April 11, 1912
on board the RMS Titanic
When Adèle Blanc-Sec stepped out onto the Second Class Promenade Deck, it was unexpectedly deserted. As it was only their second day at sea, the deck had been bustling with passengers that afternoon, and Adèle had half-feared that it would still be crowded. But so late in the evening, she had finally managed to find a moment alone.
She took a deep breath of the sea air and strolled down the deck, allowing herself to simply let her body move and her mind drift. She'd been sent on this voyage with direct orders to relax, after all. Agathe had pointed out that it had been years since Adèle had taken anything for herself.
Well, perhaps that wasn't strictly --
Adèle pointedly let out another breath in a deep sigh. The fact of the matter was, she was not very good at relaxation.
It was at that moment that a scruffy young man stepped out from the shadows between the lifeboats, and pointed a gun at her heart.
Oh, not again, Adèle thought, and immediately tossed her parasol at his feet. The young man side-stepped the projectile with irritating ease.
"Hello," he said pleasantly.
He spoke in French, so Adèle responded in her native tongue. "Well," she said carefully, "hello is one way to put it."
Her antagonist, who was dressed in a shabby suit and whose hair flew out from his head in wild snarls, giggled. "Me again!" he announced.
Adèle raised an eyebrow.
"You remember the night we sparred, of course," the young man continued. "You, a cloaked shape beneath the Notre Dame! Myself, a shadow in the darkness!"
Adèle made a quiet sound of exasperation. As if she had time to skulk around the Notre Dame in the middle of the night, sparring with shadows.
"Soon," the young man continued, "soon you will wish you had never heard my name!"
"Ah yes, hmm," Adèle agreed, and cocked her head. "Remind me?"
"Armand!" the young man declared. He waved his gun in the air. "And don't forget it again!"
"No, of course not, Monsieur -- Arnoult, was it?" Adèle replied breezily. "Would you pass me my parasol?"
"Armand, I am Arrmand," the young man insisted.
"Of course you are. Now. My parasol, if you please."
"The Devil take your parasol!"
"He can try," Adèle said, and lunged.
In the ensuing scuffle, Adèle succeeded in regaining control of her trusty parasol and using it to strike the young man on the head with some force. She then took the precaution of throwing his weapon over the side of the ship and secured his hands to the railing with her fur stole, all before he regained his senses.
As she went to hunt down a crewman to take her assailant into custody, she reflected with some sourness that the White Star Lines had not advertised Continual Fear for One's Safety, or Opportunity to Develop Self-Defence Skills in their promotional material. She really must demand they correct such an oversight.
Despite swearing an elaborate oath to Agathe that she would relax, Adèle had also promised her publisher that she would use the time on board the ship to start writing the draft of her next book. Of course, Monsieur Xavier was still under the unfortunate assumption that Adèle was writing a book about Peru, but Adèle thought the surprise of reading a manuscript about pterodactyls and mummies on the streets of Paris would be invigorating for him.
However, despite her best intentions, there had been no time for relaxation or writing so far. On her first day and night on board, Adèle had given a trio of athletic young women impromptu jujitsu lessons on the squash court; discredited a fake medium at her table in the Dining Saloon; and disarmed a man in the library who was attempting to use her neck for target practice with his blowdart.
In fact, the melodramatic young man with the inferiority complex was the third individual on this particular voyage to attempt mischief on Adèle. Admittedly, the second had been a crewman who almost tripped her when she was coming out of the Turkish Bath that morning; she had originally dismissed it as an accident, but it now seemed to fit within a larger pattern of behaviour.
A very disturbing pattern.
This was not a mere coincidence, Adèle thought, even given her own tendency to -- well, to attract melodrama. For Heaven's sake, the Titanic had only departed Cherbourg two days before.
Really, Agathe could not blame Adèle for the lack of relaxation to date. It was becoming impossible for a person to take a simple vacation.
That night, a booby trap placed expertly in the keyhole of her door foiled an unknown person from entering her cabin. Adèle was awoken by the soft, surprised cry and rapidly retreating footsteps, and she sat upright and picked up her parasol, gripping it with two hands. There were no other sounds, save those of the sailing ship at night, but Adèle pulled on her robe and sat in the chair near her desk until the light of dawn started to appear.
Then, after thinking carefully, she rummaged through her packet of papers for the telegram that had been delivered to her cabin moments after she'd arrived on board the ship. She'd been mildly surprised to receive it, as her sister was not in the habit of sending telegrams, but then again, Agathe had also been indisposed for five years and, as such, hadn't had the opportunity to send many telegrams.
It read: BON VOYAGE STOP BE CAREFUL STOP TRAVEL SAFE STOP.
Innocuous well wishes, and Adèle had not thought much of it after the initial surprise, beyond a rush of affection for her clever, darling sister. The telegram was unremarkable, really, except that Agathe had never in her life told Adèle to be careful. Careful was not in the Blanc-Sec vocabulary. Neither, for that matter, was redundancy; Agathe would never have used three such vague phrases when one would have done the same perfectly mediocre job.
Adèle cursed out loud. She'd been distracted by the attempts on her life, but that was no excuse. She should have realized immediately that the telegram was not all that it seemed.
When they were ten, Adèle and Agathe had developed a secret code -- the first of many, increasingly more complex codes -- wherein everything they said was the opposite of what they meant. With that frame of mind, suddenly Agathe's telegram conveyed a warning: danger, unsafe voyage.
Adèle didn't know what Agathe could possibly have discovered that led her to believe Adèle's life was in danger aboard the Titanic, but it was becoming clear that she was right.
Among the papers on the desk next to where Adèle sat was an envelope containing a letter from an admirer to which she had not yet responded. On the backside of the envelope was a small diagram of a precise and intricate set of cogs and wheels. It was Agathe's work, of course. Adèle was unsure what the clockwork device was supposed to be -- it was labelled simply 'Fig. 7' -- but it was in the shape of a tiny heart.
Finding Agathe's drawings and calculations on her own papers was not unusual. There had been a period of adjustment when they returned to their small apartment, for Adèle was used to sharing space with a sister who was unconscious and confined to her bed. Agathe, however, had wasted no time in commandeering Adèle's writing desk as her own, and had a habit of scribbling down her every thought in absent-minded moments on the nearest piece of paper. Some of which, if they were later determined to be useful, she would make desperate attempts to find again, which occasionally resulted in Adèle sacrificing a page of her manuscript, or a letter from a colleague in Marseille to Agathe's project.
However, Agathe had never asked about the heart-shaped clockwork piece, and although Agathe did not need to carry the envelope with her all the way to New York, there had been something that made her slip it in amongst her other papers. If Agathe could not be pulled from her precious laboratory to go on an adventure with her sister, the least she could do was send her heart in her stead.
Adèle carefully ripped the envelope so she was left with a small scrap with the clockwork heart in the centre, and slipped it inside the lining of her glove. Then she finished dressing, adjusted her hat, and set out for the telegraph office, where she had to wait outside until the operator arrived.
Her message read: ALL IS WELL STOP HAVING A GOOD TIME STOP LOTS OF NEW FRIENDS STOP.
There wasn't much Agathe could do all the way back in Paris, but at least she'd know that Adèle had understood her message.
Adèle spent the rest of the morning attempting to find a way to have a conversation with the young man from the night before, who was now being detained in one of the officer's quarters. He was the best chance Adèle had at finding out why so many people suddenly seemed to want her dead, even if he did have an unfortunate tendency to giggle at inappropriate moments. Adèle was determined that she could make him talk.
The crew were very suspicious of her motives -- unreasonably so, in Adèle's opinion -- and refused her request for contact. Adèle was forced to rely her own ingenuity and the limited resources aboard the ship to find herself a disguise. First, she used certain necessaries she carried in her luggage to transform herself into a laundry woman in order to gain access to the laundry room, where she pilfered a uniform. (She also, unfortunately, had to do some laundry.) Then she used the uniform to become a youthful and arrogant officer of the White Star Line, and pulled out her best British-accented English.
Although she was granted an interview, the young man turned out to be frustratingly stubborn. He remained unresponsive, even when Adèle grew exasperated and kicked him in the shin under the cover of the table.
With nothing to show for her day's work, Adèle returned to her cabin with a scowl. As she divested herself of the remains of her disguise, and dressed for dinner, she finished working through her mental list of people who had reason to want her dead. It was unfortunately longer than she'd anticipated, and that particular revelation did not raise her spirits.
The Titanic was supposed to reach New York on April 17th. It was currently April 12th. Other than stealing a lifeboat and setting off on her own across the Atlantic, Adèle did not see a way off the ship. So, she had at least five more days aboard. The attempt on her cabin door the night before made her realize that even if she stayed in her cabin the whole time -- a wholly unappealing prospect -- she might still be in danger. She could attempt to explain her situation to the ship's crew, of course, but in her experience, the authorities were unlikely to believe the things she told them about her everyday life, even when she used particularly small words. Besides, she trusted the young ladies who were still practicing jujitsu every morning with her safety over the crew of the White Star Line.
All she could do was stay alert and hope that they reached New York soon.
For the first time, she was glad Agathe had refused to come with her. Just the thought of something happening to her sister, after the years in which Agathe had been --
Adèle shook her head, and slipped her well-sharpened silver letter opener into her reticule.
Her sister had only just recovered her life. Adèle would do anything to allow her to keep it.
In fact, soon after Agathe came to the realization that while she'd been unconscious for five whole years, Adèle had travelled to three continents and written a best-selling book, she had thrown herself back into her heart's work. Competitiveness had been between them, as their mother used to say, since they'd bickered in the womb over which of them should go out first, and Agathe channeled that energy into securing a laboratory. There she immediately resumed work on her mysterious project, which she had begun work on when she was fifteen; she called it The Heart's Own, and she still would not tell Adèle what it was.
Well, they both had stubborn streaks as wide as their competitive ones.
"I'm surprised you're not an accomplished musician," Agathe had said one day over lunch, an arch in her brow and a smile on her lips. "You've had five whole years, after all."
There was no need for Adèle to point out how much of the last five years she'd spent in grief and guilt, and increasingly desperate attempts to bring her sister back. Agathe knew all of that already.
Besides, they both knew that Adèle had an ear for languages, not music. Instead, she said, lazily, "I've been quite busy becoming internationally renowned as an author and adventurer. I believe I told you about interviewing the President. Twice."
"And are now banished from his presence," Agathe pointed out.
Adèle waved her hand airily. "A misunderstanding."
"Oh, of course."
"Once I publish my next book, I'll be invited back," Adèle added confidently.
"Mmm. I do hope you reconsider your choice of haberdasher before that blessed day, darling. Yesterday, I was afraid that the monstrosity you were wearing would launch into flight from the top of your head and soar directly into the Seine." Agathe bestowed her with a glowing grin.
Her sister's withering lack of appreciation for current fashion notwithstanding, hats, haberdashers, and their associated pins were still a subject that tore at Adèle's heart, so she simply said, "If you're able to restrain yourself from commenting on my hat, I'll walk up the Eiffel Tower with you again," and Agathe brightened.
Agathe preferred to walk up the Tower, rather than use the lifts, as it gave her the chance to study its architectural and engineering marvels up close. Agathe had been attached to her pencils, paper, and calculations since she was five years old. She began by sketching designs for all kinds of gadgets and machinery, from delicate pieces of clockwork to complex works of engineering. She started taking things apart around that time as well, tinkering with them, and learning how to put them back together again. By the time she was fifteen, to the despair of their mother, she had turned the old nursery into what was thereafter referred to as The Blanc-Sec Laboratory. Adèle used to sit in there with her, reading accounts of great Chinese emperors and pouring over maps of distant archipelagoes, while Agathe continued to design her machines in wonderful, exacting detail.
She read manuals so technical that even Adèle gave up on them, and slowly but surely began to produce small pieces of gadgetry and invention. She made little clockwork figures that jerkily walked across the surface of the desk, and treasure boxes with spring-loaded secret compartments and byzantine locking mechanisms. And of course, even then she was working on various designs and prototypes for her mysterious project.
Her sister, Adèle considered, had a sharper mind than anyone else she'd ever met.
There was a young lady at dinner that night who, with very little finesse, attempted to slip arsenic into a teacup and leave it steaming innocently at Adèle's place at the table.
It was with some exasperation that Adèle snatched it up and maneuvered the young woman into a deserted alcove. First of all, the would-be poisoner displayed a remarkable lack of observational skills if she thought Adèle was the sort of person to enjoy a cup of tea. And secondly, her sleight of hand was, quite frankly, amateurish.
Adèle said in her most menacing voice, "I'm no longer laughing at your stupid pranks. Tell me who is behind this."
The young lady squirmed in Adèle's grip. "I don't know what you mean," she said and then, in a blink of an eye, suddenly started crying hysterically. Adèle was forced to let go of her when several gentlemen rushed up to assist her, and she gave Adèle a fleeting smug smile as she was helped to her seat and out of Adèle's reach
Adèle glared at the back of her head and then went back to her cabin where she spent the evening arranging every single booby trap she could recall from the summer when she and Agathe had been in an all-out war with one another. Agathe had the advantage in mechanical construction, of course, but Adèle had held the deeper fount of creativity. The competition had eventually come to an end when a small flood on the second floor resulted in their father running into the street in only his linen shirt.
When she fell into uneasy sleep, it was with her letter opener clutched in her hand beneath the pillow.
Once, after Agathe was on her feet again but still moving slowly, Adèle had tried to impress and entertain her sister by disguising herself as a bumbling, grey-bearded professor of mathematics, and then arranging to have Agathe come home to find this visitor making small talk over tea with an oblivious Miranda. It had taken Agathe a long moment to recognize her, and when she did she burst into delighted laughter. Miranda had never figured it out.
The gesture seemed to spark something in Agathe, and she'd responded by coming home from her newly-established laboratory one afternoon with a delicate wire-and-clockwork butterfly that flew across the room with the slightest encouragement from Agathe's slender fingers. When Adèle exclaimed over it in delight, Agathe arranged for a perch for it on Adèle's most extravagant hat, and taught her how to use the hidden spring to make it fly above her head with the simple twitch of her fingers.
"Well, it appears I've surpassed myself," Agathe said, as Adèle stood straight and tall while the perfect glittering butterfly danced untethered above her head. "This is now your most ridiculous accessory."
"It's perfect," Adèle declared, and made Agathe promise never to make one for anyone else.
That night Adèle dreamed of the butterfly, flitting and flying across the ocean, its wings light and shimmering despite the length of its journey. Adèle opened her mouth to call out to it, but she couldn't make a sound.
She woke with the dawn.
Adèle took her walk during the busiest parts of the day now, when the Boat Deck was filled with the noise and chatter of people. There was something comforting about being in the midst of so many potential witnesses.
Of course, it also meant she had to maneuver around all the other people on deck. She was awkwardly stepping around a young man who was being reluctantly introduced to a doting mother's three eligible daughters when she heard someone say, "What's that?"
People were slowly turning their heads to look at a shape on the horizon, which seemed to be moving towards the Titanic. It was the wrong shape to be another ship, Adèle thought critically, and she watched as it came closer at a seemingly impossible speed.
A young boy next to her was looking towards it with a small telescope. "It's a dirigible!" he said in excitement.
That was impossible, of course. It was coming from behind them, from the north east, and they were too far from Europe for an airship to make that journey, much less at that speed.
And yet, it was gaining on them.
By the time it was close enough for Adèle to admit that it was indeed a dirigible, it was coming upon them, flying low to the water. All around her, passengers were crying out in amazement, and the crowd on the outer decks was growing larger to look at the magnificent flying machine.
As the dirigible pulled alongside the ship, it seemed to slow down and match the Titanic's speed. Its smooth hull gleamed brightly in the midday sun.
A figure appeared on the exterior deck of the airship, standing tall despite the wind. It was a person wrapped in a dark coat and gloves, goggles settled on top of its head. The figure hailed the ship with a jaunty wave.
Sudden recognition shot through Adèle, amazement and disbelief and pride welling bright and warm in her chest.
"Agathe?" she exclaimed loudly.
It was indeed Agathe balancing on the deck of the dirigible, and her sharp gaze already seemed to have picked Adèle out on the deck of the ship. She waved again, jubilant.
"Is this The Heart's Own?" Adèle cried over the gap between them, but the words seemed to catch in the wind and sweep away from her.
She didn't know if Agathe heard her. Agathe simply opened her arms and grinned, her face alight. "Into my arms!" she called, and Adèle smiled helplessly back, for she looked alive in that moment, as brilliant and warm and sharp and wonderful as she'd ever been.
With no hesitation, Adèle climbed onto the railing, ignoring the startled cries of the crowd around her, and leapt off the ship into her sister's waiting arms.
"Would you like tea?" a worried voice said, and Adèle opened her eyes to see Andrej-with-a-J, the young man who known a thing or two about a pterodactyl.
She was sitting on a cot, wrapped with blankets to keep away the chill, and she was on Agathe's airship. Adèle was still working on the realization that The Heart's Own was a dirigible, about to become the first airship to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.
When they had climbed down from the outer deck into the dirigible itself, Agathe had abandoned her in what was apparently the airship equivalent of a sitting room. Apparently, she needed to recalibrate their flight path now that they'd made their rendezvous with the Titanic.
"Surely you just point it in the right direction and let it go," said Adèle, whose only flying experience was, admittedly, on a pterodactyl.
Agathe had adopted a long-suffering expression and said, "Sit. Stay warm. You look like you've seen a ghost. I'll be back shortly."
"I saw a ghost once in the Tower of London!" Adèle called pointedly to Agathe's retreating figure, but her sister just waved breezily over her shoulder.
Adèle had only shut her eyes for a moment, but it had been enough for Andrej to approach without her noticing. That was embarrassing, but Adèle could only blame recent events and her lack of sleep.
"Tea, Mademoiselle Blanc-Sec?" Andrej asked again.
"Pish," Adèle said. "Haven't you anything stronger?"
"Oh, er. Th-that is, I don't know if we stocked any -- um. I'll go and see?"
"Brandy," Agathe said, coming into the room with a bottle. A small black and white cat followed her, tail held high, and stopped abruptly when it noticed Adèle. When Adèle stared back at it, it began washing itself with studied nonchalance.
"Brandy?" Andrej-with-a-J was saying.
"Don't look so shocked," Agathe said. "I knew my sister would need a stiff drink after all she's been through." She smiled at Adèle, gave Andrej the bottle, and then sat next to Adèle where she could put her head on her shoulder. It was the same thing she used to do when they sat in the back of a carriage together on the way home from an evening's entertainment, and something about the gesture made Adèle's body relax in contentment.
Andrej handed Adèle a teacup with a pitifully small splash of brandy in it. Adèle eyed it disdainfully but tossed it back nonetheless.
"Darling," she said into Agathe's dark hair, "not that I'm not pleased to see you, but are you going to tell me what in the world you're doing in the middle of the Atlantic?"
"Rescuing you, of course," Agathe said and sat up, her eyes bright.
"And the dirigible?" Adèle asked.
"Oh yes, well," Agathe said. "You were right. This is The Heart's Own, although I've called it something a little different now."
It was still a bit of a shock to realize they were flying in a dirigible her clever sister had built.
Andrej-with-a-J said, "She's really quite a genius."
Adèle shot a quick look at him to gauge just what intentions he might have towards Agathe, but his expression seemed to be one of simple, genuine pride and admiration. Agathe responded with an affectionate eye roll, as Andrej left them alone in the room.
"We're a working ship," Agathe said. "Everyone pulls their weight. Even you, now," she added to Adèle.
"Even the cat?" Adèle said pointedly, looking at the beast who was now on the table, sniffing delicately at the bottle of brandy.
"Especially Louis!" Agathe replied. "He's our mascot. And Jean is the final member of our crew -- he's the one piloting her now."
Adèle made a small noise.
"Well?" Agathe added impatiently. "So? What do you think?"
Adèle burst into laughter. "Darling," she said, "I hardly know what to think! You're astounding. Marvellous. Wonderful--"
"Stop, stop! I didn't ask for a list of all my attributes," Agathe said, but she was laughing, too.
"How did you know to come for me? And how did you know about all those idiots on the Titanic who tried to kill me?"
Agathe's face darkened. "You're not hurt, are you?"
Adèle shrugged dismissively. "They were luckily a collection of amateurs."
"Well," Agathe said after a moment, "I saw that sinister rat of a man, Dieuleveult, near our apartment, and I followed him. Don't look me like that, I knew what I was doing! He stopped and spoke to someone about his plans for the Titanic being taken care of, and I -- I just knew he meant you."
"But to fly out here --"
"We had a test flight that went perfectly --"
"Such a terrible risk when you --"
"Did you expect me to do nothing when --"
"I can't believe you never told me you were building a dirigible!"
Agathe smiled. "It was a surprise," she said gently.
"You told Andrej-with-a-J before you told me," Adèle pointed out, and crossed her arms defiantly.
"He studied engineering for a while before he pursued natural sciences," Agathe countered. "He has a very good mechanical mind. And he takes direction well, which is an excellent quality when a person is building an airship crew." She tilted her head. "He was very determined to help rescue you," she added.
"I'm his favourite author," Adèle replied blandly.
"Well, you're mine as well," Agathe said stoutly.
"You read my book? At last?"
"Yes. Even the inscription."
The inscription, as Adèle knew perfectly well, read To my strength and inspiration, my heart's own sister. She cleared her throat.
"Now come along and see the rest of her," Agathe said instead, and squeezed her hand.
Adèle was not giving up the chance to see a working airship in motion. She followed happily.
Agathe would want to get back to her laboratory soon, Adèle knew. She grew restless when she didn't have all her tools at hand, and her reference manuals at her fingertips. But for now, they were in Adèle's element, flying through the pale blue of the open sky towards adventure on the distant horizon.
The dirigible flew into the sun, and the light caught and shimmered on the ship's name inscribed across her prow: Adèle.