IV

***

Miss Oakland's intuition was proved true ere long. In the two first days of the travel, Mr Woodhouse could scarcely be seen without the Hungarian lady, and though it was the general consensus that they made for a very handsome couple, there was also a lot of whispers. The engagement of Miss Markoczy was no secret; people wondered whether the French fiancé would kill Mr Woodhouse when the news reached his ears. Some said he was the Duc d'Aquitaine, and others only a Vicomte. But everyone agreed that he was a passionate man, and that he had already won three duels to death. Of course nobody had never met him and no one was clear on the reasons that would push such a man as the Duc d'Aquitaine to risk so much in an illegal encounter of this sort.

There was also another disagreeable consequence of this developing relationship. Since they travelled together, many people had assumed that Miss Oakland and Mr Woodhouse 'shared a bond'. The new couple made Georgiana look the fool; the right-thinking passengers considered that she had been abandoned and that she must be feeling wretched. That two brothers could have put her in such similar situation in a little over a year span was bitter. Yet she kept her head high and her stance erect and refused to dignify the prying questions of the other ladies, which soon earned her the reputation of being proud and hard to be pleased. Her who had been so generally liked in London experienced with people withdrawing from her company for the first time. It was an unpleasant experience and made her anxious to get to New York.

Mr Woodhouse was not deterred by the rumours. His only reaction when Georgiana asked him to deny them was to laugh.

"Let them be, Miss Oakland," he said. "They need to gossip but will never hurt anyone."

"You underestimate the influence of gossip on one's reputation, Mr Woodhouse," Georgiana answered.

"I never cared much for mine, as you well know. Anyone who appreciates me know the rumours to have their fact wrongs. Now, Miss Oakland, smother down that frown, it does not agree with your pretty face."

"You might not care for your reputation, but I do care for mine! Please, at least, tell them that we never were in any sort of relationship besides that of acquaintances instead of shrugging!"

"And what good will it do? They may hear my words but they will not heed them. They have decided our story and it is much more romantic than the truth," Mr Woodhouse said with some impatience. "They will remain convinced that they guessed it right and be very pleased with their own perceptiveness. Our denials will only strengthen their belief; for of course any young person will deny having been spurned. And you used to be involved with my brother, which makes the whole situation even more sordid."

"You are far too cynical!"

"No, I am not. I see those people for what they are and you would do better to start doing the same. If you'll excuse me, I have other people to attend."

Three days later, it was well established in the Mary Swallow that Miss Markoczy had been seen stepping out of Mr Woodhouse's cabin on at least two occasions. Thus it was definitively agreed that a new couple had been born and Miss Oakland was forgotten, for which she was grateful. She was still wary of what might be the consequences of Mr Woodhouse's actions but ended up that, as the one responsible, he would have to deal with them himself.

There was another person that was clearly unhappy with this new development. Mr Markoczy, with whom Miss Oakland had started becoming friends, was worried and unnerved. It did not take him long to share his concerns with her, as they were sitting in the little salon at the end of the second week of their travel.

"I do not think this will end well," he told her. "Margit tends to be very fickle, but when she gives her heart, she gives it whole. Your friend does not seem like one who would realize what he had been given."

"But your sister already gave her heart, did not she? Surely she must not have much to give to Mr Woodhouse."

"I do not know about that. She loves Louis dearly, of course, but she is not the type of woman who is made fonder by absence. And Louis... he has all my affection, but he is not a man that could compare with Mr Woodhouse. I do not pretend to understand you ladies' criteria, but Louis is a gentle man, quiet and collected, perhaps to a fault. Compared to him, Mr Woodhouse seems a magnet. A magnet for trouble but a magnet anyway. Even as a man, he appears to me as a much more interesting person than Louis would on a superficial level."

"A superficial level is not everything, Mr Markoczy. I do not think there is a real need for prudence here because I trust Mr Woodhouse to take it no further than the point where your sister will be able to leave him without feeling too much regret. He does not like it when his mistresses start having feelings and will push them out as soon as he detects the first bud of one."

"Is that what happened to you?"

Georgiana looked at him with surprise for a short moment.

"What? Oh, no!" She exclaimed. "I cannot believe you thought that too!"

She was laughing so hard for a few minutes that she almost fell off her chair. When she finally calmed down, she felt ashamed to have lost control of herself so much, and before Mr Markoczy, too.

"There has never been anything of that sort between us," she said.

"Yet you travel together," he said, making a large gesture that included the little salon where they were sitting, and the rest of the ship too.

"Our circumstances are particular."

"Which makes me think that I have never heard about them," he said. "Not that I mean to pry!" he added in a hurry, raising his hands in defence.

"There is no offence, Mr Markoczy," Georgiana said, smiling. "We are going to the Great Plains, to collect the fairy of Mr Woodhouse's younger brother, who used to be my companion. This is the only reason he and I are here, for we would need such a strong incentive to remain in each other's company for any length of time. We never liked each other much."

Mr Markoczy considered her for some minutes and looked like he would say something at one point. He must have changed his mind, for he remained silent until Miss Oakland decided to ask the reason for of his own presence on the ship.

"Margit wanted to go to New York once in her life. But she will marry in a few months and once she is Madame la Duchesse, it is doubtful that they will manage to leave France for long enough to visit New York. Louis is very close to the Emperor and therefore cannot leave when he wishes. Basically, those are her last months of total liberty."

"So this is why you are tolerating her fling with Mr Woodhouse," Georgiana said.

Mr Markoczy nodded.

"I cannot agree with your attitude. Your sister's fiancé probably thinks that she is already his; she should remain faithful," she said.

"Ah, Miss Oakland, it cannot hurt Louis, for he will never know it," Mr Markoczy smiled.

"It is still a betrayal," she answered. "It always hurt someone, even if no one is aware of it."

"Do not let your mood be darkened by the follies of my sister and myself. Come with me, Miss Oakland, I have something to show you that I am sure will please you a lot. I intended to show Margit, but she is afraid of heights. She cannot even come here, the bay view makes her so nervous she can barely stand. I have a feeling such fear has never concerned you."

Intrigued, Miss Oakland followed him. As they went higher and higher in the ship, she pressed him with questions, but the Hungarian man refused to tell her. He owed the discovery to Captain Cartwright, when the man had guided him through the whole ship. It was something like she had never seen.

They passed through the machinery room. Now that Georgiana knew the motors' location, she understood why she had never heard them; her cabin couldn't be farther from them. Once again she felt all the advantage of what she had been offered; and once again she wondered if Mr Woodhouse was the one responsible for it and refused the possibility.

There were a handful of people working there. They looked like no one Georgiana had ever met before; her father's tenants had been, if not all well nourished, at least looking rather healthy and tanned. The only thing one could see of these men was the layer of charcoal powder on their faces and the sweat dripping down their forehead, drawing little lines. According to Mr Markoczy, they also were passengers, paying their travel fee with the only thing they had to their names: the strength of their arms. Miss Oakland found them sad faces and haunted looks. Before Mr Markoczy dragged her along on their way, she managed to form the hope that they would find in the Colonies at least one of the things they were looking for. She was thinking of Mr Jefferson and Mr Harrison and all those other gentlemen, and the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What would have happened to those people if King George III had not gone to war with the Colonies? If the Queen's older brothers had survived?

"We are here, Miss Oakland," Mr Markoczy said. "Now, I hope that my impression that heights do not bother you was right. If not, I shall be very sorry."

And then he opened the door.

It was the most wonderful feeling Georgiana had experienced since she had understood how to keep her bike upright and moving forward at the same time. He had taken her up to the upper deck of the ship, right in the open air. She could not remember anything so exhilarating. The wind was slamming on her cheeks and making her eyes water, the sky was the bluest thing she had ever seen, and there were clouds coursing each other so fast she felt her head spinning trying to follow them. She ran to the stern: somewhere under them was the sea. It was not all that far; she would probably survive a fall.

She had seen it from the little salon, but here it was completely different. The exterior setting made real what looking through a glass had made look foreign and distant. She leant over the starboard and saw the large white sails, some rising toward her, others blowing toward their direction. There were metal tubes sticking out the flanks of the ship which she was almost certain had not been there when they had departed London. They ran along the wood in a disorderly fashion, as if there was no logic to their implantation. It was nothing from above like it had been from below. The ship looked like it was another from the one she had boarded. Where had the Mary Swallow gone?

"How does it work? Do you know?" she asked.

"As pleased as I am with your reaction, I think you should step back, Miss Oakland. It is dangerous," Mr Markoczy said.

She obeyed.

"I know the basics, Captain Cartwright explained them to me," he added. "The machines blow the steam in the sails through some tubes that we cannot see from here. The upward sails maintain us I altitude and the forward ones propel us. The amount of steam allows for regulation; by reducing it on some sails we slow down, and on others we go down. If you distribute the steam unevenly between the right and the left sails, you can control the ship's direction. And I seem to remember Captain Cartwright telling me that you do not say right or left on a ship."

He smiled boyishly at her.

"There are people in the sails, right?" she said. "I think I saw them. What happens if they fall?"

"I believe they have security nets. Those are not infallible of course, but there has been no accident since the Mary Swallow has started flying. At least, so said Captain Cartwright, but it could be argued that he has his ship's reputation to defend."

"Oh, Captain Cartwright is not lying," Georgiana said absent-mindedly. "The Mary Swallow has only flown three times after all. It would be a real lack of luck if an accident had happened in such a short time."

"I am happy to hear that, Miss Oakland," said someone who was definitively not Mr Markoczy.

She turned and blushed upon coming face to face with the subject of their conversation himself. She stammered some excuses which Captain Cartwright brushed away – she had been right, after all. Anyway, he had come up here looking for her and had been told by numerous witnesses that Miss Oakland had been seen running off with the Hungarian gentleman.

"Mr Woodhouse has been asking after you for an hour already. He has gone to the little salon and not found you, so he came to me, thinking that it was time for me to finally do something useful."

"The little salon? He must have come just after we left," Mr Markoczy remarked.

Georgiana nodded. She was happy he had missed them, though; she had been in no mood to meet with him and she would have been sorry to have been deprived of this little excursion. It was the first really agreeable moment she had spent on the Mary Swallow.

"What could Mr Woodhouse want from me?" she said, surprised. "We haven't even talked all that much this week."

"He is probably out of medicine. He was looking rather pale when I talked to him," Captain Cartwright said.

"Medicine?" Georgiana repeated.

"He did not tell you? Woodhouse gets severely airsick if he doesn't take medication to counter the effects of air travelling. It rather surprised me that he agreed to taking a flyship, actually. The last time I managed to get him on one was when we were in school and he swore he would never put foot on one ever again."

"We were pressed by time."

"Right. I had forgotten that. Anyway, I cannot believe he did not take enough medication to last him through the whole travel and then another few years on the Mary Swallow."

"No doubt he means to put the blame on me," Miss Oakland said.

They all laughed, both gentlemen agreeing that no one would dare blaming her for anything. She responded that they were fools if they believed Mr Woodhouse incapable of it; and she reproached Captain Cartwright with having abused her on the actual level of intimacy he shared with her travel companion. In such a pleasant fashion she went back to the passengers quarters; not dreaming for an instant that the travel she thought was about to start improving had just taken a turn for the worse.

***

This chapter was quite difficult for me to write. At first the whole scene on the upper deck with Mr Markoczy was not supposed to exist, but the chapter was way too short and way too empty, so I decided to throw it in. Does it feel forced? Do you think I should keep it? Personally I think it allows to show the friendship between Mr Markoczy and Miss Oakland but maybe it has no utility? Waiting for your advice guys :)