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


The continuation of the story told in The Fall of the House of Hawkins and Bourbon and Broken Glass.

top hats and magnolias

       “I hope dear Joshua is feeling better, such a kind note he sent. You saw it, Isabella?” Mrs. Polk lifted her silk fan lazily, her feet propped up on a low stool embroidered with roses.
       “I saw, Mama,” Isabella replied, her hand shaking slightly as she set down her glass of lemonade.
       “…a lovely young man. I am ever so glad he’s back,” Mrs. Polk continued sleepily.
      “Mmm,” Isabella replied, biting her lower lip as she remembered the horrid mass of metal and flesh that now made up part of Joshua Hawkins.
       She shuddered. The father and now the son; perhaps the family was cursed.
       “…was telling your sister–”
       “What?” Isabella broke out of her reverie. “Charlotte isn’t here, Mama.”
       “She is, indeed,” Mrs. Polk struggled to sit up so that she could look at her daughter. “She arrived in Charleston yesterday and she popped by today just before breakfast.”
       Isabella slumped down onto the low settee. First Joshua, and now Charlotte. Was the universe set against her? Her dreams of trips to Charlotte for the Exhibition and the grand balls were all crumbling; she had such high hopes for the summer, too. She stared moodily at her dripping glass of lemonade as it dampened the ivory doily on the table beside her.
       “You know dear Joshua stopped by yesterday? Before he even went back to the plantation. A great compliment to you, my dear, I’m sure,” Mrs. Polk murmured.
       “Yes, Mother. You told me Mr. Hawkins came to call and that’s why I called on him yesterday afternoon,” Isabella tried to keep the bite out of her voice.
       “Oh I did, didn’t I? So silly of me…Such a nice boy, Joshua. Always had an eye for you, for my ‘bella…” Mrs. Polk’s voice drifted off in a snore.
       Isabella sighed and took the fan gently from her mother’s lax fingers and rescued the tilting cup of cooling tea from her mother’s lap. She gestured to one of the housemaids to draw the curtains against the sun that filtered in through the sitting room windows, watching as the sunlight melted into little more than a sliver across the colorful rugs and softly glowing wooden floors. Isabella stared at the watery pattern the bright line of sun made as it rippled through the curtains.A bee trapped somewhere in the room buzzed frantically. Mother slept more and more these days, since the doctor prescribed higher doses of the laudanum. It was good she wasn’t in pain, Isabella thought, but her absentminded mother was becoming positively nonsensical. If only Father was alive… The sound of an autocar outside made her raise her head. Joshua?
       The front door burst open and the gay cry of: “Why hello, Boggs, it’s positively smashing to see you!” brought Isabella out of her seat as though she was on a spring. Hurrying through the dim room, she pulled the paneled doors closed behind her and walked quickly to the foyer.
       “What are you wearing?” Isabella gasped.
       Her sister’s ensemble was horrifying even from the back. Charlotte spun to face her sister, displaying the tight trousers she wore from the front. Her so-called skirt, made of thinnest cotton, swirled from her hips like a cape. Beaten brown leather boots reached her thighs and a fancifully embroidered corset revealed how thin she was beneath the dusty navy duffel coat she was shrugging off her bony shoulders.
       “Hello, Bell.”
       Charlotte’s voice was just as Isabella remembered: husky, sounding as though she was on the verge of a smile or revealing a juicy secret. An indecent voice.
       “You can’t let Mother see you in that,” Isabella said.
       “Mother can barely see the tip of her own nose these days. Besides, I wore this to breakfast this morning and she didn’t say a word,” Charlotte grinned, wide mouth stretching in her familiar catlike smile.
       “You…you…” Isabella choked on a fitting invective.
       “Ungrateful urchin? Troublesome trollop? Wretched wastrel?” Charlotte’s green eyes widened earnestly as she tried to aid her sister.
       Isabella sniffed, her normally milky skin suffused with pink. Charlotte hung her coat on a hook by the door, pointedly ignoring old Bogg’s attempts to help her.
       “Boggs,” she said. “How is the arthritis?”
       Boggs bobbed up and down, mouth twitching despite his best efforts.
       “Oh, it don’t hurt so bad, Miss Charlotte. The summer heat be helpin’, I reckon.”
       “I’m glad to hear it,” Charlotte said, tossing her dusty gloves onto a table.
       “Really!” Isabella exclaimed. “The maids only just cleaned and here you are tracking in dirt and dust from God knows where.”
       “London, Cairo, Venice, and Charleston,” Charlotte ticked the cities off on her long fingers. “God’s cogs, I’m tired. It was a hell of a run we had.”
       She pulled off her grimy black top hat and allowed Boggs to take it while she ripped the pins out of her hair. It tumbled around her shoulders in a riot of silver-blonde curls.
       “Honestly, Charlotte,” Isabella grabbed her sister’s elbow and dragged her towards the stairs. “Have you no decency?”
       “No,” Charlotte freed herself from Isabella’s vise-like grip and ran a hand through her tangles. “I haven’t.”
       “When was the last time you bathed?” Isabella wrinkled her fashionably upturned nose at the tang of sweat, dust, and smoke that hung around Charlotte. Her skin was nearly brown, making her fair hair and eyebrows look even paler. The white shirt she wore under her corset was stained and frayed at the sleeves.
       “Oh, honestly, Isabella. I’ve been travelling for weeks. Can’t you keep your nagging to yourself or will you explode?” Charlotte’s low voice did not rise in volume, but Isabella recoiled.
       “I–I–Mother’s quite ill, you know,” Isabella said, smoothing her full skirts unnecessarily.
       “I know,” Charlotte said. “She wrote me.”
       “She wrote you?” Isabella stopped halfway up the wide staircase.
       “Yes. She always writes me,” Charlotte said over her shoulder, as she continued up stairs, leaving a trail of gold hairpins in her wake. “Don’t worry, Bell. I won’t be staying.”

photo by me

Bourbon and Broken Glass

This is the next installment in my Southern Gothic-Steampunk tale. The first part can be found here.

        The bourbon was nearly gone. With the only two glasses in the house lying in glimmering pieces on the kitchen floor, Joshua was forced to drink straight from the bottle. He felt like a common cobblestoner, gulping moonshine out of a rag-wrapped jar. Twiggs had ushered Miss Polk out and she refused his offer to drive her home in her autocar. Joshua bade her farewell from the floor where the gold screws and wheels in his leg looked particularly out of place on the dusty wooden boards. Her voice trembled as she made her goodbye and she was none too steady as she hurried out the door. Joshua heard the loud hiss of steam as she started her autocar and thundered down the plantation drive. Hours ago. With his own vehicle out of commission in the old stable, he would be forced to sleep at the plantation tonight. The bourbon swished in the bottom of the bottle as he put it to his lips and took a long pull. His gums were pleasantly numb and the tips of his fingers tingled, but the throbbing pain in his thigh was still an irritation.
         Twiggs had left on foot for the hotel in town not long after Miss Polk’s flight. They had rooms reserved and all the luggage was there. Joshua thought longingly of a hot bath and dinner in the hotel dining room. But he could hardly stand, much less walk, and it was miles away. Twiggs offered to carry him upstairs but Joshua waved him off, preferring to sit in the darkening kitchen, watching the shadows traipse across the floor. The cicadas began their chorus and he closed his eyes, listening to the almost forgotten sound. He had become more accustomed to the whistles and hisses of streets full of autocars, the whir and whoosh of dirigibles overhead, and the clatter of mechanical carts as street vendors hawked everything from jewelry and ribbons to expensive cogwork clocks and gleaming toys.
         Even indoors there was constant noise–the hum of the hydrogen lamps, the clink of machinery running through the walls to power them and to warm the pipes running through the walls and the floors. The plantation house was filled with different noises all together. It seemed as though the very walls were speaking to him: groaning and sighing. Joshua’s father had refused to modernize the place; Mason Hawkins’ father and his father’s father lived there with the place just as it was and so would he. The only place Mason allowed any of the new machinery was in the fields–not to spare the field hands–to boost productivity and attempt to save the ailing plantation. The one modern luxury he enjoyed was his autocar until a ride back from town after too many drinks at the hotel led to the accident that cost him his leg and nearly his life.
         Joshua wondered how his father would have felt if he knew the same field machinery that brought him such pride took Joshua’s own leg. A wheel came loose on one of the steam-powered tillers when Joshua had been walking alongside. The slave driving it had wrenched the wheel as hard as he could when he felt it jerk left—keeping the machine from cutting Joshua in half. His sharp swerve caused the tiller to flip over, crushing the man to death and leaving Joshua bleeding in the dust. Joshua wondered how many generations of Hawkinses had fed the plantation fields their blood in vain. He took another swig of bourbon, silently toasting the dead Hawkins men that had died before seeing the ruin of their lives’ work.
         Given the same choice as his father, Joshua accepted without hesitation. The wires that ran through his new leg were painstakingly spliced with his nerves and arteries, using his body’s naturally produced power to run the gears and cogs. It flexed at the knee and ankle and even where the arch in his foot used to be. Sometimes the cogs at his new joints froze up like today, but he had not had such an event in almost a year. The machinists were ever developing and improving their designs.
         If only they could improve the oily tasting tonic he had to take twice daily to make certain the artificial ports that connected his nerves to the cogwork leg did not reject it. He had seen men sitting on street corners with stumps of arms or legs that oozed putrefaction onto the cobblestones, their eyes vacant, lips black with the tar they drank hoping to stem the infection. The hand that lifted the bottle of bourbon to his mouth shook. He did not look down at his leg, afraid he would see the tell-tale darkening in his veins, spider-webbing up his thigh like the insidious roots of some noxious plant. If rejection occurred, there was nothing he could do to stop it.
         When he tilted the bottle back this time, only a few drops trickled down his throat. His head felt heavy and he struggled to keep his eyes open, the bottle slipping from his fingers to settle in the dust. Soon, the only sounds were the melodic buzzing of the cicadas and his gentle snoring. The moonlight through the magnolia trees sparkled off the empty bottle of bourbon and danced across Joshua’s gleaming leg.

image found here