Arabella of Mars: Chapter 2

A plantation in a flourishing 18th century British colony on Mars is home to Arabella Ashby, a young woman who is perfectly content growing up in the untamed frontier. But days spent working on complex automata with her father or stalking her brother Michael with her Martian nanny is not the proper behavior of an English lady. That is something her mother plans to remedy with a move to an exotic world Arabella has never seen: London, England.

However, when events transpire that threaten her home on Mars, Arabella decides that sometimes doing the right thing is far more important than behaving as expected. She disguises herself as a boy and joins the crew of the Diana, a ship serving the Mars Trading Company, where she meets a mysterious captain who is intrigued by her knack with clockwork creations. Now Arabella just has to weather the naval war currently raging between Britain and France, learn how to sail, and deal with a mutinous crew…if she hopes to save her family remaining on Mars.

Arabella of Mars, the debut novel by Hugo-winning author David D. Levine offers adventure, romance, political intrigue, and Napoleon in space—available July 12th from Tor Books. Read chapter two below, or head back to the beginning with chapter one.

 

 

2
An Uncomfortable Dinner

 

Five weeks later, Arabella arrived at Chester Cottage, the home of her cousin Simon Ashby in Oxfordshire. She stepped from her carriage, handed down by William the footman, and was greeted by Simon and his wife Beatrice.

Simon, a barrister, was a nervous man, thin and pale, with watery eyes and light brown hair worn a bit longer than the current fashion, but as he was her only living relative on her father’s side of the family she felt quite tenderly toward him. “We were so very sorry to hear of your loss,” he said.

“He was a very good man,” Arabella replied, “and I miss him dearly.” She blinked away tears.

The last five weeks had been very hard. Even though Father’s passing, so distant in time as well as space, had not affected the family in any immediate or practical sense, the loss had affected Arabella greatly. Inconsolable, she had taken to her bed for days at a time, refusing food, water, and solace.

Beatrice, a plump girl with tiny hands, offered Arabella a handkerchief. “When your mother wrote to us of the depth of your grief,” she said, “offering our humble home for a brief respite was the least we could do.”

“I thank you for your kindness, and I extend my mother’s thanks as well.” Arabella took a deep breath and looked about herself. Chester Cottage was, indeed, quite humble, and rather far removed from town, but it was at least a fresh locale lacking any memories for Arabella.

Every thing at Marlowe Hall reminded her of her loss. Whenever she managed to forget for a moment that her father had passed away, she would immediately catch a glimpse of Fanny all in black, or the shrouded mirrors, or the black mourning wreath that hung over the front door, and grief would come flooding back.

Even the automaton harpsichord player, the one thing that had kept her sane in the last few months, now served only to remind her of her father. The very sight of it brought tears to her eyes.

Arabella shook her head, dispelling the memory. “I suppose I should also extend my condolences to you,” she said. “He was, after all, your uncle.”

“You are too kind,” Simon said, and bowed his head. But his expression, Arabella thought, was rather sour, and she wondered at this.

They led Arabella into the cottage and introduced her to infant Sophie, their firstborn, who was not yet two months old. en they showed Arabella the room which would be hers during her stay. It was small and rather shabbily furnished, in keeping with the rest of the house, and as her things were brought in from the carriage Arabella could not help but notice that the Ashbys of Chester Cottage had only a single servant, an elderly maid-of-allwork called Jane.

But, despite the meanness of her cousins’ circumstances, they had offered her hospitality, and there was nothing here to remind her of her father. Arabella determined to be grateful for the opportunity to rest her battered spirit.

“If you don’t mind, Miss Ashby,” William said to Arabella once she was settled, “I’d best be returning home straight away.” It had been a lengthy journey, and even with the long summer days he would need to set off immediately in order to return to Marlowe Hall in time for Sunday supper.

“By all means, William. I wish you a safe journey home, and look forward to seeing you again in two weeks.”

* * *

At dinner that afternoon, after Jane had taken away the bowls from the rather thin and unsatisfactory soup, Beatrice said, “I believe we shall go berry-picking upon the morrow. Would you care to join us? It will be little Sophie’s first such occasion.”

At the mention of his infant daughter, to Arabella’s surprise, Simon’s face clouded. Surely this reminder of the recent addition to his family should raise his spirits, not lower them?

“Is berry-picking a suitable activity for small children?” Arabella asked, not certain how to interpret her host’s sudden change of emotion.

Beatrice smiled. “She will not be taking an active part, to be sure; she will simply be carried along, to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.”

Arabella ran a finger under the scratchy cuff of her stiff mourning costume. Even her favorite dresses had been taken away by her father’s death, for Venusian silk did not accept dye. They had all been replaced by heavy, rustling outfits of black bombazine, more suitable for mourning but exceedingly uncomfortable. “Forgive me my ignorance. It is not a thing I have done before.”

Beatrice tilted her head inquiringly. “Do they not have berries on Mars?”

“Not as such. We have khula, which I suppose you would consider a fungus, and gethown, which is a tuber… they are quite sweet and succulent, but they must be dug up, not picked from a vine.” For a moment Arabella lost herself in memory, recalling happy days with her beloved Michael, digging khula together with pail and shovel.

She wondered, as she often did, what Michael might be doing at this very moment. Most likely he was engaged in some serious activity, directing the harvest or balancing the accounts, as befitted the head of the family. He would attain his majority in just a few months; until then his godfather Mr. Trombley, the family solicitor and a dependable man of sober stolidity, would act as his legal guardian.

No one doubted that Michael was entirely capable of managing the Ashby household and plantations as well as his father had done, but still she worried about him. He must be overwhelmed by his new responsibilities, as well as torn with grief from his father’s loss. How she wished she could be with him now, to comfort and aid him in this difficult time!

“Mr. Ashby and I met while picking berries,” Beatrice said, interrupting Arabella’s thoughts. “Perhaps you will be as fortunate.” She smiled and inclined her head coquettishly. “There are many eligible bachelors in Oxfordshire.…”

“Heavens no!” Arabella gasped, then immediately regretted her outburst. “That is… I mean to say… I am sure you are very happy together, but I… I have no interest in male companionship at this time.”

“Truly?” Beatrice replied with unfeigned astonishment. Simon, Arabella noted, was silent and still appeared distracted. “I have never heard before of a healthy girl of seventeen years being uninterested in the other sex. Are you already engaged, then?”

Arabella frowned and shook her head.

“But what of your sisters? They will require you to introduce them into society.”

“I am keenly aware of this.” Arabella sighed. “Ever since my father’s passing, my mother has made it abundantly clear that I am to be married as soon as possible, for my sisters’ sake if not my own. But every suitor she has presented to me has been… entirely unsuitable.” The best young men England had to offer were, it seemed, barely comparable to her most ordinary acquaintances on Mars, and could not begin to hold a candle to her brother. Vapid empty-headed dandies the lot of them, knowing nothing of any thing beyond horses and hunting, lacking in any spirit of adventure, and completely uninterested in automata, astronomy, or any other thing of importance. “I suppose that I must be married eventually, but I cannot imagine to whom.”

“La!” Beatrice fanned herself. “You Martian girls are so headstrong!”

Arabella smiled wryly at the observation. “If you were to ask my mother, my upbringing on Mars has completely ruined me for polite society.” She grimaced as she recalled the many whispered conversations she’d overheard between her parents late at night, her mother calling her a “wild child” and demanding to take her, Fanny, and Chloë back to Earth to prevent her sisters turning out as she had. Mother had prevailed in that argument, in the end, and Arabella supposed that she would eventually have her way in this one as well. “Truly, I am not suited for England. How I wish I could return to the land of my birth!”

At this Simon finally joined in the conversation. “I cannot imagine pining for Mars,” he said. “It seems a horrid place, cold and dry and crawling with those dreadful natives.”

“I would much rather be there than England,” Arabella countered. “It is so warm and damp all the time here, and every thing is so impossibly heavy! And I find the soil unbearably filthy, unlike the clean dry sand found on so much of Mars. The first time I saw an earthworm I was horriffied.”

Simon seemed about to reply with some heat, but Beatrice stayed him with a meaningful glance. “Have you ever met a Martian native?” she asked Arabella brightly.

“Oh, yes. I was practically raised by Martians! My nanny, or itkhalya as we call them, was a Martian named Khema.”

Simon frowned even more deeply. “A great crab as a nanny? Surely it would rouse up nightmares in the child.”

“It is an insult to compare a Martian to a crab,” Arabella snapped. But when she saw the shocked expression on Beatrice’s face at her outburst, she realized that once again she had committed a faux pas. English manners were so very easily bruised! “However,” she continued in an attempt at conciliation, “now that I have seen a crab, I must agree that there is some slight resemblance around the eyes and mouth-parts, and like the crab Martians are covered in a hard carapace. But Martians do not scuttle about in such a lowly fashion as the Earth crab; they stand tall, as we do, and like us they have but two arms and two legs. And they are as possessed of intellect, morals, and judgement as we.” She stared out the window at the clear blue sky, remembering. “What adventures we had together!”

As well as her duties of care, protection, and companionship, which she had always performed without fault, Khema had educated Arabella and Michael in Martian culture, history, geography, and all the practical arts. Many days and not a few nights had been spent in the trackless desert, learning how to find one’s way, identifying edible plants and animals, and springing ambushes upon each other.

Arabella loved Khema dearly, but she often wondered if she might still be on Mars if her itkhalya had demanded less of her. After Arabella had fallen into the gorosh-shrub, she and her sisters had departed for Earth within the month, leaving Michael behind as his father’s assistant.

“So you speak their language?” Beatrice said, interrupting Arabella’s reminiscences.

Arabella blinked away memories and returned her attention to her cousin. “You say that as though there were only one Martian language. They have their nations, clans, and tribes just as we do, each with its own language or dialect. I did learn to speak a few words of my itkhalya’s tribal language, though it is frightfully difficult for us to make the kh sound properly. But most Martians who work with Englishmen speak quite passable English.”

“How wonderful it must be,” said Simon in a bitter tone, “to have so many Martian servants at your beck and call.”

“I consider Khema more of a friend and companion than a servant,” Arabella replied. “It is true that she was in my family’s employ, but the bond between us was quite sincere and affectionate.”

“Money,” Simon shot back with a resentful tone, “can create the appearance of affection.”

At that statement, Arabella noticed that Beatrice’s face fell momentarily into rueful contemplation. But then she brightened— albeit somewhat artificially—and said, “I am sure your nanny’s tender feelings were entirely genuine. But what of the male of the species? I have heard that Martian warriors are fierce and savage.”

“Though war is a frequent occurrence between the Martian nations,” Arabella replied, “there has been peace between Martians and English for many years. In any case,” she continued with a small smile, “among the Martians, it is the females who are the warriors.” Simon and Beatrice both expressed shock and disbelief at this. “I swear to you that what I say is true,” Arabella reassured them. “The Martian female is larger and more powerful than the male, and—though the English often refuse to believe this—Martians consider the female to be more suitable by temperament to the warrior’s life. Indeed, my own itkhalya is well known among her people as a strategist.” To herself, Arabella reflected that this was one of the ways in which Martian culture was superior to that of the English. Sometimes she even thought that, if she had no alternative but to be born female, she would rather have been a Martian.

At that moment Sophie, in the next room, began to wail and fuss, and Beatrice excused herself to tend to her. Arabella, seeing an opportunity to converse with her in private, excused herself as well.

Once Sophie’s immediate needs had been tended to and Beatrice had begun to rock and comfort the child, Arabella seated herself on the sofa next to her. “Forgive me if I am being impertinent,” she said, “but I cannot help but notice that Mr. Ashby seems… rather vexed. I hope that my presence here is not a burden to you.”

Beatrice gazed contemplatively out the window for a time before replying. “I am afraid that your father’s recent passing has revived old grudges about the estate.”

“How so?”

“I gather he resents that his father did not receive a share of the inheritance when your grandfather died.”

Arabella placed a hand upon her bosom. “Let me assure you that it was not my father’s choice, nor my grandfather’s, to do so. ey both loved my late uncle, Mr. Ashby’s father, dearly, but the estate is entailed.… It must pass entirely and without division to the eldest son.”

“And thus it passes now to your brother Michael, and again we are left with nothing.” Mrs. Ashby’s voice was more resigned than aggrieved.

“If there were any thing I could do…”

“It is the way of the world, I suppose.” Beatrice sighed. “I am sure that he will be much more himself in the morning. We will pick strawberries together, and all will be well.”

By now Sophie had drifted off, burbling contentedly in her sleep, and Beatrice laid her down in her crib. She and Arabella returned to the dining table, where Simon sat staring off into space and drumming his fingers on the table’s edge.

The two women seated themselves, with apologies for the interruption, and without a word Simon began to carve the roast. Arabella received her portion with thanks, but after she had eaten the first few bites she was forced to deposit a large lump of gristle on the side of her plate.

Though she had done it as discreetly as possible, the act did not escape Simon’s notice. “I must beg your pardon for the quality of the roast,” he said, quite testily. “I know that your side of the family is accustomed to ner fare, but this is the best possible under the circumstances.”

Beatrice gave him a withering look, then with a rather forced smile turned to Arabella. “Tell us about your voyage from Mars,” she said. “How did you survive the absence of gravity and atmosphere?”

Arabella sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. The scientific ignorance of English women, and most of the men as well, was appalling, but as her mother had repeatedly cautioned her, expressing her true opinion of her cousin’s lack of knowledge would be a gross breach of etiquette. “It is merely a common misperception,” she explained, “that there is no gravity between planets. The sun’s gravity is quite substantial, even as far out as Mars. But the ship is in orbit, you see, which means that she is circling the sun at exactly the same rate she falls toward it, so that those aboard the ship do not feel any gravitational attraction. We call this a state of free descent.” Beatrice’s vacant smile told Arabella that her words were falling on stony ground, and she resolved to simplify her account still further. “And as to the atmosphere, although the interplanetary atmosphere is… of different composition from that of Earth or Mars, I assure you it is entirely breathable and quite healthful.”

“That is… fascinating,” Beatrice said, blinking rapidly. “But do go on. Did you see wind-whales, or asteroids? Were you attacked by pirates?”

“We were fortunate enough to avoid pirates, as well as the French navy. As to the rest, I am afraid there is little to tell.” She took another careful bite of her roast. “I spent most of the journey in my cabin.”

She did not confess the reason for this, which was that her mother had kept her forcibly confined there for almost the entire voyage—at first to prevent Arabella from attempting to escape the ship and return to Mars, and later, or so she had said, to protect her from the unwelcome attentions of the airmen.

“Surely you cannot have spent the entire time in your cabin? Does the trip not take a year or more?”

“ at depends upon the positions of the planets.” Arabella paused, then pointed to her place setting. “Suppose my dinner-plate is the sun, and my bread-plate the Earth. My wine-glass, then, would be Mars; both orbit around the sun, but Mars is further away than Earth, do you see?” She picked up her glass in her right hand and held it above her lap so that the glass and the two plates were all in a line, with the large plate between the small plate and the glass. “Now, when Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the sun, as you see here, the trip does take well over a year, and because of the expense and difficulty very few ships undertake it. We call this ‘conjunction.’” She shifted her wine-glass to her left hand and set it down just beyond her bread-plate, so that the glass and the two plates were again in a line, but this time with the small plate between the glass and the large plate. “But when the two planets are on the same side of the sun—we call this ‘opposition’— they are much closer together, and the voyage from one to the other takes as little as two months. is is our situation at the moment, as it happens.”

Suddenly Simon brightened, taking a keen interest in the conversation for the first time. “Two months, do you say?”

But Beatrice appeared puzzled. “Why is it that when the planets are far apart it is called ‘conjunction,’ but when they are close it is ‘opposition’? is seems contrary.”

“It is because of Mars’s position in Earth’s sky—a rather parochial point of view, in my opinion. Conjunction is so called because Mars and the sun are very close to each other in the sky when seen from Earth; at opposition, they are on opposite sides of the sky.”

But Simon seemed uninterested in details of astronomy. “You say that few ships will undertake the long voyage because of the expense. Is the cost of passage on the short voyage more… reasonable?”

“Oh, yes! Much more so.” is, as it happened, was a subject very close to Arabella’s heart. Ever since her arrival at Marlowe Hall, whenever a newspaper should happen to fall into her hands she eagerly perused the shipping news, taking especial note of ships accepting passengers to Mars. Though the expense was, of course, very far beyond her means, she eagerly drank in every detail, stoking her impossible fantasies of running away to London and returning to the land of her birth. “At the moment one could take passage for as little as two hundred pounds.”

“Two hundred pounds!” gasped Beatrice.

“Two hundred pounds… ,” mused Simon.

“The accommodations at that price would be Spartan, to be sure, but with so many ships departing at this time, you would find no difficulty in obtaining a berth.”

The conversation went on in that vein for some time—Arabella being amazed, once again, by the degree to which most Englishmen were ignorant of even basic astronomy—but only Beatrice participated, Simon having again fallen silent and pensive. His gristly roast lay untouched upon his plate, and he stared at it with pursed lips and tense shoulders.

Suddenly, with only the briefest of courtesies, he rose and excused himself from the table. Beatrice’s eyes followed his retreating back with an expression of deep concern.

“I…” Arabella stammered. “Have I said something improper?”

“I do not believe so. He has been more than usually troubled these last few days, but I know not what might be the matter.”

The two women ate their dinner in silence for a time, while various sounds of motion and activity echoed down the hall. Beatrice became increasingly anxious as Simon’s absence lengthened, and finally she excused herself to see what might be keeping him.

Alone at the table, Arabella was left to examine her dinner-plate, bread-plate, and wine-glass, which sat where she had left them at the end of her astronomical disquisition.

The bread-plate and wine-glass were so very close together.…

Suddenly she had a frightful thought. Casting aside all she had learned of the courtesies a guest should extend to her hosts, she rose from the table and followed the sound of voices in hushed and urgent conversation to Simon and Beatrice’s bedroom.

There she found Simon frantically cramming clothing into a valise, which lay open on the bed between him and Beatrice. The valise also contained a pair of silver candlesticks, a silver tureen, and a collection of cutlery.

“Wherever could you be going in such a frightful hurry?” Arabella said, though she feared she knew the answer. “And with the family silver?”

Simon looked up, his eyes wide and staring. “How dare you intrude upon us in our bedchamber!” His attitude, however, was more suited to one who had been surprised in the midst of a shameful activity than to one offended by an intrusion.

“I could not bear the thought of letting you depart without giving you my best regards. Might this have any thing to do with the relative positions of Earth and Mars?”

Simon gaped at her for a long moment, seemingly searching for some response and failing to find one. en, with a sudden motion, he reached into the valise and brought out a duelingpistol, which he leveled directly at Arabella. “I—I beg your pardon, but I must depart immediately. And I must insist that you remain here.” He drew back the pistol’s hammer with a definitive click.

Arabella shied away from the pistol, but found her back against the wall. The opening of the barrel, directed toward herself, seemed as big as the world. Her hands pressed the rough wallpaper to either side. “What is the meaning of this display, Cousin?” Though Simon’s expression was di dent, the pistol did not waver, and she could see that the pan was primed with powder.

“I… I beg your pardon,” he repeated. “But the last mail-coach to London departs within the hour, and I must be upon it, and I… I cannot allow you to prevent me from doing so.” Without taking his eye or his weapon off of Arabella, he brought another dueling-pistol from the valise and handed it to his wife. Trembling and uncertain, she nonetheless accepted it. “Dearest, I must ask you to lock Miss Ashby in the pantry. Do not permit her to depart, or to have any communication with the outside world, for at least the next two days.”

Awkwardly Beatrice directed her pistol at Arabella. “Of course, dearest,” she said, her eyes flicking from her husband to Arabella and back. “But… but why?”

Simon, breathing rapidly, swallowed and pressed his eyes closed for a moment before speaking. “My dear, I must confess that for the last several weeks I have… I have withheld confidences from you, and for this I apologize. I have made some… imprudent decisions. Financial decisions.” Beatrice stared at him in dismay, and her pistol sagged toward the floor, but Simon’s gaze and aim remained steady upon Arabella as he spoke. “You knew when you married me that my, my pecuniary situation, was not of the highest degree. I had thought myself inured to this situation, but with Sophie’s birth… I became ashamed.” He blinked away tears, and Arabella steeled herself to spring, but now Beatrice’s weapon was again trained upon her. “I determined that my daughter should not be forced to endure the penury which circumstance has forced upon me, and so I… I invested my inheritance… my entire inheritance… in a projected copper mine. A scheme which promised great and rapid returns.” He shook his head slightly, with a wry smile. “I should not, I suppose, have been surprised by the outcome.”

“Your entire inheritance?” Beatrice asked, but Arabella could see that she, too, was unsurprised by the outcome of Simon’s investment, and though her voice quavered her pistol remained firmly pointed at Arabella’s heart.

“I am afraid so, dearest.” He swallowed. “Only the family silver remains. And if nothing intervenes, before the year is out I shall be lodged in the sponging-house, and you and Sophie… you shall, I suppose, be cast upon the mercy of your parents.” Beatrice’s expression left little doubt as to how little mercy she expected from that quarter. “But now it seems an opportunity has presented itself.” He straightened, firming his jaw and his grip upon his pistol. “And so, my dear cousin, I must ask you to retire to the pantry.” He gestured curtly to the door.

Warily, keeping her eyes upon her cousins and watching for any opportunity of escape, Arabella sidestepped in the indicated direction. “I do not understand what you hope to accomplish by this.”

Simon gave a grim smile. “I suppose I should thank you, Cousin. Until this afternoon I had thought all hope lost. But your presence here—a living reminder of the entailment which has stolen my rightful inheritance from me—together with your very helpful explanation of our current astrological situation with respect to Mars…”

“Astronomical,” Arabella corrected automatically.

“The point is,” he fumed, “that with a mere two hundred pounds—which can be obtained as a loan, with the silver as collateral—two months’ time, one dueling-pistol, and an entailed estate… I can very shortly correct my financial circumstances for good and all.” Then, quite improperly, he grasped Arabella’s arm and propelled her out of the room, pressing the pistol’s muzzle to her side.

Simon marched Arabella to the kitchen, silencing the maid Jane’s enquiries with a stern expression, and shoved Arabella roughly into the dark and noisome pantry, slamming the door behind her. She immediately pressed her shoulder against it, but with his greater strength and weight he held it shut. Simon shouted something to Beatrice, and a moment later Arabella heard a scrape and thud as something heavy was thrust against the door, followed by a clatter as of chains.

“Cousin, you cannot!” Arabella shouted through the door while impotently rattling its handle. “This is murder you are contemplating!” For she was now certain exactly what Simon planned. As the only remaining male in the line of succession, in the event of Michael’s death the entire Ashby estate would pass to him.

“I am sorry,” he replied, “but I have no alternative. Goodbye.” And then, after a brief whispered colloquy with Beatrice, his footsteps beat a hasty retreat.

Excerpted from Arabella of Mars © David D. Levine, 2016

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