Thursday, June 5, 2014

20. On the Cleanliness of Conscience

She wasn’t certain what awoke her, but when Holly stirred herself enough to listen to the silence of the house, she couldn’t shake the notion that an earthquake had traveled through the bricks and boards, leaving her trembling. Peering at the fireplace, she chided herself: Of course you’re shivering. The coals are burnt out. --Betsy! Worry for her charge propelled up and across the threshold of the turret bedroom, slippers left behind in her haste. The hearth held only held cooling bits of ash, the room chilled and damp. Holly berated herself for not remembering to set a clock to awaken her at midnight, and checked Betsy’s forehead.

The girl’s breath seemed shallow, and halting; her skin was cool and moist. Alarmed, Holly turned up the wick on the bedside lamp. A chill sweat covered Betsy’s brow, her hair slick against her skin. Holly pressed a dry washcloth over her face, but Betsy only mumbled in her sleep. But she seemed better today! She fought a rising sense of despair, and made herself focus on laying out new logs in the fireplace the way Vonken had done. She remembered to sweep aside the ash, tucked dry twigs underneath, and in a few minutes had a small tongue of flame licking the logs. Perhaps something in his bag? A quick rummage through the doctor’s satchel produced several bottles labeled in an elegant, bold script. Camphor, no, not helpful... Tincture of valerian? Colocynthus aqua? She shook her head, understanding the Latin but not the purpose of the remedy. Frustrated, she read the label of each bottle and vial, finally finding one noted as Citrus zingiber, tinc. Xtra. She knew that one; their family doctor in years past had often prescribed it for seasonal colds. Well, Vonken gave her something citrus earlier; perhaps this was it. It couldn’t hurt, and I don’t know what else to do.

She lifted the tiny, limp body until Betsy was more or less sitting upright, and brushed her hair from her forehead. “Duckling? Betsy? Wake up, need a little medicine,” she said, trying to keep anxiety from her voice. The girl’s eyelids fluttered, but her gaze was unfocused.

“All...rise,” Betsy whispered, sounding as scratchy inside as the burlap sacks she’d had for shoes. Poor little one...was she in court for something? Perhaps to see an older brother sentenced for some petty crime? Holly winced at the thought, but could conceive of no other reason why a girl not yet seven years old would have heard a bailiff proclaim the entry of a judge. “We all...rise...”

“Sweetling, please drink a bit of this.” Holly coaxed a spoonful of the tincture between Betsy’s lips, and tilted her chin a bit until the child swallowed, coughed, and swallowed again. Dabbing her mouth, Holly saw blood on the cloth. Oh god. No, no, you were doing better! You were healing! It’s this room, it’s too cold – this whole cursed city is too damp and chill! Holly left the bedside to urge the crackling flames higher, fanning them with the hem of her shift. Warmer, I must get her warmer! She pulled the heavy goosedown comforter off her own bed and lugged it to the child’s room, arranging it atop the bed until she was sure no cold air could possibly seep in any crevice. Betsy nestled under once more, her breathing calming. Holly listened, but couldn’t determine whether her respiration sounded more or less clogged.

I should’ve woken earlier...should’ve checked on her again before now...she was fine when I pulled the bath for the Pilot! Realizing she hadn’t seen nor heard anything from that quarter yet, she reluctantly left Betsy’s room to look into the bath. The soupy slime in the tub and floating bits of what seemed to be pale, soaked, torn cloth made her recoil. What in all the Depths is that? Dried, lumpy scum, like hardened seafoam, marked a trail into the hallway. Holly stepped around it, lighting one of the twin krakenoil lamps by the sink. He left his clothes? Is he rollicking around my home nude as a dolphin? She looked into the murky water filling what had been a sparkling, spacious bathtub, repulsed by what appeared to be snakeskin draped over the lip. Is he...shedding? Becoming more monstrous? Will there be a point at which humanity is so alien to him he turns feral, dangerous? She thought of the extra limbs, the malformed mouth. No...not malformed, not for a kraken.

Shuddering, she looked around quickly, but the traces of the Pilot’s presence seemed hours old; no telling where he might be right now. Drawing closer to the filthy tub, she reminded herself there was no one else to clean it. If I demanded he scrub up after himself he’d likely only make it worse! Taking a deep breath through her mouth to avoid the foul odor drifting up from the slurry, she carefully rolled up her sleeves. As swiftly as she could, she plunged her hand in, unstopped the drain, and backed away with a sniff of disgust, slime clinging to her fingers. She trembled while turning on the sink tap. Ice-cold water gurgled out, and she washed her hand and arm thoroughly, not allowing herself to speculate on what the slippery, soapy substance might be now glugging down the tub drain.

What does happen to the Pilots? Didn’t Mikael cover that in his book? She recalled the transformation only vaguely, though she remembered Mikael nattering on about that and other disturbing aspects of krakendom often, while he was writing it. If this Pilot is going to become a threat, he must leave; I don’t care what else he knows about the wreck of the expedition! She calmed, however, drying her skin and considering the matter. I was asleep, and he didn’t bother me. Betsy is worse...but surely that’s the consumption? Would he be immune to the disease? Could being in the vicinity of that awful rock have caused this decline in her? I should summon Vonken... But what could the surgeon do? He’d stated repeatedly he didn’t believe the child would live.

Uncertainty dogged her. She paced from Betsy’s room, where the hearth spread warmth again finally; to the foot of the attic stairs, silent as the grave; to the library. She picked a book on wasting diseases from the reading desk, and opened it to the section on White Plague. The words told her nothing more than what she’d read a day ago, when she’d pulled this volume from the shelf in hopes of gleaning some hint of successful treatment beyond what Vonken knew. She had no idea whether she should fetch the doctor, whether he might even be at his clinic at this late hour, whether his automatron-nurse could be of any help.

Frustrated, she turned her scurrying thoughts to the other problem, since she knew of nothing else she could accomplish where the progress of the consumption was concerned. It seemed all that could be done, was. She shied away from the nagging sense that she should have tended the fire earlier, never allowed the room to grow cold. She opened Mikael’s book on kraken and flipped impatiently through it. Absorption of oils...slow process, estimated to culminate over a twenty-five year period by most biologists...well, that’s not helpful. Clearly, the element from the Crater had greatly accelerated the process, to judge from what she’d seen of the Pilot’s grotesque form, but this didn’t tell her whether she ought to fear him. Where is he? Tracking more sea-slime around my home? I’ll probably have to throw out those carpets...ugh. She glanced out the library doorway to the attic stairs, loathe to venture up to see what had become of her bizarre guest. She returned her gaze to the book, flipping pages and squinting at the fine typeface in the extensive tome. A dull ache throbbed in slow waves behind her eyes. Tea. I need tea. Then tackle all this afresh. There must be answers here.

She’d finished spooning the leaves into a strainer, the kettle heating on the warming stove, before she noticed the back entry was unlocked. “Oh hell,” she muttered, tiptoeing to the door and creaking it open to peer outside. Flecks of that same seafoam substance clung to the doorframe. Has he simply left? Oh no. What about Villard’s spies? The dark hillside beyond the wan reach of the kitchen lamplight revealed nothing. Have they already reported to him that a Krakenpilot is staying here? What if they’ve taken him, or killed him? Will they try to come inside? She shut the door hastily and bolted it. Wait. The wards. Are the wards yet up? Taking a deep breath, she opened the door once again and checked. The faintest shimmer caught the light, tremulous as cobwebbing, just a step down from the back stoop. Presumably, only a skilled Coldspark would be able to breach that. Holly shut the door once more, considering what best to do.

Why would he have gone outside? Did he crave the embrace of the sea? He didn’t seem agitated earlier... The effluvia left in the bathtub, however, suggested the Pilot might be even less capable of rational, human thought than before. Would Villard’s man have followed him? Certainly, if he’d seen him. Does that mean the house is unwatched at present? What if the Pilot doesn’t return? There could be more to the expedition story.

She fretted for several minutes until the screech of the kettle startled her. She poured water into the teapot, and by the time she’d snugged down the porcelain lid to hold in the heat, she’d decided on a course of action. She hurried upstairs, gathered up a basket of bloodstained cloths from Betsy’s room, and checked again on the child. Betsy slept restlessly, rolling her head from side to side, moaning low through closed lips. Holly cleansed and blotted her forehead, but she felt neither chilled nor feverish. At least the room had warmed, and the comforter seemed to be serving its purpose. In tending to the child, Holly suddenly realized she’d misplaced the contagion mask Vonken had given her. Serves you right...should never have let the fire die out.

She ventured out the back door a few minutes later bearing the soiled cloths, a bullseye lantern filled with krakenoil, a small spade, and a poker from the kitchen stove. If anyone was watching the house, surely disposing of White Plague-contaminated things from a quarantined home would be enough to ensure her safety. She lit the lantern, casting its circle around the rear of the house. A careful look into the tall ash and elm closest to the back walkway revealed not so much as a sleepy bird. Past those, the firs swayed and whispered in a high breeze, then fell silent right as Holly turned the lantern in their direction, trees caught gossiping. Her resolve faltered, but she took a moment to tug the rubber galoshes higher over her shins, a careful eye on the forest the whole while. Nothing moved.

She picked her way along the bricks of the rear walkway, pretending to seek a soft patch of dirt by thrusting the poker down here and there along the way. She didn’t find any traces of the odd foam, but in looking occasionally at the earth she noticed some odd though an enormous snake had slithered by while she slept inside. Another worried glance around the treetops showed only leaves and soft dark needles. She followed the strange marks in the dirt, seeing dead grass pressed flat; whatever came this way hadn’t been concerned about being followed. The first chunk of ripped flesh stopped her, but it wasn’t until the lantern beam caught the gleam of a pewter gun-stock that she understood she was looking at what was left of a man.

Holly turned away, sickened. Oh my god. Like the red-eyed man in the attic. More bits of crimson-soaked clothing, a whole finger torn from a hand, a heavy shoe...with a stump of a foot protruding. Holly gagged, and put one hand against the nearest tree trunk to steady herself, but jerked it away wet. The whole trunk shone rust-red when she turned the lamp upon it. Oh all the gods of the deep and the light, what has the monster done? The answer was obvious. And when the spy doesn’t check in with Villard? What then? Has he already sent someone to take this man’s place? Wouldn’t they have cleaned this horror up, to avoid questions from me? Where in all ugly hell is the Pilot?

Despairing, she looked in every direction, lifting the lantern high as she could, but saw no sign of the Pilot. After discovering this messy feast, she didn’t think she ever wished to see the hideous creature again. Let Vonken track him down, if he wishes to continue  his interrogation! I’m done with this awful business! She could hardly bear to view the scattered carnage. At least, the head seemed to have been consumed or carried off entire...

Shuddering, Holly set down the lantern and struck the small garden spade into the dirt. Wait. This ground is so rocky...there’s no chance I’ll be able to dig deep enough to bury this without some stray dog digging it up! But I can’t let it lay... Her eye halted upon the lantern.

She was fortunate; she’d saved the bloodsoiled rags for last. As she doused one in oil and tossed it upon the small blaze, twigs snapped nearby. Holly whirled, raising the poker. “Who’s there?” She feared the return of the Pilot. Instead, the portly form and bewhiskered face of Chadwick Atherton stepped into the ring of lanternlight.

“Hullo, dear. What’s all this?” Her neighbor shaded his eyes, peering at the small firepit she’d scratched into the dirt.

“Mr Atherton. Hello,” she said, hoping she’d found every last bit of the late Company man and consigned it to the flames already. Only the gunstock and boot had been flung far back into the woods. After this, the stove poker was certainly not welcome back in the kitchen.

Atherton rubbed his bushy beard, giving her a puzzled look. “Bit late to be burning trash, isn’t it? I saw the light through the trees, and worried your house might be catching fire!”

She waved him back from the basket of rags just as he was bending to examine it. “Oh, please be careful! Those are tainted with consumptive blood.” He straightened up swiftly, startled. She hooked a cloth with the poker, dribbled oil from the lamp on it, and cast it into the fire.

“My dear...I had no inkling...” Atherton’s expression was one of pity, making Holly feel guilty.

Nothing but a sympathy bouquet since Mikael died; I’d thought they didn’t care for me overmuch...yet he’s come to help. “Oh, not I. I’ve taken in a street child...she had no family to care for her. The house is under quarantine by order of the Surgeon General,” she explained.

Atherton nodded slowly, unsure of his response. Holly saw a preponderance of white hairs in his beard; she wondered whether his age was encroaching on him, or if some anxiety for his business had hastened this elderly appearance. She explained further, “I...had to wait until the child was sleeping soundly, to spend a few minutes away from her, and dispose of these.” Plausible, surely. “I ought to have asked the doctor to place a seal of quarantine on the back door as well as the front, but as I have so few tradesmen coming to the house these days, it simply didn’t occur to me. Thank you for thinking to check on my safety, sir.” Atherton looked well turned-out even at this early hour of the morning. He could afford excellent fashions; he owned several textile-houses. Factories such as the one which had turned Betsy out on the street, too young to entrust to the machines yet.

Factories, she suddenly remembered, which her father had mentioned more than once, near the end of his life, when he bemoaned his decision not to sell out to the Northern Pacific when he’d had an offer. Chadwick Atherton had subsumed his industry to the Company. Didn’t his workshops sew all the uniforms for the Company now?

“No bother at all, wanted to be sure you were all right. Gerty worries about you, up here on your own, you know,” Atherton said. He continued to watch from a few paces distant. “Are you certain you’re taking enough precautions, my dear?”

“The doctor assured me fire will destroy any lingering contagion; you needn’t fear that the smoke will spread the disease,” Holly replied, checking the direction of the wind. It blew very faintly toward the west, into the trees. She glanced southwest, where she knew the Atherton’s house was...somewhere, past the thick firs, just over the hump of the hillside. She couldn’t see any lights.

How did he see the fire? The flame was low to the ground, eating up the rags. Her nose had deadened to the scent of cooking meat; she could only hope the smell had dissipated before Atherton walked up. Too dark to see the smoke. Unlikely he could see the fire from his windows. Why is he here? “It’s been far too long since we’ve had a visit,” she said, tamping down the shiver in her breast. “How is Mrs Atherton?”

“Oh, quite well, thank you,” Atherton replied, appearing discomfited. Holly repeated the oil-soaking and fire-feeding of another bloody cloth, her deliberate movements holding Atherton’s gaze. “I’ll tell her you asked after her. Yes, yes, it certainly has been too long, you’re right. Been so busy, stepping up work in the uniform productions, you know...ahem, erhumm.” He cleared his throat for several seconds. Holly thought of what Vonken had said: I’ve seen the factories in the north assembling what looked very like a battalion... No matter what the armaments, surely more men would be needed to deploy them. Men who needed uniforms, to carry the colorful glory of the Northern Pacific Company forward. “White Plague, you say? A street child? How very Christian of you.” Atherton nodded as he said this, though his eyes bespoke doubt. “Charity is surely the best use of your time, I should think, with your brother gone.” Holly clearly heard the unspoken assumption that she was unsuited for respectable marriage. She knew Atherton disapproved of female education beyond what was needed to manage a household of servants. She wondered if the rest of the Hillside Ladies’ Association also thought her fit only for charitable spinsterhood.

She couldn’t quite keep the heat from her tone. “I’ve found that, oddly enough, Mikael’s death has opened a number of interesting avenues for me. I’m not certain what I shall do next. However, I find it strange that so many working-class children are uncared for by the alleged philanthropic organizations in this city.” She angrily tossed the last sick-rag on the flames. “She might or might not survive. She was living in squalor, in Wharfside.”

“How very sad,” Atherton murmured, watching her. “Well. I hope you and she will be safe enough here... Have you heard about the burglars who’ve been seen roaming the neighborhood? Terrible, terrible. The Watch has increased their patrols, you know.”

“I’m sure not the foolhardiest robber would dare enter a house under quarantine.”

“Just so, yes, naturally. Still, it never hurts to be cautious. Would you like me to take a look around the property for you, my dear?”

Holly almost wished the nosy old man would find some scrap of a belt, or knuckle of a finger. “Not necessary, Mr Atherton. Thank you for your concern.”

Atherton looked at the house as if debating risking a peek inside. “Are you sure you’re managing well enough, dear? I could – I could send Mathilda over, to help with the cooking and washing-up! I believe she went through a bout of White Plague some years back...yes, yes; her husband, I believe, succumbed, but she survived.Very hardy, she is: Polish stock, you know. She’d be the perfect –“

“Mr Atherton, I am under strictest orders from the doctor not to permit anyone into the house at present. I do thank you. Good night.” She smiled thinly at him, and used the poker to push loose earth over the guttering flames. Atherton stood there a moment more, at a loss for words. Finally he nodded, and turned away. Holly continued to tamp out the fire, watching him recede down the pathway. She slipped to the corner of the house, in its shadow, to see him hesitate at the apex of the drive, staring up at the brightly glowing quarantine warning in the air before the front door. Finally he walked down the driveway. Holly wondered if he had a televox machine at home; if his first act upon his return to the fine manse next door would be to call the Sheriff, or some other representative of the Northern Pacific Airways & Transportation Company. Perhaps even Villard himself.

She didn’t notice she was shaking until her hand slipped on the latch to the kitchen door. Inside, she doused the lantern. Her pot of tea sat lukewarm on the counter. She washed her hands, poured a cup, and drank it black. The bitterness calmed her somewhat. It tasted ordinary. Nothing else this night could be called that.

Betsy slept, so motionless that Holly put her hand below the girl’s nostrils to feel the feeble respiration. At least she’s asleep. Dear god, what if that monster had decided to sup on her instead? Angry again at her negligence, Holly swept from the room in a swirl of skirts, ignoring the dirt her galoshes tracked across the rugs. Likely have to replace them all anyway. Wherever the Pilot is, hope he never comes back. Hopefully, once out of the protective ward guarding the house, the fiend wouldn’t be able to re-enter. But Vonken said the Krakenpilots are so full of Dust-energy, they can absorb even his most powerful blasts, didn’t he? Think how much it took to subdue the Pilot this past morning! And if he’s become even more krakenish since...

Troubled, she looked through Mikael’s treatise again, but saw only the most cursory paragraphs concerning kraken and Dust, mostly focused on the effects of the Cataclysm on the original sea-dwelling animals. He had more than this. I know he did. Reams of notes he said the Zoology Society insisted be cut. I remember him complaining about their interference with the publication! Where are they, where are they...

One drawer of the desk was stuck. When she wrenched it open in frustration, papers burst out everywhere. “Damn it to the Crater!” Growling curses at her late sibling’s lack of neatness, she gathered up the pages. Several references to kraken met her eye. She shuffled through the papers, her eyes skimming through the familiar handwriting, then laid them all out on the desk. They were completely out of order, not even numbered. Of course not. Damn you, Mikael. She set her cold cup of tea on the desk, and grimly began to read.

Two hours later, in the first dim grey of dawn, hacking coughs from the turret bedroom brought her running. Betsy spewed a bluish fluid from her mouth. Alarmed, Holly sat her up, held a basin to her lips, noted the flush on the child’s cheeks and the coolness of her skin despite the heat beneath the blankets. She coaxed the girl to drink a little water, and when the fit seemed over, laid her on her side. Betsy swooned, her breathing shallow, giving not even a flutter of her lashes when Holly repeatedly spoke her name.

Holly no longer cared about the people spying on the house, or whether the Pilot lurked in the woods nearby, or what Henry Villard was up to at this moment. She wasn’t sure when Vonken’s mechanical nurse was scheduled to visit. She needed help now. “I’ll be right back, duckling, I’m going to fetch the doctor,” she promised. Betsy didn’t seem to hear her. Holly threw on a coat over the plain skirt she’d donned to burn the rags, not caring about mourning clothing. She snatched up the silver coin Vonken had left her. She thought to buckle on the portable quarantine ward the doctor had given her to avoid anyone interfering with her purpose, and strode out of the house in urgent hope of finding some cab plying the road at this early hour.

She passed the velocipede before she noticed it. She stopped. The segmented, metal construct uncurled at her touch like a pillbug. It was larger than she’d supposed, with huge faceted glass eyes set low to the ground to avoid large rocks and obstacles. The saddle-piece was fashioned for a taller person than herself, not surprising given the common proscription against women riders. But there’s no actual law against it. She swung herself up, gripping the handles tightly when the construct quivered. She had no idea how to direct it. She looked down, saw plates positioned just below where her feet hung, and gave them an experimental kick as she’d seen men do astride horses. To her relief, the velocipede crawled forward. She turned the handles set before the saddle, somewhat clumsily, and the construct veered toward the front gate at the bottom of the drive as she’d wished. This will be faster, much faster, she thought. She was in too much panic to feel giddy at how many simultaneous social niceties she was flaunting.

She remembered to tuck the hem of her skirt between her legs to keep it from flying up, kicked the metal sides so that they rang sharply, and yelled “Yah! Yah there!” By the bottom of the drive, the ‘pede was moving at a faster clip than a trotting horse. She yanked the handles roughly to the right, onto the street, and gave it another two heel-kicks. And then she clung to the handles as the metal bug undulated, its hundred feet thumping the cobbles in perfect coordination, racing toward the confluence of the rivers and the clinic where she hoped Vonken would be. She couldn’t spare an instant to look at the cart-merchants who gawped at her flying past. Speed was everything.

If Betsy died, Holly felt sure it would be her fault. She’d never been responsible for anyone’s life but her own, and only lately that; she would never forgive herself for this death. 

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