Excerpt from a Steampunk thriller featured in “The Futurist Manifesto”.
They lifted him out of his opium dreams and carried him down into the smoke of Hell – which was, he eventually realized through his struggling and sweats of terror, a private compartment of the District line moving out of Limehouse beneath east London. The wood and glass doors were tightly closed, but the vapors of sulfur, coal fumes, oil lamps, and tobacco from the pipes of the second-class passengers seeped through and stained the air. He was held down by two muscular servants in frock coats and silk cravats, who kept him from escaping, but even so mopped his brow and kept him from yanking open the door and hurling himself onto the tracks outside to escape his misery. Through his delirium, he realized they were under instructions to keep him in one piece; in that case, they were obviously not the Turks.
By the time they had arrived at Hyde Park Corner Station, he had recovered some sense of gentlemanly decorum. They forced some vile-smelling salts under his nose that chased the last of the phantoms away, and he felt almost human.
They frog-marched him out of the gateway and across the street, to the coarse laughter of the flower-sellers and thimble-riggers behind their wooden stalls. “Our friend had quite a night of it,” one of his bodyguards said to everyone in general, tipping his hat. “Not too steady on his pins.”
The cold of the February afternoon prickled his skin and reinvigorated his senses. He blinked the tears out of his eyes, took in deep breaths of air laced with stink from the nearby Thames, feet plodding in mechanical fashion as he was half-carried by his burly companions. He realized where they were taking him. Tall iron gates loomed up ahead; the Crystal Palace.
He twisted around in their grip and tried to dig in his heels. “Tell me honestly, sirs,” he croaked in his rusty voice, “How much danger am I in?”
A broad, mustached face stared into his and winked. “Not much, Mr. Gregory.”
The Crystal Palace stood at the heart of the British Empire, a heart constructed of glass and iron and filled with air and light. The crowning glory of Victorian engineering, over three times the size of Westminster Abbey. Almost a million square feet constructed over the space of a few months, with nine hundred thousand square feet of glass hung supported by thousands of cast-iron girders and pillars. John Gregory and his attendants entered the Hyde Park South gateway, and walked at a steady pace through the colossal structure toward the giant elm tree in the center of the complex, a tree that stretched up towards a vaulted roof seventy feet high. A rattling and whirring above made him look up; in the daylight-filled rafters, a pair of mechanical sparrow-hawks glided, hunting for the sparrows, thrushes and pigeons that had infested the galleries.
Gregory’s bodyguards sat him down at a metalwork chair and circular table at an open-air café. At this time of the afternoon, it had only just opened, and there were only a few customers; he now realized how cleverly the meeting place had been chosen. It was private enough to have a confidential talk, but public enough to give Mr. Gregory a feeling of security.
Not a false sense of security, he hoped.
The bodyguards even gave him a comb, so Mr. Gregory could straighten his short, sandy hair and his straggling mustache. He now became fully aware of his appearance; his cravat had gone missing somewhere in the opium den, but his black frock coat and trousers did not seem to be too stained or dusty. He fastened his collar and volubly coughed, taking in more of his surroundings.
Walking through the cafe towards his table at a sedate pace, with an entourage of statuesque men and women following, was a figure he noted with resigned recognition. Of course. It had to be her.
She came closer, her eyes fixed upon Gregory. She wore a pale blue Battenberg city gown and touring hat, and carried a furled, carnation-colored parasol and matching lace fan. Her face was delicate, compact and fringed with immaculately coiffured, reddish-gold hair.
Lady Florence Padbury, the head of Imperial Counter-Intelligence, seated herself in genteel fashion at his table. “Mr. Gregory,” she said, “let’s try to behave like the ladies and gentlemen we are reputed to be.”
He breathed in deeply and attempted to match her confidence. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“First, there is something I wish you to see.” She waved a kid-gloved hand at the massive stone slab that dominated the cafe, fringed by ferns and palm leaves on either side.
“This is Mr. Garfield’s new memorial, that portrays the great automobile race of 1845. It fascinates me. You see the bas-relief of the Cugnot automobile’s steam turbine viewed from the front, and behind it, the mufflers and goggles of the driver and navigator. Carved in stone. Does it not seem dreadfully absurd, Mr. Gregory? Does it not seem a contradiction in terms?”
“I do wish you would get to the point,” Gregory said with a cough.
“A stone automobile, sir, that is my point. It is a logical contradiction. Marble is cold, brittle, silent, mineral. Automobiles are fast, noisy, warm, metallic.”
“The world is full of statues of the human form.”
“True, but we have had hundreds of years of becoming used to the convention of human sculpture. We do not find it queer to see a stone human figure and expect it to move and walk.”
Gregory indicated the swarthy fellows standing behind him. “Oh, I don’t know. Your bodyguards are doing a pretty good job.”
“And there’s always the tale of Don Giovanni, ma’am,” one of the bodyguards added with slight bow.
Lady Padbury tapped the spike of her parasol on the flagstones. “We need a new way of seeing, Mr. Gregory. A new way of expressing this world of metal, of steam, of speed, of power. When I was a child, I remember my tutor showing me the daguerreotypes taken by Mr. Danelek from his hot-air balloon. The farms and the factories, the forests and the aqueducts. It was like looking at a completely new world. Soon construction will be finished on the Blackpool Tower, and this new world view will be available to all.
“Unless the French beat you to it, with that replica they’re planning.”
Lady Padbury smiled.
A nervous waiter drew near and placed afternoon tea upon the filagreed ironwork of the table; scones, wafers, almond and vanilla slices, and crustless sandwiches cut into triangles. The waiter gave a nervous glance at the smiling men behind Gregory, bowed, and beat a hasty retreat.
“You should eat something, Mr. Gregory. You need to keep body and soul together.”
There was silence while Lady Padbury daintily poured tea into two china cups and applied marmalade and clotted cream to the scones.
“We have been very worried about you, Mr. Gregory,” she continued eventually. “ You could have let us know where you were … or simply that you were still alive.”
His stomach groaned and his nausea ebbed and flowed. He tried to restrain himself from cramming the tiny sandwiches into his mouth.
“I have a proposition for you,” she said softly.
“With respect, Lady Padbury, I am not interested in the slightest.”
“I assure you, Mr. Gregory, you will not be spending weeks being poked and prodded by physicians or engineers.” She raised a gloved hand. “There is someone I would like you to meet.”
At her gesture, a member of the entourage stepped forward. Gregory noted that the tall, wide-chested newcomer wore a black three-piece suit of a cut and material that he wasn’t familiar with, and held himself very straight. His skin was leathery and brown contrasted with the white and black of his tombstone shirt and cravat, as if he spent a great deal of time outdoors. He doffed his felt derby hat and bowed deeply, displaying his unfashionably long hair.
“May I present Mr. Alexander Lentz, of the Universalist Church of Massachusetts,” Lady Padbury announced.
“At your service,” Lentz said with a broad Colonial twang.
“Good Lord,” muttered Gregory.
Lentz picked up the remark at once, and with no trace of irony. “Yes, He is, is He not?”
Gregory snorted with mirthless laughter. “You are indeed a long way from home, sir.”
The Colonial seated himself next to Gregory, his smile intensifying. He seemed about five-and-thirty, perhaps the same age as Gregory himself; his features were finely-chiseled and handsome. “Mr. Lentz has a very interesting story to tell,” Lady Padbury said.
With a strange gleam in his eye, Lentz launched into his tale. “I belong to a small sub-group of the Universalist Church, based in the city of Lynn, Massachusetts,” Lentz began. His voice was deep and mellifluous, Gregory noted; at least it was easy on the ears. He just hoped that the frights of opium withdrawal would not return, and paint the man’s face with horns, huge bulging eyes, or similar phantasms.
Lentz produced a daguerreotype from his waistcoat pocket and laid it on the table. The image was of a middle-aged man dressed in severe clerical style, who in profile showed a thoughtful, and somehow kindly aspect.
“Our division of the church was led by a man named John Murray Spear. A great, benevolent, and principled man. He was a reformist; his views on slavery, suffrage and temperance were considerably ahead of their time. He even operated a branch of the Underground Railroad, helping renegade slaves escape to Canada.”
“You are using the past tense, sir.”
“Yes, you are guessing what I am about to say. But hear me out, sir. Seven years ago Mr. Spear received a visitation from the Holy Spirit that revealed his powers as a trance medium, and he converted to Spiritualism. He consulted with the Fox sisters and Daniel Dunglas Home, and founded the church that I am proud to be a member of. The spirits guided him – and us – to towns where he cured the sick with the laying on of hands. In trances, he spoke to the spirits of Swedenborg, Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and divulged to us messages of hope and salvation, from beyond the veil.”
Gregory sighed. “So where did it all go wrong, Mr. Lentz? Because if it had not, you would not be talking to me.””
Lentz took a sip of tea to moisten his throat.
“Spear was given a vision of a great machine. An invention like no other; a conception that, if realized, could transform the world in the way that the steam engine has.”
“In his trance, Spear was given the knowledge of how to broadcast electrical power by radio waves,” Lady Padbury interjected. “This is the information Mr. Lentz has brought to Her Majesty’s court.”
Gregory could not stop himself guffawing. “It’s fantasy. We’ve got a few water wheels up and down the country that can light arc lamps, but sending electrical currents through the ether? You insult my intelligence, sir.”
“Be patient, good sir. Last year, we moved the Church to the town of Randolph, in New York, where we began our experiments. Spear received the plans for the mechanism in his trances, and we purchased supplies, and began construction … and then the tragedy struck. A hysterical, misinformed mob broke into the church, smashed the machinery, and destroyed the plans.”
Lentz came to a halt, his countenance visibly upset.
“And Mr. Spear?” Gregory prompted.
A strange, distant look came into the Colonial’s eyes. “The father of our church was killed. Trampled by an ignorant, hate-filled crowd.”
Gregory stared. He noticed for the first time that beneath Lentz’s long hair, at the point where the top of his ear joined the hairline, there was a fine crosshatching of delicate white scars.
“Mr. Lentz was sent here as a delegation of the Church,” Lady Padbury added. “Naturally enough, they felt they had been shamefully treated by their own countrymen. They offered the secret of broadcast electricity to the Church of England, and the British Empire … and just think, Mr. Gregory! Think of the potential!”
Gregory leant forward, keeping his voice low. “I understand that you want to see your leader again, Mr. Lentz,” he said, “but this cannot be done.”
“Yes, it can.” Lentz seemed to recover his wits, and spoke in a blunt, matter-of-fact voice. “You just have to go far enough in to reach him.”
Mr. Gregory shook his head. “Not possible.”
“Lady Padbury gives me to believe that you were, at one point, the finest Spiritualist medium in the British Empire, and you have done this many times before.”
“Look at me. I’m a wash-out, a discarded rag. Do you really think I can do it again?”
Lady Padbury tapped the point of her parasol sharply upon the flagstones. “Her Majesty’s Government is not giving you a choice, Mr. Gregory.”
The Cugnot waited at the entrance to Hyde Park, hissing contentedly. It was the larger version, the variety that seated up to six within its chocolate-brown wood and brass carriage, the barrel-shaped high-intensity coal turbine at the front. Mr. Gregory had always thought it amusing that these automobiles were decorated by a brass horse’s head above the bonnet. An unnecessary, but somehow very British form of ornamentation.
The assassin was also waiting.
He looked like the typical bon vivant, with his satin-trimmed coat, highland trousers and silk puff tie. He sauntered towards the Cugnot as if he was simply out taking the air, and as the bodyguards scowled at him, he doffed his John Bull top hat in a friendly manner and raised his silver-headed cane.
Lady Padbury was even faster than the bodyguards. Before they could throw their bulk in front of her, she had snapped her parasol open and held it up before herself, Gregory and Lentz. Gregory heard the ziiippp! as the spring-fired poison dart sliced through the air and embedded itself in the parasol.
The bodyguards swarmed upon the assassin, wrestling him to the ground beneath a heap of worsted, wool and leather, while Gregory, Lentz and Lady Padbury were politely but firmly bundled into the carriage, three valets accompanying them. The engine hissed and spat, and the Cugnot pulled away from the curb at the breakneck speed of thirty miles per hour.
Inside the carriage, Lady Padbury fussed and smoothed her garments down. “Well, really. I must invest in new bodyguards.” She held up the remnant of the steel dart between her gloved fingers. “And a new parasol; this one’s got a hole in it.”
Mr. Gregory was looking out of the window, back at the struggling human knot on the pavement. “It’s no use, you know. He’ll have one of those cyanide pills that the Turks give all their agents.”
He turned away and sat back. He noticed that Lentz seemed curiously unconcerned at what had just happened. While talking about the father of his church, he had been moved to tears. But for his own personal safety …?
“The Lord hath a task for each or us, and it is vanity to speculate upon its nature,” Lentz said at length.
Gregory scowled. “Is it vanity to speculate whether the Lord will get my gentlemanly posterior out of this mess?”
Lady Padbury leaned forward, her violet eyes twinkling. “Her Majesty’s Government will, Mr. Gregory. Although your task may be arduous, and the secrecy of its nature means that none shall know of your achievement except the Lord, Mr. Lentz, and the agents of Queen Victoria, rest assured – that will be sufficient.”
Gregory could not resist smiling. “Very well,” he said, nodding assent.
His confidence was short-lived, however, as he saw through the windows the looming destination of the Cugnot.
“Waterloo Bridge Station?” Mr. Gregory cried. “What the blazes do you think you’re doing? Every station and locomotive in London is going to be crawling with enemy agents. It’s why I went to ground in Limehouse in the first place.”
“We are not entering the station,” Lady Padbury said smoothly, as the Cugnot puffed its way past the Victory Arch, “and we are not taking a train. Not a public train, at last.”
They turned a corner and made their way down a small, quiet road leading around the back of the main station. A gloom fell upon the carriage interior as they entered a vast, echoing shed ribbed with iron girders and walkways. On either side sleek black locomotives waited, their polished metal and brass glowing warmly in the gaslight. Huge ornamental clocks suspended from the rafters measured out departure times in regimented seconds.
The Cugnot pulled up outside one locomotive and halted, bubbling quietly to itself. Gregory dismounted with the others, his boot steps echoing in the vast interior, his breath frosting slightly in the chill. He glared at the copper-plated inscription upon the locomotive’s door.
“But this is …”
Lady Padbury was clearly enjoying this. “Yes, Mr. Gregory, this is the Necropolis Line. An express journey from Waterloo Necropolis Station to the metropolitan cemetery at Brookwood. The driver is one of my finest men, and our agents will collect you at Brookwood and escort you to the safe house. So, you see, there is nobody to witness your escape from London, Mr. Gregory. Nobody among the living, that is.”
At her gesture, he climbed aboard the train and entered the carriage. Inside, coffins were arranged in smart rows leading away into a hushed, murky darkness, the papered walls of the carriage lit softly by gas-burners.
In front of him, one coffin lay with its lid swung open.
“You cannot be serious.”
“What do you have to fear, Mr. Gregory? Surely, as a spiritualist, you are familiar with the dead?”
“I do not particularly wish to travel with them,” he muttered. “At least, not just yet.”
He looked down at the coffin, with its smooth walnut lid and red satin-lined interior. Lifting his legs, he climbed inside, and lay down. He stared up at the faces of Lady Padbury, Mr. Lentz, and the bodyguards, smiling in sympathy.
“Things could be worse,” said Lady Padbury. “We could have put you with the coffins in Second Class.”
The lid swung down, and Mr. Gregory lay flat, encased in darkness.
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