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Of Workshops and Ducks

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Aged 13

“Can’t believe you’ve been so stupid,” Jessamy hissed, pulling on the sleeve of Felix’s very favourite green jacket, the one Charis had sewn for him when Alverstoke had built him the workshop, the one that had stains in the pockets from spilled ink and crumbs stuck to the lapels: honey on bread, presented to him at the workshop on a silver platter by a poker-faced footman named Billes. “Well,” Jessamy amended. “It’s not that I can’t believe it—but really, Felix!”

The problem, Felix thought, was that the pinecones hadn't taken nearly the arc he'd anticipated when planning the thing, and although he'd more-or-less managed to hit his target—the great oak nearest to the stables—some of the pinecones had gone very, very astray. "I didn't mean to!"

"You never do!" Jessamy retorted, shoving him through the door to Alverstoke's study; a room Felix had grown very familiar with since he'd come to live at Alver with Frederica.

Alverstoke was sitting behind his desk, a heavy oak piece that he'd told Felix had been there since his great-grandfather's day. On the desk were several piles of paperwork; a small marble bust of some philosopher or other; and a tray holding a bottle of wine, half-drunk, a plate of macaroons, and another plate of—

"Bread-and-butter! Sir, may I? It's been such a long time since luncheon." Indeed, it had been some three hours since Billes had returned to the workshop to collect the platter, as poker-faced as always. Felix had been meaning to wander to the kitchens in search of cake—or perhaps a pastry—but in the event the ducks had quite arrested his attention.

Alverstoke sighed loudly, his fingers pressed into the bridge of his nose. "If you must, Felix, and then you may tell me why my groundskeeper wishes to see me as soon as I find it convenient. I do not, I must say, often find it convenient to converse with the man."

Felix had a slice of bread-and-butter in his hand before Alverstoke had finished talking, and chewed on it thoughtfully while composing his response. “I was attempting to demonstrate for myself Newton’s laws of motion,” he attempted, secure in the belief that the Marquis had now forgotten Newton’s laws of motion, if indeed he'd ever known them in the first place. “And if I’d seen the ducks there earlier I never would have released the trigger!”

The ducks had, in fact, given Felix quite a shock. He’d had the gearwork primed for days, just waiting for a fine enough morning to test the thing; the pinecones had been collected by Felix with the assistance of Billes; and Jessamy, in one of his rare breaks from study and the stables, had even condescended to help him set up the gear drives—and when Felix’s third-best green jacket had got horribly torn at the elbow by a stray piece of wire and then smeared with oil when his hand slipped slightly trying to grease the left-hand back wheel, Jessamy had promised to say nothing to Charis about it, even though Charis and Endymion were visiting from London.

Felix had, as it happened, only noticed the ducks as he’d been releasing the trigger; a family of them, Mama Duck waddling in front of the target oak with her four tiny yellow ducklings trailing behind her. Flustered, he’d knocked the machine off-course; and instead of fifteen pinecones heading towards the oak, they’d scattered across the field: one through the stable window, three against the stable wall, two hitting the oak (Excellent work! had been Felix’s first thought), and the rest hitting a bed of carefully tended tulips and roses at speed, crushing the head gardener’s favourite bloom.

Mama Duck had squawked loudly and flown straight into Billes, flapping her wings in a flurry that wacked the poor man in the nose several times before she realised that she’d flown into a solid object—but one she could bite, which she did with great passion and effort. The ducklings, confused now that Mama had taken to flight and left them without a leader, started wandering in all directions; three of the stablehands and Alverstoke’s groom had come out of the stables to find out what all the fuss was about; and after five minutes of the youngest stablehand (who apparently came from a family somehow connected with ducks, or perhaps geese) trying to get Mama Duck off Billes and the ducklings back to their nest without anyone else getting bitten, another of the stablehands had run off to fetch the groundskeeper.

The groundskeeper had come to the workshop ruddy-faced and determined, a stout figure in breeches and a olive jacket, and—without ever raising his voice or saying anything that could be interpreted as impertinent—caused Felix to feel that, while the young sir was of course entitled to conduct his experiments in his own workshop as he saw fit, it would be better for everyone if the young sir could perhaps attempt to restrain himself from property damage, if only he were able. “For,” added the gardener, feeling as though his input could do no harm, “those roses are Her Ladyship’s very favourite, and all the blooms are bruised now.”

The groundskeeper agreed loudly with this wise statement, and then finished by adding ominously that he’d have to speak to the Marquis about it, especially after what had happened regarding the chickens and the experimental saddle (but, really, thought Felix, that was dreadfully unfair: he’d only been trying to help Jessamy), as well as the Concerning Incident with the gear-machine—“Though,” the groundskeeper said in a consoling tone, “there’s no need to bring that up again.”

And so it was that Felix had spent the next half-hour pulling pinecones out of the flowerbed and carefully wheeling his latest machine back into his workshop, watching as the groundskeeper had entered the house through the kitchen door and then, a few minutes later, walked back out again. A few minutes after that, Jessamy had fairly flown out of the house, running straight across the field towards Felix in great strides. “You!” he exclaimed, and grabbed Felix by the ear.

It was this that Felix tried to explain to Alverstoke, in breathless, half-finished and only marginally coherent sentences, sketching out the scene with his hands. When he was finished, Alverstoke looked very severe except for a slight quirk at the corner of his mouth, and Felix breathed out in relief. “I am very glad the ducks escaped harm, Felix,” he said gravely, “though I do wish you had also managed to avoid Frederica’s roses and the stable window.”


At fourscore and seven years

“You’ve got m’sister’s nose,” Felix announced, thumping his cane across the carpet towards his great-nephew, a mere stripling no more than 30 years of age. “And I’ve always liked you, Geoffrey, even when you were too young to know what a gearshaft looked like. We’re going to the workshop.”

Mr Felix Merriville, Captain of Industry and grandfather to three of the most promising young engineers in all of Britain, was himself the happy possessor of a large fortune and an estate of no small size in Essex, which featured a whole series of workshops built in the recently fashionable Gothic style; but he was still fond of his workshop at Alver, and took himself off there each summer for a fortnight’s holiday in order to reacquaint himself with the family and rediscover the remnants of experiments from years past.

He had, his great-nephew admitted, as much right as anyone to enter the study at Alver; Uncle Felix had been known to wander in for longer than Geoffrey had been alive, often brandishing papers and talking about promising rates of interest and investments as though the conversation had started an hour ago. When Geoffrey had been sent off to school, he’d found Felix’s oldest grandson already there and willing to enter into fisticuffs with anyone who made fun of his small cousin; and Felix had taken him around some of the exciting sights of the capital during the school holidays.

Of course, Felix’s idea of the exciting sights of the capital included several trips to see the Crossness Pumping Station, as well as the one at Abbey Bath; and four years ago he had summoned the entire family to London to take a trip on the first journey of the new City & South London Railway, of which he was a major investor. But it had been fun, and Felix had never balked at any of the things a young Lord not yet out of school might want to get up to, out of sight of his parents and his tutors.

Nevertheless, Geoffrey pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “I’m sorry, Uncle Felix, but I simply have too much to go along with here—the investments, the papers, my mother’s annuity. And my steward wants to speak to me about the houses in the village—some of them need to be pulled down now that so many people have moved to the cities. And m’sister Elizabeth has her first Season this year; I need to arrange for Alver House to be readied. We haven’t bothered opening it in years.”

“Dash it, Geoffrey, you’ll leave that nonsense to your steward and the lawyers. It’ll still be there tomorrow, after all, but I’ve got the experiment all primed up and ready to go—you don’t want to miss that, do you?” said Felix, with the air of someone who knew he didn’t have to do much to entice his audience into obedience.

And in all fairness Geoffrey Peter Vernon, 9th Marquis of Alverstoke, had never needed much convincing to go down to the workshop at the bottom of the West Lawn, tucked in between the folly (built by his great-grandfather, the 6th Marquis) and the stables.

Felix no longer ran from the house to the workshop; instead, he slowly ambled, Geoffrey steadying him with an arm as he kept up a rather one-sided conversation about the weather, the new motorcars appearing on London roads, his favourite grand-daughter Sophie’s chances of snaring a promising young engineer to add to the family tree (he did concede that somebody who knew physics would suffice—in a pinch), his sister Frederica—dead this past ten years—and Elizabeth, who like Geoffrey had her nose.

The machine—composed primarily of large spinning wheels, what looked like the arm off a trebuchet, a row of electric lights which flickered intermittently, and a basket stuffed full of pinecones—was already set up on the lawn; Felix, upon arriving at its base, started pointing out its many features to Geoffrey, using his cane as a pointer and his spare hand for emphasis. The aim, so far as Geoffrey could understand it, was to hit the stable side door with the pinecones without blowing any of the electric lights, which were powered by the same mechanism that drove the trebuchet arm.

All this was quite respectable: obviously not the greatest of Felix's many inventions, nor the most useful, but for something an elderly man had cobbled together over three days in order to amuse his great-nephew, who he still thought of as a small boy despite all the evidence to the contrary, it was marvellously entertaining; and Geoffrey was touched. He was further pleased when Felix, in a fit of enthusiasm, offered to let him take the wheel, as it were; something Felix was well-known to do with all the many small boys of his acquaintance, in a patent attempt to induce them to a life of engineering hijinks.

The ducks were, however, quite a surprise.