Extract from The Case of Rothbury’s Mechanical Mansion – Chapter 1

by Amalasuntha

“Stay away from the dollymops,” I tried to make it sound as a friendly joke, instead it came out like a stern warning.

“Thank you, I shall” he replied, smiling, graciously accepting my poor attempt at humour” I have no desire for the company of such tonight.”

We stood together a few steps from my door, the easy companionship between us somehow awkward now we were alone.   He paused at the large bay window, the central sash wide open in the autumn night, and looked out across the walled garden and beyond to the city gas lamps. I listened to the ponderous heavy tock of the hallway grandmother clock, tucked between short bookcases, the shallow hiss and spit of the candles in their glass shades which filled the corridors with rose-scented soft flickering light.  I smoothed down my bodice, straightened my cameo and searched for something to say.  He was thinking about being out there, that much I knew from our acquaintance.  We had a long friendship, but for all that, I only knew so far what he wanted me to know about his personal life.  Perhaps this was what intrigued me to know him better, though all my recent attempts, both subtle and direct, had failed to gain any more of him than I had previously known before. We paused, I because I could not enter my room without first seeing him leave, and he, because in all probability he waited for me to safely retire before he left.

“Goodnight Mr Whitwire” I said with a smile.  “I shall ensure the window remains open for you”. It was not an idle promise; the staff here at Cranleigh Gardens were well used to our Company’s little eccentricities.  I reached for the door handle and turned it.

“Miss Constance.” And with that, he touched the brow of his favourite hat and politely nodded his head to wish me goodnight. I watched over my shoulder as he stepped carefully through the open window onto the low porch roof.  I had seen him do this before, but it was all I had seen.  His stocky figure stood for a moment, liminally breathing, slowly allowing himself to become, then he carefully removed his frock coat, pocket-watch and cravat, folding them carefully, bending with surprising grace as he placed his top hat on the tiles, making a cloth mausoleum to the man he was under the sun.  Watching him squat there, I was reminded of how short he was.  Breath billowed into the cool night air, as steam from an engine, before he leaned forward and beat the tiles in hard staccato rhythm.  He leaped off to be swallowed by the darkness.  Sometimes he makes it too easy for me to forget he’s not entirely human.

 

With him gone, the hallway seemed colder; I pulled my sheer shawl tighter around my shoulders to no effect, and hurried into the warmth and light of my room to retire for the night. It was not overly late, but the complexity of recent events required time to clearly think and, with members of our Company still in the downstairs lounge discussing current events and in the case of Cornelius liberally enjoying the famous Cranleigh Gardens Brandy, the only place I could do so was my own room. I placed my boots outside for overnight polishing, changed into my night attire, lit the night lights and turned the key in the lock, knowing now that I was truly alone. My favourite part of any day was the time I spent sitting in front of the mirror brushing my hair out at the end of an evening; I took time over it, thinking through the rhythmic motion, enjoying the quiet and familiar task. We had just begun a case, and as usual, my mind was afire with possibilities and potential connections

‘What is the key to all this?’ I asked out loud. ‘Is that theft of those old keys from that desanctified church connected to all this? Prosper seems to think so, Nathaniel doesn’t. That pickpocket in Henley? I think he’s unrelated, why else go for a light purse when the documents were so much more valuable?  What about that…’ I groped for the right word ‘tattered catchpenny Lady of Affections?’ Alone in my room, I could not bear to stoop to the slang term. ‘She’s turned up here last night and tonight and been refused entry.   She seems quite taken with Prosper, but he is something of a uniqueness, so maybe it’s just curiosity?’  I paused, thinking out loud “And that letter which arrived here this morning, what are we supposed to make of that?  Logically it would seem to relate to us, but how can the author know that we’ve been attached to this case, and not some other Company?  Mores the point, how do they know about the work of Company’s such as ours?  Why deliver it here, where we were bound to read it?  And what about Captain Roberts, he left his calling card here again this morning; should I really accept his invitation to step out for an evening’s company?  He doesn’t know about the details of our work, certainly, and I can’t afford to have a personal relationship with someone who investigates things for a living, but all the same, he is rather dashing.  And it would be refreshing to have a dinner companion with whom I didn’t work.”  I disliked not giving him an answer, but at the risk of choosing the wrong one, he would have to wait a little longer.

As usual I received no answers, and slept without dreaming.

The following morning, I washed, dressed and made my way down to the breakfast room.  I knew that Prosper was up already, he rose without fail to greet the sun, even in this drab industrialised city, and besides, I could hear his distinctive voice echoing up the stairs telling his usual stories of his long-suffering wife.

“And then my wife she is very angry, very mad.” he waited for the laughter to subside from his audience.  Without entering the room, I knew that he would have every gentleman in the room spellbound, friend or not, such were his tales. “She shout at me ‘Prosper! What are you doing?!’ I say this woman has hurt her knee, she ask me to help and I am looking.”  He pauses for dramatic effect, then sounding hurt “and den my wife she slap me.”  The gentlemen roared with laughter as I came into the room.  Nathaniel wiped the tears of mirth from his eyes with the corner of his napkin, saw me enter and stood from his chair.  At his rising, my companions stood, the other gentlemen went back to their business and breakfast, and a lull of conversation resumed.  I sat on the proffered chair; my Company sat again and resumed their breakfast.  I ordered toast, tea, marmalade and soft-boiled eggs, for some reason I was feeling altogether quite delicate, and so ordered little in contrast to the large amounts that my companions were slowly working their way through.  The daily broadsheets had already arrived, and I asked Cornelius “What news?” just as my toast and pot of tea arrived.  “India” he said by way of answer in between bites of cold ham, scrambled eggs and coffee.  Perhaps he was still sulking from the lifting of his purse a few days earlier.  The petty thief must have thought all his Christmases had come at once when he opened it.  None the wiser about India, I delicately poured a cup of tea, added milk and was about to drink when the smell caught my throat, causing a wave of nausea.  Feeling decidedly pale, I placed the cup back down and leaned forward onto the table to disguise my queasiness.

“What our verbose friend is trying to say,” Nathaniel smiled and his handlebar moustache twitched in sympathy, “is that tensions are continuing to rise in the farthest reaches of the beloved Empire, that the Crown’s decision to send another unit of troops may result in unifying resentment rather than a quelling of the populace, and that we may even be sent there soon to assist in the peacekeeping.”  He poured himself another cup of tea from my pot, stirred in milk and sipped it.

Cornelius grunted, nodded, and ate more of his ham in response.

My boiled eggs arrived and I found I could not face them.  I wondered if fruit juice would settle my stomach.  Turning to ask for some to be brought, the room moved away from me as if I were on a ship and I lost balance, grabbing for the table edge to steady the unexpected shift.  My sudden movement jarred my teacup and I watched the polished teaspoon bounce off the edge of the saucer, hit the white cloth and lay quite disturbed upside down.  Cornelius paused in his methodical reading and eating, full fork half way to his mouth, Prosper leaned forward to put his hand on the table in front of me.  I felt his solid presence before he asked “Are you feeling well?”  Somehow his hand looked quite out-of-place.

“Thank you, yes,” I managed, feeling embarrassed more than anything. “A moment’s imbalance, that’s all”
“You look quite pale, my dear,” Nathaniel put his teacup down and looked concerned. “Perhaps some fresh air would assist?”  I nodded, not trusting to speak.
“I shall accompany you,” he announced. “I am done with breakfast and could do with a stroll to allow it all to settle.”  He stood, and came to the back of my chair.   My company stood as we walked from the room: that I could manage at least.  Outside in the cool hallway the feeling subsided.  We walked through the lobby and out the front doors into the coach turning circle.  Nathaniel proffered his arm and I took it gratefully, still not trusting the nausea had entirely gone.  He led me to the left and onto the gravel path which circuited the walled gardens, taking in the folly by the riverside.  It was a walk I would normally enjoy, but I was too concerned with my health to focus on the sights and sounds of the city awakening.

“Did you sleep well?” he asked gently. “Perhaps some dream left you unsettled?”

They are all affectionately, fiercely protective, in their own ways. Nathaniel simply states his protectiveness more directly that the others. It is an unusual arrangement, I grant you: an unattached young lady travelling in the company of three men. You might think it very unladylike and not proper behaviour at all, but since being employed and attached to my Company, I have found it to be the safest I have ever felt. They protect me, I do nothing as unseemly as the physical aspects of our work, but sometimes the social occasions and planning aspects can do worse than having a woman assigned to them. I lend dignity and a certain class to a situation, as well as being able to think clearly and quickly through puzzles and conundrums. Being established Companions before my arrival some two years ago; I can safely say that my assignment caused some concerns amongst them as to my abilities and frailness of my gender. Since then, I have proved my worth, and all of them have come to think of me in terms of a younger sister, rather than an object of potential wifely affections.

I realised I had not answered Nathaniel “Thank you Mr Whitwire, I’m feeling much better now.” I smiled weakly, for the faint nausea had not quite left my insides.

He smiled back, but from the raising of his eyebrow he did not quite believe me.

“That’s good to hear.” he replied courteously.

I did not answer, wrapped in my own thoughts. Nathaniel knew me well enough to simply accompany me gently round the circuit, on occasion pointing out songbirds, a late flowering plant or a particular cloud for my amusement. In the end, we walked fully round the gardens, pausing at the riverside folly for a quiet moment to watch the sun rise over the water. By the time we got back, the turning circle was busy with horses and carriages for guests were leaving and arriving, the noise quite disconcerting after the quiet of the riverbank.

We returned inside to find breakfast had been cleared away, the staff busy carrying broadsheets, returning polished shoes to their owners, clearing breakfast trays and carrying dirty bedding from empty rooms. Nathaniel turned to me, “I expect we shall meet for the morning’s discussions soon.” He paused. “Shall I call on your room for you?” I nodded, and with that, we went our separate ways at the top of the stairs.

Read more about Amalasuntha HERE

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