“Charles, are you listening to me?” Cynthia tapped her foot impatiently.
“Hmm?” Charles looked at his sister. “What? Look, this is incredible. I’ve managed to cross pollinate and look at the results. I may present them at the Society next month.”
Cynthia peered at the orchid that Charles was presenting so triumphantly. “It’s a funny sort of pink.”
“No, my dear, look at the markings! They are extraordinarily exquisite. And there is nothing else like these in the world! I created them in my glasshouse.”
“Most people grow pineapples in their glasshouses,” Cynthia said. “But Charles, this isn’t why I came.”
“Isn’t it?” Charles’ gaze was fixed on his orchids. “Perhaps you came to see my latest acquisition. Ellington sent it to me from Nicaragua.” He glanced up at his irritated sister. “Come and see this! I don’t suppose there’s another specimen like it in Europe. Ellington was stationed on the Mosquito Coast, you know, and retired there. You remember Ellington? Friend of father.” He caught Cynthia by the hand and dragged her from the drawing room. “It’s all the aether crystals,” Charles said. “They’ve revolutionised the keeping of orchids. It’s made all the difference.”
“Aether crystals can send you mad, you know,” Cynthia said. “Alfred won’t have them in the house. And about that…”
“Your husband is an old fusspot and always has been,” Charles interrupted. “Look at this!”
Cynthia caught her breath as she entered the glass house. The humid heat almost overwhelmed her and she grasped at the nearby table to steady herself. “You could have warned me to loosen my stays!”
“Don’t touch the table!” Charles shrieked as he tenderly closed the door. “There can be no draughts or sudden disturbances. These flowers are valuable. I was offered a thousand guineas for that specimen on the counter.”
“Did you tell Helen that?” Cynthia asked.
“Helen is always so busy with the business,” Charles said. “Besides, I would never part with it.” He frowned and stroked his chin. “Though if I can get some decent plants grown from seed… But it’s a dashed tricky business, Cynthia, and I’m loathe to risk being without it.”
Cynthia looked at the black and violet flower that seemed to smirk malevolently. “The business is doing well, but Helen said that you were spending a lot on these flowers.”
“They’re orchids, Cynthia, not just flowers. Besides, now that we have all the aether heaters and humidifiers, we only have the cost of any replacement crystals. Travers sorted it all out. The new aether science has made all the difference. Look at this!” Charles dragged his sister to a large mahogany cabinet. “See – heat controls here, humidity here, all on timers. Travers sorted out everything. Of course, I have to keep on top of distilling the water. The water around London is shocking for orchids. But even the distillation is aether powered, look!” He dragged Cynthia over to a glass contraption that was hidden behind the ferns. “This is the absolute latest thing in orchid culture. I think I’m the only one in North London who has one.”
Cynthia fanned her face, desperately trying to catch her breath. “Charles, we really need to talk.”
“I know it cost a few more guineas than I normally pull out of the business, but it can stand it. Helen’s doing sterling work and so is Travers. Look, the water comes in from the mains supply here, then goes through the evaporator here. It was a devil to set up, pardon my language, but worth it. It goes out of this window here, to allow condensations – this room has to be at this temperature for the orchids, you know. They are so delicate. Where was I? Oh yes, then the condensate is fed into this flask. I don’t water automatically, though. I wouldn’t want to risk it. I had a nasty case of root rot in one of the specimens from Siam, lost quite an expensive example of Dendrobium to it, and overwatering at the port was no doubt the cause.”
“Charles, you need to listen!” Cynthia said. “Aether crystals aren’t always safe. Travers said you didn’t get any of the latest shielding.”
“Didn’t see the point, old thing, and I suppose I have been dipping into the business somewhat so I didn’t want the expense. But I have a private buyer for these, which I’ll keep for any further investment. Why, I could even turn a profit.” Charles waved an expansive hand at some unprepossessing shoots.
“Charles, do you miss Helen?” Cynthia asked.
“What do you mean?” Charles turned back to aether engine. “I saw at breakfast. No, hang on.” He stopped and thought for a moment. “No, I don’t know if I did see her. But I’m sure that I saw her at dinner last night.” He looked at Cynthia with doubt in his eyes. “Or was she at one of her meetings. The business is quite demanding, you know.”
“I need to get out of here,” Cynthia said, carefully making her way to the door. “And you need to listen to me.” She opened the door and stood there, waiting.
Charles hesitated for a moment and then rushed through the room, meeting Cynthia at the other side before carefully shutting the door. “I told you – I cannot allow draughts in there. What is so damned important?”
“Your language around ladies is dreadful,” Cynthia said, walking away and back to the drawing room where she collapsed into a chair. “And the heat of that room is insufferable. Please ring for some tea.”
Charles looked around absently and rang for the maid. “Well what is so important?”
Cynthia stared at him. “You know Helen, your wife, the one you moved heaven and earth to woo, the one that took our family business and actually made it turn a profit? The pretty woman with the red hair?”
“Yes, what about her? She hasn’t met with an accident has she?” Charles said. “Because it would damned inconvenient if she had. I’ve had a telegram this morning about a package on its way and it takes time to get a specimen settled, especially if it’s come from some distance.”
“May I remind you of your language,” Cynthia said. “Helen left you. She’s been living with her brother for the last six months and taking a salary from the business. Mr Travers, your secretary, is leaving because his father died and he needs to go back home to support his mother in Manchester. And Mrs Callaghan, the housekeeper, won’t stay another week as there is no lady of the house. You need to do something.”
“But I can’t possibly spare the time,” Charles exclaimed. “I’ve just told you, I have a package likely to arrive any day now.” He looked at her. “Are you sure that Helen left? I can’t think why she would. We haven’t had a cross word since Christmas.”
A housemaid came in and set the tea things on a side table. Cynthia waited until she left before pouring herself a welcome cup of tea. “She left just before Christmas. I helped her move. And I don’t blame her one bit! At least she’s keeping the business going. If she didn’t, you wouldn’t have the money for these orchids.” Cynthia watched her brother carefully. “If I were you, I would not upset her.”
“Why would she leave?” Charles asked, bewilderment in every inch.
“Because you didn’t attend your only daughter’s wedding,” Cynthia said. “I can’t see any way of reconciling with Helen, at least, but I would avoid antagonising her. And I think that you will need a new housekeeper as a matter of urgency.”
“Simply not possible, my dear,” Charles said. “I don’t have the time. And if that is all, I must get back to the glass house. Some of the blooms were looking fragile and I need to check the water levels.”
“At least get some shielding for those aether crystals,” Cynthia said as she watched her brother stand and head towards the door. “They can power anything, but they can send you mad.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Charles said. “I show absolutely no sign of irrationality of any sort. I’m sure that Mrs Callaghan will see you right before you leave.”
Cynthia listened to the door close firmly, then took a long drink of her tea. She had never felt more worried in her life.