Here is a selection from the first chapter of my novel, Fortune Days. Please enjoy!
It appeared innocently enough, packed in crates of hammered tin from faraway places over the oceans. Soon, it was invited into every English home, from the best to the least. Slowly, inexorably, it shifted into necessity rather than luxury, and the day arrived when the working man and the diplomat both kept time by the whistle of the kettle rather than the chime of a clock.
– J. Penn, HRM Historian on Tea Affairs
The year was 1851, and the world was steeped in Tea.
While Science built societies and ordained men to carry out her distinguished Work, others, less known but no less skilled, quietly hastened after Knowledge. These pursuits took place in the unsophisticated laboratories of starry-eyed dreamers, inside the half basements of curious tinkers, and on one particular morning, on the third floor of Mrs. Rigby’s boarding house as a jar of developing chemicals descended at an astonishing rate to meet the pavement below.
Madeline Bird, the tenant in possession of the windowsill from which the jar fell, snatched up the second jar before the sudden windstorm could claim it, too. She leaned out of her window as an airship skimmed over the rooftop, its bow pointed towards the harbor. Madeline’s mousy brown curls whisped about her face while the sleek wooden craft bound in gleaming rivets pressed on.
“You’re a beauty, aren’t you?” she whispered as the schooner moved beneath the clouds. Its engines resolved from a roar into a rumble.
Deeper in the sky beyond the airship, she could make out the shapes of others as they soared over the city with the cargo of the Empire, going out with goods, wool, and coal and coming back with black, green, and white tea. When the ships drifted closer, Madeline could see their busy crews beneath white sails.
She beamed, thinking, Soon, I will be up there, too. I’ll see where those crates come from—I’ll see China for myself.
The windows stopped shaking as she ducked under strings of photographs to cross the sitting room. The air held a lightly acrid, metallic smell, and Madeline was well aware that, like her room, she wore the unique perfume of photography. As she put down the surviving jar, she caught sight of the time from the impassive face of the clock standing just behind her threadbare divan.
“Eight thirty? Why didn’t you say something?” She reached round for the ties of her stained apron and threw the thing off. “I might be late to the celebration because of you— I hope you know that.” The clock, unrepentant, steadily ticked the time away.
The party was an important happening in the city, and the newspaper would be grateful for photographs their artists could work from when it came to illustrating the event for a future edition. One picture could be the difference between chasing her dream and having to give it up forever, and Madeline did not want to lose her chance.
She stepped into her boots at the door and wrapped a red ribbon around the top of each, though her skirts would hide the bows. From the table, she took her Emerson, a sturdy, self-casing camera with a wooden frame that featured some of her own particular modifications.
Madeline reached up for her portfolio and moved the book leaning against it. The book was Robert Fortune’s latest writing, the botanist’s notes on his travel in China. The few people who somehow had not heard of Mr. Fortune in these teacup days might have been surprised by her interest in a botanist’s observations, but the pages were just as full of quick-witted escapes from bandits and storms at sea as they were of observations about tea growing conditions in the Chalan valleys. Perhaps more surprising was that both topics fascinated her.
Her hand on the doorknob, she noticed her gloves were brown with developing fluid stains.
“Another pair ruined,” she muttered impatiently. Madeline left them on the shelf, debated with herself over appearing in public without gloves, bustled out, then leaned back in and snatched them up.
She took the disheveled morning’s post from the basket hung by her door where it was deposited by the pneumatic tube system twisting over the thin walls of the boarding house. The faint whistle of the air spiraling in the pipes was matched only by the high notes of a hot kettle in the kitchen. Heading for the stairs, she flipped through the various letters and flyers but, thankful to see no insistent letters from home, settled on the morning paper whose black headlines shouted Outrage Over Oolong!
The article concerned unlicensed merchants who daily sold counterfeit tea to a thirsty public. Though they were sure to have the appearance and smell of genuine article, the leaves of these so-called teas could belong to any number of plants infinitely less healthy for consumption than Camellia sinensis.
This week, it appeared that Oolong tea, usually too rare and expensive for anyone except the upper class, was going for an extraordinarily low price in London, though several of the purchasers found themselves in hospital shortly after steeping a pot at home.
The snappish tones of Madeline’s landlady, Mrs. Rigby, radiated from the front room. The bell had rung earlier that morning, which could only mean that the older lady’s help notice was being answered by the first brave soul to cross the threshold.
Madeline took a few more steps down while skimming a paragraph about a man in Chiseldon-Grand who found himself swindled out of several pounds of Oolong, the bricks he purchased being composites from the stems and rough leaves of a much inferior plant. Upon handling the tea, the man had asked so many questions that the charlatan kicked up his heels and fled before the authorities could be pulled down on his head.
The Special Committee for Tea Affairs at Westgate recommends that before purchase, customers ensure the Tea merchant is knowledgeable of the Tea’s origin and how long ago the Leaves were harvested, the article read.
Mrs. Rigby was interrogating a young lady in the parlor. “How many kinds of tea are you familiar with?”
“I know the primary three—greens, blacks, and whites—like my own sisters.”
Madeline reached the ground floor. Your merchant should also know how the Tea was stored prior to its shipment and how it is stored in his shop, she read before peering around the corner.
“Have you any experience with reds or herbals?”
“Some, ma’am. My mum made her own peppermint at Christmastide.”
Seeing Mrs. Rigby engaged, Madeline sped to the table set just inside the entryway to write out a note. A hasty look over her shoulder into the front room showed that Mrs. Rigby had almost concluded her inquiries. The article, resting on the table by Madeline’s hand, gave one last bit of advice: If possible, test a small amount for Freshness.
“How long do you boil for a green?” Mrs. Rigby asked.
The girl, scandalized, exclaimed, “Oh no, ma’am! Never for a green.”
“Yes, I think you will do nicely. I won’t stand to have someone doing something in my own house that I can’t do myself.” Bent over her note, Madeline raised a knowledgeable eyebrow and silently mouthed the next part automatically as the lady said, “Otherwise, how would I know if the job were being done properly?”
For the fifth time that week, Madeline wondered if this was one of the reasons Mrs. Rigby disagreed with her photography business. She knew several of the others, each well rehearsed from repetition over meals. Mrs. Rigby was an old acquaintance of Madeline’s parents, and it was out of kindness to them that she had agreed to take their seventeen-year-old daughter just out of finishing school under her stiff, matronly wing. Her stern manner seemed to suggest that Mrs. Rigby believed there were still a few things she needed to learn.