Michael Bromley, the Duke of Woriton, set the thin, round-trimmed sheet of zinc on the halfpenny, then pulled a circular piece of paper from the bowl of salted water on the table in front of him and placed it atop the two metals. Another piece of zinc went on top of that.
“Your Grace?” Huston rapped a knuckle against the door.
“Working,” Michael said, and placed another coin on the stack.
Mumbled conversation from beyond the door tickled at his concentration. Rolling his shoulders, Michael continued stacking—halfpenny, zinc, saltwater paper. Seven layers ought to suffice for his purposes today; he only needed a spark, and that didn’t warrant pulling out the troughs or the larger zinc plates.
“I understand, Your Grace,” the butler’s voice came again, “but your aunt is here. Lady Mary wishes to speak with you.”
“The sign is on the door, Huston.” Michael looked up for a moment. “The sign is on the door, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Ha. He’d remembered it—or more than likely, neglected to take it down yesterday. “And what does it say?”
“It says, ‘Do not disturb,’ Your Grace.”
“Thank you, Huston. I’ll take luncheon at one o’clock.”
More hushed conversation whispered through the closed door of his study. His aunt knew he was generally occupied in the mornings, so she had no one to blame but herself for choosing a morning to call on him. Michael lifted the stack enough to place the end of a copper wire between the bottom coin and the wooden disc beneath it.
The door opened. “You will ruin your eyesight, spending all your time looking at such little things,” Aunt Mary stated, swishing into the room and leaving the door ajar behind her.
“The world is composed of little things,” he returned, finishing off the stack with a last piece of zinc, another copper wire, and a top wooden disc. “Smaller even than most people realize.”
“That sounds impressive, Michael, but it looks as if you’re just sitting there counting money.”
“This,” he said, sitting back to look at his aunt and noting that she was dressed rather fancily for a cup of tea with her nephew, “is a voltaic pile. A ‘battery,’ if you wish to go by Benjamin Franklin’s definition.”
“And what does a voltaic pile do, then?”
“It makes electricity.”
“Hm. Much more practical than attaching a key to a kite and flying it in a storm, I suppose. Silly Americans.” She removed one glove to slap it against her hand. “I won’t be back in London until mid-June, at the earliest. I’ve left instructions about Lancelot with Huston, as I don’t imagine you’re listening to anything I’m saying, but for God’s sake take him for a walk once in a while.”
“I am not going to take my butler for a walk,” Michael countered, frowning. “He can damned well walk himself. And be careful of that receiver. It took me an hour to fill it with hydrogen.”
“For heaven’s sake, Michael. Not your butler. Lancelot. My poodle.”
Because she didn’t seem to be listening, Michael stood to move the upside-down glass receiver and the water-filled saucer upon which it sat to the other side of his large worktable. While hydrogen wasn’t difficult to collect, it wasn’t a quick process, by any means. “What about Lancelot?”
“Take him for a walk. Daily, if possible.”
“You take him for a walk. He’s your dog.”
“I won’t be here. Have you paid attention to nothing I’ve been saying to you for the past month?” Sighing, she dragged a stool up to the table and sat down opposite him, still managing to make the motion look ladylike. “I am going to visit Violet, Lady Penderghast. I can’t take Lancelot with me, as her husband Gerald is allergic to dogs.”
“I’ve been occupied, Aunt Mary,” he stated. “I haven’t become senile. You’re going to Cornwall and leaving Lancelot in my care. Is that today, though? I thought you weren’t leaving until the middle of May.”
“I changed my mind. A woman’s prerogative.”
Michael sent her a brief grin. “Indeed. Give my regards to Lord and Lady Penderghast, then.” Leaning over the table, he kissed her on one pale cheek. “And yes, I or someone else will walk Lancelot daily. And I’ll make certain Mrs. Fellows bakes oat biscuits and a boiled egg for his breakfast every morning.”
Aunt Mary threw her arms around his shoulders, nearly upending the table. “You do listen, Michael.”
“On occasion.” Craning his neck to see around her, he slid the voltaic stack into a safer position. “Now please go away. I am working.”
Clucking her tongue against her teeth, Lady Mary Harris released her hold on him. “I wish you would phrase that differently. ‘Working’ is très gauche, especially for a gentleman. You do recall that you’re a duke, don’t you? I concede that at your station being thought of as eccentric is tolerable and possibly expected, but it’s a very few steps between your fellows thinking the Duke of Woriton unique, and those same people deciding you’re mad as a hatter and deserve to lose all your holdings and your title. There is avarice in the government, you know.”
“I’m aware.” Reaching behind him for a dish with a minuscule quantity of black dust on it, Michael set one of the copper wires into it. “Let them say whatever they wish. I have a great many solicitors on retainer.” Leaning back a little, he touched the other copper wire to the powder.
It exploded in a loud puff of flame and black smoke. Aunt Mary shrieked and jumped backward, her hands flying to her chest. “Michael! You nearly scared the life out of me!”
“My apologies. It was just a bit of gunpowder; a simple trick.” He sighed. “Much easier than measuring the heat of burning hydrogen gas, which is what I’m meant to be doing this morning.”
“Just how many of the chemicals and … things you store in here are explosive?”
Copyright © 2023 by Suzanne Enoch