WANTED: Airship Doctor Physician welcome, surgeon preferred. Remuneration according to experience level. Education open to negotiation. Progressive philosophy and equable temperament preferred. Must tolerate explosions and cats. Dr Arsenic Ruthven turned the advertisement over in her hand. She’d spotted it three days before, in The Mooning Standard, which was a very forward-thinking paper. Yet it went beyond her expectations. It was, in a word, ideal. The author of such an oddly worded advert might be convinced to overlook her greatest failing as a doctor in the eyes of society: being female. She read it over for the hundredth time. That last line was a corker. Arsenic knew of very few doctors who would put up with both explosions and cats. Or explosions caused by cats. She was one of the few.
Arsenic had contacted the brokering agent and been told, curtly, to seek out The Spotted Custard dirigible, moored in Regent’s Park at five in the afternoon on Thursday next. Accordingly, she’d arrived by half past four. Arsenic abhorred tardiness. She was standing next to her collapsible mono-wheel with medical kit in hand in time to watch a distinguished-looking physician with prominent muttonchops and even more prominent teeth go up the gangplank. He was not particularly fit, and the colour and texture of his nose suggested a preference for, and regular indulgence in, claret of an evening – and morning and afternoon and just before bed. He was after her position, if his doctor’s bag and smug expression were any indication. My position, Dr Hairy Jowls Strawberry Nose! She thought it, but she didn’t let it show in her expression or posture. Arsenic tilted her head back, pretending at a tourist’s curiosity over the dirigible. It was modern, massive, and cheerfully spotted. It was also heavily armed, which was an aberration in a pleasure craft.
Her pretence seemed unnecessary as the muttonchops didn’t sway in her direction. A modern young lady in outrageous dress was beneath his contempt. Medical kit or no. Arsenic judged him for his doctor’s bag more than anything else. So old-fashioned. His techniques are likely equally so. Oh, she very much judged him. She needn’t have worried. He came back down the gangplank a mere ten minutes later, flushed and blustering. Which made Arsenic nervous but also immeasurably pleased.
She rubbed sweaty hands over the black serge skirt of her golf costume. It was hemmed in scarlet and six whole inches off the ground. As if that weren’t daring enough, she’d paired it with a scarlet blouse and black knickerbockers. It was beyond progressive, some might even say outrageously suf rage. But Arsenic wasn’t one to hide. She had a demanding profession and she rode a mono-wheel. It was silly to wear long skirts and fancy lace blouses, they impeded mobility and were a challenge to clean. She was a surgeon, blood and mess were part of day-to-day operations – literally and figuratively. She’d even been known to roll up her sleeves when the situation warranted, and scuttle the consequences! Aye, she wanted the position, rather desperately, but she wasn’t going to compromise in personality or attire in order to achieve it. The advert said progressive, Dr Arsenic Ruthven would give them progressive.
Thus buoyed, she checked her watch. 4:50 p.m. She took a breath and, mono-wheel slung over one arm, medical kit under the other, she marched up the gangplank and aboard the aptly named Spotted Custard. “How’s this? Fancy, fancy. I like this one.” A suite of young ruffians was lounging about applying commentary to the applicants. The young lad who spoke was smudged and cheerful, lean and fit, and possibly not a lad. “No wager on this one, gentlemen, I give even odds.” Arsenic squinted at the malcontent.
Female, she decided after a moment’s focus on skeletal structure. “Proper stuffing, she is,” agreed one of the others, chewing happily on reed or cob or something similarly tough and vegetative. He was also smudged and muscled. Bit sunburned. I must remember to stock burn balms. I wager the boilers can scald too. “Definitely nibbles the biscuit,” added one of the others. Arsenic was rather chuffed by this observation. She’d never before nibbled anyone’s biscuit, so she was disposed to be pleased, even when coming from the mouths of babes. Wisdom of youth and all.
“Swanky duds.” The first turned bright sharp eyes onto Arsenic. Clear sclera. Healthy. “Thank you verra much,” replied Arsenic. “I’ll do, then?” “Not up to us. More’s the pity,” lamented the girl. “Still, I’d like to know I’ve your approval.” Arsenic was not above enlisting backers, small and scruffy though they may be. The girl jumped down off her perch and sauntered across the deck, hands deep in pockets, examining Arsenic with interest.
“I’m Spoo,” said, apparently, Spoo. Arsenic inclined her head. “Delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Spoo.” “Just Spoo’ll do. You got dulcet ways for a lady sporting trousers.” “They tried,” Arsenic explained. Spoo laughed. “Could be our ship’s motto, that.” “No one is here to collect me just yet. Would you like to start the interview, Spoo?” Spoo looked delighted.
“Would I ever! How do you feel about candied fruit?” “Favourably.” “What would you do if the forward ballast collapsed?” “Stay out of your way.” This girl must be a deckling, and from the way the others stayed back watching, probably head deckling. “You good with a needle?” “Very.” “You a leech?” Spoo had excellent upper-body musculature, probably from balloon-stimulated gymnastic endeavours. Decklings did a great deal of rigging-work. “Never. That’s well out of date.” “Allergic to cats?” One of the others asked that question. He was shorter with impressive shoulders.
Those muscles were from shovelling and he was more smudged. Arsenic guessed he was a sootie. “Nay, love them.” “Well, don’t love them too much. Miss Primrose wouldn’t like that.” Spoo spoke with sepulchral foreboding. “Neither would Mr Percy,” said a new voice. Another young person trundled up. This one was about Spoo’s age, early teens. He, however, was meticulously clean and dressed in a dark vest and jacket with striped trousers and crisp white shirt.
The attire indicated staff of some kind, a footman or valet. Although he was rather young for either position. He was also on the tubby end of the spectrum, with hair trimmed short and a grave round face. Arsenic worried about his diet. “Are you our five o’clock?” He held himself with dignity and gravitas. “Aye, sir.” Arsenic was already confused by the nature of authority on this ship, so she erred in favour of politeness. “I like this one.” Spoo patted Arsenic in a conspiratorial way. “Oh you do, do you?” The dapper youngster was not impressed.
“Gave her good odds, did you?” “Now don’t go getting all over contrary, Virgil. You know we got to have us something out of the ordinary for this here airship.” “Do we? I should think that was the last thing The Spotted Custard needed – yet another eccentric.” The boy squinted up at Arsenic. “Are you an eccentric, Doctor?” “Only when the situation warrants.” “You aren’t wearing a hat.” “Hats get in the way, except for sunshade, and I work indoors.” Arsenic had strong feelings on the service application of hats. Once she stopped hiding the fact that she was female and started growing her hair, she tended towards a simple plait. This kept all her thick strands contained, but did not easily support hatpins.
Besides, small hats served no useful function and large ones interfered with visual acumen. She’d given them up soon as may be. “Oh dear,” said Virgil. “They’re na practical under most circumstances.” She dug in. “Stop, before you get into real trouble,” advised Spoo, grinning hugely. “This will all end in tears,” predicted Virgil, guiding her over to a ladder that led down belowdecks. “Only for you, Virgil-love,” shot Spoo at his departing back, and then added, “You playing tiddlywinks with us after dinner?” Virgil waved a lugubrious hand at her. Arsenic, hiding a smile and feeling far more relaxed than previously, set her mono-wheel down against the railing with a sharp look at Spoo and a small prayer that it wouldn’t be tampered with, and followed Virgil into the belly of the dirigible. “I like your ship,” she said, hoping to mollify the young man.
“It’s ridiculous,” he replied, unmollified. “So spotty.” “I’ve always been a fan of ladybugs,” replied Arsenic. It was true. Her father was an avid gardener who’d passed that love on to Arsenic. She’d never met a gardener who didn’t love a ladybug or two. She was charmed by the fact that The Spotted Custard’s balloon was painted to resemble one. It was jolly, all over red and black. Besides, it matched her outfit. Professor Percival Tunstell (sometimes erroneously referred to as the Honourable) was annoyed with life and bored out of his gourd.
“This is the last one, correct? Please say yes.” He didn’t bother to hide his annoyance. He’d no idea why he was needed for this, of all things! He’d theories to research (very important theories), charts to draw up (vital and interesting charts). Instead he was stuck sitting in his best suit wasting good daylight hours on an endless stream of insufferably pompous physicians. “If he works, he’s the last one. But given what’s happened so far…” Primrose puffed out her cheeks. “We’ll likely have to do this all over again. Run another advertisement.” She was clearly vexed, but being his sister, relished threatening him with future horror. He glared at her as if this were all her fault.
Then, in case she couldn’t interpret his expression after two dozen years of being his twin, he said, “This is all your fault.” He suspected he sounded atrocious and too much like their mother. “It absolutely is not! I happened to be one of the few people on this airship not injured over the last year.” She had a fair point. Percy hated it when his sister had a fair point. Rue interceded. “Stop it, both of you. It’s got to be done. Perhaps I should have worded the advertisement more strongly?” Prim sighed loudly. “You said, must tolerate explosions and cats.
I’d think that’s sufficiently strong.” “Yes, but I didn’t say we’d actually be testing them with an explosion and a cat.” Primrose pursed her lips. “I’m sure Quesnel didn’t mean for the sugar pot to blow up.” “He never does.” Rue wore a fond smile. “You have to admit it’s rather startling.” Prim rolled her eyes. “Yes, all six times. Will it be happening with the next tea tray as well?” “Of course.
” Percy added, “And Footnote didn’t mean to sniff every single one of them. But to be fair, this is his airship. More importantly, this is the stateroom where there’s usually food. He’s always around if we’re in here. I can’t kick him out, that’d be rude. Right, Footy old chap?” Footnote, who was currently leaning against Percy’s left ankle with one paw on the toe of his shoe, looked up at him and gave an imperious mew. Rue agreed, “It certainly would be rude.” “Perhaps it’s not the advert but the profession itself that is unable to satisfy our needs?” suggested Primrose forlornly. Percy didn’t want to agree with her but she was probably correct. He had his doubts about physicians.
Leeches and charlatans, the lot of them, with no foundation in good proper scientific research and… A tap came at the door. Footnote trotted over to supervise whatever happened next. “Come in,” said Rue. Not rising. Percy stood, though. He was prepared to make a slightly too shallow bow to properly greet whatever pedantic twaddle swaggered through the door. He may have strong feelings on the profession, but he was a gentleman. Virgil led in the candidate. Percy goggled. There was no kinder way of putting it.
Positively goggled like a stunned chipmunk. Primrose let out a soft, “Oh my.” Rue rubbed her hands together. “Excellent!” Virgil intoned, “Your five o’clock appointment, Dr Ruthven, to see you, Lady Captain.” Percy considered that he might have to wean Virgil off his current diet of gothic literature. His valet was becoming positively moribund. He didn’t fret over Virgil’s reading habits for long, though, because some irresistible force dragged his attention back to the new doctor. Percy came over all queasy and flushed. Oh dear. The female physician, for that was what she must be, was on the smallish side, thin compared to Rue and Prim, and a mite taller.
Certainly not as beautiful as Tasherit. Yet he was riveted by her. As if she were some new unexplainable natural phenomenon, like the aetheric bubbles he’d recently written about in a widely discussed and well-received new pamphlet. Or those bright green sand fleas he’d collected in Lima. Being female, she probably wouldn’t like the comparison to bubbles or fleas, but both had been absolutely fascinating. She was serious faced and dark haired and she wore no hat. Her attire seemed odd but serviceable. Percy had no eye for fashion. He disliked that he was noticing hers. She turned big dark blue eyes on him.
Percy froze. He was supposed to bow or something. “I’ll just sit,” he said, voice a little weak. And did. He’d seen a whale once the colour of those eyes. Big whale, very smooth and in the ocean and lashing its tail about and… Percival Tunstell had lost his train of scientific thought. Percival Tunstell never lost a train of scientific thought. This was not good. Virgil made introductions. “This is the captain, Lady Akeldama.
That is the Honourable Miss Tunstell, ship’s purser, and this rude boffin is my horrible master, Professor Tunstell, ship’s navigator. Ignore him. I usually do.” He glared about. “Spoo approves this candidate, in case you care.” He threw this last statement at Rue almost like a barb. Rue made a note. “Of course I care.” “She isn’t wearing a hat,” objected Virgil. “Not everyone takes them as seriously as you, dear.
It’ll be all right in the end, civilisation will remain standing.” Virgil frowned. “Civilisations have fallen for less.” Rue rolled her eyes at the valet. “Go get the tea, Virgil, do.” “Same sugar pot?” “Yes please.” Rue’s voice had that forced cheerfulness it often assumed when dealing with Virgil (or with Percy himself, for that matter) in public. Rue made a graceful gesture with her hand at the open chair across from her. She’d arranged them to sit so that she and Prim were on one side of the table with Percy at the end. The chair directly opposite Rue and nearest the door was intended for the candidate.
“Dr Ruthven, do sit down. I must say, you’re a pleasant surprise.” “Aye?” “Indeed. And I admire your attire greatly. I do so adore sportswear. Unfortunately, it’s not very conducive to, well, my life…” “Actually, I find it mighty conducive to most things. That’s why I wear it.” The young doctor was very forthright. Percy found this irksome, although there was no question that it would facilitate coping with an injured Rue or any of the others aboard The Spotted Custard. Backbone was practically a moral imperative on this ship.
Up until that moment, if asked, Percy would have said he preferred mild-mannered soft-spoken young ladies (unlike his sister and his captain). Percy frowned. That is what I prefer! Not that he’d a great deal of experience with the fairer sex. Aside from Prim and Rue (and Tasherit and Spoo, who didn’t count), Percy tended to flee females as if they represented a herd of peer reviews. Rue squinted. “You don’t know anything about me?” The doctor looked bewildered. “Nay, should I?” “Yes, but it’s a relief that you don’t. I’m rather a scientific curiosity and most of the applicants so far were more interested in dissecting me than in the position on offer.” “I assure you, I am na in the habit of conducting vivisections.” “Good to know.
Shall we get on with the interview then, Dr Ruthven?” “I’m at your disposal, Captain.” Dr Arsenic Ruthven had been in some odd situations in her life but this one took the clootie dumpling. Aye, she was being interviewed. But not by an aged ex-floatillah officer, as she’d expected. Retired puff-men were commonly tapped to captain pleasure craft for the idle rich. Generally speaking, the idle rich did not do the captaining themselves. And yet, before her sat three individuals who were, quite frankly, the very definition of the upper crust. The stout brunette with tan skin, yellow eyes, and decidedly cheeky disposition was actually the captain of the airship! Lady Akeldama looked robust if a touch puffy. Arsenic considered salt retention.