Authors: Sally Orr
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
Her heart lightened with the thought of bestowing a large donation for the governesses. “Please do not mention my fortune to anyone. I prefer privacy in the matter.”
Meta rarely considered her fortune. She knew it was enough to keep her in comfort for her lifetime. Then when she had decided to move back into her family home after her husband’s death, Mr. Cole assured her that she had enough funds to benefit every member of her family. She could purchase military commissions for the boys, if they so wished it, and complement her sisters’ dowries, so they would be able to marry solely for love. But she never dreamed she would have enough so that five thousand pounds could be considered expendable.
Mr. Cole smiled and removed his spectacles. “I, of course, do not think that any person, regardless of their wealth, should waste five thousand pounds. But if I were you, I would initially invest two thousand pounds. That amount should go a long way to back the project.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cole. I will take your advice.” She rose and made her farewells.
Before she left the room, Mr. Cole said, “Frankly, with your excellent luck in investments, I would not be surprised if this tunnel paid off handsomely and made you even wealthier.”
She turned and smiled at him. “Thank you again. Good day, sir.” Standing just outside the closed door, she decided to visit the tunnel next. She could observe Fitzy’s situation and see the tunnel for herself. Hopefully, she could keep her planned contribution a secret while she told Mr. Drexel the exciting news of a new contributor. The day was a cold one, but this thought warmed her all the way over the river to the tunnel.
Two hours later, she found herself standing at the tunnel site, overlooking the round pit at least three stories deep. Except this time, at least twice the number of men toiled down on the riverside of the pit. Meta recalled that today was the day the giant shield would start digging its lateral journey of over thirteen hundred feet under the Thames. Of course, the ladderlike structure would probably only move forward several inches by nightfall, but that did not diminish the excitement emanating from the men scurrying around the bottom of the pit.
She became excited too, gifted with a chance to witness London’s future—the possibility of roads under the Thames. Then she regained her senses. The tunneling had only started. So whether it would be London’s future or a future disaster, nobody knew. Her investment she considered expendable—she could lose it without any deleterious consequences. But Fitzy toiled down in the site too. Her excitement faded, and she resolved to ask Mr. Drexel whether or not he could guarantee her brother’s safety.
Despite the day’s chilly air and stiff breeze, many of London’s citizens lined the bank to witness the progress. Some of the older men mocked each move of the workers in the pit. Someone in the crowd shouted, “Tunneling in the wrong direction, gov? The Thames is over there.” The fellow pointed south, in the opposite direction of the river.
By now Meta had recognized Mr. Drexel standing apart from the workers amongst a group of gentlemen. All of the men were dressed in black, so she assumed it would be difficult to pick him out from the crowd, but that was not the case. First, he was taller than most and possessed a significant build. Moreover, he was easily identified because his hands always seemed to move, gesturing as he spoke or drumming his fingers on a nearby object. Her heartbeat escalated, a most disconcerting event.
From engravings in the newspapers, she recognized the older gentleman next to him as Mr. Marc Brunel, the tunnel’s brilliant architect. Several other men gathered around a makeshift table, consulting numerous drawings. Meta concluded these must be the tunnel’s engineers. Mr. Drexel appeared to be in a heated argument with a short man puffing on a pipe. The two of them broke away from the group to climb down and examine the front side of the great shield.
The man with the pipe held up a wooden measuring stick and engaged Mr. Drexel in animated conversation.
The boisterous crowd repeated another quip. “Got water on the brain, sirs?”
The laughter and hubbub on the rim of the pit caused Mr. Drexel to glance up. Within seconds, he recognized her amongst the crowd and acknowledged her presence by a slight nod.
That is, he might have acknowledged her. Standing to her left, however, were several beautiful ladies. Perhaps his nod acknowledged one of the lovely brunettes or the short blonde lady instead of her. Since their acquaintance had been short, these ladies were a better choice for the object of his gallantries. Common sense dictated that a gentleman with enough expertise to pen the field guide must be acquainted with a large number of females. Unfortunately, this thought failed to calm her heartbeat.
Glancing at the giant shield again, she saw Fitzy sitting near the miners. He held a large sketchbook and seemed to busy himself drawing the shield in action. She called out and waved. “Fitzy, over here.”
Her brother waved, closed his sketchbook, and scampered up the staircase. Within a minute, he stood next to her, his cheeks a full pink, his light brown hair windblown, wearing the happiest expression she had ever seen. “I say, Meta, isn’t this the most amazing sight of all time?”
She didn’t want to dash his hopes by discussing the risks. “Yes.” She discreetly returned her focus on Mr. Drexel toiling below.
Her lack of an enthusiastic reply did not slow Fitzy’s eagerness. “I spent the last two hours drawing the action taking place around the shield. I do believe this tunnel will be one of the most important accomplishments made by man. Important enough to become a wonder of the world and remain significant for years and years. And, Meta, I am the artist lucky enough to capture it.” He tucked his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets. “Quite a few other fellows are drawing from the top looking down, but I am the only one given access near the great shield. My drawings might become the official record of this outstanding achievement. Think of it, my acceptance into the Royal Academy must be ensured now.”
Meta threw her arms around his bony frame and hugged him. She truly hoped it would be an achievement, but if the previous attempt flooded, why wouldn’t this one too? She did not know the details of the new scheme in relation to the old failed one, but sometimes she lacked faith that man could actually build a tunnel under deep water. The premise seemed too ambitious for mere mortals.
Fitzy chatted on about the day’s activities, pride animating the tone of his voice.
Ten minutes later, Mr. Drexel started to climb the stairs, two at a time, heading in their direction.
She gulped, straightened her bonnet, and checked that the ribbons had not become tangled from the strong breeze.
He wore an expression identical to Fitzy’s, bright-eyed excitement beaming from his tanned face. He held his hands in front of himself, rubbing his palms together. “Delighted to see you again, madam,” he said with a slight bow. “Can you believe the public attendance we have here today? I must admit I’m surprised.”
“Decidedly—that is, if our efforts go well.” He surveyed the crowd. “Spectators can either be a benefit or a curse. A benefit if they become excited enough to contribute.” He inhaled. “Or a curse if we experience some dramatic catastrophe like a water intrusion.”
“You mean a leak?”
“Yes, if we experience a significant leak, more than a few silk shoes will suffer and investors may decide the project is too risky. And believe me, we need every shilling.”
As he spoke, she surveyed the crowd lining the pit. Even though the day was unseasonably cold, the spectators numbered in the hundreds. Every social class seemed to be represented, from aristocrats to blacksmiths. “Look around you, sir. With the obvious popularity of the tunnel, I suggest you collect a shilling in order to view the site. The additional monies might help the tunnel’s bank account remain flush.”
He turned and focused those unfathomable dark eyes upon her.
She looked away and stammered, “Ah…well…I really cannot promise significant funds from my idea. I don’t know the number of workers, your capital expenditure, the relationship between the funds needed versus total shillings.” She stopped babbling, completely irritated with herself for doing so in his presence. After a long pause to regain her composure, spent adjusting the ribbons on her bonnet, she inhaled sharply and faced him again.
Then the most radiant smile she had ever seen broke across his dark face. “Capital idea, madam. Your suggestion is a good one. I will put the matter before Mr. Brunel tonight.”
His animated features made him more appealing than she thought possible for a gentleman. Her desire quickly became a raging fire, impossible to extinguish, with its subject fully aware of her condition.
Oh, the mortification
She turned to face Fitzy.
Her brother repeatedly stepped in place. “The two of you must excuse me. I have to return to my drawings. Meta, I can talk to you at home.” Without another word, he ran back to the pit and soon disappeared into the crowd at the bottom.
Mr. Drexel’s gaze followed Fitzy’s progress. “Tunnel or sister? Smart lad.”
“Sir,” Meta said, “I do not wish to delay you any more than necessary. I have come today to inform you that I’ve held up my end of the bargain and obtained—”
“Drexel,” shouted the fetching blonde, approaching in the company of the lovely brunettes. “Well met, sir. What fortunate circumstance. We are dying for you to charm…enlighten us with a description of the workings.”
Meta had taken a couple of steps back, so as not to seek an introduction or intrude upon the conversation. This movement also gave her time to regain her composure.
The three ladies giggled. The two brunette ladies moved up next to Mr. Drexel and, without hesitation, slipped their arms under his.
The expression on his face resembled a dark cloud rolling in front of the sun. The beaming enthusiasm fled. In its place sat a feigned, well-practiced smile, lifting only one corner of his mouth. He turned to catch her gaze and shook his head.
“After all,” one lovely brunette said, “my husband is in the country for two fortnights.” She paused. “Did you hear me? Two fortnights. So I have no gentleman to explain the tunnel to me.” She flipped a curl over her shoulder.
The blonde lady spoke next. “And my husband is…is…missing.”
“Spain,” her friend added at the same moment. “Don’t you remember, dear? He’s in Spain.” She turned to Mr. Drexel. “Yes, that’s it. Her husband is missing in Spain.”
“Ah, yes, silly me.” The blonde nodded her head in an exaggerated up and down. “Spain it is.”
Now sporting his wicked smile, Mr. Drexel turned to the third lady. “Let me guess. Your husband has been…transported?”
The lady stared at him for a second, then nodded too. “Transported to Spain. Yes, well, not Spain, but transported, gone, fled. Well, not fled exactly, but gone, missing too.”
The blonde wiggled her way to face him directly. “It appears all of our husbands are missing. So we have no gentleman to…show us the tunnel.”
The other two ladies nodded vigorously. “Yes, show us.”
“Please show us.”
“Nothing would please me more than helping to enlighten you ladies.” He shook his head and lifted a corner of his mouth. “But perhaps some other day.” He stepped aside and held out his hand in Meta’s direction.
Meta stepped forward.
“Ladies, allow me to introduce Mrs. Russell.”
The ladies exchanged curtsies.
“Mrs. Russell and I have private business to discuss regarding potential investors for the tunnel. So unless you too have acquaintances or missing husbands willing to invest…”
The three ladies glanced at each other and shook their heads.
“If not, I must beg your pardon today. Perhaps we may meet again at the Cornish’s ball in three weeks.” After a bow and a feigned smile, he held his arm out for Meta. “Madam.”
All three ladies appeared crestfallen, their gazes downcast.
One audibly sighed. “Farewell.”
“Yes, farewell then.”
“We must meet again soon.”
“Before our husbands are found.”
All three ladies tittered, while two hid their grins with their fans.
Meta placed her arm on his and felt the hard muscle lying just below the serviceable wool sleeve. Together they strolled down the block looking for a suitable place for a private conversation. They turned the corner and stood in front of piles of white tiles used to line the tunnel’s walls.
Mr. Drexel carefully pulled several tiles free from under the others, brushed off any dirt on the edges, and assembled a small, stable place for them to sit. He held out his hand. “Madam, please take a seat.” He glanced around. “Yes, this will do, very private. Now I can at least hear you without that clamoring noise.”
She grinned. “I disagree; all three ladies had very sweet voices.”
“I meant…” The smile that gradually crept across his face marked his realization of her jest.
She laughed. “As I was saying, I do not wish to delay you on this important day. I have held up my end of the bargain and have obtained an investor. At the present time, the person wishes to invest capital in the amount of two thousand pounds.”
He raised his brows. “Capital.” He grinned.
She stifled a small chuckle. “Yes, capital.”
He glanced upward and laughed.
“So now you must hold up your end of the bargain and speak—in person—to James Codlington. The young gentleman who called off his engagement with my sister because he mistakenly believed her initials appeared in your field guide.”
He frowned and tapped his fingers on his knee.
“Remember, you have another good reason to pay a call on James,” she said. “Once this muddle is resolved, a possible threat to your reputation will end too.”
“Right, tell me, exactly which category did your sister appear under? It must have been a notorious one to cause this young man to call off. Did this James believe your sister was under Widow Makers Tied Up?”
She blinked several times. “No, no, he believed her initials were under Happy Goer, and that is bad enough. Frankly, I am not sure I don’t blame him. I’m sure this book of yours has caused plenty of turmoil, and perhaps many ladies feel misused.”