Harry turned a glass of port idly in his hands. His gaze lifted to hers. “Are you trying to ask something, Poppy?”
“I don’t know. Yes. It seems likely that Sir Gerald will want to discuss weaponry with you, won’t he?”
“Undoubtedly. He is bringing Mr. Edward Kinloch, who owns an arms manufactory.” Seeing her expression, Harry gave her a quizzical glance. “You don’t approve?”
“I think a brain as clever as yours should be put to better use than coming up with more efficient ways to kill people.”
Before Harry could reply, there came a knock at the door, and the visitors were announced.
Harry stood and helped Poppy rise from her chair, and she went with him to welcome his guests.
Sir Gerald was a large and stocky man, his florid face supported by a scaffolding of thick white whiskers. He wore a silver gray military coat trimmed with regimental buttons. The scent of tobacco smoke and heavy cologne wafted from him with each movement.
“An honor, Mrs. Rutledge,” he said with a bow. “I see the reports of your beauty are not at all exaggerated.”
Poppy forced a smile. “Thank you, Sir Gerald.”
Harry, standing beside her, introduced the other man. “Mr. Edward Kinloch.”
Kinloch bowed impatiently. Clearly, meeting Harry Rutledge’s wife was an unwelcome distraction. He wanted to get about the business at hand. Everything about him, the narrow, dark suit of clothes, the ungenerous tightness of his smile, the guarded eyes, even the flat hair subjugated by a gleaming layer of pomade, spoke of rigid containment. “Madam.”
“Welcome, gentlemen,” Poppy murmured. “I will leave you to your discussion. May I send for refreshments?”
“Why, thank you—” Sir Gerald began, but Kinloch interrupted.
“That is very gracious of you, Mrs. Rutledge, but it won’t be necessary.”
Sir Gerald’s jowls drooped in disappointment.
“Very well,” Poppy said pleasantly. “I will take my leave. I bid you good evening.”
Harry showed the visitors to his library, while Poppy stared after them. She didn’t like her husband’s visitors, and she especially didn’t like the subject they intended to discuss. Most of all, she loathed the idea of her husband’s diabolical cleverness being applied to improve the art of war.
Retreating to Harry’s bedroom, Poppy tried to read, but her mind kept returning to the conversation that was taking place in the library. Finally, she gave up the attempt and set the book aside.
She argued silently with herself. Eavesdropping was wrong. But really, in the spectrum of sin, how bad was it? What if one eavesdropped for a good reason? What if there was a beneficial result of the eavesdropping, such as preventing another person from making a mistake? Furthermore, wasn’t it her duty as Harry’s wife to be his helpmate whenever possible?
Yes, he might need her advice. And certainly the best way to be helpful was to find out what he was discussing with his guests.
Poppy tiptoed across the apartment to the library door, which had been left slightly ajar. Keeping herself tucked out of sight, she listened.
“. . . you can feel the recoil power in the kick of the gun against your shoulder,” Harry was saying in a matter-of-fact tone. “There might be a way to turn that to practical effect, using the recoil to draw in another bullet. Or better yet, I could devise a metallic casing that contains powder, bullet, and primer all in one. The recoil force would automatically eject the casing and draw in another, so the weapon could fire repeatedly. And it would have far more power and precision than any firearm yet developed.”
His statements were met with silence. Poppy guessed that Kinloch and Sir Gerald, like herself, were struggling to take in what Harry had just described.
“My God,” Kinloch finally said, sounding breathless. “That is so far beyond anything we . . . that is leaps ahead of what I’m currently manufacturing . . .”
“Can it be done?” Sir Gerald asked tersely. “Because if so, it would give us an advantage over every army in the world.”
“Until they copy it,” Harry said dryly.
“However,” Sir Gerald continued, “in the time it would take them to reproduce our technology, we will have expanded the Empire . . . consolidated it so firmly . . . that our supremacy would be unchallenged.”
“It wouldn’t go unchallenged for long. As Benjamin Franklin once said, empire is like a great cake—most easily diminished around the edges.”
“What do Americans know about empire building?” Sir Gerald asked with a scornful snort.
“I should remind you,” Harry murmured, “that I’m American by birth.”
“With whom do your loyalties lie?” Sir Gerald asked.
“With no country in particular,” Harry replied. “Does that pose a problem?”
“Not if you’ll give us the rights to the weapon design. And license it exclusively to Kinloch.”
“Rutledge,” came Kinloch’s hard, eager voice, “how long would it take for you to develop these ideas and create a prototype?”
“I have no idea.” Harry sounded amused by the other men’s fervor. “When I have spare time, I’ll work on it. But I can’t promise you—”
“Spare time?” Now Kinloch was indignant. “A fortune rests on this, not to mention the future of the Empire. By God, if I had your abilities, I wouldn’t rest until I had brought this idea to fruition!”