The Looking Beast In The Garden
A Steampunk Short Story
“Mama, Mama, wake. Wake up!”
Bess pried her eyes open. "Did you have a bad dream, Emmet?” Her four year old son's eyes were wide with shock.
Oh no, was he ill, too? She'd spent most of the night up with his sister Liza. She clapped a hand on his forehead which thankfully felt normal.
“It'th Cordy. She'th in the garden, Mama, a beatht crashed in the garden.”
“Cordelia is in the garden?” It was not even dawn.
“Yeth. Come on! It hath thnakey armth.” He waved his arms wildly.
“Snakes?” She grabbed her wrapper and slippers and followed Emmet out to the garden.
In the grey morning light she saw Cordelia sitting in the strawberry patch by a pile of machinery. In her lap she held a glowing red globe which she stroked.
Bess approached slowly. It was a construct made of snakelike arms, glowing balls, and what might be weaponry.
How had she not heard the crash? The construct had broken through two of the apple trees. Weapons. Panic set her heart to pounding and she heard her blood rush in her ears for a dizzy, sickening moment.
“Cordelia," she called softly. “Cordy, come to Mama.”
Cordelia looked at her, then looked back at the glowing ball in her lap.”See, it will be all right now. My Mama will know what to do. There, there, now.” Cordelia patted the monster like it was one of her baby dolls.
“Cordy, you need to come to me.”
“Mama, he was in a storm. Remember we heard the thunder, but it was out to sea? And the wind tossed him up into the cold and then there was ice. And then he came down and hit our trees. There was a big light. And he is hurt.”
“I see. I'd really like you to come to me now.” She felt desperate but didn't want to startle the monster.
“Mama, you must come feel his globe. He needs our help.”
“Emmet, I need you to go upstairs and sit with Liza.”
God above, if it uses one of its weapons...
“Mama,” he protested.
Emmet trotted to the house, scowling.
Bess walked slowly to Cordelia. Her eyes were full of tears.
“Mama, can you help? His name is Shumshum.”
Elizabeth slid her arms around Cordelia's shoulders, preparing to wrest her from the beast.Then a thought occurred to her.
“How do you know his name, sweetie?”
“He told me. He isn't very old, Mama. It was his first lift off. And then there was the storm.”
“I see. Does he talk?”
“Yes, but he doesn't have no mouth. So he talks into my ears. I don't know how. Now he is all alone! His flyer broke and he got lost.” Cordy waved toward the broken apple trees.
Bess saw a severed appendage with a dimly glowing golden globe under branches of her apple tree.
“If you touch him he can talk to you.”
Gingerly Bess placed her hand on the red globe.
“Please assist.” A voice whispered in her mind. “My lifting beam has been severed. I have lost Precious Fluid.”
“How can I help?”
“With the Great Heat Stick, meld me back together.”
Bess licked her dry lips. “
I do not have the equipment to meld you. I must go for assistance.”
“You cannot fix me?”
“No. I'm sorry. I do not know how and I don't have the equipment.”
“I do not like to be alone,” the beast quavered.
“I am sorry, we must go for help.”
Grabbing Cordelia she ran to the house. Emmet and Liza were in the nursery. Quickly she dressed herself and the children.
“We must hitch Buttercup and we must be very fast.”
“Yes,” Cordelia agreed. “Shumshum needs help.”
Bess hitched her fat pony to the small cart and headed down the lane to Lord Nightwood's estate. Her cottage was on the edge of the estate, closer to Nightwood than to the village. She set the pony to a trot, which was unheard of. Buttercup's golden ears swiveled back in annoyance. Bess clucked her tongue in encouragement.
The gate house was dark but the ironwork gate was not locked. The sun, just rising, showed the estate to be magnificently manicured, a state it hadn't been in until the new Lord Nightwood had taken residence.
She prayed he would know what to do. Rumors in the village said he was a man of science. And his leg...He was a clanking man with a construct leg, from Kingstown. He would surely know more about the beast, know what to do. She pulled Buttercup to a stop at the main door.
“Come along.” She grabbed Liza, who scowled and began to cry. Bess sighed. Finally, the baby slept and then this happened.
She rapped the heavy knocker on the grand oak door. The door finally opened revealing a young footman with mussed hair.
“I must speak to Lord Nightwood, immediately. This is a huge emergency.”
The butler rushed into the foyer.
“Miss, what is going on here?”
“We have a huge emergency at Applewood Cottage. I am Mrs. Elisabeth Lowdon.”
“There'th a beatht in the garden,” Emmet said solemnly.
“I require Lord Nightwood's assistance right now!”
The butler turned and ran, leaving them in the foyer. There was a highly polished bench so they sat to wait. Liza began to whimper again.
A maid, local girl, Annie Plumb, appeared.”Here Miss Bess. The little one might like a cookie. Cook always has a jar of cookies.”
Liza did want the cookie, as did Emmet and Cordelia. Crumbs were dripping to Lord Nightwood's spotless floor when she heard the metallic clank of his constructed leg.
He was dressed in breeches and a shirt with no collar. Lord Nightwood was younger than she expected, close to her own mid-twenties. He had a shock of golden curls not yet styled for the day with pomade, and round wire rimmed spectacles. Average height, with a slim, wiry build. His features were even and almost delicate for a man.
“Mrs. Lowdon, am I correct? Cousin Ward's widow?”
“Yes. I'm sorry to disturb your household, but there is a an emergency. In my garden.”
“It felled from the thky,” Emmet explained.
“It's name is Shumshum,” Cordelia added.
He raised an eyebrow in inquiry.
“My children Cordelia, Emmet and Liza. A mechanical construct of some kind, with snake-like appendages and globes and what I think are weapons, crashed through my apple orchard and landed in the garden.”
“I see. Crane, have a large cart brought round, and two yardmen.” They followed him outside.
Buttercup was still in the drive.
“Crane, have the pony stabled. Mrs. Lowdon, your children can stay here. Crane, alert the cook, and Annie, take the children to the nursery.”
“Oh, Mama please may I go with you? I know Shumshum wants to see me,” Cordelia said.
Bess caught Lord Nightwood's eye. “They seem to communicate.”
“Emmet, you and Liza will stay here with Annie. I'm sure cook will feed you another cookie.” She gave her children a hug and left them in Annie's care.
They arrived at her garden in short order, Lord Nightwood's horses being far faster than Buttercup. The construct was still sprawled all over her garden. The severed arm's globe was now dark. Cordelia ran to the large red globe, which lit bright when she reached it.
“I told you, Shumshum. We are back with help!”
“Well, I'm certainly glad you alerted me to this,” Lord Nightwood said as he examined the construct. “Hessland war department work.”
Cordelia again had the globe in her lap and was stroking it.
“It's lost, Mama. Can I keep it?”
Lord Nightwood answered before she could. “We can't leave it out in the garden, Miss Cordelia. I think we should take it back to the manor. It will fit quite well into my conservatory for now, and a friend of mine who is a construct scientist can come fix him.”
“All right.” Cordy leaned toward the glowing red sphere. “Men are going to put you in a wagon and take you somewhere nice so they can fix you. Don't be afraid.”
She looked up at Lord Nightwood. “He is scared, and he really is just a little child machine.”
“I will make sure my men are gentle,” Lord Nightwood reassured her. Bess liked his gentle manner with Cordy. She was a soft hearted child who would be hurt by harshness.
Lord Nightwood turned to her. “I think, ma'am, you should pack a few necessities and stay at the manor for a few days. I don't wish to alarm, but this is a spying construct. I fear Hessland may be planning an invasion. I suspect it and its cohorts were heading toward Kingstown.”
The idea of being alone with the children during an invasion, especially of strange Hessland constructs, was frightening. Lord Nightwood was the head of the family, who provided her a living as the widow of his cousin, Ward. “Yes. I will do so. I wouldn't want to be alone here.”
“Certainly not. And my elderly aunts are now in residence so we need not worry about the proprieties.”
Later the children had an early lunch in Nightwood's fine empty nursery and now all three were napping with Annie in attendance. Bess joined Lord Nightwood for tea in his library, a large room with books up to the high vaulted ceiling.
“What do you think it is? What does it do?” She asked.
“I will know more later, but I believe it is a member of a group, something like a pack animal, like a dog or wolf. The globes collect information. A spy machine.”
“Emmet and Cordelia call it a Looking Beast.”
“A good description.”
“How do they fly without wings?”
“Not actual flight. I suspect there is a flying machine that they swing from, in a way, using the arm that was severed. Magnetics, I believe. That is also how they keep in contact with each other. When this one lost its arm, it lost its flying ability and its connection.”
She helped herself to a shaved beef sandwich. “Do you think it is intelligent? That it has feelings? It seems intelligent, at least when I talked to it. Though I am not sure how it speaks.”
“Yes. I believe it has a form of consciousness. It seems to want company.”
“Will the others come looking for it?”
“Undoubtedly. Which is why I intend to keep it very quiet. The servants have been told this is a security issue, and to not mention it in the village. It is in my conservatory, which is quite overgrown with vines. Handy, that. I've sent a coded telegraph message to Lord Bluedale about the situation. He is the leading scientific mind in Construct Science and will have men here shortly.”
“You must know a lot about constructs--” Bess gulped. Perhaps talking about his leg was rude.
“I served under Lord Merton, in the Skylighters Brigade, the air infantry. So I have had some experience with constructs. When I lost my leg, it seemed like the best remedy. Though my leg is nothing complex, like the Looking Beast. Just a leg.”
He leaned back in his chair and observed her. “You were married to Ward? Wasn't he quite a bit older than you?”
She was surprised at the change of subject. “Well, yes. He was a friend of my father's. Papa is the vicar in Blackvale.”
“Ah. The vicar with the five daughters.”
“Of which I am the eldest. Ward was very kind to my sisters and a good father.”
He nodded. “I have fine memories of Ward when I spent school holidays here. He took me trampling through the woods to ice fish every Yule. I believe we probably met as children during the festivities.”
Bess nodded. “Yes, Lady Blackwood always invited us to the big Christmas Eve Celebration. I remember you a little.”
“I remember a whole gaggle of red-haired giggly girls.” He grinned and she was struck by how handsome he was when he smiled.
“I think your stay should be extended indefinitely. There may be perilous times ahead for Britland.”
Hessland was just across the sea. “After seeing that beast I am more than ready to take you up on your hospitality. But are we safe? It had weapons. And keeping Cordelia away will be a nightmare.”
“While you were settling your children I communicated with the beast. Shumshum. It seemed quite docile and disarmed voluntarily when I explained that the children are impulsive and could accidentally set something off. I don't think it will harm the children.”
“Still, I don't want them alone with it.”
“Of course. Several of my staff were under my command in the Brigade. I will station two in there at all times, armed. And soon Lord Bluedale's men will be here.” He smiled. “We will soon know all about Hessland's latest creations.”
Bess took a sip of her hot sweet tea.”It sounds like the beast crashing in my garden was an advantageous occurrence.”
“Indeed it was, Mrs. Lowdon.”
“Bess. We are cousins by marriage, after all.”
“Bess. And please call me Daniel. I was aware Ward's family was at the cottage and had plans to visit in the near future to meet my young cousins. After we are finished, please join me for a stroll through the conservatory.”
She smiled, feeling like a girl asked on a walk round the village square. “I would be delighted to visit the Looking Beast with you, Daniel.”