So far, progress had been slow, as the condition of the wooden supports had deteriorated more than expected. Although they had started in the early morning, they were only now, nearing noon, reaching the mouth of the mine.
As the group walked on Gayle thought about that moment, several years back, when she first heard the name Eastcott.
Gayle had been surprised - mostly pleasantly - when Lady Tain invited herself to the house Gayle and her new husband had just moved into. Lewis Sawyer had purchased the town house for his much younger bride in a good part of Caledon Regency and the eccentric Lady Tain turned out to be a neighbor.
Gayle sat erect in the straight-backed chair, her bottom barely touching the front of the seat. She had served tea and biscuits to her guest and poured a cup for herself, but her cup sat, untouched, on the small table to her right. Gayle had only the vaguest notion of how to entertain a member of the aristocracy and was operating on the assumption that being as polite as possible could not hurt. She was also a bundle of nerves. "I was in Steelhead at the time, Your Ladyship," she began in a practiced voice that indicated this was not the first time in telling this anecdote. "I had called upon Lewis's firm to offer my services. At the time, the firm operated a number of coal mines in Steelhead and was considering an expansion of the business to minerals as a large tract of land on what was believed to be a dormant volcano became available. I thought I might be able to help the firm understand what the composition of those volcanic minerals were likely to be." Gayle played with her cup but did not remove it from the saucer.
"Do go on."
"Although I had completed my studies two years prior, and had made similar proposals to other firms, I had not yet been commissioned to undertake a geologic assessment. Indeed, often my request to present myself to discuss my services were summarily rejected. Lewis not only met with me, and showed no disfavor at my sex, he also treated me with the utmost seriousness and fairness. How could I not love a man who accepted as a matter of course what I desired to make my life's work, unconventional though it is for a lady?"
Lady Tain chuckled, knowing something herself about being unconventional. "Indeed, Mrs. Sawyer." She ate a biscuit, brushing the crumbs off her blouse. "And did you win the job?"
Gayle nodded. "I did. It was not as long-lived or as lucrative as I had hoped, however. As it turned out, I discovered that the volcano was not quite as dormant as believed, and that mining activity in the area would be quite dangerous. Though Lewis's firm chose not to undertake the new business, and in short order I was once again unemployed, I gained a husband."
"And do you continue to do this...unconventional work?"
"I would very much like to do so." She sighed. "At times I despair that I will never be taken seriously. Yet how can I fail to pursue my passions?"
"Well said, Mrs. Sawyer. Well said." Lady Tain’s expression turned unexpectedly businesslike. “Have you, by any chance, heard of a wealthy gentleman named Eastcott, Vernon Eastcott? I should think he would very much like to make your acquaintance. He may have an intriguing proposition for you…”
Now, his impatience was once again getting the better of him. He pulled ahead of the group, eager to reach the depths of the mine to find out how much cavorite remained. He trod heavily on the wooden scaffolding, and soon the inevitable happened: his foot punched through one of the planks, causing him to trip and fall with a heavy thud. The scaffold shook. Far behind him, Zeke Johnston yelled, "Hey! Careful up there, or you'll get us all killed!" Vernon tried to stand, but the pain in his ankle was intense. He felt dizzy, and sank to his knees.
"Are you all right?" Gayle asked as the other three drew nearer. Weyman helped Vernon to his feet and steadied him as Vernon tried to keep weight off his injured ankle. Zeke just shook his head and muttered, "Damn rich kid. No business to be out here."
"Can you keep going?" asked Weyman. "If we're going to have to turn around, let us know now, before we get deeper into the mine."
The pain had started to subside. Vernon tested the ankle with a careful step and grimaced. "I think it'll be okay," he told the others. "Let's keep going."