The Head above the Gate
Gloriana Martineaux was the apple of her father’s eye and her mother’s darling. She was spoiled and pampered from birth. This could have led her to be selfish and vain, but it did not. She was as sweet and kind, as meek and well-behaved as all good girls should be. She spent much of her time aiding the poor and ailing, and gave the children lessons in art and music.
Harrison Martineaux built a thriving business manufacturing and marketing steam horses. By the time Gloriana was born, he was the richest man in three parishes. His stock ranged from workhorses that bore little resemblance to their flesh-and-blood cousins to sculptured beauties that could be customized however the owner desired.
For her eighteenth birthday, for example, he gave his daughter a splendid gold-plated stallion with emerald eyes. Its mane and tail were spun gold fiber, so smooth and silky they almost glowed. The crowning glory of the automaton was kept a secret until he presented it to her.
“Oh, Father! He’s stunning.” Gloriana circled the animatron. “What is his name?”
“My name is Falada,” answered the horse, its voice deep and musical.
“Oh! He can talk. How wonderful!” She clapped her hands in delight.
“He has the finest intelligence module known to date,” boasted Harrison. “Falada will be a companion and confidante to you for years to come, my dear.”
“He’s absolutely marvelous, Father! Thank you so much.” Gloriana threw her arms about her father’s neck and kissed his proffered cheek.
“Treat him well, and he will be a lifelong asset to you.”
“I will treasure him always.”
And she did. He became her constant companion as she went about the streets carrying her baskets of comfort and aid to the sick and unfortunate. Upon Falada, she visited the homes of elderly women with no children to provide for them, bringing food and bolts of fabric so they might keep their hands busy if they wished, or sell them for a bit of gold if they did not. She carried medicines to the children stricken with black lung from working in the mines or phossy jaw from the match factories—lifting them to sit before her and ferrying them to the doctors—or just giving them the treat of riding on Falada’s back.
Alas, her father did not have long to enjoy her pleasure. By the change of the season, he succumbed to a fever, leaving Gloriana and her mother alone.
Adelaide Martineaux had no heart to run the business. She sold the steam works for enough to live more than comfortably for the rest of her life.
Her only worry was that Gloriana might be left alone. She contacted Madame Papadeaux, the renowned matchmaker, and arranged a meeting.
The great lady arrived, all powdered wig and yapping dogs. She breezed into the salon with a cry of greeting. “My dear, Adelaide—I was devastated to hear of your loss. Harrison was a sterling man, simply sterling. How are you, my pet? And your lovely daughter? I hear such wonderful things about her. You wish to find her a good match, am I right? Of course you do! Why else would you call the best?”
Adelaide waited for a breath—even Madame must take one eventually. “Good afternoon, Madame. Yes, I do want to speak to you about an arrangement. Do you have any suggestions for me?”
Madame plopped down on the settee, settling her dogs one to either side of her, and pulled a ledger from her voluminous bag. “Indeed I do, my dear. There are several eligible young men looking for the perfect lady at the moment. Phillipe Gaston—no, too short. Dominic Fortescue—no, he’s far too old and stodgy. Ah! Here we are. A brilliant match. Louis Etienne Rousseau. Young, handsome, heir to the Rousseau Airship empire. Almost a prince, this one. Gloriana will love him—he will love her. They will have beautiful children, and she will want for nothing. I will telegraph his mother at once.”
“I bow to your suggestion,” Adelaide answered, much relieved in her mind. She handed over a dozen gold ducats, and the deal was struck.
Gloriana was a dutiful daughter, and took the news of her impending marriage well. There were gowns to be fitted, an entire trousseau to be assembled. The finest fabrics, lace and jewels were employed. Sixteen seamstresses worked day and night to complete the assemblage before the snows could delay the marriage for another season.
At last, everything was complete. The day was set for the departure.
Adelaide and Gloriana sat in the drawing room on the night before the journey. The Rousseau estate was two days away from the Martineaux mansion by horseback. It would be the first time they were parted.
“I will miss you, my darling. I wish that I could travel with you,” Adelaide sighed, “but my health is fragile at this time of the year, and I fear the journey would be too much for me.”
“I am sure Louis would send an airship—”
“No, my pet. There is too much luggage for an airship—and what about Falada? You could not take him on such a voyage.” Adelaide took Gloriana’s hand in hers. “Perhaps in the spring I can book passage on one of the airships and visit you. But I shall worry. It is a mother’s prerogative.”
“I’ll be fine, maman. After all, Cosette will be with me.”
Cosette had been in her mother’s service since Gloriana was five. She was the daughter of the cook, and had been born in one of the cottages on the estate. A handful of years the elder, Cosette was a pretty girl, if not as lovely as her mistress’s daughter. Her hair was not as golden, her eyes not quite as blue…but she was fair enough. They had often played together as children, before Cosette became a maidservant and too busy for such pastimes.
Gloriana and her mother talked into dawn, filling the hours with all the inconsequential things they would not get to share before they met again. Telegrams were too impersonal and terse for small talk, letters too long between, even if delivered by airship. Only words delivered one to one could speak for their hearts.
In the course of the evening, Adelaide pulled from a drawer one of her snow-white handkerchiefs—a square of finest linen edged in delicate lace. She turned to her sewing and selected a sharp needle from the basket.
“Take this charm along with you, my love,” she said, pricking the tip of her finger and squeezing three ruby red drops onto the snowy linen. She murmured softly over the cloth, and then handed it to her daughter. “Preserve this carefully. It will serve you on your way.”
“I promise,” Gloriana said, tucking it into her bodice.
It was a bittersweet parting the next morning. Gloriana’s habit matched Falada’s eyes. Two work-unit stallions were loaded down with the trousseau and other baggage.
Cossette sat primly atop a sorrel blood horse. She said she didn’t trust the steam units, and Adelaide indulged her rather than send one of the remaining steam riding units with an inexperienced handler. The automatons were too valuable to risk unnecessarily.
They set out before noon, planning to stop at an inn along the road. The day proved unseasonably hot, and before they had gone terribly far toward their destination, Gloriana reined in beside a bubbling stream.
“Cosette, might I ask a favor? Could you dismount and fetch a cup of water for me…? I’m parched, and I’d truly love a drink from the stream yonder.”
“My back is aching, lady. Get you down and get it for yourself,” answered Cosette with a whine. “I’m too tired to indulge your whims.”
Gloriana frowned, hurt by the slighting tone. “I’m sorry to trouble you,” she murmured softly, sliding from Falada’s back. “Forgive me.” She knelt beside the stream and clumsily drank, unused to providing for herself.
As she bent over the water, she could not help but sigh, “I so wish Mother was here…”
And from its place between her breasts, the blood on the handkerchief whispered, “If she knew of this, ’twould break her heart…”
Startled, Gloriana clapped her hand to her chest, and felt a gentle warmth which brought her comfort.
“Come along,” sighed Cosette, rolling her eyes. “If we wish to make it to the inn by nightfall, we don’t have time for this shilly-shallying.”
“Of course,” Gloriana replied meekly, remounting Falada and following Cosette’s stiff back as the maid took the lead in the expedition.
But the sun continued to beat down, hotter and hotter. At last, Gloriana could bear it no longer. “I do apologize, Cosette, but I’m so very thirsty. May we stop for another moment?”
Cosette sighed once more, exaggerating her irritation. “One would think you were a child again, as demanding as you are. There’s a bit of a stream beneath those trees across the way. Hurry and slake your thirst if you must. We’ll not make the inn before nightfall if you continue to waste time so.”
Gloriana got down once more and drank her fill at the stream. Again she sighed, and again the blood whispered its message. She bent lower, bathing her face and neck in the cool water. As she leaned over the water, the handkerchief slipped from her bosom and drifted away on the stream. With a startled cry, she reached for the little square of fabric. It was just beyond her grasp. She clambered down the bank, floundering into the stream and slogging after the little charm. Her skirts became heavy with water, hampering her movements. The little handkerchief drifted further and further beyond her fingertips.
Cosette’s sharp eyes noted the loss, and she smirked with satisfaction. She had been listening at the door and knew the purpose of the charm. Without it, Gloriana would not have the protection her mother had given her. The power of the charm was such that Adelaide had agreed to let the girls travel alone, confident in its ability to keep them safe. Gloriana, who had never met a stranger, had no thought of danger, but Cosette saw opportunity.
“Mistress, come back,” she called. “It is gone. We will be caught out after nightfall if we don’t get back on the road.”
Gloriana’s eyes filled with tears as she realized the validity of Cosette’s words. The little charm had been precious to her, because it came from her mother, but there was no way to retrieve it. She was not as versed in the powers of such things as the maidservant, and it was only the sentimental value that she regretted losing. She vowed to send for another keepsake as soon as she arrived at her destination. She arched her back and climbed up the bank from the stream.
It did feel good to stretch her legs for a moment. Falada had the smooth gait of an exceptional steam mount, but still…riding for hours when unused to it was hard on a body.
As she started to remount, Cosette slid from her own horse. “I’ve had a clever thought,” she murmured. “Let’s play a trick—like we did when we were children. Do you remember? We will switch places and fool your intended. What do you say?”
Gloriana bit her lip. “It’s a bit childish, don’t you think? It would be difficult to accomplish…”
“Has your betrothed seen your portrait?”
“No…there was no time to commission a painting, and the daguerreotype that was taken did not meet with Mother’s approval. He has had only a description…”
“That you are blonde and slender with blue eyes. As am I. Come, it will be a lark. Can’t we be once more as sisters and have a game together?”
Despite her better judgment, Gloriana was a loving soul, and Cosette seemed genuinely delighted by the idea. Reluctantly, the younger girl agreed.
“Let’s start the game now,” Cosette suggested. “We will step behind that stand of trees and switch our gowns. We can practice at the inn this evening.”
Sweet-tempered, and used to giving to others, Gloriana complied. Cosette’s simple gown was a bit tight in the bosom, and an inch or two short, but fit well enough for a servant’s gown.
Cosette preened and twirled in Gloriana’s simple, yet elegant habit. “It’s a bit damp, but it should dry quickly enough. Do I look like a lady of fashion? Put up my hair as you would wear it,” she commanded. “And, to better play your part, you should let yours down.”
Gloriana did as she was bidden, beginning to tire already of the charade. She thought of how much less fortunate Cosette had been in life, however, and vowed to let the other have her fun. They had often pretended to be sisters as children, and Cosette had always been her friend, if sometimes a bit mischievous in her actions.
After the exchange of identity was complete, Gloriana started to climb up onto Falada’s back.
“Oh, no! I must ride Falada, else who would believe our jest?”
With a sigh, Gloriana helped Cosette onto her fine automaton, and then mounted the blood horse the maid had been riding.
“Now, remember,” Cosette said with a haughty arch of her neck, “you must remember to call me Miss Martineaux, and treat me as your mistress except when we are alone. On second thought—you should practice even then. You will be less likely to slip in public that way.”
“I really think this may turn out to be a mistake, Cosette…”
“It is too late to change your mind,” was the reply, as the maidservant set Falada in motion. “Who would believe you now?”
Falada spoke. “I will set the matter straight.”
“You?” scoffed Cosette. “No matter what the size of your processors, you are still a mere object. You have no rights or credibility against a human.”
“Then I shall!” cried Gloriana hotly. “You go too far. This was supposed to be a simple jest, and now you are taking it to extremes. I will explain it all as soon as we reach the inn.”
“You will look like a disgruntled maidservant trying to put on airs.”
“Then I will telegraph Mother to send a portrait and unmask your scheme!”
Cosette whipped around in her saddle. “You do, and I will make very sure it never arrives. By any means necessary, if you take my meaning.”
Gloriana’s blood ran cold. She knew Cosette had family among the guard. Her mother would be in serious danger if Cosette willed it to be so.
She would have to bide her time and sort this all out when the opportunity arose. Why had she listened to the older girl? For the love they had borne each other in the past, and the friendship of their childhood.
She had never seen this side of Cosette. Had the other always been so vicious beneath her smiles? She had been a master of deceit if so.
They rode in silence for the remainder of their journey to the inn. When they arrived, Cosette ordered the finest room and viands for herself and sent Gloriana to the stables to guard the horses.
It was an appropriate thing for a servant to do…Falada, if no other, was obviously worth stealing—but they could easily be incapacitated for the night and left alone. Not willing to risk Cosette’s wrath, however, Gloriana meekly complied.
That night, she bedded in straw laid inside Falada’s stall. The horse might not need it, but it made her lonely night more comfortable.
“You must watch that woman well,” cautioned the automaton. “This is a foolish course, and you know it, my lady.”
“Yes,” Gloriana sighed. “I know you are right, but what am I to do? She has the power to harm my mother. How can I expose her?”
“You must in time. Perhaps you can send your mother a warning. Will the innkeeper send a telegram?”
“That’s a good idea. I will speak to him in the morning.” Her mind eased, Gloriana was soon fast asleep.
But Cosette woke her at dawn and hustled her out of the stables without an opportunity to speak to the man. Gloriana was given no breakfast, or even a chance to wash. She opened her mouth to protest, but Cosette cut her off with a wave of her hand.
“We have no time to waste this morning. If we ride through the day, we should arrive at the Rousseau estate by nightfall. I am determined not to make my groom wait any longer than necessary.”
“You do remember this is but a game?” Gloriana reminded her hotly, determined that the ruse would end at the earliest opportunity. “Louis is my betrothed.”
Cosette sneered. “We’ll see about that.”
“I will not let you get away with this charade, Cosette. You know that!”
“It is entirely your decision. I have sent a telegram to my cousin on the Security Team. All it will take is a single word, and he will ensure that your mother has an unfortunate accident.”
All the fight went out of Gloriana once more. She could not risk her mother’s life, no matter what.
They rode in silence for the rest of the day, and Gloriana realized how spoiled she had been by the smooth gait of Falada. The sorrel was old, and its stride was uneven. She was miserable by the end of the journey.
They rode into the Rousseau gates as the sun was setting. There was fanfare and exaltation as Cosette waved to the people. A tall, handsome young man in a cutaway coat and top hat stepped forward with arms extended to help her from Falada’s back.
“Welcome, my bride! You have come at last.”
Gloriana opened her mouth to clarify, but Cosette glared at her over Louis’s shoulder, and she subsided.
Cosette was led away with much rejoicing, and Gloriana stood forgotten in the courtyard, unsure what to do. Servants had removed the baggage from the horses and taken them away to the stables, but no one had given her instructions or told her where to go.
As she hesitated, Louis Etienne’s father, Jean Paul, happened to glance out the window. He was struck at once by the beauty and grace of the servant girl standing in the yard. “Who is that young woman?” he asked his prospective daughter-in-law.
“She is a maid that my mother sent to keep me company along the road. She is a dull thing, for all her looks. But she is a decent worker. I ask you, sir, give her something to do, that she will not be a drain upon your house.”
“We have no need for more servants around the household, but perhaps there is something at the airship works that she can do. I’ll send for the foreman and see.”
And, so it was, that Gloriana found herself consigned to the worker barracks at the airship factory. She was assigned to riveting the great brass ribs on the upper reaches of the ships. It was a mindless task, but she resigned herself to bear it for now.
Meanwhile, the wily Cosette realized that the only flaw in her plan to take her mistress’s place was the automaton, Falada. On the night of her wedding, she turned to her bridegroom and batted her lashes. “Husband, may I ask a boon?”
Louis Etienne was besotted by his new bride, and nodded. “Ask what you will, my dearest.”
“The steam horse that I brought with me…it saddens me to see him. He was a present from my father, and a constant reminder of his loss. Would you have it dismantled for me?”
“It is a beautiful specimen, my love. Are you sure you want it destroyed?”
“Please, Louis…it would mean so much to me.”
“As you desire, my love.”
He sent to the airship works for someone who could disassemble the automaton. As it happened, Gloriana was nearby when the messenger arrived, and heard the order. She caught the engineer before he left the factory.
“Please, sir. I could not help but overhear—you are going to destroy the new mistress’s steam horse?”
“That’s what the master said.”
“Please…may I ask you a favor?”
“I must get to the stables…”
“I will give you all my wages for as long as you like if you will do me this one boon.”
The engineer looked down at the girl, beautiful despite the soot and grime besmirching her face from her labors. Her blue eyes brimmed with tears.
His heart melted. “No need for that, my pet. What is your wish?”
“Might I have the head of the automaton mounted over the gate beside the barracks? It would soothe my soul to see it there…to maybe speak to it now and again.”
“I don’t see why not, lass. They asked it be dismantled, but no one said all the parts must be melted down or such.”
“Thank you!” Gloriana threw her arms around the engineer’s neck, and he patted her back awkwardly.
“Happy to help, lass. I’ll have it mounted by morning.”
And so he did. When Gloriana headed from the barracks to the factory the next morning, Falada’s gleaming head was hung above the gate.
“Alas, Falada, hanging there,” she mourned as she passed.
The head answered,
“Oh, Mistress…I see you walking by—
A tear would spring to Mother’s eye
If she could see the tears you cry…”
One of the young boys who worked in the factory with her looked up curiously at the exchange. “What does he mean, that thing on the wall?”
“Never you mind, Jimmy,” Gloriana said, tousling the child’s hair. “Nothing for you to worry about.”
For a week, this exchange occurred morning and evening, and Jimmy grew curiouser and curiouser about what the funny horse head might mean. As it so happened, he was playing in the courtyard of the estate one evening with one of his friends, and acted out the strange exchange.
Jean Paul overheard the boys at play and called Jimmy to him. “What were you playing yonder, lad?”
Shyly, the boy explained. “’Tis the new girl, Glory. She talks to this metal horse head hung above the gate near the barracks. He comforts her like that every day.”
The old man thought about what the boy was telling him. “Thank you, Jimmy. Now, go play.”
Jean Paul resolved to see for himself this miraculous horse head. The next morning, he hid behind the gate at dawn. When Gloriana and Jimmy came along on their way to the factory, he heard the sorrowful exchange.
As they started on through the gate, he stepped out and confronted Gloriana. “My dear, what causes you to speak to the automaton as you do?”
Gloriana gasped in surprise. “Oh, sir! I did not know you were there.”
“It was as I intended it. Now, speak, child—what does this marvelous creature mean when it says your mother would sorrow?”
“I cannot tell you that, sir. It is worth more than my mother’s life if I do.”
“Who is your mother, then, that I might help protect her?”
Gloriana studied Jean Paul’s kind face, and the burden was too much. She burst out, “My mother is Adelaide Martineaux, sir. ’Tis I that was to be Louis Etienne’s bride, and not the vixen who took my place. She held my mother’s safety o’er my head and stole my life from me.”
“Tut, tut, my dear. We will set this right. Never you fear about your mother. I will send an airship for her at once. And we will see that this false bride gets what she deserves as well. Now, now…dry your eyes. You will spoil your looks with crying.” His gentle smile took the sting from the words. “Come home with me now, and I will see that you have proper clothes and a nice, hot bath.”
“Please, sir…I cannot leave Falada there. He is the last link I have to my father.”
“I shall have him taken from the gate and reassembled. He may not be the prize he once was, but he will be as near as I can arrange.”
“Oh, thank you, sir!” Gloriana felt the weight of the world lift from her slim shoulders.
To Jimmy, who stood gaping at the entire affair, Jean Paul tossed a ducat. The boy caught it in mid-air.
“That is for your trouble, son. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Now, go and tell the foreman that Miss Glory will no longer be working in the factory. If he has anything to say about it, direct him to my door.”
“Aye,” answered Jimmy, and he scampered away as quick as ever he might.
Jean Paul took Gloriana up the back stair of the mansion, giving her over to his late wife’s maid. “Dress this girl in something as befits a bride, Charlotte,” he ordered. “And keep her safe and secret till Louis arrives.”
“As you wish, sir,” replied the maid with a curtsey.
Gloriana was quite overwhelmed by the entire affair. To be dragged from manual labor to the lap of luxury once more made her head spin, but she subjected herself to all the maid required without quarrel, and soon was freshly bathed and dressed in a beautiful silk gown that had belonged to the late mistress of the house. As Charlotte fussed with her hair, there was a knock at the chamber door, and the maid left her side to go and open it.
Jean Paul strode into the room, his son at his heels. Gloriana smoothed the skirt of her ivory gown nervously. After all, Louis Etienne was to have been her bridegroom—and this was not the most auspicious first meeting.
Louis Etienne stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of her. “You are stunning, mademoiselle.”
Gloriana blushed, eyes shyly lowered. “Thank you, sir.”
“Come and sit beside me, my dear, and tell me the entire story.” He took her hand and led her to the chaise against the damasked wall.
Encouraged by his interest—and comforted by Jean Paul’s assurance that an airship even now sped to bring Adelaide to her side—Gloriana revealed the tale of her reluctant acquiescence to Cosette’s notion. “I did not know the entirety of her evil plan, monsieur, I promise you. She was always kind to me as a child, and I had no idea the depths of treachery she could stoop to. Can you forgive my foolishness?” She gazed at him earnestly, and Louis’s heart was won entire.
“We will beat her at her own game, my dear. Put on this mask…” He handed her a satin domino that matched the fabric of her gown. “Sit at my left hand at dinner, and we will set all to rights.”
Gloriana slipped the mask over her head, and went in to dinner at her betrothed’s side. Cosette gave not a second glance to the mysterious stranger on her husband’s left, but complained about the food, harangued the servants, and guzzled wine until her speech was slurred and her movements clumsy.
Louis leaned across his erstwhile bride to where his father sat on her other side and asked him in a serious tone, “Father, what would you suggest be done with a calculating servant who schemed to ruin their mistress or master? Should they be forgiven? If not, how should they be punished?”
Not in her right wits, and therefore not recognizing the essence of her own story, Cosette broke in with a great guffaw of laughter. “I’ll tell you what I would do to such! I would strip him or her naked as the day of birth and seal them inside an iron barrel, heated to red hot, and lined with nails. Then I would harness a team of the fastest steam horses to the barrel and have them drag it at a gallop through the streets of the city—uphill and down—until the streets ran with the false servant’s blood. That’s what I would do to such a villain!”
“A most worthy punishment,” declared Jean Paul. “What do you think, my dear?” He turned to Gloriana.
Gloriana removed her mask. “I think the punishment has been named by the perpetrator, and who are we to deny her the fate that is her due?”
Cosette blanched at the sight of her mistress. “You! How come you to be here? I-I will see your mother—“
“See me what, you vile creature?” Adelaide asked, sweeping in through the door at that precise moment. “Your wicked schemes have come to naught. My daughter shall have the husband she deserves, and you the fate you decreed.”
And so it came to pass. Cosette was bundled into the red-hot barrel, as she had dictated, despite her cries of protest and screams for mercy. A repaired and polished Falada was one of the horses that pulled her to her death. As for Gloriana and Louis Etienne, they lived happily ever after as they deserved, and Jean Paul and Adelaide found companionship as well.
The Great Iron Dragon vs. Silk Butterfly Race
(A Conn-Mann Chronicle)
“I tell you, it’s no contest. Of course the steam engine would win!”
“And I say you are wrong! The airship—by its very nature—is going to be the faster conveyance. None of that extraneous mass to drag along.”
Alistair Conn threw up his hands and turned to me.
“What do you think, Jo?”
Why on earth he was asking me, I had no idea. I wasn’t one of his scientific colleagues, merely his lab assistant. Still, I was flattered that he had asked. It was a sign he was beginning to value my input. I hoped.
His cousin and partner, Herbert Lattimer pleaded his own case.
“Yes, Josephine—you’ve ridden in both types of transport. Which do you think would win?”
I rolled my eyes. Men and their toys. They would argue about this point forever—to the exclusion of all other topics—if someone didn’t take charge.
“Alistair, I know you are quite proud of the Wyvern.” This was the name I had given to his locomotive—which he had spent an enormous sum to purchase. The family pockets must be much deeper than I had thought. I knew it couldn’t all have come from his professor’s salary. “And you are justifiably proud of the airship, Herbert.” He had rebuilt his precious craft practically from scratch after a villainous rival shot it out of the sky, and it was even grander than before. “I see only one way to settle the question. Why don’t you have a race?”
With their mouths hanging open in astonishment, the family resemblance was quite apparent.
“A race?” Alistair squeaked.
“Why, yes. It is what you call ‘scientific method,’ is it not?” I couldn’t see why he was so surprised. “The only way to fairly judge the matter is to put the two to an actual test.”
Herbert sank back into the chair he had darted up from when Alistair first impugned his beloved Pearl.
“It’s an interesting notion, Alistair. I’ve been wanting to give the new Pearl a shakedown voyage, and you have some time free between class sessions.”
Alistair pursed his lips in thought.
“It might prove an interesting experiment at that. I’ve been making some modifications to the Wyvern to help it burn fuel more efficiently…”
“And Fred has been working with you to do the same for the Pearl, hasn’t she, Herbert?” That worthy nodded. “So you would both benefit from the enterprise. Now, let’s go in to dinner.” Before either man could argue, I sailed past them with a swish of skirts, knowing both were too polite to let a lady go to dinner unescorted.
Dinner at Ma Stark’s boarding house was always a lively affair. Besides the aforementioned gentlemen and myself, my best friend Winifred Bond lived in the establishment. There were other boarders, but they seldom got a word in edgewise, although I tried my best to include them on most occasions.
Tonight, I didn’t even try. Once Fred—as she preferred to be called—was apprised of the proposal, the three technosists (a name I had coined for them) chattered away at top speed about steam ratios and argued about where to conduct this great experiment. I let their words wash over me, content to observe my companions.
I had signed on as Alistair Conn’s assistant several weeks before. The moment I laid eyes on the tall, lanky professor, I knew we had been destined to meet. It took very little persuasion to convince him to hire me, so I like to flatter myself that he sensed the connection as well.
Herbert Lattimer’s first airship had later proved vital when we suddenly discovered ourselves in need of transport out west. When the original Pearl was destroyed in the middle of Ohio, Fred helped us out of our predicament. Curious about the big city, she soon followed after the rest of us returned home to New York.
Now we had our own little enclave of experiments and exasperation. It was more fun than I had expected lab work and filing to be.
“Now, Alistair, to make it a fair contest, you will need a long, straight stretch of track, will you not?” I broke in, curious to hear his answer—and tired of being ignored. “Where will you attempt this enterprise?”
“Best t’avoid any main line,” Ma Stark commented, spooning a large helping of mashed potatoes onto my plate—she feels I’m in need of fattening up. “’Twould be a shame t’disrupt tha service o’good, hardworking folk simply fer a game.”
“Valid point, Ma,” conceded Alistair. “And since you only just suggested the contest less than an hour ago, Josephine, I haven’t given that aspect of it much thought. I will investigate the matter tomorrow.” From the enthusiastic manner with which he attacked his dinner, I knew the discussion was closed, and turned the conversation to other matters.
The next morning, Alistair was off before the sun rose. I don’t know what he hoped to accomplish—no one of any decency would receive him at that hour—but I didn’t mind, because it would make my own investigations simpler if he wasn’t hanging about getting in the way.
My first stop was a visit to Aunt Emily across the street. She was actually Alistair’s aunt, not mine, but our common fondness had led to her request I address her so. The refined widow of a respected businessman, I rationalized she might know who to approach with my questions about the railroad.
“Jo, my dear!” she exclaimed as I was announced, coming forward to take my hands. “I was much in need of distraction this morning. What brings you to visit me today?”
“Do you know anyone at the railroad?”
I explained our latest enterprise.
“As if purchasing his own train wasn’t foolish enough,” she tsked, shaking her head. “His mother will have something to say about that when she returns, mark my words.”
“It was actually quite a reasonable purchase, Aunt Emily. Now we can travel about the country as necessary without worry. I far prefer it to the Pearl.”
“I do tend to agree, my dear. Though I foresee air travel is the wave of the future. It’s the next big thing.”
I shrugged. “I’ll keep my feet firmly on the ground, if it’s all the same to you.”
“I suppose falling from the sky will sour your outlook on the matter. Well, I do know one gentleman who might have the information you seek. Let me write you an introduction.”
I stepped out of the carriage in front of a modest brownstone at the edge of the financial district half an hour later. Nervous, I lifted the brass knocker and rapped on the door. It was opened by a tall, spinsterish woman in a neat uniform who looked down her sharp nose at me.
“Yes? May I help you?” Her tone was so icy I was surprised the words didn’t form icicles on her lips.
“I would like to see Mr. Philpott,” I replied, straightening to my full height and fingering the note Aunt Emily had given me. I had every right to speak to the man. I couldn’t look down my nose at her, but I tried to match her tone.
“Mr. Philpott is not receiving.” She moved as if to shut the door, and I thrust my boot into the crack. She looked down at my foot in surprise. A frown creased her face, and I could see the debate in her head—should she acquiesce or risk causing injury by slamming it anyway?
Before she could decide one way or the other, I held out my letter of introduction.
“Could you at least deliver this note and tell him I’m waiting?” I gave her my most winning smile.
I might still have come away with a broken toe, at the least, had not a white-haired gentleman come down the stairs behind her at that precise moment.
“What on earth is going on, Miss Rogers?”
She turned to him with a stiff curtsy.
“This person has come to see you, Mr. Philpott, but she has no appointment or card…”
“I’ll handle it, Miss Rogers. Won’t you come inside, Miss…?”
“Mann. Josephine Mann,” I replied, placing my letter into his outstretched hand. “This is a letter of introduction from Mrs. Emily Estes.”
His face lit up.
“Any friend of Emily’s is welcome here. Why don’t you fetch a pot of tea, Miss Rogers?”
He led me across to a fine, masculine sitting room; there were no touches of femininity in the décor. Perhaps that was the source of his interest upon hearing Aunt Emily’s name. Intriguing thought, but not important at the moment.
“Mr. Philpott, I need your help,” I began. “The gist of it is in the letter.” I gestured to the paper in his hand.
He glanced over it swiftly.
“I see. She does outline the problem here. I believe I can help you. There’s a stretch of track outside Bedford that’s currently off the schedule because of work being done to extend it at the far end. You could access the near end and have a fairly straight course for almost ten miles. Would that suit your needs?”
“We would be able to get the Wyvern onto this track?”
“Wyvern—it is the name of Professor Conn’s locomotive.”
“I see…Most assuredly. It’s the other end that’s currently disconnected. You must be sure to have a good brakeman, of course, because the bridge is out for repairs at the far end.”
I thought about that for a moment. Alistair would have a good brakeman, of course—I was almost certain that his automaton Phaeton would be handling those duties, and he would perform them with the perfection he brought to any other task once instructed in it.
“That shouldn’t be a difficulty,” I promised. “As long as we have a clear track, we should be fine.”
Miss Rogers appeared bearing tea and disapproval. I smiled sweetly at her and batted my lashes. She slammed the tray down as hard as she dared and stalked from the room.
Mr. Philpott and I had a pleasant chat over tea. I learned many fascinating facts about the railroad that are neither here nor there for the purpose of this narrative. It occurred to me that Mr. Philpott was a very lonely man, so I protracted the visit as long as I deemed appropriate. Perhaps I would speak to Ma or Aunt Emily and see if I could arrange a small dinner party…
But not today. I had a written authorization from Mr. Philpott to the stationmaster at the decommissioned length of track giving permission for the race. I needed to get it to Alistair as soon as possible, before he came up with some less savory alternative.
The next two weeks were a bustle of activity. Alistair spent all his free time at the roundhouse with Phaeton, tinkering with his steam engine. He built a custom coal car on the back of a flat car cutting much of the weight. They intended to race with only the two cars.
Meanwhile, in Herbert’s warehouse workshop, he and Fred worked to optimize the Pearl. I was slightly envious of her endeavors—not because of her companion, but because she had something to do. Alistair was worried I would be hurt if I helped at the roundhouse, so I was relegated to puttering about the laboratory and bothering Ma in her kitchen until she tossed me out as well.
When I went to Aunt Emily for consolation, she offered me an outlet for my boredom.
“Have you considered publicizing this event, Josephine?”
“What do you mean?”
“It seems a fascinating competition, dear. Perhaps other people would be interested in seeing the race. You could put an advertisement in the newspaper and charge for tickets.”
My mind whirled through the possibilities.
“That’s a capital idea, Aunt Emily! We could make a day of it. Serve lemonade and sandwiches…oh, this could be fun!”
We discussed logistics until teatime and had a most pleasant afternoon. When I returned home, I went immediately to my room and composed an advertisement to deliver to the newspaper the next morning. Only then did I realize I had no idea when the race might take place.
I asked Alistair that very question over dinner. After all, the track wouldn’t be available forever.
“I suppose it could be any time now. The Wyvern is finished. Herbert?” He turned to his cousin.
“The Pearl is ready. Just name the date.”
“Today is Monday. Why don’t we settle the matter on Saturday?”
“Excellent! I’ll put in the advertisement tomorrow.” Now that was settled, I fell to my dinner with gusto.
“Advertisement?” Alistair’s voice had that chill of disapproval I found particularly irritating…when directed at me.
“Yes, Alistair.” I sighed, laying aside my fork. “It was Aunt Emily’s idea. This is an opportunity to show off your inventions—Phaeton, the steam engine, Herbert’s Pearl. Inviting the public to the race will prevent any bother like we had this spring. No one can claim your inventions if the public knows all about them.”
The logic of the argument was inescapable. Even Alistair had to admit that.
“Fine! If you feel you must. Give Mr. Greenstreet my regards.”
I didn’t relish speaking to the odious little newspaper man again, but I supposed there was no choice. I had been keen on the plan before Alistair reminded me I would have to deal with the toad. But there was no way around it if I wanted to place the advertisement.
The next morning, I dressed in my most sensible, business-like attire and headed down to the newspaper office with my advertisement in hand. Taking a deep breath and raising my chin high, I opened the door to Mr. Greenstreet’s office and swept in.
He glanced up from the papers he was perusing, and—I swear—his face blanched white.
“What are you doing here?” he blurted.
The reaction was not unexpected. Our first encounter had not been auspicious. But I set my shoulders and pressed on. What he felt about me didn’t matter. He’d take my money quick enough, no doubt.
“I am here to place an advertisement,” I said, making my voice as meek as possible in a bid for conciliation.
“What sort of advertisement?” His eyes brightened at the thought of revenue.
“A full page, if you please.” I showed him my carefully prepared layout.
“A race, is it? Fascinating. But you’re undercharging. You should ask a dime for admission and charge twenty-five cents for a sandwich and lemonade.”
“You don’t think that would be greedy?”
“I’m sure there’ll be expenses involved beyond this advertisement. Have you engaged a food vendor, for instance?”
I hadn’t considered that, as a matter of fact.
“I could suggest someone if you like. I know a young woman named Patricia Merriweather who would be perfect for your needs.”
“That would be lovely.” I meant that with all my heart. I had no idea where to start—unless I asked Ma to cater, and it would be unfair to ruin her holiday.
By the time I left the newspaper office, I had a full page advertisement scheduled, the address of the caterer, and a new appreciation of Mr. Greenstreet. I doubted we would ever be bosom friends, but at least I no longer despised him for ruining my life. Besides, if he had given me the job I’d applied for, I wouldn’t have become Alistair’s assistant.
My next stop was to visit the woman he had recommended. Patricia and I took to each other instantly, and worked out a deal to our mutual satisfaction.
The day of the race, the air seemed charged with electricity. It was a beautiful summer day, not a cloud in the sky. A light breeze whipped pennants decorating the course. The Pearl hovered, bobbing on her tethers. The Wyvern gleamed on the rails.
Dressed in my best summer seersucker, I wove through the crowds, greeting friends and strangers alike; I felt it my duty to play hostess. It was my idea, after all. Ma and Aunt Emily sat behind a table shaded by a large umbrella taking admission money. They were having a grand time.
Someone had hired a band—I’m not sure who, because I hadn’t even thought of it, but it added a festive note to the occasion. Polkas and marches filled the air with bright ringing brass and shrills of flute and piccolo. Drums beat tattoos in counterpoint to the laughter of children.
Aunt Emily’s maid, Vanessa, was helping Patricia with the sandwiches and lemonade and flirting with the customers. The caterer had recruited some friends to help with the food, and the aromas of hot dogs and popcorn perfumed the July air. They were doing crackerjack business, and we would receive half the profits. It would be a very lucrative day.
I saw Mr. Greenstreet chatting with Alistair and Herbert and waved. The gentlemen waved back. I had never seen Mr. Greenstreet smile before. He had quite a nice one.
Alistair checked his pocket watch, and said something to Herbert. My heart began to pound. It must be time.
I hurried to join them.
“Are you about to begin?” I asked Alistair.
“It is the scheduled time.” He glanced around the makeshift fairgrounds. “I wonder where Phaeton can be?”
“How could you lose a nine-foot tall automaton?” I rolled my eyes. Honestly, the man was hopeless.
“Just…find him, will you?”
Herbert rubbed his hands together.
“If we’re getting ready to start, I should be getting aboard the Pearl. Has anyone seen Fred?”
“I believe I saw her over by the bandstand,” I told him, pointing in that general direction.
“Thanks.” He hurried off in search of his co-pilot.
Well, that was one thing sorted. Now, where could the marvelous mechanical man be? I craned my neck, searching for a hint of brass. It shouldn’t be hard to see him despite the crowds. It wasn’t like Phaeton to go off and get himself lost. I hoped no one had decided to kidnap him again.
I finally spotted him helping Vanessa and Patricia make sandwiches. It was a most incongruous sight.
I hurried across the grass.
“Phaeton! The race is about to begin. You need to get to the train at once.”
He cocked his head at me.
“I am needed here.”
“But…” I was at a loss for words. I’d never seen Phaeton disobey a direct order before.
“It would be unfair for me to assist Master Alistair anyway, Miss Jo. My weight added to the weight of the locomotive will cause it to far exceed that of the Pearl. You should be the brakeman.”
I started to protest, then changed my mind. It would be exciting to be part of the race. Alistair hadn’t wanted me to help because Phaeton was a better match for Fred in terms of experience and aptitude. But the automaton was correct. His weight would definitely put Alistair at a disadvantage.
I ran back to the train, climbing aboard the engine.
Alistair glanced at me from the controls.
“What are you doing here?”
“Phaeton is busy,” I answered, picking up the coal shovel. “I’ll be your brakeman.”
He sighed. “If it isn’t one thing it’s another. Very well. Build up the pressure. It’s just like stoking the Pearl.”
I regretted my pale green seersucker now, as the coal dust billowed about me, but it couldn’t be helped. I shoveled with a will, and the pressure began to build in the boiler. Alistair pulled the handle of the whistle twice—the signal to Herbert the race was about to begin. I saw Fred wave out of the newly installed porthole on the side of the airship’s gondola, and we were off.
The train accelerated slowly, but quickly built to breathtaking speed, the wheels clacking in thunderous cadence. I glanced out the window. The wind caught my hair, blowing it in my eyes, but I could see the Pearl sailing above us. It was running slightly ahead.
“We need more speed, Alistair! They’re winning.”
“Add more coal,” he ordered, adjusting the pressure.
I hurried to comply. It was so exciting. Almost like flying…but I much preferred it to being in the airship.
Suddenly, my mind flashed back to something that Mr. Philpott had said. You must be sure to have a good brakeman, of course, because the bridge is out for repairs at the far end.
“How far have we come, Alistair?” I gasped.
“About three miles, why?”
I staggered to the brake, fighting to keep my feet beneath me. I suppose most railroad workers stayed in one place when their trains were in motion. And they didn’t push the engines to the limit, either.
I could see the trestle of the missing bridge in the distance—the not-nearly-far-enough-away distance. I tugged on the brake with all my strength. The lever barely moved. I must see about strengthening my muscles.
If we survived.
“Alistair! Help me! The bridge is out.”
His face paled, and then he was at my side, straining against the lever with me. Imperceptibly, it began to give. The Wyvern was still hurtling down the track.
He glared at me.
“I am doing my best!”
Grunting, he forced the lever downwards. The train began to slow…but not fast enough.
I swung on the lever with all my weight. Suddenly, it gave, and the engine screeched to a halt. I landed hard on the floor, bruising an unmentionable part of my anatomy. I dared not stand for fear I would faint.
When I finally had my breath under control, I climbed to my feet and stepped to the window. The cowcatcher on the front of the locomotive was touching the barrier warning of the missing bridge. The Pearl was across the ravine and turning back our way.
“That was exciting,” I murmured, giving my companion a wan smile.
“But who won?” he asked.
A one-track mind on that one.
“I’d say we did. At least we didn’t go over the edge.” I clambered down to solid ground on shaky limbs.
Herbert landed the airship in the meadow beside the track. Fred was off the Pearl almost before it touched down.
“Are you alright, Jo?” she shouted as she ran towards me.
Herbert exited the ship more slowly.
“Alistair, is the Wyvern alright?”
Such is the difference between men and women.
The four of us climbed aboard the Pearl. I could stand a short jaunt, and it would be much more difficult to back the train up the track.
“I suppose you won,” Alistair sighed to Herbert, as Fred and I made ourselves comfortable on the settee.
“I don’t know if I would say that, old man. We were running dead even before you started to slow down. I don’t think we can really count the results of this endeavor. We’ll just have to try again.”
“Next time, let’s make sure the track doesn’t end in a fall into a ravine, shall we?” Alistair drawled.
“I told you it was only ten miles, and the bridge was out, Alistair,” I reminded him. At least, I think I told him…
Things were back to normal. Iron dragon, silk butterfly—both had their advantages, but I would be happy to walk. At least for the moment.