The Forever Engine – Snippet 31
October 7, 1888,
Aboard Her Majesty’s Aerial Ship Intrepid,
Aloft over Bavaria and Austria
The rest of the morning and early afternoon we saw to fitting everyone into the confines of Intrepid. The dent in her crew made it a little easier, but there was still a lot of disruption. Officers doubled up to accommodate Gordon, von Schtecker, and myself, and Gabrielle got Lieutenant Jenkins’ cabin all to herself. The Bavarians got their own section of the crew common quarters, but there were only fourteen berths for twenty men, and, like the rest of the crew, they’d have to hot-bunk it.
We reprovisioned as well, and the Bavarians brought tents and wooden boxes of spare rifle ammunition aboard.
“What you ought to have along is one of those new Maxim guns,” Lieutenant Jenkins said as we watched the deck hands carry the supplies below deck. “We’re due to get Maxims next refit, but that’s not until this winter. We could let you have one of our 8-barrel Nordenfelts, but they’re too heavy to haul up and down mountains.”
I had some experience humping things through mountains, and I wasn’t looking forward to that part of the trip. We’d have to carry probably eight days of food with us, ammunition, at least some climbing gear, and either blankets or greatcoats. It was going to get cold up there and probably wet, if the thickening clouds and rising wind were any indication. We could go part of the way by river, but at some point we were going to have to carry stuff over some crappy-looking mountain roads.
No, we wouldn’t be taking along an 8-barrel Nordenfelt, whatever that was.
We lifted off about mid-afternoon and headed north. Once we were out of sight of curious eyes in Munich, we made a wide turn to starboard and ended up heading southeast toward Austria and the Balkans. Visibility closed down to a mile or two and the white wooden deck planks started darkening with a light rain. Massive grumbling thunderheads, flickering deep inside with lightning, pursued us from the west, but we seemed to be keeping our lead for the moment.
The sun disappeared behind the storm front, and we lost whatever remaining light was left within an hour. About six o’clock I saw the lights of a large city off our starboard beam — Salzburg. A signal light blinked cheerfully from the ground, and a signalman clacked back an answer from the Aldis lamp above the bridge. From here on we would be in Austrian air space.
Dinner in the officer’s mess that evening turned out to be far more interesting than I had expected. Conroy and Thomson were missing, but Gabrielle and von Schtecker had taken their place, so the number at table ended up the same — ten, since two of the ship’s officers were on rotating duty at all times.
Gordon was quiet and withdrawn throughout the meal, glancing at the decanter of red wine on the table once in a while but staying with hot tea. Von Schtecker was also quiet, perhaps because his English was good enough for a professional meeting but not really up to witty repartee. Or possibly he simply didn’t care much for British officers, or sailors of any nationality, or people sent by Berlin who had brought a truckload of trouble with them.
Gabrielle, not surprisingly, quickly became the center of attention. For Intrepid‘s young officers, her presence was a form of sublime torture. On the one hand, she was a strikingly good-looking woman of open and friendly disposition. On the other hand, she was French, a Communard, and an agent of Le Garde Rouge to boot. How were they, as officers, to react to that? For guidance they looked to their captain, who seemed in a friendly enough mood.
“Tell me, Mademoiselle, how long before you make General Secretary Renault emperor?” he asked as the cook ladled out the steaming potato soup. The officers laughed politely at the captain’s joke.
“Me?” she asked. “It is not for me to make the emperors.”
“Your people, I meant. It’s rather a tradition, isn’t it? First Consul Bonaparte became Emperor Napoleon I. President Louis-Napoleon became Emperor Napoleon III. You seem to have skipped Napoleon II, but the pattern seems clear enough.”
Although it was phrased as good-natured banter, I didn’t like what Harding was doing. He was showing off, trying to embarrass Gabrielle for the amusement of his officers. That’s not how I was raised to treat dinner guests.
Gabrielle frowned for a moment in thought, as if actually taking the question seriously. Perhaps she was.
“Well, those were mistakes, you see. I believe most French people understand that. Do the English not?”
I saw a couple faces cloud over then, but one officer covered his smile with his napkin, and another nodded in agreement, pleased at how adroitly Gabrielle had turned the question around on his captain. I wasn’t so sure.
Harding looked around, his smile even broader than before.
“Well, I dare say we do, Mademoiselle. I dare say we do. It is most agreeable to hear that sentiment shared on your side of the Channel. Now if only you had a proper royal family, things might start looking up over there.”
“Ah, but we do, Capitaine. In fact, we have three: the Bonapartés, the Orléans, and the Bourbons. The politicians pay no attention to any of them, but that is like your own country, oui?”
Harding’s smile disappeared, and he put down his spoon before answering.
“I wouldn’t say that, Ma’am.”
“Really? My friend Baron Renfrew says it all the time,” she answered, and then she sipped her soup. “Oh, this is quite good!”
She looked up at the momentarily frozen faces around the table. “What is wrong? Is the soup not good?”
“I think it’s great,” I answered.
“Yes, it’s capital, I’d say,” an earnest young midshipman to my right added, followed by a half-dozen other hurried expressions of agreement, to which Gabrielle smiled happily.
Through the fish and then the main course of roast beef, Harding launched repeated argumentative storming parties against Fortress France, all of them disguised as amusing jokes, all of them taken as neither jokes nor insults by Gabrielle, and all of them ending in Harding’s red-faced retreat in the face of a defense as impervious to the attack as it was apparently oblivious to it. Watching this was the most fun I’d had since showing up here.
By the dessert, a plum pudding, Harding had lapsed into defeated silence, but the conversation went on without him. His officers’ fascination with and admiration for Gabrielle had only grown with her repeated brilliant escapes from Harding’s cunningly-constructed traps.
Was I the only person here who got it? Was I the only one who saw all she was doing was taking the questions literally and then answering them? Apparently so. Maybe this was how most beautiful women got a reputation for brilliant conversation: just about anything coming out of their mouths sounded pretty good. It wasn’t that Gabrielle Courbiere was dumb; she was well-read and obviously intelligent. She just seemed oblivious to the most basic social cues.
Over glasses of port the younger officers drew her into a conversation about the ethics of spying, which she naturally answered with the argument that patriotism required service to one’s country in whatever capacity a person had.
“But Mademoiselle, to what lengths can one take that?” the young gunnery lieutenant, whose name I’d forgotten, asked.
“How do you mean?”
“Mademoiselle Courbiere,” he said, and then he paused to let the drama build, as if he were the prosecutor and she the defendant in the dock, “would you cut a throat for France?”
“It depends upon the throat,” she answered, and then she looked around the table as if the answer were obvious.
And it was, but that did not stop Intrepid‘s officers from regarding her with a mix of fear and fascination, as if she were a beautiful yet deadly creature from another world. More than either beautiful or deadly, though, they saw her as exotic, enigmatic.
Who could believe she was simply an open book? None of these guys, that was for sure.
When we finished, half the men offered her their arm to escort her safely to her cabin, as if it were ten miles up the Rio Orinoco instead of twenty steps down the hall. I couldn’t blame them. The memory of my erotic dream of her two nights before had returned, and my imagination had tacked on a few new embellishments.
She smiled politely to the officers but turned to me.
“Mr. Fargo has promised to tell me his life story and tonight may be our last opportunity for some time. Will you join me in my cabin?”
If I’d imagined her sitting languidly, elbow on table and chin resting on her hand, eyes locked on mine in rapt attention as I told the remarkable tale of how I came to this time — and maybe I had imagined that just a little bit — I was completely wrong. Gabrielle’s cabin was as small as the one I shared with two other officers, and the ventilation was not as good, so it felt warm and stuffy as soon as we got there. She gave me the only chair and sat in her bunk cross-legged, another advantage of a riding habit instead of a conventional dress. She took a journal and a pencil from the table by her bed, opened it to a blank page, rested it on the desk made by her crossed knees, and nodded for me to begin.
The deal had been to tell her everything about how I came here, and a deal’s a deal. I started with what I knew about the research project in Wessex, then my background as a historian, then the world I came from in more and more detail, but steering clear of the subject of aeronautics and the space program. She asked probing questions, particularly about my kendo training and before that my military experience. She took pages of notes in a small, careful handwriting which looked almost machinelike in its regularity.
The room grew warmer as I talked, and I began to perspire. I noticed that she did as well, her skin glistening in the gaslight. After about an hour, she puffed out a breath and stood up from the bunk. She unbuttoned the jacket of her riding habit and took it off, then unfastened her skirt and slipped it down and off, leaving her in blouse and riding breeches. She unbuttoned the collar and cuffs of her blouse and rolled the sleeves up almost to her elbows. Then she sat back on the bunk and picked up her journal.
“Better,” she announced.
“Do you mind if I take off my jacket?”
I felt foolish asking, but it seemed the thing to do here.
“No, why would I?” she asked, looking up from her notes. I had already learned none of her questions were rhetorical; when she asked a question she expected an answer.
“Well, some ladies might consider it a sexual advance.”
“You do not make the sexual advance?”
I almost said no, but then I thought better of it.
“I do not mean the removal my coat as a sexual advance. I may make a sexual advance later, if I feel it would be appropriate.”
She thought for a moment.
“What would determine whether or not it was appropriate?”
“I would only consider it appropriate if I felt you would welcome it.”
“I see. You have the eyes which are kind, sad, and hard, all at the same time. But when you laugh, your eyes laugh first. Yes, I think I would welcome such an advance, but first I would like to know more about a thing — what did you call it? — the Tesla effect.”
I told her everything I knew about the Tesla Effect, which took all of about fifteen seconds.