ONLY AFTER THE second explosion did Violet start to worry.
Having retired for the night, rung for her maid, and poured herself a glass of brandy, Lady Violet Greycliff decided to ignore the first blast. She tried to ignore the second one as well until she considered her housekeeper's reaction.
Violet paid Mrs. Sweet a small fortune to clean an astonishing variety of chemical compounds out of the walls, floors, and furniture of her home, Beacon House, and its adjoining property. She had neither the time nor the inclination to search the British Isles for another housekeeper who could remove scorch marks from damask.
The third explosion, however, sent Violet scurrying from her bedchamber and down the back staircase.
Linked to Beacon House, what once had been a series of outbuildings was now part of one structure with a front entrance the next street over. After sinking most of her funds into the construction of this addition, Violet had created London's first social club for ladies, Athena's Retreat. Even more dear to her heart was the club within the club. The public believed the Retreat to be a gathering place for ladies with a passing interest in the natural sciences. Behind closed doors, though, those same ladies were making discoveries advancing the fields of mathematics, biology, and chemistry, to name a few.
Loud, smoke-filled discoveries.
Before her, the thick oak door to the connecting hall stood open, revealing the club's first floor of hidden laboratories. An odor of sulfur and cheese hung in the air, along with an unsettling amount of green smoke.
"No cause for alarm," cried a hoarse voice, followed by a round of coughing. "Made a slight miscalculation. Nothing to worry over."
Violet cursed her luck as Mildred Thornton and her partner, Wilhelmina Smythe, emerged from a room where the smoke was thickest. The two ladies, affectionately known as Milly and Willy, had sworn they were no longer experimenting with unstable compound liquids.
"You told me you were investigating the properties of powders," Violet cried. "How did you manage to create an explosion from talc?"
"Whoops. Did we say talc powder? Apologies," rasped Milly. A fine veil of soot darkened her silver hair and settled like black beads in her eyebrows.
"All sorts of powders, dear," Willy chimed in. A foot taller than Milly and half as wide, she shook a cloud of ash from her skirts. "Talc powder, rice powder . . ." She lowered her voice and found something interesting to examine in the vicinity of her shoes. "Gunpowder . . ."
Violet helped Milly bat out a few smoldering embers on the mancheron trimming of her left sleeve. "Either way, what were you thinking?" she moaned.
"We were thinking how far ahead those insufferable Italians at the University of Turin are in the development of pyroglycerin," Milly said. "Although we cannot share our work with the world, a few men are privy to our research and take us seriously. England cannot afford to fall behind in this area."
Mrs. Sweet's voice could now be heard above the din, her lilting West Indian accent softening the severity of her shouted evacuation orders. Doors opened along the corridor as women emerged from their labs in various states of excitement. Many wore canvas aprons over their dresses, and some sported thick, padded gloves.
"Must we leave? My work is at a delicate stage," complained a fine-boned woman dressed in a modest, though expertly tailored, blue wool dress. "Who was it this time?"
"Letty," Violet greeted the petite mathematician. "Help me get everyone out of the laboratories and into the public rooms so we can decide what to do."
Miss Letitia Fenley, club secretary for Athena's Retreat, set about her duties at once, and Violet sent a prayer of thanks heavenward for her efficiency.
Twenty minutes later, Violet stood in the club's common area. Its decor echoed those in the men's clubs of St. James's Street. While oak wainscoting lined the lower half of the walls, the upper half had been painted a cheerful cranberry. At one end of the room, a fire blazed in a large hearth framed by a mantel of speckled marble.