Sophronia made her way to the parlor and was delighted to find Mrs. Barnaclegoose alone, sipping tea and watching the arrivals and departures out the front window. She looked up as Sophronia entered.
“Miss Sophronia? What has happened to you? You are covered in cheese and onions. Have you learned nothing at finishing school?”
“I have learned a great deal, as a matter of course.”
“And some of it was about you.”
“Pardon me, young lady!”
“We don’t have time for avoidance with niceties, Mrs. Barnaclegoose. Although I do remember the lesson. Any moment now Monique will have noticed I’m gone. Or the Pickleman. Or the man from Westminster. We must keep your disguise intact.”
She sidled up to the portly woman. This evening Mrs. Barnaclegoose wore a tambour net gown of midnight black embroidered with pink roses along the various ruffles of the skirt and a quantity of pink fringe about the neck and sleeves. It was the kind of gown to be favored by a young and not very pious widow half Mrs. Barnaclegoose’s age. She disguises herself with the ridiculous, realized Sophronia. Nice tactic.
Mrs. Barnaclegoose looked at Sophronia as though she were wearing Scottish tartan while dancing an Irish jig.
Sophronia handed her the Bumbersnoot reticule. “Take this mechanimal, please. I have just fed him the you-know-what that everyone wants. He should, um, emit it shortly. It would behoove you to be well away from these premises when that happens. Then you must give it to either Lady Linette or the necessary authorities. I trust your discretion. Be careful; simply gobs of flywaymen, a Pickleman, and possibly the government or the vampires are all after it.”
Mrs. Barnaclegoose’s eyes narrowed. “I have no idea, young miss, what you are on about.”
“No, I suppose you might not. Nevertheless, this is a matter of finishing in the other way.”
“Ah.” Mrs. Barnaclegoose gave Sophronia a once-over. “I take it the cheese is the result of your procurement of this object?”
“So you are learning something.” The woman was beginning to look less affronted and more pleased with herself.
“Oh, Mrs. Barnaclegoose, I am learning many things. Thank you for recommending me to the academy.”
“Ah, good, well. I thought you would be an admirable fit.” Mrs. Barnaclegoose looked like she might actually be blushing with pleasure.
“You are very wise, Mrs. Barnaclegoose.” How have I never noticed she only required praise to find me acceptable? wondered Sophronia, not quite realizing that this, too, was a mark of her new education. Many was the lady whose belief in another’s sound judgment was based solely upon that other judging her favorably.
The older woman actually smiled at her.
Sophronia smiled the smile Lady Linette called “winning” and nodded to the reticule, which Mrs. Barnaclegoose had now taken and tucked under the edge of her copious skirts.
“My dear girl, I have it all entirely under control.”
Mrs. Barnaclegoose approved the maneuver. “Such an excellent education.”
Sophronia curtsied again and then hurriedly made her way from the room, dashing upstairs to change her dress. It was as good an excuse as any to be absent from the ball for a short length of time.
She confiscated another one of her sister’s dresses, figuring Petunia’s evening was ruined regardless, and did it up as best as she was able without a maid, finally throwing on a shawl to cover the missed buttons at the back. It was a sage-green confection with fuchsia trim, most ill-suited to her complexion, but it would have to do.
The remainder of the evening was rather anticlimactic. Neither Pickleman, government dandy, nor Pistons returned. Sophronia hoped she had set things up so that the two men would chase after the Pistons, and the Pistons, being wild young men out for a night of tomfoolery, would lead them on a merry chase. Mrs. Barnaclegoose made her excuses at a respectably early hour for a respectable lady, and no one—not even Dimity, who was looking—noticed that she had a mechanical sausage dog for a handbag. Petunia danced the last of the ball away with a succession of appropriate young men. Pillover danced with Sophronia and Dimity with gravitas, if not skill, although he was a head shorter at the very least. The lemonade was pronounced superior to the punch, and the cheese pie was not at all missed.
Monique de Pelouse spent the rest of the event in the best guest bedroom and insisted on a carriage being called for her in the wee hours of the morning. In the interest of his business concerns, a very worried Mr. Temminnick lent her his personal conveyance to catch the morning express train to London.
Upon discovering the burned-down gazebo and crushed lilac bushes, Mrs. Temminnick declared categorically that her youngest daughter must be responsible and thus still needed the benefits of finishing school and was not at all ready to return home. She noticed that Sophronia had emerged a politer, more mannered, and stylish young lady, but she had also emerged covered in cheese pie. Clearly Mademoiselle Geraldine’s still had work to do, and as they were willing to keep Sophronia on, she was most certainly willing to be parted from her youngest daughter.
Sophronia pretended to be most upset at the idea of continued exile, although she was secretly delighted. She packed with far greater care this time around, including her riding crop, three steel lug bolts, and a small dissection knife among the hand-me-down dresses her mother insisted on including and Dimity insisted they could easily “make over.” Sophronia considered the airdinghy; there was no way to keep it at school, although she supposed the sooties might find one. Instead, she and Dimity deflated the balloons, lowered the sail, and convinced the builders to incorporate the remaining gondola and mast as a decorative element on the roof of the new gazebo. It disappeared seamlessly there, hidden in plain sight.
Dimity and Pillover stayed the length of the winter holidays. There were so many Temminnick children that Sophronia privately suspected her mother of not noticing the extras. Mrs. Temminnick was occupied with preparing Petunia for a London Season, her little country ball having garnered enough attention to warrant a mention in the Morning Post. It came as a relief to pack her youngest daughter and associated compatriots back to what she could only surmise was a respectable finishing school that would hopefully rid Sophronia of her many manifest flaws.
Little did she know.
Sophronia returned to Mademoiselle Geraldine’s to find the prototype safely ensconced at Bunson’s and already under reproduction, a commendation in her school record for unwarranted but well-executed fancy-dress operation maneuvers, and Bumbersnoot waiting quietly in the sitting room with a note pinned to his buttocks.
“Next time,” read the note, “please use a more genteel method of object transfer. There is ash all down my evening dress. Yours, etc. Mrs. B.”
Sophronia patted her mechanimal on his head. “Nicely done, Bumbersnoot.”
Bumbersnoot belched a puff of steam in satisfaction and wagged his mechanical tail—tick-tock, tick-tock.