Wednesday, September 12, 2018
You’ve arrived at Hidebound Hump Day! As you can see, I had a special treat for this chapter. Chris Graham (the Story Reading Ape) did the above animation, and I’m tickled pink!
His character, Artie the genius chimp, has been here several times. Before Artie came along… No, wait. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who are new to this steampunk train. So I’ll tell you about that at the end. Read on. Back to Hidebound Hump Day.
Thanks for being at the station for this rerun of Copper, the Alchemist, and the Woman in Trousers. This steampunk adventure was written spontaneously, in my “three things” way. Readers at that time in 2015 left random “things” that built everything about this story, including the plot, settings, and characters. While he didn’t leave it as a “thing,” back then Chris Graham was talking about something that had a large influence on this story. You’ll see the root of that today.
Previously with Copper, the Alchemist, and the Woman in Trousers
Last time we met the local sheriff, Alvin Bullard. He seemed somewhat less unpleasant than the trio from Merciful Haven Orphanage. I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll see more of him. Fortunately, Felicity got rid of them before they could get their grubby little hands on Copper. (Thanks to an assist from a bit of alchemy involving the Wurlitzer.)
Felicity also found a letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Copper’s father. It was about a hydrofoil Mr. Hixon invented. Hmmm… Shall we see what our friends are up to now?
Copper, the Alchemist, and the Woman in Trousers
5 — Artist’s Palette, Pease Pudding, Owl-Shaped Lamp
The hand of a heavenly painter colored the evening sky, dipping the brush in an artist’s palette of pink, orange, and gold. Squinting in the fading light, I wondered if doing so would give me wrinkles as everyone claimed. I didn’t particularly care. What was a face without a bit of character?
I lifted the skirt of my dark green and cream striped gown as I picked my way through the barn, wishing I had brought a pair of trousers with me. As I squeezed between the wall and a work table — a space I should have been able to navigate with ease, the wretched bustle got caught. Carefully, I extricated myself.
The barn was empty of life, except perhaps for a few mice. It was easy to see that the horses had been gone for a while, evidence of the financial problem Cornelis uncovered.
Surely Hixon kept at least one for his own transportation, I thought.
Had he left on horseback then? Was he abducted? I came full circle to the first question I faced when I came to the estate— Who was the dead man in the study?
Since I had no idea what I was looking for, my intention had been to search the storage building and barn for anything that didn’t belong. However, Calvin Hixon was a man of extraordinary interests and tastes. Not belonging was a description that could be applied to nearly everything he owned. I supposed that made all the strange articles and artifacts actually belong, in that way.
Secretly I thought it would have been better if Cornelis had sorted through all the oddities in the outbuildings. The alchemist had remarkably broad knowledge of such things. However, Cornelis would have taken days with the task, getting consumed as he looked at each object. So it was just as well left to me.
I searched the barn and the larger storage building. There was another shed on the opposite side of the grounds. I had not inspected it yet. So far I had seen many interesting, if unexplainable, gadgets and oddments, but nothing that gave me a clue as to what was going on. At least I found a stash of canning jars — and some containing food. In the dim light they looked unspoiled. The hungry girl had eaten everything I brought earlier, and I hadn’t seen much else in the larder except some dried peas. I put the jars in a burlap sack and hefted it over my shoulder.
The food was welcome, as it was unlikely that I would spend any time at the Belle Inn when I went back for my things. Yet no matter what the obstacles, I had to return to the inn to get my hatbox. I couldn’t leave the area without that hatbox. It contained the skull of Cornelis Drebbel.
Leaving the barn, I gazed in concern at the beautiful sunset. How much time did we have? Sheriff Alvin Bullard was going to send someone to attend to the body of the still unknown man.
As he left he indicated that might take a bit of time… but how much? A few hours? A few days? To my knowledge, there was no doctor in residence in the little town. The veterinarian was half a day’s ride away. Perhaps they used him as the coroner.
With a sigh I headed back to the main house. I walked through the rolling lawn to the back of the house and its broad covered porch. I recalled that the child, Copper, had been out at play somewhere. When she returned home she found her father gone and the stranger at his desk in that most unfortunate condition. That was all Copper knew.
My heart lurched for an instant when I heard Copper’s shrill cry. However, the exclamation became a gale of giggles. While it was the last thing I could imagine happening, Cornelis Drebbel took a liking to the child. The Dutchman was supposed to be investigating the sprawling manor while I looked through the outbuildings. I began to wonder if the entire time he and Copper had been playing whatever spontaneous games the girl invented.
When I opened the kitchen door my nose met a shocking smell. I was stunned because the aroma was delicious. I was at a loss for words.
“Cornelis?” was all I could manage.
The kitchen still looked like a battleground for Armageddon, but the smell was tantalizing. The Dutchman had a smug look on his face. He gave the tip of his pointed beard a twist as he smirked.
“Haven’t I always told you I was a good cook? Yet you never believed me,” he said and gave a sly glance at Copper who giggled again.
“I didn’t think there was any food to cook,” I said, trying to ignore the alchemist’s self-satisfied behavior. “Admittedly it smells good. What did you manage to make?” I asked.
He removed the lid from the pot to display a perfect pease pudding. Then I remembered seeing the uncooked peas the first time I entered the horrifying mess of the kitchen.
“But we don’t have any bread to spread it on,” Copper said in a disappointed tone, but she quickly cheered when Cornelis waved the pot’s lid to push more of the aroma to her nose. “All we need is a spoon,” she decided with a grin.
“Oh, but my dear, you are mistaken,” Cornelis told Copper.
Judging by the disorder, Copper had looked through every inch of the kitchen in search of food. It was no wonder she looked surprised by his words.
The Dutchman pointed to a wooden breadbox atop one of the cabinets. It was a little out of my reach, but I spotted a small stool in a corner. I had the box in hand in no time.
“Always,” Cornelis began and held up one finger to emphasize. “When searching for something, always remember to look above your normal line of sight,” he told Copper.
“It’s stale,” she said sadly when I opened the breadbox.
“It’s not so bad that we can’t make toast from it,” I told Copper and her eyes lit up.
A short time later we were all happily stuffed with pease pudding and toast. I asked Cornelis if he had found anything interesting while searching the house. Or if he found anything that gave a clue to what might have happened to Copper’s father. Or that business of the letter from Alexander Graham Bell and the bizarre hydrofoil contraption.
Cornelis gave the back of my hand a sharp tap with one finger. It gave an unpleasant static shock when he did that. He refused to tell me how it was done. However, it might have been one of the extraordinary things he was able to do after that accident of alchemy left him in his current state. At any rate, he meant to remind me to think before I spoke. I made a poor choice when asking about Copper’s father in the child’s presence.
“I mean a clue to where he might have gone,” I stammered, trying to backtrack.
However, the child was more concerned about getting the last bit of her pease pudding onto the remaining toast.
“What could possibly be more interesting than that wonderful Wurlitzer organ in the back parlor?” Cornelis exclaimed. “It’s no ordinary musical instrument, you know. It’s perfectly keyed to the harmonic tuner you found at the Belle Inn. Why, there’s no telling what the two could do when used together. If only I had the second harmonic tuner,” he said wistfully.
“The second one? Do you mean there is another of those odd sounding little bells?” I asked.
I was never sure when Cornelis was onto something that held importance to a situation, or if he was being carried away by passion for his wild ideas and inventions. Clearly the organ was something exceptional, but was it relevant?
“Naturally my dear. Harmonic tuners are always made in pairs. A single one will do remarkable things, but the pair together – and in combination with a harmonic amplifier like that very special Wurlitzer. Why there’s no telling what could be done!” he said with enthusiasm.
“We found this too!” Copper cried, happy to be able to contribute.
Cornelis had that self-satisfied expression again. I knew he had been holding back. Copper got up and ran to a table in the corner. Amid the clutter I had not noticed the addition of an object. She picked it up carefully and brought it over to me.
“What have we here?” I said and for the girl’s sake I showed much more interest than I felt.
“It’s a lamp. It’s supposed to look like an owl,” she said.
“Well, it’s certainly a curiosity,” I commented. “It looks like it’s carved from some sort of rough mineral,” I added.
“It’s salt — Himalayan salt,” Copper told me. “Daddy said it is special salt and when it gets warm, it gives off healthful vapors.”
My interest grew as I examined the unusual piece. The Dutchman murmured something I didn’t quite hear in his usual droll tone.
“It’s even more interesting if you turn it over,” Cornelis repeated pointedly.
When I upended the owl-shaped lamp, I found an opening. Some very old documents were tightly rolled and inserted into the lamp.
I was about to pull the ancient papers out of the lamp’s cavity when I heard a door bang open. My immediate thought was that the coroner had already arrived. However, it had been an interior door. The sound came from the direction of the study, unless of course it actually was from the study. The crash of the door was followed by strange sounds that steadily drew closer. Thump-drag. Thump-drag. Thump-drag…
An earsplitting screech preceded a cacophony of similar sounds. Scrabbling feet and overturning furniture followed. The front door slammed open so hard the stained glass window rattled.
I looked at my companions. Copper seemed curious but not alarmed as she ran her finger around the pot, getting the last bit of pease pudding.
Cornelis Drebble returned my questioning gaze with wide eyes and a knitted brow.
I dashed to the door and looked into the hallway. I heard Cornelis depart with a pop. The first thing I saw was the open door to the study, where the unknown cadaver had been left, sitting at the desk where we’d found him. However, the chair was empty. A table in the hallway was overturned, breaking a vase that held flowers. The front door stood wide open. I saw movement at the porch stairs, so I hurried to the door.
Three very large chimpanzees were in the process of dragging the corpse away. I stood in mystified, shocked silence. With a loud pop, Cornelis appeared at the foot of the stairs.
“What the bloody h—” he began. “Stop! You lot — yes you! Stop that this instant!” Cornelis ranted at the chimpanzees.
They stopped and looked quizzically at the alchemist. One scratched its head. They chattered briefly to one another.
“Now put that back where you found it!” Cornelis demanded regarding the body. “This minute!” he added.
It looked as though the chimps might actually do as he said. The alchemist dashed to the top of the stairs and motioned to the chimpanzees. He certainly had their attention. Cornelis switched to an encouraging tone.
“Yes, bring it back up here. Yes, you understand, I know you do. Come on. Back up the stairs,” he said and began cajoling the apes.
One of them took hold of the body’s foot and started pulling it back up the stairs. It looked like the other two might follow suit. Then a horrible shrill screech sounded right behind me. Something bounded into me. It knocked me down and my head banged against the door-frame. A fast moving blur of fur hurtled past me and launched into the Dutchman, sending him tumbling down the stairs.
I heard a flat sounding pop, and Cornelis was gone. I had only heard that particular sound one time before, and that time the alchemist had been seriously harmed. It seemed that I was about to become insensible as well. My legs wouldn’t hold me when I tried to stand. When I touched my temple my fingers encountered blood.
Falling again to my hands and knees I saw the fourth chimp join the other three. While the porch floor seemed to spin, I watched as the furry quartet danced a jig. Then the naughty chimps dragged the unknown dead man away. The whole world swayed and went dark as one chimp gave a parting screech.
To be continued…
The naughty chimps in this episode were inspired by Christopher Graham’s “Four Naughty Chimps.” As you saw in the animation at the beginning of this post, Chris (and his sister) collected the poetic works of their mother, Agnes Mae Graham and made a lovely book. (Previews here.)
I’m delighted to say that I’ve kept contact with the wonderful the reader who gave the “three things” that kept this chapter on the tracks. That is the amazingly talented Andrea Stephenson at Harvesting Hecate, Thoughts on life, writing, creativity and magic. Andrea’s lyrical words are pure magic. Be sure to visit her blog.
Somewhere there is a second harmonic tuner? And mysterious hidden documents? That’s curious. More importantly, the mysterious woman in trousers is out cold. She found the “flat sounding pop” with which Cornelis Drebbel vanished disturbing — and so did I! So what happened to the alchemist?
Thanks for getting on the steampunk locomotive for this rerun. I’m posting episodes twice a week, so the train will be at the station this weekend for Straightlaced Saturday, 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
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