Saturday, February 1, 2020
Welcome to one of the dining areas in my #steampunk riverboat, my chuckaboos. Serve yourself brunch at the buffet and enjoy another chapter of The Delta Pearl.
I’m no grammar prude. I enjoy new and even made-up words, and creative use of language. “Soapy” is a word I’ve been seeing creatively used to describe some TV shows. This chapter is a little soapy.
Random Reader Things. Remember, this serial is a re-write. In the original version, “Montreal” was a random reader thing. That is used today. This chapter’s new random things have been waiting in the wings of my story matrix for weeks. First we have salt shakers from Teri Polen. Second, and it’s been a long time since she was on the riverboat, but I used mesh purse from JT Twissel. Third, he used the word it in a comment, but when Christoph Fischer mentioned torn, I thought it would make a great thing. Read on to see how these random things became part of the story.
The Delta Pearl
Chapter 22 — Buy
Light sparkled gently, reflecting from hundreds of crystal teardrops on the chandelier. The illumination was pleasing, rather than bright. We lit the chandelier even during the daytime, simply because it was so lovely. I admired the beauty of the lights as I sat at the harpsichord across the room.
The harpsichord itself was a work of art. I could see myself in its polished surface as easily as if it were a mirror. Swirling patterns in the burled wood reminded me of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.
The Captain said I “played by ear.” I had no formal education in music, I just played. Jaspe and Agate both said the Delta Pearl gave me the music, the ability to play.
I supposed they were right. I had no idea from where the ability to play could have come. If it did come from the Pearl, she only gave me a talent for the harpsichord and piano. I couldn’t play anything else, not even Blue John’s ukulele. A little background music was the extent of my ability.
The harpsichord was in a dining area where brunch was being served in a buffet style. Agate had decorated the area to resemble a garden party. An enormous red umbrella was erected over the buffet tables. Flowers in white and yellow were placed between pepper and salt shakers. A fringe of white daisies trimmed the big red umbrella. Little nosegays of daisies waited, ready to be given to the diners as they came into the room.
Diners helped themselves from serving dishes that shone brightly, with little warming candles flickering beneath. The buffet offered a variety of food delights, like bacon-egg cups, vegetable soup, parmesan crusted chicken, banana bread, and the Captain’s favorite, southern buttermilk biscuits.
That day I felt the mood to play my music. Only a few passengers were in the room, else I wouldn’t have been bold enough to play. I seated myself at the harpsichord. I looked again at the lovely chandelier. I cleared my mind. I placed my fingers on the keyboard and waited for a song to come to me.
Mrs. Eliza Needleman entered the room. I almost abandoned the instrument, feeling shy in the presence of a prominent guest. However, she didn’t seem to notice me or the harpsichord in the back of the room, so I played, albeit quietly.
The entrepreneur’s wife seated herself without getting anything to eat. She removed a small mesh purse from her wrist and settled into the chair.
I expected she was waiting for her husband. She looked decidedly bored. I wondered how often she found herself alone in a public place and waiting for her husband.
Yet as she sat, a whimsical twist came to her mouth and she pinned the daisy nosegay into her broad brimmed hat. The simple daisies rested amid fancy feathers and silk flowers. However, the contrast was actually pleasing to the eye.
My fingers started to move across the keys to a tune that had been popular for quite some time, A Bird in a Gilded Cage. So lost was I in my music that I didn’t hear the footsteps of Mrs. Eliza Needleman when she walked up to the harpsichord and began to sing.
“She’s only a bird in a gilded cage, a beautiful sight to see,” Mrs. Needleman sang, just as I started to play the chorus.
I stumbled on the notes, not expecting to hear a vocalist beside me. Frankly, I was a very poor accompanist. I could play well enough as a soloist, but it was much harder for me to play for singers. I was a disaster.
Eliza Needleman had a surprisingly fine voice, and she deserved a better player. However, the wealthy lady was generous with the patience she showed me. After a few fumbles I improved and we finished the entire song.
“We make a rather good team, if I say so myself,” Mrs. Eliza Needleman told me in a playful tone.
I laughed and agreed.
“It’s a perfect song for a harpsichord, and your voice is simply lovely,” I gave a sincere compliment.
Mr. Needleman’s absence again registered with me. While the lady and I served ourselves some brunch she mentioned that her husband was likely “chasing business,” as she put it. I could tell that she was trying to ignore the fact that he failed to show up for their dining appointment. I probably shouldn’t have said anything, but I couldn’t stop myself from asking.
“I hope I’m not being too forward, but does he often do that? Chase business, I mean. I have trouble imagining commerce at such a high level. Compared to what Mr. Needleman does, riverboats are simple enterprises,” I commented.
“Randal Needleman is a self-made man,” Mrs. Needleman told me in a matter of fact tone.
“I didn’t mean to pry,” I apologized, suddenly thinking about how prejudiced upper-crust types could be about people born to riches and power versus those who had started from less wealthy beginnings.
“Not at all, my dear. I don’t tend to dwell on things of status. My mind is usually on more important things, like women’s rights to choose what happens to our own bodies, and the right to vote in elections. Not to mention financial matters,” she began.
Mrs. Needleman paused. She remarked on the bacon-egg cups then put one on her plate. She lifted her eyebrows as an inquiry, and when I nodded, she placed one on my plate.
“That scandal that’s all over the newspapers lately about the runaway bride whose husband managed to take over all her inheritance and finances. Those things are much more important than the superficial status of whether wealth was earned or inherited,” she stated firmly.
I gulped. She meant Azalea and Alison, who boarded the Delta Pearl disguised as a governess and a teenaged boy. I was relieved when Mrs. Needleman began to chuckle.
My smile may have been a bit tentative. Hopefully she thought that I simply had not expected such an ardent response.
“Ha! I apologize for jumping up onto my soapbox. What I meant to say is that contrary to feeling diminished by my husband being a self-made man, I am proud of his achievements. Though I do admit that it’s tiresome that the man’s work also seems to be his recreation. However, I have long since gotten accustomed to that. Besides, it allows me time to pursue my own causes,” she added with a smile.
“Where are you from, Mrs. Needleman? Something tells me that you did not grow up in the same city as your husband,” I began.
“Oh no dear, and please, do call me Eliza,” she insisted. “We were not childhood sweethearts or anything romantic. Although when I met Randal, he did manage to sweep me off my feet, mind you,” she added with a twinkle in her eyes. “No, my husband is from Pennsylvania while I am originally from Montreal, Canada. My father’s parents were of the aristocracy in England. Their fortunes were blessed when they immigrated to Canada and got into the shipping business. My father grew that business to include paddle steamers. And that is what brought Randal and me together,” she told me and then took a bite of the bacon-egg cup. “Um. Oh my, your chef is quite talented. Um,” she mumbled around the bite of food with a white linen napkin placed against her mouth.
“I will relay that to Agate,” I told her with a pleased smile. “I thought Mr. Needleman was in the steel trade, particularly being from Pennsylvania,” I said.
“Indeed, but that is only one of his businesses. He is also involved in the building of steam ships. Randal was quite fascinated with the tales he heard of the Delta Pearl. Actually, he surprised even me by saying he wants to buy this riverboat.”
My eyes must have looked like they would pop right out of my head. Eliza Needleman chuckled and waved her hand as if to dismiss the idea. Her chuckle became a hearty laugh.
“The Captain…” I began, but couldn’t think how to continue.
“I’m so glad Jaspe told me he is doing well and will soon be back on duty,” she said, smoothly using the New Orleans pronunciation, ZASH-pah.
“Ha! Your captain is an extraordinary man! Immovable object meets unstoppable force! It was most entertaining to watch him and Randal together. My husband swore grandly that he ‘would not give up on purchasing this riverine treasure you call the Delta Pearl.’ Randal Needleman is not accustomed to being thwarted in business dealings, mind you,” she added in a tone that suggested she was entertained by seeing her husband turned down in a business offer.
She took a sip of a sparkling mimosa before continuing. The bite I had taken from a biscuit, when she brought up the idea of buying the Delta Pearl, still hung in my throat. I hastily washed it down with lemonade.
“Then your captain stood up, making silent use of his massive height and broad shoulders. My God, he is an attractive, virile man!” Eliza Needleman enthused.
“The Captain?” I choked as I exclaimed in shock.
“I don’t know how you can resist! Living on a vessel with such exquisite men. Your Chief Porter for example. Truly classically handsome. Garnet, I believe they called him? Yes, a suitable name for such a gem to behold. Yet he doesn’t hold a candle to the Captain and that Dealer. Two such different but equally delicious men. My heart would be torn between them if I were a young woman and had to choose!” Eliza exclaimed causing me to blush at her audacious comment.
“I can see how one would find the Dealer handsome. He is so elegant and graceful. But the Captain?” I sputtered.
“My dear, are you blind?” she asked.
Eliza laughed all the harder at my reaction. I knew she was being intentionally audacious. She meant to be comical, even though she was serious in thinking the men were attractive.
“I suppose it’s that they are in essence my family. The crew of the Delta Pearl sort of adopted me when I was very young,” I confessed. “Beauty must really be in the eye of the beholder, but, truly? The Captain?”
Eliza’s chuckles trailed away when she turned her gaze to the buffet table. Another small group of passengers moved along the buffet line. Her eyes lingered on the tall man with the unattractive facial hair. His mustache grew into his bushy sideburns. It was Benjamin Dundas.
In all the drama that ruined my sweet sixteen party, I had forgotten that Victor and I saw Dundas skulk away from the brown cloud with something in his arms. Something about his posture made it seem like he might have been up inside the smoggy cloud and had just gotten back onto the deck. Although that was surely impossible.
“I really do try not to judge, Émeraude, but that man seems rather disreputable. Frankly I’m a little surprised he was allowed on this ship,” Eliza said of Dundas.
“The Captain makes sure passengers are screened,” I began. “But I have to agree with you. Something about him bothered me from the moment I laid eyes on him. He wouldn’t meet my gaze, and that bothered me even more than his mustache and sideburns. However, you needn’t worry. The crew has instructions to keep an eye on him.”
“There is something that I can’t quite put my finger on,” Eliza continued, and fidgeted with the huge Pharaoh Diamond at her throat. “I’m sure I’ve seen him somewhere before. He may have had some dealings with my husband in the past, though I can’t for the life of me think what it was. I brought it up to Randal, and he said he had no memory of ever meeting the man.”
I enjoyed getting to know Mrs. Needleman better. Eliza, I corrected myself, feeling pleased, because I found her inspiring. However, I had found her assertion that the Captain was “virile and attractive” so shocking and amusing that I didn’t start feeling uneasy about something else she said until later.
When Randal Needleman boarded the riverboat, I had secretly dubbed “the dubious dabbler.” Could he seriously want to buy the Delta Pearl? How ruthless might he be in what he would see as an insignificant business acquisition?
As I walked along the narrow deck, I wished I could have the Dealer’s insight. However, I had to get to my station. I looked skyward, hoping for a glimpse of bronze clockwork wings. However, I only saw white clouds.
“I should use Onyx to send Jaspe a note,” I muttered.
Suddenly, I realized that I had not seen the clockwork owl for quite some time.
End Chapter 22
Comments are now closed… because the machine that blows sunshine up my a$s is broken and I’m fresh out of unicorn farts. I’ll try to get myself back together for another chapter next weekend.
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