Saturday, April 11, 2020
Welcome my chuckaboos. In the Victorian Era “chuckaboo” was the term for a dear friend, and that’s what all of you are to me. Because of you, I’m here with the steampunk riverboat, The Delta Pearl!
I was able to use two “random reader things” for this episode. First, from John W. Howell we have a petite poule dish.
The next thing prompted me to provide a link to a free book. Pat (e-Quips) mentioned David Copperfield, so here’s a link where you can get the book free, in a variety of formats, at Project Gutenberg.
This time we go back to Émeraude and Victor. Will a romance ever result? It’s hard to tell at this point, but we learn more about our young inventor.
The Delta Pearl
Chapter 30 — Observe
Candlelight played upon the facets of a crystal decanter, causing the carafe of chenin blanc to become luminous. Beside the decanter was a petite poule casserole dish. I recognized the chicken-shaped pottery ― it belonged to the Cook. Agate had her matchmaking hands in things again.
Dr. Victor T. Elam took a pocket watch from his vest and checked the time. However, I knew his date wasn’t late yet. By all appearances the young doctor was nervous. A small smile came to my lips.
I wasn’t eavesdropping on him. Actually, I was the one for whom he waited. Perhaps I picked up the habit from Amethyst, loved to spy on passengers. However, I was most emphatically not spying. Quite simply, it could be greatly beneficial to observe a person unawares. It often gave a measure of their character. I wanted to learn all I could about Victor Elam so that I could make sure what my heart wanted was in balance with what my head knew.
A filament of silver suspended what, at a glance, one would have thought was a large purple cabochon. The silvery strand swung and Amethyst, the clockwork spider, landed on my shoulder. She stretched toward my ear.
“War medal,” the spider whispered.
“Amethyst, have you been prowling through Dr. Elam’s things?” I asked her, in a chiding tone.
My spider was unrepentant. She straightened her legs then bent them again to make a bobbing motion. That answered as an excited yes.
“Why would Victor have such a medal? He is too young to have fought in the war,” I speculated aloud, not expecting any reply from my clockwork pet.
“Automaton,” she whispered, as if that explained anything or even went with the same topic.
“Do you mean there is a connection? He showed me the drawings, the plans for his automaton. I’m not sure what you mean, dear heart.”
Amethyst straightened then bent the legs on her left side, then did the same on her right side. It caused a waggling motion. That was a no. Moreover, it was a negative reply that also meant she was frustrated by her limited ability to speak.
The clockwork spider put the tiny hooks at the ends of her little legs into the fabric of my gown. I knew she planned to hang on tightly because she had been listening from one of her many hiding places when the doctor asked me to join him for dinner. I expected that I would have to tear the gown to get her to let go of it. So, I let her stay.
“You behave,” I whispered to Amethyst as I moved toward Dr. Victor T. Elam.
He rose politely at my approach ― and nearly pulled the white cloth from the table when he stood. Amethyst chirped a trio of high-pitched clicks, which was her way of laughing. I tried to shush the spider without Victor noticing. Fortunately, he was preoccupied with preventing the crystal wine goblets from overturning. I sat down graciously as though nothing had happened — with the tablecloth or the clockwork spider.
Yes, it was silly of me, but I found his awkwardness quite endearing. In my life I had seen so much pretense. The riverboat seemed to host an endless stream of self-important people, most of whom had no right whatsoever to think so highly of themselves.
Then here was this unassuming young man whose brilliance outshone the best of them. Yet his intelligence was equaled by his kindness and humility. I shook my head in amazement.
In some ways he reminded me of the David Copperfield character created by Charles Dickens, a difficult childhood, yet trusting and kind. However, my thoughts rolled like the river. Was Victor also capable of the moments of cruelty the Dickens character displayed?
Maybe Copperfield had justifiable reasons for his meanness. After he grew up, he showed such tenderness for the Agnes character later in the book. I wondered whether Victor might be like the younger Copperfield, or the older.
Émeraude, you’re being even sillier than Coral. He’s a real person ― and one you barely know, not a character in a book. Get ahold of yourself,” I silently chided myself. Now if I can only manage to get him to relax, I might have a better idea of what to think about him.
Words from the Dealer, when I first came aboard the Delta Pearl, came back to me. He said the quickest way to put most people at ease was to get them to talk about themselves. So, I did precisely that with my genius inventor.
Amethyst gave a little prick to my shoulder with her hooked foot. I knew she wanted to know about the medal she found among Victor’s things. Since the doctor was too young to have been in that horrid war, I asked a general question about his father.
“Your engineering drawings truly did amaze me, Doctor Elam. Do you come from a long line of inventors? Your father perhaps?”
The instant the word “father” left my lips, I felt I had stuck my foot in my big bazoo. Victor’s parents had been lost at sea. Worse, the tragedy was not so many years before.
“Please, Miss Émeraude, it would make me happy if you called me Victor,” he reminded me of his prior request, so I nodded with a smile. “I remember a toy my father made for me when I was a boy, but he was more of a tinkerer than an inventor. Of course, he was busy making a living — until the war, that is. Like so many men of that generation, he was conscripted. Then he took a Minié ball that left him paralyzed.”
The Minié ball didn’t simply pierce internal organs and tissue — it shredded them. The little lead balls did not merely break bones — bones were shattered. When a Minié ball had enough force to slice completely through a soldier’s body, it ripped out an exit wound several times the size of the entrance wound. Surgeons had been overwhelmed by the traumatic wounds, by the mangled and mutilated bodies they had to repair. Yet casualties only mounted faster and faster.
I murmured my apologies. I felt terrible for having manipulated the conversation to such a painful subject. Victor gave me a sad smile, but continued without prompting.
“He inspired my inventions,” Victor continued. “When I was still too young for the law to call me a man, I made my first automaton. It was meant to assist my crippled father.”
“He must have been very proud of you,” I commented.
Victor nodded but his mouth turned to a wry expression.
“The local newspaper published a story about it. Then a man from some obscure government agency came asking a lot of questions,” Victor began and his eyes took on a faraway expression.
“The man wanted to know if I would like to visit the capital city with him. This upset my father greatly. I’d never seen him so angry. He made comments and threats that I didn’t understand at all. In hindsight I think he believed the government would Shanghai me in much the same way that he was conscripted for the war. Of course, as an adult I now realize there were other undercurrents in that conversation, not to mention more discussions to which I was not privy,” Victor described the scene in tense tones.
“So, you think the man from the government had some malicious intent?” I confirmed as my eyes widened. “He meant to kidnap you! Put you to work for him, inventing more automatons?”
Victor nodded and his expression became even more sardonic.
“So it would seem. At any rate when the man left town, my automaton and all my drawings and notes mysteriously disappeared,” he explained and I gasped.
“Worse, my father forbade me to make another. I suppose he was protecting me in the only way he could. But I was young and he didn’t explain his purpose. Plus, his health began to spiral around that time, and with it his disposition. It seemed that he was always in an ill temper. At any rate, his ban on my inventions caused a rift between us that never completely healed. We made amends somewhat before he and my mother were both lost, but the damage was done.”
Of course, by that point I was utterly mortified that I had brought up such an excruciating part of his life. I supposed it also explained his awkwardness.
“Do you get leave from your duties when this lovely vessel stops at port?” he asked abruptly.
I blushed, thankful that he changed the subject. While I hoped for some kind of invitation from the inventor, I had plans for the next port of call. I explained my intentions for my shore leave.
“There is a library as well as a number of antique shops near the river in Cairo, Illinois. I don’t suppose you’ve noticed it, but there is a certain very old portrait here that I want to try and research. Also, I want to try and learn more about my cameo. I bought it in Cairo. Louisiana some years ago,” I said, unconsciously putting my hand to the necklace.
“Ha! That explains the unexpected combination of library and antique shops,” he replied. “I’m afraid I haven’t noticed any portrait, but that kind of painting doesn’t tend to attract my attention. I take it this one is special.”
“I don’t know that it’s particularly special, but I’ve been intrigued by the painting for as long as I’ve been with the Delta Pearl. It is, however, extraordinarily detailed, both in the person and the background,” I told him.
I did not mention the strange movements I had witnessed on the canvas. It also seemed like a bad idea to tell him about the fact that once I thought the woman in the portrait seemed to breathe. Nor did I mention the tiny figure in the background that jumped off a cliff…
End Chapter 30
Life seems to be getting complicated for Émeraude… Feel free to leave a random Steam Era thing to fuel this riverboat. Or just leave a comment to say hello, before you leave. Be well, be happy, my chuckaboos.
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