Authors: Gene Doucette
“There is a terrible randomness to rifle combat,” he said. “Skill, instinct, resources mean nothing. Musket-balls cannot be predicted. I saw men rushing a rifleman right in the line of his discharge arrive at their target undamaged, and other men felled by shot that came down seemingly from the sky. So, Reggie, if the base instincts you speak of are the same as that which is deep-rooted in us all, I know exactly what it is to have them fail.”
“Remind me never to go back to war, then.”
I had made the decision to avoid wars long before this moment, but at least in the past I could believe myself capable of outfighting most of the men trying to kill me. I can’t defend myself against a random hail of lead, though.
“A rifle war is where you learn that God is fickle and indifferent.”
“Unless you can see the future for yourself.”
He nodded, and hesitated, and for a moment it seemed he was looking at his past instead of his constant future. “For most men, the only difference between standing in exactly the right place and exactly the wrong place is luck. For me, it was foreknowledge. But I also knew every man’s death before it happened. I could only save a few. And sometimes, to save
, I had to make certain someone else died in my stead. Tell me, in your life, have you ever had to make those kinds of decisions?”
“Then possibly… madness is what we both deserve.”
* * *
We spent a fair amount of time talking about what he might
as well. I explained to him what an oracle was and about the prophets I’d met, and that I didn’t think he was either one of those things. But that left us in a bad place, because after that I was out of ideas.
“I don’t know of any other species or types of people that can see the future, not as you describe it,” I admitted. “You could be unique.”
“I’m not. My father had it as well, as did his grandfather.”
“Then it may be that the Corrigan
He called it a curse. It was hard to see him suffering and think of it any other way, especially when he described how he saw the world: people looking like fantastic pulsing snakes, their present selves at the back and their possible selves at the blurry front. Sound for him were never distinct events, but echoed through the future. Every conversation was a block of words, sometimes in no order at all.
He said when he was younger he could with some effort and training and concentration keep a hold on where the present was. But as he got older—especially after his war—it became harder and harder to keep that focus. By the time I’d met him he had given up even trying, and just let the fuzzy present and foggy future pass before him all at once.
In the abstract the idea of being able to see the immediate future sounded like an amazing talent. But this was a curse, all right.
* * *
Joanne was also enormously helpful to me, both as a companion and as a resource, especially when it came to finding my way through the mansion. She had an intimate familiarity with both the household staff and the less public methods by which one might navigate the building’s interior.
It was always true that people with sufficient money to afford a household staff preferred that staff to be as invisible as absolutely possible. It was something very close to wishing there were such a thing as magic.
, they might say,
dinner has appeared.
And while we were eating, our beds were made and our chamber pots emptied. Truly, it is a miracle.
To perform these daily miracles required a rather large number of servants. Sometimes it was possible to quantify the degree of wealth of a family by counting the number of servants seen as a ratio to the size of the staff that had to exist to maintain the house.
Cornelius and Margritte’s household staff was nigh invisible except when needed, a feat partly accomplished by a series of servant passageways inside the walls. These passages led to every bedroom, and thanks to a number of staircases also led to all three of the kitchens and the servants’ quarters in the basement.
I learned about the passageways in a somewhat unusual fashion.
I was preparing myself for bed at the time. In this era that meant exchanging one set of clothing for a slightly more comfortable set of clothing, something that still took a while to acclimate myself to given I could remember going whole centuries without any clothing whatsoever. (Thankfully, my madness hadn’t reached the stage where I forgot about clothes.) I’d been in the mansion for a number of weeks by then and had clothing at my disposal that actually fit me rather well—not my own, but donated by John. He was, as I said, much thinner than I was, but his clothing was loose on him, and perfect for me.
I’d changed into bedclothes and was about to piss into the pot that was there for just that reason, when Joanne spoke.
“Good evening, Mr. Bates,” she said, which was an utterly normal greeting and mostly how she said hello to me on every other occasion, except that this time she was saying it while standing against what I’d taken to be a solid wall in a bed chamber with an entrance on the opposite end of the room. Moments before I had been alone. To say that this caused me to jump was an understatement.
My surprise made her laugh. “I’m sorry, I forgot how my sudden appearance might resonate with your particular madness, sir.”
“That’s all right,” I said. I would have made an effort to cover myself, but again, this was a time when clothing was so mandatory we all dressed from head to toe even when climbing into bed. I had no drawers on, but I had a nightgown and a robe, and socks just to make sure nobody caught a glimpse of my feet. “As long as you are actually here right now, I forgive you.”
“Oh, I am.”
“Can you tell me why? No, first tell me how, and then we will move forward from there to why.”
To answer, she kicked the solid wall she was up against. It tilted in, revealing a small doorway I really should have known about.
“As to why,” she said, “put on your slippers and come with me, I have a gift for you.”
A few minutes later we stood on the other side of the wall. She was holding a lamp with a single candle that provided only the smallest amount of illumination. It was enough though, given our proximity in the close quarters, to enable me to take note that she was dressed in her bed-things as well. It should come as no surprise that this meant almost nothing in terms of what was or wasn’t being revealed, as she was still clothed head-to-toe. But instead of an unholy number of layers there were only two or three, so it was possible to discern her basic womanly shape without accentuation or exaggeration. Her hips were where her actual hips might be expected to appear, and no garment tightened and pushed up her bosom to eye-level.
“The door latches from this side,” she said, holding up the light to the very latch, “but for the most part nobody locks them. I can make it from one end of the mansion to the other without being seen by anybody.”
“Is that important to you?”
“It can be, yes.”
She noticed that my eyes weren’t exactly on hers. They were, in fact, fixed firmly on her breasts. In the candlelight, the white cotton gown was nearly transparent.
This occasioned no comment, only a wry smile. “Come on, then. Follow me. Try and keep your voice down as we go, and watch your step.”
The passageway was far narrower than any of the official public access ways in the building, and had more than a couple of unpleasantly low overhangs, most of which Joanne was able to point out before I ran into them. She missed one or two, but I discovered them just fine.
“I told you to watch where you were going,” she said the second time I’d run my forehead against a support beam.
“You told me to watch where I was walking, not where my head was.”
“You’d have noticed it if your eyes were looking somewhere other than my posterior, Mr. Bates.”
“You are holding the only light. I have precious few other places to look.”
After a few more minutes of this—bantering and walking both—we stopped at another bedroom door. She held a finger up to her mouth and made me lean closer.
“This is where the prince sleeps,” she whispered.
“Is this what you’ve brought me to see?” I asked.
“No, no. But if
what you’re interested in, your friend Mr. Corrigan is just down there.”
“Interested in what way do you mean? Why am I here?”
“No, I don’t want to ruin the surprise. But I can tell you the prince is a heavy sleeper. If you were to look in sometime you could learn much more about him than I have been able to discern, I’d wager. You
“You mean for me to sneak through his things and find out if he’s truly a prince, is this what you’re suggesting?”
“I mean if you, of your own initiative and
from curiosity, were to travel this route one evening and slip into his chambers for a short time, I’m quite positive none would hold blame for your actions.”
“It staggers me that you have not yet found a husband, milady.”
“You and my parents both. Come on.”
A little further, down two flights of stairs and around a corner, the corridor widened and became a hallway with its own sconce lighting.
“The servants bunk here,” she said.
I had lost all understanding of where we were in respect to the architecture of the building. We were underground, but under
I had no idea. “I trust they are not bunked one to a room.”
“It’s one or three or five, depending on status. There are gender divisions as well, as you can imagine. My parents are God-fearing people and all that.”
We came to a stop at one particular door about halfway down. “Here’s my present, then,” she said.
“The door opens to a room containing the gift. Her name is Miranda.”
“My gift’s name is Miranda?”
“You’ve begun to repeat everything I say, I do hope this is not the start of a new mental instability for you.”
“I am not at all clear on what you’re telling me, Joanne.” I sort of was, but it wasn’t the sort of conversation I expected to be having with her, in a darkened servant passageway or anywhere else. Really, the last time I’d had a conversation even approximately like this with a woman it involved that bordello in India.
“Reginald, you’ve been here for weeks, and I can tell you’re getting better because yesterday afternoon you spent the
conversation addressing my bosom rather than my face. I appreciate your attention, and I promise if I were inclined, I would have used the passageway to your room to partake in all manner of immodesties instead of our current course of action. I say this even after having seen you in that unfortunate dressing gown.”
“I have a better one, but you didn’t tell me you were coming.”
“Again I remind you this is meant to be a surprise, and surprises are ruined by forewarning. Now it happens that I am friendly with the women who reside in this corridor. That familiarity has as much to do with my unwillingness to satisfy your needs personally as you think it does. And if you require me to be more specific, I can be.”
“You have a friend on the staff.”
“Two or three
enthusiastic friends. They are also talented and flexible, and one of them speaks French, which is
The blood ran to her face. She wasn’t blushing, she was becoming excited at the thought of her secret French mistress. It was adorable. I was unreasonably turned on by it.
She continued. “One of my friends happened to notice the attention you have been receiving from the fair Miranda. Don’t hide your surprise, sir, I realize you were unaware of this. Between my bosom and John Corrigan’s butchered lexicon I’m sure you had much too much on your mind to notice a scullery maid. But with her blossoming desire and your undeniably growing need, I saw opportunity. So now you understand.”
“I think I might.”
“Good, I was hoping I didn’t have to go so far as to explain what you were supposed to
with her. I imagined you familiar with the basic machinery.”
“Yes. But is she—”
“She’s expecting you.”
Joanne put her hand on the door, then hesitated.
“I’m trusting you are not a brute, Mr. Bates. She is very young and very pretty, and not very experienced. Don’t ruin her, for God’s sake.”
“I will do my best.”
“Good. I may wish for a turn myself one day.”
* * *
If, some time in the future, scientists came up with a cure for madness, and that cure involved a tremendous amount of sex, I would believe it. I’m not saying the young maid Miranda had exactly what I needed to fix what ailed me, but it certainly helped. (It also may be argued in hindsight that what I suffered from was a form of melancholy, and when it comes to that condition I would