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The Penniless and the Scholar
Anne Sowen rocked back and forth, bumping her cousin slightly, as the coach rattled down the road. She sighed to herself when she noticed the hem of her day dress was beginning to fray. She knew that no one would notice if she managed to not become self-conscious about it, but that was easier said than done. How could she get through a whole weekend in society knowing that her best dress had a frayed hem? It was the kind of society that would have nothing to do with her if her, but her cousin happened to be Miss Charlotte Dearing, an heiress to her father's merchant fortune.
Anne wondered sometimes if Charlotte was truly blind to the differences between their families and just being polite by inviting Anne to the same events she was going to. But more often, it seemed to be a genuine innocence and desire to see the best for both of them. “Anne, you must come with me to Sir William's or I will be bored to tears!” she said, truly agonizing. “Mama is convinced I need to meet his son and I hear he's an awful pedant.”
“He can't be that bad,” Anne said quietly. “Surely there will be other people to talk to.”
“There never is. It will all be people Father met in India. It's a hunting party.” Charlotte sulked around the modest garden where Anne and her mother gathered herbs for supper. If Anne left with Charlotte, her mother would be all alone, with only their loyal maid Betty to care for her. Charlotte would have to share her lady's maid with Anne, a charity her cousin had been happy to give her many times before. Anne didn't have the heart to tell her the other indecencies poverty could bring someone to do, like washing your own underclothes. Neither Charlotte nor any of the people Anne met at these events worried about such things.
When they arrived, Sir William Gibb, a muscular former Army officer, was standing outside his house with several of his cronies, showcasing his hounds. One dog in particular, a tall dark brown specimen, was receiving the most attention from the gentlemen. Seeing the carriage, though, Sir William moved away from the others to enthusiastically greet them.
“Dearing,” Sir William said, as Anne's uncle stepped from the coach and shook hands with their host. “I hope you are in for some good hunting.”
“Certainly.” Mr. Dearing reached in to offer his hand to the ladies.
Anne had just enough time to size up her company when a spluttering mechanical noise scattered the hounds and confused the lingering guests. The horses leading the coach away whinnied and reared, throwing the footmen. Anne saw a two-wheeled contraption being pedaled by a young man and sputtering a steam. As it drew closer, the young man lost control, knocked Anne down, and ripped the bottom of her dress clean off, displaying the bottom of her petticoat for all to see. The rest of the guests disappeared in a cloud of soot as the mechanical monster coughed out soot and died.
“My son, the inventor,” Sir William quipped. The other guests, their faces and lace blackened, began to reappear as the smoke dissipated.
“Anne!” exclaimed Charlotte. “Are you alright?”
“I'll be fine,” Anne muttered, a bit shocked. So much for the frayed hem, she thought to herself.
“Nathaniel,” Sir William scolded, “would you be so kind to help the young lady up?”
“I apologize, my lady,” Nathaniel Gibb said, bending over her. His face was pale and studious, like the scholar he heard of. His features weren't much to speak of, other than brilliant green eyes. He noticed her destroyed dress and blushed scarlet. “I-I-I suppose I should compensate you for that.” He looked away from her petticoats, the ones she had scrubbed so hard, now dusty again.
“Don't worry about it, Mr. Gibb,” Anne replied. She was unsure how to react, so strange the whole situation seemed to be. The offending machine was laying on its side in the grass, not quite harmless. A mysterious ticking still emanated from one of the many gears and chains that made up the vehicle.
“Come, come,” Charlotte was telling her. She had her arm and Mr. Gibb the other, but her ankle was weak under her full weight.
“Oh dear,” her aunt said, “should we call for the doctor?”
After the doctor had examined her ankle and determined it to be a minor sprain, Anne limped down to dinner on the arm of her cousin.
“You are not taking that thing on tomorrow's hunt,” Sir William was telling his son. “You'll scare the birds and dogs and everyone else.” The other men were nodding. Anne knew them now as two other Army officers from India, her uncle, and a Hamburger who spoke little English (out of choice she suspected). The Hamburger muttered something in German in response to their host's assertion.
Nathaniel looked abashed and surprised. “I wasn't serious, Father,” he said quietly. Upon seeing the ladies enter, the gentlemen rose.
Charlotte was already engrossed in conversation with some of the others, belying her assertions that she would have no one to talk to. The other men's wives whispered among themselves at Anne's approach, so she took up a spot on the sofa nearest the window and farthest from the rest of the party. Nathaniel sought Anne out. “Miss Sowen, please tell me what I can do to make up for my careless actions.”
“Oh, Mr. Gibb,” Anne began to forgive him, but she reconsidered. “Actually, could you give me a ride on your...um...”
“Yes, that,” Anne replied. “It looks quite exhilarating.”
It was exhilarating. They had to break the lock on the shed that Sir William had locked the “Chainwheel” up in. When Anne saw it again, she almost changed her mind because it was more menacing up close than in memory, but she took Nathaniel's hand despite her fears. He positioned her so that she was straddling the back, her skirts hitched up under her, a sight that would surely scandalize the household. But Anne didn't care. Even if the noise alerted the rest of the household, they would hardly suspect her of riding it. She had begged to return to her room due to her ankle.
It was exhilarating. Despite the smell and the dirt, she loved the wind pulling at the pins that held her hair up. She felt a certain pleasure in imagining all of Charlotte's work falling in long strands about her shoulders. Anne imagined it akin to riding an unbroken stallion. Nathaniel deftly drove through the gardens and woods of his family's estate, despite the waning light of summer's lingering dusk.
“How do you make it stop,” she yelled in his ear over the Chainwheel's chugging.
“Tricky” was all she could make out, and suddenly the earth seemed to shudder as the tires desperately gripped the ground. For a moment Anne thought she would be thrown from the bike, but eventually the motorcycle came to a stop in the same cloud of smoke.
“You're quite brave, Miss Sowen,” Nathaniel said, admiringly.
“Curious,” Anne corrected.
“Well, that is good too,” Mr. Gibb said thoughtfully. “Would you be curious to see my laboratory?”
Anne's head was filled with images of those ancient alchemists trying futilely to change lead to gold. “Of course,” she replied. Looking into his eyes, she saw a shyness fueled by his expectation that no one would care as much about his pursuits as he did.
“Shall we ride back?”
Anne gave him a mischievous smile. “Yes, unless you want to help me limp all the way back to the house.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot,” he said, blushing. He cranked a lever to his side and the roaring, vibrating monster came back to life. Anne had just enough to time to grab on before they were roaring through the copses and hedges once again.
Nathaniel had been given an abandoned greenhouse for him to conduct science experiments and build his bizarre machines. When he lit a lamp, Anne saw a room filled with exotic plants, ticking gears, and fizzing beakers. Anne stared transfixed. She felt like she had stepped into some time in the future when these things were commonplace. Could Nathaniel be creating the future? Could one of the test tubes or potters hold her own future? “What does it all mean?”
To he surprise, Nathaniel shrugged. “That's the question, isn't it?” he said and chuckled, as if to himself.
She glanced down self-consciously. It was a silly thing to ask.
“I mean, that's what I'm finding out. I mix things together and see what happens. For instance, this plant is something my father brought back from India a few years ago. I'm attempting to cross-bread it with the common-place English sweet pea to see if a new vegetable can be created.”
“Not yet. All specimens fail to thrive. I might try a new vegetable soon.”
“And this?” Anne asked, pointing to a brownish liquid dripping slowly into a cistern.
“A new kind of liquor I am distilling.” She laughed. “You were expecting something more impressive?”
“On the contrary,” she replied. “I'm quite impressed. You must have been quite the student at Oxford,” she said.
“My father doesn't care for it,” he admitted. “He would prefer I join the Army like him or take a note from your uncle and make a fortune trading in spices and silks.”
“Surely one of these inventions could make you a fortune. Besides, there's only so much you can do to please your family,” she said. “I'm supposed to marry well, but who would marry a penniless, nameless girl such as me.” Anne stopped talking, feeling like she said too much. There was a weighty silence when she looked fixedly at the hem of her dress, this one also frayed.
When she glanced up, she was surprised to see that Nathaniel had come closer. He took her hand and gently kissed it. “It has been a pleasure, Miss Sowen.” Anne could see that he was telling the truth, and for the first time she felt like she had had a noticeable effect on a man.
“It has,” she agreed. The light flickered a bit. The sun was gone, but they lingered a few moments longer in silence before finally returning to the house hand in hand.
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