What Ho, Automaton: Sample

What Ho Automaton! by Chris Dolleyby Chris Dolley

Something Rummy This Way Comes

Chapter One

“It’s time you were married, Reginald,” said Aunt Bertha.

I blanched. This was going to be one of those conversations, the ones where quick footwork and the ability to feign a passable heart attack were essential.

“I’ve tried, esteemed aunt, but no one’ll have me. I don’t know why. They’re keen enough to get engaged, but no sooner do they come under starter’s orders than they pull up or fall at the water jump. I fear Reginald will never see the winner’s enclosure of the Matrimonial Stakes.”

“Nonsense. Your problem is that you don’t try hard enough.”

“Trying’s not the problem, venerable A. It’s the going. For some reason the Matrimonial Stakes is always run on heavy ground.”

“Do you talk like this to your fiancées?”

“Like what?”

“Like a blithering idiot.”

“I say–”

“No, you will not say. You will listen. The new season has begun and there are dozens of young debutantes about to be launched into society who have never heard of you. Time to snare one before they do.”

“But–”

“No buts, Reginald. I have discussed the matter with my friends. As of this morning, you have invitations to every ball and dinner party on the calendar. If, for any reason, you fail to make an appearance, I will hear of it. By pneumatic telegram. I have had assurances of this from every hostess in London. You, my boy, are getting married.”

There was only one thing to do.

“And stop writhing on the floor, Reginald. It fools no one.”

o0o

I believe Armageddon commences in a similar fashion – with the Aunt of God unleashing The Four Groomsmen of the Apocalypse. ‘Go forth and round up every bachelor and march him down the aisle,” quoth the Aunt. ‘No excuses will be heard and no quarter given. And don’t look at me like that, Jesus. You’ve been single far too long.’

I sighed, and took a long, lingering look around my drawing room. I was immensely fond of my Charles Street flat. Everything about it was perfect – the proportion of the rooms, its location, its size. But if I got married…

Would I have to give it up? Buy something larger? Set up home in the country?

It wasn’t as though I was averse to marriage. I had every intention of tying the knot one day and listening to the patter of tiny Worcesters fleeing down the corridor pursued by an irate nanny. But not this year. Marriage was an estate for an older, more responsible Worcester.

“Would you care for a cocktail, sir?” said Reeves, my gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton.

“How are you on poisons, Reeves? Know any swift acting ones that mix well with gin?”

“It is not a subject I have studied extensively, sir.”

I explained my situation to him at length, ending my sorry tale by showing him the handwritten invitation I’d received to the Duchess of Rutland’s ball in Denmark Street.

“It’s this evening, Reeves. The runners for the Matrimonial Stakes are in the paddock and I’m about to be well and truly saddled. Know any boats sailing for Botany Bay?”

“I would not recommend such an action, sir.”

“Would you not? I suppose there’s always America, or the Paris Zeppelin. Are the Foreign Legion still hiring?”

“Might I suggest an alternative, sir?”

“Suggest away, Reeves. Any part of the globe except Denmark Street.”

“I was thinking that it may be judicious to acquiesce to your aunt’s wishes.”

“What? Get married? Steady on, Reeves.”

“No, sir. I would never suggest anything as precipitous as that, but … there may be considerable merit in being seen to be trying to get married.”

“Aha, feign acquiescence, you mean? Then pull up the Worcester stallion a furlong from home?”

“I would advise a distance considerably longer than a furlong, sir. Having observed your aunt, I am of the opinion that dragging a stallion over a distance of 220 yards is well within her capabilities.”

I had to agree. And well within the capabilities of some of the young ladies of my acquaintance too.

“Have you a plan, Reeves? Are those little grey cells whizzing around with turbot-charged vim this afternoon?”

“I do have a suggestion or two, sir. It has been my observation that young ladies are oft times of a somewhat shallow disposition and would look with considerable disapprobation upon a young gentleman who was unfortunate enough to have a blemish upon his countenance.”

“What kind of a blemish?”

“A boil springs to mind, sir. It would keep the young ladies at bay without bringing the wrath of your aunt upon you.”

“That’s as maybe, Reeves, but as you can see, the Worcester face is devoid of boils. I fear you must have dined upon a bad turbot.”

“I was thinking of a false boil, sir. With a little theatrical make-up, the results could be quite convincing.”

When you have a giant brain even a bad turbot can get it fizzing. I sat upright, thinking hard.

“But how long could I pull it off for, Reeves? Three balls? A week? I can see Aunt Bertha’s sympathy for her afflicted nephew running out pretty swiftly. She’d summon a doctor and have us both lanced – the boil first, then me.”

“I was thinking that the boil would be no more than a precursor to a series of misfortunes that could thwart your matrimonial prospects, sir.”

“I see where you’re going, Reeves, but I fear that so would Aunt Bertha. If I appear with boils one week, a hunched back the next, followed by an assortment of blackened teeth and smallpox scars, she would have me committed to a sanatorium.”

“Quite possibly, sir. Which is why I would suggest a more subtle approach.”

“This wouldn’t involve feigning consumption, would it, Reeves? A cough here, a sickly look there? Because I’ve tried it before and it does not work. The girl takes one look at the dying Reginald and is overcome by the spirit of Florence Nightingale and visions of romantic poets ebbing away in the arms of their beloved.”

“No, sir. I was thinking more of garlic.”

“Garlic?” I was confused. I’d heard that garlic could ward off vampires, but girls? “Do I wear it about my neck, Reeves?”

“No, sir. It’s for one’s breath. If one chews four large cloves of garlic before each ball, and exhales readily in the presence of young ladies, I posit they will yearn to be elsewhere.”

Now that was a plan.

“If I may further suggest, sir–”

“You have another plan?” I was astounded. “It doesn’t involve a crucifix, does it?”

“It does not, sir. It occurred to me that if a rumour concerning your suitability as a son-in-law should come to the ears of the families of these young ladies, your matrimonial prospects would suffer considerably.”

I furrowed the Worcester brow. “What kind of a rumour, Reeves?”

“Financial, sir? Perhaps a risky foreign investment that threatens your financial prospects?”

This required some thought. I inclined my head to the right. I don’t know why, but I find I always think clearer with a slight list of the noggin to starboard. Maybe it takes the pressure off the left-hand grey cells. Maybe it chivvies along the ones on the right. Who knows? I was about to ask Reeves when I remembered the pressing task at hand. That’s the problem of inclining your head in thought – it can send your little grey cells rolling away in all directions.

Seconds passed in deep list. I could see the merit of Reeves’s plan. A rumour that Reginald Worcester was on his uppers would vastly diminish his marital prospects. But I had a tailor and several bookmakers who looked upon financial insecurity with considerable disapproval.

I shook my head. “Sorry, Reeves. The risks outweigh the benefits. If I’m halfway up the aisle, feel free to pass notes of my imminent bankruptcy along every pew on the bride’s side of the church. But, until then, not a word.”

“I agree it is a risky strategy, sir. How does one feel about insanity?”

“What?”

“As a subject for a rumour, sir. A suitor with a history of insanity in his family would be at a considerable disadvantage.”

Now insanity I could live with. What noble family in England didn’t have a great uncle who chewed the occasional carpet or kept newts in his bedroom? We Worcesters had more than our fair share. Of course, most families preferred not to talk about them. Which meant that the person who did would have a clear advantage! Or do I mean disadvantage?

“How would you propose these rumours be spread?”

“Well, sir, if word were to reach the servants of the families in question, I am sure the information would percolate upstairs. If you wish, I could commence this evening. All the families in question will have footmen or chauffeurs waiting to convey them from the ball.”

o0o

I drove the Stanley Steamer to Denmark Street, following for a while one of the new Daimler steam cars – the ones with the super-condenser and heated seats – and cast an envious eye in its direction. Not that I gave voice to my thoughts. Since meeting Reeves, I’ve been wary of casting opinions on inanimate objects in case they took offence. If Reeves can have feelings, then why not the Stanley? And the last thing one wants on a journey is a sulking car. You used to look at me like that. Aren’t I good enough for you any more? I wasn’t sure if a steam car could sob, but one presumes that if it did, it would play havoc with the boiler pressure.

I left Reeves to park the car and spread rumours – Denmark Street being stuffed to the gills with assorted steamers, Hansoms and coaches-and-four – and found an unobserved spot by an entrance pillar where I swiftly despatched six cloves of garlic. They took some chewing, and considerable inner fortitude, but, compared to the alternative, it was worth the discomfort. Although next time I’d make sure I had a hip flask handy. My throat, already on fire, was beginning to close up.

Within a minute I was penning another mental missive. Next time take a visiting card with you. It was bad enough trying to force my name through a burning and constricted throat without the additional pressure of watching the hostess’s butler wilt before my very eyes.

“Mr Reginald,” he announced, pausing while he leaned back in search of fresher air. “Woo-oorcester.”

Well, if nothing else, I had proof of the garlic’s efficacy.

A few eyes turned my way as I descended the staircase into the ballroom. There had to be about three hundred guests in the room, all dressed to the nines. The Duchess of Rutland was waiting for me at the foot of the stairs, her gaze somewhat withering. I bowed my head towards her, but didn’t stop to chat. When one has a mouthful of a secret weapon, it’s best not to exhale inklings within nostril distance of the enemy’s spies.

And, besides, if I didn’t find a drink soon, I’d choke.

For a full ninety minutes I was the very model of an ardent suitor. I danced, I mingled, I pursued. And, in between the dancing, mingling and pursuing, I talked – at length – recounting the adventures of my good friend Horace Hildebrand Haversham of the Hampshire Havershams, breathily stressing the aitches with such gusto that even a well-exercised fan couldn’t waft the foul air away. Two minutes of Horace Haversham and even the most polite young lady found a pressing reason to visit the far side of the room.

This garlic was a deb repellent of the first order!

That is, until it came up against Miss Emmeline Dreadnought. I’d assumed her a retiring wallflower kind of girl. Tall and willowy, she rarely danced and spent most of the evening hiding within large groups, keeping her eyes downcast and barely uttering a word. But one whiff of Horace Haversham and she changed.

“Your breath smells,” she said as we waltzed around the dance floor.

“Does it?” I replied. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“It does. Do you eat a lot of garlic?”

“All the time. You can never have too much garlic is my motto. I have it with herring, halibut, haddock….” I ran out of aitches.

“Hake?” suggested Miss Dreadnought.

“Of course hake. That goes without saying.” I was about to launch into a further list of aitches when I was struck by the positive lack of meats and vegetables beginning with aitch. Fish: they were legion. But other comestibles – not a sausage.

“Maybe with a haunch of venison?” said Miss Dreadnought. “Or with ham and a Hollandaise sauce?”

I was taken aback. This tall willowy wisp of a girl had broken the Worcester code! I examined her closer, expecting a smile or a smirk but finding neither. If anything, she had a wan, distant look, as though haunted by some great inner sadness.

Could garlic vapours do that to a girl?

“Admonish me if I intrude, Miss Dreadnought, but … is something the matter?”

She looked up, our eyes meeting for the first time.

“I think Amelia Runcible has been kidnapped.”


What Ho, Automaton! by Chris Dolleyby Chris Dolley
$2.99 (Collection) ISBN 978-1-61138-060-6

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