The Notorious Doctor Cleghorn

A penny-dreadful
transmitted by Ætherweb

31 December 2009

Part Six

The doctor shivered in the early-morning chill of the airfield. He lowered the pipe from his mouth and exhaled deeply, the humidity of his breath mingling with the smoke in a great column of evanescent cloud. Isabel seemed entirely unmoved by the cold, or the lack of sleep; her eyes remained alert, and her smooth cheek pale and unblemished.

At length, they were approached by a steward, clad in the exuberant livery of the Ærotopian Pioneers, and offering his most sincere apologies, but averring that the delay of their transportation was unavoidable due to the inclement weather, and inviting them to retire to the comfort of the waiting-salon for the duration.

They resigned to wait.

Even crammed as it was with impatient travellers, the waiting-salon was scarcely warmer than the outer part of the station. The gaslamps, lit against the gloom of night, were still burning during the breaking sunlight, rendering the room over-bright and shadowless.

Cleghorn leafed through the pages of the New Londoner, idly speculating when – if – news of the bomb above the clockmaker’s would appear in the pages of the popular press. No doubt the the Times would blame it on idle elements among the criminal classes, whipped into a seditious frenzy by modern ideologues; the Revolutionary Worker on sinister agents of the Crown; the Mercury on the Revolutionary Workers; the Imperial Standard on foreigners. The Freethinker would probably hail it as a victory for the forces of Right and Liberty and Gin. Cleghorn sometimes suspected he rather liked the Freethinker.

Isabel was writing on small sheets of notepaper, looking up every so often with the utmost poise and nonchalance, as if she were charitably bestowing her attention on the room. Cleghorn had seen no sign of their habitual pursuers, and resolved not to consider the possibility that any of the assembled passengers might be a Ministry informant. That way madness lay.

A young lady passed them, wearing dark-tinted glasses and her hair cut short in the Parisian style. For a moment, the doctor thought she seemed familiar.

‘Intolerable!’ The man sat opposite Isabel put down his newspaper with a theatrical flourish.

She smiled. ‘I do find the popular journals tiresome. The rush to print makes them so careless over details.’

The gentleman laughed brusquely. ‘I meant this infernal wait. A little snow falls, and suddenly we are to be kept on the ground indefinitely.’ Isabel couldn’t quite place his intonation, though it wasn’t entirely unfamiliar.

‘Perhaps you should lodge a formal complaint.’

‘Perhaps I shall.’ He reclined a little in his chair. ‘Though I’m sure they’d more likely listen to a complaint from the office of my firm.’

‘Oh?’ Isabel inclined her head. ‘What business are you in?’

‘Ætherworks.’ There was satisfaction in his tone.

‘You’re not from the Manchester Vox Company?’

‘No – though we hope to compete on their level within the next couple of years. Currently my firm specialises in the export of æthermatic devices to the Continent.’

‘Is that such a specialised field?’

He nodded. ‘Some of the devices involved are extremely delicate.’

‘Of course. I must confess, I’m no an æthermaticist myself; the theory is a little esoteric to my understanding. But I find it does pay to keep abreast of scientific developments where one can.’

‘Oh? Is that something that helps you in your work?’

‘I should say it does. I’m a political researcher.’

He laughed again. ‘In most countries, a “political researcher” is a spy.’

‘Language is so fascinating, don’t you think?’ She extended her hand. ‘Isabel Constance.’

The gentleman took it. ‘Giuseppe Trovato.’

Upon boarding, Cleghorn, Isabel and their fellow travellers had been directed to a spacious lounge in the fore of the gondola, furnished exquisitely in the Oriental style. Cleghorn could not but be reminded of a particlarly quaint opium den he had had occasion to visit while in Singapore.

By the time they were airborne, the warmth of the room had become quite unpalatable to him. Isabel had already left to explore the ship, and a weary restlessness compelled him to follow her.

He found himself in the observation room, where several of the other passengers had taken up position by the great windows, watching the landscape rolling serenely below. A small bar occupied one corner, and the doctor gratefully took the opportunity to avail himself of a glass of whisky.

‘Doctor Cleghorn?’ The doctor turned from the bar. The voice had emanated from a tall gentleman behind him; he hadn’t heard the man’s approach.

‘To the best of my knowledge, yes.’

‘Giuseppe Trovato.’ He shook Cleghorn’s hand. ‘I spoke a little to your associate, Miss Constance? She said you were much interested in æthermatics.’

Why? ‘I take an amateur interest, Mr Trovato. Some of my associates in the Mayfair Society are keen researchers in the field.’

‘Ah!’ The man’s eyes lit up. ‘But of course. How indebted we are to the Society, and to the work of Doctor Van Ivan!’

Cleghorn stared momentarily.

‘There are very few people,’ he said, keeping a measured tone, ‘who are even aware of that name. Most believe the practical applications of the theory to have been originated by the Royal Institute.’

‘Perhaps the laymen do,’ Trovato gave a knowing look. ‘But for those who take a professional interest, only the name of Van Ivan is to be credited with the groundbreaking work on the æthervox.’ As he spoke, Cleghorn saw the young lady with the dark glasses approaching them.

Trovato turned, seeing her. ‘Ah! Doctor, allow me to introduce my travelling-companion, Mademoiselle Noire.’

‘Enchanté.’ As lady extended her hand, Cleghorn’s face contorted in shocked recognition. At that precise moment the entire gondola was shaken by a deafening impact, and the sound of cannon-fire.

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