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Fortunately there was no one in the kitchen at the time. The scullery maid had swept the ashes from the bread oven, deposited the loaves within, and hurried off to the larder to set out the eggs for Mrs. Crouch's planned custard. Mrs. Crouch herself had left for the fishmonger's some time previously, so the room was still, save for the sizzling sound of the roasting pork fat dripping into the pan, and the dull mechanical thump of the turnspit. Near the fire hung the great kettle on an idleback, and suspended from the kitchen rafters were a large ham, the bread car, bunches of herbs, and several cheeses.
In her hurry to insert the loaves, Molly had set Mr. Geddes's breakfast tray on the hearth and subsequently forgotten it. There had not been a moment's peace the whole of the morning, what with Mr. Oldham scheduled to move into his lodgings that day, and she had failed to noticed the strange sack which Mr. Geddes had absentmindedly left beside the empty mug. It took no more than one stray spark landing on it to cause the ensuing explosion.
The windows onto the kitchen garden were blown out and brass and copper pans hurtled about the room. Acrid smoke overwhelmed the normal pleasant aromas of baking bread and hanging cheeses, and the scullery maid, fearful of yet further damage, huddled behind the stone basin until she heard her name called.
"Molly! Are you all right? What happened?"
Timidly the maid presented herself at the doorway into the kitchen, surveying the damage with a wary eye. "I don't know, ma'am. I just put the loaves in the oven and went into the larder for a moment when--BOOM!--the whole place seemed to shake and there was breaking glass andclattering pans. I didn't do nothing different than usual."
"You suffered no harm?" asked the young woman, her natural alarm beginning to abate somewhat.
"No, ma'am. Naught but the fright. Think you it will happen again?"
Her employer cast a puzzled glance about the shambles of the kitchen The pork loin rested greasily on the stone floor in a spreading pool of water from the kettle. The bread oven seemed to have suffered no harm, but the hearth itself had chipped and cracked in numerous places, and the remains of the breakfast tray were almost unrecognizable. A faint glimmer of understanding lightened Miss Findlay's face. "Mr. Geddes's tray?"
"Yes, ma'am. Beth brought it down and gave it me, but I had to put the bread in. I meant to tidy it away soon as I set the eggs out for Mrs. Crouch."
"Of course. Molly, will you run up and beg Mr. Geddes to spare me a moment of his time--here in the kitchen?"
But it was unnecessary to do so. Even as Miss Findlay made the request, the door from the hall had pushed precipitately open and a young man entered, his wig askew and his brocaded waistcoat yet unbuttoned. "My pouch of gunpowder," he mumbled unhappily. "Left it on the tray. Is anyone hurt?"
"Luckily, no, Mr. Geddes, but only by the grace of God."
"I'm frightfully sorry, Miss Findlay. I've been experimenting with dipping waxed string in the very smallest amounts, you see. Catches flame ever so much more quickly that way."
"I dare say," she replied dryly, and might have had a great deal more to say on the subject had not the door opened once again to admit a short, elderly lady who peered nearsightedly into the wrecked room. "Don't alarm yourself, Aunt Effie! There has been an accident, but no one has suffered any harm, if we may discount poor Molly's nerves, which I am not at all sure we can. Will you take her into the parlor and pour her a glass of wine?"
"Oh, no, ma'am," the girl protested stoutly. "Long as I know it won't happen again, I'll just start to clear the mess before Mrs. Crouch gets back."
Miss Findlay said only "I am sure Mr. Geddes will wish to compensate you for your unnerving experience, Molly," before she took hold of her aunt's arm and gently ushered her out the door.
Left behind, the young man frantically dug in his pockets, one after the other until he at length extracted a crown which he pressed in the astonished girl's hand. "Very sorry, miss. Won't happen again, I promise you. Careless of me. Usually I keep it quite away from any flame. The pouch, that is." He backed uncertainly toward the door and made her a formal bow before disappearing from sight. Once on the other side of the green baize door, he wiped his forehead with a spotless handkerchief which he proceeded to tuck distractedly up the sleeve of his shirt. He listened for the sound of voices, and discerned that Miss Findlay and Miss Effington were in their drawing room at the front of the house. His hesitant tap was promptly answered and he apologetically presented himself in the sparsely furnished room.
"I realize our arrangement was that I could lodge here so long as I caused no damage with my experiments, Miss Findlay. The thing is, if you consider the matter in a certain light, I didn't actually cause any damage with my experiments. I left a pouch of gunpowder on my tray--which I never meant to!--and only by the most unlucky chance was it not found before it--ah--exploded. I shall pay for all the damages!" He regarded her beseechingly. "It's so terribly difficult for me to find a place where I can work. Won't you let me stay?"
"Gunpowder?" Miss Effington asked sharply, turning to her niece. "Marianne, I cannot believe it at all safe to have gunpowder about the house."