of polite indulgence quickly turned to surprise, and then to real consideration.
I could not follow the mathematics, but even if I had wished to try, a thin wail from upstairs caught my ear. I allowed Jacob to cry long enough to wonder what was keeping his nurse, then remembered I had given her leave to spend the holiday with her family, which ill-considered decision had led in no small part to my state of disorder. I did not trouble to excuse myself; the two of them were quite absorbed.
I plucked my son from his bed and soothed him with more resignation than skill. When at last his cries had subsided into low, mewling whimpers against my shoulder, I went down to join my guests.
Mr. Wilker resumed our conversation by answering the question I had left unasked. “I haven’t just come to tell you about Kemble. Lord Hilford is preparing his formal request for the visas to Nsebu, and I wanted to ask you in person whether you’ve given any thought to his invitation.”
Jacob burped, then gave an unhappy wriggle in my arms. “I’ve thought a great deal,” I said, and was interrupted by a more emphatic squirm and an unhappy sob. I stood, patting the child mechanically between the shoulder-blades and making a valiant attempt at the swinging walk I had seen the nurse employ. “Oh, drat it,” I said before I could stop myself, as the sob worked its way up to a full-throated cry. “I fed him not an hour ago,” I went on, words tumbling out in what I had certainly not meant to be an exhausted, rambling apology, “I’m certain he isn’t hungry, and his clothes are fresh, and I never know what to do--”
Mr. Wilker had risen automatically when I did. Now he stepped forward, hands raised, then paused. “May I?”
“May you--oh!” I blinked dubiously at him. “If you like.” Holding Jacob firmly under the arms, so as not to lose my purchase when he kicked, I handed him over.
Astonished, I watched Thomas Wilker take my son in an expert grip, give him an exaggerated frown, and say in what I can only describe as a growl, “What’s all this fuss? There’s no need for that.” Jacob went abruptly quiet. “There’s a good lad,” Mr. Wilker said in satisfaction, then looked up at me with a rare smile. “Fine boy you have here, Mrs. Camherst. Astonishing resemblance to his father.”
“Please don’t,” I said, the words startled low and miserable out of my throat. For the six short months of his life I had endured the constant comparison of my son to his namesake, remark after remark on his looks--though I have never been one to observe much of the adult in an infant’s features--and of what a comfort the boy must be to me. I had endured this misguided and inaccurate assault well enough, but that day I was stretched perilously thin. I found I could not bear platitudes from this unexpected direction.
I had turned away and closed my eyes. I heard but did not attend Mr. Wilker and Natalie’s brief conversation. When a few moments later I responded to his voice at my elbow, I found him empty-handed.
“I’m very sorry,” he said, contrite. “I didn’t mean to cause you distress.”
I cleared my throat. “You had no reason to believe it would. Pray don’t consider it.”
“Mrs. Camherst,” he said, then cut himself off. He looked over to the corner where Natalie had knelt, quite unselfconscious, and was assisting my son in his attempts to propel himself across the floor. Having satisfied himself that she was too absorbed in the project to note what he said, he resumed in a low and formal tone, “Mrs. Camherst, we have never been what I would call easy with one another.”
The rules of polite conversation would have had me offer as good-natured a demurral as I could muster, but in truth his observation was accurate. I held my tongue during the pause that followed, assuming correctly that he was preparing his words, not waiting to be contradicted.
“I should hate--I would be sorry if your hesitation over this expedition were due to such personal considerations.” He looked as uncomfortable as I had ever seen him. Now I did open my mouth to speak, but he raised a hand. “Please allow me to finish. I was far from pleased when you joined us in Vystrana, but you proved yourself as capable as I could have wished. Far more than I wished, I’m ashamed to admit. I would be glad of your assist--of your collaboration.”
“Mr. Wilker,” I replied, considering my own words with care, “I can honestly say no such considerations have weighed on me. You know me too well, I think, to believe I would let even an extreme animosity prevent me from pursuing my interests.” He winced. Perhaps not quite enough care. His speech had been handsome enough, by contrast, even if it contained no true apology. “But I assure you I do not hold you in such ill regard as all that.” It was a weaker reassurance than I ought to have made him, and I engaged in a brief and private struggle with candor. I could not in truth say I likedhim, even now. “In fact I feel nothing but respect for you, and I am perfectly satisfied with our business relationship.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” he said, some of the tension leaching from his face. “Then may I tell Lord Hilford--“
“I don’t know,” I interrupted, feeling quite wretched. My eyes were drawn, as iron to a magnet, back toward the small form of my son, who through no fault of his own caused trouble well out of proportion to his size. “There are other concerns.”
“I do understand,” he said. I wanted to ask how he, an unmarried and childless man, could possibly understand the familial and societal pressures of motherhood, but he went on, “But clearly you haven’t given up your scientific pursuits. I do know you well enough by now to tell you want this, Mrs. Camherst. Your son has other family who could care for him while we are gone. There are so few who could accomplish what we hope to do in Eriga.”
And so he dismissed, in a few words, a problem that had torn at me generally for the better part of a year, and far more acutely once I heard of the proposed expedition. I thought the attempt at persuasion cost him something, and it occurred to me to wonder whether Lord Hilford had asked him to come. But no, I must take this in good faith. “You make very light of a complex problem.”
“I know that, Mrs. Camherst,” he said, “but we will not leave tomorrow. It will be months at the very least before the visas are approved, time to make all the arrangements you need. Please consider it.”
“Oh, do!” Natalie said from across the room. I had quite forgotten her presence. Her voice trembled wistfully, and she looked between us with shining eyes. “You must go, Isabella. How many chances could anyone have to see a Moulish swamp-worm? You must go and tell me all about it. I only wish—“ She cut herself off, and had I paid more attention to the intensity of her eagerness then I might have saved myself a considerable shock some year and a half later, but more of that in due time.
Instead I started forward, exclaiming, “Jacob!” With a guilty look, she tugged gently at the proofs on whose corners he had been sucking, running a finger between his chubby lips to make sure he was not about to swallow any of the paper. I bent to recover the pages, quickly ascertaining that they had survived their ill-treatment and were perfectly legible, if damper than I would have liked.
I paused, the uppermost page clasped in my hand. It was my rendition of the Draconean statue at the ruins in Vystrana, magnificent and mysterious. I had never hoped to see anything like it in my life. Nor would I again, if I resigned myself to mouldering in domesticity. Jacob looked up at me, having exchanged the pages for his fist, which seemed to content him just as well. You will do well enough without me, too, I thought.
“Yes,” I said, then raised my head to Mr. Wilker. “Yes, of course I will come. Please inform Lord Hilford. I will write him myself after the holiday.”
“I’ll be glad to tell him,” he said, with every appearance of sincerity.
I rose and offered him my hand. I had meant him to shake it, colleague to colleague, but instead he took it in his and made an awkward bow. Well, Nedel Tor was not built in a day.
“Will you join us for dinner?” I asked impulsively. “Please do not take the state of my library as a reflection of my whole household. I have an excellent cook.”
He looked between me and Natalie, hesitated, and visibly recalled the first response that came to mind. “Thank you,” he said instead. “I would enjoy that very much.”