Read The Chemickal Marriage Online
Authors: Gordon Dahlquist
G. W. DAHLQUIST
an imprint of
G. W. Dahlquist is a novelist and playwright. When he fell asleep during a snowstorm, his first book,
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters
, came to him in a dream. This is his third novel. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, he now lives in New York.
By the same author
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters
The Dark Volume
The Chemickal Marriage
finishes a story begun in
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters
and continued in
The Dark Volume
. However much this present book may stand apart as a discrete narrative, a few notes regarding what has come before may prove useful.
Celeste Temple, a plantation heiress from the West Indies of twenty-five sharp years, her engagement to Roger Bascombe summarily terminated without explanation, found herself in the position, some three days later, of shooting him dead in a sinking dirigible. Mr Bascombe had joined a mysterious cabal (funded jointly by the financier Robert Vandaariff and the munitions magnate Henry Xonck) whose control of the nation was scuttled, along with the dirigible, by the very unlikely alliance of Miss Temple, the criminal assassin Cardinal Chang and Captain-Surgeon Svenson of the Macklenburg Navy, a foreign spy.
When these three escaped the wrecked airship, they thought their enemies vanquished: the Comte d’Orkancz, inventor of the blue glass, had been run through with a sabre; Francis Xonck had been shot; Harald Crabbé had been stabbed; and the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza had leapt to her death. Betrayed by these supposed underlings, Henry Xonck and Robert Vandaariff had already fallen prey to blue glass, their minds wiped clean, their bodies animal husks.
However, the dying Comte had been alchemically preserved, his memories captured in a glass book by a resilient Francis Xonck, who was unaware of how mortality would taint its contents. Xonck and the Contessa, the latter evidently a swimmer, hurried to recover the threads of their plot, even as Temple, Svenson and Chang raced to forestall them. All parties were met by a new cabal, an alliance of former underlings who understood the power of
the blue glass, if not the science behind it, and stood determined to defy their former masters. At the Xonck factory in Parchfeldt, all parties convened for the infusion of the Comte’s corrupted memories into the body of Robert Vandaariff, seeking at a stroke to command the one man’s science and the other’s fortune. Once resurrected, however, the pawn overcame his ignorant masters, deliberately provoking an inferno in which, once more, many lives were lost.
That night Miss Temple escaped the burning factory, only to see Cardinal Chang and Doctor Svenson cut down before her eyes. In the woods, Miss Temple met up with Elöise Dujong, the Doctor’s love, and Francesca Trapping, the seven-year-old heir to the Xonck fortune. But the Contessa caught them in the dark, stealing the girl and the dark volume, leaving Elöise dead and Miss Temple only half alive, but determined for revenge.
Miss Temple eyed the clock with a characteristic impatience, for she much despised lateness in others. She pulled the green clutch bag onto her lap, aware that sorting its contents had become a ritual, as if she were some old woman with a set of clacking beads.
A purse of money. A notebook and an all-weather pencil. Matches. A beeswax-candle stub. Two handkerchiefs. A sewn cloth pouch of orange metal rings. Opera glasses. A small black revolver whose recoil did not spoil her aim (she had practised on empty bottles in the hotel cellar and could nearly hit them). Ammunition. Gold.
She had paid Pfaff well. If he did not come, she was betrayed. Or – Miss Temple pursed her lips – Mr Pfaff was dead.
Miss Temple cinched the green bag shut. The clock’s silver bell chimed the half-hour. She called to her maid: ‘Marie, my travelling jacket.’
Five weeks had passed since her return, five weeks spent wholly on revenge.
It had taken Miss Temple two days to regain the city from the wilds of Parchfeldt Park. The Contessa’s metal-bound case had not cracked her skull, and the wound on her forehead had eased its throbbing by the time she reached the canal and slept a few hours in the cover of its reeds. Tentative fingers told her the gash had gummed to a tolerable scab, and she walked for hours, dizzied but no longer sickened, to the Parchfeldt railway head, where she finally boarded a coach to Stropping Station, into the heart of the city.
She had gone back to the Hotel Boniface, for her enemies would find her no matter where she hid – she must visit her banker, she must have clothes, she must hire violent men, all of which would draw the notice of any diligent
foe. When she arrived at the hotel’s doors, filthy, bloodied and after a fortnight’s absence, the staff said nothing apart from a single polite inquiry as to whether she required a doctor before a bath was drawn or whether, preparatory to either, she might prefer a meal.
She huddled naked in the copper tub until the water went tepid. A maid stood deferentially in the dressing-room doorway with fresh towels, nervously glancing between the dull face of the soaking woman and the sharp knife Miss Temple had insisted stay within reach, atop a wooden stool. Dressed enough to have a doctor examine her, Miss Temple had kept the weapon in her lap. The white-whiskered man applied a salve and bandage to her forehead, frowned at the fading weal of a bullet above her ear and left a powder to aid her sleep. Miss Temple ate two slices of buttered bread, stopping at the first flicker of nausea. She dismissed the maid, locked the corridor door and wedged it with a chair, did the same for the door of her chamber and curled into bed, the blade under her pillow like a snake in wait beneath a stone.
She slept for three hours before her fears rose up to wake her. She lay in the dark. Chang. Svenson. Elöise. Their deaths could not be undone.
Her survival felt like a betrayal, and every small comfort arrived with a sting. Yet Miss Temple had withstood such stings all her life. The next morning she made her first list of everything she ought to do and found herself filling two diligent pages. She set down the pen and wiped her nose. In truth it was simpler to keep one’s heart a stone. She rang for breakfast and a maid to curl her hair.
She sent to her aunt in Cap-Rouge, requesting the return of Marie (of her own two maids, the one who could read), and then spent the day – making a point to be accompanied by footmen from the Boniface – attending to her most basic needs: bank, clothes, weapons and, most important of all, news.
She did not fear for her immediate safety. When her train had arrived, the platforms of Stropping Station were no longer thick with dragoons. Brown-coated constables had been posted to manage the openly hostile crowds of travellers, but their only charge was to maintain order, not search for potential
fugitives. Nowhere had she seen posters offering a reward for her capture, or for that of any of her former companions.
She scoured the newspapers, but found only a standard refrain of imminent crises: the Ministries paralysed, the Privy Council in disarray, business at a standstill. For Miss Temple, this was excellent: the more the world was hampered, the freer she would be to act. She sallied out, a hotel footman to either side, gratified by the frayed tempers that seemed to catch at every inconsequential jostle.
Her journey that first morning did not stretch to any destination she might deem provocative – that is, she did not venture near the St Royale Hotel, the Foreign Ministry, Stäelmaere House, the Macklenburg diplomatic compound or the Hadrian Square residence of Colonel and Mrs Trapping. All these places might have become bolt-holes for enemies that still lived. When the Contessa’s spies found her at the Boniface, all well and good. She would not be so vulnerable.
And if her other great enemy had survived the destruction at the Parchfeldt factory? Miss Temple had last glimpsed Lord Robert Vandaariff face down in a pool of black slime, about to be swarmed by an angry mob … yet had he lived? It would be a fool who assumed otherwise.
Miss Temple paused (the scarlet-coated footmen halted obligingly with her) at the cobbled road’s sudden descent, gazing at a district of the city she had never visited. One footman cleared his throat.
‘Shall we turn along the avenue, miss?’
Miss Temple strode ahead, down to the river.
Cardinal Chang had mentioned it once, and the detail – a proper name from his secret life – had taken Miss Temple’s mind with the attractive force of a silver buckle to a magpie. When she stood in the street outside the Raton Marine, she was unprepared for the surge of tenderness that filled her heart. The tavern lay in a nest of filthy streets, with the buildings to either side tipping like old drunkards. The people in the street, openly staring at the finely dressed young woman with two liveried servants, seemed to Miss Temple like humanity’s bilge, beings who could scarcely take two steps without leaving a stain. Yet in this place Cardinal Chang had been
– these ruins were his world.
Again the footman cleared his throat.
‘Wait here,’ said Miss Temple.
A scattering of men sat outside the tavern at small tables – sailors, by the look of them – and Miss Temple passed through to the door without a glance. Inside, she saw the Raton Marine had been fitted out to serve a broad clientele – tables near the windows with light enough to read, and tables in shadows even the brightest morning would not pierce. A staircase led to a balcony lined with rooms for rent, their open doors draped with an oilcloth curtain. Her nostrils flared in imagining the reek.
Perhaps five men looked up from their drinks as she entered. Miss Temple ignored them and approached the barman, who was polishing a bowlful of silver buttons with a rag, depositing each finished button with a
into another bowl.
‘Good morning,’ said Miss Temple.
The barman did not reply, but met her eyes.
‘I have been directed here by Cardinal Chang,’ she said. ‘I require a competent man not averse to violence – in fact perhaps several – but one to start, as soon as is convenient.’
‘Cardinal Chang is dead. If he were not, I should not be here.’
The barman looked past her shoulders at the other men, who had obviously overheard.
‘That’s hard news.’
Miss Temple shrugged. The barman’s gaze flicked at the bandage above her eye.
‘You have money, little miss?’
‘And I will not be cheated. This is for your
time and attention.’ Miss Temple set a gold coin on the polished wood. The barman did not touch it. Miss Temple set down a second coin. ‘And
is for the man
would recommend for my business, taking into account that it is Cardinal Chang’s business as well. If you knew him –’
‘I knew him.’
‘Then perhaps you will be happy to see his killer paid in kind. I assure
you I am most serious. Have your candidate present this coin at the Hotel Boniface, and ask for Miss Isobel Hastings. If he knows his work, there will be more in its place.’
Miss Temple turned to the door. At one of the tables a man had stood, unshaven, with fingerless gloves.
‘How’d he get it, then? The old Cardinal?’
‘He was stabbed in the back,’ said Miss Temple coldly. ‘Good day to you all.’
Two restive days went by before the coin was returned. In that time Miss Temple’s headaches had gone, her maid had arrived (bearing a querulous letter from her aunt, thrown away unanswered), and she had begun regular practice with a newly purchased pistol.