The ribbons were taken away, and the oddgob machine presented Sophronia with a new selection: a letter opener, a pair of ornate lady’s sewing scissors, a large fan, a crumpet, two handkerchiefs, and some white kid gloves. Sophronia felt she was on firmer ground at last. These were tools of great and fateful weight when applied properly. She chose the scissors and one of the handkerchiefs. The other options were removed.
Next came a slate upon which had been written the phrase SEND HELP IMMEDIATELY. In front of it, on a wooden board, lay a piece of parchment with ink and quill, an embroidery hoop with needle and thread, and a bag of raspberry fizzy sweets. Sophronia chose the sweets, cracked one open with the aid of her scissors, and dumped out the fizz. She used the needle from the embroidery to prick her finger, smeared the blood on the inside of the broken sweet, and popped it back inside the little sack. Then she cut off a bit of the ribbon tied about her neck and used that to secure the bag.
The remaining items disappeared into the oddgob, and the mechanical stopped cranking.
Sophronia stepped back and let out a sigh.
Her stomach rumbled, informing her that a good deal of time had passed. She had been given longer to contemplate each test than she realized. A bang sounded at the door. When she opened it, a maid mechanical sat there, bearing a tray of food. Sophronia took it gratefully, and the maid trundled off without ceremony. Sophronia closed the door with her foot and, in the absence of chairs, balanced the tray precariously on one section of the oddgob.
She assessed the food. Nothing smelled of almonds. Nevertheless, she avoided the leg of mutton in glistening currant jelly sauce and the Bakewell pudding and ate only the plain boiled potatoes and broccoli. Better to assume everything was still a test until Lady Linette returned to tell her otherwise. Sad, because she loved Bakewell. When nothing else happened, Sophronia put the tray down and examined the oddgob while it was not waggling things autocratically in front of her.
It was a fascinating apparatus. She wondered if Vieve knew of its existence at the school. Genevieve Lefoux was a dear friend, a mercurial ten-year-old with a propensity for dressing like a boy and a habit of inventing gadgetry. If Vieve didn’t know of the oddgob, she would want to, and she was certain to ask all sorts of questions. Sophronia took mental notes in anticipation of conversations to come. When tired of that, she used the scissors to extract a small part from the machine. It was a crystalline valve, faceted, and awfully familiar in shape and style. It looked like a smaller version of the prototype Monique had tried to steal last year. This valve appeared to have been only propped in, so Sophronia was certain that removing it would make no difference to the function of the oddgob. When they’d first discovered the prototype valve last year, Vieve had prattled on about point-to-point transmissions. A revelatory breakthrough indeed, since the telegraph machine had recently proved a dismal failure. If this was a new version of that same prototype, Vieve would want to see it.
The door behind Sophronia creaked open, and she hastily stashed the mini-prototype up her sleeve, where the pagoda style allowed for secret pockets.
“Miss Temminnick, have you finished?”
“Isn’t everyone finished at the same time? The oddgob cycle seems to be prescribed,” replied Sophronia.
“Now, now, manners.”
Sophronia curtsied apologetically, although she did feel as if she had been abandoned for longer than necessary.
“I had to assess Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott first. Technically, she was admitted ahead of you. If you’ll recall, you went for tea with Mademoiselle Geraldine before you were formally allowed into the school.”
Sophronia recalled it quite vividly, as a matter of fact. All those fake cakes.
“Now for your report.” Lady Linette removed something round and mechanical from her reticule and shook it violently. Was she mad?
“They said it was working. Oh, bother.” Frustrated, Lady Linette marched over to the oddgob and jerked a few cranks and switches on the underside of the mechanical’s carapace. In response, the mechanical turned a smaller, hidden crank at the back, well out of human reach. On the far end of the oddgob, a massive roller ratcheted down, dipped into a pan of ink, and rolled across a series of letters. These then beat down in a sequential blur onto a taut piece of parchment. A large pink blotter rocked back and forth across the finished text.
Sophronia was impressed. She hadn’t noticed that the oddgob contained a printing press.
Something rattled in the machine and then whined.
“Stop that,” said Lady Linette to the oddgob, shaking the mysterious object in her hand at it again.
Oh, dear, perhaps the mini-prototype was vital, thought Sophronia.
The oddgob whined louder and began to shake.
“Stop cranking,” Lady Linette instructed the mechanical, shaking the object harder. “Miss Temminnick, I think we had better make haste.” The teacher gestured for Sophronia to precede her from the room.
Too late, however, for the oddgob exploded with a terrific bang. Hair ribbons fluttered up into the air, the tea service shattered, the fake tea cake bounced like a rubber ball, and ink squirted out from the printing press.
Sophronia and Lady Linette flattened themselves on the floor, heedless of crushed dresses and flipped petticoats.
“My goodness,” said Lady Linette into the resulting silence. “What did you do?” She stood and walked to the oddgob, now tilted to one side as if it had a limp.
“Me? Nothing at all!” insisted Sophronia, sitting up.