Patrixbourne, Kent: 1 April, 1828
“Come back here at once, you naughty child!”
The shouts faded into the spring air as Ada fled, laughing. When she gained the shelter of the trees, she slowed her pace; Miss Stamp would never follow her this far. She had tried once, the first time her charge vanished into the wood near the house at Bifrons, and had almost not found her way out again. To this day she swore the trees had moved when she wasn’t looking, and Ada was not foolish enough to tell her the truth.
It was not nice to laugh at Miss Stamp, of course. She was in most respects an excellent governess. But it had become something of a game for Ada, creeping away when Miss Stamp was occupied to steal a precious few minutes out here.
She soon came to the edge of a little pond, well-shaded by the trees. Ada dug in the pocket of her shawl and removed a small bun, only slightly worse the wear for having resided there since breakfast. She placed it on a low stone at the edge of the pond and said to the air, “Oh no, an unattended piece of bread! What if something were to come and take it?”
“You have to do it right,” a familiar voice complained from the trees. “Otherwise it won’t work.”
Ada turned a full circle, but saw nothing. “And what if I said you had to come out before I would do it right?”
The voice said tartly, “Then I would tell you that I have all eternity, and can wait. You, on the other hand, are mortal. You’ll get hungry. And bored.”
This was not far off the mark; by coming out here, Ada was missing lunch. “I could eat the bread myself.”
“At which point there would be no reason for me to stay, would there?”
“Oh, very well.” Ada picked up the bun, then laid it back down with an exaggerated flourish. “Out of the boundless generosity of my heart, I, the Honourable Augusta Ada Byron, do bestow upon the Good People of this wood—all one of her—this gift of mortal bread, to shelter her against iron, church bells, and other banes of this world.”
She turned her back, as she had been instructed to do, and waited. The faintest scrape of noise came from behind her, and then, somewhat muddled by a full mouth: “You can look now.”
The white dress of the girl standing by the rock was pristine, as if it had not travelled so much as six inches through the trees. Even its hem repelled the soil over which it trailed. When she arrayed herself on the stone, turning so the light coming through the branches struck her snowy hair, she looked as if she were sitting for a portrait. Only the bun in her hand and the bite she was chewing distracted from the image. The girl herself might have been only a little older than Ada’s twelve years—if one did not look too closely at her eyes.
“Alarch,” Ada said, “why do you never let me see you before you’ve eaten the bread?”
“Because it isn’t comfortable,” Alarch said. “Would you want someone to see you bare?”
Ada shrugged, unconcerned. “Miss Stamp does, when she helps me bathe.”
“Yes, well, you are not my governess, and I am not bathing.” Alarch bounced the bun in the palm of her hand. “But this is five bites, at least, so you will not have to turn your back again for some time. What shall we do today?”
Regretfully, Ada said, “I fear I cannot stay long. But I was hoping to measure your wings, so that I might see how large they are in proportion to your body.”
Alarch rolled her eyes in amusement. “You know that I could just charm you to fly, and you could skip all this tedious work.”
“That would be cheating,” Ada said, indignant. “I want to fly on my own, not because you made it happen. Besides, you wouldn’t be able to charm me to fly in front of other people. Could you?”
Alarch looked thoughtful. Her eyes were the only dark thing about her, apart from her feet. Today those were pale, but sometimes she forgot and they remained a deep grey. “I might,” she said, “so long as I had eaten tithed bread. But it’s always tricky, when the charm goes on a human. Would you like me to try?”
“No,” Ada said firmly. “Mama would hear of it, and I shudder to think what she would say. I expect she would blame it on my father, and then lock me up with mathematical books and never let me out again.”
She did not mean it as a joke, but Alarch laughed anyway. “Your father! I wish I had met him. We aren’t to blame for him, you know—at least, I don’t think we are. Not every madman is the fault of the fae.”
“Are you going to let me study your wings?” Ada asked. She really did not have much time to spare, but she also did not want to talk about her father. Lord Byron’s death had not exorcised his ghost from her mother’s mind, nor from her own. All it had done was remove the possibility that she might ever meet him—for her mother, fearing his madness, had left Lord Byron’s household when Ada was only one month old.
It did not help to think that if she asked, one of Alarch’s people might be able to call his ghost up for her to converse with.
“Very well,” Alarch said, and put the bun down.
No matter how many times she watched it, Ada could not see how the transformation happened. Alarch stood up from the rock, but somehow when the motion ended, a swan was perched where the girl had been sitting.
The bird extended one wing. She was not, Ada thought, capable of sighing in that form, but if she could, she would have. Ada said, “You are a very good friend, to be so patient with me.” She did not want the swan-maiden to think her ungrateful. “And your feathers are beautiful, though I know I have told you that before. I am hoping to make my own wings out of oil silk, which will be much easier to shape than feathers, but it will not be nearly so beautiful. Did I tell you, though, that I have thought of a way to fix them onto my shoulders?”
She continued chatting brightly while she took a knotted cord from her pocket and used it to measure first the swan’s wing, then her body. The wing was easily a yard in length, and wiry with strength beneath the feathers; one buffet could have broken Ada’s ribs. “I should take measurements from other birds as well, of course, as I think there must be variations between kinds. But I do not want to dissect anything. I will ask my mother for a book instead, one with plates to show me the anatomy. Or I have another idea, though I have not thought this one through very far, of fixing a steam engine to a sort of carriage, with enormous wings so that it can fly. But I think that would not be as enjoyable as flying on my own.”
Ada did not need to mark her measurements down; she could hold them in her head easily enough. When she was done, Alarch shifted back into a girl. “A steam engine?” Alarch said, shuddering. “Ash and Thorn, what an unpleasant thought. All that iron.”
“It isn’t for faeries, goose,” Ada said, using a branch to scrape the pond’s bank clear of leaves and twigs. “It’s for people. Mortals.”
“Don’t call me a goose.”
Ada stopped. “I do beg your pardon. Miss Stamp has been calling me that a great deal lately. I have been calling myself a carrier pigeon ever since I began thinking about these wings, but Miss Stamp says I am only a silly goose.”
This mollified Alarch, who watched as Ada began to sketch a wing into the cleared patch of dirt. “I will never understand that sort of thing,” Alarch said after a time, gesturing at the sketch.
“It’s only mathematics,” Ada said, surveying her work. Her formal study of geometry was to begin soon, which would undoubtedly be of great use in this endeavour.
“Your mother a mathematician, all numbers and rationality; your father a poet, all visions and madness. It’s so romantic.” Alarch sighed, smiling.
Ada scowled at her. “It isn’t romantic at all. They got along dreadfully.”
“No, but think of it! As if he were philosophic mercury and she, philosophic sulphur. Opposites joined together to make something greater than either one apart: the quintessence, the philosopher’s stone. Could that be you, do you think?” She gave a conspiratorial wink.
“That’s alchemy,” Ada said, returning to her diagram, “and it doesn’t work.”
“It doesn’t work for you, perhaps.”
It had not worked for her parents, either. They had been opposites, but not the sort that could ever harmonize. And yet, Ada refused to accept that such harmony was as impossible as her mother believed. There must be a place for imagination, for dreaming, even in mathematics. That conviction, as much as the desire to soar through the air, was what inspired her to create these wings—as proof of her concept, that the two ways of thinking might work hand-in-hand. Numbers might build a way to fly, but they would do nothing without the will to fly in the first place, and that did not come from the rational part of her mind.
No, it came from her association with a creature who was the antithesis of rationality: a faerie swan-maiden, an immortal creature who could be girl or bird at will, who could deceive a governess with charms such that she could not even find her way out of a small wood. Ill health had already sent Ada’s mother to a doctor; knowing that her daughter consorted with such impossibility would shatter her entirely. It would be the final proof that Byronic madness had won out over Milbanke sanity.
“You aren’t mad,” Alarch said quietly. She always denied being able to hear people’s thoughts, but she had an unsettling knack for guessing Ada’s.
Ada answered her with a half-smile and fiddled with a bit of loose bark on her stick. “If I were, might I not imagine my faerie companion reassuring me of my good sense?”
“Come to London,” Alarch said. “I will introduce you to a hundred faeries and a dozen mortals who call them friend. Would that convince you that what you see is true?”
This at least persuaded Ada to laugh. “No, it would only convince me that London is full of madmen. Which I think is true in any event, whatever my own state may be. But I do not care if I am mad, so long as it allows me to fly.”
“You will,” Alarch said, with certainty. “And I will be there to see you soar.”
Bifrons, Kent: 12 October, 1828
The ropes were gone from the house’s “flying room,” replaced by horse-tack and other oddments evicted from the stables by the arrival of their guests. Ada wandered among the clutter, fingers trailing across a piece of harness meant for a carriage. Might she not engage a harness-maker to craft the attachments for her wings? It would certainly be better than the ropes upon which she had swung thus far—especially now that those ropes had been removed.
She sighed. Unless she meant to pay the man in faerie gold, her mother would have to be the one to engage the harness-maker, and her health was still too poor for her to return to Bifrons. Once she saw how far Ada’s plans had progressed, though... surely she would not chide her daughter for spending so much time and thought on the endeavour, when the proof of its feasibility lay before her.
“It is mathematics,” Ada said stubbornly, addressing the piled equipment. “She should be pleased by that.”
Her mother’s sidesaddle lay atop a wooden frame in the room’s far corner, just at the height of a pony’s back. It took a few moments of experimentation for Ada to settle herself properly, but soon she was perched in the saddle. She bounced in place, imagining a pony trotting beneath her. It was not so good as she imagined flying would be, but it might be enjoyable to try.
When the door opened, it startled her. Ada’s twitch caused the saddle to slip around the frame, and she fell heavily to the floor.
“My dear!” Miss Stamp rushed forward to help her up. “Are you hurt?”
“No, I am very well.” In truth Ada’s knee felt bruised, but she did not want Miss Stamp to worry.
She fussed over Ada regardless. “You did not hit your head, did you? No pain, no difficulty with your vision?”
Her questions made Ada go still. “No, Miss Stamp. I promise you, I am unhurt.”
“That is a relief.” Miss Stamp brushed her off, then turned to straighten the dangling saddle. “Were you pretending this was a horse? That is what it is called, you know—this sort of frame. But of course it is only a figure of speech.”
Ada pressed her lips together. There was no doubt of it; something had put Miss Stamp on her guard. “Has my mother been writing to you? Does she think I am falling ill again?”
The pause in Miss Stamp’s movements answered for her.
Falling ill again—as if she had been ill the first time. But at seven Ada had been too young to understand that she should hold her tongue about the things she saw. And perhaps some of it had been illness, too; the entire period was too muddled in her mind for her to say for certain. She only knew that it had begun with her seeing strange things out of the corner of her eye, and that speaking of it had sent her mother into a frenzy of concern. After that it was headaches and bed rest, a cessation of her studies, and then, just when Ada seemed to be recovering, that dream of her father. She presumed it was him, at least. A dark-haired man in a bed, whispering “Oh, my poor dear child! My dear Ada! My God, could I have seen her... give her my blessing...” Then, days later, word that Lord Byron had died in Greece.
She might have forgotten it all, dismissing it as nothing more than the fancies of an unwell mind, had her mother not taken this house at Bifrons. A house with a nearby wood, the wood with a pond, the pond with a resident swan-maiden. Proof that the things Ada had seen before were more than simple fancy.
“There is no reason for Mama to be concerned,” Ada said. “I tell you, I am quite well.”
Miss Stamp hesitated, then faced her. “Your behaviour has her worried. All this nonsense about making wings, the ropes strung up in this room, your supposed book of Flyology...”
No wonder Miss Stamp had come looking for her here. She and Ada’s mother both thought this enterprise nothing more than a silly fancy, and “fancy” was a forbidden concept in this household. Why, Miss Stamp was even afraid of a simple metaphor—as if Ada would not be able to tell the difference between a wooden frame and an actual horse.
But saying so outright would only get her into trouble. If Ada was to win this battle, she would have to do so on her mother’s terms. “It is mathematics,” Ada insisted, as she had before. “Geometry. I am only thinking of how my lessons might be applied.” And of what her lessons could achieve, when freed from the strictures her mother believed necessary—or inevitable.
“People cannot fly,” Miss Stamp said firmly. “No equation can change that. You will only hurt yourself trying.”
Faeries can fly, Ada thought, though she kept the rebellious thought to herself. And I will find a way to do the same. I will show that Mama’s world and my father’s need not be wholly apart.
Mortlake, Surrey: 17 February, 1829
“The swans here are very snobbish,” Alarch said, sending a pebble skipping across the water of the Thames with a flick of her wrist. “They think that just because they are royal swans, that makes them superior to those of us from the countryside.”
Ada sighed, watching the ripples dissipate in the chill grey water.
Alarch nudged her with one shoulder. “Why the long face? Are you worried for me? You needn’t be. It would take more than some uppish swans to make me regret coming with you from Kent.” She laughed at her own pun.
Unfortunately, it only made Ada more melancholy. The thought of Alarch being caught and marked during the annual swan upping was not to be borne—even though she knew her friend could easily escape by taking on human form.
Everything made her melancholy of late. Her mother’s recurrent illness. The removal from Kent to Surrey. The loss of Miss Stamp, who had gone away to be married; the imposition of Miss Frend, who, though not engaged as Ada’s governess, nonetheless oversaw her education with a strict and critical eye.
Her failure to fly.
Alarch regarded her with worried eyes. Ada made an effort to smile at her. “I am very glad to have you here.”
“You have not asked to see my wings in ages,” Alarch said. “I used to be annoyed that you would poke and prod at them... but now I find I miss it.”
Ada shook her head, staring once more at the Thames. “I do not think what I had in mind will work. The size of the wing, if it is to be large enough to lift me—my body cannot possibly generate enough force to move it. Not with the speed required.” Especially not when she kept growing. Every inch meant more weight for the wings to lift, without a commensurate gain in strength.
“What of your other notion? The steam-engine, with the carriage?”
Alarch must be concerned indeed if she, a faerie, was encouraging Ada to pursue such a prospect. Iron was poison to her very soul; the traditional tithe of bread only held that poison at bay, and then only for a while. Ada said, “It might work. But I do not have the mathematics necessary to design it.”
Alarch laughed. “You will. Given the rate at which your mother is determined to teach you, it is only a matter of time.”
A matter of time. Ada had already spent more than a year on this endeavour, and every passing day showed her how much further she was from her goal than she thought. When she was twelve, she had thought it would be done within the week. Now... even if she had a design that seemed effective, how was she to test it? A steam-engine could not be made in the parlour with wire and oil silk. And her mother would never fund the testing of such a thing, even if an engineer could be persuaded to try.
Alarch seized her hands. The faerie’s grip was strong, a reminder of her powerful wings. However elegant her exterior, it hid something much tougher beneath.
“Listen to me,” Alarch said, the intensity of her voice dragging Ada’s attention from the river. “Do not let impossibility deter you. I have lived a thousand years and more, and seen mortals do things beyond the dreams of their ancestors. You build cities like great forests and people them with strange devices. You burn coal and boil water and somehow it drags unimaginable weight along a track. I do not understand how such an engine works, but I understand this: if humans can create such a thing, there is nothing they cannot do. It only wants the vision and tenacity to see it done. Your mother is nothing if not tenacious, but she would grind the vision from you if she could. Do not let her.“
The words made Ada’s throat close up. Vision was not a thing she was supposed to have. That was a word for poets and madmen. But it burned within her regardless: the belief that her lessons were not—should not be—merely a discipline for her mind, a way to train her thinking to the bounds of rationality, but rather the means by which she might translate vision into reality. The wings on which her spirit would soar, even if her body could not.
Dizzy, she swayed where she sat.
Alarch’s determination transformed to alarm. “Your hands—they are burning hot.” She released one to lay her fingers against Ada’s brow. “You are feverish. We should not have been out here in this cold wind. Come, we must get you home.” She rose, drawing Ada with her.
Partway with her. The world spun, and Ada fell.
Mortlake, Surrey: 24 March, 1829
This time there were no dreams of her father.
There was only fever and sweating, itching and a cough that would not go away and would not let her sleep. She heard enough to understand that she had the measles, but everything past that was beyond her. Eating required too much effort. She swallowed broth only because her mother ordered her to, and obedience was a habit not easily broken. Besides, if she took the broth, then she would be left in peace, to fly on the wings of delirium.
In her fevered dreams she soared above the earth, seeing England wheel beneath her. There was no steam engine, no harness, not even any feathers. Human flesh and bone was enough. It had to be a charm, and she chided Alarch for placing it on her; had Ada not insisted she would fly on her own?
She saw the swan-maiden’s face, white with worry. Always her friend had appeared in near-human guise, only small touches like the snowy sheen of her hair betraying her faerie nature, but what Ada saw now could never have been mistaken for mortal. The tolling of a nearby church bell made Alarch shudder, her hands clenching on Ada’s shoulders.
“I cannot stay,” Alarch said, the words echoing as if they came from a great distance away. “With no more bread—Ada, forgive me. I must return to Kent.”
Kent. The fields and woods of Patrixbourne spun below her. She had tried so hard to fly above them, and now, at last, she succeeded.
“I will find you again,” Alarch vowed. “Or you must come find me. Promise me, Ada. Do not let them make you forget us. Do not forget there is more to the world than your mother sees.”
Someone began to hammer coffin nails. No, it was only footsteps in the corridor, and Ada was in her bed. Anguished, Alarch released her, and with a rustling of feathers she vanished.
Here, then, our almost unfledg’d wings we try;
Clip not our pinions, ere the birds can fly:
Failing in this our first attempt to soar,
Drooping, alas! we fall to rise no more.
— “An Occasional Prologue”
Chelsea, London: 5 June, 1833
The Somervilles’ house was not nearly so elegant as others Ada had visited of late, being a dreary government residence, provided to them as part of Dr. Somerville’s appointment to Chelsea Hospital. Laid against the glittering beauty of Court, at which Ada had been presented not a month past, it seemed a positive dungeon.
Appearances were misleading. Ada would not have traded this cramped little place for Clarence House itself. The company here was far more congenial.
Mary Somerville greeted her with a broad smile and a brief embrace. “I am so glad you could join us,” she said, tucking her hand inside Ada’s arm. “You are looking splendidly well.”
“I feel as if I have my strength back at last,” Ada said. “I hardly recognized myself when I climbed from my sickbed—and indeed, I hardly recognize myself now, for I am not the same person I was when I fell ill.” More than two years on bed rest would change anyone, but those years had also carried her over the threshold into womanhood.
No, nothing so definite as womanhood. She had felt like a soft mass of dough, that needed shaping into some kind of form. Riding had strengthened her wind and shed some of the weight brought on by enforced idleness, while preparations for her presentation at Court last month had polished an exterior long since grown dull. Mr. Turner...
Best not to think of that indiscretion. Her tutor was gone; she must accept the loss. Pursuing him had been the height of irrationality to begin with, and she should have known better.
“You are recovered now,” Mary said, squeezing her arm, “and your mother tells me your studies go very well.”
“They resume, at least, which is a positive victory after these last few years. I found it dreadfully hard to concentrate,” Ada admitted. “The smallest things would overwhelm me. But I have begun to refresh my memory on geometry and algebra, and as soon as my grip on those is secure once more, I will continue onward.”
By now the maid had taken Ada’s bonnet and mantle, and so Mary drew her toward the parlour. “I know you had an interest in astronomy, before you fell ill. Is that still the case?”
She might as well have asked what transpired before the Flood. Thinking back that far was like reaching through a fog, like trying to grasp smoke. “It is a good use for mathematics,” Ada said vaguely as they entered the parlour. “Mama told me you translated Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste while I was ill. I have not yet had the time to read it.”
Mary clicked her tongue. “No, of course not, poor child. But one of our guests tonight helped Mr. Herschel found the Astronomical Society, and won its Gold Medal—oh, eight years ago, now? No, nine. Come, let me introduce you.”
She led Ada across the room to where three men stood in conversation. Or rather, one was expounding at length, and the other two were listening. “All you need is addition and subtraction,” he insisted. “Simple processes, not complex ones. Finite differences, don’t you see? Say you have a polynomial function—”
One of the gentlemen looked as if he wished to interject a question but was too polite to interrupt. Mary Somerville was not so hesitant. “Mr. Babbage,” she said, “I will stop you there, so that this young lady may listen in without eavesdropping. May I present to you the Honourable Miss Ada Byron? Ada, these gentlemen are Mr. Henry Chapman, Mr. William Raine, and Mr. Charles Babbage.”
The gentlemen bowed, and Mr. Babbage kissed her hand with a distracted air. “Eavesdropping? Are you another mathematical sort, then, like Mrs. Somerville here?”
Ordinarily when people heard Ada’s name, their minds went directly to her notorious father. She was at once pleased and obscurely disappointed that the connection did not seem to occur to Mr. Babbage. “I am a mere student of mathematics,” she said. “But what little knowledge I have is great enough to make me curious. What is it you were saying about finite differences?”
He cocked an eyebrow at her, as if surprised by her interest. “I was explaining the operation of my Difference Engine, which can calculate mathematical tables by that method.”
“For astronomy?” Ada asked, thinking of Mary’s words.
Babbage gestured expansively, nearly striking the man to his right. “For any purpose in which mathematics might be of use. And what cannot be helped along with numbers?”
It called up a nameless ache, which Ada concealed as Mary presented her to the other two gentlemen. She did not want to worry anyone. There was no reason to fear a relapse of her illness; she was fully recovered. No more fevers, no more visions of things that were not there. Her mad passion for her tutor had been a child’s foolishness, now put aside, along with the fancies of her childhood. She was her mother’s daughter, not her father’s.
But for some reason, that thought made the ache worse.
Babbage was only too happy to answer her questions about the Difference Engine; indeed, his delight grew with each one she asked. When pressed, he admitted it might have utility for astronomy, military endeavours, even music. All the world, reduced to numbers.
No, not reduced, Ada thought—it struck her so forcefully, she almost said it out loud. Revealed.
His words threw open a window in her mind, admitting a gust of wind that blew away the stale and stuffy air of her long illness. She hesitated upon the threshold of a neglected room, unsure whether to enter or back away, feeling as if to go in would bring her back to that dreadful time—to delirium and madness, losing touch with the world she had struggled so hard to regain.
But every word coming from Mr. Babbage’s mouth seemed to jostle her, threatening to tip her over that threshold. He might love numbers for their own sake, but Ada found herself thinking that mathematics was a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Her mother used the subject to bridle Ada’s rebellious mind... but did not a bridle allow one to ride a horse? And then the rider could travel anywhere she wished to go.
Against her better judgment, Ada found herself saying, “I once thought to use numbers to find a way to fly.”
“And why not?” Babbage said, unperturbed by the interruption. “Well, I can think of several reasons why not. It didn’t turn out very well for Icarus, if the Greeks are to be believed. But that’s the general idea, yes. The Difference Engine is only a start—though one I’m rather proud of. I already have several ideas for improvements. More complex engines, for more complex purposes. If someone comes up with the equation for flight, my machines will be able to calculate the answer.”
She laughed, cheeks heating with embarrassment. “It was a girlhood dream, Mr. Babbage, and I am now a woman grown. But I should very much like to see this Engine. Perhaps if I continue my studies, I could provide some little assistance to your efforts.”
The offer was presumptuous in the extreme, but Babbage’s wide smile told her he did not mind. “It’s rare enough for me to find anyone who understands the mathematics of the thing in the first place, Miss Byron, let alone dreams of uses for them. I have the Engine in a shed out behind my house; you’re welcome to come view it.”
Ada found herself short of breath, as she had not been for many months. A distracted part of her mind said that she should excuse herself and sit down, but she did not move. This entire conversation, pairing dreams and equations, echoed in her memory like a long-forgotten tune. Philosophic mercury and philosophic sulphur, Ada thought, and wondered why she had thought of alchemy.
For an instant, her vision swam. She had an impression that the spritely gentleman Mary had introduced as Mr. Raine looked very different: thin as a stick and quite tall, with eyes too blue for any human man. A silly fancy, and one that would appal her mother.
Mr. Raine gave her a peculiar smile and said, “Mr. Babbage is prone to driving off the layman with his abstruse ‘explanations.’ But with someone like you, Miss Byron, to help translate him to the world... I imagine you could do great things together.”
With a feeling of shaking the dust of past ages from her skirts, Ada dismissed his strange appearance. Not the sight of it—that remained—but the concern it ought to engender. What did it matter, truly? Ada was seventeen years of age, and could tell the difference between fancy and reality. Moreover, she could judge for herself how best to mix the two.
After all, a little bit of irrationality was necessary to fly.
She smiled at Mr. Babbage. “Let us see if Mr. Raine is correct. I am eager to discover what this Engine of yours is capable of.”