August 20, 1818
Rani sketched a fat tear-drop-shaped circle in the top quarter of her canvas. Eventually, that circle would replicate the hydrogen balloon that would soon fly above Hyde Park, but for now, it was only a placeholder. She would add the details later. Rani moved to the upper edge of the canvas and drew several quick lines to denote the park’s distant trees, or rather, their branches wafting in the breeze. After that, she added several even simpler lines across the bottom to represent blades of grass.
“Surely you’re finished by now.” Christopher, Rani’s half-brother, said. He was older than her by thirteen years. He and the rest of her family posed in front of her.
She peered up at them and lowered her gaze back to the canvas. The images she had so far drawn barely represented them. Even their smiles appeared as stiff as Rani’s neck felt. Why, oh, why had she let Alice, Christopher’s wife, convince her to draw a family portrait for her father’s birthday gift? Rani wasn’t an artist. She was a musician.
“It’s not meant to be an elaborate painting,” Christopher continued. “Merely a sketch to commemorate the day.”
“A sketch is all it could be.” Rani gave him a hard smile and added a few more chaotic lines to eight-year-old Thomas’s dark brown hair. “I only hope none of you come to regret this plan.”
“It can’t be that bad,” Alice said. “Your artistic skill has grown a great deal in past weeks. Believe me. My father, a gentleman with a penchant for painting, taught me well how to recognize artistic talent.”
“Quite right, quite right,” Father said.
Rani added more stiffness to her outline of Alice’s exemplary female form and quickly drew Father’s neck cloth straighter than it was. She then stepped back from her canvas, which was propped on the easel in front of her. She studied back and forth between her live subjects and her almost-likeness of them. A breeze caught hold of Alice’s skirt and ruffled it against Thomas’s legs. Thomas frowned and squirmed.
“Stay still,” Alice told him. “Aunt Rani is almost finished.”
Thomas flinched. At the same time, Mr. Hugh Montgomery, Father’s godson, stepped from his position next to the empty space where Rani would eventually draw her own image. He strode to Rani’s side. “What seems to be the difficulty?”
“Everything,” Rani muttered under her breath.
Mr. Montgomery cupped his chin and studied Rani’s canvas. The breeze lifted his hat up and away from his face. He pulled it down, but still, he said nothing.
Rani shifted her stance. “It’s dreadful, isn’t it? I knew I should have listened to myself and simply learned a new piece on the pianoforte. Father enjoys it when I play for him, don’t you, Father?”
“Very much,” Father said.
“And forgo this chance to further commemorate the day?” Mr. Montgomery said. “Surely, Miss Pemberton, you would not wish that.”
Rani inhaled and glanced at her father. He had such a strong proclivity for all things scientific that combining it—the hydrogen balloon—with his family was, indeed, the perfect birthday gift. “I would not,” she said.
“Besides,” Mr. Montgomery said, “what is so terrible about it? Your portrait is perfection.”
“Do you hear that, everyone?” Christopher said. “Perfection means the portrait is finished. Now it’s off to the ascension.”
“I didn’t say it was finished,” Mr. Montgomery said.
“It certainly isn’t,” Rani added. But she might as well have spoken into the wind, for Christopher released Thomas’s hand. Thomas, in turn, stretched his fingers, and Father looked over his shoulder and across the green expanse to the aeronauts. The event was some distance away, but from what Rani could see, it appeared the aeronauts had almost finished spreading out the red-and-green silk balloon.
“The aeronauts’ preparations are nearly completed.” Father said. “Come along. We don’t want to miss their first step in the process.”
Rani whisked a few more lines into her picture’s panoramic background. “I wish I had more time to draw this right now. I’m not sure I’ll remember all of the details.”
“What are you afraid you’ll forget?” Mr. Montgomery asked.
“I’m not sure. I just feel I need to take note of something about this place.” Rani tapped her forefinger against her pursed lips and peered toward the balloon. Hundreds of well-hatted men, silk-parasoled women, and garishly dressed street performers with their pets dotted the landscape.
“Something like what?” Mr. Montgomery asked. “More handbills wafting about? Indeed, I can’t imagine why you added them to your picture in the first place. Most are only about resurrection men and other criminals. They are nothing more than a blight on this otherwise delightful day.”
Wafting, Rani thought. The breeze was so slight that it was hardly anything, and yet something about it prickled her senses. Like it was hovering over them, waiting, as it were, for something to snap.
“I added the handbills because they give truth to the place,” Rani said. She reached for the easel, but before she caught hold of it, Mr. Montgomery clasped her forearm, stopping her. It was a slight movement, but something in it felt as if he had already taken possession of her. Holding her arm like that was, perhaps, a perfectly acceptable thing for him to do, considering she would one day, very likely, do as Father encouraged her to do and accept one of Mr. Montgomery’s marriage proposals. After all, Rani’s union with an esteemed vicar who possessed an old family name could do nothing but raise her respectability as a half-Indian woman in the world. But as Rani still felt nothing for Mr. Montgomery beyond gratitude for his kindness to her, today was not that day.
“Leave your art supplies with me,” Mr. Montgomery said. “I will return them to the carriage. You should stay with your family.”
“Thank you,” Rani said. “That’s most kind.”
He bowed, tucked the easel and canvas under his arm, and headed back in the direction of their waiting carriage. At first, his well-formed stature and wavy brown hair blurred among the growing crowds as surely as Rani’s final notes blended together when she played what she had come to think of as Beethoven’s moonlight masterpiece. But when Mr.Montgomery turned back to her and waved, the sonata’s beautiful diminuendo inside her mind ended. Starkly.
Rani, frowning, picked up her reticule, which she had set on the ground near her feet. She slid her drawing pencil inside it and beneath her lacquered sandalwood fan and bit of red ribbon. Her deceased mother had given them to her when she was a child.
“Step two,” Father called out to the aeronauts, even though, at that distance, they surely could not hear him. “Assemble the hydrogen casks.”
Rani hurried through the growing crowd toward her family. Out of the corner of her eye, she couldn’t help but notice when people either stared at her dark features or turned away from her as if she didn’t exist. Why did some people treat her in such a manner? She was a respectable heiress with twenty thousand pounds. And she was English—at least, half of her was. Shouldn’t those qualities assure her a life of acceptance? What did it matter that her mother had been Christopher’s ayah, his Indian nursemaid, before she had married Rani’s father?
She slipped in behind Christopher and Alice, who walked several feet behind Father. Thomas and Nora, Thomas’s nurse, took up the rear of the group.
“Mr. Montgomery seems quite devoted to you,” Alice said.
“Will you marry him, then?”
“Father deems it will be so.”
“Do you agree with him?”
Rani shrugged. It was the only answer she could muster.
Christopher released Alice’s arm and stepped back to Rani’s side.
“What’s keeping you from marrying Mr. Montgomery?” he asked.
“That’s all you have to say to me after you were gone for so long? Not how have you and Father been since I’ve been tramping about England?”
“Forgive me,” Christopher said. “I fear my head’s been so full of business, it’s had little room for anything else. But with that said, you will not dissuade me from my question about Mr. Montgomery. You may lose his attentions if you continue to refuse him.”
“That concerns me too.”
“And yet . . .?”
“I would prefer to speak of something else, if you don’t mind. Or even if you do mind.”
They continued walking toward the ascension site, though not speaking, until Rani said, “Have you found us much changed?”
“Everyone is pretty much as they always were. Except for Thomas. He has grown taller than I had expected he would.”
“Children will do that.”
He flashed a quick smile. “Alice says he is going through another growth spurt. It’s why he’s so tired all the time.”
“That was the reason she gave?”
“You think it’s something else?”
Rani shrugged. “In all my twenty-one years, I can’t remember ever being that tired. It has been a least a month now. Maybe longer.”
“What! Has Alice called for a physician?”
“I can’t say,” Rani said.
“Well, if she hasn’t, I will see to it at once. And Thomas will stay to his bed an hour longer than usual every morning.”
“I dare say you will spoil the boy,” Rani said. “But I’m glad of it. Fathers should spoil their sons from time to time.”
Both glanced over their shoulders at Thomas, but he looked only at the ground.
“I’m glad to see Father’s eccentricity doesn’t seem to have grown worse,” Christopher said at length.
Rani nodded. “He is as brilliant and doting today as he was when I was a child—before the eccentricity touched him.” No one, as far as Rani knew, understood what had triggered Father’s obsession with science and what he referred to as its three necessary steps. But as nothing else in Father seemed amiss, Rani and Christopher had agreed not to worry about it unless it worsened or something else changed.
“I do wish Father wouldn’t be so insistent on people always following the three steps,” Rani continued. “Three completed steps do not equal magnificence in all things.”
“It doesn’t hurt anything, either.”
“How do you know?”
“Have you ever noted any of Father’s projects, whether scientific or otherwise, to reach success without them?”
“Not that I recall.” Then louder, Rani said, “You need not run, Father. The aeronauts will most certainly complete each step.”
Father slowed his step.
“If I were you,” Christopher said to Rani, “I would stop fretting. Everyone does what they must to achieve success, even if they don’t do exactly what Father believes they should do.”
“It would bode better for our family’s sanity if they did follow his steps.”
Christopher laughed lightly and moved back to his wife’s side, and the six of them strode deeper into the crowd. At length, Christopher and Alice settled themselves in a bit of empty space a few yards to Rani’s right. Father, despite his sixty-four years, had already reached the partition rope. He leaned over it and motioned from one edge of the balloon to the other. Rani could not hear his voice above the din, but no doubt he was instructing the aeronauts on what he considered to be their next step.
Rani tapped her forefinger against her closed lips and further scanned the setting for more details she could later add to her sketch. The aeronauts bustled about the balloon as it swelled with air. Several spectators laughed and talked together. A number of children from all stations of life jumped about, seemingly striving for the best vantage point. All was just as it should be, and everyone was—
Rani caught her breath. She clutched her reticule and stared at the tall, blond man—Mr. Frederick Barrington? Please, no! He’d left London almost three years ago. Left her. It was bad enough believing she would never see him again, but it was a hundred times worse actually to see him. What if he noticed her? What if she had to talk to him, pretending she felt nothing? Please, God, do not let it be him.
The man who resembled Frederick turned toward her. It is him. His gaze flashed to hers, and she whirled. Hopefully, he had not noticed her.
“Miss Pemberton.” Mr. Montgomery, at least half a dozen yards away, lifted his hand in greeting and hastened to her side. “I’m glad to have caught up with you.” His gaze narrowed. “Are you well?”
She covered her mouth with her hand. “I . . . I am, thank you. I only had a small moment of concern for—” Her gaze latched onto Nora, who stood near Christopher and Alice. Nora, peering about her, ran her right hand up and down the black sleeve of her left arm.
“Where’s Thomas?” Rani asked her.
“With them lads,” Nora said.
Rani looked in the direction Nora pointed and quickly located Thomas. He held something white. One of those handbills, perhaps? Laughing, he batted it at an unkempt boy who was nearly half his size and wore a jacket so baggy, he had rolled the sleeves halfway up his arms. Rani furrowed her brow. She had never known Thomas to play with strangers before. She had better make certain all was right.
She strode forward, focusing on Thomas. Ignore Frederick, she told herself. After all, it was not as if she wanted to see him. Ever again. Still, despite her resolve, she peeked over her shoulder to where Frederick had been. She saw only the back of a tall, narrow woman in a poke bonnet with a large plume of feathers. Frederick’s mother.
Rani clutched her skirt and hurried on to Thomas. The other boys were no longer with him, and when she stood before him, he peered up at her. He shoved his hands behind his back.
“What do you have there?” Rani asked.
“Both you and I know that isn’t true. Come. You can show me.”
Thomas glanced toward his parents and at last brought his hands round in front of him. He held a hair comb adorned with three small, white feathers. “I found it.”
“Where?” Rani asked.
“On the . . . the grass. It looked just like a bird.”
The spectators offered a collective gasp as the balloon swelled above their heads.
“Exactly where on the grass?” Rani repeated when the din lessened. “The lady who lost it is likely missing it.”
Thomas frowned and shook his head.
“It seems Thomas is put out today,” Rani said to Mr.M ontgomery. “Would you mind too much leaving us for a bit?”
“Not at all. I am at your service.” Mr. Montgomery offered a quick bow and walked toward Christopher and Alice.
“Now,” Rani said to Thomas, “where did you find that comb?”
Again, Thomas frowned, but he also pointed to an area outlined by a copse of trees. Their upper branches waved at the sky.
“The grass there?” Rani asked.
“By that lady,” Thomas said.
The only lady there was a petite, fashionably dressed young woman.
“Sh-she dropped it,” Thomas continued. “Like she didn’t even care about it. Must we return the fan, Aunt? She will punish me. F-for stealing it.”
“She will do no such thing. I can only imagine she will be quite pleased to get it back. Come along.”
An aching expression in Thomas’s wide, doe-brown eyes pinched at her heart. It was almost like the initial loneliness Rani had felt when Frederick, the man she had once considered to be her greatest friend, had left their acquaintanceship. Surely, Thomas, young as he was, didn’t feel such an emotion about something as arbitrary as a hair comb. And yet, the aching in his expression connected so deeply with Rani’s ache that for a moment, she wondered if she ought to let him keep the ornament. The young lady likely had wealth enough she could replace such a simple item. But then, keeping the comb would be dishonest. And what if it was a family memento, like Rani’s fan was?
Rani crouched in front of Thomas and lifted his chin. “You are a good boy, and I am proud you are my nephew, but one day you will grow to be a good adult like your parents are, and that means you will need to be honest.”
“But what if she is? Angry, I mean?”
“If she is, it won’t matter. You will have done the right thing, and God will be pleased.”
“Is something amiss with the boy, Miss Pemberton?” Nora said from behind her.
Rani stood and turned. “Will you leave him in my care for a few minutes, please? He and I have a duty we must attend to.”
“Very good, miss.” Nora back-stepped, and Rani, taking Thomas’s hand, walked toward the young lady.
She smiled softly at them when Thomas handed her the hair comb and said she could not fathom how she had lost it. She thought she had tucked it in her reticule a short time earlier. She must have been fully focused on the balloon.
Thomas’s frown deepened, and he and Rani headed back to their family.
“One day, you will understand why we returned it,” Rani told him, “and you’ll wish to thank me.”
“Step three,” Father’s voice called. He was at least thirty yards away from Rani and Thomas, yet his voice rang out above the hubbub as strongly as if he was much closer. “Don’t forget step number three!”
Already, the balloon had swollen to its full breadth, and the aeronauts had climbed inside the basket.
“Remove the sand bags ,” Father yelled from the audience, “before you untie its tethers.”
No one seemed to hear him; they appeared much too engrossed with the balloon and its eminent ascension.
Just then, the breeze culminated in a pattern Father had spent an entire afternoon teaching Rani about: the Beaufort Wind Scale. First, the ladies’ skirts had rustled in the breeze. Next, the handbills had flown and twirled with the air currents. And now, the tree branches waved at the sky. The wind was growing stronger. Surely the aeronauts had noticed that. Father, too.
“There is no reason for alarm,” Rani whispered to herself.
“Step three!” Father called again. “Complete step three!”
But the aeronauts, following what Rani assumed was their regular routine, only released the balloon from its moorings. The balloon lifted from the ground.
The wind cooled. Rani’s skirt poofed, and several men’s hats gusted from their heads.
No! The wind’s getting too strong. It’s not safe. Rani charged through the crowd. She went under the rope partition that separated the balloon from the audience and reached for the tethers that dangled from the balloon’s basket. She, a lone woman, could not stop the balloon’s ascent, but neither could she stand by and do nothing.
One of the crewmen grabbed her hands. “Let it alone, lady. It’ll take you off with it.”
“The wind,” Rani said. “A storm is coming.”
“The aeronauts know what they’re doin’.” He pulled her hands off the tethers, and the balloon moved higher, gracefully, into the sky. People cheered.
Heat flushed through Rani. She cringed and hugged herself. Why had she rushed in like that? She had obviously been wrong, obviously misread the coming danger. And now, she had created a spectacle, thereby embarrassing her family. She lowered her head and strode back to the crowd. Everyone there must have seen her. And now Frederick, wherever he was, would likely be congratulating himself that he no longer associated with such an unsophisticated lady. Not that his approval mattered to her.
Rani whirled. She peered up at the balloon. Moving into another air current, it veered left, skidded across the air, and at last crashed into a tall elm tree. Men yelled. Women screamed. Members of both sexes, including Rani, rushed to rescue those in the basket who were tangled in the upper tree limbs. But before Rani had run more than a few feet, Father caught her arm and pulled her back to stand with him and the rest of their family.
“We must leave,” he spoke firmly, though his face was pale. “I would not have you ladies see such a scene.”
“The aeronauts might need help,” Rani said.
Mr. Montgomery clasped her elbow and tugged her closer to him. “Heed your father, my dear Miss Pemberton. It’s his duty to direct you.”
“Quite right, quite right,” Father said. “Christopher will stay and see what can be done.”
“I will as well,” Mr. Montgomery said.
“The rest of you must come with me.” Father motioned for them to follow him, and Rani, Alice, Nora, and . . . Rani scanned about her.
“Where’s Thomas?” she asked.
All quickly scanned their surroundings and stared at Nora.
“Where is Thomas?” Christopher asked her.
Nora’s eyes widened. “I don’t know, sir.”
Cold dropped through Rani’s core. Only moments before, Thomas had been with her because she had asked Nora to let him accompany her. And he had accompanied her, but Rani had lost sight of him. How could she have been so careless?
“Thomas?” Christopher called.
“Let’s not get overly concerned,” Mr. Montgomery said. “The boy has likely run off with some other lads.”
“Or become lost in the crowd,” Father added.
Christopher scanned . . . scanned. “Where was the last time anyone saw him?”
“Right here, next to me,” Rani said.
“And before that?”
Rani pointed to where she and Thomas had returned the comb to the young lady. Christopher gave a sharp nod. “You ladies wait here. Father, Mr. Montgomery, and I will search for Thomas.”
“Please find him,” Alice said.
“Try not to worry, my dear. He can’t have gone far.” Christopher gave Alice a quick squeeze around her shoulders and left with the other men.
The ladies stared at one another.
Rani wrung her hands. “I, for one, don’t intend merely to wait here. If Thomas has wandered off, the longer he walks, the farther away he will get, and the harder it will be for us to find him.”
“I agree.” Alice’s voice trembled slightly. “You go that way, Rani. Nora and I will return to the main thoroughfare and check the carriages. He might have wrapped himself up in some fool game of hide-and-seek and hidden inside one of them.”
Rani hurried in the direction Alice pointed. “I will meet you back here in a few minutes.”