As I haven't posted here for some while - I've been away blogging every Saturday at Book View Cafe - I thought I'd post a snippet from a new story. It's a steampunk version of Jeeves and Wooster set a generation earlier in the Shadow Conspiracy world of 1903. It'll be appearing in the book, Shadow Conspiracy 2, coming out in Jan/Feb of next year from Book View Cafe. One of the stories from the first Shadow Conspiracy volume was a finalist for the Sidewise Award.
Anyway, here's a small extract. The complete story is 8,200 words.
What Ho! Automaton
I think aunts must have come into being on the seventh day when God took his eye off the ball. Let there be light – no quibbles there. Let there be small furry animals – we Woosters have always been strong supporters of our fluffier friends. But let there be aunts? Big mistake. They interfere and have ‘opinions’ which take the form of holy writ. I strongly suspect that Hannibal had an aunt. One that buttonholed him as he was about to set sail for Rome. "Hannibal!" she would have cried. "If you’re off to Rome you must visit your cousin in the Alps. And take those elephants with you. They’re ruining my prize dahlias."
Which was why one Reginald Wooster, put-upon sap of this parish, was staring into a stiff drink at the Drones Club contemplating the inequities of Creation. Not because of elephants – that would have been easy – but because his Aunt Bertha had instructed him to leave immediately for Crandle Castle and extricate his cousin Herbert from an unsuitable engagement.
"Are there any other kind?" I’d asked.
Never attempt repartee with an aunt.
I tried to explain that I was persona non grata at Crandle, having once been engaged to Georgiana Throstlecoombe – until the unfortunate incident with the Pomeranian – and that the young lady in question was certain to be at Crandle and would set the dogs – especially the Pomeranians, who have long memories – upon me the moment I crossed the horizon.
Aunts are impervious to both Latin and Pomeranians.
"Why the long face, Reggie?"
I was snapped back to the present by the arrival of one Lancelot Trussington-Thripp.
"What ho, Stiffy," I said, and then proceeded to give him the low-down on the aunt diktat.
"What you need is a Reeves," said Stiffy.
"Yes, we’ve just found one. He was in a cupboard in the attic."
"Cupboard in the attic?"
My mind boggled on two counts. One, that the club had an attic and, two, that there was a Reeves living up there.
"He must have been there for years," said Stiffy. "He was covered in dust."
My mind reached new heights of boggledom.
"Who, or what, is a Reeves?"
"A dashed brainy automaton," said Stiffy, visibly getting excited and shuffling closer. "He’s dressed like a swami and knows absolutely everything. His brain is positively immense. Barmy’s trying to get him to tell our fortunes."
"Ha!" I said. "Some of us know our fortunes only too well and would rather not be reminded of them."
"Come on, Reggie. Give it a try. He really does know everything. If there’s a way to get out of your Crandle entanglement, Reeves’ll know."
I relented. The Woosters have always had a soft spot for the outsider, and this plan rated a good 100-1 in anyone’s form book.
I followed an excited Stiffy to the billiard room where an even more excited gaggle of fellow Drones were crowded around the far table. No one noticed our arrival. All heads were turned to the figure seated in a chair, which someone had placed upon the billiard table.
Had everyone lost their senses? A chair leg could rip the green baize!
As for the swami automaton chappie: never had I seen such a morose cove, his giant head topped with a pink turban and his shoulders swathed in flowing robes of pinks and orange hues. Machine or not, I felt for the poor blighter. I’d had similar experiences in my childhood – being forced to sit still in the nursery while my older sister, the theatrically inclined Lady Julia, proceeded to dress me up like a prize peacock.
"I say," shouted Stiffy, pushing himself to the head of the throng. "Step aside, Humpy, there’s a good chap. This is an emergency. Reggie has aunt trouble."
Like the Red Sea, when confronted by Moses holding a note from his mother’s sister, the throng parted.
"Come along, Reggie," said Stiffy, beckoning. "Tell all to Reeves."
I recounted my sorry tale, omitting not a single Pomeranian. The Reeves listened intently, nodding his head in the places a living, breathing son of Adam would have felt like inclining his noggin too. As machines went, this Reeves was of the first rank. One could entirely believe he was human.
"Well?" said Stiffy when I’d finished. "Can you save our Reggie, Reeves?"
"There is a strong possibility that I can effect a positive outcome, sir," said Reeves. His voice was most un-machinelike. Not that I’d ever heard a machine speak, but if I had, I’d imagine it would be redolent of gears and punctuated by clanks and puffs of steam escaping from the lips.
I espied not a single puff. This Reeves spoke like an educated cove. Maybe not Oxford, but certainly one of the lesser public schools.
"How?" I asked.
The Reeves took a deep breath. Still no puff of steam, or audible evidence of a piston clanking away in his chest.
"It is a most vexing situation, sir. One necessitating the utmost care and co-ordination. Are you prepared to execute my instructions to the letter?"
"Most certainly. You have the word of a Wooster."
"Very well, sir. You must take me with you to Crandle."
The mind reacquainted itself with outskirts of boggledom.
"My presence at the castle is essential, sir, for I need to see the young gentleman and his intended in order to construct the perfect extrication. One that satisfies all parties, and increases the esteem in which you are held by your Aunt Bertha."
The Wooster lips parted but the tonsil area was bare. I was still mired in Reeves’s last sentence. Could he really put me in Aunt Bertha’s good books? Did she have a good book?
And so it came to pass that in the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and three, one Reginald Wooster and his gentleman’s gentle-automaton, Reeves – accoutred now in Saville Row’s finest valetware – left London for the northern climes of the county of Salop and that ancient pile, Crandle Castle.
We made good time; the Stanley Steamer, my second foray into the world of the horseless carriage, behaved itself and required only two stops to take on water.
"Do you need to take on water, Reeves?" I’d asked at the first stop.
"Not at this juncture, sir."
"Well, pray shout when you do. Coal, water, soothing oils. Whatever you require. I don’t wish to return you to the Drones broken."
"Your intention is to return me to that gentleman’s club, sir?"
"Of course. We Woosters have a code. Return what thou hast borrowed."
"A most excellent code, sir, but ... what if the object in question would prefer not to be returned?"
I cogitated for several minutes as my grey cells struggled with the philosophical niceties. When borrowing an umbrella, one does not expect said parapluie to request asylum. Free me, Reginald, let me fly away to Manchester to join others of my kind.
"You have an objection to being returned to the Drones?" I asked.
"If I may be so bold, sir. I did find being locked in a cupboard for fourteen years somewhat less than convivial."
I could see his point.
"How did you come to be locked in a cupboard in the first place?"
"I believe I had been won in a game of cards, sir. The outcome of which was disputed and, for reasons not divulged unto me, I was confined to a cupboard."
"Where you remained until this very day?"
"Indeed, sir. Young gentlemen can be most forgetful."
My conscience was pricked. Had I ever left a manservant in a cupboard? I didn’t think I had, but then if Oxford had been in the habit of handing out blues for memory, the name Reginald Wooster would not have featured.
"Once we’ve finished here, I shall drop you off wherever you wish, Reeves. The world is your cupboard."
"That is most gracious of you, sir."
* * *