This poem came out of the May 6, 2014 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from rix_scaedu. It also fills the "taking a break" square in my 3-6-14 card for the Origfic Bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. It belongs to The Steamsmith series.
There are always mad scientists,
and they are always a problem.
Maryam knows this
from following the news:
the German Empire
are prickly places
full of alchemists who are
more concerned with asking
"Can I?" than "Should I?"
These are the ones
who do bloody daft things
like designing tommies to kill people,
or inventing new forms of explosives,
or experimenting on prisoners of war
to see if it's possible to transplant
parts of the soul from one person to another.
They are unbalanced,
most of them, in ways
that make their research tilt and slide.
In a bad winter,
the least little whisper
can trigger an avalanche.
It is Maryam who proposes the idea,
over a lazy Saturday tea
at the Steamsmith Guild lounge:
"What if, instead of trying to stop them,
we focused on diverting them instead?
Make them take a break from all that trouble?"
"Divert them to where?"
Old Henry asks her,
mouthing the stem of his pipe.
William Percy snorts.
"It hardly matters," he says,
hogging the smoked trout.
"They could cause trouble anywhere."
"I'd be happy if they just
caused it somewhere else,"
grumbles George Cavendish,
who has just lost a shipment of supplies
to a mad scientist's ill-timed test of explosives.
"Pure maths," Maryam suggests
as she helps herself to steak au poivre
and watercress sandwiches.
"They can hardly destroy
anything of consequence
if we can get them out of
the applied sciences."
"I say, that's clever,"
Old Henry agrees,
"but how shall we do that?"
"Most of them haven't the skill
to attract wealthy patrons,"
Maryam says. "If we offer
scholarships in pure maths,
we can nip off the budding talent
before it has time to sprout thorns."
"Who's going to pay for all that?"
Percy says. "University's not cheap."
"I daresay the Smith estate
could afford to sponsor a student,"
Maryam says. "Perhaps that start
will inspire others to follow suit."
"I'm in," Cavendish says abruptly,
brushing crumbs off his fingers.
"Are you mad?" Percy snaps.
"You can't mean to support this nonsense!"
"I can and I will," Cavendish says,
"if it stops the bloody Jerries
from blowing up my bloody gear!"
Maryam smirks and replies,
"I've a mind to sponsor at Cambridge.
You've only to send your lad to Oxford,
and they're sure to hate each other."
Cavendish bursts out laughing.
"Capital!" he says. "Come Monday,
I'll put my man of business on it."
Maryam just nods,
pleased with their progress.
It's ever so much easier
to put out a fire
before it has a chance to start.
* * *
See a map of European history for a look at the German Empire and Austria-Hungary in Victorian times.
Pure math deals in theories and proofs.
Enjoy some tea sandwiches.
The rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge dates back centuries, to the beginning of Cambridge.