London, July 1862
At the appointed time, Liam O’Hannigan and Millicent headed to the pub. The establishment was on the other side of the river, but fairly close. The opening was a bright green solid door. Millicent got down from the cab. Liam asked “What time should I pick you up?”
“Would you join me for a drink? Your presence might help and I owe you for the shopping this afternoon,” She asked.
Liam thought for a moment and said, “I’ll set the carriage and be back in a tick.”
Millicent put on the red scarf even though it clashed horribly with her blue dress. The dress was a tasteful blue lace pattern with a white bodice. The neck was lower allowing for a more relaxed corset. She had tunic style jacket to keep warm on the ride over. On entering the pub, the noised dimmed a bit as the regulars viewed the newcomer who was a bit overdressed. Millicent looked back for Liam who was still negotiating with a minder about watching his carriage.
Millicent headed for the bar and took a spot where there were two stools. There were several options for draft ale. She ordered a pint of bitter and waited for Liam. As she waited, a man sat down and said “’ello Lass, what brings you here?”
“I’m waiting for someone”, Millicent eyed the man over. He had a tweed jacket and linen shirt and a tartan cap. He was probably one of the hired hands at the local flats.
“Shame. I think you would have more fun with me.” He was trying for “amusing” and only found “annoying”.
“Really? I have my doubts.” Millicent scanned the room trying to show as little interest as possible.
“You don’t know me yet,” he said amiably and graced her with a smile shy of two teeth.
Deciding to find a new way to move him on his way, she chugged her drink down in two gulps and said “And you don’t know me.” The man on her other side whistled appreciatively. Her new companion was now a bit uncomfortable. She touched his glass – “Finish! I am just getting started.” He looked at the crowd staring at him smiling and smirking and then finished his a bit slower. “I believe custom is that you buy me another if you wish to continue this discussion.” Red faced, the man got up and left. Millicent ordered another bitter. The seat remained vacant a bit longer and she looked around the roomed sizing up the crowd. It was clerks and servants – hardly ruffians, but out for the night. As she reached this conclusion, another hopeful sat down on the stool.
“Hello, my name is Anthony,” said the young man in a neat suit.
“At least you do me the courtesy of introducing yourself. However, I am expecting someone shortly,” Millicent said curtly.
“Well he isn’t here and I would like a drink. And conversation can’t hurt.” He ordered ale.
“True enough. All right Anthony, my name is Millicent,” returning the favor.
“Ah you do talk. Now what brings you here?” He was going for polite banter which was working better.
“I am meeting a gentleman,” Millicent repeated.
“How disappointing for me.” And he drooped his lips trying to look it.
“I’m sure” replied Millicent wondering where Liam was and being annoyed that Michael hadn’t showed up yet.
“Are you visiting London or a new arrival?” unperturbed by the information, the young man persisted.
“Why ever would you assume that I am visiting or new?” she asked.
“It’s not often we see gentry in this pub,” he said pleasantly waving a bit at her dress.
“Point taken.” And she took a drink of her bitter.
“In either case, you might want someone to show you the sights,” Anthony said making his play.
Millicent snorted in her beer. About that point Liam walked up and Millicent quickly said “Liam, I am so glad you’re here. Meet Anthony, he’s just leaving – aren’t you Anthony?”
Anthony looked defiant, “I rather like this seat.”
Liam looked at him and cracked his knuckles meaningfully. Anthony considered for a moment and then said “On the other hand, there are some friends I haven’t talked to in ages. Please take my stool”
Liam smiled graciously and said, “thank ye lad.” As Anthony tried to exit gracefully, Liam leaned over and asked “Local color trying to rub off?”
“He was doing all right and then used the most ridiculous line. I wouldn’t have been able to keep a straight face the rest of the evening. Please tell me you don’t offer to show someone the sights of London,” Millicent said quietly.
Liam looked a tad embarrassed as he said. “I am a taxi driver.” Millicent looked pained. “However, if someone of your stature were to grace my pub, I would figure she’s not interested in the local riffraff,” he said with a touch of regret.
“Complimentary and yet a bit defeatist. Out of character for you Mr. O’Hannigan,” she said.
“I’ve learned through practice that exotic food is expensive and doesn’t agree with me,” he said. There was no malice in his voice; just experience.
Millicent laughed. “There is the Liam O’Hannigan I’ve been working with for the last two days. Cheers.”
They both took a healthy drink. Liam smacked his lips and then said “Beggin’ your pardon, but it’s only been today.”
“Did I say two? I must be slipping,” Millicent looked innocent.
At that moment a young man shorter than average came up to the two of them. He was wearing an olive wool coat and grey trousers. His shoes were in excellent condition and highly polished. The shirt was white linen, pressed but working cut. He leaned over the bar and said “Ale, Sam”. He looked at the red scarf carefully and asked “Are you Millicent Morgaine?”
Millicent extended her hand and said “I am and you must be Michael.”
Liam moved to get up. “I’ll just attend to the cab, Ma’am.”
“Stay Mr. O’Hannigan. It would do you well to hear some of the conversation. And you and Michael might have something in common. Michael, thank you for taking the time to come. So, where would you like me to start?”
Michael looked her over and said, “I haven’t seen you before. The other recruiters are from local firms and I know most of them. You said you had an engagement available. Perhaps you can fill me in on some of the details.”
“I am an agent for a party who is not local. This patron is looking for a team of engineers to be engaged in a long term project involving designing and building infrastructure. One engineer with architecture and construction knowledge is essential. Your talent in that area was noted by my sources. Your creativity in drawing will also be appreciated. You fit that bill quite nicely.”
“That is a little short on details. Why now? Last spring, it seemed like there was no demand for architects. What has changed?” Michael said.
“A bit of skepticism is a healthy thing, Mr. Richards, however don’t let it blind you to serendipitous opportunities. As I have told others, I was not here last spring. Had I been here at that time, you would likely still be getting this offer. My client has little care about someone’s background interests, religion, or family tree. They only care that things are built; that things are built well; and that they are creative. To be honest, one of my criteria is that you used a scholarship to complete your education. I find a bit of hunger whets creativity and productivity. Your ability to complete your work while holding down a full time job speaks in your favor.“
Michael took a drink. “Hmm. So I know why I’ve been asked. What will I be doing?”
“Oh I imagine the standard tasks of a chief architect: gathering requirements; designing structures such as buildings, bridges, roadways; working with others to support their work or for them to support yours. You will be working on a team to build a small city and its infrastructure.”
Michael whistled. “Good Lord, you need a whole firm.”
“In a sense, I am looking for one and you should be in it,“ she said matter of factly.
Michael turned to Liam who seemed like a local compared to Millicent. “You look like you fit here. Who is she?”
“Don’t rightly know mate. Just know she’s got more money than Croesus and has an odd view of the social order. Me… I’m her taxi driver,” he said with a shrug.
“Mr. O’Hannigan is far too modest. He is also contracting the local help, providing immensely valuable advice, and occasionally coming to my aid in some sticky situations,“ she added.
Michael turned back to Millicent. “I am just starting out. I have little experience. Things are still not making sense. How big is this contract? Why hasn’t it been taken?”
Millicent said with a bit of a laugh, “I think I am getting a bit ahead of myself. Let’s find a table and I have some questions for you and a demonstration or two. Then I will answer those questions.” She looked to Liam who scanned the room for an open table. He pointed to a table far from the bar and in the dark. Millicent said, “that looks like an excellent location. Let’s relax there while I tell you a bit more about the possibilities.”
The three sat at the table and a waitress arrived. Millicent ordered another round of drinks. She then looked to Michael, “Did you bring any of your work?”
Michael pulled a notebook out of a satchel and laid it on the table. Millicent opened it and began thumbing through the pages. The early pages were simple houses or arches. He had sketched the occasional church or a wing of St. Paul’s. Some the later drawings were of bridges. Several pages were dedicated to a complex cottage. A few pages had diagrams of long bridges held with thin cables.
Millicent pointed to one of these, “That seems a bit risky.”
Michael said, “I’ve done the calculations. The suspension will hold, but the road has to be of lighter material. Wood comes to mind, but there are alternatives to brick that are not so heavy.”
She handed the book back and said, “Show me your most fanciful structure. Surely there is one in here that is impossible.”
The pages of the book had tabs separating subjects such as bridges, buildings, houses. He flipped to the section to the back. The image showed a sphere hung by cables from a cliff. A bridge went to the entrance of the sphere where the people would go in.
Millicent looked at and smiled, “Very fanciful. What was your inspiration?”
Michael looked a bit embarrassed, “A hornet’s nest. It was very large and hanging from what seemed to be a small thread. However their material is mud and paper and hornets don’t weigh much.”
Millicent, “Looking to nature for ideas. That isn’t very modern Mr. Richards.”
Michael looked a bit bitter, “So I have been told.”
Millicent said, “I am quite serious – that structure is very intriguing. What would make it possible for this to be a place people could visit?”
Michael said, “It is all about weight. A sphere is one of the strongest structures in nature. The problem is whatever materials I build the sphere out of, will outweigh the ability of anything to support it. I suppose what I need is lighter materials. ”
Millicent said, “Fascinating. You’ve imagined something and assessed the challenges. You can even come up with ways to solve it. I shall enjoy working with you. “
“I haven’t said yes,” Michael protested.
“But you haven’t said no. Is polishing silver and watering the pansies so interesting, Michael?” She smiled as she asked him this.
Michael turned to Liam, “Is she always like that?”
“I saw her slap someone six inches taller than me and two stone heavier. When he took umbrage, she knocked him to the ground. She’s being nice to you.” Liam said and drank his beer.
“Michael, you have doubts. What are they?” Millicent asked.
“I’ve seen nothing but a mysterious note from a saucy woman who drinks beer with her taxi driver.”
Liam snorted in his beer and looked alarmed. Millicent paused for a moment and then laughed heartily. “Well asked, Mr. Richards. Well Asked. You are the first to truly question my credentials or abilities. If I could make demonstration or two to show the possibilities of what you might work with, that might enhance your interest in the contract, I think. “
Michael looked non-committal and shrugged. Millicent pulled a small box out of her satchel. The box had a wire loop and knobs. She kept it below the bar line. “Now, our first demonstration. It doesn’t have much to do with your work, but someone peeved me before you arrived, and I fancy a bit of fun. See the gentleman over there (and I use the term loosely) wearing the tartan hat at a rakish angle talking to the two distinguished ladies?”
“Ah.. Charley. Fancies himself a ladies man. Never could figure out why” Michael said.
“He needs some lessons in charm in my opinion. Notice the half full beer glass?,” she asked.
“Sure,” Michael said.
“Watch for a moment,” she said quietly.
Millicent aligned the loop with the glass of beer. A small red dot appeared on the glass from 15 feet away. She then turned a knob and the glass began to frost until the outside was almost white. She turned the knob back and stowed the device. “And now we watch as Charley takes a drink of beer.”
Liam and Michael watched as discreetly as possible. Charley took the mug to his lips and nothing came out.
“Hey…it’s solid. What the hell?” Charley said. He banged it on the table. He looked around seeing Michael and Liam watching him and then glared at them. They turned away quickly and Millicent stashed the strange device in her bag.
Michael asked “What just happened?”
Millicent answered “I believe his beer froze.”
“I can see that. Why?” Michael persisted.
“He was very annoying when he sat down” she said innocently.
Michael turned to Liam again “Is she always this way?”
“Mate, I am in a whole new territory here. You are on your own,” Liam took a drink of his beer after looking at it carefully.
“Are you ready for the second demonstration?”
“Are you going to boil someone’s beer?”
“I could and I might even know who, but the next demo is more in your line of interest. Liam, how many of these chairs could you lift with one hand, if you could get a grip?”
“Four, I suppose”
“Michael. Please look at this material. Do you believe that it could hold the weight of these chairs?”
Michael looked at the line and smiled. The line was as thin as a thread and the color of silver. He humored her lifting it a bit and pulling and tugging on it. It had very little give length wise, but was very flexible in that he could wrap it around his hand. He said definitively, “Of course not. It is very flexible and it doesn’t seem to have any stretch. But there is no way that little bit of wire could lift 30 pounds of chair.”
Millicent smiled impishly. She took two of the chairs and lined them up back to back. She took a loop of thread and snugged it around the two chairs. Millicent turned to Liam. “Mr. O’Hannigan. Do me a favor. Lift these chairs.” She took the red scarf off and carefully wrapped his hands thickly. “We want to be careful. Something that thin could do a lot of damage. OK lift”
Liam looked doubtful, but placed the wire in the cloth and grunted as he lifted the two chairs. The chairs came up a bit and clacked together. He then let them down. Millicent asked, “How much do you think they weigh, Liam?”
“Aye, near on 25 pounds,” he said.
Michael looked at the thread in amazement. “That’s impossible.”
“Oh come now. We have empirical evidence to the contrary. Lift the chairs yourself,” Millicent said acerbically.
Michael lifted the chairs once and then twice, staring that thread thin wire holding the chairs up. Millicent finally said, “I think that is enough. I’d rather not attract too much attention. Set the chairs down.” Millicent undid the loop. The three of them sat at the table. Others looked at them a bit oddly as Liam returned the chairs. “Mr. O’Hannigan could you please get us three more drinks.”
“Certainly ma’am. Won’t be a tick.”
Millicent lowered her voice. “Michael. I need you to be quiet about what I showed you. “ She pulled out a notebook. “If you had that material, what would change in how you architect things”
Michael held his head. “God –everything. Bridges would be lighter. Spans could be longer, wider. Buildings could use something other than brick for support. It’s easier to ask what wouldn’t change. How much can that thread hold?”
Millicent said intently, “It could hold this table with no problem. I won’t say anymore. Now think about this thread and tell me how you would use it in your fancy house. “
“Obviously the support of the structure as well as the bridge itself. If you braided those threads, the strength likely exceeds the parts individually. Depending on the nature of the material, the walls could be made of it. If it could be made rigid, you could use it for support, “ he said and was sounding more excited.
“Good. You are starting to think of the possibilities. What does my offer mean to you now? Am I still just a saucy woman who drinks beer with her taxi driver? “ Liam arrived with the beers at just that moment.
Michael responded. “By no means are you anything simple. Your offer something amazing. Why haven’t we seen such a fantastic material? You couldn’t possibly hide it.”
“A peculiarity of this arrangement is that there are some questions I can’t answer until you agree to be a contractor. You will have to make a difficult decision on some degree of faith, “ she said.
Michael drank his beer, “Ok, you now have my full attention and interest. Tell me about this contract.”
“The contract is sizable as you might imagine from my description. But the conditions are severe. Not everyone says yes. But you will be paid handsomely at the end. Several of my previous contractors have bought businesses or even retired. “
“What do you mean severe?” Michael asked.
“The contract is long – 10 years and there is no escape clause once you start. The location is extremely remote. You will have no contact with anyone once we have left. You would, in every sense, be abandoning this life.” There was no sense in trying to make this easier.
“That is quite long. Most architecture contracts are for one or two years – until the project is done,” he said.
“As I said, a small city will be designed and built. Christopher Wren worked on St. Paul’s for over thirty years. My client values continuity and a certain thematic consistency.” Millicent said.
“I have one problem with your conditions, “ Michael said sipping at his beer.
“That is?” Millicent asked.
“I have a fiancée. You ask me to give up everyone. That is a lot for me to give up,” said Michael.
“That is regrettable.” Millicent said with feeling. “The offer is only for you.”
“She would be no trouble,” Michael said earnestly. He set the beer down and looked her intensely.
“Perhaps not. But she may not be ready to abandon everything . Even if she were, there are risks with this contract. You are compensated for taking those risks. She would not be. Is your fiancée from the University?” she asked.
“I work with her,” Michael said defensively.
“No then.” Millicent said harshly, “She would be lost as a bushman in London. You at least have some training to add context and understanding. She would have none of that. If you join me, I will see that she is protected here and you can provide for her should you choose. But you won’t be allowed to contact her when you return. “
“But why? Ten years is long. But it’s not impossible,” he said protesting. “I should think we could wait it out.”
“I can’t say now. My conditions are non-negotiable. I have said this is not for everybody. If you say no, I can try to make sure you have an opportunity to meet your potential here. Your talent should not be wasted. But I will make no guarantees. But you must understand the cost you will bear if you say yes.“ The words sounded harsh even to Millicent. Liam set his beer down quietly and watched the young man.
“I have to think,” Michael Richards said. The voice was filled with sadness and inevitability.
“I am certain you do. I must ask that you not share what I’ve shown you. I doubt anyone would believe you. But there is an element of risk if the wrong people were to hear,“ Millicent said.
Michael nodded his head absently and drank his beer. Eventually he left.
“Dammit. I said no connections. “ Millicent swore after the young man had stepped out the door.
“Pardon me Ma’am. Why so hard a contract? Ten years is long, but some couples have survived.”
Millicent drank her beer. “If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Are you sure? I just saw a couple of strange things,” Liam said.
“You must not say anything to anyone about this if I tell you,” her voice was very quiet.
“It’s such a secret?” Liam asked.
“Yes. Because…because it is,” Millicent struggling to find the reasons why she was telling him if it was such a secret.
“All right. I swear” Liam said. Millicent looked at him and decided that was enough.
“My terms are harsh. The contract is for ten years. But because of a quirk in our mode of travel, when they return, 60 years will have gone by. His fiancée will likely be dead, and if not, too old to care. These people must understand they are abandoning everything. They will have no one and nothing to come back to. “
Liam drank his beer quietly. “You’re right, I’m not sure I believe you. If I did believe you, I won’t say I understand.”
“And no one will for another 50 years. It has been a long day. Let us return to the Savoy and hope tomorrow ends better. I need to rest,” Millicent said. She was suddenly tired and very frustrated. Time was too short now. If she passed on Michael Richards, she would not find an adequate replacement. On other trips she could always avoid the messiness of relationships with more looking, but it was not an option now. And she could not fathom why he would turn down this opportunity for the sake of another person, yet he likely would.
Liam said, “Aye ma’am” and set down the remainder of his beer. The two headed out of the pub and to the taxi in silence.