WET CLUMPS OF leaves scattered like meandering slugs along the sidewalk. Spring was months away yet Henry already wished for its beginning. As if your hopes have any impact on the weather. The crowd around him took little notice of him, but he wasn’t looking for any one person.
Near the corner, he spied a friendly face. Acton Wren, a man he’d known from childhood.
How friendly Acton was with him, these days, depended on what he owed—and to whom.
“Hoy there, Colchester! What brings you away from home this fine afternoon?” Acton grasped Henry by his lapels, angering the healing cuts on his thick knuckles. “Got the money you owe me?”
He smelled like smoky dark rooms—a place in which he spent most of his time.
“As I remember it, Wren, you owe me.”
“Do I now?”
“Twenty quid, was it? Truth of the matter is, don’t you owe me more?” For so he did.
“I don’t recall any such agreement.”
“Let me see.” Henry made a show of looking around. “We can ask that constable to sort it out.”
His vise-like grip loosened. He smoothed down Henry’s lapel. “Oh now, don’t be unneighborly, Henry. What’d I ever do to you?” Acton’s cheeky grin lit up his oblong, scruffy face. “I didn’t offer your mama a job with my girls, now did I?”
“I don’t want to beat a friend to death, so I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”
Acton nodded down the street and they resumed their course. He was slim, with dark eyes and unruly light brown hair. “So what’re you doing out here? Say, didn’t your family have a visitor to greet?”
“And? The fella might not be a gambler, mightn’t he?”
As Henry considered what he knew of Mr. Bartlett, he shook his head. “Not that I know of.”
“He’s a pauper?”
“And so they came to you why?”
Henry shrugged. “They’re not here yet, but he thinks his daughter needs a little culture.”
“Here?” Acton laughed. “Good luck to her.”
“If she has any luck, Mother will marry her off sooner, rather than later.”
“Is that so?”
Hoping to avoid the subject of marriage, he resumed his explanation of Vesta and Johnathon Bartlett. “The main reason they’ve come is about the ironworks. Her father has a smelting technique he’s offering to share with us.”
“Fine objective. Your mother will be planning one of her famous dinners, then?”
Henry cursed under his breath. “I think so.”
“Will I garner an invitation this time?” Acton asked, tipping his hat to a passing young lady and her chaperone.
Henry opened his mouth, closed it.
“Don’t answer that,” Acton said. “I know what you might say.”
“If I could persuade her, I would.”
Acton slapped his shoulder. “Aye, and the Lord will return first. So you came out to escape the fuss? I can’t say I blame you.”
“Had to, else I was bound to thrash Percy.”
“You need a drink, I see.” Acton nodded to a sign over a door. The Mewling Cat tavern.
“Not at the moment. I think the anger is subsiding. I believe the fresh air is doing me well.”
“Are you certain?”
A hand went to his pocket. He’d left in such a rush, did he bring enough for a stop at the tavern?
His friend pressed a little more. “Rosemary is singing tonight.”
“Rosemary?” Henry pursed his lips, thinking of the beautiful brunette singer. “It’s almost free to listen, and look.”
“Ah, I see you can be persuaded to stay with friends.” Acton grinned at him and opened the tavern door. “Good. I have a proposition for you.”
The interior of the lively place sported the latest in gas lamps. The flames threw a pleasant amber glow across the room. Men of various ages and builds filled the space. Some sat at tables, cards in hand, peering at the small slips of paper as if their lives depended on it. Others shared bottles of the cheapest gin, some alone, some arguing with each other. At another, men threw dice and scrutinized their fall. Threads of a jovial piano piece weaved itself around like unseen coal smoke.
Acton led him through this to another room, a door marked “Linen Supplies only” barring their way.
“You’ve added another room?”
“You could say we renovated one for a different purpose.”
“If you’ve a new supply room, what would I care?”
“That’s a good man. Don’t ever ask about another’s supplies.”
He had no care for what it took to feed and water this crowd. He’d partaken of it often, in the past. If his friend now supplied outlawed smoke and drink, that too was none of his concern.
Acton inserted a key before pushing the door open a little. He slipped through and shut the door between them. Henry opened and closed his mouth then leaned against the jamb to the right. Why bring him back here only to shut him out?
After a moment, Henry felt a tug on his sleeve and found himself dragged into the “Linen supply” room.
“Now, then.” Acton loomed over him, earnest concern twisting his features. “I’ve your word. You will tell no one of what you see here? I can trust you?”
“Of course, Acton. Have I ever given you reason not to trust me?”
Acton nodded to the side as if to acknowledge the truth. “Just checking.” He opened the curtain behind, then pointed Henry inside the cramped room. Henry scanned the small space and marveled at a peculiar new sight. Acton’s men had cleared away all the boxes and barrels, sacks and mountains of the supplies on which the Mewling Cat ran. In their place, they’d crammed fifteen cots inside. On each cot lay a man, some hooked up to odd tubes which themselves hung from bottles atop standing metal rods.
“Yes, that was what I thought you might say,” Acton said.
“What’s this all about? It looks like a typhoid ward.” He glanced to his friend. “Am I contagious now?”
“Would I put you at risk like that, my friend? No. This is a different kind of ward.” Acton strolled to the nearest man. He introduced Henry as a colleague, a student of the sciences. Henry didn’t correct him. “How are you feeling today, Taggert?” Acton asked the man. “How’d the night treat you?”
“Better, until about four in the morning.” The man scratched his forearm and Henry noticed some of the hair there was missing. “That was my worst hour.”
Acton patted his shoulder. “Better than waking at two A.M.”
Taggert nodded. “I wouldn’t have slept so long without your help.”
“Tomorrow, we’ll have you sleeping until noon.”
“I can only hope.”
Acton wished him well and they moved on to another bed.
“How about you, Bishop?” Acton asked.
Dark circles ringed this man’s eyes. His cheeks appeared hollow, as if he hadn’t slept or eaten in quite a while. “S’no good, sir. The dreams kept waking me up, every two hours or so. Every time the shells dropped.”
“We’ll try a different concoction tonight,” Acton promised, and excused them. When they’d moved out of the man’s earshot, Henry noticed Acton’s attention on him again. “You have questions for me?”
“I do. If those men aren’t contagious, what’s wrong with them? Why did that one—” He gestured in Bishop’s direction. “—say his dreams kept waking him up when the shells dropped. What shells?”
“The battles they’ve seen. You know what’s gone on in India. The battles may’ve ended with our victory—”
“Barely, from what I recall.”
“But some of the soldiers still suffer with the memories. No matter how many months have passed subtle little reminders can bring it all back.”
“And you’re helping them? You? I thought you had no other ambition than your gambling dens.”
Acton shrugged. “We all have our dark sides, Colchester. I’ve done my part. I had a hunch you might have some ideas too on how to help them.”
“I’m no doctor.”
“I know, but you do have other resources.”
“Are we making medicines with iron, now?”
“Some might, after a fashion.”
Henry pondered the possibility. “If that’s the case, I’d like to meet such a person.”
“I’d hoped you’d say so.”
Acton didn’t reply and Henry turned his attention to the crowd. “You said Rosemary’s here tonight?”
Acton laughed and pointed him to a spot in front of the tavern’s stage.
The captain tipped his hat to her. “I want to thank you once again, Miss Bartlett, for your help with our anchor.” He offered her father his hand. “Both of you, Mr. Bartlett.”
Vesta admired his charm, as much as she did the designs on the brass patch covering his right eye. Scars crisscrossed his suntanned face.
“Think nothing of it.” Her father shook the captain’s hand. “It was our pleasure to be able to assist you.” He touched her elbow and pointed her to disembark.
Vesta alighted on the terminal’s arrival platform and stood back, watching her father collect their luggage.
“I don’t want to be here,” she muttered as a man jostled past her toward the gangplank of the hovering airship. The anchor of the HMS Merry Knight dangled from a thick iron chain. A crewmember down below caught it and hooked its arm around a bracer fastened to an iron pylon.
Her feet on solid ground, she sighed and took in the scene. Around her, all manner of humanity swirled. One man here, with a brass plate covering part of his throat, stalked away from the airship. He struggled with the small case tucked under his arm as if it were the heaviest burden in existence. A woman flowed past as if she glided over the terminal’s marble floor. Vesta even saw a hint of steam coming from underneath the woman’s rust-colored skirt.
The sight didn’t change Vesta’s opinion that she had no business in Britain. At least not in staying over the long term, as her father hoped she might.
Her father clucked his tongue. He was a man of forty-two, strong and tanned from years of work on his Queen City ranch, with honey brown hair, bleached at the temples from the sun. A few lines marred the corners of his eyes, a constant reminder of the stress he had over raising her alone, since her mother’s death. Not that he ever claimed she, his daughter, was his source of stress, but Vesta knew the truth.
He worked hard for what they’d saved, and for the reputation he’d built up since the war. A wealthy ranch owner, metallurgist and alchemist, he need do no work. But as some people blamed alchemists for the outbreak that killed the world’s dogs, he told very few how he did his work. But here he took time to help this crew. None of this did she address, just the thought that she wanted to go home.
“Oh, now, Vesta,” he said, more interested in securing their trunks than in her complaints.
Thunder clapped overhead. Vesta watched the people move down the gangplank. Though the scent of fresh ozone stuck in her nose, and her stomach was tired of the sway of the ship, she didn’t feel ready to step onshore. What awaited her in Nottingham? All her life, her father had talked about visiting the village. Now that she was here, she felt out of her element. Like a dream far removed from reality. Despite the fact that they came to help Mr. Colchester with his ironworks, did she belong here?
No, she belonged back in Texas.
“Vesta,” Father said, “I believe you will love Nottingham.”
“How do you know?”
“Don’t you remember the stories? Robin Hood made his home there.”
“Yes, but I recall the trouble it brought him, too. On the bright side, if we ever need kindling, the forest will be within reach.”
“I see I raised a realist.” He opened an umbrella, and took her arm. “You’ll see. Once you’ve got your land legs back, you’ll see.”
The area had such a romantic history, why should she doubt? “It won’t live up to its publicity.”
“It may.” Father led her through the crowd, out of the terminal, to the busy street. He soon procured a carriage, loaded their luggage on top, and bundled her inside. “Tomorrow, once this rain clears, you’ll see.”
The tiny carriage was uncomfortable, though Vesta fussed around in her seat trying to settle. “My darned skirt’s wet,” she complained.
Father chuckled under his breath. “My poor princess.”
Vesta glared at him.
“When we reach the Colchesters’ house, everything will be different.”
“I don’t care, so long as I’m dry, and going home.”
Father frowned. “When you’ve married well, you can go anywhere you please.”
“It seems to me, it would be easier to go straight home without a husband in tow.”
“You might find someone here who will change your mind.”
“Perhaps Colchester’s dogs alone will be worth it.”
“I hoped you’d find a two-legged love.”
Vesta frowned, turning her attention to her gloves. “With all that’s going on at home, do you still believe this is the best place for us to be?”
She sighed in frustration. “You couldn’t have moved us to Washington DC?” she said. “You can make a difference there.”
The light in his handsome face darkened. “You know why we couldn’t.”
Vesta bit her nail. She knew he thought the United States wasn’t pulling itself together as much as everyone hoped. That in turn fueled his belief that Britain would have the best prospects for his daughter’s future.
She herself didn’t care at all for prospects. She’d been happy in Texas. She’d thought her father had, as well, except for worrying about her future. But here they were.
Her father stiffened. Was it because of the thunder?
“I won’t fit in with the Colchesters.”
“You underestimate yourself. I named you Vesta for a reason. You’ll make a fine home with them.”
Vesta sniffed. “We’ll see. Maybe I’ll go home by myself.”
She tugged a small brass watch from her reticule, and checked the time, as if to end the conversation. Returning the timepiece to her bag, she caught sight of the landscape.
Stone houses ran along the avenue, looming over the men and women rushing for cover from the sudden rainstorm. Father touched her hand and she frowned at the windows. If not for him, she might follow through on her compulsion to go home.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine, my dear.”
The carriage turned left and down a long, tree-lined lane. Dripping willow branches splattered rain upon the carriage roof. At the end of the drive, a massive house stood.
Vesta sucked in a breath. “Beautiful!”
A crooked smile curved her father’s lips. “Something worth leaving Texas for, at last?”
She blinked, taking in the two-story house. “This is the Colchesters’ home?”
“Unless we’re lost. Henry and Percy never sent you drawings of the house?”
“Did Mr. Colchester ever send you one?”
“I take your point.”
The carriage stopped and the carriage driver lowered the box to the ground. Father opened the door. Vesta blinked at the sudden influx of light.
“Now then.” Father slipped out the door ahead of her. He reached back inside and pulled forth her umbrella.
She fastened her cloak around her neck, took his hand, and traversed the wet steps.
The carriage driver ran up the porch stairs to knock thrice on the door. The third knock coincided with a clap of thunder. The coincidence rang in Vesta’s head like a church bell out of a Gothic novel.
Rain spattered her hair for a mere second, then Father lowered the umbrella over her head. The scent of wet grass and jasmine filled her senses. Her nose wriggled as some phantom tickled it. “Great.”
“Oh, come now, darling. Smile,” Father said. “The Colchesters love you. And once this rain stops, you’ll see how beautiful their home is.”
“Is it?” she asked, glancing over at him. “How do you know?”
“Your mother and I came here years ago. You remember, I told you. When she was pregnant with you.”
The front door opened and golden light poured out onto the porch.
A plump gentleman about her father’s age stepped out. “Johnathon, welcome! Miserable day, isn’t it?”
A young man emerged through the door behind him, then a second. Vesta blinked through the rain.
“Good to see you again, George.” Her father led her around a puddle to the porch. Once at the top, he shook George’s hand, and slapped him on the back, greeting him like an old friend. “You remember my daughter, Vesta.”
“I do.” Chubby George Colchester took her hand and kissed her cheek. “Welcome, my dear.”
George turned to the two younger men. “You probably remember my sons best covered in mud. Neither one of them have quite outgrown that phase.”
Henry was already offering his hand. “Don’t mind our father.” He leaned close to her, his deep voice tickling her ear. “He’s over-joyful.”
A servant slipped past the group, carrying one set of their bags inside. More waited to be unloaded.
“Usually for no good reason,” muttered his brother. Thin and dark haired, Percy stood a few inches shorter than her father, Vesta noticed.
Henry shared his dark hair, but his face was of a classical sort. His thin cheeks sported some dark fuzz to prove he hadn’t shaved this morning. He had fierce eyes, especially when he shot his brother a frown. “Stop complaining and help them.” He pointed to the carriage.
“Percy,” his father bellowed, “if you’ve nothing to do but grumble you can bring in Mr. and Miss Bartlett’s things. Forgive my son, Johnathon. He hasn’t quite learned his manners.” He frowned at Henry too. “Neither one of them. Help the lass inside, Henry!” Henry colored then turned back to her. “Don’t mind either one of them. Welcome to Nottingham, Miss Bartlett. We may not be in London, but don’t worry, we have amenities enough.”
“Don’t lie to the woman, Henry,” said his brother.
“I’m not, Percy!”
Now that she saw Percy again, she saw he’d not grown into his features. Or if he had, they’d stayed put while the skin around them grew. Unlike his brother’s more symmetrical look, Percy’s face pinched in a way that reminded her of a mole who found itself shoved into the light.
“I trust you enjoyed your voyage?”
Henry tugged a steamer trunk into his arms. The weight of the trunk caused his jacket to tighten over firm muscles. “Packed light, did you, Vesta?”
She turned her head, meeting Henry’s deep blue eyes. “Only the necessaries.”
Percy struggled with another of her trunks and proved weaker of the two. If he had any muscle mass at all, the jacket he wore concealed all. “By God, Miss Vesta, what do you have in here, an entire blacksmith’s forge?”
Her father winked at her. “Give or take an anvil or two.”
In truth, she knew the size of the tools she’d packed might surprise them. Her father’s tools, filling one of his trunks, were even heavier.
“My kiln. A small one.” Along with a vial of aether or ten, plus a few other tools she’d need when she set to work. She wondered where they might procure more aether, when they needed it. Best not to ask and reveal their secrets so soon.
“Don’t listen to their complaints. Come in.” The elder Mr. Colchester rumbled past them.
Henry followed, while his father led them around the main house to a second, smaller, stucco-faced house behind the Colchester’s residence. “We thought you’d like this to yourselves. For a little more privacy.”
In the short foyer, Vesta noted the potted lilies in a vase under a mirror in a white oak frame. To her left, an entryway opened up onto the small living room decorated in drab yellow wallpaper. Coffee-colored velvet curtains opened over double windows let the day’s weak light in.
Mrs. Colchester soon joined them. She was a little younger than George, with dark hair, thin and graceful, despite her voluminous emerald skirt, handmade, Vesta guessed.
Henry said, “Miss Vesta, do you remember my mother?”
“Of course.” Vesta curtseyed. “Mrs. Colchester, thank you for your invitation.”
“My dear Miss Bartlett.” The woman embraced her as if they were lost cousins. “Welcome to my home.” She took her arm. “You must be tired, my dear. Tea will set life right again.”
“I rather doubt that,” she muttered.
“I think my daughter would prefer to freshen up first.”
“Oh!” Her host unwound their arms. “Right. Annie!” she called over her shoulder. “See you bring her some tea and whatever else she requires.”
The maid took her coat. “Miss, would you like to get into some dry clothes?”
Vesta looked down at her olive green skirt, rumpled, the hem smudged with a hint of mud. “No, I think I’m fine. May I wash my face?”
“Of course, miss.” The maid entered the bedroom and soon, water gurgled into the porcelain washbasin.
As Vesta followed, she noted a matching mustard drape in this bedroom encircled a bed with oak headboard and thick down pillows and patchwork quilt. Perfume bottles and an ivory comb sat atop an oak dresser. Judging by the thin layer of dust on them, no one had used them, lately. A wardrobe stood open and empty in the corner. Vesta found someone had situated her steamer trunk by its side.
Vesta opened her trunk and retrieved an embroidered pouch containing her brush and toiletries.
Her father’s voice came from the hallway.
“Just a moment, Father.”
“Come join us when you’re finished freshening up.”
She pulled the brush through her hair, and considered the filled basin. The water’s temperature a little chilly for her taste, she dipped a finger in. Warmth. Not too much. I don’t want the Colchesters to see steam on the window.
As her father had taught her, she took a deep breath, and mentally reached for any heat in the air, willing the water to warm. A small pain surfaced in the base of her skull. The water remained cool.
Still can’t do it. Scolding herself, she finished washing. She’d hoped the trip by airship, or Nottingham itself, would ignite in her a bit of her father’s skill with alchemy. The cool water proved otherwise.
Right now, warm water was the least of her worries.
How can I be happy here? What an odd place this is. What an odd time.
Memories of her friends and loved ones in Queen City flashed in her mind. She took a moment to begin a letter to two friends back home detailing her woes:
You’ll fault me for saying this—and so will Eve, I suspect—but I want to come home.
The first of many reasons why had flowed out of her pen, when a knock came at the door.
She supposed she’d said everything she wanted to. Two or three lines would suffice for now, and make it easy to send the message through the town’s telegraph system.
She signed her name as the maid opened the door to peer in. “Are you all right, miss?” the maid asked.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Vesta said. “I’ll just be a few more minutes.”
The maid curtseyed and stepped away from the door. “Very well, miss.”
She donned a fresh dress, wondering what this new life would bring, hoping she’d left worry behind her in Texas. For good.
Vesta took a long time changing and Henry followed her father’s frown. “I’ll see what’s keeping her.” They waved him away and he exited, headed for the
No sound came from inside and at first, he wondered if he’d misunderstood Vesta’s whereabouts.
She’d take an age to get ready for dinner, if he knew women. But right now, he couldn’t say the Vesta he knew was ever like most women. Of course, he hadn’t seen her in years. Who knew why she lingered?
Screwing up his courage, Henry knocked. “Miss Bartlett?”
No answer. Henry checked his watch. After waiting another fifteen seconds, he knocked again. “Miss Bartlett, are you in there?” Silence. Annie had finished with her duties, it seemed. He wondered if Vesta might be taking a moment of privacy.
If that wasn’t the case, where had the chit gotten to? This house was only so big: two stories, one of which being the attic. Then Henry remembered the time she promised to show them werewolf tracks, and talked them into sneaking into the pasture at midnight. Only a small amount of coaxing revealed she’d escaped the punishment they got.
Wondering if it might not prove another escape, he turned the handle and found the door unlocked.
There she stood on the back porch, looking like she wanted to run. Henry cleared his throat, loudly.
Miss Bartlett peered at him like a startled owl.
“Um,” she said.
Henry tried to hide his smile. He crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe. “I don’t think we have any werewolves around, but if you want to go hunting for them, can I come along?”
“After all, I wouldn’t want you to get lost.”
Vesta sighed hard.
“Escape might be easier if you wait for nighttime. Although, to my knowledge, brigands are a bigger worry around here than werewolves. Especially if you’re headed toward the forest.”
Rain trickled down her chest, past the gold feather necklace she wore, to disappear into her bodice. Henry’s breath caught in his throat and for a moment, he forgot on what the conversation turned.
“Not quite as polite as Robin Hood.” Although, he knew one who might qualify. “So, are you going to stay out there all afternoon?”
“My mother would say you’re in jeopardy of catching your death of cold.”
Her eyes narrowed and her southern accent thickened when she spoke, “I can take care of myself.”
“I remember. Still, there are easier ways to see our town. You should’ve asked. I’d be glad to give you the tour.”
“Back to the airships?”
He clucked his tongue. “Before you see our foundry?”
“I thought you would’ve had enough of airships but if you insist. Although, don’t you want to visit our foundry before you leave?”
A glance to the side yard and she frowned. “All right. Can we go now?”
“Well, it can wait until tomorrow.” How should he explain? I’m sorry, Vesta. There isn’t much to see. How angry would his father be if he told her the truth here and now? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. “Our men informed us that their day is due to be quite busy. By Monday, things should’ve calmed down.”
Her lips pulled in a tight mew as he led her back inside. A quick glance around and he spied a towel hanging from a bar on the washstand to one side of her room, near a wardrobe. Her trunks waited where he’d set them down beside the bed. One of her bags was partially unpacked. A pair of stockings and a frock lay across the bedspread.
“Which will give you time to go shopping, Saturday, if you need anything.”
“Saturday isn’t so far away,” she agreed. She paused and rubbed the towel over her face. “I’ve heard there are a few posh dress shops around town.”
Water dripped from her hair and stained her bodice.
“Meanwhile, what are we going to tell your father about your dress?”
Vesta glanced down at herself. “I look like a drowned rat, don’t I?”
“A pretty one.”
A laugh escaped her and she looked around the room.
She advanced to the trunk and rummaging inside, soon pulled a brown and white gingham dress free. This, she carried behind the privacy screen. “I suppose it wouldn’t be too hard for Father to believe I wanted to change.”
Henry blinked at the screen, pushing the picture of her undressing from his mind. He turned his attention to the trunk. A shelf inside held a box of, he assumed, her jewelry, and underneath that, a book. “After your trip? No. I daresay not. He might question how long it’s taken you, however. Though we could get away with saying you wished to wash away the grime.”
“A lot of grime?” she asked. “Do you think he’d believe that?”
“I think so.”
A knock came at the door and, sighing his relief, Henry crossed the house to answer it. His brother stood outside, a questioning scowl on his pinched face. “Where the devil is Vesta?”
Vesta squeaked in surprise from behind her screen.
“She’s changing.” Henry forced his brother a step back into the yard and shut the door. “She’ll be a few more moments, but she says she’ll be along soon.”
“Women,” Percy drawled and turned on his heel. “Didn’t figure Vesta had become vain.”
Henry glanced in the direction of her bedroom. “I don’t gather she has.”
Percy met his gaze and drooped. “What was she doing?”
“Getting a closer look at the back gate, or hoping for one, I gather.”
Percy shook his head. “Poor girl. Does she hate us, yet?”
“I’d say so.” Henry smiled suddenly. “You, anyway.”
What are the “companions” What all is Acton really doing there in that back room, and will Vesta be happy in Nottingham? Will she get to go home? If you'd like to read more, you'll find Vesta's Clockwork Companions at Amazon.
Juli D. Revezzo is the author of the Victorian Romance Courting the Stationmaster's Daughter; the Steampunk/Victorian Romance Vesta's Clockwork Companions, the Gothic romance Lady of the Tarot, the Antique Magic and Celtic Stewards Chronicles series and more. All books available at Amazon. Also Barnes and Noble and Smashwords. Some are also available as audiobooks via Audible and Itunes.