Monday, December 19, 2016

Episode 3: Fate Fiddles with the Track Switch

Fatigue and frustration had sapped all of Amelia's considerable stores of composure by the time McGoffery approved her article about Colonel Pell's gala. She spent the majority of her homeward journey in a fog, still nettled by Gavin's snide writing advice. She received more than a little unwanted attention in her evening dress, ink-and grease-stained gloves, and haggard appearance as she made her way to the Kettery. She tried to ignore the smirks and amused glances of her fellow passengers, especially when, lulled by the warmth of the trolley carriage, she slumped into a momentary doze, only to wake herself with a less-than-graceful snore. So it was with immense relief that she flumped onto her bed at the boarding house and fell into an instant deep sleep.

Daylight streamed through the window the next morning. A plate of small edibles sat on the desk beside her, along with newspaper clippings and a note from Miss Kelley.

"Eager to hear of your evening as soon as you are conscious," the note read.

The first clipping, composed of three columns, was of her article, Gala Launches Latest Argonaut Expedition. She gazed at her name in the byline for several minutes and wondered if she had finally and officially shed her anonymous status. Then she set the clipping aside without reading the article, knowing she would only tear it to pieces in her mind as she always did. The second, smaller clipping erased all thought of her article. Mind whirling, she quickly dressed and went in search of her friend and sole female housemate. She found her in the solarium fussing over an orchid.

"Have I gone mad?" Amelia asked without prelude.

"I should think so,” Miss Kelley said. “I thought you had no intention of marrying each other."

"Our intentions have little to do with this fracas." She gave a quick description of  Alexander's proposal. "I should have suspected something when my mother decided to cut me off.  I asked Alexander to give me a day or two to consider, especially since we had long ago agreed not to actively pursue matrimony. He asked only that I make my decision quickly, before a week had passed at the latest."

"That was only two days ago," Miss Kelley said. "The announcement must have been submitted under the assumption that you would accept him."

"But I didn't accept him and I gave no indication that I would." Her legs felt unstable and she sat on a small nearby bench.

"Except you have, for several years, led your families to believe you would marry," Miss Kelley supplied. "Under the circumstances, it isn't difficult to imagine both families believing they only sped along proceedings that all parties believed inevitable and desirable."

"If you described any other family, I would hasten to agree with you. As it is, our parents have suspected for some time that we have been stalling. Both of us are rather old for having been an item as long as we have without marrying. The usual excuses are worn thin, as are our more inventive explanations." Amelia sighed. "Even our attempts to prove ourselves unsuitable for each other have been struck down. We have given every indication of our disinclination to marry short of simply refusing. We hoped that our parents would accept and allow us to live in peace. But our marriage and the joining of our families has been a particular desire of our mothers since our childhood. Neither of them will set it aside."

"Especially," Miss Kelley interposed, "since you two have maintained an appearance of willingness for so long. You cannot deny that the majority of this situation is your own fault."

Amelia gaped. "Our fault? We had no choice! Even if we had told them from the start that we didn't want to marry, they would have pressed it, anyway. It's what they are doing to us now. If I refuse him, my parents will stop supporting me here, and I will be forced to return to their house, where they will have more immediate control of my actions. I will have to give up the newspaper entirely. My mother has already made that plain. We were only making the best of a situation over which we had no control."

Miss Kelley looked at her friend with a mix of resignation and reproach that signaled the end of that discussion. Amelia had always respected her friend's ability to speak her mind, but Miss Kelley refused to discuss anything she deemed ridiculous, no matter how important the matter was to the other person. Sometimes Amelia found her friend's bluntness refreshing, especially when aimed at Kurt. She felt less satisfaction when she found herself the target.

She was still in the solarium silently pondering the ramifications of the engagement announcement when her mother descended in state upon the boarding house. Mrs. Stodge appeared considerably less impressed with the establishment than she had the day Amelia had moved in, and she had deemed it nearly squalid then. Amelia introduced Miss Kelley, then invited her mother to the common room, mentally willing her housemates to stay away.

Mrs. Stodge didn't hide her disgust with the somewhat tattered appearance of the furniture and sat as close to the edge of the chair as possible, holding her posture erect with the help of her cane. Dark circles already began to form around her eyes. The strain of the trip taxed her already depleted stores of energy, and Amelia knew she wouldn’t have gone through the trouble for anything less than vital business.

"I trust you have seen the papers," her mother said, confirming her suspicions.

Amelia took a calming breath and nodded. "Did you see my feature article? On Colonel Pell's gala?"

Her mother dismissed the questions with a wave of a gloved hand. "Mister Alexander Brinkley has agreed that arrangements for the ceremony should be made as soon as possible, within the month. The Brinkleys’ estate grounds would provide the best location, and Mister Brinkley has also informed me that the smaller country house will pass directly into Alexander's possession once the two of you are married."

"But I haven't accepted him!" Amelia said. “And I have no intention of doing so.”

Mrs. Stodge replied with a tight smile. "We understand that his proposal was, perhaps, rather badly done. He is not what one would call romantic. But you are hardly unaware of his intention; I rather wonder why he waited this long."

"Knowing one is expected to marry a certain person and actually bringing that marriage about are quite separate things," Amelia said, her chest tight from controlling her rising anger.

Her mother's sharp grey eyes held hers from an inscrutable face. "You will not refuse him."

"Why not? Because you deem it so? Because somehow it improves your chances of attending the Regent's Ball?"

"Because I refuse to die uncertain of my daughters' welfare." Her expression didn't change or falter when she spoke of her death, a topic Amelia knew she had learned to discuss with a level of detachment attained only with practice.

Amelia choked back her impertinent reply and drew a deep breath to compose herself. The conversation had reached a familiar juncture. She couldn’t argue with her mother’s dying wish. Even if the deathbed loomed far on the horizon, it loomed large and immutable, and had done so for the past two years.

“But you accept death knowing that your daughter is in a loveless marriage neither party desires?” Amelia asked.

“Don’t be a fool,” Mrs. Stodge replied. “You are not a child, allowed to chase fantasies and white rabbits. You and Mister Brinkley have both played this charade to its end, and we have reached the limits of our indulgence. He understands his responsibilities, but you appear to have forgotten yours. He is the only eligible young man who will have you after this,” she indicated everything in general, “and now this folly is ending.”

“Mister Brinkley,” Amelia said, her words measured and deliberate, “has no interest in women.” She watched her mother’s expression, certain the information would pierce the alabaster mask.

Mrs. Stodge sighed. “We are aware of this.”

“And you still insist that we marry?” Amelia asked, dumbfounded.

“For the sake of your continued well-being and provision, yes. Proclivities notwithstanding, Mister Brinkley is still a functional male, and while the prospect might not meet your romantic sensibilities, you are still capable of bearing children. How the two of you fulfill your differing desires is up to you.”

“Mama, you know as well as I do that this marriage will only bring misery for both of us. I would much rather take my chances with the newspaper than put Alexander through the torment he will inevitably face. You cannot know what you and his mother require of him.”

“We know precisely what we require. Obedience, whether he or you understand the intricacies of the situation or not. Your scholar revolutionary friends have painted a glorious image of squalor and toil, the majesty of the laborer. They are fools, too drunk on absinthe and philosophics to know what a life of labor really entails. A life delineated by pain, hunger, penury. An early death without dignity or hope. A life I lived until your father rescued me. Neither of my parents lived as long as your father or I have. At your age, I had already endured the factories, had nearly married a working man in my neighborhood who would have beaten me, and my children, nightly. I was prepared for that eventuality because I knew I had no other options. But your father found me, elevated me, and together, we swore our children would never know the horrors that I had known. Someday, your scholar revolutionary friends will come to themselves and realize that there is no glory in labor. Only suffering. Marry Alexander Brinkley or you will learn the same lesson.”

Mrs. Stodge trembled as she leaned more on her cane to hold herself up, her skin paler than only minutes earlier. Amelia had never before witnessed that depth of feeling in her mother. She rarely discussed her life before marriage, and had even gone so far as to declare that she had not lived prior to meeting Mr. Stodge. What others viewed as charming, if not melodramatic, marital devotion was, in fact, sincere gratitude and truth. He had saved her. And now she looked to her daughter’s marriage with the same amount of idolatry.

Amelia prepared a cup of tea for her mother, if only to give her time to consider. She needed to speak to Alexander again, and decided to send him a message as soon as her mother left. What she really wanted was to get on the sky trolley car to the Kettery, stow away on an airship, and never return. But she wouldn’t. Not while her mother counted days.

She thought about the gala, the bombastic theatricals of the Argonauts, and Merriday’s less than warm reminiscences of his time with them. It seemed even the exploits of the Adventurer class, despite promising endless thrills and any number of seemingly useless gadgets, failed to meet expectations. Still, there was something to be said for being able to simply leave when circumstances became untenable.

Like the present moment.

She handed the cup of tea to her mother, then sat, still whirling thoughts in her mind, unsure of what she should say.

“I will speak with Mister Brinkley again,” she said at last. It provided a degree of latitude without promising any particular outcome. But she knew she would have to answer eventually. Better to make sure Alexander knew as much as she did. Perhaps she could persuade him to take her side again. However unlikely.

That small amount of promise was enough to satisfy Mrs. Stodge for the present, and mother and daughter drank tea in what might be construed as companionable silence. Then Mrs. Stodge rose to leave.

A clamor in the hallway announced that Kurt and his friends had returned, likely somewhat elevated from the sound of it, Amelia realized. She tried to stop her mother from leaving the room, but only too late. Mrs. Stodge and Kurt nearly collided in the narrow hallway.

Kurt made a low and obsequious bow. “Madame,” he said, then looked up at Mrs. Stodge with an impudent wink. Amelia held her breath and gave Kurt a look that attempted to convey all of the import of the moment, which he subsequently ignored. Mrs. Stodge looked at Kurt and his company with no attempt to hide her disgust, but remained silent. The company moved to let her and Amelia swish past.

“I understand that you are stalling,” Mrs. Stodge said to Amelia before boarding her carriage. “And I understand why. But none of us are in a position to be particular anymore.” She lay a gloved hand against her daughter’s face and smiled weakly, the dark circles around her eyes deepening. “You will be comfortable, and well looked-after. And loved, in a sense. That is the best anyone can hope for.”

Amelia watched the carriage clatter away, one of the few vehicles on the street with real horses, she noticed absently, confused by her mother’s rare and unexpected demonstration of affection.

When she returned to the common room, Kurt and company had already drained the teapot.

“Miss Stodge!” he shouted over the din of conversation, “how lovely to have met your mother. She seems to have quite enjoyed the introduction as well.”

Amelia returned the teapot to its tray with more force than she had anticipated. The clatter silenced the room, as did her glare of open condemnation. “My family is not fodder for your unbounded wit, Kurt.”

“I meant no disrespect,” he began.

“You meant exactly that. No person of Society or wealth escapes your impudent commentary. Your friends might find you clever, but you do your cause a disservice when you speak.”

“My cause,” he emphasized the last word, “has no place for the likes of your snobbish relations. We tolerate you, Miss Stodge, because you are intelligent and open-minded. There is hope for you yet. But she - “ he jabbed his finger toward the street, “represents all that we speak out against. Upper class snobbery.”

“So you believe you have the right to mock and disrespect my mother because she represents something you despise? I live here. She is my mother. She - “

“She is not immune because you happen to live here,” Kurt replied.

“Well, that should be remedied soon enough, in any case,” Amelia muttered, glancing at the telegraph machine as it clacked and chattered. A message scrolled up. Her name was at the top. She ripped it from the roll and reset the feed before taking her message upstairs for some privacy.

Miss Amelia Stodge. We must talk. Meet at Electo Park. AB

Amelia stared at the message for a few minutes, attempting to gather her thoughts, then decided that the attempt was futile, and instead prepared to meet Alexander. Before she left, she chattered out a quick reply to him on the telegraph machine to let him know she was on her way.

She didn’t know what she would say to him in person. Every time she considered herself determined to refuse, she thought again about her mother’s hand against her face, her pallid complexion. That is the best anyone can hope for, she had said. Except Amelia had seen her own name in the by-line of an article. She could hope for more than a platonic marriage.

But then, would she make her mother’s last days miserable with worry about her future?

She reached the station at Electo Park and found Alexander waiting for her at the foot of the stairs, an uncertain smile on his face. She realized his future was tied up in her decision as well. More than ever, she wanted to disappear.

“An excellent day for a stroll, wouldn’t you say?” Amelia asked as she took Alexander’s proffered arm.

“Even in pouring rain, Miss Stodge, a stroll with you is excellent,” Alexander replied.

“Flattery, Mister Brinkley. An unbecoming habit. Except in this case, you are correct, and so I will forgive you.” Amelia smiled at how easily they slipped into their accustomed banter, and tried to imagine spending every day in a similar fashion, matching wits with her most cherished friend. It wasn’t a wholly unappealing prospect.

“Perhaps you should expect more flattery, if your recent journalistic achievement is any indication.”

“You read my article?” she asked, grinning.

“Of course I did! Even my parents were impressed, though they aren’t admirers of the Adventurer class in general or Colonel Pell in particular.” He indicated a turn onto a different path, away from the gathering afternoon crowd. “You did a marvelous job, and now people will know of your talents.”

“Even if that article is the only one I will ever write under my own name?” Amelia asked.

“Who knows what awaits you?” he replied.

“That wasn’t the only article of note in the paper today, and you know it,” Amelia said when they had left the general populace behind.

“That was my mother’s doing,” he admitted, somewhat ashamed. “But then, this whole relationship has been our mothers’ doing. They have encouraged us since we were children.”

Prodded is more like it, Amelia thought, imagining livestock plunging panic-stricken into the abattoir. Goaded.

“Never asking us even once if we wanted to be married to each other,” she said.

“We didn’t give them reason to consider,” he said. “And now we have little choice in the matter.”

“We always have a choice, Mister Brinkley,” Amelia said. “Now it’s only a matter of determining what is more important to us. Normally I would say my independence is most important, but...” Hesitation turned to a pause, then a sigh.

“But,” he encouraged.

“My mother visited me this morning.”

Mister Brinkley faltered in his step. “Perhaps we should sit down,” he said, leading her to a nearby bench. They sat for a moment in silence and thought. Then Amelia stood and began pacing.

“She quite depends upon this marriage, you see,” she said. “Not simply because of some vain sense of control, though I’m fairly certain it has been an ingredient over the past several years, but because she is terrified of what will happen to me after she - “ Tears stung her eyes and she struggled to hold them in, balling her fists until her nails bit into her palms through her lace gloves. She focused on that pain until she regained some control.

“There is still time,” Alexander said softly.

“The whole of her visit couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes,” Amelia said. “Yet by the time she left,” she pictured the dark circles, the trembling frame leaning on the cane to stay upright. “We may have time, but not much.”

“She didn’t appear that badly off only two nights ago,” Alexander reminded her. “At the dinner party.”

“You know my mother,” Amelia responded with a scowl. “She would never allow anyone to see her suffer.”

“Only her daughter,” he said, taking her arms, “and especially when it suits her purpose. This is hardly the first time she has appealed to her condition as a coercion. Besides,” he attempted a chuckle, “she wouldn’t admit ultimate defeat before attending the Regent’s Ball.”

Amelia laughed quietly despite herself. “Two nights ago you begged me to marry you, and now you attempt to dissuade me when I all but accept.” She shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“I panicked,” he confessed. “When my father threatened to disinherit me, I panicked.”

“And in less than two days you have come to terms with your imminent penury?” Amelia joked, casting her friend a sardonic look.

“Hardly,” he said. “In fact, I’ve been wondering if perhaps prudence might be the better strategy. I mean, spending a lifetime in superficial connubial bliss with you isn’t the worst of my options.”

“How pragmatic of you.”

“Thank you. And you can’t wish to remain at the boarding house forever, wringing your meager subsistence from the Metropol’s society pages, no matter how talented you may be.”

Amelia shot a look at him.

“You know what I mean,” he said. “You can write front page articles every day, but you will never convince McGoffery to pay you the same wage as Mister Gavin Graves receives for half the merit.”

“So, clearly, the solution is to marry despite the knowledge that doing so will only strain our friendship,” Amelia said, frustration adding an unintended edge to her voice.

“It doesn’t have to. As much as I detest living a lie, a sentiment that my father ascribes to having read too many novels and not enough history, I cannot ignore my rather bleak prospects should I persist in refusing to marry you.”

“You are certain he will disinherit you? It seems unnecessarily vicious. You wouldn’t be the only committed bachelor in Society.”

“I am an only son at the end of a long-established familial line. He cares only that the line not falter, regardless of personal inclination. He showed me the original and revised wills the night of the dinner party. ‘One of these documents will feed the fire,’ he said. ‘Marry Miss Stodge and these revisions will never have existed. Should you refuse...’” He let the sentence trail away and mimicked tossing pages into an imaginary fire. “And we already know the lengths your mother would cross to guarantee your obedience to her desires.”

“Bleak prospects, indeed,” Amelia sighed.

“I care for you deeply,” Alexander said. “If I must marry, and it seems I must, I would like to have you as my companion in complicity.”

Amelia nodded. “As would I. But are we really to be defeated by money?” she asked in mock astonishment.

“Defeated by money, or defeated without it. If it’s any consolation, I won’t prevent you from continuing at the newspaper.”

Amelia smiled and took his hand. “And I won’t prevent you, either, should you have any particular acquaintances.”

The next day Amelia returned to the newspaper, and the entire newsroom staff welcomed her with felicitations, well-wishes, and unwelcome advice about the wedding night. Though she attempted to meet all commentary and query with the solid grace of good breeding, Amelia found her associates’ improper curiosity and bawdy suggestions vexatious, particularly the common assumption that she would vacate her post at the newspaper once she was married. She made it very clear that she had no intention whatsoever of surrendering to domestic luxury. A few comments about buns and ovens, a few knowing wags of the eyebrows, and the matter was settled, though hardly forgotten. She chose to leave her coworkers to their lascivious imaginations and retreated to the ambiguity of reporting social events.

Though female members of Society in general knew Amelia to be the Lady referred to in the byline of many of their events, they still regarded her as an outsider at best, and at worst a pariah. Their behavior toward her, as a result, tended toward the distant civility required by the claims of status toward one of inferior birth rather than a peer and acquaintance. This Amelia had expected when taking her first assignment all those months ago, though she hadn’t decided afterward if she felt more disappointment in having been proven right, or in not having been proven wrong.

Announcement of Amelia’s impending marriage to one of Society, in addition to her mother’s careful and well-choreographed mission of social redemption on behalf of her daughter, once again turned the opinions of the gentler sex toward their wayward child. Though making her probationary status clear, the women of Electo Park and its environs offered the olive branch at events she covered through smiles and greetings that soon evolved into conversations and reminiscences. Amelia began attending events as an invited guest who also happened to write about her experience for a wide and voracious audience. Ladies of the Adventurer class requested her presence at their events, as well, and with considerably more gracious welcome than their Society counterparts. The resulting whirlwind of events kept her out of the newsroom nearly every day until late at night, when she sat in near solitude hammering out articles for the events she had attended that day.

When she finally returned to the boarding house, the only residents still awake were Kurt and his ilk, who had made their consternation regarding her upcoming nuptials explicit and regular. She attempted to defend her decision initially, but soon decided that her words had as much effect on their opinions as on those of her coworkers. She resigned herself to representing All Things Deplorable About Society once again. Although she found Kurt’s recriminations tedious and unfounded - at least in her case - she discovered Miss Kelley’s expected condemnation proved more hurtful than she had anticipated. Miss Kelley had encouraged Amelia’s independence from the beginning of their acquaintance, and though she claimed to understand Amelia’s decision to marry Mister Brinkley, she made a point to remind her friend that no good would come of it. Worse yet, she would be surrendering herself once more to the demands of a Society that had abandoned and berated her for nearly a year and only accepted her again because she made the appropriate sacrifice.

One more delight awaited her not a week after Colonel Pell’s gala: in an effort to compensate for the lack of an expedition historiographer and to glean as much from Amelia’s sudden success as possible, McGoffery offered Amelia Merriday’s bi-weekly brief excursion report. The first would arrive the following week, sent via telegraph. McGoffery intimated that, should she perform admirably in these reports, she might have the opportunity to join the Argonauts as a junior historiographer. If Mister Brinkley approved, of course.

Mister Gavin Graves had not spoken to Amelia aside from a vague muttered congratulation since the night of the gala. And while she hadn’t really thought about him amid the whirl of her activity, she knew when she was offered Merriday’s report that Gavin would not take the news lightly, and would be especially devastated if she rather than he were given the opportunity to join the Argonauts. She pretended to be less excited about the prospect than she really felt, insisting that married life and the Argonauts would make an undesirable pairing, especially when she needed to be home for dinner. Her attempt at levity and evasion didn’t appear to have the intended effect on Gavin, however; his surly attitude continued unabated.

Whatever spare time Amelia had was taken up by planning sessions and visits to warehouses for her wedding clothes. Her mother could not attend all of these outings, but she insisted upon being involved as much as she was able. Amelia’s sister stepped in, as did Mrs. Brinkley, and both appeared to have conversed with Mrs. Stodge regarding her wishes prior to the outings. Every detail had been decided long ago, and Amelia felt little desire to disapprove. All that she requested was to be allowed to remain at the boarding house and work at the newspaper until just before the wedding. This meant that she often had to meet her mother, sister, and mother-in-law-to-be at the location in between attending events for the newspaper, but it also provided a means of escape should she require it. She fabricated more than one event simply for the benefit of a few moments’ solitude.

The day arrived for Merriday’s first report, and Amelia made her way to the newspaper office somewhat harried. She had to meet her sister at a flower vendor immediately after she received the report, though she knew her approval of the bouquet design was superficial and unnecessary. After the flowers, she needed to attend the unveiling of an automatic page-turning machine sponsored by the Wissenschaft. More immediately, though, she knew Gavin would be at the office to read the report as soon as it came through, and his behavior had grown increasingly fractious over the past few days. She anticipated some offhand remarks about her supposed lack of talent, perhaps a quip about her marriage saving the city from her lackluster writing. She walked from the Kettery to the office formulating reprisals in her head, honing her tongue to a razor’s edge.

The telegraph machine’s announcement bell tolled only minutes after Amelia arrived. The presses stopped, and all of the newspaper staff had gathered to be the first to hear about Merriday’s voyage. McGoffery exited his office at the sound of the bell, his lens apparatus bobbing from his forehead, and ushered Amelia to the front of the crowd around end of the almost three meter long machine. The chittering Morse code gave way to a cascade of clacking as the machine translated the code into words on the roll of paper. Date, time, transmitting location code, intervening station codes, and finally the receiving location code scrolled up and people clustered close. McGoffery pushed them back and away from the spool so Amelia could be the first to read the report.

“These reports have sometimes taken an hour or more start to finish,” McGoffery said to Amelia. “But that was when the historiographer was writing them, and rumor has it Merriday isn’t as loquacious. You might have to flesh out the story some. Just keep the details consistent.”

“You mean I might have to-” Amelia began, her voice louder than she anticipated.

The machine stopped.

“Fill in a lot of blanks,” McGoffery finished. “What’s wrong now?”

“Is it broken?” someone asked. “There can’t be more than three lines of message.”

McGoffery flipped a lens over one eye and fiddled with the dials and switches on the machine for a moment. “Everything’s in order. What does it say, Miss Stodge?”

Amelia peered down at the message’s vibration fuzzy text, wondering how much of the story she would need to fabricate. “Argo,” she halted at the next word. “Argo...crashed.”

McGoffery silenced the crowd with a bellow. “Keep reading,” he said.

“Argo crashed,” she repeated. “Merriday and crew lost. Await details.”

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