The Forever Engine – Snippet 36
“No, Gabi. He’s crazy because he sends clockwork mechanical spiders and assassins high on hashish to kill people who disagree with him. I’ve met him. Odd guy.”
“I have only seen photographs of him. Do you think he misses his sisters?”
I blinked at the conversational sharp right turn, but before I could answer there was a loud pounding on the door.
“Fargo, are you in there?” Gordon shouted from the corridor.
“There’s trouble,” I told Gabrielle and then raised my voice to answer him. “Yeah, I’m in here. Come on in.”
“Is Mademoiselle Courbiere with you?” he shouted.
“Oui, I am here,” she answered.
“May I come in?” he shouted.
I couldn’t help but smile. There he was, steaming mad out in the corridor, and still impeccably polite, asking permission from the lady to enter her quarters, and asking it at the top of his lungs.
“Oui, you may enter.”
“Are you decent?” he shouted.
My grin got bigger as Gabrielle frowned in confusion.
“I believe so, but sometimes I do not think everyone agrees,” she called back.
“He means are we dressed,” I explained.
“Ah! We have on the clothes,” she called out.
There was a moment of silence, and then Gordon opened the door and stepped in, red-faced with anger or embarrassment or both. He made a little bow to Gabrielle before turning on me.
“Thank you, Mademoiselle. You are most kind. Fargo, what the bloody hell were you thinking, insulting Harding like that on the bridge? Don’t you know we need his help to carry this off?”
“Relax, Gordon. Have a seat.”
“I will not relax, and I prefer to stand when dressing someone down.”
Gabrielle turned to me, confused again.
“This ‘dressing down,’ it has again to do with the decency? And why did you insult Captain Harding?”
“Yes, we’d both like to know that,” Gordon said.
“So sit down and I’ll tell you.”
He stood fuming for a few more seconds, but when I showed no sign of budging he looked around the tiny cabin, pulled the single straight-backed chair out from the writing desk, and sat facing us. I turned to Gabrielle first.
“Harding insulted you. I didn’t like it, but that’s not the reason I insulted him.”
I turned to Gordon.
“I insulted him because we need his support and cooperation, and we were not going to get it any other way.”
“Just how, in that twisted, convoluted brain of yours, did you imagine this would increase his chances of helping us?”
“He insulted me?” Gabrielle said, curious rather than angered. “What did he say?”
“He called you a trollop. You aren’t a trollop.”
“Non, certainly not. A trollop is a woman promiscuous, or who exchanges sexual favors for money, neither of which am I. You were right to disagree with him. And how did you insult him?”
I told her.
She started laughing, harder than I’d ever seen her laugh. She covered her mouth with her hands and leaned back against the wall behind the bunk, laughing so hard tears came to her eyes. Lightning flashed outside the cabin and thunder shook Intrepid, and for a moment she froze, eyes wider, and then she started laughing again, even harder than before, laughing at the lightning too, or her fear of it. I laughed as well, and after a moment Gordon’s anger melted away and he joined us.
“Oh God!” he said as our laughter began to subside. “Rum, sodomy, and the lash? I don’t believe I’ll ever forget that.”
“I can’t claim it. A young British Army officer, alive right now, so I won’t tell you his name, will go on to become First Lord of the Admiralty and eventually Prime Minister, at least in my world. He’ll say it. He had a way with words.”
“I dare say. But really, Fargo, what were you thinking?”
“Yes, Jack,” Gabrielle said. “Harding is not a very interesting man, but his good feelings are important to us, oui?”
“Non, cheri. His good feelings are meaningless. What is important is his cooperation. Gordon, I as much as threatened to kill him if I got back from this, and I did it in such a way that everyone on the ship is going to hear about it.”
“Precisely, old man. That’s rather the point.”
“Yeah. So what happens if we don’t come back? People will say Harding sabotaged the mission to keep me from making good on my threat. They will whisper that, whether it’s true or not, and Chillingham will hear the whispers. That’s what I meant when I asked him who he was more afraid of, me or Chillingham. Trust me, Harding’s not afraid of me.”
Gordon rubbed his chin and scowled.
“Still too damned much of a gamble. More flies with honey than vinegar, that sort of thing. You need to look before you leap, Fargo, or better yet leave all this sort of thing to me. You’re just the translator. It would be best if you remembered that.”
“This Lord Chillingham, he is a very bad man,” Gabrielle said, reasserting her right to change the subject.
“You’ve met him?” I asked.
“No, but Renfrew has told me enough.”
“Interesting,” I said. “So we’re all in agreement on that point, including the royal family.”
“Not so much the queen, from what I understand,” Gordon said. “Not that she likes him — too aristocratic for her tastes, I would imagine. But she’s not willing to move against him.”
“He’s too aristocratic for my tastes,” I said, “but a queen’s? That’s a little hard to get my head around.”
Gordon leaned forward, and for the first time I saw a hint of fire in him, other than just anger.
“You have to understand, Fargo, the old aristocracy, people like Chillingham who own probably four-fifths of the land in England, look down on the royal family. Really they do. They see them as a pack of nouveaux-riches German bog-runners, Johnny-come-latelys the lot of them. To Chillingham’s way of thinking, when his family won its coat of arms, the queen’s family was still cutting peat on Luneburg Heath, and they have no business telling proper Englishmen how to run their country. But for all that, the queen won’t stand up to him.”
“What can she do, anyway?” I asked.
“The one real power the monarchy retains: create lords. She could flood the House of Lords with her own people, but she won’t. God knows how the old aristocracy would react, and she’s not willing to chance it.”
“Her son will,” Gabrielle said.
Gordon nodded but seemed to grow angrier as he did so.
“Yes, the Prince of Wales will, once he’s king and assuming he lives that long. Fargo, he’s the one man in Europe with the guts and brains to stand up to Chillingham and perhaps come out on top, and you’ve decided to roger his mistress! What in God’s name were you thinking?”
“I am not Renfrew’s mistress!” Gabrielle exclaimed. “We are friends, sometimes we are allies, but not lovers. He is currently enamored of the Countess Warwick, n’est pas? And who is this Roger?”
Hearing those words from Gabrielle made me feel light in the chest, but that made no sense. Our relationship was based on mutual physical attraction without promise, or even prospect, of a deeper emotional commitment from either of us. Friends with benefits, we’d say in my time. Gabrielle couldn’t understand falling in love, let alone do it, and as for me, I didn’t want to even think about that, or where this entire quest was inevitably headed. So her words shouldn’t have mattered.
But they did.
When I told her people were strange, I meant it, present company included.