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THE START OF BEING FINISHED
Sophronia intended to pull the dumbwaiter up from the kitchen to outside the front parlor on the ground floor, where Mrs. Barnaclegoose was taking tea. Mrs. Barnaclegoose had arrived with a stranger in tow. Meddling old battle-ax. With the hallways patrolled by siblings and household mechanicals, eavesdropping was out of the question. The only way of overhearing her mother, Mrs. Barnaclegoose, and the stranger was from inside the dumbwaiter. Mrs. Barnaclegoose had decided opinions on reforming other women’s daughters. Sophronia did not want to be reformed. So she had pressed the dumbwaiter into the service of espionage.
The dumbwaiter disagreed with the whole idea of stopping at the ground floor, and instead kept on going—up all four stories. Sophronia examined the windlass machine at the top. Several lengths of india-rubber strapping made up part of the drive mechanism. Perhaps, once the strapping was removed, the dumbwaiter might shake loose?
The dumbwaiter had no ceiling; it was simply a bit of platform with a support cable on the inside and a pulling cable on the outside. Sophronia reached up and liberated the strapping. Nothing happened, so she took more.
It was while she wrapped the india rubber protectively around her boots—her mother had been complaining about the state of Sophronia’s shoes of late—that the dumbwaiter started shaking.
Sophronia squirmed over to the pulling cable, but before she had a chance to grab it, the dumbwaiter began to descend—fast. Very fast. Too fast. The loading door on the third floor sped past, and then the one on the second. Perhaps removing the rubber was not such a brilliant plan.
As the top of the next loading door appeared, Sophronia dove forward, tumbling through it and into the family’s front parlor. The top skirt of her dress caught on the lip of the door and made an ominous ripping sound.
Unfortunately, Sophronia’s grand escape coincided with one of the maids loading a half-eaten trifle into the dumbwaiter.
Sophronia hit the pudding on her dismount. The maid screamed. The trifle arched up into the air, scattering custard, cake, and strawberries all over the blue brocade and cream furnishings of the well-appointed parlor.
The bowl landed, in glorious perfection, atop the head of Mrs. Barnaclegoose, who was not the kind of woman to appreciate the finer points of being crowned by trifle. Nevertheless, it made for quite the spectacle as the bowl upended the last of its contents over that good lady’s bonnet. Until that moment, the bonnet had been rather smart—red with black velvet ribbons and crimson ostrich feathers. The addition of a trifle, it must be admitted, made it less smart. Sophronia, with great restraint, held back a triumphant giggle. That’ll teach her to meddle.
Mrs. Barnaclegoose was a large woman of progressive inclinations—which is to say she supported vampire and werewolf social reform, played a good deal of whist, kept a ghost in her country cottage, and even wore the occasional French gown. She accepted that dirigibles would be the next great means of transportation and that soon people might fly through the aether. She was not, however, so progressive as to accept flying food. She squealed in horror.
One of Sophronia’s older sisters, Petunia, was playing at hostess. White with mortification, Petunia rushed to the aid of the older woman, assisting her in the removal of the trifle bowl. Mother was nowhere to be seen. This made Sophronia more nervous than the fact that she had just assaulted an aristocrat with a trifle.
Mrs. Barnaclegoose stood, with as much dignity as possible under the circumstances, and looked down at Sophronia, sprawled on the plush rug. Most of Sophronia’s top skirt had ripped off. Sophronia was mortified to realize she was in public with her underskirt on display!
“Your mother is occupied in an important private audience. I was going to await her leisure. But for this, I shall disturb her. It is 1851, and I believed we lived in a civilized world! Yet you are as bad as a rampaging werewolf, young miss, and someone must take action.” Mrs. Barnaclegoose made it sound as though Sophronia alone were responsible for the disreputable state of the entire British Empire. Without allowing Sophronia a rebuttal, the lady waddled from the room, a plop of custard trailing down her fluffy skirts.
Sophronia flopped over onto her back with a sigh. She should check herself for injuries, or see to finding the rest of her dress, but flopping was more dramatic. She closed her eyes and contemplated the possible recriminations soon to emanate from her upset mother.
Her musings were interrupted. “Sophronia Angelina Temminnick!”
Uh-oh. She cracked a cautious eyelid. “Yes, Petunia?”
“How could you? Poor Mrs. Barnaclegoose!” Stepping in as understudy mother today, we have elder sister. Fantastic.
“As if I could plan such a thing.” Sophronia was annoyed by the childish petulance in her own voice. She was unable to control it when around her sisters.
“I daresay you would if you could. What were you doing inside the dumbwaiter? And why are you lying there in your petticoats with india rubber wrapped around your feet?”
Sophronia hedged. “Uh, um, well, you see…”
Petunia looked inside the open cavity of the dumbwaiter, where the remains of Sophronia’s skirt dangled merrily. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, Sophronia. You’ve been climbing again! What are you, a ten-year-old apple boy?”
“Actually, I’m right in the middle of a recovery period. So if you wouldn’t mind shoving off until I’m finished, I’d appreciate it.”
Petunia, who, at sixteen, considered herself all grown up, was having none of it. “Look at this mess you’ve created. Poor Eliza.”