High Adventure in the Steam Age

Friday, August 16, 1872 - Part I

Sed enim maius est hoc quiddam quam homines opinantur, et pluribus ex artibus studiisque conlectum. – Cicero, De Oratore, Book 1, Sec. 16.

The grand halls of Palais Todesco are intimidating to the newcomer, and do not become particularly more inviting over time. You could spend a day in each room and still have a season to go after a year’s time in order to see it all. My own room is truly an architectural wonder and my meager possessions are made all the more humble by their opulent containers. Still, if one must keep the rain off, it does not hurt to do so in style.

The letter I received barely three days after my arrival continues to lurk in my desk drawer, taunting me to take it out and examine it again. Tennyson’s fragment in Tennyson’s handwriting, but in a rusty ink that looks more likely to have been drawn from an artery than an inkwell. The poem seems to hint at menace – the all-seeing predator prepared to fall from heaven – but I lack evidence, so I must avoid needless conjecture. It is enough to keep me more than occupied to play the part of Doctor Cannaver, Professor of Rhetoric.

I am fortunate that I discovered a copy of the Encomium of Helen in Paris, or I probably would not not have written the monograph on the Sophists to occupy my time on the train. Töplitz & Deuticke were delighted to have something so scandalous to print, and the Baroness was equally delighted to take in such a seeming rabble-rouser. I shall need to be elsewhere before the turn of the seasons, lest some copies of the book actually make it back to Scotland, where the University of Edinburgh will wonder just who this so-called professor is, but c’est la vie.

I think I shall at least stay for the masquerade, and perhaps for the balls next week for the Emperor’s birthday. Perhaps I can work my way into some money to help put me to flight.

I look at that last sentence and I sigh. Where has my dedication gone? I know where – it is as feeble as my arm. I fled England with a soul full of righteous anger, and yet, what have I done to even begin to put right the evils I have enabled? I am not helpless – I have my mind and that has proved more than adequate to seeing me across Europa, but still I hesitate. Still I am waiting…for what I do not know.


I write this part now so I may have an accurate record of events while said events are still fresh in my memory. We have not yet reached midday, and yet I have been a guest at breakfast, the dupe of a true masterpiece, witness to an assault, party to a killing, organizer of a criminal charade, and now a member of a rescue party. It has been, we may say, a full morning.

In order to get out from under foot while the Baroness made preparations for the ball, we were invited as guest of Master Elrich Clockmaker for a late breakfast. Our party was Master Clockmaker, his ward, Lady Cecily, Mlle. Adelaide Bechard and her korrigan assistant, Mlle. Penneg, and Mlle. Glass, attired in a suit and tie, as is her way. Lady Cecily is an unparalleled beauty, but with a queer manner that drew my attention. Mlle. Bechard is a lovely young woman as well and a magician both in the theatrical and mystical senses. Mlle. Glass appeared to us with a rather impressive bruise that she no more cared to explain than she did her penchant for going about in trousers, suit, and tie. Mlle. Penneg had seated herself atop a pile of old books, her work clothes neat and clean, but still a sight, even to those educated on the nature of the Faeries.

We endeavored to make small talk in that way that strangers must when thrust around a table. Mlle. Glass is as restless as a hunting hound kept perpetually indoors, and seemed to endlessly fidget, battling the requirements of polite society. The korrigan, revealed by her Breton accent, looked pinned between the desire to speak on or inquire after every topic and a sense that such exuberance from someone considered to be a servant may violate some human norm of proper conduct. Mlle. Bechard was, perhaps, only with us physically. She is to perform at the ball and the responsibility appeared to weigh heavily upon her. As for me? I was still the reticent academic, content to be more of a professor of rhetoric than a practitioner.

It was from the Lady Cecily that I first caught the scent of something incongruous. Thomas Sheridan’s Letters on Elocution are an invaluable resource for both the rhetor and dishonest man, as oratorical delivery is perhaps more important than what precisely is said in most discourse. The lady’s French was passable, but peculiarly slow and methodical. This is nothing by itself – my French was slow and methodical once upon a time, and I should wager that my Hindustani would be so now were I to need to call upon it. But her tone and inflection were so precise that her speech pattern did not indicate a linguistic novice struggling for words. Unable to resist an experiment, I rephrased a question she had just been asked and received precisely the same answer, delivered in precisely the same intonation. Now caught up in my observations, I put down my tea and appraised the lady in a manner that would likely get me into trouble in more polite company. Her perfect skin, gentle fragrance, and physical mannerisms overwhelmed the evidence of my ears, and I dismissed the girl as either a linguistic novice or perhaps an idiot in the dwarf’s care as a favor to a deceased friend.

Master Clockmaker was called away for a telegram, as the rest of us struggled to become less strangers and more acquaintances. I was inquiring after Mlle. Bechard’s planned performance when we heard a commotion from the telegram room. Mlle. Glass was, of course, off like a shot towards something other than chit-chat, but the rest of us followed. We came upon a scene more appropriate to a dingy alleyway than this charming cafe. Half a dozen brutes were laying about Master Clockmaker with clubs. Mlle. Glass leapt into the fray with, dare I say, a fierce grin, and immediately rendered one of the brutes unconscious. I pulled a small thread around my left ring finger and my derringer slid along its track into my hand. I made some vague threatening pronouncement and they stopped to consider the tactical situation of guns versus clubs. I had to restrain a smile as, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the diminutive Korrigan slip into the pocket of one of the larger of the brutes. Said larger brute decided to test his resilience to bullets in the hope of testing my resilience to a thrashing and learned that physics is an unforgiving master, as an abundance of acceleration made up for any lack of mass. I felt my stomach drop as I realized I had likely killed the man, even in self-defense. Mlle. Glass sent another one to join his brother in the care of the Oneiroi. Their numbers halved before they knew what had hit them, they elected retreat.

Mlle. Glass leapt after them, even as I admonished her that we should like to have one for questioning. Mlle. Bechard and I checked on Master Clockmaker. Mlle. Penneg began raising up a hue and cry about a villain, but I fear I was focused on examining the poor victim dwarf’s injuries. It was not until Mlle. Bechard mentioned that Lady Cecily was departing that the craftsman became alarmed, his heart willing him to rise where his body would not comply in its present state. We called some waiters to assist Master Clockmaker back to a seat, and I saw their alarm at the state of their telegram room, knowing that we were now on a quick clock to determine what was going on before the Polizei arrived and bungled everything.

First was the ruffian that Mlle. Glass had collected. I am, perhaps, not a master interrogator, but I have a fairly good sense of where to press on certain minds. This mind was clearly none too well developed and likely prone to suspicion and superstition. Promising an eternity of necromantic hell if he demurred, I encouraged him to share what he knew. Mlle. Bechard, without missing a note, began plucking identifying items from our mark’s unconscious allies. With his imagination no doubt filling in the details I would never be able to honestly supply, he confided in us that he had been hired simply to waylay the poor dwarf. He also snitched on an accomplice in the matter – a member of the wait staff who had also been employed by our mystery abductor. Accosting the young man, the sight of the dead body on the ground was more than enough to persuade him to unburden his soul, lest his poor decision cost him his aspirations of a future in the university (or, quite honestly, any aspirations whatsoever). So our stranger – tall, dark, and handsome with a notable mustache – had been identified by the ruffians, the waiter, and the ladies that had lain eyes upon him as he disappeared with Lady Cecily. Mlle. Bechard had been keen-eyed enough to discern the company that provided the hansom our mystery man had used for his getaway, so we did, at least, have a lead. We lost precious time as the constabulary finally arrived, but they were seen off simply enough – the others didn’t even have to support my omissions, as I think Mlle. Penneg and I are the only ones who speak German.

Having seen the police off to what they do best – disposing of bodies – we decided to pay a call on the cabriolet company. As we approached, I could see the reservation ledger on the desk and my mind raced through the various ways we might lay hands on it. I realized that, not only were we ill-prepared for the simplest means (none of us had sufficient bribe money to hand), we must look like a motley group indeed, with a korrigan and a woman in a gentleman’s suit. Even discounting Mlle. Bechard’s background in performing, we were a fairly theatrical-looking cabal. And then an old familiar instinct stole over me and I began spinning to my comrades a proposal that I knew, upon reflection, would cast serious doubt on my identity as a rhetorician. As I explained my plan to the others, I was struck by how readily they adopted to making such a scene. Maybe it’s because they are French? Who knows.

Humans are creatures of routine. We find psychological comfort in seeing the same walls, the same files, and the same people undergoing the same routine day in and day out. It gives us a sense of continuity. That said, we cannot help but be drawn to things that disrupt the routine. We look and are unable to look away, no matter what propriety or, in some morbid instances, our own sense of virtue and sympathy may call for. This is usually an admonition to not call attention to one’s self when organizing a sham. Sometimes, however, it is just the opposite.

Mlle. Bechard and I strolled into the company office as a young couple in search of a cab to take us about. Someday, Mlle. Bechard will gaze in truth at some poor young man in the manner with which she favored me and that man will be as helplessly ensnared as an explorer lost in the Sahara that has discovered a pool of water. I imagine that Colonel Beauregard would be heartily dismayed to discover that I borrowed his broad Virginia accent to pass myself off as an officer of the United States, but I consider that to be just one more benefit of my selection. We put on quite a display for the drivers and clerks, who gaped in dismay. Just as we had them all gathered at the door to the stable, Mlle. Glass entered like a Polish force of nature. The resulting fracas had everyone’s attention, which meant that no one noticed the diminutive faerie making off with their ledger.

Back at the cafe, it was now time for a gentler conversation with Master Clockmaker. He had made vague pronouncements about a need to get the young lady her “medicine,” but confronted with a need to rescue the girl and an inability, possibly due to concussion, to engage in the matter directly, the craftsman confided in us the truth of Cecily’s nature, which I shall not relate here in accordance with the oath Mlle. Penneg took. Master Clockmaker was able to identify our handsome stranger as a Bavarian Count by the name of Navarre. Apparently, Navarre was an illusionist who had been involved in Master Clockmaker’s great work, but the dwarf could not fathom what he was up to in this.

We found Navarre’s name in the ledger, along with the order for the cab that whisked both him and Lady Cecily away. It was apparently bound for Wiener Prater, home to the Wurstel Prater amusement park, and a wonderful place to lose followers and switch transports. It was a thin thread to pull, but it was what we had to hand.

Now, as we wait for the cab to see Master Clockmaker back to the Palais for rest, we are charged to find and rescue the girl before she has a somewhat Cinderella-like moment at the stroke of midnight. Despite the early time of day, I fear haste is in order.



JGray Bookkeeper

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