Saturday, September 8, 2018
Thanks for being at the station for this rerun of my steampunk serial with a Victorian setting. This adventure was written spontaneously, with “three things” left by readers (back in 2015) driving every element of this story from the setting to the characters.
I enjoy alteration, as you will see while this story progresses. Names are never accidental with me. You’ll see that many of the minor characters have names that begin with “B.” I did that as a subtle way of helping you keep up, since I’m conscious of the fact that it’s hard to keep up with a serial.
Also, I entertained myself with the names of a group of characters you’ll meet today. Suddenly I needed to name four lesser characters. That was just too many “B” names to throw at you. I’ll let you see for yourself the “method” of naming I used.
Previously with Copper, the Alchemist, and the Woman in Trousers
Chapter 3.1 Felicity, the woman in trousers, and Cornelis Drebbel, the alchemist, met Copper, the unusual little girl. We were relieved to learn that the dead man in the study was not Copper’s daddy, but we don’t know who he actually is. Meanwhile the sheriff and a group of people from the dreaded orphanage were knocking at the door. Shall we let them in?
Copper, the Alchemist, and the Woman in Trousers
4 Wurlitzer Organ, Hydrofoil
After extracting a promise from Cornelis to watch over Copper, and a dire warning of what he’d face if he let her run away, I sent the two to the back parlor. I suspected the people from the orphanage had motives that were less than pure, and I didn’t want the child to be so easily within their reach.
A moment later I heard the Dutchman exclaim, “Oh look! It’s a Wurlitzer!”
There was no telling what Cornelis was talking about with that comment. I thought he must have been saying something silly to get the child’s mind off the situation. I hoped Cornelis would be responsible in looking after Copper. He wasn’t always reliable.
An official seeming knock sounded at the door. I took a breath and moved to answer it. The “visitors” were clearly surprised to see me, particularly the people from the orphanage. They included two women and a man. The man, who was standing farthest back, mumbled that there was not supposed to be anyone there except the child. I got the impression that he had plenty of courage to accost a child, but not so much if he had to confront an adult.
The sheriff was an ordinary looking man, with the exception of the shiny badge and a thick mustache. He had the air of a man who was simply doing his job. He glanced at my stylish frock and seemed to notice a horse hair that clung to my cuff. He bowed over my hand in a formal manner. However, it was an obvious ploy to get a good look at the signet ring.
I introduced myself as Copper’s aunt, her father’s half-sister, Mina. Yes, Mina. That was the first name that came to mind, though I’ve no idea why. Of course my assertion was met with astonishment. Yet I knew Calvin Hixon had not been born in the little town. They couldn’t know much about the extended family.
At least the sheriff seemed to think it plausible enough. He glanced again at the ring on my finger and nodded his head. Whatever these orphanage people were about, from the sheriff’s point of view, a long lost relative showing up would simplify things for him.
I raised one eyebrow expectantly when none of them introduced themselves in return. The sheriff understood, but the other three silently — and arrogantly stepped across the threshold. The sheriff cleared his throat and they hesitated.
“Pardon my lack of manners,” he said awkwardly and began making quick introductions.
The county sheriff was Alvin Bullard, also part owner of the local grist mill. The other man was Claude Dinkley, a board member of Merciful Haven Orphanage, as well as the county truant officer. He had a slim build, a weak chin, and his starched collar was too tall for the length of his neck. He also looked like he’d tremble in fear of one of the women.
That woman was Ethel Farthing, chairlady of the board and owner of the Merciful Haven Orphanage. She was of average height and build. Her movements were stiff and choppy, though she did not appear to be arthritic. Ethel Farthing positively radiated bossiness and was the first to shoulder her way across the threshold uninvited. She made a sarcastic comment at which the other woman gave a honking laugh.
Which brings me to the last visitor. She was a tall willowy woman, Gertrude Hobbs, administrator of the orphanage. Her wire rimmed spectacles sat far down her nose. She was very quiet, but nodded sharply to everything Ethel Farthing said. She had a small head with a prominentnose and a long neck. Those features combined with her honking laugh and the large bustle of her gown reminded me of a goose, a greedy goose waiting for a chance to peck away at something.
But why were those people at the Hixon residence at all? How could they know Copper was on her own? Did the authorities already know something about Calvin Hixon’s disappearance? Why did they have such an interest in Copper? Although I supposed if they established themselves as her guardians, they could take over the Hixon estate. They looked like a covetous lot. They were likely unaware of the financial problems Cornelis discovered.
As I motioned toward the front parlor where I planned to lead them, I saw the sheriff’s nose twitch. I had not anticipated him being an experienced lawman. He recognized the odor of decomposition beneath the heavy smell of sweet oil. His hand moved to the holstered gun on his hip as if reflexively. He gave me a cold look.
“Is there some problem here, Miss?” he asked levelly.
There was little I could do, except tell the truth — mostly.
“Actually Sheriff, there is. I arrived only a short time ago,” I began.
I already saw him take note of horse hairs that stubbornly clung to my gown. Hopefully my unkempt attire corroborated that much.
“And I came into a terrible thing. I’ve spent all my time trying to calm the poor child. She was in hysterics. Heaven only knows what she’s been through,” I said with a grain of truth.
“Do continue,” he said flatly when I paused. He was definitely the no nonsense type.
“I found a stranger in my brother’s study. The child has been too distraught to tell me what happened or where her father is. I assumed he went into town to get help,” I said, though it didn’t look like the sheriff believed that.
“What stranger?” Gertrude, the goose-like woman asked.
“No doubt another long lost relative,” Ethel Farthing, the more aggressive woman said with a sneer before I could answer.
I chose to ignore the people from Merciful Haven as much as possible and focus on the sheriff. I only wished I could ignore the ironic way the facility was misnamed. Sheriff Alvin Bullard was the one with the real authority. I led the sheriff to the study. The others followed. They gasped and nearly retched when they walked into the room.
“Nothing appears to be amiss,” I told Sheriff Bullard, and hoped against hope he would not venture to the kitchen where it looked like Armageddon had been fought. “Well except of course for… I assumed the poor man was struck by a sudden death, a heart attack, or a stroke perhaps,” I said with a distraught wave toward the dead body, trying to give the impression that I was just a helpless woman.
Making my eyes as wide and sad as possible, I looked up at the sheriff. Oh yes. That had him. His shoulders relaxed and he took his hand away from the gun at his side. He gave the corpse a cursory inspection.
The orphanage people recovered themselves enough to start complaining about my presence. Their assertions about concern over the welfare of the child sounded hollow at best. Based on the expression on the sheriff’s face, he thought so as well.
“No sign of a struggle,” the lawman murmured as he looked at the body. “No apparent injuries, no blood from an attack,” he observed. Then he took a close look at the man’s face and at the desk and nodded again. “No traces of vomit to indicate poison. Not so much as a hair out of place. I have to agree that the poor soul must have died from natural causes,” he said with a due amount of reverence and he looked at the others as if silently suggesting they follow his example of decorum.
“You said you attended the child,” he said to me and I nodded. “I’d like to speak to her,” he added.
I made a reluctant, concerned face.
“I’ve only just given her a tonic to get her to sleep. It would be best not to wake her. Perhaps I could bring her to your office tomorrow?” I suggested and Sheriff Bullard reluctantly agreed.
The others were not so amenable. A veritable caterwauling ensued. They demanded to see Copper and determine her welfare for themselves. Then they demanded some kind of identification from me. Fortunately, it was in no way unusual for a person to be without such documents.
The voice of Cornelis whispered into my ear.
“Prime these fools for what I’m about to do,” he said but I couldn’t ask what he meant. Thankfully he continued. “Get them to face the corpse, and say something about making the dead unhappy,” he said.
I couldn’t imagine what the alchemist had in mind. However, I moved to stand behind the body so they would have to look at it.
“It was my late brother’s wish that I come here as soon as I could. As for this poor man, well that is up to the sheriff,” I said, unsure how to fit words to the alchemist’s unknown plan. “It’s unwise to have such antagonism and animosity in the presence of the so very recently deceased!” I said in wide-eyed fearful seeming warning. “It is dangerous to anger the spirits before they have had time to move on to the heavenly plane.”
As my words ended, a shrill harmonic sound vibrated. It seemed to be within my own ears, but I saw everyone else react to it as well. The sound escalated into loud eerie music that thundered within the room. The volume was so strong that it vibrated through the floor and up through my boots. I felt as though I stood in the middle of a gigantic cathedral pipe organ.
I finally understood the exclamation Cornelis made when he entered the back parlor. He’d found a Wurlitzer organ and was using it to grand effect. Somehow he had amplified the sound and made it seem to come from within the study. A glint of silver caught my eye, and I spotted the ornate bell Cornelis took from the inn — the one he said was actually not an ordinary bell, but a harmonic tuner.
Bass notes emanated from the Wurlitzer in an ominous way. When he managed to add a sound like a howling cry on the wind, the people from the orphanage nearly trampled the sheriff trying to get out of the study. They stumbled and fell repeatedly in the hallway as they made for the front door.
The sheriff looked rather confused by the loud music. I saw him look around the study for the source of it. He seemed mildly uneasy as I walked him to the front door. He seemed calm enough when he said he would send someone to take the body. However, his footsteps became very quick as he went to his horse. By then the dust stirred by the coach was all that remained of the officiaries from Merciful Haven Orphanage.
I returned to the study. Something had caught my eye on the desk when the sheriff moved the corpse to check his face. It was an envelope addressed to Calvin Hixon. I had only glimpsed the return address, but I thought I’d seen a notable name. I grimaced as I moved the corpse enough to retrieve the letter.
That was interesting, I thought as I read the envelope. I had not been mistaken about the sender. I removed the stationary from the envelope. It was a businesslike missive, complimenting Hixon’s project. I had no idea Hixon was an inventor. Perhaps it was a hobby. The letter was an offer of collaboration to improve a design belonging to Hixon that the writer called a hydrofoil. The letter was signed by Alexander Graham Bell.
“Ah yes,” I thought. “The telephone man. And another Bell.” It seemed that bells of one kind and another had surrounded me ever since I arrived.
I reread the letter, trying to comprehend the idea of a boat that sat on “foils” that lifted it out of the water, allowing it to reach amazing speeds. Could it actually be made to work? Hixon’s invention had attracted the interest of someone like Alexander Graham Bell, so it must be worthwhile. Was it related to his disappearance? Did it have anything to do with the corpse beside me?
At that moment Copper ran into the study, followed by Cornelis. Both laughed merrily at the fright they had given the child’s would-be guardians.
Cornelis picked up the intricate silver bell and gave it one harmonic chime. The organ in the back parlor responded by making a comical oboe-like sound.
To be continued…
Real World Notes
Wurlitzer Organ. Cornelis was gleeful to find one. Wurlitzer, is an American company started in Cincinnati in 1853 by German immigrant (Franz) Rudolph Wurlitzer. The company initially imported stringed, woodwind and brass instruments from Germany to the U.S.A. Wurlitzer also provided musical instruments to the U.S. military. In 1880, the company began manufacturing pianos and eventually expanded to make pipe or theatre organs popular in the days of silent movies.
Hydrofoil. Yes that really is Bell on a real hydrofoil. Concepts for such a craft were developed as early as 1899.
Well now… Felicity, the woman in trousers, found a slue of questions, but no answers when she met the local sheriff and a trio of unsavory people from the orphanage — a place of which Copper was terrified. Why were they at the Hixon residence? How could they know Copper was on her own? Did the authorities already know something about Calvin Hixon’s disappearance? Why did they have such an interest in Copper? Be at the station Wednesday for Hidebound Hump Day, where this serial continues. I’ll be looking for you there. 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
All rights reserved.
No part of this work may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.
All images are either the property of the author or provided by free sources, unless stated otherwise.