Forewarning to you, dear readers. I had immense fun attempting to pull off the Victoriana Dickens/Doyle-esque verbosity for verbosity’s sake literary style of the era we now call Steampunk. If authors were still paid by the word, then I’d be set. Alas… such is not the case these days. Those of us who had to suffer through
Blithering Wuthering Heights or Great Expectorations Expectations never want to read through that sort of thing again. I expect the market for those who actually like that sort of thing is minimal at best.
I still had fun writing it. As my first audience, I found this all funny. It’s reaching other audiences that’s the embuggerance. Therefore, with a little trepidation, I give you the first chapter of Beauties and the Beastly:
In which we meet the various Dramatis Personae
Violet thought uncharitably about the sea. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the captain swore that this had been a smooth voyage to Isla de Lupe. In her humble opinion, if she never set foot on another ocean vessel for the rest of her life, she would be a very happy woman. If she dared turn away from the stern railing, she would see the island itself as a dark shape on the horizon. Lumpish and uneven, like a pile of broken china, if it were left behind by giants and then beset by trees.
Twin lighthouses jutted from the formerly-impassable reefs like the snaggle teeth of a sea serpent. They were tall enough to remain lit in the roughest of storms, but they were still squat and ugly things. Someone really should have sent an architect to make better ones.
“Hallo lovely,” said a snarl of a voice.
Violet needed no further prompting to retch over the railing. The sea sickness was odious enough, but the very presence of Mr Wolffe and his compatriots, Messrs Wolf and Blevins, was enough to make her want to purge every meal of which she’d ever partaken.
“Still ain’t got your sea legs, ey lovie?” said Wolf, with an accompanying chuckle from his perpetual shadow, Blevins.
Violet could not, and would not, engage them in conversation. They had already proven themselves to be more than odious in their persistence. Why, Blevins had once had the Captain himself introduce him to herself and her friends. She would not waste what little wit and energy she still possessed in conversation with those odious three.
Violet could not make the mistake of fainting near these men. Poor Emmaline had made that grievous error, only to waken halfway through Wolffe’s cabin door. She was saved, thankfully, by a combination of screaming her lungs out and a valorous crewman coming to her rescue.
Ever since Emmaline’s near disaster of an encounter, the five of them had endeavoured to stick together. Violet, Emmaline, Gloria, Justinia, and Meredith together could make enough of a Scene to deter all but the most boorishly oblivious of men.
Sadly, Mr Wolffe was solidly in that category. When he wasn’t attempting to be saucy in their general direction, he followed them. Well. Repeatedly “going in the same direction” as them, and using well the excuse that it was a small ship and there were few places to walk. But what he was really doing was waiting, like a predatory beast, for one of them to separate from the others… and show signs of weakness.
And sadly for Violet, that particular victim was herself.
“What’s the matter,” he cooed, trying to sound cheerful and easy-going. In the same way that a burly bruiser of the fisticuff pits would call a trouble-maker ‘pal’. “Cat got your tongue? Got no civil conversation with a civil gentleman?”
If he grabs me, I shall throw up in his face, thought Violet. And it will serve him right.
“There you are!” Salvation came in the sturdy shape of Mrs Caldwell. Chaperone, avenging angel, salvation, and the very embodiment of Fortitude all rolled into one. A combination of seventeen children and Mr Caldwell had left her world wise and travel weary without setting one foot outside of London, proper. She was taking a simultaneous holiday from all of them by acting as the five ladies’ chaperone for the voyage and their sojourn on the Isle. “You know you should never be alone, Miss Blakely. There’s dangerous types all over this ship. Including that ugga-mugga heathen.”
That ‘ugga mugga heathen’ was one of the many traders coming out of Isla de Lupe to expand their business beyond the island and its deadly reefs. The Isle didn’t have much in the way of Class Difference, and its natives tended to view the pageant of Victorian London with a smirk on their face and laughter fighting to escape their chests.
“Please,” said Violet to Mrs Caldwell, “compared to some company on board, Mr Garoux is positively heavenly.” She did not bother to glare at the examples of some company before her. It would only incite them. She turned her thoughts to Mr Louis Garoux, a far more pleasant subject than the three despicable examples currently “going in the same direction” as herself and Mrs Caldwell.
Mr Garoux was certainly what most would call a ‘noble savage’ even though he was certainly less savage than the average denizen of Whitechapel. He was as brown as a nut and spoke several languages. His startlingly sapphire eyes sparkled with wit when they weren’t alight in amusement.
He had made a scene in London. He and all the other Lupian traders down at London docks. Initially for his native Lupian wear that was neither definitively masculine nor feminine. And once again when he obtained a Saville Row suit and joined in with London Society.
The assembled ladies of London didn’t quite know where he fit in the strict order of things, and tended to file him as a ‘foreign delegate’ when at a loss for his real title. He was definitely suave, and spoke elaborate English without once seeming like he was showing off.
Violet knew for a fact that he could make one feel special and important by the mere act of listening. She and her friends were certainly impressed enough to take the steamer all the way to the tropics where Isla de Lupe sat like a mole in the middle of the skin of the fair ocean. His company was indeed welcome, and it didn’t matter a whit what the subject of conversation was. He was entrancing no matter what he had to say.
And it was through him that she learned all about the island and the natives who lived there. And especially his twin sister, Lutetia.
Women were not welcome on their own in London. Should one dare to walk the streets on their own, their honour and perhaps their very lives were at risk. Miss Garoux, with her island ways, would have doubtlessly caused more of a disturbance than the rest of the Lupians combined. Fortunately for both her and London, she was as wise as her brother and decided to wait for appropriate company to come to her.
Miss Garoux had a great desire to learn about London Womanhood in general and how to behave in Society. The manuals, he said she said, were a little too obscure for her and she needed some company to explain it properly.
Some, like Violet, had heard of the beauty of the tropical island and, swayed by the alien beauty of its natives, had leaped at the chance to allegedly civilise some noble savages. What surprised her, once she was underway and had a chat with many other Lupians, was that no other Lupian women wished for an opportunity to be civilised.
Messrs Wolffe, Wolf and Blevins broke off on their “going in the same direction” when they saw a proper gentleman coming the other way. Typical of them to remove themselves the instant they detected any form of opposition. Violet looked up to give the gentleman in question a grateful look and, perhaps, a whispered thanks. It was only then that she discovered her rescuer to be none other than the noble savage in question.
His long, blue-black hair was knotted up into a tight bun atop his head, so as to accommodate his top hat when he wasn’t busy politely doffing it for the ladies. “Good Morning Mrs Caldwell, Miss Sanderson. You may be relieved to learn that our journey is nearly at its end.”
“I’m afraid you have it backwards, again, Mr Garoux,” Violet found herself blushing. “Mrs Caldwell is my employee, and therefore addressed second.”
The mildly embarrassed smile made him look even handsomer. “Ah, forgive me. Things on my island are far less complicated and I still find myself in great confusion as to who ranks over whom. And I must beg your fair forgiveness twice, as this vessel is yet too large to traverse the reef canal. You shall all have to transfer to smaller boats for the very last leg of the journey.”
“Don’t you mean ‘we’ must transfer, Ugga Mugga?” snapped Mrs Caldwell.
Mr Garoux let the insult sail merrily over his handsome head. He chuckled brightly and said, “Only my luggage will travel by boat, dear lady. I plan on swimming the last couple of miles. So eager am I to set foot on my native soil, once more, that I can not tolerate any further delay.”
The giant’s broken tea set, off the bow, resolved itself into mountains, buildings, and trees. And a veritable forest of small sails. Closer to, native divers took their air on some jutting rocks before plunging back into the depths as others brought up baskets of shattered coral.
Violet would always remember wondering why she wasn’t offended by these distant brown figures with their hair turned into braids down their backs and their bodies quite bare of all but the briefest of loincloths. She did remember being secretly glad that Mrs Caldwell hadn’t spotted them. Then Violet would have to be offended with her.
She directed her gaze to the lighthouses and indicated them in order to make certain Mrs Caldwell wouldn’t spy the divers. “They don’t look very majestic, do they?”
“They serve their purpose. We have no need of vanity in that. Besides, it was the Empire that demanded their placement, and the Empire who insisted on their overly complicated construction.” A smile that showed many startlingly white teeth. “We’ll show them how it’s done when they collapse. I’d give them five good storm seasons before that happens.”
Mrs Caldwell, full to the brim with patriotic pride, challenged him again, “And what would you know about engineering, Ugga Mugga?”
“Our buildings have withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and cyclonic tempest alike, Mrs Caldwell. And they’ve only needed a little sprucing up, afterwards.”
“Hmf. Cheek,” dismissed Mrs Caldwell. “If it isn’t British, then it isn’t any good.”
Mr Garoux opened his mouth, shut it again, and bit his lip a little. The near-permanent Lupian smirk twitched his lips once more. One day, when she had the opportunity to be out of Mrs Caldwell’s earshot, she would have to ask a Lupian what they found so blessedly funny.
Today was not the day for any of that to happen.
Mr Garoux glared at something over Mrs Caldwell’s shoulder. “May I ask… have you and your friends been… bothered… by the less than excellent Messrs Wolffe, Wolf, and Blevins?”
“Exceedingly,” said Mrs Caldwell. “Not a day goes by when they aren’t making a pest of themselves. They aren’t doing anything directly wrong, per se. They can dance a quadrille around all the rules and I positively despise them for it.”
The ship heaved, and so did Violet’s poor, abused stomach. She struggled to keep what little was in her down and belched dangerously. “…pardon…” she mumbled. “I, too, find them more than odious.”
“I shall enquire of the captain that the ladies and gentlemen be shipped ashore separately. Perhaps if you, Miss Sanderson, and your four friends and you, Mrs Caldwell,” he waited for her nod of approval, “could also enquire separately, there might be a chance he will believe there is an urgent need. I will take it upon myself to survey the rest of the passengers about their willingness to be segregated from the odious three. And I’m afraid you, Miss Sanderson, may be better for a lie down before the Narwhal comes to rest.”
Despite Mrs Caldwell’s general disapproval of him and all things foreign and ‘ugga-mugga’, he had some very amenable ideas. Some so excellent that even Mrs Caldwell had to grudgingly agree with them.
“Poor lamb,” said Mrs Caldwell. “She needs to have stayed on good British soil. None of your foreign heathen herbs or cursed lands.”
“Why, Mrs Caldwell, I was under the impression that Britain ruled the entire ocean.”
Mrs Caldwell cut him dead with a final, “Cheek.”
“A very good day to you, Miss Sanderson. May you have better health.”
These were, unfortunately, the last words she would hear from him. Her concern was not for his health, but for the hot indignation of her insides. And the fact that soon, very soon, she would once again have her feet on solid ground.