Edited by Phyllis Irene Radford & Laura Anne Gilman
The Persistence of Souls
London, England, 1840
Gregory Beale stumbled through the French doors of the Lovelace House conservatory, clutching his blackened right arm to the ruin of his chest. Around him, brass and enamel trees glimmered in the moonlight. The scent of smoke and charred flesh he carried with him mingled with the scents of oranges and roses created for this place by a leading Parisian parfumeur. A silver cat stalked past him without pause as he staggered forward and a golden stag paced unconcerned behind the lemon trees. Only the jeweled serpents twining through the branches paused to notice the monster he had become shambling through their jeweled Eden.
Pain lanced through the bones of his face and straight into his brain. The singing of the host of mechanical birds was torture to his remaining ear, and a constant steady ticking as of a thousand pocket watches set his injuries throbbing to its rhythm. He knew if that ticking ever faded, one of the three keymen standing silently against the wall would move to locate the faltering creation and wind it up again using the proper key from the great ring on its belt.
But not one of them would move to help him. Not without its mistress’s orders.
“Vigilance,” he rasped again as he shambled forward. Please, please, let them recognize me. “Vigilance!”
A bronze mastiff appeared from around the edge of the fountain. Around its feet clustered three black lacquered spiders, each the size of a pigeon.
Beale’s legs would carry him no further. The impact as he tumbled to the floor felt as if it must shatter his charred bones. A spider scuttled closer. From his one good eye, Beale could see the orange hourglass emblazoned on the mechanism’s belly. It would finish him off in a moment if he didn’t make himself known. For a heartbeat he was of a mind to let it.
“Vigilance,” Beale croaked toward the dog. “I am Gregory Poke Beale. Fetch your mistress.”
The dog’s tail waved twice, steady as a metronome. Then, it turned and padded away, its paws clicking lightly against the mosaic floor.
With the dog’s departure, the spiders folded their legs, becoming little more than black stones. Some odd detached part of his mind was aware that it was a great privilege to be observing these delicate creations so closely, even if it was only through one eye. Even if it was only through a haze of burning pain.
Beale tried to lift his head and failed. The Countess Lovelace crouched down beside him. “What has happened?”
“So sorry, my lady.” He turned his face toward her and she gasped as she saw the ravages of the burn, how the brass rim of his flying goggles had been embedded into his flesh.
“Are they here now? The ones who did this to you?”
He shook his head slowly. “Can’t know I survived the crash,” he grated. “Would’ve caught me…so sorry, my lady.”
“Who did this to you? Who is responsible?”
The pain was drifting away. It was all but gone. He tried to think, but he was too filled with wonder. The relief was indescribable. He would be able to sleep now. He could sleep, and all would be better.
She was speaking to him, Countess Lovelace. So beautiful. Never had thought she would be so. He wanted to answer her, but he could not. Sleep was so close. Sleep and the pain would never return.
“Answer me, Mr. Beale! Who did this to you?”
With a supreme effort, Beale made his ruined mouth move.
“Your father,” he whispered at last. “Your father.”
But it was too much, the return to the pain and the fear. I’m sorry. Truly, my lady, I am.
Gregory Beale let beautiful oblivion claim him.
Trembling, Ada Lovelace stood. She put her hands to her face. When she lowered them again, she was pale but calm.
“Bastion,” she said.
One of the keymen moved forward smoothly.
“Remove Mr. Beale.” She bit her lip. “Take Carriage No. 1 to the Camden facility.” It would be bad enough to have him found there, but better there than in the house. “Leave him in alley Number 3. Do you understand?”
The keyman bowed again.
“Gently,” said Ada.
Bastion bent and tenderly scooped up the blackened corpse. Cradling Mr. Beale’s remains, Bastion moved to the open door and walked out into the garden. Ada, the mastiff pacing beside her, closed the door behind it, turning the three locks.
For a moment she stood there, her palm pressed flat against the cold glass. Ada King, Countess Lovelace was a fashionably slim woman, but unfashionably tall. Her wide-set brown eyes were called intelligent by her friends and cold by her detractors. Her features were regular, even pretty, but her coarse and ink-stained hands were the despair of her family and her lady’s maid.
Ada wanted to pray, to grieve. She wanted to feel anything except the horrible wish that Mr. Beale had waited one more day to die.
Gradually, the familiar steady ticking that filled the garden slipped inside her, calming the riot of thought and emotion. She was able to lift her head, more than a little relieved to find her cheeks were wet.
I remain human after all.
“Come, Vigilance,” she ordered softly.
With the mastiff beside her, Ada left the garden by the interior door. She did not have to look back to know the spiders returned to their hiding places.
Copyright © 2009 by Book View Café. All rights reserved.
edited by Phyllis Irene Radford and
Laura Anne Gilman
$4.99 (Anthology) ISBN 978-0-98284-401-4