Authors: Melissa Macgregor
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have control over and does not have any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
THE CURIOUS STEAMBOX AFFAIR
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
InterMix eBook edition / November 2012
Copyright Â© 2012 by Melissa MacGregor.
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And in memory of Eddie
September 27, 2005 â August 11, 2007
This waltz is for you.
September 2, 1827
Mitchell Boarding House
Dear Miss Campbell,
I hope that this letter finds you and your esteemed father well. You must forgive me for my tardiness in writing, but I am sure you are aware of the intricacies involved in accepting a new post. My journey here was fraught with great anxiety, and I hesitate to trouble you with the details, all of which have thankfully been sorted now. I will start by saying, however, that it is with great pleasure that I sit to write you. Your acquiescence in receiving my letters has been assuredly the high point of this stressful venture and I hope that my delay in writing has not succeeded in changing your mind. If so, then please accept my sincerest apologies, and let me start again.
I am of two minds of how to begin this. I know that there is much you do not know of me, and even though I spent several months working alongside your father, I am very much aware that our instances of meeting were few and far between. A few dinners. One walk. A luncheon. Pleasant times, all, but not constant enough, I am afraid, for you to know much about me.
There is much I do not know of you, and certainly the traits and quirks described by your father were interesting and intriguing. (I hope you can forgive my natural curiosity. I mean no disrespect.) A father's perception of a daughter, even at its most pleasant, which I assure you was the case here, is still not a complete description of character and personality. I wish to know about you. From you.
I can assume that what you have heard of me has been filtered through the opinion of a man speaking of his assistant. I hope what your father has said is good, but at best, it can be no more descriptive than “Mr. Purefoy is a good, steady worker. He is punctual.”
Hardly the stuff for conversation, especially with a lady. So, I thought I might begin by explaining a little about myself. I have hopes that you shall feel comfortable enough with these letters to tell me more about you. Your thoughts. Your interests. Episodes from your daily life. I shall endeavor to do the same, if you are agreeable.
I also thought that perhaps I should begin by describing my current surroundings and daily life. Your father mentioned to me that you had never been to Edinburgh, so you might wish for a travel description. I am more than happy to describe it, should you desire to know it at all. You might want to know about the men with whom I work. Your father spoke of your shared interest in science and medicine, of your very noble interests in literature. I could speak of these things as well.
I have always possessed a deep and abiding love of all things scientific, and to discover a lady who shares such passions is a wonderful thought. Do your passions center upon the incredible discoveries that science can provide, or are you more interested in perfecting and mastering what has already been achieved? Is it a blending of the two studies? That is what I claim, a deep love and excitement for what could be created, while also maintaining an awareness of what has been proven possible. But will I offend you by assuming that your specific interests are the same?
And so, you can see my dilemma. My puzzle. I am already tardy in my promised letter, and am at a complete loss as to which conversational path you might prefer. I hesitate to select either the more personal or the more descriptive, fearing that I have already irritated you enough by my tardiness. Sending you a letter now, full of offensive description or offensive chatter, hardly helps me achieve your high esteem. Until I hear from you, and I truly hope I do shortly, then I cannot know if my conversational course is acceptable.
And so, I have selected to do a blending of the two. Personal and descriptive of my surroundings.
My name is Alistair Charles Purefoy, and as you know, I serve as assistant to physicians. I am five and twenty. My interests are in the field of science, in discovering medicinal cures and advances. I am the youngest son of a butcher, whose shop is based in London. My two brothers have gone into the family business, as I was expected to. My passions lie elsewhere, however, and I was allowed by an indulgent father to pursue my interests in science and medicine.
You must forgive me for speaking crassly when I tell you that the butchery is an extremely profitable and successful business. Should I return to London, my share in it is considerable, which seemed to please your father greatly. I hope that it pleases you as well, to know that I do have prospects. My interest in science will hopefully become successful work, but you must know that I am not a man without means.
My father and brothers used their connections to secure my passage across the demilitarized zone that separates the boundary between Scotland and England. “Why Scotland?” you might ask. I can fill pages with reasons why I would risk my life at such a dangerous crossing. Certainly, there are valuable men of science to be apprenticed to within London proper, or even beyond the city confines. At first, I did consider these as options, as certainly did my father.
I shall not bore you with the long-winded explanations of why I chose such a dangerous passage. I knew full well that should I be discovered in the Crossing, I would be shot as a traitor. Mostly, I found it an exciting concept. The lure of danger. The promise of practicing science in a land without the choking constrictions imposed by the English king. I wanted to learn science, and the more daring and therefore more interesting men to learn from are in the North.
As I have said, my interests lie in the fantastic. I am unafraid of the difficult work necessary for any innovation, and I certainly enjoy learning every nuance of discoveries already made. Of the two thoughts, I am a very definite blend. Hard work and past success are necessary to achieve great advances, and I am certainly committed to much toil and strain. The results of such labor tend, at least for me, to border on the fantastic. My mind is often filled with such things, such incredible conceptsÂ .Â .Â . a machine of perpetual motion, a device that could, at least in theory, capture and power itself, endless rotation after rotation. The possibilities of creating such a thing could change the very fabric of life as we know it. Or consider a Steambox, even more mysterious. Who knows what advances could be made should such alleged power be harnessed? How I love to contemplate the thrill of the learned men of our past when they made their momentous discoveries. Archimedes with his illustrious screw or Leonardo in his infinite greatness!
If these things are to be done, if they are possible in our time, then one must go North to take part!
My posting alongside your father was my third posting in such an assisting capacity. All of my assignments received favorable reviews. I have impeccable references, for which your father can vouch. At each posting, I was requested to stay on for the next assignment, but I have always considered myself to have “gypsy feet.” I like the newness of a place. I like the adventure of learning a new city or town. I like making new acquaintances, and learning what advances these great men of science and medicine are making.
The only posting that I have wished to stay on longer was with your father, but since he was retiring from the medical profession, then staying was not an option. Leaving Inverness was the first time my “gypsy feet” have been loathe to move. I have come to enjoy the solitude of the Highlands. I like the rugged beauty. The warm hospitality. I even do not mind the cold, blistering though it has been. Cold air sharpens wits, and braces the humors. All good things, in my consideration.
I held out hope that perhaps your father would decide otherwise, would not retire, and would accept a new assignment. When he did not, my hopes were dashed.
I had hoped to see you one more time before I left, and was disappointed that I did not. I was, however, heartened by the packed luncheon, and you must forgive me for imagining that it was you that oversaw its preparation. Foolish imaginings, possibly, but they kept me occupied during the short coach trip to the Inverness Air Station.
And so I began my journey to my new posting. I am to serve as physician's assistant to one Dr. Ian Hyde at the Edinburgh Operating Theatre and in his private practice as well.
I suppose I do have to include some of the travel details, stressful as they are, if this is to be a true accounting of my daily life. I will endeavor to be brief. The coach journey, taking me from you, was dismally over-packed. It was with intense relief that I was deposited at the Air Station, although you must know that I was already suffering from an intense bout of foreboding.
I have never had much luck while flying. Heights have never been a pleasure, but the arrangements had been made for me. Not by me. Rationally, I was aware that travel South was best conducted via air. It is quicker and less dangerous, avoiding the usual threat of highwaymen and such. Edinburgh required me to report to my duties swiftly, and the airship was necessary.
I knew this, and yet it did little to cheer me. There was also an unfortunate confusion with regard to my trunks, which required an angry argument with a fellow passenger, who mistakenly believed my belongings were his own. It was not until I opened the trunk, displaying my surgical knives and sundries, that he was satisfied that I was not, in fact, absconding with his things.
Hardly a good beginning. I only wish the rest of the tale brightened.
I found myself, dusty and already exhausted by cramped travel, standing on the platform at the Inverness Air Station. I took your father's advice and personally watched as my two trunks were loaded into the cargo bay. After the troubles I had already encountered, I was not willing for one of the roughened dockhands to negligently forget my luggage, as your father warned they are wont to do.
Once that was settled, I boarded. The Edinburgh Doctoral Council was kind enough to reserve me a seat, which would make the travel far more comfortable than I originally anticipated. I had feared that they would not do so, that my ticket would be Standing Room, which meant that at best, I might be able to procure a bit of space for myself on deck.
As it was, I found myself ushered to a small, narrow wooden seat with a bit of room for my carpetbag to be stowed at my feet. A wonderful and much appreciated surprise. I possessed a Middle Grade ticket, which provided the seat and the option to purchase drink and food from a passing cart. The Lower ticket allowed passage, but without a seat and without dining options. The Upper ticket, the luxurious one, gave access to a private dining room with settees and comfortable, padded chairs, all arranged in front of the picture windows.
I am to assume that you are unfamiliar with the confines and construction of airships. Forgive me for being editorial in my descriptions. It is impossible for me to describe it properly, I fear, since mine own opinions on such modes of travel are inexplicably entwined with any descriptions. I realize that most people prefer the luxury and convenience of such travel, but I am of the firmest opinion that the true pleasures of traveling involve the journey itself. And for me, journey by air will never be as great as the necessary time saved.
But, for your edification, I will briefly describe the airship. Two teak decks, an upper and lower, joined by a cascading staircase. These are usually crowded with the Lower traveling tickets, the Standing Room, except for the sections that are cordoned off by the Air Crew, for necessary walkways and such. There is a central cabin, large and cavernous, which is ensconced beneath the overhead zeppelin balloon. This is divided into the Middle Class seats, with a large part designated as the separate Upper Class dining and seating area. There is a bridge and crew space. And of course, cargo for all the luggage.
The seats around me were crowded, but with a nice enough cluster of travelers. The conversation was a low murmur, and very few were interested in the business of others. Unhappily, my seat was next to a small porthole window, which was likely a luxury selected by the Council. But for me, any glimpse of the land and sky outside was going to prove miserable.
I contented myself with thoughts, as I have said before, that the exquisitely packed luncheon was your arrangement. The marmalade was especially appreciated, and made me remember how good it always was at your father's table.
The steam whistle announced our departure. I could hear the hiss and sizzle of gas as it was released into the zeppelin. Liftoff was as horrible as I had expected, and I felt a keen sense of sadness and regret to be leaving the Highlands. My foolish desire to attempt to view your cottage, too far in the distance to be possible, resulted in severe dizziness and quite an awful headache. The bottle of barley water, thoughtfully sent, was much appreciated and helpful.
Once I was able, I busied myself in acquainting myself with the information regarding my new posting. That information was scarce, which ignited my curiosity regarding the mysterious Dr. Hyde. Normally, when assigned, I am provided an extensive dossier as to whom I shall be working alongside. Not so this time, although I did not find it too surprising, considering that this assignment has been strange from the moment I decided upon it.
The original bulletin announcing the posting was odd enough. In my previous assignments, the details and expectations of the assistant were outlined in the original hiring query, as well as a complete description of the presiding physician. This was different, and part of what drew my attention to it in the first place was the shocking lack of information presented.
The bulletin simply read that the Edinburgh Doctoral Council requested a physician's assistant who was “a man with strong constitution who is willing to involve himself in the pursuit of science in its most basic form.”
I found it intriguing, this concept of basic form. What was intended? Implied? Still, it was with a lackluster enthusiasm that I sent off my application. Edinburgh is a lifetime away from the Highlands, and I was still under the false hope that your father might reconsider his retirement.
You can imagine my shock to find myself hired. A representative from the Council visited Inverness and we spoke briefly. All the arrangements were made. Salary set, and if I might be crass once again, let me assure you that this salary is one that you and your father would find extremely pleasing, should my financial situation be of any interest to you. They secured me a room in a boarding house, so that I would not have to trouble myself with such detail upon arriving. I was to be working alongside Mr. Ian Hyde, although they refused to answer even my most basic questions about the doctor.