So, I have discovered a 10,000 word story I finished and then left to languish in one of my folders on the computer. It’s not doing anyone any good in there, so I thought I’d post it here, on a Monday, in thousand word installments. If, by the end of it, people like it, I’ll tidy it up and make it available with a nice cover, with the typos sorted out 🙂 This version is un-betaed, though and as raw as a good vegan salad.
Fallen into the Sea
“By all means, let us begin.”
Joseph Bowyer took a sip of small beer to moisten his mouth and disguise his nerves. Then, lighting a taper from the workshop’s small fire, he approached his master work. It lay on the great, battered table like the upper half of a dragon, a humped thing beneath spread waxed linen wings.
As he bent to touch the taper to the fuse, his guest – Lady Jane Pergammon – adjusted the set of the model frigate on her towering, blue-powdered wig, and said “Is there no screen or alcove for the convenience of the observer? I may say it will be thought a disadvantage if any explosion were to damage a prominent member of the Royal Society.”
Joseph nudged the air and water intake levers a little further open. The fire had reached the charcoal pellets in the small boiler, and the outer casing of the engine gave out a faint heat. There was as yet no sound of water boiling, but even as he thought it, the first hiss of life escaped all but silently. He raised a hand to push back the curls from his forehead – a habitual gesture, balked now by the unaccustomed touch of horsehair. The thought of damage to his best wig and his velvet coat made him look up, remember that he had been asked a question.
“The… um… door, ma’am? I designed the entire wall as a screen – it’s reinforced with steel bars. If you go through, there is a small antechamber between the workshop and the house. Just let me remove the pictures to afford a view.”
His voice sounded as wheezy to him as the machine on the table. A thin plume of steam escaped it now, and the wings shivered as the steel armature beneath them began to stir. He held open the door, took down the cheap etchings with which he had covered the mesh viewing grills, and returned to perform an agitated dance, foot to foot, as Lady Pergammon attempted to squeeze the massive hoops of her gown through the narrow gap.
She made it, and Joseph darted in behind, latching and bolting the door behind them. Lady Pergammon glanced about his viewing gallery, surely taking in the dust and spiders, and the scent of cabbage pottage drifting from the kitchen behind them. He had just beaten down his agitated nerves enough to formulate an apology when she laughed. “Well, perhaps this was not the best choice of ensemble in which to visit the workshop of a practical gentleman.” Her smile was kind, restoring for a moment a ghost of long vanished beauty to her crumpled-linen face. “But for a visit in which one represents the interest and curiosity of the Royal Society itself, one is not merely a private person, but also an avatar of the grandeur and glory of Natural Philosophy.”
Her gaze had returned to the workshop long before she had reached the end of this sentence. Now her hands came up to grasp the ledge of the grill, as she pressed her nose to it to see better.
Joseph wondered if he was supposed to say something witty in return, or if grovelling would suit the occasion better. But by the time he had thought of an acceptable beginning of speech, the time for it was past. The shrill whistle of the relief valve told him that steam pressure had built to the optimal level. He bit his tongue, and then came the first almighty thud, and a second, until they were beating regular as a heart.
He sprang to his own grill, saw the hump of the engine – strapped to the table with jute bands – strain against its restraint. His windows had been bricked up to save money on window tax, and in the light of the single lantern, table and device came together in the image of a great winged spider. For the wings now rose and braced and beat, lifting the table inches from the floor on the down beat.
Steel capped legs screeched against tile. He tasted blood and took his teeth out of his lip, surprised. The table juddered forwards and to the right. Why to the right? He thought he’d corrected everything after the last time.
A spark jumped from the engine’s chimney and burned a hole in one linen wing, the edges of which smouldered and grew with each rush of air.
“If a man was wearing it,” he explained quickly, “he would know that was there. He could put it out before it became a problem.”
“Hm,” said Lady Pergammon, doubtfully. “But could he straighten the tips of those spokes? They’re looking rather bent to me.”
She was right. The ribs of the wings had already begun to deform when another spark landed on the restraining straps. They burned for two beats and then snapped, and the machine, still beating, whistling, its wings beginning to fold up behind it into a broken parasol, lifted off the table, fell, and began to bound around the room in great leaps, smashing itself against the walls, knocking off plaster and gouging chunks out of the table legs.
The dancing master who lived upstairs pounded on the ceiling with his cane, and above the whumphs of destruction in the workshop, Joseph could hear titters of laughter from the fiddler and today’s pupil, interspersed with swearing in French.
He sighed. “It will take not more than a further three minutes for the engine to run out of fuel. I use… um… pressed charcoal pellets for their concentration of ardour. Perhaps you will sit in the kitchen and take a dish of tea while we wait?”
The seamstress, who lived in the attics above the dancing master, had been persuaded by a gift of a shilling to pretend to be his maid for this visit – the which he could not normally afford. She dropped a curtsey and served the tea in what seemed to him to be a lead lined silence.
Lady Pergammon sipped and shuddered while the cacophony in the workshop slowly ebbed and ceased. When it had finished entirely and the only noise to be heard was the fiddler playing “A gig to the fair,” she put her dish down firmly and said, “Hm. Not quite finished, is it?”
And nor is this story – more next Monday 🙂
Mirrored from Alex Beecroft - Author of Gay Historical and Fantasy Fiction.