Wednesday, September 5, 2018
Welcome to Hidebound Hump Day! I call it hidebound because Victorians are sometimes described that way. It might be hard to decide who the “hero” of this story is, but everything revolves around Cornelis Drebbel.
I suppose Cornelis is a bit of a tortured soul, due to the accident of alchemy that put him in the unusual state I gave this fictional version of the real life scientist. With that segue, I’m going to digress for a moment. Here’s a congratulatory shout-out to Staci Troilo who has just launched a new book! Tortured Soul is the latest in her fabulous Medici Protectorate series. Be sure to check it out.
Back to business… Thanks for being at the station for this rerun of Copper, the Alchemist, and the Woman in Trousers — a steampunk serial with a Victorian setting. I’m posting episodes twice a week, so I hope you’ll come back for the next chapter, which will be posted at Straightlaced Saturdays.
This steampunk adventure was written spontaneously, in my “three things” way. Readers at that time in 2015 left random “things” that built the plot and characters. I had no idea what anything would be until the next thing came along.
Previously with Copper, the Alchemist, and the Woman in Trousers
Chapter 2 showed us that Cornelis Drebbel, the alchemist, has some magical abilities. He’s not a superhero, but those talents do come in handy. He used his talents to check on little Copper. All was not exactly well.
Felicity, the woman in trousers, got acquainted with the staff of the inn where they stayed, and learned a little about the handsome proprietor, Mr. Ignatius Belle. She also found an unusual bell in her room.
Copper, the Alchemist, and the Woman in Trousers
3 — Quail’s Egg
The dapple mare Ignatius Belle loaned me cantered at a pace that seemed comfortable for the horse. We traveled along a river. Water lapped gently against the shore making a soothing sound. I reigned in the mare, stopping under a large shade tree beside the main house of the Hixon estate.
For a moment I considered how I should approach a frightened child. I decided to simply knock on the front door. I expected that convention would outweigh Copper’s skittishness, especially within the familiarity of her home. After all, when there was a knock at the door, one tended to answer it.
Though it irked me, I dressed in socially acceptable feminine attire. Under the circumstances I realized that was best. However, I still refused to wear a corset, and I absolutely did not ride sidesaddle! If someone was upset about the sight of a bit of stocking showing above my boots, then they could look away.
After I dismounted the horse, I adjusted the full skirt and bustle. The dark green and cream colored stripes were attractive, even if the design was utterly impractical. I touched the smaller lady’s version of my favorite top hat. It sat at a jaunty angle on my head, and was adorned with ribbons, feathers, and tulle.
Through the multicolored stained glass inset if the door I saw the shape of a small person approach after I knocked. Sure enough, the door opened just a crack. Although I thought I already knew the answer to the question, I asked if Mr. Hixon was available.
“Um… no. No ma’am,” Copper said through the crack in the door without giving further information.
“Oh, that’s unfortunate,” I dissembled. “I had an appointment with him. I’ve come to apply for the governess position,” I said, hoping that Copper felt the need to have a grownup around.
While I knew nothing about children, I expected that most youngsters who had nothing to eat and a dead body in the study would like to have an adult to fix things. I held up the basket of calamari and rolls.
“I’ve brought my lunch, but there is too much of it. Perhaps. while I wait for Mr. Hixon, we could share it. Maybe in the kitchen?” I suggested.
Cornelis had mentioned that the study and the kitchen were on opposite sides of the house. I hoped the idea of me being in the kitchen would seem less threatening to the girl than letting me into another part of the house, closer to the corpse.
Indecision painted her face, along with the smudge of dirt I saw on her nose at the general store. She bit her lower lip as she looked from the basket and back up at me. The aroma of its contents was making me hungry again, so I knew her mouth must be watering. A gurgling noise came to my ears. That was surely her stomach growling.
“Governess?” Copper finally repeated.
“Yes. You know how busy your father is. He’s been looking to get a new governess to help with things, and to help look after you,” I said, hoping she had liked her former teacher as much as I expected.
Hixon wasn’t likely to have written the glowing recommendation Cornelis mentioned if the child didn’t like her.
“Um,” she began and licked her lips. “Won’t you please come in,” she said in a rehearsed formal way. “But you must make sure not to disturb my father,” she added with a frightened look in her eyes.
When I crossed the threshold I detected an unappealing scent. It smelled like sweet oil, overlaying a vague odor of something that was rotting. Forgetting my resolve to take things slowly, I turned to follow my nose. Copper gasped and grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the kitchen and away from the odor.
As might have been expected the kitchen was a horrendous mess of dirty dishes and disastrous attempts at cooking. The shell of a quail’s egg lay on the floor. Flour covered the work surfaces, part of what appeared to be an unsuccessful attempt at pancakes. Based on the look of things, Copper must have been on her own for a while.
By the time I recovered from the shock of seeing a kitchen in such a state, the moppet had already eaten most of the food I brought. The poor thing was ravenous.
I twitched with a shudder when the disembodied voice of Cornelis was suddenly in my ear. He warned that someone was coming. I could hear him more clearly than I usually could when he sent his voice without his body. Usually his voice sounded rather far away in this circumstance, but at that moment he was loud and clear. However, I heard a distracting faint chiming sound in the background and I wondered what it was.
“Who said that?” Copper asked with a start.
It surprised me that she heard him. I told her that it was just a friend, but she pelted out of the kitchen. I followed Copper as she ran to the front parlor to look out the window. A small coach and a man on horseback approached. Cornelis spoke into my ear again stating that the rider was the sheriff. I asked who would be in the carriage, but he didn’t know. Copper must have thought I was speaking to her.
“The orphanage,” she whispered wide eyed.
She looked likely to run again. I knew I’d never catch her in that retched skirt and bustle I was wearing, so I quickly took hold of her hand.
“Don’t worry. Whoever it is, I won’t let them take you,” I assured her.
Copper looked up at me with frightened eyes that were filled with tears and a spark. That spark seemed like a trace of hope that I sincerely would protect her. How could anyone resist that face?
However, I needed information, and I needed it fast. The slow approach was no longer possible.
“Is there some other reason why the sheriff might be here?” I asked. “What about your father? Are you sure he’s just busy? Is he… Is he well?” I asked the scared girl.
Her eyes moved to the direction of the study, where Cornelis said a dead man was slumped at her father’s desk.
“Copper has anything happened to your father?” I asked.
I realized that I might be pushing too hard, but I tried to make my voice gentle.
“Is he in the study?” I asked and that was as close as I dared come to asking if her father was dead.
“I don’t know! No,” she cried sounding confused. “I don’t know where Daddy is. When I came back inside from playing he was gone.”
That surprised me.
“That isn’t him in the study?” I asked much too bluntly.
“No!” she screeched.
“It’s alright,” I reassured her, but I had to hurry and get some facts before the sheriff came into the house. “How can you be sure that isn’t him? You didn’t see his face did you?” I asked.
As soon as I said the words, I wished I could take them back. Cornelis was right in saying that I spoke before I thought. It was a poor choice of words, but Copper didn’t react as strongly as I feared.
“No. His hair. Daddy doesn’t have hair like that. His is gray and thin,” Copper said.
The voice of Cornelis supplied the detail that the corpse had luxuriant brown hair. Then he reminded me about the signet ring.
“Darling, have any relatives come to visit? The man wears a family ring like your fathers. Does he have brothers, nephews?” I had to ask since it was only hearsay that there was no family.
Copper shook her head, unable to take her eyes away from the view of the coach and the rider.
The coach driver climbed down, ready to open the door and help his passengers alight. I turned away from the window and took a step toward the study. There was no more time to handle the delicate situation in a slowly paced, gentle way. I had to investigate the room where the unknown corpse rested immediately; else I might never get another chance once the sheriff was on the scene.
A pop sounded and Cornelis Drebbel was suddenly in my path. I ran right into the Dutchman. Copper gasped. It wasn’t like the alchemist to reveal himself to anyone. I thanked the stars that Copper had only gasped. She might well have screamed loud enough for the sheriff to hear. I was sure that he and the coach would be at the gates by then.
With a flourish Cornelis bowed and took my hand. That was also unlike him — behaving flirtatiously with me, I mean.
“You will need this,” he said and placed a beautifully carved ring on my finger.
“Cornelis, what—?” I began, dumbfounded.
Could the Dutchman have lost his mind? I didn’t get to ask him at what foolishness he was playing, because he pointed dramatically at the window.
“You will need this,” he said of the ring, but before I could comment he continued. “The people who are about to step out of the carriage? The moppet is correct. They are from the orphanage. And the presence of the sheriff indicates that they have a serious purpose,” Cornelis said.
Copper shrieked. The child didn’t utter a word when the alchemist materialized out of nowhere. Yet mention an orphanage and she screamed. All I could do was shake my head. I hoped she wasn’t heard outside.
I ran to the study. To my surprise, Copper followed even as I opened the door and entered the room where the dead body was. The smell of sweet oil was almost overpowering. It was as bad the odor of the corpse. I saw the empty oil bottle lying on the rug at his feet. Then I noticed that the back of his head looked greasy, and an oil stain ran all the way down the back of his waistcoat. I almost laughed.
“Copper, did you pour the sweet oil on him?” I asked the child who stood a foot behind me.
“He stank,” she said simply but emphatically.
I hurriedly scanned the room for anything obvious. However, I wasn’t sure for what I should be looking. Neither was I certain of my purpose in this situation. I had been drawn to this place for a reason, but it was unknown to me. I didn’t think my purpose was merely to solve the riddle of the dead man at the desk.
First things first, I told myself as I turned my attention back to the body. I had expected to see a pool of blood, but the top of the desk was clean. The dead man’s left hand rested on the desktop. Something seemed wrong about the position of the hand. It had been moved.
Hadn’t Cornelis said he wore a signet ring? Without looking I could feel the cool metal of the ring the alchemist placed on my finger. “You’ll need this,” he’d said. My eyes went back to the naked hand of the dead man.
“You moved a ring from the finger of a cadaver and put it on my hand?” I exclaimed, but Cornelis was nowhere to be seen.
To be continued…
One of the photographs in this chapter shows a John Etherington Welch Rolls in the “Oak Parlour” at the Hendre mansion near Monmouth. He was the grandfather of Charles Stewart Rolls, co-founder of Rolls-Royce. The Oak Room was his study, decorated with carved paneling and collector’s items. It was described as a typical Victorian gentleman’s retreat.
I hope all of you are aboard for this rerun. The story will resume this weekend for Straightlaced Saturday. We’ll see what I was able to write about with Wurlitzer Organ and Hydrofoil. I’ll be looking for you at the station. Hugs!
Now some shameless self-promotion.
This is a work of fiction. Characters, names, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, locales, or events is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 and 2018 by Teagan Ríordáin Geneviene
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