“Of course. But I’m not in a position to look in the right places.” She should have stopped there. There was no need to explain more. But it was one of Poppy’s failings that she loved conversation, and like Dodger facing a drawer full of garters, she couldn’t resist indulging. “The problem began when my brother, Lord Ramsay, inherited the title.”
The stranger’s brows lifted. “That was a problem?”
“Oh, yes,” Poppy said earnestly. “You see, none of the Hathaways were prepared for it. We were distant cousins of the previous Lord Ramsay. The title only came to Leo because of a series of untimely deaths. The Hathaways had no knowledge of etiquette—we knew nothing of the ways of the upper classes. We were happy in Primrose Place.”
She paused to sort through the comforting memories of her childhood: the cheerful cottage with its thatched roof, the flower garden where her father had tended his prized Apothecary’s Roses, the pair of lop-eared Belgian rabbits who had lived in a hutch near the back doorstep, the piles of books in every corner. Now the abandoned cottage was in ruins and the garden lay fallow.
“But there’s never any going back, is there,” she said rather than asked. She bent to regard an object on a lower shelf. “What is this? Oh. An astrolabe.” She picked up an intricate brass disk that contained engraved plates, the rim notched with degrees of arc.
“You know what an astrolabe is?” the stranger asked, following her.
“Yes, of course. A tool used by astronomers and navigators. Also astrologers.” Poppy inspected the tiny star chart etched in one of the disks. “This is Persian. I would estimate it to be about five hundred years old.”
“Five hundred and twelve,” he said slowly.
Poppy couldn’t repress a satisfied grin. “My father was a medieval scholar. He had a collection of these. He even taught me how to make one out of wood, string, and a nail.” She dialed the disks carefully. “What is the date of your birth?”
The stranger hesitated before replying, as if he disliked having to give information about himself. “November the first.”
“Then you were born under Scorpius’s reign,” she said, turning the astrolabe over in her hands.
“You believe in astrology?” he asked, his tone edged with derision.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“It has no scientific basis.”
“My father always encouraged me to be open-minded about such matters.” She played a fingertip across the star chart, and looked up at him with a sly smile. “Scorpions are quite ruthless, you know. That is why Artemis bid one of them to kill her foe Orion. And as a reward, she set the scorpion up in the sky.”
“I’m not ruthless. I merely do whatever it takes to achieve my goals.”
“That’s not ruthless?” Poppy asked, laughing.
“The word implies cruelty.”
“And you’re not cruel?”
“Only when necessary.”
Poppy’s amusement dissolved. “Cruelty is never necessary.”
“You haven’t seen much of the world, if you can say that.”
Deciding not to pursue the subject, Poppy stood on her toes to view the contents of another shelf. It featured an intriguing collection of what looked like tinplate toys. “What are these?”
“What are they for?”
He reached up, lifted one of the painted metal objects, and gave it to her.
Holding the machine by its circular base, Poppy examined it carefully. There were a group of tiny racehorses, each on its own track. Seeing the end of a pull cord on the side of the base, Poppy tugged it gently. That set off a series of inner mechanisms, including a flywheel, which sent the little horses spinning around the track as if they were racing.
Poppy laughed in delight. “How clever! I wish my sister Beatrix could see this. Where did it come from?”
“Mr. Rutledge fashions them in his spare time, as a means of relaxing.”
“May I see another?” Poppy was enchanted by the objects, which were not toys so much as miniature feats of engineering. There was Admiral Nelson on a little tossing ship, a monkey climbing a banana tree, a cat playing with mice, and a lion tamer who cracked his whip while the lion shook his head repeatedly.
Seeming to enjoy Poppy’s interest, the stranger showed her a picture on the wall, a tableau of couples waltzing at a ball. Before her wide eyes, the picture seemed to come to life, gentlemen guiding their partners smoothly across the floor. “Good heavens,” Poppy said in wonder. “How is it done?”
“A clockwork mechanism.” He removed the picture from the wall and displayed the open back. “There it is, attached to a flywheel by that drive band. And the pins work these wire levers . . . here . . . which in turn activate the other levers.”
“Remarkable!” In her enthusiasm, Poppy forgot to be guarded or cautious. “Obviously Mr. Rutledge is mechanically gifted. This brings to mind a biography I read recently, about Roger Bacon, a Franciscan friar of the Middle Ages. My father was a great admirer of his work. Friar Bacon did a great deal of mechanical experimentation, which of course led some people to accuse him of sorcery. It was said that he once built a mechanical bronze head, which—” Poppy stopped abruptly, realizing she had been chattering. “There, you see? This is what I do at balls and soirées. It’s one of the reasons I’m not sought after.”