Charm and Consequences
Hermione's knock was delicate, fluttering. Her smile, as she peeked around the heavy door, was tremulous and sweet. Her lashes fluttered as she bowed her golden head, framed most becomingly in a hood of blue wool trimmed with white fur. The pardon she begged of him—for surely she was disturbing him in the midst of something vitally important to the progress of science itself—was eloquent, reminding the man of morning rooms and afternoon cotillions he had not attended in years untold.
Against a Hermione Bascombe in full possession of her talents and charm, a mere Professor Elgin did not stand a chance.
"Come in, my dear," he heaved his body out of his own chair to pull hers away from his desk. "Be seated. May I offer you some tea? It is swill, of course, but you must be thirsty after the climb it takes to reach me. Curse this place for putting us all in the garret, but we men do not reckon for our own convenience. It is only when such ladies as yourself come among us that we feel all we lack in creature comforts."
She thanked him gratefully, setting down the basket she bore on his desk with a sigh. But she would not trouble him for tea, not when she had brought him some, of a peach blend which had travelled all the way from the orchards of Veruca Bay, particularly favored by her family. The Professor did know her family? The Bascombes were such devotees, such patrons of the sciences, and her tutor had so often praised Professor Elgin's works as the definitive texts on gravitational interactions between celestial bodies.
The Professor's crimson cheeks brightened still further at this praise. "Well," he puffed his chest, "I do not know that 'definitive' is the word, but I have always strived that my work should take full advantage of other research to come before. I certainly value the discoveries that countless other researchers have made, and do not consider my paltry contributions to the field as the only ones that matter. Though my humility will never permit me to rise to the Orestrian Scholarum, nonetheless I think it is the right way to behave."
Such an attitude was so rare among scientists. It was a true pity that so few had the Professor's humility. Hermione poured his tea, heated only minutes before in the refectory, and offered him a scone to match.
"Oh goodness," he chortled, "I try not to indulge between meals, but lunch today was practically inedible. I declare I will have one. Where in all Anchor's End did you find a bakery capable of making such a treat?"
It was difficult to find a bakery in Anchor's End, was it not? So many of the local baked goods were so heavy, or fried, or made with flour clearly soured from its long boat or train journey to reach the town. It had taken her several tries to reproduce the scones her father always begged her to bake for him, and she was not certain at all that she had managed to reproduce their flavor, but she hoped he would forgive him if they were only barely tolerable.
The Professor put down the scone, shocked. "But, my dear Miss Bascombe, you do not mean that you made these?"
Well, since her professors were so kind in spending hours of their time and so much effort educating her—them all, really—a morning spend slaving among the roaring ovens at the Capstan was the least she could offer in return. Please, would the Professor not take another? She had made plenty for all, and could always make more.
"I should not. My sister tells me my waistcoats will hardly stand the strain they are currently under!" he laughed, but his eyes cut again and again to the basket, where the sugar-glazed scones glittered like jewels, nestled in a cheerful yellow cloth. "Perhaps she would not mind so much if I took one for her as well. We are from Alastra Cove, near the Bay, so she misses good cooking as much as I do."
Oh, then he must take at least two; one for his sister and one for himself! But really, the Professor was welcome to the whole basket, if he wished. Hermione knew well the delicious food in the Cove. Her family had often stopped there during boating parties; what a charming little town! Did the Professor miss it? Or was the compensation he received in research in Anchor's End enough?
Professor Elgin folded four scones into his handkerchief at her insistence. "You are very kind. As far as compensation goes…well, there is a reason my research in gravitational physics is, as you kindly remarked, so definitive. The clarity of air in Anchor's End, combined with the 'scope's unparalleled range, allows me to make observations on planetary motion to a degree of accuracy no other university can touch. I include the Scholarum in that estimation, no matter what they might say. Equatorial air is far thicker than arctic air, and there is no other argument to be made. All this is at least minor compensation for," he gave a theatrical shiver, taking another scone from the basket and splitting it in his restless hands, "the appalling weather and terrible food. Oh, my dear," he looked down at his fingers, covered in crumbs, "I have already taken so many! Let me replace—"
By no means, he mustn't! She would leave him the whole basket and bake more for the other professors later. She was flattered he liked them so well, when her talents at baking were poor at best.
"Poor? By no means!" crumbs fell into his beard as he bit into the scone he held. "I have marked your work for the past two weeks, Miss Bascombe. I suspect nothing you do is done poorly."
The Professor was too kind. He would make her blush, if he went on flattering her so.
"It is no flattery when it is the truth," Professor Elgin continued, finding the rosy flush of her cheek a most becoming compliment to her golden hair and gray eyes. "So many of my students are content with handing in slipshod work or outright copying equations from other students, that it is a treat to compliment a student truly deserving of it. The state of modern academia! You have been here less than a month, yet I consider you to be one of the finest students of this entire grade. My assistants could learn a great deal from you."
Which assistants did the Professor mean? Martin Reed, the classroom docent, seemed like a very conscientious scholar.
"Oh, indeed. My complaints are not for Mr. Reed; he works very hard to free me from the administrative duties that keep me from my research. No, the ones who would benefit most from your example—and Mr. Reed's too, come to think on it—are the boys I am required to rely on to record my observations from the 'scope."
Surely the Professor could choose whomever he wished to assist him in that regard? With such a valuable piece of equipment, ought not the utmost care be taken when selecting the fortunate ones to use it?
"If only things were so simple," he held his cup out for more tea, shaking his head with a rueful smile. "The University is indebted to the parents of its worst students. Pure science has been tainted by money, my dear."
What a sad state of affairs. Yet surely, there was room in the 'scope lab for more than the few students whose parents' donations purchased them access?
"Perhaps," he slurped the tea, a wrinkle troubling the smooth, plump skin of his brow. "Perhaps I should invite Mr. Reed to join me. It would, if nothing else, be a rebuke to the layabouts who expect me to sign off on their substandard work."
She was sure Mr. Reed would appreciate it. It would be the honor of her life, certainly, to be invited to a 'scope session with the Professor. But, of course, having been matriculating at the University for such a short time, she had no hope of it without proving her scientific acumen. Speaking of which…oh, dear! The Professor had been a good deal too charming. She had meant to be in the library this past ten minutes; she had another two pages to add to her report for the Professor's class next week.
After a brief thrust and feint of regrets and apologies, the Professor at last gave way.
"I shall not detain you another moment," Professor Elgin stood and held the back of her chair as she stood. "Though I am sure your report will already be, even in its unfinished state, among the best I read all week. I look forward to reading your conclusions about the anomalies troubling the orbit of Udebaran."
She hoped they would be acceptable. She had scoured the Professor's published works for his most recent 'scope data, in order to glean what insight she could. But if she were to begin discussing her thoughts now, she would likely be late for Professor Kurien's lecture.
As Hermione curtsied backwards towards the door, Professor Elgin held up her half-empty basket. "My dear? Do you not wish to take these to the other professors?"
"You are so considerate," Hermione smiled, drawing her hood close around her still pink-cheeked face. "But please, take them to your sister with my compliments. I am so glad you enjoyed them."
The following morning, Hermione emerged from the Capstan's cavernous, dark kitchen, arms and face chafed red from the heat of the ovens, hair falling from under her kerchief in damp, straggling strands. Two whole batches of scones had found their way into the pigsty's trough behind the boarding house before the cantankerous ovens had finally taken pity on her and baked the third tray into crisp, golden doneness, and Hermione's temper had fried along with her skin.
Nevertheless, she smiled. She had not expected Professor Elgin to take so kindly to her presence or her suggestion, though he was the one whom she had felt most sure of influencing. Her meeting with Professor Kurien today was far less certain, but then, it did not have to be. Kurien was less interested in the 'scope than he was in measuring emanations from the aurora, but, like other professors, he still had five full hours of 'scope time allotted to him in the week. Often these hours were given to other professors, but they did not have to be. Rumor whispered that Kurien had a soft spot for exotic liquors, and a bottle of kespa or ravicki could tip his scales in a students' favor.
Hermione stowed her basket of scones on a shelf beside the fireplace in the dining hall, where other boarders left their edibles which might otherwise freeze in their cold rooms during the day. Before she left them, she sneaked one into the pocket of her flour-crusted apron.
The question of how to get liquor to Kurien was a delicate one. Well-bred girls did not drink above one or two glasses of wine, and that was only permitted at a particularly raucous dinner or ball. They certainly did not carry bottles of the stuff with them. Drunkenness—in society's all-knowing eyes—was almost as cardinal a sin as fornication, and was almost more dangerous than the latter as a crime less easy to conceal. More than one debutante had been banned from good society for indulging at a ball and overturning the flower arrangements when she could no longer walk a straight line.
Of course, well-bred girls were also accomplished liars. Hermione was no exception to this rule. She had brought more than a few bottles of fruit chachak with her—the finest of her family's orchards, and sought-after across the continent—and dosed her final daily cup of tea with a healthy splash of the stuff to help her sleep.
Would offering to dose Kurien's tea in this manner be endearing or off-putting? Would he think her a delightful rogue or a repulsive lush? Drunks were often the worst judges of the same crime in others. Kurien's manner in class, brusque and efficient, gave her few clues into his real character. Still, offering him a tot in his tea was the only plan she could conceive, and she would have to gamble with any potential damage to her reputation.
Yet, perhaps she could—
"You're up early," Ella's voice was thick with sleep. "Didn't your last lecture finish at one this morning?"
"Yes," she said, turning, "but there are some things I had to prepare for today, and I wasn't able to secure any equipment for after-hours observation. You stayed 'till your usual time, I presume?"
"Mmm," Ella shambled towards the fire, eyes wincing in its harsh light. Her dark skin was gray with exhaustion, and her hand shook as she reached out to the eternally-simmering kettle slung over the fireplace to pour a cup of tea. "Always do. Haven't seen you there much this past week, though."
"No. I am a new student, remember, so my name is always last when it comes to allocating minor 'scopes. I have been spending my time in the library. I have been meaning to ask how your hour of 'scope time went? Were you able to confirm your hypotheses about the Betolan Cluster?"
Ella breathed in steam from her teacup, studying her reflection in its dark, clear surface. "No," she answered at last, "I wasn't."
Hermione sighed in sympathy. "An hour is far too short a window—"
"An hour," Ella set down her cup without taking so much as a sip, fists clenching, "is more than enough time. I didn't get the hour. Arbuck whelked on his promise."
After two weeks at the school, Hermione could match the name to the arrogant boy who had promised Ella the 'scope time. Jon Arbuck was one of the University's favorite sons, also part of Professor Elgin's obligatory inner circle. His father, owner of a whaling company that operated out of Anchor's End, was a chief donor to the University. His oldest son was his tribute in kind, his family's hope for societal respectability, though any with even a passing familiarity with Jon Arbuck could tell he would be much less suited to pretending at intellectualism in a classroom than plunging a harpoon into a wailing, defenseless creature.
Just as it seemed he had done to Ella.
"But he made you a promise in front of so many! How could the dean allow him to renege on it?"
"Do you think any of those," she spat a word Hermione didn't recognize, but could guess its meaning well enough, "would speak up for me? Why waste my time going to the dean? Officially, if you were not aware, 'scope time isn't to be bartered or traded or sold. Leybourne would put me on notice for it and not say a word to Arbuck. At least I didn't have to transcribe his abysmal notes, the suckerfish."
"I would speak for you," Hermione said. "Would you like me to?"
"No," Ella picked up her teacup and blew, breath hazing tremulously over the tea. "It is too late now. You would not want to risk your reputation, anyway; everyone thinks you are so charming. It would hurt you to associate with me."
"I should not," she paused, considering. Alienating Jon Arbuck would have many dangers and few benefits. Then again, she had already—though he didn't know it—launched her first attack on him by obliquely criticizing his performance on Professor Elgin's behalf. The instant she joined that circle, she would be suspect, and therefore, a target. It did not much matter whether she became his enemy now or later.
So, with a sharp jerk of her chin, she went on. "I should not care for their opinions in the matter. Mr. Arbuck should not feel himself secure to ride roughshod over the rest of us."
Ella laughed. "Tell yourself that, Miss Bascombe of the Veruca Bay Bascombes. In the meantime, I will watch you charm your way through the rest of the staff with smiles and scones. I hear they're delicious, by the way."
Hermione flushed, a dull, angry red. "They are," she snapped, taking her basket from the shelf. "Would you like to try one? Not that I think I have any chance of charming you. I daresay you would not even accept it as a gesture of friendship."
"We are not friends."
"No. A gesture in…solidarity, perhaps? Kindness? Fellow-feeling?"
Ella reached out, flung the cloth aside, and plucked out two scones. "Fellow-feeling, then. I appreciate it. I hope Professor Kurien will like them as well."
Hermione's lips pursed. "I hope he will too. Please excuse me, I would like to rest before we leave for class this afternoon."
"Bye," Ella took a seat in front of the fire and bit into one of the scones. Her eyelids fluttered, lips curling in a faint, pleased smile, but she said nothing else.
Hermione's knock was delicate, fluttering. Her smile, as she peeked around the heavy door, was tremulous and sweet. Her lashes fluttered as she bowed her golden head, framed most becomingly in a hood of blue wool trimmed with white fur. The pardon she begged of him—for surely she was disturbing him in the midst of something vitally important to the progress of science itself—was eloquent.
"I was wondering if she would show up. You should be flattered, Kurien. Did you hear Elgin yesterday evening, raving about our delightful Miss Bascombe?"
Hermione's smooth apology stuttered to a halt. She had not noticed the tall, spare man standing in front of the fire, foot on the fender.
"Professor Tellers," she recovered her smile, though not her unaffected delivery. "What good luck I should find you here too! I know it is silly, but I brought Professor Kurien some scones as thanks for his lecture yesterday, and—"
"Thank you," the Professor in question answered, "please leave them at the door. Tellers and I are in the middle of a discussion."
With a blink, Hermione—unable to think of a reason to remain when her dismissal was so obvious—laid her basket down. "I hope you like them," she bowed, modestly, "I am not the most skilled—"
"Yes, yes," Kurien snapped, "I am sure they are fine. Thank you, Miss Bascombe."
Professor Tellers moved towards the door, and almost before Hermione had pulled her face back, closed it before her nose.