Phaetons and Phantoms

I just can’t quite leave Joshua & Co. alone, so here is a continuation of the Southern Gothic-Steampunk saga that began here and continued here and here .


         Joshua woke to blazing sunlight that poured through the dust coated windows of the kitchen, looking like a huge cloud of steam settled just outside. His mouth was dry and his skull began to pound. He shoved the heavy driving coat someone laid over him to the side and struggled to sit up, grimacing at the nausea that roiled through his stomach. Twiggs must have put the jacket over him and left him to sleep when he returned last night. There was little furniture in the house and the floor was as comfortable in the kitchen as anywhere else. He felt stiff and his shoulder ached from being pressed to the wooden floor all night, but the pain in his thigh had subsided. He flexed his cogwork leg experimentally before attempting to stand. Once he was certain it would bear his weight, he leaned against the wall and pulled his plain leather boot back on over the ostentatious gold leg. He attempted to brush some of the dirt off himself but gave up after seeing it was fruitless. Limping slightly, more due to his night on the floor than the leg, he went to look for Twiggs. And some water.
         He found Twiggs on the front porch, surrounded by a dozen or so other slaves. He was giving them instructions on making the house livable. Joshua looked at the faces, he recognized a few of the housemaids and the butler from his house in Charleston, but the others were new faces—men and women Twiggs found for him. Some people would curl their lips at him giving so much power to a slave, but Twiggs kept Joshua alive when he could have let him die. In Joshua’s weakest moments, Twiggs never asked anything of him, or threatened him, or tried to blackmail him. Joshua came to trust Twiggs with his health and his life, trusting him with money to purchase new slaves was nothing.
         “This is Mistah Hawkins,” Twiggs said, noticing Joshua on the porch.
         “Hello,” Joshua said, conscious of the dirt on his face and his disheveled hair. “Twiggs has you well in hand I see. Listen to what he says as you would listen to me. If you are ill or troubled, do not hesitate to speak with him or myself. If you misbehave or run away, you will be punished. If you do not, you will have three meals, a clean place to sleep, and clothes and shoes to wear. I expect the house to be kept clean and the grounds maintained.”
         The chorus of soft “yessahs” was punctuated by several sideways looks from the new acquisitions. Several of them had never been personally addressed by their masters, certainly they were never told to bring their troubles or sicknesses to them.
         “Carry on, Twiggs. Oh, did you bring any food from the hotel?” his stomach reminded him of his reasons for seeking Twiggs.
         “Yessah, it’s in the icebox in the kitchen. There’s fresh water and lem’nade, too. Your suitcase is in the autocar, should I fetch it?” Twiggs gestured towards the stables-turned-garage.
         “No, Twiggs. I’ll get it a bit later. I’m going to see if the old swimming hole still has water.”
         It wasn’t a steaming bath in a copper tub, but it would have to do. Joshua turned back to the house and went in search of food. The cold chicken and cheese he found did wonders to quell the nausea and Twiggs managed to get the old icebox working so the lemonade was almost ice cold. Joshua wondered how soundly he slept if Twiggs worked on the contraption while he slept feet away. He shook his head, then regretted it as a new wave of pounding resounded in his skull. With thoughts of the sparking water he hoped was in the swimming hole, he slipped out the back door and made his way to the autocar to fetch a clean pair of clothes.

         Charlotte sighed as she glanced in the glass. Isabella would approve of this dress from the wide skirts to the lace trim around the sleeves and neckline. At least it wasn’t pink. The hat was absolutely ridiculous. It was a shrunken top hat of red silk, to match the flowers on the straw colored dress and had a tiny wisp of a veil that got caught in her eyelashes and on her nose. She really only wore her working clothes home to annoy Isabella.
         And it worked like a charm, she thought cheerfully.
         Her older sister really was a prig. Charlotte prodded at the net veil before giving it up as lost and strode towards the door, wondering if she would fit through it after all.
         Isabella looked up over the top of the novel she sat reading and gave Charlotte a self-satisfied nod. Charlotte curtsied ostentatiously, just managing to keep the stupid little hat on her head before, with unnecessary flouncing of her full skirts, she walked towards the door.
         “Where are you going?” Isabella demanded. “It’s absolutely scorching outside, you can’t possibly mean to—”
         “I’m going for a drive. I’ll take the phaeton. No, Boggs, no need to fetch anyone,” she said in a stage whisper. “I’m going to drive myself and anyone who disagrees can eat steam,” she raised her voice at the end and was gratified by a yelp from Isabella.
         Charlotte laughed to herself as she let Boggs help her with her driving coat and gloves. She tried to keep the swearing to a minimum when she came home, especially when Mother was around. But Isabella so resembled a gaping fish when even the mildest vulgarity crosses Charlotte’s lips that she simply couldn’t resist. She waited on the porch while the horses were hitched to the phaeton. They were one of the few families that still kept horses, originally because Father insisted and later because Mother couldn’t bear to let them go. The deep roan mares were well looked after, Charlotte saw with pleasure. Their coats gleamed and their silky manes flashed in the sunlight. Charlotte stroked their velvety noses and whispered greetings into their silk feathered ears before she allowed one of the stable boys to help her into the conveyance. The help was necessary in the over-sized balloon she wore.
         She wedged her skirts in the two-seater as well as she could, gave Boggs and the boys a merry wave, and flicked the reins. The phaeton rumbled over the dirt road and soon the house was out of sight. Charlotte enjoyed the feel of the hot sunlight on her nose and cheeks, aware that she would be even browner by the time the day was out. She inherited their father’s looks–tall and lean with skin that weathered and blonde hair that turned nearly white in the sun. Isabella was all their mother–soft and voluptuous with her auburn hair and cream skin. Charlotte flicked the reins again and leaned forward slightly as the horses picked up their pace.
         Aimlessly, she guided them down the roads that ran through their properties, past the fields that gleamed with cogwork machinery and healthy crops, lifting a hand to the field workers that paused as she rocketed by them, destination unsure. Before she quite realized where she was going, she reached the border of their land, where trees grew unchecked and the air was filled with the scent of magnolias and dogwood blossoms. She slowed the horses to a walk as the phateon rolled through the dappled sunlight, bouncing slightly over the uneven pathway, carpeted over the years with grasses and wildflowers.
         “Whoah there, beauties,” she reined the horses to a stop and cranked the handbrake into place.
         She wrenched her fingers free of her gloves and finally unpinned the obnoxious silk hat, throwing it on the seat. With no one to help her down–and no one to care–Charlotte hopped out of the phaeton, feeling for a moment as though her skirts held her aloft before she landed lightly on her feet. She ran a hand over one of the huge yellow wheels. Her father always loved bright colors.
         She wound her way around the trees until she came out into the open again. She paused at the fence. The painted white metal railing was flaking away to reveal spots of rust that sent chills across her spine as she ran her fingers over the pitted surface. Encroaching weeds clung to her voluminous skirts, filled the air with the buzzing of cicadas and the scent of summer and honeyed sunlight. Twin stone columns, velveted with moss and spattered by bird droppings stood sentinel. Charlotte gazed over the edge of the rail where the ground sloped, picking out the headstones that jutted like rotting teeth. Soft wind caressed her long blonde hair, murmured against her neck: Welcome home, Lottie.
         She shuddered and gripped the railing tightly, shaking her head to dispel the words.
         “I’m not home,” she whispered. “This place stopped being home a long time ago, you know that, Papa.”

photo can be found here

8 thoughts on “Phaetons and Phantoms

  1. Excellent! I still love the characters. I like how the world is fleshing out around him and his fellows! Great job! 🙂

  2. Darling, may I just say that I have learned so much about character development and descriptive prose by reading you. I only hope I can apply what I have learned as I enter into my own endeavours (with a U, and Google spell correct be damned!). You are looking for “action”? Remember to apply what you know of basic storytelling formula — Man vs Nature, Man vs Man, or Man vs Himself (such patriarchal educations we all received, no? But you get the gist). You can also suggest Man vs the Supernatural as a possible subcategory of the first conflict type. Now that you know your characters, try to imagine how they might act and/or react to conflict. Pick a conflict, and throw them into it and see what happens. Perhaps try a couple just on your own, for your own personal gratification.
    Also, I know you were concerned that this would be too long — but I honestly get lost in your descriptions and your characters, and it didn’t feel long to me at all. Also, nice touch bringing it around to the Little Lottie flash fiction, darling. That was an unexpected surprise.

    Oh, and in the third line, you need a space between someonelaid.

    • Firstly, thank you for the edit! I’m surprised no one else caught it. Secondly, thank you for the compliments (as always) and long live the “U”. I will say I have plenty of action stored up in the future for both Joshua and Charlotte, but I needed some more progression before it happens. I will definitely take the advice to heart! I’m glad you liked Little Lottie coming in at the end. It’s wonderful how those little Friday Fictioneers can inspire entire characters.

  3. I thought I recognized that last little bit. I love Charlotte’s attitude of self-reliance. Where has Joshua come from that he is so worn out, and slept on the floor? Has that story been told and I have forgotten it, or is there another story to be told?

    • The links to the first two parts of this ongoing story are linked at the top but the first is “The Fall of the House of Hawkins” and the second is “Bourbon and Broken Glass.”

      • I read those again (and enjoyed them again) but I was trying to figure out if something specific had happened to Joshua, or if it was just his condition troubling him. It must be the latter.

      • Yes, his condition and self-medication with a bottle of bourbon are the reason for the rough morning! Perhaps I need to revisit and clarify that.

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