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. But she arrives to find 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
   
‘They say she is the ugliest woman in the Empire.’

Brigadier General Oudinot was examining his nails, sprawled in one of the leather office chairs.

‘They say,’ he continued with a twisted smile, ‘that she is a pitch black harpy who eats babies.’

Colonel Estienne Jaccoud, thrust his silver fob watch back into the waistcoat pocket of his uniform. ‘Well, I don’t give a fig for her dietary requirements, she’s a tardy harpy.’

 The Colonel just wanted the damned woman to arrive and so bring an end to this tawdry business. For a start it would remove the blessed General from his sight. The late emperor used to say that there was a marshal’s baton in the knapsack of every soldier. Christ, it was a poor look out for the French Empire if men like Oudinot could find one.

The General had swept into Jaccoud’s office only twenty minutes previously, drawing a miasma of superiority that thickened the Colonel’s existing anxiety and choked any traces of good humour that remained. He was what … twenty two? Ten years Jaccoud’s junior and two years younger than Napoleon had been when he reached the same rank, and you could bet an Imperial germinal he hadn’t earned it. And the man’s voice was beginning to grate.

‘As I said to General Magrin on the northern front only two days ago - there is one kind of robber whom the law does not strike at, and who steals what is most precious to men: time.’

‘Funny, I thought it was Napoleon who said that?’

Oudinot paused. ‘Um, no, I’m pretty sure it was I.’

‘Well it baffles me,’ said Jaccoud seeking a modicum of revenge, ‘why it is taking our comrades in the north so long to eliminate this rag tag army of un-blooded redcoats.’

Oudinot’s cool arrogance fractured for a moment. ‘It’s all very well to criticise from here, Colonel, safely cooped up in this interminable city like a mother hen. A turn at the front would do you good.’

Jaccoud’s feathers ruffled. ‘Well, perhaps you could remind Marshal Soult, when you see him.’

It was a futile gesture, Oudinot would no more recommend him than do his laundry, but Jaccoud ached for the battlefield, to laugh in the cowled face of the reaper once more, or feel his bony embrace; either would be welcme. Anything was better than sitting here playing nursemaid to a sick man in a terminally ill city; it gave him far too much time to think.

But the bastard was right of course.

His office, here on the south bank of the Thames, looked out over the slate roofs of St Thomas’s Hospital to the dark chimneys that ringed the city like bastions, churning out black smoke that hung in a pall amidst the steel grey clouds with all the enthusiasm of a lobotomised patient. The only life it did not choke were the swifts who made their nests beneath the colonnades where the men of Jaccoud’s command drilled or played dice. From there the birds would rise and wheel above the quadrangle before soaring into the grey morass like bolts of electricity.

Above that soot and smoke they were free.

The only place Jaccoud would be free was amongst the chaos and alarum of battle.

‘Look on the bright side, Colonel, if Gearman dies today then  your services as gaoler will no longer be required and perhaps you will be free to join the rest of us on the Fields of Glory.’

And there was the grit in Jaccoud’s boot; that his redemption should rely on the death of an old man. Each was a prisoner to the other, though the latter knew nothing of it.

The British engineer, Professor Joseph 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 just sat in his cell, in the same bath chair he arrived in, and dribbled. The surgeons were administering nutrients through a tube inserted through his nose.
The Colonel had seen the carnage of numerous campaigns in Egypt and Spain; 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. They monitored Gearman 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 without success.

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, and the ghoulish Doctor drew ever nearer, her macabre eastern magic ready to bring Gearman out of his catatonic state or consign him to a name on the tombstone of British imperialism. Either way, despite the temporary relief from the allergy that was General Oudinot, Jaccoud would find no peace in either outcome. His mood was as dense as the plumbic fog that engulfed the city on windless nights.

Today the city air was reasonably clear. Jaccoud could see all the way to the hospital main gates and the nearest High Carriage Tower, where the Doctor must alight. These glittering spires of twisted metal were the gateway to the network of cables that crisscrossed the city above the cataract atmosphere. The aerial carriages ran between all the major buildings: Mansion House, the Palace of Westminster, the charred remains of the Academy of Science. They were the city’s one redeeming feature. Up there one could escape the suffocation of the streets. Up there Jaccoud could let fly his malaise and look down upon the swifts.

He swept the street beyond the gates. As expected, two men leaned at ease against the tobacconist’s opposite. One wore civvies, the other a tatty red British soldier’s jacket, both an armband bearing a boar. Their rifles were propped in easy reach. By turns they read the paper and watched the gates. There would be another two at the rear entrance. Every day someone was watching.
The watchers looked up at the sound of musket fire, which stuttered from across the river, and in the sheltered office both soldiers checked their fob watches. Jaccoud nodded and Oudinot guffawed.

‘You complain about the war in the north yet your colleagues cannot even keep peace in the city.’

Clearly Oudinot had not been in Spain. Anyone who had been in Spain knew how deadly a guerrilla war could be.

Spain had been Jaccoud’s first campaign, then to Egypt, just as his father had done. His father’s stories were the reason he joined up; the army was a gateway to the world. But his father had not been a soldier, he was a man like Gearman, a savant, an intellectual who accompanied Napoleon on the First Great Egyptian expedition. Jaccoud had stood before the monuments of the Pharoahs, , clutching his father’s drawings in his hands, knowing that the old man’s mind was already crumbling like the stones before him, eaten away by age and senility. By the time Estienne returned home his father did not even recognise him. He died shortly after. Not even as old as Gearman.

Britain had relied on men like Gearman following her defeat in Spain and the American colonies. Driven into her 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 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.

The Emperor’s indolence after Egypt led doomsayers and critics to foretell that the smoke from Britain’s chimneys would choke the Empire; he looked east when others said he should be crossing the channel. But the Emperor’s plans were like a fine wine, laid down for years and in the dark. It was not with weapons the Emperor hunted 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 and 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 of Albion on these sodden shores.

Did they matter? All the technologies and materials of the enemy now lay in French hands, along with her inventors and engineers.
Men like Gearman.

The typographer on the desk burst into life, causing both officers to start. Unseen fingers manipulated the black keys and the machine clacked and whirred as brass stalks punched the words onto the paper. Just as suddenly it stopped.

‘Ah,’ Jaccoud sighed. A mixture of relief and regret curdled within him as he read the note. ‘It appears our harpy has landed.’

Oudinot raised himself and straightened his tailcoat to the melody of his medals.

‘Now, remember, Colonel. I am the Marshal’s eyes and ears. I represent all the authority here, but this is your facility and I expect you to oversee the Doctor directly.’

‘As you wish.’

A knock on the Colonel’s door was followed by the quizzical face of a Lieutenant.

‘Doctor Javaheri, Colonel.’

The soldier stepped aside and a woman entered. She wore a strange mixture of the latest French fashion, full skirt and puffed sleeves, all in a steely grey satin, shrouded in some kind of beaded, exotic gossamer shawl. Beneath it, the dress hem was quite high, revealing black boots, the buttons disappearing under a stratigraphy of petticoats, while at the top, the corset appeared to be under some pressure. The shawl hid her lowered face.

She stepped aside. Immediately, a thin man entered, about six feet 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, barely into his twenties.

He stopped in front of Oudinot, opened his mouth to speak, but the General 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, and exchanged a brief glance with his companion. She slowly raised her head and the Colonel braced himself.

Jaccoud’s heart stopped. He sensed Oudinot tense too. The woman was in her late twenties, coal black hair held up in a bun under the shawl. Her strong face was radiant cinnamon, her eyes large, granite, with startling irises reflecting the colour of her dress. There was also the slight upturn at the corner of her mouth, giving her natural expression a slight sneer, yet she exuded all the sensuality of the Levant and Jaccoud could not imagine how, in even a blind man’s eyes, this woman could be described as ugly. He had no lexicon to describe her.

Even more shocking was the knowledge he had seen that face before., not a feature out of place and yet it could not possibly be the same woman.

That woman was dead.