Clockwork Fairies

Clockwork Fairies

illustration by gregory manchess

This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.

Mary the Irish girl let me in when I knocked at the door in my Sunday best, smelling of incense and evening fog. Gaslight flickered over the narrow hall. The mahogany banister’s curve gleamed with beeswax polish, and a rosewood hat rack and umbrella stand squatted to my left.

I nodded to Mary, taking off my top hat. Snuff and baking butter mingled with my own pomade to battle the smell of steel and sulfur from below.

“Don’t be startled, Mr. Claude, sir.”

Before I could speak, a whir of creatures surrounded me.

At first I thought them hummingbirds or large dragonflies. One hung poised before my eyes in a flutter of metallic skin and isinglass wings. Delicate gears spun in the wrist of a pinioned hand holding a needle-sharp sword. Desiree had created another marvel. , bee-winged, glittering like tinsel. Who would have dreamed such things, let alone made them real? Only Desiree.

Mary chattered, “They’re hers. They won’t harm ye. Only burglars and the like.”

She swatted at one hovering too close, its hair floating like candy floss. Mary had been with the Southland household for three years now and was inured to scientific marvels. “I’ll tell her ladyship yer here.”

She left. I eyed the fairies that hung in the air around me. Despite Mary’s assurance, I did not know what they would do if I stepped forward. I had never witnessed clockwork creations so capable of independent movement.

Footsteps sounded downstairs, coming closer. Desiree appeared in the doorway that led to her basement workshop. A pair of protective lenses dangled around her neck and she wore gloves. Not the dainty kidskin gloves of fashionable women, but thick pig leather, to shield her clever brown fingers from sparks. One hand clutched a brass oval studded with tiny buttons.

Desiree’s skin color made her almost as much an oddity in upper London society as the fairies. My intended. I smiled at her.

“Claude,” she said with evident pleasure.

She clicked the device in her hand and the fairies swirled away, disappearing to God knows where. “I’m almost done. I’ll meet you in a few minutes. Go ahead and ring for tea.”

* * *

In the parlor, I took to the settee and looked around. As always, the room was immaculate, filled with well-dusted knickknacks. Butterflies fluttered under two bell jars on a charcoal-colored marble mantle carved with lilies of the valley. The room was well-composed: a sofa sat in graceful opposition to a pair of wing chairs. The only discordant note was the book shoved between two embroidered pillows on the closest chair’s maroon velvet. I picked it up. On the Origin Of Species, by Charles Darwin.

I frowned and set it back down. Only last week, my minister had spoken out against this very book.

I should speak to Desiree. I knew better than to forbid her to read it, but I could warn her against discussing it in polite company or speaking to support the heretical notion that humans were related to animals, which contradicted God’s order, the Great Chain of Being.

Mary the Irish girl brought tea and sweet biscuits with a clatter of heels that was muted when she reached the parlor carpet. I poured myself a cup, sniffing. Lapsang Oolong. Desiree’s father, Lord Southland, was one of London’s notable titled eccentrics, but his staff had excellent taste in provisions.

The man himself appeared in the doorway. His silk waistcoat was patterned with golden bees, as fashionable as my own undulating Oriental serpents.

“Ah, Stone,” he said. He advanced to take a sesame-seed biscuit, eyebrows bristling with hoary disapproval behind guinea-sized lenses. “You’re here again.”

“I came to visit Desiree,” I replied, stressing the last word. I knew Lord Southland disapproved of me, although his antipathy puzzled me. If he hoped to marry off his mulatto daughter, I was his best prospect. Not many men were as free of prejudice as I was.

With his wife’s death, though, Southland had become irrational and taken up radical notions. So far Desiree had steered clear of them with my guidance, but I shuddered to think that she might become a Nonconformist or Suffragist. Still, I took care to be polite to Southland. If he cut Desiree from his will, the results would be disastrous.

“Of course he came to see me, Papa,” Desiree said from the other doorway. She had removed her leather apron, revealing a gay dress of pink cotton sprigged with strawberry blossoms. She perched a decorous distance from me and poured her own tea, adding a hearty amount of milk.

“I’ve come to nag you again, Des,” I teased.

A crease settled between her eyebrows. “Claude, is this about Lady Allsop’s ball again?”

I leaned forward to capture her hand, its color deep against my own pale skin. “Desiree, to be accepted in society, you must make an effort now and then. If you are a success it will reflect well on me. Appear at the ball as a kindness to me.”

She removed her fingers from mine, the crease between her eyebrows becoming more pronounced. “I have told you: I am not the sort of woman that goes to balls.”

“But you could be!” I told her. “Look at you, Desiree. You are as beautiful as any woman in London. A nonpareil. Dressed properly, you would take the city by storm.”

“We have been over this before,” she said. “I have no desire to expose myself to stares. My race makes me noteworthy, but it is not pleasant being a freak, Claude. Last week a child in the street wanted to rub my skin and see ‘if the dirt would come off.’ Can you not be happy with me as I am?”

“I am very happy with you as you are,” I said. I could hear a sullen tinge in my voice, but my feelings were understandable. “But you could be so much more!”

She stood. “Come,” she said. “I will show you what I have been working on.”

There would be no arguing with her—I could tell by her tone—but a touch of sulkiness might wear her down. Lord Southland glared at me as I bowed to him, but neither of us spoke.

* * *

In the workshop, a clockwork fairy sprawled on the table. Using a magnifying glass, Desiree showed me its delicate works, the mica flakes pieced together to form its wings.

“Where did you get the idea?” I asked.

“In Devonshire, an old woman spoke of seeing fairies. There was an interview with her in Hardwicke’ s Science-Gossip.”

I snorted. “Old women are given to fancies.”

Desiree shrugged, taking up a pick and using it to adjust the the paper-thin wing's hinge. “It made me think about how to create flying creatures. I chose to use bumblebees for my model, rather than the traditional butterfly wings. My fairies can resist strong winds and go where I wish them, according to the instructions I have laid into their ‘brains,’ which are based on the papers Babbage has published.”

Desiree is interested in such things, but I don’t find them nearly as engaging as spiritual matters. She droned on, but I cut her short. “Sometimes I think you don’t love me.”

She stopped. Her half-parted lips were like flower petals, an orchid’s inner workings. “Why do you say that?”

“You don’t understand my position,” I said. “As a dean, I must have a wife who is acceptable in society’s eyes.”

“This is about the ball again,” she said. She reached out to touch my face, but I turned my head away and pretended to examine the articulated form half-assembled on the table.

“Very well,” she said. Her hand returned to her side. “If it means that much, I will go.”

* * *

That week fled pell-mell. I went to a lecture by John Henry Newman, and the theater to see How She Loves Him by Boucicault. I stopped by Lord Southland’s on three separate evenings, but most nights I dined at my club, on excellent quail prepared in the French style, or fresh haddock.

Desiree had started work on a mechanical cat. She took me into her workshop to look at it. A clockwork nightingale sang in the wicker cage hanging from the rafters, set in motion by our footsteps’ vibration.

“It’s still in the preliminary stages,” she said. A brass skeleton lay disassembled on the table, but it was laid out so I could see the cat-to-be’s shape. Mercury beads rolled in a white porcelain dish. A discarded spray of silver whiskers had been tossed in the coalscuttle.

I glanced around. “The deanery has a basement,” I said. “It houses our wine cellar and storerooms, but I have sent to have the front room cleaned and whitewashed for you.”

Desiree’s teeth flashed as she smiled. I stole a kiss and her breath smelled of licorice. I felt her skin’s warmth against my hands. True, the room was not as fine as this, but she would improvise and make do, for she was a clever girl. And once she had started bearing, such fancies would fall away. Her inventions, her clever machines, were simply a way to channel her maternal instinct. Once she had a child, she would find herself devoted to it.

While Desiree went upstairs to speak to her father, I lingered in the workshop. I amused myself by walking between the tables and shelves, examining her work.

I paused beside what looked like a dress form, a brass cylinder the size of a human torso. My cheeks flushed as I regarded it.

Shockingly, Desiree had given it the semblance of a maiden’s bosom, a suggestion of curves whose immodesty appalled me. Headless, armless, legless, the torso stood affixed to three steel rods that culminated in a circular base as wide as an elephant’s foot.

I reached out and touched its “shoulder,” then trailed my fingertips along the skin towards its chest. The oils from my fingers left a faint trail behind them, smudging the metal’s gleam. It was how corrosion started, I knew. Given time, would the stains grow to verdigris, show how intimately I had touched Desiree’s creation?

I buffed the marks away with a linen rag that lay on a nearby workbench. The stairs creaked beneath me in admonishment as I ascended to join Desiree and her father. They had been arguing again. I heard her father say, “Blasted pedantic popinjay!” and Desiree say, “Oh Father,” her tone coaxing and indulgent.

“You don’t have to settle for such a man!”

“If I want to be part of society and not an outcast, I need a proper husband! Claude and I will accommodate each other with time.”

That had an ominous sound, but we would discuss it later. They fell silent as I appeared. Southland’s face red with anger, Desiree’s smile as bland as her mechanical cat licking cream.

* * *

Everyone notable was present at Lady Allsop’s ball. Silks and satins gleamed like colored waters touched with flecks of light from cut gems. The air smelled of hothouse flowers and French perfume. The orchestra played as the dancers glided through a waltz.

I do not entirely approve of diversions like dancing, but society places demands on us. I was eager for the ton to place their benison on my bride to be. I would dance twice with Desiree when she arrived, but for the most part I intended to stay on the sidelines, drinking lemonade. Still, when a few partners pressed me, I gave in.

I know well that women find me alluring—no credit to anyone other than He who shaped me. But my calf shows to advantage in breeches, to the point where at least one too-bold miss had called it shapely.

And I knew very well that it was my looks that initially attracted Desiree. Like all women, she is drawn to this world’s baubles, not realizing their transient, mayfly nature. But with time, she had sounded my mind’s depths, and I flattered myself that what she found there had strengthened her attraction to me.

A woman I danced with mentioned that the Southlands had arrived. “Your fiancée, is she not?” she purred. “I saw her arrive with her papa, a half hour or so ago.”

I made my excuses and went outside the great hall to pass through the refreshment line, looking for Desiree. I caught sight of her ahead of me, in the side hall’s shadows, dark hair held up by an intricate mechanism atop her head. She paused beside a dusky silk curtain, speaking to a blonde, blue-eyed woman.

From the back I could see Desiree’s silk skirt: figured with gears, the teeth embroidered in red. I came up behind her and slid my hand through the crook of her elbow, drawing her close to show my pleasure at her presence there, despite her dress’s outré nature.

I realized my mistake from the way the woman pulled herself away. She turned and I saw her clearly, no longer Desiree. Her hair held brownish red highlights, and her eyes were an icy, outraged green. The patterned cogs were Michelmas daises, the teeth ragged petals, scarlet on cream.

I stammered apologies, backed away as quickly as I could, bowing.

I searched through the crowds for Desiree and failed to find her. I looked around the punchbowl, through a salon filled with young misses waiting to be asked to dance, their mothers hovering nearby. Desiree had never been among their ranks. Her father had been indulgent, allowed her to skip so many social niceties. I sought her amid the dancers and along the wall benches, where groups of men gossiped and women nattered amongst themselves.

I finally slipped outside into the starlit gardens. There I found her, scandalously alone with a man.

Pea gravel crunched under my boot heels as I approached, just in time to see him lean forward and take her hand. The night was cool on my outraged cheeks as I ran forward, pushing him away from her.

He staggered back, looking surprised. I had not seen him before: a dark Irishman with a narrow face and a nose like a knife blade. His black eyes were altogether too dark and romantic, like some hero in a novel.

Sometimes you dislike a man at first sight. As now. An expression that flashed over his face made me think he reciprocated the sentiment. He was, annoyingly enough, dressed impeccably, better than my own efforts, despite the Honiton lace at my throat.

Something wild in the cast of his features, the white flash of his throat, the enormous emerald on his hand, the way the moonlight glinted on his fingernails, made me think him something other than human, some besotted seraphim or an exotic nightmare borne of hallucinogen or fever. A shiver worked its way down my back and spread its fingers to measure my ribs.

“Claude!” Desiree exclaimed, looking far from pleased at her rescue.

I ignored her, addressing the man. “You will not touch my fiancée again, sir. I am surprised at you, taking advantage of her in this fashion.” I did not say it, but my reproach was aimed at Desiree as well, even though I knew she could not have known better in her foolish, naïve youth.

“Lord Tyndall brought me out here to discuss my designs,” Desiree retorted. “He had read the paper I published on the difficulties of shaping tungsten.”

I scoffed. “Indeed, he did his homework well so that he might lure you out here to compromise you.”

Unnervingly, the man smiled at me. “I had no idea the author of such an erudite work would turn out to be so charming, sir, but the pleasure was unexpected. Having finished with that conversation, I was merely offering to demonstrate the art of palm reading to your lady. I picked up some small expertise in it in my homeland.”

People were stirring in the nearest doorway, looking out to see what the loud conversation was about.

Tyndall spoke to Desiree. “I did not get the chance to tell you, lady: Your palm shows that you will take a long journey, soon.”

His accent was thick. It was ridiculous for an educated man to speak with such a heavy brogue, or to pretend to superstitious beliefs such as palmistry in order to lure women. But I stood down, not wishing to scandalize the gathering crowd.

Lady Allsop peered from near the back, the frown on her face threatening future invitations. I bowed and took Desiree’s arm, drawing it through my own. She resisted, then let me pull her into the house.

But she would not speak to me the rest of the evening despite the attendance I danced on her. In the carriage home, she relented, but only to upbraid me.

“I did as you asked,” she hissed at me, “and it was as painful as I imagined. But you were not even satisfied with that, and had to take away the one interesting conversation I was able to find.”

“Everyone loved you. How can you say such things?” I protested.

“Perhaps you were at a different ball than I,” she said. “Did you not see Lady Worth turn away lest she contaminate herself by speaking to a Negro? Or perhaps you did not overhear the sporting gentleman laying bets on what I would be like between the sheets?”

“Desiree!” I gasped, almost breathless at the shock of hearing such words from her innocent lips.

She turned away and did not speak to me again that night.

* * *

The next day I came to call, bringing chocolates and flowers and a pretty opal ring. Opals were her favorite gem. But she sent Mary to tell me she was feeling unwell.

I started to leave in high dudgeon, but Lord Southland called to me. He was in his library, or so he called it, a small room that smelled of pipe tobacco and old leather, so close that one could barely breathe. On the wall hung a portrait of Desiree’s mother by Robert Tait.

I studied it as he gathered his thoughts. I knew she had perished in childbirth along with Desiree’s younger brother, only a few years after Lord Southland had returned with her from a trip to America. No one knew exactly where she had come from, but gossip maintained that she had been a slave escaped from the southern portion of that barbarous place, that she had lived with the Cherokee for several years before the young Southland, on tour, encountered her in New Orleans. She was beautiful, although in an exotic, unsettling way. Her dark hair hung to her waist, and the artist had chosen to paint it untamed, almost hiding her face behind it. Her dress’s satin was the color of a yellow rose just opening.

Lady Southland had never been accepted by society, and had therefore been an exile, trapped in this house. That was part of the contract between Desiree and I: through me she would escape such a fate.

“Do you love my daughter, Claude?” Lord Southland asked. Rumor held that before his wife, he’d had other exotic pets: a tiger cub, a great hyacinth macaw that sang sea shanties, a galago from Senegal. He was impious and had rejected the church, refusing to have Desiree baptized.

The question pained me, and I took care to show that in my tone. “Ever since I first met her, my lord.”

“Ever since you met her, or ever since you learned she was an heiress?” He waved off my protestations. “I know, I know, such thoughts are unworthy of you. Still, I cannot help but wonder, Claude, if you did not think her an easy catch, given her circumstances. You are hardly the first suitor to make that mistake.”

Desiree had other suitors? I was shocked but intrigued. I had never heard word of such.

“Still, the chit claims to love you.” His look was contemptuous, and I stiffened my back under it. “It must be your looks alone, for you seem slow of mind to me.”

I squared my chin. “You may disagree with your daughter’s opinion, but you raised her to speak her mind and choose for herself.”

“I did.” He tugged at a pearl-set waistcoat button. “And will you allow her the same luxury, once she is married?”

“Of course I will!” I said. “Within reason.”

“As I feared. Very well. I will warn you, Claude: I will continue to attempt to dissuade her from this choice.”

“What choice?” Desiree demanded as she entered. She started out with a glare, but I smiled at her and she softened, as I knew she would. “Papa, are you beating this dead horse again?”

“Let me send you travelling,” Lord Southland urged. “I will fund a trip to Italy, so you might see Leonardo’s designs for yourself. Or America, where you can speak with other inventors.”

“America?” she said. “Do you not read the papers? Do you truly not know what disdain they would hold me in there?”

“Desiree,” he said. “For your mother’s sake, and your own, all I want is your happiness.”

“I will be an English dean’s wife and live at Oxford,” she said. “Claude has promised me a workshop the equal of mine here.”

Now was not, perhaps, the best time to correct that misapprehension, so I kept my mouth closed. Not that it mattered. Father and daughter had squared off like pugilists in the ring, and Desiree’s fists were clenched as though to keep herself from aiming a blow at him.

He took an envelope from his vest pocket, ivory paper with an intricate seal. “I have had a letter inviting us to come shooting next week. An Irish estate. The writer says he met you at Lady Allsop’s.” He spared me a glance. “Claude is invited as well. If he comes, too, will you accompany me? Rumor holds the pheasant excellent in that region.”

She gave me a questioning look and I nodded.

Better to see Lord Southland assuaged, lest he put his foot down even more firmly. His difficulties were his own fault, I thought, for allowing his daughter too free a rein. Although it advantaged me more than a little, for I suspected Lord Southland’s resistance only increased Desiree’s interest in me.

I touched her elbow and saw her shoulders loosen. Southland kept glowering, but now at me instead of Desiree. I smiled at him and laced my fingers through hers before drawing them up to press my lips to her knuckles, my eyes fixed on his. His jaw tightened.

* * *

When I returned home, a similar envelope awaited me. His Lordship regretted the unfortunate occurrences at Lady Allsop’s and hoped to extend an olive branch to myself and my “lovely fiancée.”

Now that the moment had passed, I regretted the assent I had given. But Southland would have written with his answer already, always punctilious and prompt when he thought it might inconvenience me.

I decided to make the most of it. As Southland had noted, the shooting in Tyndall’s district was rumored to be extraordinary. While the Lord—was he one of the men that Southland reckoned a suitor?—would have the advantage in his home, the day I could not show up a country Irishman, no matter his title, would be the day I’d give up my position at Oxford. As for his inhuman aspect, it had surely been nothing more than a trick of the moonlight, coupled with my anger. It surprised me how much my rage stirred at the memory, even now, days later.

I turned the envelope over and examined the ostentatious seal. A pair of cats boxing with each other, paws upraised, circling a crown tipped with what looked like pointed spindles. A sweet smell came from the green wax.

I directed my valet to pack for the countryside. I would see this interloper driven away before Desiree even realized he was interested in her. Her naïveté gave me the edge—not that I needed it.

* * *

As we approached Lord Tyndall’s castle, the countryside was verdant, the fall leaves just beginning to turn. The castle—for it was indeed a castle, albeit a small and shabby one—sat on a cliff’s edge overlooking the Irish Sea, a romantic, wild vista that I feared might enthrall my impressionable fiancée.

I took care to point out flaws in the countryside as we travelled up the road, including dull-looking peasants and ill-tended cottages. I mentioned how difficult it must be to obtain supplies from London, given the distance and the road’s rigors.

Desiree seemed to listen. Her father slouched in the opposite seat of the carriage and regarded me with heavy-lidded, inscrutable eyes.

There were a dozen or so other guests: a few Irish peers, relatives of his Lordship, and Lady Allsop and her husband. Everyone exclaimed over Desiree’s exotic beauty and made enough fuss over her to render her speechless with discomfort. I hung back and did not rescue her. She would have to learn to cope with such attentions.

* * *

We settled into a daily routine, and Lord Southland and I both found the shooting excellent. In fact, I had never had such success before. It was as though the birds flew into my gun’s path to sacrifice themselves. I had never experienced such a feeling of prowess before. The other men congratulated me, sometimes sullenly, sometimes with genuine comradeship. The women were invariably flattering—even Desiree, although it was evident that my skill surprised her.

It was heady, and though Tyndall came shooting with us less and less, I found myself able to overlook it. We dined well on the yield from our expeditions each day. Tyndall had an excellent cook, one who rivaled the best establishments. Her blancmange was airy as a cloud; her teacakes scented with cardamom and honey. A good cook, like a good woman, is a pearl beyond price. I resolved to woo her away before going.

Desiree was uninterested in shooting, which made me uneasy, but I was unable to resist the pull of the field. Like Desiree, Tyndall fancied himself a scientist, and like her, he had mechanical talent. She had brought the case containing her clockwork fairies, and the two were working on refinements to the wings. Desiree suggested that the fairies could be used in place of courier pigeons. Despite the notion’s impracticality, Tyndall supported it.

I asked what else she was working on.

“Something to delight you!” she said, her face glowing with anticipation. “Tyndall’s workshop is so fine, I have been able to construct something that will amaze you when you see it.” She laughed. “I think I will gift him with it when we leave. He has said so many times how clever he thinks my machines.”

“And they are clever,” I said. I touched the tips of the curls surrounding her face, stiff and unbending with pomade.

She pulled away. “My maid spends too much time dressing my hair for you to set it in disarray!” she said, but laughed to take the sting from the words.

* * *

I had found a staircase leading up from the main hall which had a landing well designed for reading. Always conscious of the necessity of keeping up, I had brought edifying and current works with me. One was The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill, a package of inflammatory claptrap.

Sitting in my refuge, I was about to put it down when I came to a sentence that made me realize that even the falsest text might hold some grain of truth. The sentence read, “To understand one woman is not necessarily to understand any other woman.”

I put the book aside but took that sentence with me, considering whether or not it was true. Certainly, every woman’s personality was different, but there were commonalities at the heart of them all: a love of gossip, for instance. Concern with trivialities. An attraction to beauty.

Voices from below caught my attention. The stairway’s acoustics were such that sounds carried clearly up to this level. It might have been designed for such a thing; I have encountered whispering galleries that bring words across the room as if the speaker stood right there.

It was Desiree and Tyndall.

“I think a more durable metal, laid along the edge, will prevent warpage,” she was saying.

“Your little fairies intrigue me,” he said. “Where did you find the model?”

“In my head,” she admitted. “I was reading a newspaper account and it made me wonder what such a creature would look like.”

“You have never glimpsed a fairy in the wild?”

She laughed. “Or a dragon in the coal cellar? No, I have never been prone to flights of fancy.”

“You think fairies only a romantic notion.”

“I think people would like to believe in them, would like to believe in magic,” she said. “Even I feel that temptation. But it is at heart a foolish idea.”

“What if I told you I could take you to a place where you could really see them, Desiree?” he purred. “Told you that true magic is wild beyond your imagining, that it will seize you, take you as though by storm?”

I was shocked that he would address her so familiarly. My gasp was loud enough to betray me.

“Who’s there?” Tyndall exclaimed, and came up the stairs swiftly enough that it was as if he feared some intruder. He scowled at the sight of me.

I, on the other hand, was stiff with indignation. He meant to lure my fiancée to some deserted spot under the pretext of seeing fairies. Perhaps the scoundrel meant to compromise her to the point where she would be forced to marry him. Or perhaps he just meant to seduce her. I would have said these things, but Desiree’s presence behind him made me keep my tongue.

“Come to lunch, Stone,” he said. “There is the usual cold pheasant. You have not lost your taste for it yet, I trust?”

“I find myself thinking that we should return to London soon,” I said to Desiree. Let him realize I had overheard his plotted seduction.

“Leave?” Desiree exclaimed. “But we are in the middle of a project!”

How could she be so foolish? Could she not see what Tyndall was up to? Was it possible she harbored romantic feelings for him? But the expression on her face was not thwarted lust. She liked speaking with him, I realized. It was nothing more than that.

Surely it was nothing more than that.

* * *

A day later, I overheard another conversation, this time between Desiree and her father. I will not trouble myself to reproduce it here, for much of what Lord Southland said was misguided and wrong. He restated his claim that I was too dull for Desiree and said, absurdly, that she should find a man capable of providing her with intelligent conversation.

I would have interjected, but I had learned my lesson the previous day. Instead, I kept quiet and listened, knowing that Desiree would defend me as she had before.

But her protestations seemed halfhearted. Worse, she seemed to be starting to believe that her father’s words held some truth.

“You valued looks yourself,” she said. “Was it not my mother’s beauty that drew you to her?”

“At first, perhaps, but then I was taken by her manners, her bravery,” Lord Southland said.

“Claude may not be brilliant,” she said. “But he is respectable and well-rounded, in the manner of English education. And he has thought a great deal about spiritual matters.”

“Spiritual matters!” her father exclaimed. “I thought I had brought you up better than to believe in a crutch that supports feeble minds in their mediocrity!”

Had he raised her as an atheist? I was appalled, but I knew I would be able to teach her otherwise, patiently and carefully, as a man must do with his wife.

“I want to believe in something other than science,” she said, and I thrilled at the earnestness in her voice. “I want to believe in something free and fierce, something that stands outside society.”

Her theology was muddled, but she could learn. Her father’s sound of disgust and frustration made me smile.

That evening we stood on the terrace overlooking the sea. I could not resist pressing the issue. “Desiree, do you think we are well matched in mind?”

She hesitated, taking a breath.

I did not care. I knew I outstripped her, but I could reach down, lift her to new heights of thought, of philosophy. Some hold that the Negro brain is structurally inferior to ours, but Desiree had already proved that she could get her mind around such things as mathematics and mechanics. I would show her theology’s wonders, the careful construction of a passage explicating God’s glory. We would read Milton together, and other poetry that would elevate her soul.

* * *

I decided to search for proof of Tyndall’s intentions, for evidence that he was not a man of science, only pretending to be one in order to seduce my gullible bride-to-be. Desiree always thought the best of people. It was up to my more rigorous mind to make sure she was not being too trusting.

A massive book lay on the table in Tyndall’s study, its pages well-thumbed. I turned it to study the spine.

A chill ran through me and I pulled my hand away, as though from a coiled serpent. It was King James’s Dæmonologie.

Using a handkerchief, I turned it to me and opened it. The words burned up at me:

This word of Sorcerie is a Latine worde, which is taken from casting of the lot, & therefore he that vseth it, is called Sortiarius à sorte.

Was Tyndall a sorcerer, then? What unholy designs did he have on Desiree? This was far, far worse than I had imagined.

A cough sounded behind me. I dropped the book and spun.

Tyndall.

He had the gall to stand there, polite inquiry on his face. “Some light reading, Stone?” he said.

I pointed at the book. My hand shook with emotion. “No honest man has such a book in his library! What foul magics do you practice?”

“I have never claimed to be an honest man,” he said dryly.

“Demon!” I hissed.

He shook his head. His tone was still polite, as though we spoke about the proper slicing of a breast of pheasant or the correct garnish for a trout. “I have been called that before, on my visits to this land,” he said. “But elf is more accurate.”

“I know a demon when I see one! You admit you are not human? You want not just Desiree’s body, but her soul!”

He snorted. “Her soul is her own. I want only her clever mind and machines, to entertain my Queen’s court.”

I gestured about the room. “Then all this is just illusion!”

He shook his head. A smile lingered at the corners of his mouth, as though it pleased him to speak so straightly to me. “No, the real Lord Tyndall is…elsewhere. He will return when I am done, none the worse for the wear. Indeed, his fortunes will prosper as a result. As yours could.”

“You mean to threaten me.”

“I mean to say that the financial chains binding you to your fiancée could be replaced with other gold, of my own forging, as recompense.”

“Desiree is more than gold to me,” I said. “A good wife is a treasure. Fairy gold is said to melt away, or become dry leaves in the light of day.”

“So you refuse to give her up?” he said.

“She may not be much,” I said. “Prideful, and a little wanton, and overly obsessed with this world’s trumperies. But she is mine, and I will have her, and the rich dowry that comes with her, and the inheritance

that will befall her when her father dies.”

“Do you love her?”

I hesitated too long. In the silence I heard a little gasp of betrayal behind me.

I turned just in time to see the tears in Desiree’s eyes before she fled.

* * *

She was nowhere to be found. No matter where I searched, even with the help of Tyndall’s servants, who were looking for their absent lord, mysteriously vanished as well. But when I let myself into my chamber that night, I knew she had been there. A tang of oil and steel hung in the air like dragon’s breath.

I first saw the note on my writing desk. Desiree’s handwriting was clear as copperplate.

It read:

Claude,

I do not think we will suit after all. But I have left you something that will, I think, let you have the kind of woman you desire. She comes with my dowry—I will not need it where Tyndall is taking me. I wish you only the best, Claude. I hope you wish me that in turn. The key is on the mantle. Remember to wind her up every seventh day.

-Desiree

I looked around and finally saw the shrouded figure by the fireplace. I pulled away the cloth covering it. At first it looked like Desiree standing there, stiff and rigid, dressed in a gown of pale blue moiré that I recognized as the one she had worn to Lady Allsop’s ball. But closer examination showed that the skin was dyed cloth laid over a harder surface, the hair sewn onto the scalp. A hole nestled in her décolletage, just big enough to accommodate the brass key I retrieved from the fireplace.

I inserted the key and twisted it, hearing the ratcheting of the cogs and gears inside my clockwork bride, until her eyelids unshuttered and I stepped forward to take her in my arms.

As we waltzed, I wept. Wept for my Desiree—not just what I had thought she would be to me, but for what she had been, for her clever hands and heart and laughter, and that she had loved me as much as I had loved her. Tears stained her silk bodice as I held her close, sky blue darkening to stormy. The fairies hung in a circle around us, abandoned by their former mistress. I wept, and we danced.

She danced very well indeed.

Copyright © 2010 by Cat Rambo

This story is part of Steampunk Fortnight: ‹ previous | index | next ›
42 comments
Laughingrat
1. Laughingrat
I really enjoyed this! There's a spot where a word got left out though, I think--

"She had brought the case containing her , and the two were working on refinements to the wings."

Right before the comma. Just FYI.
Michael Burke
2. Ludon
The more I read, the less I liked the guy - and the more I liked this story.
Laughingrat
4. Lincoln Crisler
Excellent!
Laughingrat
5. Sandra M. Odell
I saw where the tale was taking me and did not mind in the slightest. I thoroughly enjoyed your attention to detail and attitudes, your sense of timing, and the consistency of character.

Well done!
Laughingrat
6. C Scott Morris
Beautifully crafted.
Laughingrat
7. Debbie Howard
The story was recommended by a friend on face book. I am so very glad that I clicked the link. Wonderful story! You did a great job of capturing the Victorian attitude with Claude.
Liz Gorinsky
8. TooMuchExposition
Laughingrat: Eeek, thanks for catching that. The missig words were "clockwork fairies," so perhaps a find and replace error with the title of the story.
Laughingrat
9. MBG
Oh, I really liked this!
Laughingrat
10. akaSylvia
This is wonderful. I love how flawlessly you brought us the view of the world through the narrator.
T S Davis
11. tee+D
Oh, pedantic popinjay, indeed!
I love a good 19th century type of story, and I loved that Desiree was a mulatto. This was very true to life, in that it echoed the sentiments and horrifically constricting ideologies of the time.

Lucky girl, to be away to away with the fairies, and do her tinkering in good light, fantastic workshops, and peace...
Laughingrat
12. Carole Cole
Wow! Beautiful language and imagery. This drew me in from the very start. Bravo!
Yvonne Eliot
13. Yvonne
I liked how the perspectives of the time were shown through the eyes of one unaware of his prejudices. Even more, I liked how the ending showed the nuance of his feelings beneath that prejudice and his ingrained notions of propriety.
Laughingrat
14. mirana
LOVE the Manchess illustration. Very beautiful!
Laughingrat
15. jenfullmoon
Very clever narrator use here. Cool end to the story too!
Stacey H. H.
16. geekgirl1970
I really loved this story, and the artwork is stunning.
lisa simpson
17. girlfriend@large
I could not stop reading. Actually a beautiful story. Thanks Ms Rambo.
Laughingrat
18. frgough
How original. We'll march out the same old tired social commentary cliches, but put a tiny touch of steampunk in there to pretend its fresh and new.
Laughingrat
19. Meßmer
And what is wrong with social commentary?

I had never read a story like this before –– wonderfully written, by-the-way –– and I thought it was beautiful, really beautiful. It made me think, you know? To echo Yvonne, I liked how his humanity really got to show through all the social prejudices and practices.
Laughingrat
20. SL Standish
Realy enjoyed this story... Beautiful
Laughingrat
21. omega_n
That was quite lovely. Claude's prejudices were honest ones, and true to the times, but they did not prevent him from being a human being and capable of love. The gender politics are nothing incredibly new, but the racial issues aren't something often seen in Eurocentric steampunk. I think they brought a really interesting feeling to Desiree's character and made her more than just another proto-feminist character in a misogynist world. Very nicely done.
Laughingrat
22. J. Sterling Smith
This was an interesting story.

At first I did not know what to expect. I found myself quickly loving Desiree and LOATHING Claude.

His prejudices are all to familiar to myself having been on the receiving end of similar far more times than I wish to recount.

His desire to keep her chained and hold her back when he realized (on some level) that she far outpaced him intellectually.

It had a very interesting and surprising twist.

Clearly there is enough here to spin this into an entire book should you desire. I know that I for one would be most interested in buying it to see if Claude gets all that he deserves. Even though he is a very realistic character, I found that he got off too easily in the end.

Still a lovely story and I thank you for such a strong, intelligent black woman. I find so few realistic women in fiction these days.
Cat Rambo
23. CatRambo
Thank you all for the feedback! I know Claude's an unsympathetic character - that's one thing my writing group gave me pretty mixed reactions to - so I was curious to find out how Tor.com readers would react to it.

Isn't that the LOVELIEST illustration ever? I've got it on my phone just so I can show it to people.
J G
24. MindElemental
Hmm, for me Claude went beyond 'unsympathetic' and all the way to 'despicable'/'revolting'. Was that what you intended, Cat?
Cat Rambo
25. CatRambo
Nope, but that's one of the splits that came up.
Melissa T
26. Melissa.
I love the way you've taken the route of problematizing rather than romanticizing Victorian-era attitudes. There's an awful lot of steampunk-type fiction (well, mostly written by men…) that seems to get dazzled by the gaslights, and creating such an unsympathetic character, whose internal monologues highlight just how nasty things were, is a brilliant rebuttal.


However, it was a little disappointing that Desiree still needed a man to step in and validate her, and that she had to go beyond mortal realms, so to speak, to get the recognition for her talents that she deserved rather than find her own place in human society. On top of that, her creativity might be encouraged at the elf court, but the elf lord makes it sound like she'll still end up being an exotic pet. She made her choice, and yet I'm feeling she would have done better to reject the both of them and make her own way…
Laughingrat
27. Auntie Ba
Yes, that is one of the loveliest pictures! As for the story, I think you drew out their characters in a timely way, contributing to the development of the story line. The plot is strong and given the times and settings, very believable. I sighed with relief at the end, when Claude made his exit, taking his narrow views and manipulative plans with him. The elf lord? That's opportunity for Desiree to continue on her path, learning as she goes, like all of us. Plenty of room there for more development! Desiree has the strength she will need to find her own way.

I think it would be a shame to abandon your story at this point; either ongoing related short stories carrying Desiree's story on, or a full novel should be possible. I, for one, would like to read more!
Laughingrat
28. Shveta Thakrar
If you did make a novel out of this, Ms. Rambo, I would be the first to add it to an autobuy list. Just saying. A brown, strong, female main character? Clockwork faeries? A harsh, realistic historical setting? Yum.
Laughingrat
30. Jeremy Fuller
Although I did find the narrator to be, shall we say, less than pleasing, I didn't find him nearly as revolting as some others here. In an alternate, longer version of this story, I could imagine him seeing the error of his ways. Perhaps the elf reveals the true splendor of the faeries, and our poor narrator is forced to reconcile what he believes with what he now sees to be the truth?

I would also be keenly interested in a novelization of this story.
Laughingrat
31. Anonamoose
Perhaps it's the y chromosome in me, but I personally didn't find the character repulsive or disgusting, as people have said; certainly mired in the outdated and archaic way of thinking of marriage and gender-relations. But he clearly had real feelings and appreciation for Desiree mixed in with ambitions of social mobility and Victorian attitudes towards race and gender- possibly one even slightly less prejudiced than the norm.

It's easy to heap scorn on him from our slightly more enlightened, post-feminist (waves 1 and 2, anyway) position, and perhaps the aspects of chauvinism were driven home a bit hard/heavily concentrated in short fiction. But I thought it made for a complex and multifaceted tale.
Laughingrat
32. chiliburger
Thoroughly enjoyed this.
LaShawn Wanak
33. LMWanak
Add me to the list of those who want to hear the story continued. Lovely!
Laughingrat
34. Isa Frost
I wasn't sure what to expect when I read that first paragraph, but had that dying-to-know-what-comes next sensation pull me deeper into the lives of Claude and Desiree. I loved her way of dealing with things, her openness and intelligence in a setting where those qualities were not much appreciated. As the story continued, I found myself disliking Claude for being so biased and arrogant, while favoring Desiree even more.

In the end, found myself cheering for her escape with Tyndall to his realm where she will be accepted for her intellect and creativity. I really wanted her to have a happy ending and this made for a satisfying conclusion.

Ms. Rambo has a gifted storytelling style and an original voice. Very eager to read more by this very talented author.
Laughingrat
35. Lifesroses
I was completely fasinated by this story---it has left me wanting more--to find out what really happens to these characters. The descriptions of their surroundings were so vivid, I can't wait to read more of Ms Rambo's work!
Heather West
37. dragonmeddler1445
Wonderful story! It makes me wonder what the elven world is like and how Desiree lives while there. Very well done!
Laughingrat
38. Sylvia Sybil
Great story! I found Claude believable, understandable, and, as the story went on, unsympathetic. ;P And I really want to know what happens to Desiree in the elven lands.

One nitpick: On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin did not hypothesize that humans were related to animals. That did not come until his sequel, 20 years later, called The Descent of Man. Origin did cause religious scandal, but because it proposed evolution could happen solely through mechanisms found in nature, without the interference of supernatural phenomena such as God.
Keith Adamson
39. Tyrunea
This was, absolutely splendid. I would love to see more with Desiree, as well as knowing just what Claude would do with the clockwork bride, if anything.
Laughingrat
40. K.M.
I downloaded this story to my e-reader a while ago, and just started to read it while at lunch. The story pulled me in so quickly that my allotted lunch period was ending while I was re-reading the ending. What an amazing tale! I love the way in which you dove-tailed the various topics of faith, science, race, and class, and then dipped them in steam-punk and fantasy.

I agree with Anonamoose's comment. I sensed from the beginning that we might be dealing with an unsympathetic and unreliable narrator, but by the story's end I felt sorry for him. He had come to realize the value of what he might have with Desiree only after she was gone. In gaining everything he had initially desired, he now knew it was only a shadow compared to the true treasure.

As many other commentors noted, this could easily be developed into a full-length novel . I distrust 'Tyndall' for two reasons. First, Desiree's talents could have immensely benefitted the human world in which she lived. The initial benefit would have come in the form of nearly-magical robotics technology.The true benefit, IMHO, would be social. Desiree would have destroyed the views that people of African descent were inferior mentally just by being herself. By taking her out of the human world to the fairie kingdom, Tyndall robbed humanity of a great treasure. Second - for all of his faults, Claude was right about the promises of fae. In many of the old stories, they are not to be trusted. Desiree may well have been trading one cage for another.

I know that I posted a lot, but this story really touched me. Thank you!
Laughingrat
41. Book Critic
I really loved the content of the story and the way it was written. I enjoyed how you used steammpunk but not to much to where its a lecture or a teaching on it. It was a really good book.
Laughingrat
42. Mr. Pizzaman
An odd tale, somewhat enigmatic, yet it possesses a beautiful yet bitterweet taste. Something about it touches the soul.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment