If Only I'd Started Sooner

A site of Fiction

Queen of Smoke and Steel

A Steampunk Adventure

Wellington is defeated in Spain, Napoleon is dead and the Empires of France and Russia eye one another cautiously across the River Neman. Safe in the knowledge that Britain still rules the seas, Mahalia Gearman is heading back to England after six years in India, the land of her mother and her birth. During that time she has grown from a naive employee of the East India Company into an ardent and self assured supporter of Indian independence.
 
She has business with her father in London, the renowned Director of The Academy of Science. However, an encounter with a British naval frigate, blockading the French Atlantic ports reveals that England is in turmoil. Revolution and French invasion have swept the old order aside and only the steam battleships of the Royal Navy and the tattered remnants of the British Army can offer any resistance.
 
In the coming struggle all those involved must come to question their values, allegiances and even the motives of those closest to them. Power is about control, and control can be an elusive and deceptive beast. But even then it may not be enough, as deep within the city an older power is being awakened. 
Coming Soon
Chapter 1
 
 
  
There was a considerable risk the old man would die.
The French Colonel ran his fingers over his moustache, leaned back in his chair and read the Marshal’s orders again.
He felt uneasy. It centred on the fact this could serve his own ambition, particularly if the old man failed to survive.
He sought expiation in the likelihood his charge would die without any kind of intervention: on the other hand there was no guarantee he would succumb to natural causes either. The Colonel’s sigh filled the quiet office.
 The patient was confined to his cell in some kind of coma. He could not feed himself and the doctors were administering nutrients through a tube inserted into his nose.
The Colonel had seen the carnage of numerous campaigns. He had witnessed the damage wrought on the human body by canister and grenade, yet some of the procedures performed by these English surgeons were beyond his intestinal endurance.
 The surgeons monitored the patient with a variety of machines. They ran tests and charted his progress - or lack of it. Reams of paper fell from the typographers. They scoured each word with educated interest, yet seemed incapable of resolving the patient’s condition
Colonel Jaccoud had considered whether the surgeons could be lying to him. Would they betray their Oath? Would they let a patient die when there was some means to save him? Especially one of their own; one regarded by many of the medical staff as their founding father.
He removed his spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose. Poor eyesight was the curse of his family. His father suffered with it for much of his life and died virtually blind. The greatest tragedy was his father was a savant, a scientist and historian.
He was one of the multitude of antiquarians and scientists who accompanied Napoleon the Great on the ill-fated first expedition to Egypt. Jaccoud never forgot the mystical stories his father told him on his return, or the sights he described. They filled him with a desire to travel and experience these wonders for himself.
Jaccoud soldiered through Spain and North Africa. On the second great Egyptian expedition he saw his father’s words made stone. Standing before the mighty monuments of the Pharaohs he held up the tattered copies of his father’s drawings - their image in ashlar.
A far cry from this miserable place.
Jaccoud rose, straightened his waistcoat and turned to the window to rest his eyes. His office was a former consulting room on the first floor of St Thomas’ Hospital, deep in the city of London, south of the River Thames. He could look down onto the courtyard where his soldiers drilled or sat at ease, smoking and playing dice beneath the colonnades.
Today the steep slate roofs of the hospital merged with a monotonous grey pall hanging over the city. It was fed by tall chimneys puncturing the sky line. They ringed the city like bastions on a city wall. More rain on the way.
From here he could also make out the High Carriage: wrought iron giants striding over the town. Carriages sailed beneath the connecting cables, alighting at the shining platform towers that gave access to the streets below. In contrast to the sullen chimneys, these glittering metal towers erupted from most of the major buildings in the city: Mansion House, the Palace of Westminster, the charred remains of the Academy of Science. He had been up there several times: invigorating.
He swept the street beyond the gates. Sure enough, two men leaned at ease against the tobacconist’s opposite. One wore civvies; the other sported a tatty red British soldier’s jacket, their rifles lying within reach. By turns they read the paper and watched the entrance to the hospital. There would be another two at the rear entrance. Every day someone was watching.
Jaccoud checked his fob watch. The Marshal and his guests were already late. At that moment, the sound of musket fire stuttered from across the river: right on time. He felt a pang of jealousy which, along with his anxiety, made him feel dyspeptic. He sought a remedy from the cabinet in the corner of the room. While he mixed the white powder in some water, the drizzle of ordinance rose to a dogged downpour.
An unannounced burst from the typographer caused him to start, spilling tonic down his waistcoat. He cursed. Dabbing himself with his handkerchief he approached the clacking machine on his desk. Unseen fingers manipulated the brass keys. Jaccoud continued his ablutions, craning his head to read the nascent message.
As suddenly as it began, it stopped. He tore off the sheet of paper and put on his glasses. The Marshal would not now be attending, replaced by his aide, Battalion Chief Oudinot. No need to change the waistcoat then.
The typographer was one of a multitude of devices plundered from the British. It was a symbol that the iron walls of England, an inviolable fortress of oppression and privilege, were breached at last.
The Emperor’s indolence following victory in Spain led doomsayers and critics to foretell that the smoke from Britain’s chimneys would choke the Empire, but the Emperor’s plans were like a fine wine, laid down for years and in the dark.
Defeat in Spain and the American colonies drove Britain into its shell. Isolated, she relied on engineering and her navy to keep the Empire at bay. Her armoured warships had dominion over the sea. They cut any French shipping to shreds without incurring a scratch. Their steam engines dirtied every horizon and their propellers churned the bloody waters of the world’s oceans. Over the land the Eagle soared; over the waves the Lion roared; so went the tavern ditty.
But it was not with weapons the Emperor brought the Lion down. It was with money, men and whispered promises. By the time the Emperor’s funeral cortege reached his resting place at Les Invalides, Britain was infested with French spies, awash with corruption and sick with discontent. The Emperor’s agents buried deep, like termites into rotten wood. Fleets were misdirected, palms were greased and bellows put to the fires of revolution. In the end it was a night’s work to breach those steel walls.
A few redcoats escaped north. The Royal Admirals returned, only to find their southern anchorages denied to them. Now they prowled the coastal waters, demonstrating their frustrations by isolating the continent, stranding Marshal Soult’s Grand Army on those sodden shores.
It was a minor inconvenience. All the technologies and materials of the enemy now lay in French hands, along with her inventors and engineers. Men like his prisoner, Professor Gearman; the brilliant former lynch pin of the British technological clerisy; the man who sat in cabinet with all the English Prime Ministers since Liverpool and oversaw the creation of a new scientific epoch. Now he sat in his cell, in the same bath chair he arrived in, and dribbled.
If they could bring him back, he would be a valuable asset. But Marshal Soult's patience was a gallows rope, frayed by Gearman’s dead weight. Now, today, he sought to employ the services of his late master’s personal physician. The rumour was this Eastern magician possessed skills, dark skills. They would either succeed in bringing Gearman out of his catatonic state or settle the matter once and for all. It was the physician Jaccoud awaited.
At last there was a knock at the door. A young Lieutenant entered and warned the Battalion Chief was on his way up.
‘Good is everything prepared? Has the physician arrived?’
‘Yes … er no, Colonel. We were expecting them all to arrive together, but the streets are congested.’
‘Of course, well, show the doctor’s party up immediately they appear.’
Footsteps approached. The Lieutenant bolted to attention and saluted as Battalion Chief Oudinot appeared in the doorway. He was younger than Jaccoud’s thirty two years, clean shaven and bore himself like the bright military spark he believed himself to be. He brought with him a miasma of superiority.
‘Good afternoon, Colonel.’
Oudinot stopped and surveyed the room, as if waiting for Jaccoud to take his coat, which hung nonchalantly from his shoulders. A regiment of silver and ribbon paraded on his chest. This one was new to Jaccoud.
‘Battalion Chief Oudinot, a pleasure to meet you. You are new to the Marshal’s staff?’ Oudinot ignored the outstretched hand.
‘Indeed, Colonel. I have been advising General Magrin in the North,’ - his eyes strayed to Jaccoud’s waistcoat and the Chief took a step back, as if the stain were a contagious disease – ‘not been cooped up in this interminable city, like a mother hen.’
Jaccoud’s feathers ruffled. ‘It’s restful to stop campaigning every once in a while,’ he said through gritted teeth, ‘though I must confess I am interested to see what is taking our fellows in the north so long to subdue this rag tag army of un-blooded redcoats. Perhaps you can remind me to the Marshal when you see him next?’
He knew it was a futile gesture; Oudinot would no more commend him than do his laundry. But Jaccoud was desperate to get back to the front line. Playing nurse maid and carrying out garrison duty was not soldiering. Give him a redoubt to take and there was no happier man.
He changed the subject. ‘So you have not met this doctor? I expected you to arrive together?’
‘As I said, Colonel, I have just arrived back and this morning I received orders to observe here today. The doctor is coming with her assistant directly from the Tower.’ He added, ‘I hear she is the ugliest woman in the Empire.’
The Lieutenant knocked and put his head around the door.
‘Doctor Javaheri, Colonel.’
The soldier stepped aside and a woman entered. She was dressed in the latest French fashion: full skirt and puffed sleeves, all in a steely grey satin. The hem was quite high, revealing black boots, the buttons disappearing under a promise of petticoats. The corset appeared to be under some pressure. A large bonnet hid her face from the Colonel.
She stepped aside. Immediately, a thin man entered, about six foot tall, clutching a small black valise. He wore a light brown frock coat and white breeches tucked into calf boots of brown leather. His light caramel hair clung in tousled waves to his head. His cravat was poorly tied, his waistcoat top button was unfastened and he was young, in his early twenties at most.
He stopped in front of Oudinot. He opened his mouth to speak, but the Battalion Chief spoke first.
‘Doctor Javaheri, your journey was not too arduous, I hope.’  He addressed the woman.
The pause was imperceptible. The young man shut his mouth, turning to look at his companion. She slowly raised her head. The Colonel braced himself.
Jaccoud’s heart stopped as he saw the Doctor clearly for the first time. He sensed Oudinot tense too. The face revealed was radiant cinnamon and Jaccoud could not imagine how, in even a blind man’s eyes, this woman could be described as ugly. Even more shocking was the certainty he had seen that face before. It could not possibly be the same woman, yet here she was.