The Forever Engine – Snippet 18
October 3, 1888, Munich, Bavaria
Baron Renfrew summoned us to a private home in Ludvigsvorstadt, a suburb between the landing ground — the Fliegerplatz, they called it — and the city center. We climbed aboard a carriage and set out to meet him.
Large balloons still floated aloft in the early evening, and a small cigar-shaped one passed overhead no more than fifty feet up. Instead of a basket, the gas bag supported a contraption like a tandem bicycle without the wheels, the chain drive turning a whirring propeller in back. A young couple pedaled vigorously, and the woman waved to us as they passed over. I waved back. That looked like fun.
At first our carriage made good progress down the broad, tree-lined Landsberger Strasse, with a sprawling rail marshalling yard to our left and a mix of small parks and suburban townhouses with steeply peaked gabled roofs and brightly painted wood shutters and flower boxes framing the windows. After ten minutes we came to a stretch filled with people, and the carriage slowed to a crawl.
The good news was the crowd was in a festive mood. I had grown used to the somber clothing of London and the surrounding countryside. Bright colors dominated the crowd here, with a lot of men in lederhosen and jaunty alpine hats and women in elaborately embroidered aprons over flaring skirts worn just short enough to show the layers of ruffled petticoats underneath. Wealthy women in expensive gowns wore their hair up in elaborate twisting towers, and even their austerely dressed consorts sported green sashes around their ample middles and green scarves wound about their tall silk top hats. What I found particularly interesting, though, was the extent to which the wealthy and common seemed all mixed up together, and thoroughly enjoying themselves.
The sun touched the horizon behind us and promised a beautiful, warm autumn evening. I heard distant music from ahead of us and to the right, a dozen oompah bands battling for supremacy and cheered on by well-lubricated vocal sections a thousand or more strong.
“Somebody’s having a hell of a party,” I observed unnecessarily. “Was ist das?” I asked the driver.
“Der Wies’n,” he answered with a broad grin.
Wies’n? My German was rusty, and Bavarian was slangy, but that sounded like The Meadow.
“What’s The Meadow? A festival?” I asked in German.
“Ja. The October festival.”
Of course: Oktoberfest. That explained the music and crowds of amiable drunks dressed in colorful local costumes.
“People come from all over for the fest?”
“Ja. Most from the south and Austria, but some from farther. Not many Prussians,” he said and laughed. “Carnivals, too, come from all over, but more from the east. Damned gypsies steal everything.”
“What’s he saying?” Gordon asked. I remembered he didn’t speak German but Thomson did and provided him a translation. Gordon looked bored and annoyed while Thomson remained distracted, preoccupied with our impending meeting. I couldn’t blame him for being nervous.
So far I liked Munich better than London. Folks at least had a sense of fun. Maybe Bavaria was an international backwater, but there might be some advantages to that. Now we’d see what Baron Renfrew could do to screw things up.
We met in the parlor of a small but tastefully decorated private home, nothing like Dorset House. The furniture was lighter in design and color, the walls papered with pastel stripes and adorned with a few inviting landscapes — apparently the Bavarian countryside we’d just overflown. Large windows would have let in sunlight during the day, but it was early evening by the time we arrived and the curtains were drawn for privacy. Renfrew waited for us seated on a loveseat beside a strikingly attractive woman.
Portraits of important people are idealized representations. Even though I’d seen dozens of portraits and photographs of Renfrew, I was prepared for something less impressive. Actually, the portraits didn’t do him justice. He stood taller than I did, which put him over six feet, and he had a good fifty pounds on me, maybe more. Some of that was fat, but not all of it. I thought of Thomson as bearlike, but Renfrew physically dominated the room.
He rose to meet us, which is more than Lord Chillingham had done in our brief meeting. Renfrew wore his dark hair cut close to his head and his beard trimmed in the tight pointed style so familiar in all the paintings and photographs. The pictures failed to capture the animation in his face, or the intelligence and humor in his eyes. He looked deadly serious in all the pictures and sort of distracted, looking up and away as if his mind was somewhere else. Today his mind was right here.
Thomson made the introductions and “Baron Renfrew” shook our hands, shook mine particularly vigorously.
“I’ve heard a good deal about you, Professor Fargo. You have had an adventurous few weeks since appearing so explosively in our midst. I assume Dr. Thomson has told you who I am.”
“It wasn’t necessary, Your Highness,” Thomson put in. “He already knew.”
“Really? How is that?”
“I’m from Illinois, Your Highness. I have relatives from a little town southwest of Chicago called Dwight.”
He face broke into a wider smile, and he nodded.
“Yes, I remember that village quite well. I hunted there — oh, it must have been twenty years ago now. Stayed with a local gentleman named Spencer. Quite good shooting. Lovely countryside. They don’t still talk about my visit in your day, though, surely. It was just a hunting trip.”
“No, Your Highness, they don’t talk about it, but your stay made such an impression in the town, they named the local park after you.”
“What? Albert Edward Park?”
“No, sir. Renfrew Park.”
“Renfrew Park?” He laughed. “Oh, that’s quite good! Yes, very gratifying. Thank you for telling me.”
Baron Renfrew was the title Prince Albert Edward, son of Queen Victoria, Prince of Wales and heir apparent to the British throne, and who at least in my timeline would later become King Edward VII, used when he wished to travel informally and without a lot of fuss. It was the most modest of his many titles, and its use told everyone involved he was not visiting officially or on state business; he was there purely for pleasure.
I again glanced at his female companion, still seated on the loveseat, and tried not to stare. She wore her shining blond hair swept up in what I thought of as Gibson Girl style, with a few soft curling strands framing a heart-shaped face, clear skin, and broad, inquisitive blue eyes. Her riding habit, jet black except for white ruffles at her throat and wrists, flattered her figure. I saw no rings on her fingers, no ear rings, brooches, or any other jewelry except for a small silver locket suspended from a chain around her neck. Smoke curled from the slender cheroot she held in her hand.
The Prince of Wales followed my glance.
“Allow me to introduce my friend, Mademoiselle Gabrielle Courbiere. Gabrielle, this is Dr. Thomson, Captain Gordon, and Professor Fargo.”
I followed their example and bowed. Thomson murmured enchanté, but Gordon remained tight-lipped.
Prince Albert Edward — affectionately called “Bertie” — gained fame for his love of the good life, particularly his liaisons with some of the most beautiful women in Europe. The basis for his attraction to Mademoiselle Courbiere was obvious, but why the British crown prince was playing footsy with a French woman when Britain and France seemed ready to start shooting at each other any minute, and why he had brought her to this meeting, were, well — interesting questions.
“Have you been riding, Mademoiselle?” Thomson inquired politely.
“Non, I prefer the riding habite. It is how I wear the trousers without scandalizing the small minds.” To illustrate her point, she flipped back the slit skirt to show the tightly fitted black trousers underneath, tucked into gleaming riding boots. She crossed her legs and drew on her cheroot, then blew a smoke ring. Thomson colored, and Gordon turned away with a disapproving scowl.
What was interesting, at least to me, was how devoid her gestures seemed of artifice. Her words and the uncovering of her legs could easily have been an act either of provocative challenge or playful flirtation, but instead they were surprisingly matter-of-fact. If she was a steamy seductress, she wasn’t working it very hard — at least not for us.
The prince took a large cigar from his inner coat pocket and trimmed the tip off with a pocket knife, talking as he did so.
“Professor Thomson, I understand that you are in authority over this expedition.”
“Yes, Your Highness, I am.”
“Splendid. I wonder, then, if you would do me a little favor. A personal favor, you understand — entirely unofficial.”
Thomson shifted uncomfortably.
“Well — of course, your Highness, if it is within my power and does not jeopardize our expedition.”
“Be so good, then, to take Mademoiselle Courbiere along, would you?”
Gordon snorted in derision, and the prince’s face immediately lost its easy charm and casual humor, as if a massive thundercloud had blotted out the sun, and I was again aware of how physically imposing he was. Gordon’s face reddened, and Thomson seemed nearly beside himself, shifting from one foot to the other as if he had to go to the bathroom.
“But Your Highness, a lady . . . do you know where we’re going?” he asked.
The prince struck a match and then carefully lit his cigar, the silence stretching out as he puffed, puffed again, turned the cigar, examined the coal, and then blew out the match.
“Do you?” he finally asked.
There was a moment of awkward silence.
“Well. . . in a general sense. That is, there are . . . some specifics still to work out. We were hoping the Bavarians –”
“The Bavarians know a little,” the prince cut in. “Mademoiselle Courbiere, on the other hand, knows a great deal. So were I you, I would add her to your party. Now, if you will all excuse me, I have an appointment with a baccarat table.”
He kissed Gabrielle’s hand, and he was gone.
“Highly irregular,” Gordon said once the prince’s footsteps faded.
“Oh shut up,” I said.
He turned and glared at me, opened his mouth as if to speak, but then scowled and turned away.
“He has a point, Fargo,” Thomson said. “This is a highly sensitive mission, and the young lady is . . . well –”
“What?” I demanded. “A French spy? Is that what you think? Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Well . . .”
I turned to Gabrielle.
“Mademoiselle Courbiere, are you a spy for the French Commune? Are you an agent of the dreaded Garde Rouge?”
I stared at her, and she returned my gaze without blinking. She was absolutely serious.