Authors: K. W. Jeter
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Steampunk, #General
Dead on their sense fall marches hymeneal,
Triumphal odes, hymns, symphonies sonorous;
They crave one shrill vibration, tense, ideal,
Transcending and surpassing the world’s chorus
—John Addington Symonds (1840–1893),
“The Vanishing Point”
BY THE SEASIDE
there a sight more evocative of joy and triumph than the sun upon the sea? If my weary, battered heart responded thus, how much more inspiring it must be to those younger than I, whose hopes and desires still course strong within their unbowed forms.
“Does this aspect lay hold upon your imagination?” My companion spoke expansively, as might have befitted the commander of a navy’s grand flagship, however landbound his actual vessel. “My understanding was that you are of London born and bred. A man of the city; surely the promenades of Mayfair and the dome of St. Paul’s are more to your liking.”
“I have learned to appreciate the rural life.” Standing at the great curved windows of the lighthouse’s cockpit, I swirled the dregs of claret in my glass. “It is a somewhat quieter, more contemplative existence I lead now, than any of which you might have heard rumour.”
The same wine reddened Captain Crowcroft’s visage, so much admired by the distaff readership of the broadsheets hawked throughout the land. “I expect so,” he replied before turning his gaze from me, out toward the same vista that had momentarily brightened my thoughts. Churning waves threw themselves upon the sharp-edged rocks of the coast of Cornwall; gale winds caught the upflung spray, streaming mist along the southwestern extremities of the British mainland. The fancy caught me—I confess myself unused to this extent of imbibing—that the daylit ghosts of drowned sailors had been resurrected from their watery graves, as though the lighthouse were some luminous Saviour newly arrived amongst them. Now they swirled about and dispersed to air, haunting no longer the tides and stones that had ripped open the bellies of storm-driven ships, filling their crews’ mouths with brine.
No more, no bluidy more,
those coarse-voiced angels seemed to chorus above the ocean’s heaving
. No more sodden, tattooed corpses washing up on the strand; no more bales undone, crates pried open, salvage fingered and value estimated by Cornwall’s eager wreckers. A twist of a hissing stopcock and Newton’s
would be cast to the damp horizon, the light house’s beam spangled over those crests that even now gleamed as sun-coppered as a victorious army’s upraised shields.
“This is magnificent.” The words stumbled over my wineleadened tongue. I looked away from the sight that had inspired such lofty meditations, as unfamiliar to me as the expensive vintages that had filled my glass, one after another. “How I envy you—”
I blinked in confusion. Instead of Captain Crowcroft’s face, with its rectilinear jaw and brow as unfurrowed as that of Grecian statuary, I found myself gazing—once I had tilted my sightline down a bit—into a mustachioed assemblage of red-mapped nasal veins and eyes rheumy with indulgence.
“Excuse me.” I managed to recognize the host of the launch party to which I had been invited. “I seem to have mislaid the course of my thoughts—”
“Never you mind, old boy.” Hooking a broad thumb in the sleevehole of his waistcoat, Lord Fusible clapped his other hand on my shoulder with sufficient force to embed a row of boltheads into my opposite ribs. Pinned between the iron window frame and my gregarious interlocutor, I endured his ripely alcoholic breath. “ ’Tis not a moment for
—your father was man enough for all that! We’re the fortunate heirs to his genius. Our task is but to celebrate!”
“You’re too kind.” Above his balding head, I could see over to where Captain Crowcroft had enlisted about himself the party’s female regiment, their sly chatter and admiring, lash-fringed glances obviously more congenial than my ruminations. “In a construct such as this—” Fortunately my glass was empty as I indicated the lighthouse’s bridge with a wide sweep of my hand. “My father’s contribution is, you must admit, only a small fraction of an ambitious sum.”
Fusible nodded, lower lip jutting out in approval of my familial modesty. “Nevertheless.” He raised a spatulate finger in front of my eyes. “An
“I appreciate your saying as much.” A few of the women had overheard the braying compliment—in the circular confines of the bridge, it would have been impossible not to—and directed a mute, mildly curious enquiry toward me. “Of course, the only thing I might have appreciated even more—”
My tongue tasted salt as I bit my lip, sealing the words behind it. The wine had seemingly ebbed far enough in my brain to restore a degree of circumspection to my speech. It would have been rash to point out to Lord Fusible that the limited corporation he headed had not yet seen fit to honour my father’s memory with a cash payment to his son, for the use of whatever clever device had been posthumously fitted to the lighthouse’s navigational systems. From my previous encounters with the wealthy and powerful, I knew the delicacy with which they needed to be approached on all matters remunerative. One of the fond conceits of those with a lavishment of money is to imagine that all whom they encounter love them for themselves alone.
“And that’s why you’re here with us today!” Fusible’s bullish enthusiasm allowed little notice of whatever I might have said or not said. He grabbed my arm with both his hands and tugged me toward the center of the bridge. “Make way,” he shouted, “for the guest of honor!” The fashionable crowd parted for us as though the others were a glittering Red Sea and Fusible a Moses with a single strolling Israelite to ferry from Migdol to Baal-zephon.
“This is an excellent spot.” Fusible turned me about in front of the intimidating devices at the rear of the bridge, a thicket of polished brass levers and pipes, the latter branching and connecting at all angles, seemingly for no other purpose than to confuse the eye and intimidate the mind. A constellation of gauges surrounded me, the red needles quivering and darting across the numbered dials like the slender beaks of hummingbirds. “Ladies and gentlemen— distinguished officers of Phototrope Limited—if I may request your indulgence . . .”
The jumbled conversations dwindled to murmurs, then silence. All faces turned toward us, the motion distressingly similar to that of an artillery battalion directing its cannons toward its target.
“So good of you to take the time,” cooed a female voice at my side. Lady Fusible was of even more diminutive stature than her husband, but possessed of one of those intimidating bosoms upon which a diamond necklace rested as horizontal as though displayed upon a jeweler’s velvet cushion. She took my arm in both her kidgloved hands. “Your invitation was my idea, you know.”
“Oh.” I gave a nod, unsure as to what other noise I should make. “Very kind of you.”
Lord Fusible pressed on: “I believe none would disagree with me . . .” He arched his back, presumably to expand his lungs for full stentorian effect. “That the limits of Man’s creativity have been reached, here and now in our good Victoria’s reign.” I could see a slip of paper tucked inside his jacket cuff, with minutely scrawled prompts upon it. “For proof of that assertion, one need but look around oneself!” The paper assumed its own fluttering trajectory as Fusible cast his arms wide. “That of which men have dreamt . . . men have conceived . . . or invented . . .” Without his
now lying like a dead moth at the toe of his boot, he wandered past the vaguely recalled signposts of his speech, before abandoning the path altogether. “Whatever they damn well did,” blustered Fusible, “we’ve done it even better, with this ungodly great thing! Cost a packet, too, I can tell you.”
“Hear, hear,” murmured a Phototrope Limited officer, with the hunched back and spidery fingers of one who kept account ledgers.
“Of course, we’ll make a packet on it as well.” Behind the twin apertures in his amply padded face, Lord Fusible’s eyes glistened with a piratical twinkle, as though he stood upon a galleon deck strewn with pound notes. “Our underwriters will be squealing with glee about that soon enough, I wager! Oh . . . just a moment . . .” He suddenly seemed to have recalled why he had dragged me up before his friends and business partners. “I’d like you to make the acquaintance of somebody who had absolutely nothing to do with any of this—but his father did. Clever bastard, from all I’ve heard of him. What did he invent?”
Another of the Phototrope Limited coterie spoke up. “The gyroscopic tourbillon. That bit’s his.”
“The deuce you say.” Fusible’s shoulders lifted in a shrug, indicating that he wouldn’t have known my father’s navigational device from a ditching spade. “Howsoever be it. Here’s Mr. George Dower, the son of that prodigy.”
A smattering of polite applause came from people who had no conception of whom they gazed upon and self-evidently cared less.
“Do say something.” Lady Fusible pushed me forward. “I know they’re all dying to hear you.”
I would rather have been cast down a tin flue to the bowels of the earth. But instead, I waited a few seconds, as though the clapping of hands had not already died away, then cleared my throat. “Your flattering attention, I must confess, seems a source of both pride and confusion to me. Pride, in that being connected, or being thought to be so, in any manner however ephemeral, with such an heroic enterprise as this—naturally one finds one’s blood stirring at even the prospect. Confusion, in that the certainty is manifest that there are many individuals other than myself, more suited to cast an encompassing reflection upon such an auspicious—”
“For God’s sake, man.” If I had no idea of what I was blathering on about—impromptu oratory had always been more of an occasion for panic than inspiration—then Lord Fusible had even less. He shook his head with such dismayed force that the surfeit of alcohol could almost be heard sloshing in his whiskered jowls. “Let’s just get on with it. Crowcroft! Damn it all, where’s Captain Crowcroft?”
Less chagrined than relieved by Fusible’s outburst, I watched as the crowd’s faces mercifully swung away from me, the guests searching in their own midst for the lighthouse’s commander. Who in fact had taken advantage of the momentary distraction afforded by my discomfiture and was now stationed at the far reach of the bridge, leaning with apparent fond attention over the fairest of the young women. It was the very scene of two lovers exchanging those foolish smiles and whispers, the words of which no doubt meant little more than the ones I had just spoken, but which obviously were more happily received. And while a beguiling blush tinged the young lady’s cheek at being so discovered, little if any impropriety could be imputed by even the most envious gossipers; she had been introduced to me as not just Lord and Lady Fusible’s daughter, but also Captain Crowcroft’s announced
Evangeline. Whatever advantage might accrue to him by marrying into the fortune that constructed the same lighthouses that he so famously helmed, it was surely outweighed in his thoughts by the girl’s swan-necked charm and delicate features. A fair brow made whiter by its frame of unruly brunette curls, she—while not as tall as he whose arm her hand lightly rested upon—still towered above her squatty parents. Indeed, the difference between generations gave credibility to the folkish tales of changeling infants, though in this case the Fusibles would seem to have done rather better in the exchange than was generally the case. Even in the heart of as resigned an old bachelor as myself, the sight of such a handsome affianced pair evoked a sweetly melancholic pang, the notion of all that might have happened in a more accommodating world, but that had instead passed me by.
“Do your job, man!” Lord Fusible shouted across the bridge. “Not
one! Get over here and put this beast in motion.”
Bearing a one-cornered smile, the self-congratulatory emblem of a man who had just been spotted in the company of an unusually pretty girl, Crowcroft made his way over to where we stood. Fusible stepped back and gestured at the incomprehensible levers. “Go to it,” he snapped.
Crowcroft reached for the greatest lever, an imposing construct of brass inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl, surmounted with an effigy of mythical Britannia, seated with a lion’s head in her lap. He hesitated, fingertips just short of the device, then turned toward me. “Perhaps you would be so kind, Mr. Dower?”
“I’m . . . not sure what’s required. . . .”
“Just pull it forward.” He indicated the limited arc through which the lever would travel. “Nothing more than that.”
Warily, I wrapped both perspiring hands about it. I tugged, but nothing happened.
“Perhaps,” said Crowcroft, “with just a bit more force applied.”
I braced myself and, with teeth clenched, drew the lever toward my chest.
Not for the first time did I feel that awed sensation—half fear, half exhilaration—that comes with the unleashing of great machines. Many years ago, before all those events that had left me a broken and chastened man, I had fumbled about in the back room of my watchmaker’s shop in the London district of Clerkenwell, poking and prodding the mysterious assemblages that had been my father’s legacy to me. On rare occasion, I had even managed to set a few of their coiled mainsprings into life and had leapt back to avoid being snared by the sudden fury of intermeshing gears and cogs, spherical balance weights sweeping toward my head as though they were a schoolboy’s prankish conker made lethal by mass and velocity. Younger then, and not yet laden with grim experience to come, I would stand transfixed by the spectacle, as Galileo might have when first peering through his telescope at the similar workings of an unexplained Cosmos.
A subtle vibration transmitted itself through the lever’s gleaming surface. It grew stronger, traveling through the bones of my arms as I brought the brass goddess closer to me. At the same time, an excited murmur swept through the launch party’s attendees, as the bolted floor and walls shook about them. From below came the groaning of immense engines, roused from slumber. The shouts of the lighthouse crew could be heard on the tower’s lower decks, as they scurried to their duties, attendant upon the pistons sheathed in oil and the sharp-toothed gears they drove, larger and fiercer than the smouldering altars that Moloch’s ancient priests had fed with human sacrifice.