Check out Fiendish Schemes, KW Jeter’s return to the steampunk world of Infernal Devices, available October 15th from Tor Books!
The world George Dower left when he went into hiding was significantly simpler than the new, steam-powered Victorian London, a mad whirl of civilization filled with gadgets and gears in the least expected places. After accepting congratulations for his late father’s grandest invention—a walking, steam-powered lighthouse—Dower is enticed by the prospect of financial gain into a web of intrigue with ominously mysterious players who have nefarious plans of which he can only guess.
If he can locate and make his father’s Vox Universalis work as it was intended, his future, he is promised, is assured. But his efforts are confounded by the strange Vicar Stonebrake, who promises him aid, but is more interested in converting sentient whales to Christianity—and making money—than in helping George. Drugged, arrested, and interrogated by men, women, and the steam-powered Prime Minister, Dower is trapped in a maelstrom of secrets, corruption, and schemes that threaten to drown him in the chaos of this mad new world.
In Which a Grand Enterprise Sets Forth
Affords there a sight more evocative of joy and triumph than the sun upon the sea? If my weary, battered heart responded thus, how much more inspiring it must be to those younger than I, whose hopes and desires still course strong within their unbowed forms.
“Does this aspect lay hold upon your imagination?” My companion spoke expansively, as might have befitted the commander of a navy’s grand flagship, however landbound his actual vessel. “My understanding was that you are of London born and bred. A man of the city; surely the promenades of Mayfair and the dome of St. Paul’s are more to your liking.”
“I have learned to appreciate the rural life.” Standing at the great curved windows of the lighthouse’s cockpit, I swirled the dregs of claret in my glass. “It is a somewhat quieter, more contemplative existence I lead now, than any of which you might have heard rumour.”
The same wine reddened Captain Crowcroft’s visage, so much admired by the distaff readership of the broadsheets hawked throughout the land. “I expect so,” he replied before turning his gaze from me, out toward the same vista that had momentarily brightened my thoughts. Churning waves threw themselves upon the sharp-edged rocks of the coast of Cornwall; gale winds caught the upflung spray, streaming mist along the southwestern extremities of the British mainland. The fancy caught me—I confess myself unused to this extent of imbibing—that the daylit ghosts of drowned sailors had been resurrected from their watery graves, as though the lighthouse were some luminous Saviour newly arrived amongst them. Now they swirled about and dispersed to air, haunting no longer the tides and stones that had ripped open the bellies of storm-driven ships, filling their crews’ mouths with brine. No more, no bluidy more, those coarse-voiced angels seemed to chorus above the ocean’s heaving ostinato. No more sodden, tattooed corpses washing up on the strand; no more bales undone, crates pried open, salvage fingered and value estimated by Cornwall’s eager wreckers. A twist of a hissing stopcock and Newton’s Fiat Lux would be cast to the damp horizon, the lighthouse’s beam spangled over those crests that even now gleamed as sun-coppered as a victorious army’s upraised shields.
“This is magnificent.” The words stumbled over my wineleadened tongue. I looked away from the sight that had inspired such lofty meditations, as unfamiliar to me as the expensive vintages that had filled my glass, one after another. “How I envy you—”
“Indeed, Mr. Dower? How so?”
I blinked in confusion. Instead of Captain Crowcroft’s face, with its rectilinear jaw and brow as unfurrowed as that of Grecian statuary, I found myself gazing—once I had tilted my sightline down a bit—into a mustachioed assemblage of red-mapped nasal veins and eyes rheumy with indulgence.
“Excuse me.” I managed to recognize the host of the launch party to which I had been invited. “I seem to have mislaid the course of my thoughts—”
“Never you mind, old boy.” Hooking a broad thumb in the sleevehole of his waistcoat, Lord Fusible clapped his other hand on my shoulder with sufficient force to embed a row of boltheads into my opposite ribs. Pinned between the iron window frame and my gregarious interlocutor, I endured his ripely alcoholic breath. “’Tis not a moment for thinking—your father was man enough for all that! We’re the fortunate heirs to his genius. Our task is but to celebrate!”
“You’re too kind.” Above his balding head, I could see over to where Captain Crowcroft had enlisted about himself the party’s female regiment, their sly chatter and admiring, lash-fringed glances obviously more congenial than my ruminations. “In a construct such as this—” Fortunately my glass was empty as I indicated the lighthouse’s bridge with a wide sweep of my hand. “My father’s contribution is, you must admit, only a small fraction of an ambitious sum.”
Fusible nodded, lower lip jutting out in approval of my familial modesty. “Nevertheless.” He raised a spatulate finger in front of my eyes. “An essential contribution.”
“I appreciate your saying as much.” A few of the women had overheard the braying compliment—in the circular confines of the bridge, it would have been impossible not to—and directed a mute, mildly curious enquiry toward me. “Of course, the only thing I might have appreciated even more—”
My tongue tasted salt as I bit my lip, sealing the words behind it. The wine had seemingly ebbed far enough in my brain to restore a degree of circumspection to my speech. It would have been rash to point out to Lord Fusible that the limited corporation he headed had not yet seen fit to honour my father’s memory with a cash payment to his son, for the use of whatever clever device had been posthumously fitted to the lighthouse’s navigational systems. From my previous encounters with the wealthy and powerful, I knew the delicacy with which they needed to be approached on all matters remunerative. One of the fond conceits of those with a lavishment of money is to imagine that all whom they encounter love them for themselves alone.
“And that’s why you’re here with us today!” Fusible’s bullish enthusiasm allowed little notice of whatever I might have said or not said. He grabbed my arm with both his hands and tugged me toward the center of the bridge. “Make way,” he shouted, “for the guest of honor!” The fashionable crowd parted for us as though the others were a glittering Red Sea and Fusible a Moses with a single strolling Israelite to ferry from Migdol to Baal-zephon.
“This is an excellent spot.” Fusible turned me about in front of the intimidating devices at the rear of the bridge, a thicket of polished brass levers and pipes, the latter branching and connecting at all angles, seemingly for no other purpose than to confuse the eye and intimidate the mind. A constellation of gauges surrounded me, the red needles quivering and darting across the numbered dials like the slender beaks of hummingbirds. “Ladies and gentlemen— distinguished officers of Phototrope Limited—if I may request your indulgence…”
The jumbled conversations dwindled to murmurs, then silence. All faces turned toward us, the motion distressingly similar to that of an artillery battalion directing its cannons toward its target.
“So good of you to take the time,” cooed a female voice at my side. Lady Fusible was of even more diminutive stature than her husband, but possessed of one of those intimidating bosoms upon which a diamond necklace rested as horizontal as though displayed upon a jeweler’s velvet cushion. She took my arm in both her kidgloved hands. “Your invitation was my idea, you know.”
“Oh.” I gave a nod, unsure as to what other noise I should make. “Very kind of you.”
Lord Fusible pressed on: “I believe none would disagree with me…” He arched his back, presumably to expand his lungs for full stentorian effect. “That the limits of Man’s creativity have been reached, here and now in our good Victoria’s reign.” I could see a slip of paper tucked inside his jacket cuff, with minutely scrawled prompts upon it. “For proof of that assertion, one need but look around oneself!” The paper assumed its own fluttering trajectory as Fusible cast his arms wide. “That of which men have dreamt… men have conceived… or invented…” Without his aide-mémoire, now lying like a dead moth at the toe of his boot, he wandered past the vaguely recalled signposts of his speech, before abandoning the path altogether. “Whatever they damn well did,” blustered Fusible, “we’ve done it even better, with this ungodly great thing! Cost a packet, too, I can tell you.”
“Hear, hear,” murmured a Phototrope Limited officer, with the hunched back and spidery fingers of one who kept account ledgers.
“Of course, we’ll make a packet on it as well.” Behind the twin apertures in his amply padded face, Lord Fusible’s eyes glistened with a piratical twinkle, as though he stood upon a galleon deck strewn with pound notes. “Our underwriters will be squealing with glee about that soon enough, I wager! Oh… just a moment…” He suddenly seemed to have recalled why he had dragged me up before his friends and business partners. “I’d like you to make the acquaintance of somebody who had absolutely nothing to do with any of this—but his father did. Clever bastard, from all I’ve heard of him. What did he invent?”
Another of the Phototrope Limited coterie spoke up. “The gyroscopic tourbillon. That bit’s his.”
“The deuce you say.” Fusible’s shoulders lifted in a shrug, indicating that he wouldn’t have known my father’s navigational device from a ditching spade. “Howsoever be it. Here’s Mr. George Dower, the son of that prodigy.”
A smattering of polite applause came from people who had no conception of whom they gazed upon and self-evidently cared less.
“Do say something.” Lady Fusible pushed me forward. “I know they’re all dying to hear you.”
I would rather have been cast down a tin flue to the bowels of the earth. But instead, I waited a few seconds, as though the clapping of hands had not already died away, then cleared my throat. “Your flattering attention, I must confess, seems a source of both pride and confusion to me. Pride, in that being connected, or being thought to be so, in any manner however ephemeral, with such an heroic enterprise as this—naturally one finds one’s blood stirring at even the prospect. Confusion, in that the certainty is manifest that there are many individuals other than myself, more suited to cast an encompassing reflection upon such an auspicious—”
“For God’s sake, man.” If I had no idea of what I was blathering on about—impromptu oratory had always been more of an occasion for panic than inspiration—then Lord Fusible had even less. He shook his head with such dismayed force that the surfeit of alcohol could almost be heard sloshing in his whiskered jowls. “Let’s just get on with it. Crowcroft! Damn it all, where’s Captain Crowcroft?”
Less chagrined than relieved by Fusible’s outburst, I watched as the crowd’s faces mercifully swung away from me, the guests searching in their own midst for the lighthouse’s commander. Who in fact had taken advantage of the momentary distraction afforded by my discomfiture and was now stationed at the far reach of the bridge, leaning with apparent fond attention over the fairest of the young women. It was the very scene of two lovers exchanging those foolish smiles and whispers, the words of which no doubt meant little more than the ones I had just spoken, but which obviously were more happily received. And while a beguiling blush tinged the young lady’s cheek at being so discovered, little if any impropriety could be imputed by even the most envious gossipers; she had been introduced to me as not just Lord and Lady Fusible’s daughter, but also Captain Crowcroft’s announced fiancée, Evangeline. Whatever advantage might accrue to him by marrying into the fortune that constructed the same lighthouses that he so famously helmed, it was surely outweighed in his thoughts by the girl’s swan-necked charm and delicate features. A fair brow made whiter by its frame of unruly brunette curls, she—while not as tall as he whose arm her hand lightly rested upon—still towered above her squatty parents. Indeed, the difference between generations gave credibility to the folkish tales of changeling infants, though in this case the Fusibles would seem to have done rather better in the exchange than was generally the case. Even in the heart of as resigned an old bachelor as myself, the sight of such a handsome affianced pair evoked a sweetly melancholic pang, the notion of all that might have happened in a more accommodating world, but that had instead passed me by.
“Do your job, man!” Lord Fusible shouted across the bridge. “Not that one! Get over here and put this beast in motion.”
Bearing a one-cornered smile, the self-congratulatory emblem of a man who had just been spotted in the company of an unusually pretty girl, Crowcroft made his way over to where we stood. Fusible stepped back and gestured at the incomprehensible levers. “Go to it,” he snapped.
Crowcroft reached for the greatest lever, an imposing construct of brass inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl, surmounted with an effigy of mythical Britannia, seated with a lion’s head in her lap. He hesitated, fingertips just short of the device, then turned toward me. “Perhaps you would be so kind, Mr. Dower?”
“I’m… not sure what’s required…”
“Just pull it forward.” He indicated the limited arc through which the lever would travel. “Nothing more than that.”
Warily, I wrapped both perspiring hands about it. I tugged, but nothing happened.
“Perhaps,” said Crowcroft, “with just a bit more force applied.”
I braced myself and, with teeth clenched, drew the lever toward my chest.
Not for the first time did I feel that awed sensation—half fear, half exhilaration—that comes with the unleashing of great machines. Many years ago, before all those events that had left me a broken and chastened man, I had fumbled about in the back room of my watchmaker’s shop in the London district of Clerkenwell, poking and prodding the mysterious assemblages that had been my father’s legacy to me. On rare occasion, I had even managed to set a few of their coiled mainsprings into life and had leapt back to avoid being snared by the sudden fury of intermeshing gears and cogs, spherical balance weights sweeping toward my head as though they were a schoolboy’s prankish conker made lethal by mass and velocity. Younger then, and not yet laden with grim experience to come, I would stand transfixed by the spectacle, as Galileo might have when first peering through his telescope at the similar workings of an unexplained Cosmos.
A subtle vibration transmitted itself through the lever’s gleaming surface. It grew stronger, traveling through the bones of my arms as I brought the brass goddess closer to me. At the same time, an excited murmur swept through the launch party’s attendees, as the bolted floor and walls shook about them. From below came the groaning of immense engines, roused from slumber. The shouts of the lighthouse crew could be heard on the tower’s lower decks, as they scurried to their duties, attendant upon the pistons sheathed in oil and the sharp-toothed gears they drove, larger and fiercer than the smouldering altars that Moloch’s ancient priests had fed with human sacrifice.
“That’s fine. Thank you very much.” The lever, unleashing such hidden but undeniable forces, had reached its lower stop. Captain Crowcroft managed to peel my white-knuckled grip from it. “I’ll take over from here.”
I stood back, my thoughts now more topsy-turvied than any amount of wine could have made them, and watched as the lighthouse’s commander set to work. The position of smaller controls he set precisely, as a violinist might trim his instrument’s tuning pegs by hair-thin degrees. Other levers appeared to be for the purpose of signaling both the engine room below and various other compartments of the lighthouse’s operations; Crowcroft rapidly pulled those back and forth to the toll of clanging bells, evoking further alterations in the mechanical noises emanating beneath the feet of the guests. His labours were assisted by a pair of subordinates clad in the redtrimmed livery of Phototrope Limited’s working legions. They set about monitoring the navigational apparatus’ well-being with ears laid to various sections of its brass-clad anatomy, then making subtle adjustments with the handspanners they wielded. The eldest of the bridge crew crouched near his commander, finessing care to a brace of reciprocating rods with a microscopic screwdriver and the spout of an oil-pump flexed between his thumb and forefinger.
“We’re off!” Lord Fusible barked his cry across the heads of the crowd.
“Not quite yet,” noted Crowcroft mildly. “First we need to deploy our basal extremities.” He turned back and set to work on another section of levers and gauges.
“This is a sight worth seeing! Come along!” Laying hold of my arm, Fusible dragged me over to the bridge’s windows, pushing aside those who had already positioned themselves at the most advantageous spots. “Have yourself a gander at that.”
As my host directed, I laid my forehead against the wind-chilled glass, the better to gaze down the length of the lighthouse tower. Around its base thronged an even larger congregation of merrymakers, comprising the residents of the local fishing villages, as well as a motlier assortment of layabouts and their disorderly wives and children, carted out at Phototrope Limited’s expense from the nearest towns. Plied with as much free beer as they could consume, down to the infants swaddled in their careless mothers’ arms, they had devolved into an army of riot, intent on flailing fisticuffs and as much public debauchery as the British in their cups could enact before falling headfirst in their own spew. The beflagged pavilion from which drink had been dispensed was already demolished, with various comatose or perhaps even deceased figures sprawled amongst the stoved-in hogsheads.
“Will those people be gone when it’s time for us to leave?” The thought of stepping from the lighthouse’s relative security into the midst of such a mob filled me with terror.
“What?” The scarcely more sober Fusible glared at me. “For God’s sake, man, concentrate! There—look there!”
Even as he spoke, Captain Crowcroft pulled a tapered wooden knob dangling from an arm of the machinery his men serviced. Gouts of steam burst from the pipe organ–like whistles that studded the lighthouse’s flanks. The discordant screeches were loud enough to draw the attention of even the most marginally conscious of the revelers on the ground. A squadron of police, too few to tamp down the rolling mayhem, set about with their truncheons, endeavouring to drive the crush away from the base of the tower.
“Well enough,” judged Fusible after a moment. “That lot can watch out for themselves.”
Our captain had made the same assessment. I could discern Crowcroft and his bridge crew, reflected in the window glass before me, throw a further set of levers. One such was so stiff and unwieldy that it required the efforts of two men, one pulling and the other ramming his shoulder against its length, to bring it to the desired position. The resulting increase in the transmitted vibration was enough to elicit quick screams from the female guests, as well as some of the more delicate men.
I might have been amongst the latter, had my breath not already been taken away by the sight below, of great iron appendages unfolding from beneath the base of the lighthouse. Details of such a walking lighthouse’s perambulatory operations had been explicated to me previously, and I had even perused a set of copper engravings arrayed along the tower’s central spiraling staircase that depicted such, but nothing had yet prepared me for the actuality of the event. The reader of these lines will, I hope, pardon my ignorance about such things that have become everyday occurrences for so many. During my self-imposed exile from the bustling modern world, my tranquility had been obtained at the price of becoming a relic from a previous age, where such marvels had not yet bestridden the captivated world.
Picture, then, if you have the patience, my wide-eyed apprehension of six bolted and hinged crescents of iron, widest where joined directly beneath the tower’s base, tapering to pointed claws yet bigger than a draughthorse where dug into the soil and rock. Other historians of this our mechanical age, blessed with more descriptive fluency than myself, have compared the construction to those crabs seen scuttling through shallow tidal pools, housing their tender parts inside the abandoned shells of other aquatic creatures, the spiraling points of such assumed habiliments wobbling above them like the awninged howdahs strapped to the backs of Indian elephants. If the spidered legs below had been fronted by a pair of eyes waggling on bristly stalks, the resemblance to such crustaceans would have been complete.
The bridge chamber tilted for a moment as the massive claws found purchase, digging a yard or more into the ground as they straightened and reared the tower’s weight from where it had rested. A few of the unsteadier guests were knocked sprawling into each other by the sudden motion, before Crowcroft and his men made the necessary adjustments to bring the lighthouse perfectly vertical again.
“Marvelous!” Lord Fusible enthused beside me, as though he himself had lifted the tower into air. “Bloody marvelous!”
Below, roiling clouds pushed the hysterical roisterers farther back, as though they were in danger of being scalded by the exhaust from the lighthouse’s engines. The pistons and gimbaled rods—thicker about than century oaks—that formed the legs’ motive anatomy, glistened in the sunlight. One by one, each claw lifted in precise order and fell again, thunderously penetrating the earth a little farther on. Thus did the device, with myself bracing to keep balance far above, begin its ponderous trek to the sea’s edge.
Of course, Phototrope Limited could have stationed their latest venture at its destination to begin with, rather than a quarter mile inland. But by doing so, the corporation’s officers would have deprived themselves of the lusty cheers of the groundling onlookers, the crowd now completely enthralled by this armless giant lumbering onward in their midst. I knew how little ever happened in such remote parishes. A break in the soul-numbing monotony such as this would no doubt be sung and storied for generations to come, if for no other reason than the epic quantity of free beer that had accompanied it.
With the more incapacitated straggling behind, the lighthouse led the shouting parade toward a typically craggy Cornish promontory. As Captain Crowcroft steered his landbound vessel past a bend in its path, I was able to lay the corner of my brow against the window glass and peer back whence the lighthouse had progressed. In the middle of the holes gouged by the iron claws, a segmented pipe— greater in diameter than a man’s height—trailed behind, steam hissing from its joints. Such was another of the day’s sights, common enough to those who had stayed au courant with innovation and discovery, but not seen before by me.
“I hope you have found this excursion to be of interest.”
Turning from the window, I saw that the lighthouse’s commander had left his station and joined us.
“Exceedingly,” I replied. “I had no idea.”
Crowcroft laughed, finding my simple words to be praise greater than a thousand orators might have summoned. “Take a degree of credit for yourself,” he said, “or at least your lineage. I have skill enough to steer this craft to its port, but its workings are far beyond my comprehension. Not the least of which is that devised by your father, hidden away though it might be.”
I nodded, having heard similar before, though never to my comfort.
“If you’ll excuse me—” Crowcroft reached past me to a latched compartment mounted beneath the window. “This is a tricky bit.”
He opened the compartment and I perceived a set of levers inside, similar in arrangement to those manned behind us, though lesser in scale. With an eye on the rugged seascape ahead, Crowcroft began a series of delicate adjustments.
The fury of the waves dashing against the rocks kept the straggling crowd at a respectful distance, watching as the lighthouse picked its way over the seaweed-festooned boulders. What had been felt as tolerable rocking and swaying amongst those of us on the bridge, while the lighthouse had crept over level ground, now transmuted to a harsher jostling. That, combined with the sight of the watery horizon, turned green some of our party’s faces, as though their bearers were trapped aboard an actual ship heaving from crest to trough.
Captain Crowcroft at last brought the lighthouse to its appointed berth, a great angled outcropping the width of the tower’s base. The iron legs, having transported their burden this far, now grappled the stone, splitting apart its brine-soaked crevices until the claws were so embedded that no storm tide could have swept us from this perch.
“That should do.” Crowcroft signaled to his men, who began returning the various levers and controls to their starting positions. The last, the one that my own hands had been set upon, was brought upright again, the lighthouse shuddering with the expulsion of pressure from its boilers. As one who tires from strenuous exertions, the tower settled into its resting place. The sheer tonnage of its construction deflected the rocky promontory by a few degrees, the bridge’s floor once comfortably leveled as Captain Crowcroft tapped the controls with a gentle fingertip.
The clouds of steam were vast enough to momentarily occlude the bridge’s windows. All was at peace once more. Wind dissipated the white mist, the long roll of the breakers the only sound that came to our ears. As the ocean lapped at the tower’s base, I brought my face close to the windows again, looked up, and saw the sentinel gulls wheeling in the purpling sky, heralds to this prodigy that Man’s craft and cleverness had erected amongst them.
“Would it be inopportune of me—I realize, of course, that you have weightier matters to attend—but might I enquire as to whether you’ve had a moment to consider the subject of our previous conversation?”
Lord Fusible peered at me, as those do whose memories as well as vision are befogged with intemperance. But desperation had prompted me to put my question to him. As one such as I had but rare occasion to enter his lordship’s concentric circles of power and influence, I had no idea as to when a similar opportunity for supplication might arise.
“Arrhghmm.” With a deep phlegmy rattle, Fusible cleared his throat. “Much to consider. Much to consider, my dear chap.” He nodded, sinking his chin into the wattle of fat protruding above his collar. “But you can be assured—with every confidence—that those matters of which we spoke…” He swayed a bit, as though bringing forth words from his sotted brain were an effort epic in scope. “Soon as I get back to London—the absolute soonest I arrive, I promise you—all of that will receive my undivided attention. Have no fear.”
Naturally, every fear rushed upon me, at least in regard to receiving any assistance from Lord Fusible and his Phototrope Limited partners. I could see that Fusible now had not the faintest idea who I was, and even when eventually sober, would have no greater idea then. Having been paraded before his guests at the lighthouse’s launch party, I had concluded my usefulness to him. This was not the first time I had opportunity for the morose reflection that wealth so elevates men, that the rest of their species appears to them but as ants scuttling about on the ground. Indeed, Lord Fusible could have had no more withering and dismissive a regard for me if he were still ensconced in the bridge of the lighthouse, now looming above us.
Those for whom he did have a use were his personal attendants, now draping a fur-collared cloak about his shoulders. The Atlantic wind, that had so picturesquely lofted spray above the rocks, bitterly sliced through my own unseasonal coat. A thread of scarlet at the horizon marked the sun’s last diminishment and the advent of night. I would have a bone-chilling trek back to the seaside inn that was my temporary abode, without even the spark of hope to warm me.
Only a few carriages were left on the narrow dirt road, a few yards from the coastal rocks. As the lighthouse’s beam swept across the ocean, I could hear Fusible’s wife snoring inside the gilt-andlacquered brougham that had carried them hence and would return them to the urbane comforts that constituted that life to which their bank accounts had accustomed them. Their other guests had already departed, their transports ferrying them past the prostrate figures of villagers sleeping off the effects of their merriment. I had dallied to the last, specifically for the purpose of these few and useless words. Now, as Lord Fusible was assisted in clambering into his conveyance, I brought my gaze up to the lighthouse tower’s topmost point.
Above its bridge, other crew concerned themselves with the operation of the light-casting apparatus. They appeared to me as moths, shortly to be consumed by the dazzling glare of the flames magnified by the curved reflector mirror behind and focused by the immense Fresnel lens before them.
Shielding my eyes with an uplifted hand, I caught a glimpse of the lighthouse’s commander. The cheering party having gone, Captain Crowcroft set his profile and narrowed his vision, looking out from the bridge to the world’s farthest reaches, as might one who had planted the flag of Empire amongst savages and deserts of barren stone.
Behind me, I heard the snap of the carriage driver’s whip, bringing about the matched pair of horses and setting them toward the Fusibles’ destination. But there had been two carriages, I knew, and the second had not stirred.
I glanced over my shoulder. Sufficient moonlight slid from behind the night clouds that I could recognize Lord Fusible’s daughter, Evangeline, a knotted shawl wrapped about her shoulders, leaning forward from where she sat. She also gazed up toward the height of the tower, her gaze fervent upon the distant visage of her fiancé.
No surprise, that she should display such tender concern for the man to whom she had given her heart—
What struck me with dismaying force, though, was the expression she displayed to me, when she saw that I still remained, only partially obscured by the roadside shadows.
Rarely have I been the recipient of admiring glances from young women, especially the beautiful amongst them, but not before this had such an eye-slitted mask of pure loathing been tossed my way. The girl Evangeline’s features tightened as she gazed upon me with murderous contempt. Indeed, if the force of such hatred-fueled regard had been transmuted into an actual weapon, I would have been struck down, a dagger through my heart.
I could not breathe, until she gave a quiet command to her driver. My heart still pounding from this unexpected event, I watched as the carriage vanished down the road.
Of the cause of such disdain, I had no idea. I had scarce exchanged more than half a dozen words with the young lady, upon being introduced to her at the commencement of the launch party. My life might have been such that many have wished me ill, but never upon such short acquaintance as this.
Perhaps it was an omen, and no more than the world’s general assessment of my worth. I turned away from the lighthouse and began making my way along the path upon which I had come that morning. Seeking some advantage from Lord Fusible and his friends had always been but an alternate plan, a wistful and idle hope. Once I had returned to the inn at which I was staying, I could set about with an unencumbered conscience on the course which I had already determined. To wit, that of killing myself with a merciful bullet to the head.
Fiendish Schemes © K W Jeter, 2013