Cole Strangford pushed his magnifying spectacles up onto his forehead and stifled a sigh of exasperation. A few feet away, his uncle Gillie was fiddling with the coiled copper tubing that fed oxygen into an iron compressor tank, his movements clearly calculated to draw Cole's attention. Gillie had entered the laboratory some five minutes before, but Cole had pretended blindness to his presence, wanting to finish work on his oxygen compressor. Unfortunately, though, Cole was beginning to realize that he'd have no peace until he entertained his uncle's latest complaint, whatever it was.
"Don't touch that," Cole barked.
Gillie jumped, his fingers dropping away from the tubing as though it had scorched him. His grizzled eyebrows rose as he looked at Cole. "So, you've finally noticed me."
"I noticed you from the start, Uncle. I was hoping you'd go away if I ignored you. I'm in the middle of an experiment, and it's a very important one. Please come back later."
"I have important news for you," Gillie said, a hint of wariness entering his gaze as he examined the copper and iron apparatus strewn about Cole's worktable. Without warning, he changed the subject. "What exactly are you working on?"
Nonplussed, Cole returned his attention to his newest device. "An underwater breathing device. Tell me your news later. I'm busy."
"An underwater breathing device? What for?"
"So I can dive in the sea without having to come up for air," Cole informed him, his focus remaining on the small iron cylinder that was supposed to compress the oxygen he would breathe underwater. At the moment, the tank was leaking oxygen copiously and absorbing heat, creating a skim of frost on its surface. "Once I have it working, I'll be able to carry the tank with me when I swim underwater, and take breaths from it when I need to, rather than come to the surface. I should be able to stay underwater for at least an hour at a stretch."
"I think I like your diving bell better."
"You didn't dive in my diving bell," Cole grumbled. "You don't know what it was like to come to the edge of a new, unexplored portion of sea floor, only to be strangling on stale air and have to rise to the surface. Perhaps if you'd worked the pump that supplied the diving bell with air a little more vigorously, I wouldn't be here right now trying to invent a replacement for that pump and for you. Now, go."
"Your pump was at fault -- not me."
"The pump was fine."
"And your air hose became kinked, cutting off your air supply."
"I saw nothing wrong with the hose."
Gillie shrugged. "At least you're no longer trying to rid the world of chamber pots. That was an experiment I'd rather not repeat."
Cole lowered his spectacles to the bridge of his nose and peered at his uncle. "Aren't the wash closets I installed a far cry above an outhouse?" At Gillie's unwilling nod, Cole smiled in satisfaction and pushed his spectacles back up. "Obviously you prefer my wooden privy to a hole in the ground, so stop complaining and leave me to my work."
"I would leave you, if I hadn't such pressing news. Don't you have even a minute to spare?"
"The Royal Oceanographic Society has invited me to demonstrate my diving suit with its breathing apparatus at their next meeting," Cole informed him. "Not only is that meeting less than six months away, but a gentleman named William James is working on a similar device of his own. If I want to gain an advantage over Mr. James and receive credit for this invention, not to mention contracts from the Royal Navy, I'll have to hurry."
"Cole, what I have to tell you is far more important than any invention," Gillie insisted.
Cole noticed with some annoyance that his uncle had donned his finest afternoon jacket. As Gillie normally spent his afternoon in a waistcoat with his shirtsleeves rolled up, Cole assumed that they were expecting guests. He groaned at the thought of having to abandon his compressor tank and entertain. "Is someone coming to visit?"
"Two very special people are on their way to Shoreham, even as we speak," the older man confirmed. He drew a piece of parchment from his vest and placed it on an old wicker side table Cole had rescued from the attic in Shoreham Park Manor. "Do you remember the woman I spoke of several months ago, the one whom I thought might make you a good bride? Well, her father has written. He looks kindly upon a match between you and his daughter, and has accepted our invitation to come and visit. He and his daughter should be here tonight."
Cole felt his gut tighten. "Tonight? Good God, man, you might have given me some warning."
"The mail coach broke its axle, or some such nonsense," Gillie explained. "Otherwise we would have received the letter sooner."
Cole stood up and moved away from his work table, toward the window that offered a view of Shoreham Park Manor. A faint sense of dread was seeping through him. He had spent all of his one-and-thirty years as a bachelor, and though he knew he was long overdue, he still hadn't gotten used to the idea of tying himself down with a woman. After all, with research and experimentation, you could predict the behavior of most inventions. No amount of research and experimentation, however, could predict the behavior of any woman. Nevertheless, he understood the necessity of marrying a proper gypsy bride, and knew that he had to do his duty at some point.
Cole, Gillie, and the rest of the Strangfords were members of a gypsy bloodline that had once been the finest in all of England. They'd known wealth, prestige, and magnificent fortune until centuries earlier, when they'd lost the Sea Opal, a fabulous jewel that supposedly brought good luck to whomever possessed it. Since losing the opal, the Strangfords' luck had taken a terrible turn for the worse.
In an effort to return to that shining place of good fortune, the Strangfords had exchanged their wandering for permanent residence at Shoreham Park Manor, an estate close to the place where they'd lost the Sea Opal. To a man, their descendents had searched for the Sea Opal...without any luck. As a result, the family had been forced to wallow in catastrophe and had long ago lost much of their prestige in the gypsy community. Cole hardly even considered himself a gypsy anymore. He and his ancestors had forgotten so many of the old traditions, and become so gentrified, that they bore more resemblance to country squires than true gypsy wanderers.
Sometimes, in the darkest hours of the night, he lay in bed with a sense of failure eating away at him like acid. Even with all of his inventions and determination, he hadn't detected the slightest glimmer of that sainted family jewel on the ocean floor. Usually he managed to console himself -- temporarily, at least -- with the knowledge that while he hadn't found the Sea Opal, his quest had led him to invent several devices that had improved living conditions at Shoreham Park Manor. Still, he believed that only the recovery of the Sea Opal would banish the dark cloud that hung over his family's head, and had confirmed this notion by spending some time researching the jewel's history and learning that it had brought good fortune to all of those who had ever owned it. Not surprisingly, he'd discovered that those who had owned the jewel and then sold it suffered a string of disasters, just as his own family had experienced. As a man of science, the whole idea of a jewel controlling fate seemed ridiculous to him, but he simply couldn't discount the evidence.
His mood souring at the thought of marriage, Cole took off his spectacles for good. He walked over to the window and stared out across the green lawn, his gaze unfocused. Unable to think of a single avenue of escape, he eventually turned back around to stare at his uncle. "You haven't given me much time to prepare for her arrival."
Gillie swung his thin, wiry form into a wicker chair. "We have an entire day before she arrives. What sort of preparations must you make? Zelda will manage all of the household details, and I'll take care of everything else."
Cole gazed around the room he'd used as his laboratory for well over a decade. The bottom floor of a windmill, the room contained junk he'd scrounged -- like old copper wash pans, lampposts, and wagon wheels -- as well as machines he'd constructed but had found no use for. He tried to imagine what sort of impact a wife might have on this room, and in his mind's eye, he saw his laboratory swept clean and decorated with lace and flowers.
He frowned. For years he had fought with his elderly aunt Pesha and cousin Zelda, in an effort to keep them from "straightening up" his laboratory. The thought of having to start all over again with a wife nearly made him ill. "I have to prepare myself for the possibility of marriage and all of the duties and obligations the wedded state entails."
"Don't worry about marriage. Just take an hour or so to practice being agreeable, and you ought to be more than ready for her when she arrives."
"I don't know about this. I don't appreciate the idea of some skirt turning my life upside down. Do you think she'll insist I give up my inventing? Because if she does, we're finished."
Gillie didn't answer, preferring instead to stare at the shards of a looking glass Cole had broken the week previous and had yet to sweep up.
Cole walked over to the oversized wooden gears that spun in response to the windmill's turning. Some of the gears lay on their sides, and others sat straight up, and eventually they all connected to a spindle that turned a leather belt. All of that power forced water through the pipes he'd installed between the windmill and Shoreham Park Manor, and the sound of the gears creaking and water rushing through the pipes was like music to his ears. The hot and fresh water piping system was one of his finest inventions, supplying Shoreham Park Manor with hot and cold water on demand, and heat in the winter.
"I'm a mechanically minded man," he told Gillie. "When I'm not diving, I spend my time in this laboratory. I won't tolerate a woman sticking her nose into my business here, or trying to tie me to her apron strings."
Gillie sighed, loud and long. He shook his head, in the manner of an old schoolmarm. "Cole, you are a very difficult nephew."
"Difficult? Not at all. I just don't want to marry."
"I'll give you three reasons as to why you ought to seriously consider marrying immediately," Gillie replied. "First of all, are you forgetting how you signed the entail on Shoreham Park Manor some ten years ago?"
"How could I forget? Father threatened to cut off my allowance unless I signed the deed of settlement."
"Then you well remember that the entailment requires you marry and produce a proper Romany heir by age six-and-thirty, in order to continue to draw income from the estate." Gillie lifted an eyebrow. "I expect your father's old barrister friend in town, Sedgewick, is eyeing you rather carefully right now. He was damned close to your father, and wouldn't hesitate to send a letter to the Crown if you ignored the rules of the entailment."
"Old Sedgewick is a blighter," Cole muttered, leaning down to adjust the nozzle on the billows beneath the hot water holding tank, so that more air flowed through to fan the coals.
Gillie resolutely ignored Cole's comment and leaned forward slightly. "Secondly, we need to preserve the family name."
"Ah yes, the sainted family name," Cole muttered.
"There are only four of us left, Cole, and of the four, you're the only one young enough to produce an heir. If you neglect your duty, the Strangford family name will fade from the earth for all eternity."
"I wonder if everyone will breathe a sigh of relief once we're gone, considering our ill fortune."
Gillie shook his head. "Ill fortune or not, there's something comforting in the notion that even while my body turns to dust, the name of my family remains on the lips of the living, as the Strangford heirs go forth in the world."
"If we truly want to preserve the family name, we have to find the Sea Opal. And to find the Sea Opal, I have to extend the amount of time a man can spend underwater. To that end -- " Cole leveled a pointed glance at his iron compressor tank.
"All right, then; let's discuss the third reason why you must marry. In my mind, this is the most important reason." Frowning, Gillie looked at him expectantly.
"You're referring to the sea people?"
"I am indeed."
Cole nodded solemnly and grew quiet, an old, familiar uneasiness twisting through him. Gillie, too, was silent, as if in deference to the seriousness of the topic.
Many centuries ago, when the Strangfords were at the height of their power and prestige in the gypsy community, an Englishman had come to their encampment and stolen the Sea Opal from them. The thief then chased their gypsy tribe and drove their leader into the sea. Cole's ancestor, a witch named Ilona, had cast against the thief the most powerful spell any gypsy witch knew: that of the nagas, or sea people, to stop the slaughter.
From that day, the thief and his people were forced to live in the ocean as half-dolphin, half-human creatures, and they'd taken the Sea Opal into the water with them. Since the lore surrounding the spell of the nagas
suggested that the sea people could walk on land for brief periods of time before the magic forced them back into the ocean, Cole's ancestors had lived in a constant state of alert since the casting of the spell, and considered every outsider with a very sharp gaze.
Cole had learned of this story at a very young age. He'd been taught to believe in the sea people and had grown up doing so, even though he'd never seen one of them or knew anyone who had. Now, as an adult, he would tell anyone who asked him that he believed the old tales, just as he believed in God and all the saints, and in the inalienable right of all men to be free.
Privately, however, he had his doubts about the sea people, due to the lack of scholarly evidence documenting their existence. Indeed, he sometimes thought that the sea people had become a crutch, an explanation for the hardships the Strangford family had suffered, and an offering of hope for deliverance. Essentially, if the sea people existed, then the Sea Opal probably existed, too; and it followed that the Strangfords could improve their lot in life if they simply recovered that maddening jewel. If the sea people didn't exist, then their bad luck was simply fate that couldn't be controlled and had to be endured.
But these doubts he didn't express aloud, and sometimes even refused to admit to himself, for he'd spent most of his life diving and searching for the Sea Opal. If the sea people didn't exist, and the Sea Opal didn't exist, then he'd basically wasted his entire life chasing rainbows. He would dearly love to find one of the sea people, even though he was supposed to consider them his deadly enemies. Proving their existence would validate his entire life.
Just as the silence between them began to feel uncomfortable, the older man spoke. "The fact that you're the last living male heir to the Strangford estate makes you very vulnerable. Once you're gone, the sea people will have no opportunity to breed a child with Strangford blood. In effect, you're their last chance."
"You're worried that one of their women might seduce me and ultimately set the entire clan free."
Cole leveled a frown at his uncle. "We may not have all that much to fear from the sea people. No one has ever documented their existence. Perhaps they all died at sea directly after the gypsy witch cursed them."
"Oh, they're around," Gillie insisted. "They're just very subtle. I think they hide their existence with the hope that we'll let down our guard. Indeed, I've heard tales through the years of their ability to walk on land for a brief time, so I wouldn't be surprised to hear that several Strangford men had narrowly escaped being seduced by a sea maiden without even knowing it."
Cole nodded. Seduction. That was the name of the sea people's game. They knew that they could break the spell cast upon them by seducing a male Strangford gypsy and breeding a child with gypsy blood. So far, they hadn't succeeded, and it was in Cole's best interests to ensure that they never broke the spell, for the sea people had promised to drive all of the remaining gypsies off a cliff should they ever emerge permanently from the sea.
"Why do you suppose marriage will protect me?" Cole asked. "Do you think I'm so green that I'd fall prey to a sea maiden, should she try to seduce me?"
"A sea-woman is tricky," Gillie warned, his voice low. "She's so beautiful that she blinds a man to her true nature when he first looks at her. And don't forget, she will do anything to break the curse that binds her and her people. No intimacy is out of the question; a man must be strong to resist. It helps if he has a wife and children to keep his thoughts occupied."
Cole raised an eyebrow at Gillie. "I've reached one-and-thirty without falling prey to a sea maiden, Uncle. I think I can be trusted."
"You're making light of a serious situation. Our ancestors knew how dangerous they are."
"Our ancestors, the devil take them, received far too much pleasure from dictating how people should live," Cole muttered.
One of the first of the Strangford gypsies, a venerable old man who had taken over leadership of their gypsy tribe after the witch Ilona had cursed the sea people, was the origin of all the traditions and customs designed to keep the Strangford men from being seduced. According to that great Strangford, a man shouldn't swim alone in the ocean, ever. Not for any reason. Nor should he
wander the hills above the cliffs alone at night. Furthermore, lovemaking outside of marriage or infidelity, even with a light skirt, was punishable by immediate banishment, and a bride had to be splashed with seawater before marriage. Seawater, it seemed, forced the sea people to give up their temporary human form, which according to legend they somehow managed to attain, and return to their true, if unnatural, form.
For centuries these rules had been enforced by the tribal elders. Today, however, they were mostly ignored, except for the bridal seawater ceremony. The sea people hadn't shown themselves for a long time now, and Cole supposed his family had recognized the old traditions as foolish.
Cole's thoughts drifted toward his bride. Just what sort of woman had Gillie found for him this time? The kind who would tolerate being splashed with seawater? He hoped so. Some five years ago he'd recognized the necessity of marriage and charged his uncle with searching for suitable brides, as was the gypsy custom for marriages of convenience. He'd told Gillie he didn't care whom he married, as long as the woman met a few small criteria...including an easygoing temperament and a fine set of legs that didn't turn into a dolphin's tail.
His thoughts on the qualities of a perfect bride, Cole said, "I hope this newest find of yours is more attractive than that last one. Tell me where you met her, and what you remember of her."
Gillie rubbed his chin in an attitude of great thought. Still, his eyes remained shuttered, allowing Cole not the slightest clue as to the nature of those thoughts. As Cole waited for his reply and the silence between them lengthened, he began to wonder why Gillie was so reluctant to speak. Could his latest potential bride have more in common with a toothless hag than an eager, dewy-eyed innocent?
"How old is she, Gillie?" Cole asked, suspicion hardening his voice.
The older man shrugged. "My memories aren't as sharp as they once were. Old age can take a man's wits away, you know."
"Your wits are as sharp as a sword."
His eyes wide, Gillie raised his hands in a defensive gesture. "I simply can't remember."
"Can't remember, or won't? I haven't forgotten Sashina, Uncle. I recall very well how you tried to persuade me to look past her limp and her warts, and consider her fine baby-making potential. Sashina didn't stay more than a day, and neither will this woman if she bears any resemblance to her."
"If I could remember her age, I'd tell you," the older man insisted.
"It shouldn't be so difficult to remember a woman's age, particularly one you're trying to marry me off to. Are you certain you've met her?"
When Gillie didn't respond, Cole narrowed his eyes. "You've never even met this woman, have you?"
Gillie's eyebrows drew together in an expression of irritation. "Bringing you to the altar has proven a difficult task, Cole. And with our bad luck hanging over our heads, potential brides aren't exactly beating down the door. Even worse, I've had to look for Romany women who wouldn't mind settling down in one place for the rest of their lives, and there aren't many of them. I wish you would be a little more thankful for my efforts."
Cole sighed. "All right, so you've never met her. Considering my ill luck, she'll probably be about a century old and toothless."
"Please, bear with me," Gillie pleaded. "At least I'm trying."
"I know you're trying, Uncle. I'm trying also -- to be appreciative. Still, we've been in this game for five years now, and so far, it's been nothing but a disaster. Even the most intrepid brides are frightened off by the inevitable calamities. And it's hard for me to be thankful when you're so damned zealous about marrying me off. I feel more like a prize stud than a man."
"Stud you are, but with the wrong women," Gillie announced dourly. "I know about your visits to town and a certain widow."
"My visits to Shoreham are my business," Cole informed him.
"Just don't get her with child, by Christ," the older man muttered. "If you put a babe in any woman's belly other than a Rom, you'll create an impure child and set the sea people free."
Sighing, Cole swallowed his exasperation at having his private life pried into over worry about the sea people, however legitimate, and tried to give his uncle some reassurance. "I haven't seen Charlotte Duquet in over a year."
Gillie nodded, then fell silent.
Unwillingly, Cole recalled the brides who had come to inspect him and his home in the past, and then left before an engagement could be announced. He knew his appearance hadn't put them off -- physically, he passed muster, according to his various women friends. He certainly possessed no shortage of social graces and, while he wasn't the wealthiest man living in the south of England, he had inherited a fine old estate on which he lived quite comfortably. He wasn't a demanding man, either, content to putter about in his windmill and explore the nooks and crannies beneath the sea for the Sea Opal.
What had driven them from the manor and his side was the Strangford family ill fortune, which often showed itself as a series of horrendous incidents. Despite all of their assurances that they could remain strong in the face of any sort of disaster, they'd eventually turned tail and run.
A feeling of helplessness came over Cole. He leaned toward a beat-up wicker side table, picked up a jug, and poured a few fingers of whiskey into a cracked tumbler. "I don't think you've told me my intended's name. What is it?"
"Lila Whitham," Gillie said, his voice glum. He, too, picked up a glass.
Cole lifted the jug and filled Gillie's glass.
Gillie took a sip, and then whistled appreciatively. "That's a fine whiskey."
"It was tucked away in a dusty corner in the cellar." Cole lifted his glass and took a healthy swallow. The whiskey burned its way down his throat before settling into a warm pool in his stomach. "Zelda found it."
The older man shook his head. "That woman has a nose for liquor. It's going to land her in a grave one day."
"Never mind Zelda. Tell me what you know about my bride," Cole urged.
"Well, Zelda is the one who brought Lila Whitham to my attention. Lila used to be a Pritchard before she married Joseph Whitham, and Zelda has a friend who lives in Buckland Village, the same village the Pritchards call home. This friend of hers attended Lila's wedding, and says that Lila's first husband died -- of old age, in fact."
A widow, Cole thought, nodding slowly. The idea appealed to him. Although dewy-eyed innocents were more attractive than hags, their simpering and foolishness could drive a man mad. He would rather have an experienced woman as his bride, one who would know how to please him without being told, and one who wouldn't be shocked if he pleased her in all the ways he knew of. "How long ago did she lose her husband?"
"Many years ago. She's more than ready to remarry."
"Is she attractive?"
"According to Zelda, passably so."
Cole narrowed his eyes. "Zelda would consider a tree stump attractive. Does she meet the other criteria I've given you?"
He made a spreading motion with his hands. "Is she wide hipped, with large breasts?"
"Her figure is ample," Gillie allowed after a lengthy pause.
"Were there any children from the first union?"
"One, who has since died of the fever."
Cole nodded, sympathy for his faceless bride creeping through him. The woman had clearly suffered during her life. "Does she possess manners? Stamina? Strength? Is she healthy? How skilled is she domestically?"
Another silence ensued.
At length, Gillie cleared his throat and answered, "She is from a very good family."
"Something about your expression isn't inspiring any confidence in me."
The other man shifted on his chair. "From what Zelda recalls, she commanded a high bride price when she married the first time."
"You and I both know that bride price has nothing to do with attractiveness. Do you remember Stanka? Her bride price was so high we had no hope of meeting it, and she was built like a horse, with a horse's face, too."
"Ah, but she made a delicious stew, no? Beauty can't be eaten with a spoon."
Cole sighed. He placed his glass on his work table, stood, and walked to the window. When he stared out, he saw not the sun-dappled lawns of Shoreham Park but the wrinkled face of a woman old enough to be his mother. So, his would-be bride was both old and ugly, and probably fat, too. God help him. "How in hell am I going to get her with child?"
"You've never shown any hesitancy with women before."
"That's because I usually pick my women for myself."
"You pick light skirts who prefer whiskey over tea."
A quick smile curved Cole's lips as the old, wrinkled face he'd been imagining sharpened into the features of the widow Duquet, with whom he'd had a brief affair. "I pick women with good sense, you mean. Besides, I happen to like red hair."
"Mrs. Whitham has brown hair, not red," Gillie informed him. "I hope you like brown hair, too. What will you do to court her?"
"Court her?" Cole shrugged. "I haven't thought much about it."
"Well, let's think now. Will you ply her with wine, cut roses from the garden for her, take her dancing on the patio, under a moonlit sky? I can help you with all of these things, and more. I have many ideas."
"Wine? Roses? Dancing? Are you mad? No one could possibly consider my union with Mrs. Whitham a love match, so why should I pretend otherwise? I plan to assess her suitability as a bride by testing all of those criteria I mentioned to you before. Her domestic skills are of much more concern to me than her reaction to a bouquet of flowers."
Gillie shook his head. "You sound as though you're proposing twelve labors for Hercules. What will you have her do, slay the lion of Nemea? Or behead the Hydra? If you want her to marry you, Nephew, you must court her in some small way."
"I have no time for courtship."
"Let me offer you some advice. Do what you must to get her to the altar, and then put a babe in her belly. Once she's expecting, the babe will take up her attention, and you'll be free again. And we can't dismiss the chance that you may fall in love with her. Wouldn't that be a capital development?"
"I won't fall in love with her," Cole informed him, frowning. "I have no time for love and its intricacies. Can you think of a larger waste of my time?"
Gillie shrugged. "Yes. But it doesn't matter what I think. It's what you think that counts."
"Exactly." Cole's frown grew lighter as he began to plan out in his head how he would put his potential bride to the test. Quickly he decided to send Zelda out to visit this friend of hers in Buckland Village, and leave the household management to Mrs. Whitham, to assess her domestic skills, manners, disposition, and suitability.
Something impinged on the edge of his consciousness, some wariness without origin. Reluctantly he put his plans aside and scanned the hills and woods surrounding Shoreham Park. While his ears heard naught but the sounds of his aunt Pesha and cousin Zelda puttering about the house, and the low neigh of a horse in the stables; and his nose detected not the slightest hint of smoke or other fragrant harbinger of disaster, his gaze sharpened on the ocean that lie beyond the hills.
There he found the source of his discomfort.
The ocean, an angry gray, tossed restlessly. The whitecaps on its surface were clearly visible from his vantage point. He had trouble finding the place where the sky met the ocean, for the portion of sky nearest the horizon was a charcoal-colored bank of clouds marching quickly toward land. The contrast between the hazy blue skies directly above Shoreham Park and the darkness of the approaching storm roused fresh uneasiness in his gut.
"Uncle, come over here and look at the sky," he urged.
The older man joined him at the window, and then whistled through his teeth. "It's been a long time since I've seen clouds that dark."
A strange premonition grabbed hold of Cole. His attention locked on the approaching storm, he couldn't rid himself of the feeling that change was coming on swift -- and perhaps even spurred -- feet. On the whole, he wasn't opposed to change; it brought freshness to old ideas. But this time, instinct told him that the storm he was about to face might not just bring freshness.
They were in for a rough ride.
Copyright © 2002 by Tracy Forbes