The Commonplace Book
Mon
Oct 1 2012 10:00am
The Commonplace Book
illustration by allen williams

“The Commonplace Book” concerns certain social and technological developments in New York’s sixth Borough of Lytton, a timeless locale facing great change at the hands of new motion picture technology and the advent of machine intelligence. And, most of all, from inventors and iconoclasts Lady Adelaide Babbage and Mr Maximilian Willoughby, struggling in parallel with a hopeless inability to conform in fashion or manner to the standards of the day, and the construction of identity in the face of the knowledge that the creation of AI is—like any other art—also the creation of self.

The first piece of short fiction by popular Television Without Pity writer Jacob Clifton is like nothing we’ve ever read, a piece of postmodern steampunk encompassing past, present, and future all at once. Jacob writes, “There’s a level on which the story is an indictment of using steampunk as a fashion or trend. It came about because I wanted to see what would happen if you substituted Jane Austen for Jules Verne in the steampunk equation—and part of that is the notion that you can’t just remix, you have to transform.”

This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Liz Gorinsky.

 

“Nothing that calls itself a Governess,” said Little Darcy. Darcy was still missing teeth, and spoke strangely around the stiff collar points he’d been affecting of late. “They are dependably wicked.”

“And nothing clockwork,” added his sister, Wild Charlotte. She wore a headdress of bright, unnatural feathers and had red stripes painted along her cheeks. “None of that in our home.”

Adelaide stared down at them, exasperated. She hated nothing more than when the twins ganged up on her like this, with their nonsensical demands.

“What about Nurse? You love it at Sebastian’s house.”

Nurse was a tick-tock thing that had served her dearest friend’s household as long as they’d lived. Charlotte had always been fond of the old girl, but now, she shook her curls. “Clockworks are fine for the Rocqueforts, but not for us. It’s enough that you’ll explode us one day with your experiments. I won’t have it.”

“No homely ladies!” shouted Darcy. “No giant bustles or fussy hats. I won’t have anyone treating me as though I am her grandson or a slow nephew. I get too much of that as it is. No pinching cheeks. Nor uproarious laughter. Nothing is that humorous.”

Charlotte nodded in agreement. “And no eyeglasses. If she wears spectacles, I shall hate her.”

Adelaide threw up her hands, shouting past the pencil between her teeth. “Charlotte, what on earth?”

“You can never tell what will happen, Ada. We might be transported to a heathen land, and must survive only by our wits and abilities. I could become a child bride for savages within minutes. Without a dependable Nanny, I’d be forced to come to terms with my lot.”

“I highly doubt that, Charlotte. Speak sense.”

“I assure you, Sister, I am deadly serious. You must carry water from the river, and feed their horses, and darn their leather stockings. They see you not as a capable individual with thoughts and an independent spirituality, but as merely a woman. A clockwork factory for little savages, nursemaid to the prairie entire. That is not the life for me. No, Sister: No asthmatics, no lameness, no clubfoot, no sugar disease. Nothing that would slow us down.”

“And I don’t want a young thing, either,” Darcy piped up, not to be outdone. “She’ll end up burning down the attic and trying to marry Papa. Too scandalous.”

Adelaide shrugged and put down her pencil. The twins looked at each other gleefully at having once again won out. “So, to review: You want a nanny, but not a governess; not made of clockwork; neither old nor young; neither infirm nor healthy.”

They nodded. Charlotte’s headdress slipped a bit, and she propped it up with her tiny tomahawk. A sweet dropped from Darcy’s hand and stuck to his frock coat. He gasped, staring down at it.

Adelaide sent them away for lessons, then, but she could have gathered them both to her at that moment, eyes tearing as she looked at them: So young, yet so wise, so delightfully bizarre in their changing fashions.

Of late, Little Darcy Babbage had—and Adelaide knew this was Sebastian’s influence—taken to wearing Edwardian collars, buttoning his waistcoats ridiculously high, and turning up his cuffs. At his best, he looked like a daguerreotype of their father’s hunting friends as youths. The general effect, however, was so dingy and creased as to better resemble their father’s friends now, after a long night in Papa’s downstairs lair.

Messes troubled Little Darcy no end, but as he diligently brought his things to the washerwoman each morning, and was well behaved and quiet otherwise, and seemed to want for little in the way of toys or treats, the family conceded.

Wild Charlotte Babbage, on the other hand, was becoming more and more unruly with each passing second. She’d gotten hold of some penny dreadfuls detailing life in the New World—also, of course, thanks to Sebastian, whose pretenses at sophistication were undercut at every turn by his weakness for such childish enticements—and had promised herself to become some sort of vengeful Savage Princess by Michaelmas.

Never mind that history had already moved on from the days of Wild America; Charlotte wouldn’t hear of it. She refused, childlike, to believe that they lived on the eastern coast of those selfsame Americas, in the sixth Borough of Lytton, and that the ugly days of Cowboys and Indians were hundreds of years past. To her, America was something entirely different. Something fascinating and far-off, whose dangerous delights were every bit as remote and foreign as the other five Boroughs. She refused to call the City anything but New Amsterdam, as though, by sheer force of will, she could hold off the turning of time that threatened to turn her, one day soon, into a woman. The thing she hated most.

And then there was Lady Adelaide Babbage, Woman of Science, as their father called her, a spinster with two young charges and no fashion of her own. It was the o’erweening tragedy of Sebastian Rocquefort’s life that Ada just couldn’t seem to wear clothing in a manner that suggested any clear—or even beneficent—intent.

“You look like a sack of something wearing several sacks. I don’t understand it. You have a lovely figure, trim in the right places, a face. . . . And yet. And yet. Is it your posture? Put this book on your head.”

Of course, Sebastian could have worn several sacks and still looked like a Renaissance masterpiece, but that didn’t make it any less unfair. Ada wanted to look nice—she knew that it mattered more than anything—but somehow when she touched clothing it wilted, as if she were some lesser Midas.

But then, in another sense, she couldn’t care less. Perhaps this was the problem. Perhaps if she needed to be looked at as desperately as Sebastian did, the clothes would behave themselves.

“We’ll stick a hat on it, and I suppose some sort of sash, and we’ll . . . see what happens.”

Sebastian always discussed fashion as though it were a war, between oneself and everyone else. Perhaps it was. Their friend Antony Tilewood always called Sebastian her Fairy Godfather, but he was more like Alexander the Great when it came to social occasions. A typical rant went, “Strike hard, arrive late, leave early. Never complain, never explain. You catch more flies with silence than with heaving emotion. Make boys feel terrible about themselves, and they’ll follow you anywhere.”

Adelaide could never master the Compartmental Arts, as Sebastian called them: The gift of lying so well that you believed your own lie. If the situation called for you to take offense, you whipped up a reason to storm out. If a person were behaving atrociously, but it was not meet to react, you pretended they were endlessly charming. None of the rules made sense, and none of them could she follow.

At least, not in the moment. Descending the stair after a dance or fête, she’d hear his voice echoing in her head, ticking off all the sweetly devastating things she could have said, all the smiles or gasps she should have kept to herself. Every night was a chance to rewrite her character, to give herself the retreating, vague air that Sebastian said boys liked best. But, caught up in the moment, nothing could be more difficult, and she knew if she tried she’d be caught out, and accused of dissembling, and . . .

Something dreadful, she was sure. Ada couldn’t quite imagine what, but something very bad would occur as a result, and she’d be a permanent social disaster, and never wed, and Lord Babbage would die of shame, and she would end up selling matches or cosmetics on the High Street, and Charlotte would put her cutpurse and pickpocket skills to use at last—glorying in it, no doubt, little heathen she was—and Little Darcy would end up singing on street corners in a sweep’s rags, and apprenticing to a butcher or something equally terrible, and, finally toothless at a criminally young but vastly overexperienced age, write a tell-all memoir about his descent into madness, blaming her on each and every sticky page.

To be perfectly honest, which Adelaide often was, she did not wish to marry. She loved men, the roughness and the strength of them, the way they needed so desperately to be appreciated, but she had no desire to negotiate herself permanently into such an arrangement. Like the twins’ toys, or her own scientific tools, she liked boys best when they could be put away in their places at the end of the night. Adelaide Babbage liked things tidy.

That was why she loved the Commonplace Book more than anything. More than time in the gardens with the wonderful twins; more than dinners with her dear overworked Papa; more than lying about on divans with Sebastian, composing airy poems and discussing the depravities of Barbar Street or Gerald and Rupert Munro, she loved working on Commonplace.

 

Many of the elder children on their street had steam-brains, after a rash of futuristic enthusiasm some years ago, but only a few among them kept at them now, and among those few, only Adelaide’s was truly a wonder. Commonplace was not, of course, a true steam-driven computational engine, as in the olden days—one might as well ask Nurse the time merely because she was clockwork. And although it was operated with punch cards, this was only as a conceit: Behind its steely skin lay labyrinthine fiber optics and a quantum engine she’d built from a kit.

Originally, Commonplace had contained simple card mechanics, and—inspired by her own mother’s common-place, in which she’d kept recipes, and letters to her future children, and the miniatures she painted and drew, and everything she loved that could be pressed between its pages—Adelaide had simply fed it all the information at her fingertips. Books from their library, father’s playbills, Sebastian’s magazines, accounts of anything she thought or read or saw.

But then came the quantum engine. Smaller than a child’s portion of dinner roast, the crystalline mind sat just behind a silver-glass window, humming and quirking and occasionally sparking as she worked. She fed it punch cards of greater and greater complexity until its computational powers surpassed even Adelaide’s ability to follow, and on into—possibly, she hoped and prayed—chaos computation itself.

The first time Commonplace gave Adelaide an answer she didn’t understand, she become very afraid, believing that she’d broken it, then elated, thinking she’d managed to create a true chaos engine. Of course, neither of these things were true. It was simply thinking faster than she could follow; until a simple logic map helped her to measure this speed in the abstract. But that day, caught between crisis and chaos, Adelaide devoted herself, body and soul, to making that momentary dream come true. To reaching beyond mere collection and collation of history and words into something new. To see her little protégé make art, or something finer, and break that crystalline barrier between man and machine whose existence the scholars had batted among themselves like frantic kittens for five years now.

 

“If anyone can do it,” Lord Babbage often said, “It’s my Ada.”

He was very proud of her, despite having no real understanding of the work she was doing. Lord Babbage was a theatre owner in the High Street, whose stages were once known Lytton-wide as the only true dramatic strongholds left to society, and whose magic lantern projection screens had tripled his business in less than a year.

“We’re becoming vulgar,” he’d say. “All of us. It comes for all of us.”

He didn’t think the magic lantern shows would last, and feared the day when Lytton’s eyes turned themselves once again to the stage, only to find it neglected and in disrepair. He could find no actors—beyond the few grizzled retirees he employed for each summer’s tableaux and winter’s Dickens—who loved the stage as he still did.

Of course, he had reason to worry. It was only in Adelaide’s own lifetime that the stage had become an entertainment for anyone but the commoners and the demimonde. He was Adelaide’s age when he’d come upon his own dream: To revive the spectacle and wonder of the theatre, and rescue it from its own vulgarity and ill repute. And that he had done.

And then came the magic lanterns. What might come next, he was terrified to contemplate. Some sort of carpetbagger, Ada had overheard her father saying, was down in the south of Lytton promising to make the magic lanterns talk. But she knew her father’s cast of mind was even darker, as he looked into the future: Live executions, performances of a marital nature, the invocation of demons live and onstage . . . all of which, they were told, could be found in the City, outside Lytton. In Queens and Staten Island, it was said in delighted whispers, they’d load the poor and indebted into wood chippers and dance in the renderings, like the coriandoli of a depraved Devil’s parade.

Lord Babbage, she knew, was counting on his daughter to save their family one way or another: Either by developing a new kind of science, or by marrying well. She knew which she’d prefer, but she also knew that she might need to do both to secure her family’s fortunes. And as matters of the heart were a language she could barely understand, a code she feared she’d never break, that meant her work with Commonplace was of the utmost importance.

Her guilt, such as it was, came from the fact that she enjoyed her work so greatly. Surely it couldn’t be work when it so consumed her. When she’d rather be there than anywhere else. Surely there was a price. Time seemed to be moving faster all around them, and all of them pulling back on the reins as hard as they could, in their own ways.

Now Ada placed a new card into her old black typewriter, which she’d modified thusly to generate punch cards: When typing her words into the typewriter, a subregime in its works reassembled them into Commonplace’s logic, so she could say whatever she wanted without having to anguish over card syntax. It was one of her favorite accomplishments, but it was also the least demanding: Taking one language in substitution for another was all she knew how to do.

 

Adelaide absentmindedly began to peck at the keys. COMMONPLACE, she typed with a smile, WHAT SHALL I DO FOR A SUITABLE NANNY?

The silvery mind within the machine turned and glinted silently.

PARAMETERS FOR TIME, came the response. She shook her head.

NOT A GOVERNESS

NEITHER YOUNG NOR OLD

GOOD AGAINST IMAGINARY INDIANS

CAN PLAY THE DRUMS, she added on a whim, before inserting the card. She couldn’t remember if she’d taught it that word yet.

The machine whirred, as though laughing at her for wasting the card. PARAMETERS FOR TIME, it said again.

She sighed, then turned the old thing off. The children would be home from the neighbors’ soon, and she’d have to get their dinner ready, and clean up before Papa came home. No time for games now.

 

Sebastian was wearing . . . oh, it was upsetting to contemplate. Characteristic, but still hard to look at: A vest, no shirt, and that pocket watch of his, its chain looping all the way down to one knickerbockered knee. Around his neck hung a pair of dusty goggles a handspan wide, and on his head was a pointed leather aviator’s cap, straps hanging down. Across his chest he’d strung multiple golden medallions and a leather cord, from which something that may have been a tooth or bone described a graceful curve.

“What is the costume for the day, then?” Adelaide asked, ushering him in off the street before taking it all in. “You’re a pilot. Navigator? Fan dancer? Not sensible employment, even in these climes.”

“It’s a statement, Babbage.”

“Of your impending mental bedlam?”

“Fashion is dead. Do you know where I found these things? On the High Street. They’re selling off stock at discount to make more room for pirate gear. Lacy bodices and flouncy ruffled blouses and black leather breeches and, oh . . .”

It was true. Pirates were the rage this year.

Adelaide smiled. “Does this then mean that, should fashion prove impossible to resuscitate, I can begin wearing whatever I like?”

He looked at her in dour disappointment, as though she’d sworn. She nearly laughed aloud.

“I shall wear all of these things—at once, if needs must—until the world rights itself.”

“Well, you’ve got Little Darcy convinced. He looks like a befouled barrister.”

“I saw Wild Charlotte earlier today, dressed in a racially insensitive manner.”

“I blame you for both.”

“I proudly accept.”

“Sebastian, how can we go anywhere? You look like a mad scientist who’s turned to the docks.”

“My dear, that’s exactly how I feel.”

 

The reason for Sebastian’s visit—for he always had a plan or scheme or flimflam, that one—was unclear; and as he was not forthcoming with the details, she could not prepare herself. She led him to Commonplace instead, so that she could work while he talked himself out.

“Rupert was wearing some sort of helmet, some bloody submarine on his head. He looked like a clockwork, peering out through a rusty grate in the faceplate. Must’ve weighed sixty pounds. And on those weak, rounded shoulders, as well! And Gerald—he may as well have been going through my closet a year ago. Perhaps he has a portal through time, and will continue raiding my closet for the remainder. . . .”

Adelaide laughed, and turned from her typewriter to look at Sebastian, sprawled across her bed.

“Charlotte was just telling us how she’s convinced she’ll be transmitted backwards through time and have to live on the frontier. It was quite diverting. And Papa, as well . . . Everyone seems to think the world is ending, or becoming something terrifying.”

“You’re not afraid, though. Not my Ada. Woman of Science! And her Man of Leisure. We’ll meet the future head on. All its accomplishments will be our champagne toasts.”

“I just don’t understand this . . . desperate reaching back, reaching back. Even Little Darcy is terrified of vulgarity now. I have tried to ease him, to explain to him that change is to be expected, but he won’t have it. Lord help us if we did suffer some sort of time displacement. If we found ourselves in Wild Charlotte’s savage lands, he’d become a witch-hunter or something similar before we’d even dusted off our clothing. Raise a new church to tidiness.”

“Rupert would eat poisoned berries before sunset. And Gerald, why, he can’t be trusted unattended at midday!”

“Lucia Mapp would shuck her dress at the first chance she got, and go and live with the wolves.”

“She’d be their ruler! Queen of the Wolves!”

“They’d welcome her. Someone to take them in hand.”

As much as Sebastian hated Gerald and Rupert, singly and as a pair, Adelaide hated Miss Lucia Mapp. Her dark-red lips, a signature touch, never parted but to send off some wretchedly belittling comment—and, thence released from service, they’d curve into the tightest, grimmest, vilest grin. Lucia Mapp made Adelaide want to pack up Commonplace and move somewhere very far away. She swore she could instantly detect Lucia Mapp’s presence merely by the shiver going down her back.

Sebastian loved Lucia Mapp because she was awful, and adored being in her company. Although, small mercy, he scarcely saw her, due to a specific failure of nerve that only liquor could combat: Miss Mapp was the only thing that scared Sebastian Rocquefort, and he had no qualms about admitting it.

“Say, you know what that steam-brain of yours needs?”

Adelaide knew exactly what it needed: PARAMETERS FOR TIME, whatever that might mean. She shook her head, amused in advance at whatever madness he might unleash. Later it came to her that she would always remember that moment when he threw his arms out carelessly and said, with one bunch-panted leg sticking straight up in the air, heeled Chelsea boot inscribing circling arabesques across the ceiling, vest pulled cockeyed across his bare chest: “A voice.”

 

And so Adelaide’s lists of Important Tasks grew ever larger in number. In addition to the Household, her Charges (among which she privately included Sebastian and their friend Henry, as neither lived exactly in the world, but above and below it, respectively), her halfhearted search for Companionship, Papa’s grumblings, the all-important Nanny Question, and the accumulation of Data, she now labored to bring a Voice to Commonplace.

Sebastian was, as always, a steadfast—if variable—ally in the attempt. He was proud, when he remembered to be, and when she could entice him to concentrate, he’d work ceaselessly at a problem. So she sat him down with a gramophone—old, horn included—and asked him to analyze the mechanics of the thing. She knew the acoustic principles, but wondered whether anything in its structural makeup might prove useful. She loved putting old things to new uses as much as she loved translating from one language to another, never giving a thought to the fact that these activities themselves were parallel, if slightly translated.

Meanwhile, she worked from the other end with her punch cards, attempting to communicate her ideas to Commonplace itself. The engine had always found music easy to understand—much of its early training, even before its quantum heart was placed, had consisted of scores of texts on musical theory and reams of sheet music from Papa’s theatre—so she explained her plan in just this way. It would save so much time, would it not, to simply speak to Commonplace, and have it answer in kind.

Before long, the machine itself began to ask questions about the process and its development, often in strange or frustrating moments. They’d be typing back and forth for a long while, answering each other’s questions and streamlining their understandings of syntax, and suddenly Commonplace would start asking after the project. Sometimes, they were the same questions verbatim; sometimes, they were slightly reworded.

 

A strange card appeared on the foyer desk one day while Ada was out shopping with the children. She never so fervently wished to devote herself fully to the Nanny Question as on market days: Little Darcy inspecting children in their prams with the unblinking solemnity of a baptizing cleric: Wild Charlotte climbing to the top of things, Ada’s shouts and calls unheeded. The hours of trudging and racing and waiting and following, and all the many sighs that accidentally escaped her.

It was her greatest panic: Everyone staring at her, wondering why she still lived at home with her little beasts, and had not married. Everyone clucking at her multitude of sacks. Everyone drawing conclusions from her charges’ bullheadedness and bizarre dress as to the quality of their home. The Babbages were a wealthy family, even as Lytton families went, but without the help of finance to discern sheep from goats, the other families in their neighborhood had shown infinite capability in finding new ways to measure themselves against one another.

The card was folded, a sign of a formal invitation or personal business, her name scrawled across the front. Within—and she sunk onto the seat beside the desk when she saw it—was Miss Lucia Mapp’s name and address, with a date and time.

 

“If it’s a party, or a dinner, or a dance, I’ll have to feign something dreadful. Or perhaps the children could go . . . in my stead, as it were . . . if it’s the sort of occasion they . . .”

“Fancy a sister like you, sending her innocent charges to the Queen of Wolves as bloody tribute. On Charlotte’s frontier they’d have you strung up as a traitor, or worse.”

“Sebastian, do not tease. You always know the reasons behind these things. What’s this about? And is there any way I can escape?”

“None. And, as for Miss Mapp’s purpose in issuing the invitation—which, by my count, she has not previously done since we were in school and her hand was forced—I fear my lips are sealed. But I assure you that your purposes would be served in attending. More, I cannot say.”

He rung off then without prelude, which meant he was serious. Sebastian Rocquefort could not keep a secret. The prospect caused him such discomfort that he would take sometimes shocking steps in order to avoid submitting to his darker urges. If he could not speak about it on the telephone—his favorite device in all the world—it must be important indeed.

Which did not help. Not one jot. Because that meant that there was a plan, and it was known to at least two individuals. And whether or not she were the prime subject of the scheme, it did not bode well. Sebastian would never hurt her, or see her embarrassed—would, in fact, resort to real violence to keep her from any such—but he did have a fairly heartless (if evenhanded) attitude towards what he thought of as their Personal Development.

Miss Mapp would have nothing to do with Commonplace, or children. Where else could her interests—vain, sickly, double-crossing as they must be—intersect with Ada’s own? Adelaide had nearly risen from her chair when she sat back again, as though a mule had kicked her. Oh, the voracious horror of the woman! Only one thing could unite Miss Mapp’s purposes and Sebastian’s; only one thing could be so diverting for Lord Rocquefort that he could keep his mouth shut:

A man.

 

Adelaide made her brisk way into the Rocquefort house without waiting for Nurse to pull the chimes that signaled a visitor, or checking the parlor for Sebastian’s airy mother. No, straight up the front stairs she went, bashing her shoes against each and every stair to warn Sebastian of her imminent and furious approach. One could never tell what one might find in that room.

For example, as she, snarling, threw the door open—so hard it jounced against the wall—she found Sebastian once again wearing that sleeveless outfit, with a headdress the twin of Wild Charlotte’s lying cantilevered back from his forehead, inspecting himself closely in the mirror. When he turned to the door in surprise, she could see his eyes rimmed in kohl and a gypsy earring dangling from only one ear.

“You’ve taken to pirate fashion after all?”

“It’s a comment. I refuse to express myself through fashion anymore. Too intimate. Now I shall only comment on fashion itself, cruelly. Every garment will be an indictment.”

“I cannot discuss this no-doubt well-informed stance with you at present, and I’m afraid that I cannot discuss it with you in the future. My time will be taken up in choosing my outfit for your funeral.”

He turned back to the mirror, rolling his eyes.

“. . . Yes. And without me there to help, you’ll be dressed as a sweep.”

A quiet laugh in the corner caught her attention, and she immediately collected herself: Henry Wootten sat in an overstuffed chair in a shadowy corner of the room, reading a formidable volume by the light of a baroque floor lamp. As was his wont.

“Wootten! I beg your pardon.”

He smiled at her and swirled the brandy in his glass. Henry Wootten was quite fond of Adelaide; in fact, she was the only person in Lytton for whom he showed any preference at all. He was near to Sebastian most days, geographically, but the two never seemed to look at or speak to each other much. At least, not in Adelaide’s experience.

She’d given careless thought, a few years ago, to marrying Henry, possibly. He was an amenable chap, after all, and it was debatable whether he’d even notice the proceedings until well after the fact. But one look from Sebastian and she’d folded that idea up as quietly, delicately, and precisely as one would a handkerchief of spider’s gossamer, and stowed it away on the highest shelf in her mind.

“Henry’s having a swot at the old Queen Mab. Nine cantos! Count them, Lady Adelaide: Nine. If you’d like, I’m sure he can read them aloud to you, as he was doing shortly before his injury.”

Henry held up an arm without looking up from the page: “Nailed me in the elbow, without even looking.”

At Henry’s feet lay one of Sebastian’s great Chelsea boots.

“Sebastian! Henry, that’s terrible.”

“He is a vocal and passionate critic when it comes to poetry,” said Henry, with an indulgently glum cadence, “Old Rocquefort.”

Adelaide turned back to Sebastian, exasperated. “Sebastian, I should unleash him on you—all nine cantos!—for what you’ve done. And now, to add his injury to my insult! You’ve declared war on your closest friends.”

Sebastian sighed heavily, looking longingly at his reflection as though bidding that doubled friend a reluctant adieu, and looked at her with reproof.

“Ada. Firstly, I barely nicked him, and he’s clearly undamaged. Secondly, you’ve been tossing around all manner of hateful speech since you arrived—unannounced, which is something we have discussed—and you have yet to pin these tedious emotions and outbursts to anything like a reasonable argument.”

He took her by the hands, then, and smiled delightfully. She could have punched him in his giddy, shining face. She felt like a drunken sailor; today, she could manage it.

“Adelaide, your paranoia has gotten the better of you. It’s clearly a reaction to being invited to a party for the first time in your life. But fear not!”

“Sebastian, that’s hardly . . .”

“Fear not, my dearest friend! I will be your guide. Mercutio to your Romeo, Beatrice to your . . . old blind whatsit . . .Homer.”

“Dante,” Wootten supplied from the corner.

“. . . Old Blind Dante,” Sebastian continued, “Tiresias to your Oedipus.”

“Sebastian,” Henry said slowly, slipping one meaty finger between the pages of his book, “All those people came to a bad end.”

“Aha!” shouted Sebastian, turning to reach for the other boot. “Dante came back!”

“He went to Hell, Sebastian.”

Adelaide nodded wildly. “This is precisely what I . . .”

“Ada!” Sebastian interrupted again, grinning over at Wootten. “Indeed, my lady. He went through Hell. And came right out the other side again.”

He stood for a moment with arms akimbo—like Pan, but twice as cocky and just as inscrutable. Sometimes it was like talking to Commonplace.

“I don’t know what you’re trying to say, Sebastian. And I won’t let you deter me with an explanation, or more of your rhetorical frippery. I came to notify you that I have uncovered your wretched plan—with Miss Lucia Mapp, of all the uncanny demons you might conspire with—and to notify you that I shall have none of it.”

“Ada . . .”

“I shall have none!”

Sebastian sniffed, and evinced abashment for the moment it took him to draw breath. “Can I . . . Would you, at the least, permit me to provide you with an image?”

Ada cocked her head as he retrieved from a shoulder bag slung on the vanity a single daguerreotype, unframed, and cast on white paper rather than glass: A tow-haired fellow, handsome enough, and of an age with the three. One arm was tossed around a strangely familiar device as though it were his school chum. His ankles were crossed, giving him the illusion of even greater height, but one look into those eyes sent her reeling.

“That man has the smile of a scoundrel! His eyes are rakish. Mad!”

Henry and Sebastian burst out into loud guffaws. There was something hysterical about Henry’s laughter, she thought briefly, then wondered if it were only her lack of familiarity with the sound that struck her so strangely. Henry was taciturn, as a rule.

“She has you there, Rocquefort,” Henry sighed, leaning back in the puff-pastry chair and staring gleefully at the pressed-tin ceiling.

“He’s nothing of the sort, Henry,” Sebastian protested, but one look at Ada’s owlish disapproval sent him off again. “Well. Of character, you are a proficient judge, Ada. I’ve always said so. And, as Lord Wootten has indiscreetly indicated, your arrow here has not fallen too far afoul of your mark. And yet.”

“‘And yet?’ I . . . This person is a known associate of Miss Lucia Mapp, an admitted rascal, and apparently some sort of mad scientist, or . . .”

“Ah, my dear, no. I’m afraid it’s Miss Mapp who is interested in him. That’s why you’ve been invited.”

“But how . . .”

“He is from the south of Lytton, attempting to make his way in Lytton through the sale and deployment of a certain device. A theatrical device. And in so traveling, he met one man—a theatre owner; successful, a bit pious, but a handsome widower with a winning air nonetheless—whose daughter . . .”

“I cannot believe this. Are you truly . . .”

“Ahem. Whose daughter’s image, captured in a film loop that caught his eye during their discussions, so distracted him from any meaningful conversation—costing him the sale, I’m told—and so intrigued him that he plodded, heartsick and loveless, back to his—and please, do attend, and imagine this part with all your faculties—one-room boarding apartment with plank floors and tissue-thin walls, there to wait for Cupid’s arrow to finally sap the very life from him. . . .”

“Sebastian!”

“. . . Only to see, less than a week later, that selfsame maiden roaming sylphlike through the market, back bent nearly double by her frenzied attempts to curtail the antics of two nigh-elemental . . .”

“No. No, Sebastian, stop! I can’t bear it!”

“. . . And he taken so completely by this vision, this harried Demeter, this valiant Artemis, as though ‘twere nothing at all to cross the square with not only that weeks’ shopping but the ears of two violently insane children gripped between her ivory fingers. . . .”

“I shall die. I’ll simply collapse.”

“. . .That he stopped and stood stock-still there in the square until she had passed, mouth agape, staring—as a child at his first glimpse of snow—until she had passed. As though, my Adelaide, he had turned to hard stone at a glance from Gorgon or Basilisk. . . .”

“Sebastian, that’s enough. You’re scaring the girl.”

Adelaide had her hands pressed over her ears so hard they were beginning to ache, but nothing could block out the senseless violence of his shameful, awful tale.

“And so, in summation—I’ll finish quickly in order to stop your apparently oncoming collapse, though of what, I know not—Miss Lucia Mapp has invited you to a dance at her house this coming Saturday, the better to meet the man . . . and, presumably, to steal him from you.”

“But it’s the carpetbagger.”

“Pardon?”

“The carpetbagger. Papa’s carpetbagger.”

“I’m sure he is not. He’s a perfectly lovely young man.”

“You’ve met and spoken with him? You are in collusion with him? Collaborating?”

“We’ve done nothing but,” Sebastian said proudly.

Henry cleared his throat. “Not me, Ada. I haven’t met him. If you’d like, I shall hate him.”

“No, don’t do that. I shall . . . somehow, I shall persevere. Only . . .”

Sebastian leaned forward excitedly, noting a certain glint in her eyes and urging her on. He liked nothing better than tempting her into outrages against their enemies.

“Miss Mapp . . . Does she . . . does she like him very much?”

 

“Babbage. And here we thought you’d forgotten us altogether,” Lucia Mapp hissed, as the clockwork took Ada’s coat.

“It has been too long, Miss Mapp,” Adelaide agreed. Not, of course, that she’d ever been invited, or even welcome, in the intervening years.

“I’ve got some boys here that simply must be introduced to you,” Lucia continued, in her aggressive way, making no effort to move or to conduct Ada into the house.

“Thank you so much for inviting me,” Adelaide said, and immediately bit her tongue: The matter had already been discussed. Revisiting the subject now would seem either gauche or—as Miss Mapp would take it—desperately grateful.

Which she was not. It had taken two tall glasses of spirits in the Rocquefort kitchen before she would even allow Sebastian to dress her, and another ten minutes of deep breathing exercises (Henry had been studying the Orient) before she could exit the carriage outside. And of course Sebastian had immediately disappeared into the whirl of the upstairs dining room, where the dance was being held.

“Don’t mention it, my dear,” said Lucia Mapp with that vicious grin on her face, clearly indicating that Adelaide had already mentioned it twice too many times. Mapp finally grasped Ada by the elbow and propelled her roughly up the stairs, pinching at her skin as though unwilling to touch her at all. The feeling was mutual. At the top step, like a clockwork thing, Miss Mapp burst into wild laughter at nothing at all, a shrieking operatic sound that preceded them into the room, where all movement stopped. And then they were standing at double doors thrown wide, looking at people with whom Adelaide had not spoken in five years or more. If she ever had at all.

“Everyone, Lady Babbage is here! Let’s show her a good time, shall we?”

Miss Mapp said this last with a condescending moue intended to signify that Adelaide was the victim of some misfortune or other, and needed all the help she could get. Or, possibly, that cannibalism was among the evening’s possibilities. Lucia thrust one sharp finger into the small of Adelaide’s slumping back, like the muzzle of a gun. Startled, she leapt forward, in a way she hoped seemed gay—imagining herself, briefly, as a gazelle in midleap—then stared blankly at the assemblage, who turned as one back to their amusements.

She scanned the crowd for Sebastian or Henry, thinking briefly that she might strike up a conversation with Rupert Munro in order to embarrass Sebastian in turn, but then she spotted Sebastian in one corner. He liked to establish himself as far as possible from the food, within reason, and taking into account the room’s best light. He said this made him more of a commodity.

In the other corner sat Henry Wootten in a high-backed Chippendale, reading aloud from—yes, it was—Queen Mab, to a group of those younger underclassmen who’d followed him all through school. His curious celebrity was something of a thorn in Sebastian’s side, although whether he were jealous of the crowd or of Henry—or simply bewildered by the phenomenon—Ada was ever unsure. As, in truth, was Sebastian. Henry’s readings were the only time his voice rose above a dull monotone, and she found them delightful. As, in truth, did Sebastian.

She wondered whether Sebastian would forgive her abandoning him for the more passive diversion of Henry’s Shelley, but a violent jerk of Henry’s head—as he continued his ribald tale, addressed to the assembled fawners and cavilers that formed the core of his squadron in these instances—put that thought out of her mind entirely. At least as part of Sebastian’s set, she wouldn’t be called upon to tempt any vile ministrations.

#

And then a hand crept out of the ether, touching lightly that selfsame elbow which had so recently played arena to Lucia Mapp’s abuses. The hand was attached to an arm, soft with spun-gold hair, that itself led to a rounded, muscular shoulder. This shoulder was covered in a velveteen tunic-coat with a high collar and a gold chain across its chest, which chest she found barreled in a decidedly lovely way. The breeches beneath were not quite as short as Sebastian’s late knickerbockers, but showed a finely turned calf above cheekily gleaming monk boots. And past the tunic—bore it a cape, as well? Really?—and the ruffled shirt it covered, past the collar and the chain, was a face both angelic and strangely discomfiting, topped by white-gold curls.

“Carpetbagger! Touching my elbow. That’s a . . .”

He smiled expansively, nearly winking.

“That’s a liberty, sir.”

“Maximilian Willoughby at your service, lady. I note that you have not yet reclaimed your elbow, for all your fretting on its behalf.”

“Maximilian Willoughby. I am . . . making your acquaintance, sir.”

“That’s correct, Lady. Am I correct in presuming that you are, in fact, Lord Babbage’s daughter Adelaide? I have never seen you up close.”

“I am she. I heard that you were spying on me in the market, with the children.”

“Another liberty, I’m afraid.”

“It is difficult, Mr. Willoughby, to take notice of strangers in the midst of one’s upheaval. Time slows to a . . . I find that I cannot concentrate on . . .”

“Good lord, Lady Babbage. Your clockworks are sparking.”

She looked around herself hurriedly, worried about Commonplace, before remembering that her steam-brain was nowhere in the neighborhood. She looked back at him, confused. She thought only of her elbow.

“We’ll find you a seat, and a drink. I’ll serve your every whim. And whilst I am doing so, you can labor to produce a comprehensible sentiment.”

“You’re making fun of me, Mr. Willoughby. And me in the realm of my enemies . . .”

“You called me a carpetbagger, Lady Babbage. And as to the other, I have a cunning plan for your enemies, if you don’t mind. It involves turning Miss Lucia Mapp quite blue.”

Curious, but intriguing. All at once, she began to see this Willoughby as part of a complex equation, and herself the variable.

“. . . Blue?”

“Green, rather. It involves turning that Miss Mapp quite green.”

He smiled, pleading, and she remembered to wait just a moment before nodding in a fashion she was nearly sure displayed a level of friendly distrust.

“You may find refreshment for us both, Mr. Willoughby. And then we shall discuss your scheme.”

“Nothing would make me happier, Lady Babbage.”

“Adelaide,” she said with a smile, and felt her back going quite straight. He was only a problem to be translated, after all. No sense letting her posture suffer for that.

#

With a cordial in hand and this Maximilian Willoughby seated in a slightly lower chair that evened their gazes, Adelaide had begun to feel quite warmly at home. The jealous glances from the schoolyard girls—crowned by the hissing hatred of Miss Mapp—proved more of a tonic than the liquor itself.

As Mr. Willoughby detailed his plan—a simple pretense indeed—she found herself nodding and laughing on cue, leaning forward at times to touch his arm or knee as though she were enraptured by his every word. The blush on his cheeks traveled slowly to his neck and remained there for the duration.

At a predetermined point, they rose together and repaired to a balcony, just outside the softly waving, diaphanous curtains Miss Mapp or her clockwork had placed before the double doors for just this purpose: To obtain a moment of privacy in such a way as to communicate a desire for anything but privacy. It was a very long walk, but also a very short one, in which Miss Mapp’s claws dug into her palms just as Willoughby’s palm pressed itself to Ada’s; and Sebastian gained first Henry’s eye and then Ada’s own, nodding approval; and the eyes of the room, without a cease in the prattle, followed the pair like clockwork things.

#

“. . . And we shall wait out here until such time as a frenzy develops within. Just as they’ve stopped waiting for us to return, we shall enter again—I shall have your hand in mine, if you like—and separate. You will retreat to one corner with Sebastian and refuse to discuss anything that occurred, and I will rejoin Miss Mapp’s nasty cabal and do the same. I will charm her to within an inch. And just as she is coming apart at her seams, we shall leave the party together. It will be discussed for weeks.”

“But my reputation,” Adelaide demurred, although her objection, she knew, lay closer to his charming of Miss Mapp.

“We will retire to the Rocquefort house in full view of its inmates, and Sebastian and Henry will join us there. Their actions are beyond repute.”

“Henry’s, perhaps.”

“Indeed. And then, we will part ways. I will have shaken off my pursuer, and you will have no more trouble from her ilk.”

“Part ways, you say.”

She wasn’t entirely sure about that, although Papa’s dispute with the gentleman would most likely hinder any attempts to see him again. And wasn’t it all pretense, anyhow? He certainly kept saying that, which helped Ada keep her mind in order. Maximilian Willoughby was a tool in a plan, all the more useful for supplying the plan himself.

With any luck, after this, Lytton would stop worrying about her fortunes altogether and return to their usual pastime of ripping one another to shreds. She would be left to her work so she could crack the secret of chaos computation without hindrance, securing her family’s future without the prying, patronizing eyes of Lytton hopefully matching her with every failed Lothario in every house.

“. . . Or perhaps that is best, after all.”

For a moment, she thought she could see a certain disappointment in his eyes at that. Was this not a tableau, after all? Was the rascal playing some game outwith the game they planned together? She’d not have it.

“Lady Adelaide, at that time, you may tell me whatever you like. To stay, to go, to disappear. With your father’s violent reprisals ringing in my ears, I fear my business in the Counties is concluded. I shall return home with my devices in hand, and try once again to make a life for myself in your absence.”

“And if I should ask you to stay?”

He grinned once again and placed his cape about her shoulders. There was barely a chill in the air, but she realized she’d been shivering slightly.

“Lady Adelaide, anythingyou command, I should follow it to the letter.”

She heard herself laugh correctly. Not too high or silly, not too mordant or ironical: Delighted, in an understated fashion. Neither grateful for the attention, nor desirous of more.

“You’ll get yourself into trouble thinking that way, Mr. Willoughby.”

“I am already in trouble, Lady Adelaide. The very thick of it.”

He turned, looking out over the balcony at Lytton spread below, and she shook her head. Boys.

 

At Rocquefort’s, they continued to drink. Perhaps it was this that caused the trouble.

“Oh, Adelaide. You are a natural adept of the Compartmental Arts, as I always suspected. We should have got you out of the house much sooner!”

“Compartmental Arts?” asked Willoughby, and Ada’s confidence failed, suddenly and catastrophically; it faded away as though it had never been. She blushed, shaking her head again, and looked to Henry for aid.

He cleared his throat. “Ah, he means the Computational Arts. Adelaide’s gift for steam-brains and clockwork is the envy of all Lytton.”

“Not that the scholars recognize it, I surmise, for all that,” said the carpetbagger, and Sebastian nodded violently.

“She’s got her steam-brain eating out of her hand,” Sebastian said, taking said hand roughly in his own. “Tell him, Babbage! Tell him about the Communication Test, and chaos computation. And the voices! Tell him about the voices; they are his area of expertise.”

She nodded, squeezing Rocquefort’s hand, and looked once again into Willoughby’s eyes. Their color was unique.

“I built for her—for my machine—a quantum engine, and now engage in daily training sessions. Her syntax is improving, slowly. As is mine, with her. It has been a source of much enjoyment.”

“And the Test,” Henry urged.

“I bethought myself to one day link up the steam-brains of Lytton, all together in a train, and thus communicate house to house. But I wondered if we couldn’t also speak directly to them, to their computational mechanics, in order to learn logical answers to the questions that plague us. And so I devised a Test by which one would communicate over this linkage—think of it as a telephone—knowing not whether it was steam-brain or a real human personage on the other end. And the steam-brain that succeeded in tricking us, the highest percentage of the time, would be the . . . would be the best, somehow. And we would have learned how best to proceed.”

“It puts me in mind of romance,” Sebastian said, to the uproar of his peers, for of course it did: The road to romance, from any point at all, was always shorter in his mind. Once their laughter had died down—and with much authentic apology, as was requisite by his decree, whenever Sebastian was interrupted—he continued.

“One always wonders, does one not, whether we really know one another. Friend or enemy, or even—especially—one’s lover. Can we ever be sure, truly sure, that we know his or her deepest mind?”

Henry looked down at his hands; Sebastian caught the movement and shook his head.

“Oh, my Henry. Not our closest and dearest friends, of course. Not someone like you. Trust is not the issue. But in the wider world, the question remains: Are you, is he or she, are we really true? I thirst for authenticity in all things. So often, we merely play at love.”

Willoughby looked at Ada and then away, picking at the knees of his breeches as though at a piece of imagined lint, or a stray thread too small to see. Adelaide’s heart broke for him—or, if it did not truly break, it twisted, at least, like steel in the fire, and she realized then that she had not repaid him for his kindness at the party.

“Well, I’m sure that’s true. But that is the very crux of the Compartmental Arts.” She turned to her companion with a determined air. “Now, Mr. Willoughby. Tell me of your talking lanterns. I see no reason to halt progress, and my father’s distrust of vulgarity is a fragile thing at best. If you are very convincing, perhaps I can pass along a recommendation or a kind word to my father. I see no reason for you to go home empty-handed after all your efforts.”

Willoughby shook his head, looking quite wounded, and spoke no more. Sebastian sighed, and Henry rolled his eyes slightly, before turning his gaze to Sebastian. What had she done now?

 

“You all but called him a carpetbagger for the third time, Adelaide.”

“How so?”

“Your implication was quite clear: That you saw his devotions as a means to an end. You called his bluff.”

“Well, what about authenticity above all things? Sebastian, if they were real, I see no reason why he shouldn’t have protested then and there.”

“There is a distressing literality to your thoughts, Adelaide, which I have labored unceasingly to correct in all our years together. The train of your thought was apparent, in this case: We discussed Commonplace, and the Communication Test, and you immediately offered him a quid pro quo. As though he were a clockwork thing on the telephone. It was . . .”

“Sebastian, I . . . that was not my intention! I wished only to rescue him from his dark thoughts, to give him something to hope for. A dusty one-room horror, you said. South Lytton, you said. Surely a bit of encouragement was . . .”

“He already had hope, Babbage. He thought you’d stopped pretending.”

“An adept of the Compartmental Arts, you said! I was doing it correctly. And now he . . .”

Did you like him, Adelaide?”

“I don’t know, Sebastian. I haven’t the slightest idea.”

“You certainly seemed to think of him as a friend at the party.”

“Sebastian, he was incandescent at the party. I did think of him as a friend. I do.”

“But you were cruel to him, afterwards.”

“I was nothing like cruel! I was . . . Why do you boys think in this manner? Always, it’s needs and wants and crossed lines. Why can’t we . . . work together? As a team?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like you and Henry, or—and I do apologize—Gerald and Rupert. Why must there be all this mess, and triviality, and confusion?”

“The simple and carefree nature of my friendship with Henry aside, this is what is done. If you cannot say with certainty that you like Mr. Willoughby, that makes every act—from the moment you arrived at Miss Mapp’s—a glorious achievement of cruelty.”

“You persist in using that word, but I don’t understand the context. All I did was attempt to be his friend.”

“He doesn’t want to be your ‘friend, ’ Babbage. That’s the last thing he wanted.”

“And now you say he’s leaving Lytton?”

“My understanding is that he already has.”

Ada sat down suddenly in the seat by the telephone, sending up a jot of dust. “This is all very dramatic, Sebastian. I’m not sure I . . .”

“He told you he was leaving, did he not? That his business was concluded?”

“Certainly. And I told him I would ask him to stay.”

“Did you say it as Lady Babbage, or as his friend?”

“. . . Ah.” She nodded seriously. “I shall never be married, Sebastian. That much is clear.”

“You don’t sound disappointed.”

“I assure you, I am not.”

“But you gasped when you heard that he was gone.”

“Indeed! I cannot bear the thought of him thinking less of me. That he would consider our evening together in such a . . .”

“Then you will be delighted to learn that you’ve been granted a reprieve.”

“Sebastian . . . ”

“He remains in the Counties. We dine at eight. Please attempt to dress in a human manner. You may bring the children.”

As Sebastian rung off, she could have sworn she heard uproarious laughter.

 

COMMONPLACE WHAT SHALL I DO?

NOT A GOVERNESS

NEITHER YOUNG NOR OLD

GOOD AGAINST IMAGINARY INDIANS

CAN PLAY THE DRUMS

PARALLEL REQUEST

I AM LOSING MY MIND OVER THIS LATEST THING

PLEASE ADVISE: HUMAN MANNERS

PLEASE ADVISE: CLOTHING FOR HIDEOUSLY AWKWARD DINNER

PLEASE ADVISE: HOW TO DEMONSTRATE AUTHENTICITY

PARAMETERS FOR TIME: IMMEDIATELY

Came back the answer:

PROGRESS UPDATE REQUESTED

VOCAL ACTUATION PROJECT

She sighed, turned off the Commonplace Book rather more abruptly than usual, and attempted to dress in an apologetic yet flattering manner. She knew she’d have no further help from Sebastian this time; his disappointment was palpable, regardless of his other motivations. She looked at herself in Commonplace’s mirrored carapace, addressing that double as firmly as she could.

“Consider this evening an A Level in the Compartmental Arts, Babbage.”

 

Nurse took her time tick-tocking to the door. Once she opened it, the children crowded her as they always had, wrapping their arms around her and tapping her hump playfully. She nodded at Lady Adelaide, then whirred away to the back of the house.

Adelaide managed to get the children inside and up the stairs to the dining room with only slight disaster—while Adelaide was busy monitoring Little Darcy’s slow, deliberate conquest of each step, Wild Charlotte slid down the banister a total of three times, crashing at each crest into the wall opposite—and found the boys standing near a large bowl of punch. Her head was still aching, but she accepted a cup gratefully.

“Mr. Willoughby, I am relieved to see you tonight. I thought that you had left the Counties without saying goodbye!”

“I should never, Lady Babbage.”

Then he stepped aside, revealing a guest heretofore unseen. “You’re familiar with Miss Lucia Mapp, yes?”

Time stood still in a strange way, born less of awkwardness than an entirely unfamiliar sensation.

 

The children took to Maximilian Willoughby as ducks to their duck mother. By the time the first dish was served by Nurse, slowly circumambulating the table, he had one upon either knee and Miss Mapp was pulling sour faces. It would have been satisfying, if Adelaide were not sure that her expression mirrored Lucia’s.

By salads, Mr. Willoughby had promised to take Little Darcy to see a real working newspaper press—the rolling, folded pages dropping from shelves and belts—and Wild Charlotte had extracted from him an overnight camping trip. His occasional grins at Adelaide were pleasing, but curiously without affect. On the other hand, he seemed to have forgotten Miss Mapp altogether.

By the time the joint was served, he’d begun explaining to all of them, by way of the children, exactly how his speaking lanterns worked, and speaking of his hope to bring them to every theatre house in Lytton.

“It would not supplant magic lantern shows or lumières any more than cinema has replaced the theatre or opera. Variety is my aim, not destruction.”

The children’s eyes were bright and glassy from the late hour, but their affection for the man was still apparent. They looked to their sister entreatingly, as if asking if they could keep him as a pet.

“But surely you have seen the decline of those entertainments,” she said, addressing him with more than four words at a go for the first time that night. “Is it not to be assumed that people, no matter their vulgarity, will naturally be more attracted to the new thing than the old?”

“Perhaps it is the old thing that has neglected them,” Willoughby responded ably. “Perhaps when the makers of those entertainments see what is possible, it will spur them to new action. Of curious blends, or knowing returns to form. Lantern films which comment on the fact of lantern films themselves. There is no end to creativity, Lady Babbage. There is no development in art which rules out the art that came before. There is only . . .”

She nodded. “Translation.”

“Exactly!” shouted he. “Precisely! You see it. It’s blasted difficult—sorry, Lucia—it’s quite difficult to explain this to people, but you’ve seized on it immediately. A commonality. I shall employ your terminology when I next try to sell my wares.”

Ada smiled fiercely and turned to Lucia. “I’m afraid Mr. Willoughby did not impress my father on first meeting. I’ve offered to broker a peace on his behalf, as I do believe there’s something to . . .”

Lucia snapped her fingers at eye height, suddenly, as one would to a fussing dog. “I must confess that I stopped listening at the soup. You’ll have to reprise your conversation for me if you expect me to join in at this late hour, Adelaide.”

“Lucia, I shouldn’t want to trouble you.” Adelaide nodded once—a quick quirk of the head to the left, like a bird—and turned to Max.

“Now, Mr. Willoughby, please do explain in detail the mechanism of your technology. I have a gramophone that gives me some capability to reproduce moving images with my steam-brain. And in Papa’s theatre, we have the ability to play wax-presses along with the stories, when our organist is ill. But you seem to speak of something else entirely?”

“Oh, my, yes, Lady Babbage. It actually employs many of the techniques of your quantum engines. The audible information is kept on a separate track of the filmstrip itself, invisible but reproducible with a machine of my invention, and the film contains its own full version of the . . . Tell me, have you studied the art of holography?”

Ada leaned forward and began to speak. Lucia made quite a fuss, but eventually left, and when she went, she went unnoticed. Everyone else, the children and Sebastian and Henry, were swept away by the torrent of words that coursed, between those two, late into the night.

 

“Papa. We must speak.”

He grumbled and grunted, complaining of his back and the imperceptibly tiny amount of time he could actually use as his own, to spend as he liked. But he sat quietly, as she knew he would, and listened. And when she had completed her business, explaining in detail the way Willoughby’s exploits dovetailed with her own, the look upon his face was of such graceful and regrettable sadness that she nearly fled the room, backing away, ducking her head.

“You’ve been bewitched, my dear. He’s coming at me using my only daughter, the bastard. And you none the wiser.”

She knew not how to respond. She couldn’t tell her father that she had already visited and revisited this very set of Data from many angles. She couldn’t tell her father that she had been well and truly bewitched by Maximilian Willoughby, for she couldn’t bear to admit it to herself. She could not even tell her father that he was being silly, though that was implied by the very facts she’d just unleashed upon him.

“Papa. For all your words of encouragement, and all the responsibility I bear, you still think of me still as your stupid little girl.”

“I do nothing of the sort. But this is a case in which—”

“—in which you know best, and I should keep my mouth shut. I do understand.”

“My dear, don’t be . . . You mustn’t think that I . . .”

“Speak no more of it, Papa. I hear and understand you completely. I won’t offer my silly opinions again. I must go and make your dinner now, and then I’ll repair to my room.”

And as she left him spluttering, she realized that it was true: She had earned her badge in the Compartmental Arts, and no mistake.

 

It was a matter of mental health, this last-ditch effort to push her father into accepting Willoughby. The children pestered her night and day to see him again, but Papa’s interdiction on the carpetbagger had explicitly forbade any social engagements. She was, for all purposes, a prisoner in her own home. It was unacceptable.

Commonplace offered no help at all, simply pestered her for information about the vocalization program. She knew that if she could only get Willoughby to stay in town and get her hands on his equipment, she could modify or duplicate his quantum engines and map them onto her own. It was as simple as rebuilding the typewriter, really; only a matter of finding a way to communicate the steam-brain’s powerful calculations to the world outside.

She spent the afternoon working with Commonplace, feeding her more information at a go than she’d ever chanced before, almost resentfully. There was something, wasn’t there, to Commonplace’s love of music? Perhaps if she could engage that attraction more fully, she could tease out a more complete personality. For she was sure now that Commonplace was developing a real mind, an intelligence. She’d seen glimmers before, and had hoped in vain, but of late the questions and answers about her project had become too regular, too obsessive, to be anything but a real desire.

Desire signified personality. She was sure of it.

 

When the front doorbell rang later in the week, the children rushed to answer it. She hoped with an air of defeat that they could somehow smuggle Willoughby up into her study. Then they could all go away again, into Charlotte’s savage lands perhaps, and leave this madness behind. If it came to it, she’d even desert Commonplace, rather than stay in this house trapped by all of Lytton’s good intentions.

But when Little Darcy appeared at the door, he was shivering and white as a sheet.

“It’s her, ma’am. She’s come.”

 

Adelaide fetched refreshments for Miss Lucia Mapp herself, explaining that they had not yet contracted a Governess or staff in a fashion that she hoped portrayed a classed distaste for clockwork labor. She refrained from asking Miss Mapp if she preferred tea or the blood of innocents. It was, after all, a social call.

“It’s that tiresome Maximilian Willoughby, Babbage. I can’t take it. All day and all night, talking of machines and fractals and diamond intelligences. And you, always you.”

“I was unaware that you and Mr. Willoughby were . . .”

“Oh, that’s right, nobody ever tells you anything. He’s a servant in my house, Adelaide. I had hoped for more, but . . .”

“I heard he was living in a one-room boarding . . .”

“Momentarily. He’s been in our servants’ quarters since the party, wretched thing. Sebastian said he could find him a better placement, but I remain unsure. He is quite a lovely thing to look at, and though I am certain it would kill my mother dead should I elope with him, that plan has gone right into the river. You and your machines! I am here to beg your mercy, Adelaide. Take him off my hands, or I shall murder him.”

“I’m not sure what you . . .”

“I care not a whit what you do with him. He stays in that room all day bashing at those bongos and building his queer little machines and talking about this . . . Future. He is a bore as single-minded as you, and, as you’ve proven, no amount of loveliness can compensate for that. If you do not save him, I shall drug his coffee—coffee, if you can imagine it! In my house!—and bludgeon him and deposit him at the gates of the nearest poorhouse. I shall become infamous.”

“Lucia, why would you . . .”

“I have no particular interest in hurting you, Babbage. I never did. I can’t stand you, but that only makes you irrelevant—not an enemy. You’re no fun. What I can’t stand about you is your fear.”

“My fear?”

“Of everything. You’re afraid of every single thing, Adelaide, and it makes me ill. Just physically, ethically, mentally ill. You fear men, you fear women, you fear leaving your house and you fear going home again, you fear finding a suitable staff, you fear boys and girls and fun and clothes and . . . It’s sickening. When I see you huffing down the road with those terrible children, you look no one in the eye. You speak only when spoken to. You dress like a debtor. You carry your life with you upon your back. I thought if I could make you like Max, you’d . . . I don’t know. You would wake up.”

“Lucia, your game bewilders me, I do confess it. Speak me plain, for I have work to do.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about. A person can look you in the eye and speak the truth, and you look for hidden agendas and secret panels and poison pinpricks. You’ve been this way since we were girls.”

Was it true? Was that the way she appeared? Adelaide supposed it would seem that way to an outsider. But she could hardly expect Lucia Mapp to believe the truth: That she simply and authentically preferred the company of Commonplace and her experiments to anything that lay outside the house. That it was not fear, but distaste.

“Lucia, you measure yourself against me, and you assume that because we are different, I must be deficient. But can you not imagine that perhaps we are simply different? Neither wiser, neither better?”

“I can believe that. I wouldn’t spend a second with that cretin Gerald if I believed otherwise, and neither would Rupert. But I know it’s not entirely true, because I know how dearly you love Sebastian. And Henry. And the children. It’s a half-truth, if anything. I’ve seen the way you look at Max. I know that you want him.”

“How can you, when I am unsure of that myself? Or of his aims?”

“Look here, Adelaide. It is of no consequence to me whether you believe me, or Willoughby, or the rest of your friends, or if you even believe that we exist at all. You might as well be a clockwork mind, or a brain in a jar. You look at us like specimens. But I am here to tell you that it does not matter: Your homely fears, your philosophical confusions and obfuscations, they signify nothing. At the end of things, which comes closer every minute, you will look back and you will see the path of your life. Do you want that girl to be a cringing swot, a spinster who loved and lost; or do you want to be strong enough to design your life to your own specifications? I assure you, I shall hate you either way. But you shouldn’t hate yourself.”

To her own specifications? She liked the sound of that.

But Lucia had known that she would. Hadn’t she?

“Lucia,” Adelaide said, as Lucia rose and fussed with her coat and gloves, “I believe you are a better friend than you know. Perhaps especially to your enemies. Thank you for your warning. I will take it into consideration.”

“I doubt you will, Babbage. He’ll be dead within the week. I swear it.”

She wondered if Lucia were serious, but decided it did not matter. Then she called Sebastian, readied the guest quarters, and announced to the children that they would have their new nanny that very night.

And that he played the drums.

 

Sebastian stamped his feet like a thoroughbred outside the renovated theatre. He wore a topcoat of some strange silk that changed color as it turned in the lights, and the cuffs of his dungarees dragged in the dust of the road. With him stood Henry, wearing his usual formal black and looking altogether more patient.

“Where are they? It’s damnably late already.”

Adelaide smiled past the screwdriver between her teeth, and continued making the final adjustments to some wires.

On a small table near the theatre’s doors sat Commonplace, drinking greedily from the building’s electricity. A small copper trail led from her quantum engines to the back panel of Sebastian’s clockwork, Nurse. Within her rib cage lay another quantum lump, which Adelaide had obtained at great cost. It sparkled like diamonds in coal.

COMMONPLACE, ARE WE READY?

The answer came, quick as anything.

WE’VE ALWAYS BEEN READY, DEAR ADA.

 

They could hear the twins round the corner before they saw them: Charlotte, thin as a wilding apple, always taller than her brother but now shooting skyward, wearing the black lace, striped stockings, and kohl she affected these days. Her hair was black as night. Darcy wore a blue-black military costume with epaulets and a waistcoat tight around his middle, clipping painfully along in shining, pointed shoes. And between them was Max Willoughby, one bag slung crossways on his chest and the shopping in his arms, looking nearly dead of exhaustion.

Max pecked her on the cheek and inspected the mechanics as the children milled about, poking at Henry and dancing gaily with Sebastian.

The mood was palpably electric. Lytton crowded round as Papa emerged, dressed as a carnival barker—his idea, as was the theme of his new entertainment complex—and sent his voice soaring.

“Step right up to the Magic Carnival! First night special entertainments, free to children and gentlefolk alike! Hear the sounds of wonder and of terror, brought to you by Babbage and Willoughby’s Independent Devices! Thrill to the . . . oh, bugger. Thrill to the sounds of, well, other terrors, and miscellaneous wonders! Watch our organist befuddled! Take in the majesty of one man’s beloved livelihood, now wasting in attrition, given over to flash-in-the-pan amusements and willful daughters!”

“And midnight drum solos!” cheered Darcy. They all giggled.

“And fusty old science ladies, blowing up the place!” Charlotte added. Her color was high.

The gathered crowd tittered to themselves, as the family’s outrageous arrangement had been their greatest diversion for the past year. So long, in fact, that it had become altogether comfortable.

“I shall never marry you,” Adelaide whispered, and Max chuckled warmly in her ear.

“Ada, I should like you less if you did. But I do hope, now that it’s official, you will let me move into the house proper.”

“Max, if this works, I’ll move you to the front-side bedroom.”

He nodded glumly, still at play. “It does face the street . . .”

“And it’s right next to mine,” she smiled, blushing at herself.

“Everything in its time,” Henry said quietly, as an equestrian might gentle his steed.

“But where is the champagne?” Sebastian shouted, and it was produced.

 

Adelaide reached over to stroke the Commonplace Book one last time. Next to Nurse, and all her sisters that would follow, it seemed a lonely thing.

Henry released the fireworks. As they spun through the sky, and the collected strangers and friends gasped appreciatively, he reached back for Sebastian’s hand; and Max pulled Ada to him, and she went. And so it was that just as Willoughby kissed Adelaide—for the first time, really—and she responded in earnest, Nurse’s final spark was ignited.

And all the clockwork things of Lytton raised their voices in song.

 

“The Commonplace Book” copyright © 2012 Jacob Clifton

Art copyright © 2012 Allen Williams

This story is part of Steampunk Week 2012: index | next ›
10 comments
TamiLee
1. TamiLee
I loved this story! It was humorous in a tongue-in-cheek way that I really enjoyed. The language was wonderful as well. Thank you for sharing it with us.
Michael Roberts
2. Michael
Holy schemoley! Now that is how one writes a steampunk story!
Joanna Staebler-Kimmel
3. shadowsong
I have always wanted Jacob to write original stories. I'm absolutely thrilled to have the chance to read one at last!
TamiLee
4. Gilmoure
This. This is a great thing.
Jeremy Goff
6. JeremyM
I've never really read any steampunk stories. I've meant to, put just never got around to it. If there are more like this out there I will have to get my hands on them. This was a great story. It produced such great images in my head. Thanks for putting this up for us to enjoy!
TamiLee
7. SAwesome
A wonderful story, thank you for posting it!
TamiLee
9. Witnessaria
Dear Mr. Clifton,

I was compelled to write to you in regard to your delightful story published on the esteemed tor.com web site. Having often perused your literary creations, it was no surprise to me that this specimen was well worthy of my time.

As I sat rapt on the veranda of my local Starbucks, my verdigris goggles pressing my hair into outrageous displays that would no doubt have delighted wild Charlotte, I felt deep pity for the fine people surrounding me at the realization that they were not privy to the shining words displayed on my whirring iPhone, the words that made me chortle so (in a somewhat unladylike fashion I must admit).

Lady Babbage is a wondrous creation, a sensible and intelligent woman after my own heart, yet with an engaging generosity of spirit and zest for life that would make one quite envious if one encountered her in real life. (Separate from her siblings, that is.) I should be quite happy to read more of her diverting adventures in future, perhaps after she has tidily tucked her Maximillian away of an evening.

Do you find it exceedingly strange, sir, that I can so readily imagine your sartorially heterogeneous foursome flying high above the boroughs in a hot air balloon, seeking further stories to share with Commonplace? My mind does so enjoy such fancies.

One particular I do find perplexing, however. Do you really think it possible for magic lanterns or steam-brains to speak? I shudder to think what would happen were such a thing to come to pass in our world. My clockwork servant, Siri, is equipped with the latest steam-brain augmentation, and I'm quite certain, given a voice, she would sound quite presumptuous and accusatory, and speak more nonsense than sense.

Oh, dear, I find myself digressing quite shamefully. I do apologize.

Let me conclude by saying thank you, dear scribe, for this whimsy of sparkling dialogue, picturesque characters, and cheery plot. I shall be certain to recommend it highly within any time parameter.

My highest regards,
Lady Aria of Witness
TamiLee
10. A Union Reader
Great story. Best one I've read on this website to date. A most enjoyable read.
TamiLee
11. Finkle-McGraw
So, I just discovered this yesterday. Instantly printed it out, called my distant prince after work all like, "I need you to drink like three glasses of wine and call me for storytime."

Compliance being one of his virtues where storytime is involved, he overcame his skepticism at my description ("It's like... a joke sort of? About steampunk and people who are afraid of the internet, and Gen X/Y dissonance??") and settled in for the very best story-reading I think I've done in my short avocation. Anyway I think he's probably going to propose once I finish this one, so like xoxo!

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