The Forever Engine – Snippet 14
October 1, 1888, Essex, England
Less than week later I felt like a proper Londoner. I had my own respirator and goggles, even if they were tucked away in a leather shoulder bag. I also had a hat.
I was forced to agree to the practicality of a hat in this environment — that or comb dust and cinders out of my hair every time I came in from outdoors. I never liked wearing hats and I had avoided them altogether after leaving the army, but now I had a closet-full of the damned things.
That was only a slight exaggeration; I had a hat for everyday “walking out” wear, one for formal occasions, a sporting hat, a shooting hat, a hunting hat, and a riding hat. I had a hard time telling the everyday, formal, and riding hats apart, since all three were black silk top hats, but the tailor assured me they were all necessary and Thomson agreed. Since the British government was paying the bill, who was I to argue? After all, the British government got me into this mess. Maybe not this British government, but what the hell — this one was handy.
I wore my formal hat and formal evening wear today, wore it for the first time since it was delivered yesterday afternoon. I always thought I’d look good in white tie and tails, and I was right. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help remembering what Thoreau said on the subject: Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.
“It looks tight across your midsection,” Thomson said. “You should have let the tailor cut it more generously.”
“I’m about to lose some weight,” I answered. “It would have ended up looking baggy.”
“If I had a shilling for every gentleman who’s told his tailor that, I’d be a rich man.”
“You are a rich man,” Buller put in, his first words since climbing into the horse-drawn carriage at the train station. He was resplendent in his own dress uniform, which looked unlike any British Army uniform I could remember seeing — all black with shining black silk tapes across the front and looping around the sleeves, and topped by a fur cap with a tall, slender black and red plume. The coat was heavy with decorations across the chest, including a couple of big multipointed silver stars.
The carriage lurched in the rutted road and turned into a long, shaded drive. As we rounded a bend I saw what I took to be our destination — Larchmont Hall, stately and serene, perched on a low hill and surrounded by painfully disciplined formal gardens.
Buller, Thomson, and I had taken the train from London out to a place called South Woodham Ferrers-on-Crouch. Its name was almost longer than the village main drag. The large and ornate four-horse carriage waited for us at the station and carried us to the hall where Lord Chillingham would receive us.
“So, let me make sure I’ve got this right. We are going on a critical mission but we couldn’t leave yet because first we had to meet this Lord Chillingham, and before we could do that I needed the right clothes. Is that about it?”
“Don’t be an ass about this, Fargo,” Buller growled. “Keep your mouth shut in there unless you’re spoken to directly. If asked for your view, either agree with his Lordship or say you don’t have an opinion.”
“And for heaven’s sake,” Thomson added, “don’t be sarcastic, much as I am sure that will pain you. This is no joking matter, laddie. Chillingham is an Iron Lord, makes a fortune from industry instead of agriculture, although God knows he has land enough for that as well. That makes him dangerous — he actually does things for his money, instead of just owning land and paying someone to collect the rents.”
“Their Lordships don’t usually take to money with the scent of sulfur on it,” Buller said. “I suppose if you’ve got enough of it, they make an exception.”
“That and the fact that Lord Chillingham is from one of the oldest noble families in the British Isles,” Thomson added. “Thomas St. John Curnoble, twenty-eighth earl of Chillingham and Adderstone. He was rich before he bought the Manchester Iron Works.”
“They’ve been rich ever since King Harold stopped a Norman arrow with his eyeball at Hastings,” Buller muttered.
It didn’t sound as if I was going to like this Chillingham guy much. On the other hand, if he was some new breed of noble, a “get your hands dirty” take-charge guy, maybe I could find some common ground.
The carriage stopped at a side entrance where a butler waited for us.
“Follow me,” he ordered and then turned and entered the house.
“Servants and tradesmen’s entrance,” Buller said quietly, almost to himself. “Been some time since I’ve had to go in one of those.”
He heaved his bulk up from the seat, squared his shoulders, and walked through the door with the quiet resignation of a man marching to the gallows. Thomson fidgeted with his gloves as we followed, but in we went.
Quiet. That’s what Larchmont Hall was like inside: quiet and bright. Light flooded in through windows and French doors while white lace sheers floated in the soft breeze that carried the scent of flowers in from the garden. I breathed in slowly. Rose. Gardenia. Jasmine. Hyacinth.
Quiet, bright, and clean-smelling: anyone fresh from the noise and gloom and stench of London would instantly recognize this as Heaven. There was both irony and symmetry in that: first render the cities hellish, then construct a refuge from your own handiwork.
The long halls and open rooms seemed to stretch on endlessly. Mirrors everywhere accentuated the effect. Here and there I caught sight of a servant moving silently and gracefully from room to room. The butler led us, his velvet-slippered feet silent on polished hardwood floors. Our own shoes clumped and banged incongruously, no matter how carefully we trod. The sound echoed in the halls of light, somehow seeming to defile this sacred oasis of calm.
Three grown men tried to tiptoe down the hall like schoolboys following a teacher to the principal’s office, trying to keep up but not draw attention to themselves, to their guilt and awkward inadequacy. Buller, a brave soldier — even if he was an overbearing asshole — walked gingerly on the balls of his feet, almost stumbled from the effort in his tall riding boots, and looked foolish doing it. That brave old soldier looked foolish, and I think that’s what finally got me.
I stopped walking lightly.
Clump, clump, clump.
After a half-dozen steps the butler turned and scowled at me.
“Bite me, pal,” I told him
“Fargo!” Buller hissed. “Mind your tongue.”
“Give it a rest, General. If Chillingham wanted it quiet, he’d either put in rugs or have us leave our boots at the door. This is just a head game.”
“Aye, that may be,” Thomson said softly at my side. “But in his castle, he chooses the game.”
Maybe so, but I noticed both Buller and Thomson walked more easily after that.
The butler took us to a sitting room with large glass doors facing the garden. It caught the early afternoon sun perfectly, and I had the feeling there must be different rooms in different parts of the hall used at different times of the day just for the way they caught the light. And of course the light changed at different times of the year. I always wondered what the deal was with all those rooms in old manor houses. I guess if you wanted to have rooms that always got the light just right, you probably needed a house this big.
Chillingham looked younger than I expected, early forties probably. His brown wavy hair grayed at the temples so perfectly I wondered if he dyed it. He had the physique of an active man but not too active — someone who rode but did not shovel out the barn afterwards. I saw no glint of humor in his eyes at all; that’s always a bad sign.
He sat in a large wingback chair with a small dog in his lap — a black Scottish terrier. The terrier was alert and interested in the three of us, but not inclined to bark. We did not alarm him, because he knew that nothing threatening ever entered this house. Lucky little dog.
“Lord Chillingham,” Buller and Thomson said together and bowed from the waist. I took Buller’s advice and kept my mouth shut. I nodded with enough energy I’m sure someone might have mistaken it for a bow. Chillingham didn’t seem inclined to take offense.
Instead, he sighed.
“Yes, very well, General. Let’s hear it.”
Buller launched into a detailed outline of the mission. I wasn’t sure our host was even listening. He was more interested in his little dog. But then the door opened, and the butler crossed to Chillingham’s side. Buller stopped speaking, but Chillingham motioned him to continue. He did so, but with less assurance as the butler leaned forward and whispered in the lord’s ear.
Chillingham frowned, and for the first time looked alert and mentally engaged. The butler straightened, and Chillingham’s gaze wandered to the French doors, swept the garden, and then lost focus in the afternoon clouds as his mind grappled with the new problem. Buller stopped speaking again, and this time Chillingham did not notice. For several seconds the only sound was the caress of the sheer drapes against the doorframe in the light breeze.
Chillingham’s mouth hardened, his attention returned to the room, and I knew he had made a decision.
“Very well then,” he said to the butler. “We’ll follow the fish course with a claret. It’s too early in the meal, but there’s nothing for it.”
The butler nodded and glided from the room. Chillingham’s eyes wandered back to us, he seemed to remember we were there, and the look of intent concentration flickered away, replaced by bored irritation. He waved for Buller to continue.
“We — ah — where was I?”
“Somewhere in Bavaria,” I volunteered.
Chillingham glanced at me, and one eyebrow went up slightly before he looked back at Buller.
Buller resumed his narration of our plan, such as it was. From this point on it was all wishes and dreams as far as I was concerned. We had no clue what we were getting into and would be making things up as we went. Operations like this work when you know exactly what’s going to happen at every step and rehearse it a couple times. This sort of “Go in there and see what you chaps can accomplish” approach almost always ends in disaster, but it was my only ticket to the Old Man.
While Buller droned on, I had time to think about Chillingham. He wasn’t at all what I had expected. Any thoughts I’d had of winning him over were long gone; he wasn’t interested enough in this mission, or me, to even listen to my pitch. His mind was more on tonight’s dinner than this operation, and, despite the contempt that initially made me feel, the more I thought about it, the less certainty I had on the subject. I didn’t know who was coming to this dinner or what would be decided there, but Chillingham did not strike me as a stupid man. For him the dinner was more important. Maybe he knew something I didn’t.
And maybe he had about as much faith in this “mission” producing positive results as I did.
Buller finished, and Chillingham turned to look me over, noticed me studying him, but showed no reaction to that one way or another.
“And why are you helping us in this enterprise, Mr. Fargo?”
“To get back to my time,” I lied.
“I see. I read enough of that long report of Captain Gordon’s to make me wonder why you would want to. Considering the enthusiasm with which your society embraces its lowest, least-cultured elements, it’s small wonder your world is in such a frightful state.”
“As opposed to how peachy things are here,” I said.
He looked at me through eyes incapable of registering either respect or contempt. He looked at me through the eyes of a farmer inspecting his livestock, but his eyes narrowed as he did, and I saw measurement and calculation and an inhuman coldness unlike any I’d ever experienced.
“Precisely,” he said.