A third gentleman rose, farther back in the audience. "You've made a great deal of the lascivious and wanton nature of these creatures. As a young woman...how can you be certain that the 'behaviors' you supposedly observed between these dolphins were indeed 'matings'?" There was an eruption of murmurs and half-audible exclamations, which seemed to spur the questioner on. "For that matter...how were you able to determine the gender of these individual dolphins? Is it not perfectly possible that you've mistaken other behaviors for courtship and mating? Dominance displays, perhaps..."
Her face flamed in spite of her. All around the hall, the gentlemen scientists were nodding and muttering agreement. Until that moment, it hadn't occurred to her that her sex or age might have any bearing on the acceptance of her work. She couldn't have imagined that true men of science would consider her painstaking observations and reporting of dolphin behaviors to be somehow improper or indel--
Indelicate? The heat in her face ignited her pride. They implied she shouldn't
know the very rudiments of reproductive behavior, simply because she was a young woman?
"I am not at all mistaken," she said, perceiving at last the magnitude of the skepticism she faced. "I am fully acquainted with dolphin physiology, sir, including the reproductive parts. While it is true that determining the gender of a dolphin is not easy, time and patient observation invariably remove all doubt."
The questioner's sputter of indignation led yet another wave of negative commentary.
"...should be ashamed to admit such in public!"
Suddenly, society members were popping up all over the lecture hall, calling out questions in challenging tones.
"How could you possibly stay under the water long enough to see how dolphins and fish behaved?"
"Why would a decent woman voluntarily subject herself to witnessing such depraved and revolting behavior in animals?"
"If dolphins did have a language, pray, what would the dimwitted creatures have to talk about?"
"Have you no discernment whatsoever...investing these creatures with silly, female notions of romance, and calling it science?"
For every question there were resounding cries of "Hear! Hear!" and a half-dozen quips and comments. Members began heated discussions among themselves, leaving their seats and spilling into the aisles to debate their points. Order and civility were degenerating at an alarming rate. From the back, she could have sworn she heard a slurred: "Hey, m-mermaid--ssshow us yer tail!"
In the midst of the confusion, Sir Hillary appeared at her side, calling futilely for order and civil attendance. But the members' attention shifted instead to someone sitting in the third row...a younger man...the dark head she had seen towering above the silver ones. Members of both societies were calling on the fellow, urging him to join--or lead--the questioning.
"Here, Thorne, do something! This is your
At length, he rose, tugged his vest into place, and glanced about him with steely disapproval.
"Gentlemen, please," the man called in deep tones that had the effect of oil on troubled waters. Quiet spread outward from him like ripples in a pond, until the hall was virtually silent. He turned to the stage with a muscle flexing visibly in his lean jaw.
"Miss Ashton, may I apologize for what may appear to be rudeness on the part of our members? The familiarity of long acquaintance and the dogged pursuit of truth sometimes lead us to overstep the bounds of general decorum."
She stared at the tall, dark-haired order-bringer, uncertain whether to be irritated or grateful that he had just taken over her lecture. There were no clues to his intentions in his tall, angular frame, his gentlemanly garments, or his cleanly carved features. She took a deep breath and made herself look away.
"I believe I...understand."
Looking around the lecture hall, she was indeed beginning to understand. She had considered their invitation to speak as an honor, and seen it as a coveted offer of membership in the societies. But, in fact, she had not been summoned here to join;
she had been summoned here to account.
They had issued her an invitation to an inquisition...for the grave offense of publishing research without the blessing of the holy orders of science: the royal societies.
"Perhaps if I restated a few of the questions I have heard put forward just now," he said, glancing at the members seated around him, "it would preserve order and make for a more productive exchange."
She nodded, taking note of the way the others seemed to relax back into their chairs, now that he had taken up their cause. A bad sign, she decided. Despite his handsome smile and mannerliness, her instincts warned that here was no ally. He produced a card from the inner pocket of his coat, studied it for a moment, then looked up with a pleased expression.
"Your writings, miss, raise numerous questions for us scientists. Your methodology, for instance. You state that most of your observations have been made while you were in the water with the creatures, themselves." As he spoke, he made his way to the end of the row, where the others in the aisle made way for him to approach the front of the stage.
"That is true," she said, noting uneasily the way the others parted for him.
"If I recall correctly, you stated that you sail or row out into the bay waters, rap out a signal on the hull of your boat, and the dolphin comes to greet you. You then slip into the water with the creature--or creatures, if he has brought his family group--hold your breath, and dive under the water to observe them."
"That is precisely what happens. Though I must say, it is a routine perfected by extreme patience and long experience. Years, in fact."
"Just so." He strolled closer, watching her reactions and measuring her resourcefulness as keenly as she did his. "You further state that some of the male dolphins in your group, including the one you have labeled 'Prospero,' are ten to twelve feet in length and weigh three to four hundred pounds." He paused just to one side of the podium, where he had a clear view of her tailored form. "And how much do you
weigh, Miss Ashton?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"It is a pertinent question, I believe. You expect us to believe that you, who must weigh--what?--a hundred pounds, dripping wet--"
"One hundred twenty at least," she declared furiously.
"Truly. And a formidable one hundred twenty it is." He shared an indulgent smile with his fellow members, who muttered derisively. "Nevertheless, you must admit to being greatly outsized by even one of these creatures, much less an entire family of them." He folded his arms and leaned back on one leg, changing directions yet again. "What is the average temperature of the ocean in the vicinity of Pevensey Bay, Miss Ashton?"
"In summer...often sixty-five degrees," she answered, her mind racing.
"And in winter, at least twenty degrees colder," he asserted.
"I do not dive in winter, sir. Don't be preposterous."
"Yes, please. Let us not
be preposterous, Miss Ashton." His tone sharpened, though he maintained his casual posture. "You expect us to believe you not only call these creatures at will, but that you voluntarily...single-handedly...climb into frigid water with any number of these monstrous large beasts, and that you swim underwater for hours on end to observe them?" He straightened, glancing at the others as he readied his thrust. "That is a great deal indeed to believe on the word of a young woman who has no scientific training and no formal academic background."
His words struck hard and sank deep. So that was it. She was young and female and intolerably presumptuous to attempt to share her learning and experiences with the world when she hadn't the proper credentials.
"It is true that I have had no formal academic training. Precious few of my gender have; women are not permitted the luxuries of stipends, tutors, and lectures and examinations at Oxford and Cambridge. But it is patently untrue that I have no scientific training. I studied and worked with my grandfather for years; learning the tenets of reason and logic, developing theoretical approaches, observing and recording." She stepped out from behind the podium, facing him, facing them all for the sake of what she knew to be the truth.
"There is much learning, sir, to be had outside
the hallowed, ivy-covered walls of a university. Experience is a most excellent tutor."
She saw him stiffen as her words found a mark in him. But a moment later, all trace of that fleeting reaction was gone.
"Very well, Miss Ashton, let us proceed and see what your particular brand of science has produced." His words were now tightly clipped, tailored for maximum impact. "You observe under-water, do you not? Just how do you see
all of these marvels several yards beneath the murky surface?"
"Firstly, ocean water is not 'murky.' Anyone who has spent time at the seaside knows that." She moved to the table and picked up a pair of goggles. "Secondly, I wear these. They are known in sundry forms to divers on various continents. I have reconstructed these particular goggles to improve the seal that keeps out water." She held up the handmade leather contraption so all could see the glass lenses, then held them out to him. He headed for the steps and in several athletic bounds was on the stage with her, inspecting the gear firsthand.
She took the goggles back to demonstrate the fit over her eyes. He bent down to investigate, giving a tug with one long finger and finding the apparatus secure against her face. He scowled.
"Very well, it might work. But several obstacles still remain. Air, for instance. How could you possibly stay under the water long enough to have seen all that you report?"
She looked up at him through fiercely narrowed eyes.
"I hold my breath."
"Indeed? Just how long can you hold your breath, Miss Ashton?"
"Minutes at a time."
"Oh?" His eyebrows rose. "And what proof do you have?"
"Proof? What proof do you need?" she demanded, her hands curling into fists at her sides. "Shall I stick my head in a bucket for you?"
Laughter skittered through their audience, only to die when he shot them a censuring look. "Perhaps we could arrange an impromptu test of your remarkable breathing ability, Miss Ashton. I propose that you hold your breath--right here, right now--and we will time you."
"Don't be ridiculous," she said, feeling crowded by his height and intensity. He stood head and shoulders above her and obviously knew how to use his size to advantage in a confrontation.
"It is anything but
ridiculous," he declared. "It would be a demonstration of the repeatability of a phenomenon. Repetition of results is one of the key tests of scientific truth, is it not?"
"It would not be a true trial," she insisted, but loath to mention why. His silence and smug look combined with derogatory comments from the audience to prod it from her. "I am wearing a 'dress improver,'" she said through clenched teeth,"which restricts my breathing."
"Oh. Well." He slid his gaze down to her waist, allowing it to linger there for a second too long. When she glared at him, he smiled. "We can adjust for that by giving you...say...ten seconds?"
Before she could protest, he called for a mirror to detect stray breath. None could be found on such short notice, so, undaunted, he volunteered to hold a strip of paper beneath her nose to detect any intake of air. The secretary, Sir Hillary, was drafted as a timekeeper and a moment later she was forced to purge her lungs, strain her corset to take in as much air as possible,and then hold it.
Her inquisitor leaned close, holding that fragile strip of paper, watching for the slightest flutter in it. And as she struggled to find the calm center into which she always retreated while diving, she began to feel the heat radiating from him...the warmth of his face near her own...the energy coming from his broad shoulders. And she saw his eyes, mere inches from hers, beginning to wander over her face. Was he purposely trying to distract her? Her quickening pulse said that if he was, his tactic was working. To combat it, she searched desperately for someplace to fasten her vision, something to concentrate on. Unfortunately, the closest available thing was him.
Green eyes, she realized, with mild surprise. Blue-green, really. The color of sunlight streaming into the sea on a midsummer day. His skin was firm and lightly tanned...stretched taut over a broad forehead, high cheekbones, and a prominent, slightly aquiline nose. Her gaze drifted downward to his mouth...full, velvety looking, with a prominent dip in the center of his upperlip that made his mouth into an intriguing bow. There were crinkle lines at the corners of his eyes and a beard shadow was forming along the edge of his cheek.
She found herself licking her lip...lost in the bold angles and intriguing textures of his very male face...straining for control and oblivious to the fact that half of the audience was on its feet and moving toward the stage. She had never observed a man this close for this long--well, besides her grandfather and the brigadier. A man. A handsome man. His hair was a dark brown, not black, she thought desperately. And as her chest began to hurt, she fastened her gaze on his eyes and held on with everything in her. This was for science. This was for her dolphins. This was to teach those sea-green eyes a lesson...
The ache in her chest gradually crowded everything but him and his eyes from her consciousness. Finally, when she felt the dimming at the edges of her vision, which spelled real danger, she blew out that breath and then gasped wildly. The fresh air was so intoxicating that she staggered.
A wave of astonishment greeted the news that she had held her breath for a full three minutes.
Excerpted from The Mermaid by Betina Krahn. Copyright © 1997 by Betina Krahn. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.