Beyond Prudence by Anya Richards

Chapter One

The silence in the hansom, broken only by the clop and whir of the mechanical horse, was almost as thick as the brown fog swirling about outside. But Prudence knew, blessed as the quiet may be, it wouldn’t last. Her cousin Colette was no doubt simply trying to marshal a new line of attack.

“There is still time to change your mind.” Colette tried to maintain her characteristic amused facade, but concern caused her to sound even more French than usual. “There must be another way to appeal for his assistance.”

“Perhaps there is,” Prudence conceded without taking her eyes off the fog-shrouded houses passing by, “But I have neither the faintest idea of what it is nor the time to seek it. I must have this matter concluded as swiftly as possible. If that means making myself of use to Mr. Foreman in return for his help, so be it.” Already her father was alluding to paying her a pittance for Hastings Halt and her mother was talking about her return to Liefendown. Just the thought of being back there, made to do penance for the rest of her life, was enough to push back any terror and strengthen her resolve.

“But you risk too much, my dear.” The older woman abandoned all pretext of levity, leaning forward to almost convulsively grip Prudence’s hand where it lay in her lap. “Suppose at the end Mr. Foreman still refuses to aid you? You will have chanced all, done this unthinkable thing, for naught.”

Prudence couldn’t hold back the harsh chuckle that welled up from her suddenly tight chest. Not even her worldly cousin could bring herself to articulate what Prudence was about to do. How difficult was it to say, “have intimate relations with machines”?

Just the thought made an icy shiver travel up her spine, but she refused to dwell on her fear.

Turning to face Colette, she was vaguely astounded to see how pale the other woman appeared in the low light of the carriage lamp. She looked terrified, but Prudence didn’t try to temper her words. “Come now, Colette, what have I to lose? My reputation? My virtue? We both know, as does all society, that those are already long gone.”

Colette shook her head, the curls that framed her face dancing in agitation. “It will all die away. In a short time there will be something else for the gossips to chew over, but if you do this and get caught—”

Jerking her hand out from beneath her cousin’s, Prudence held it up, effectively stopping the other woman’s rush of words. Without bothering to answer, she turned back to the window, but instead of the blurred outline of the Clapham street, she saw the future her cousin espoused.

Yes, society would eventually stop speaking about the scandal, but it would never really go away. All it would take was the sight of her, the mention of her name, to bring it back to the forefront. In the meantime, without William Foreman’s assistance, she would lose Hastings Halt and the promise of independence now so tantalizingly within reach. She would also be forced to put aside her artistic endeavours and that, above all else, couldn’t be allowed.

“I wish I had never told you what Mr. Foreman was doing,” Colette wailed. “If Frederick finds out…”

Genuine amusement eased the band of anxiety clawing at her chest, and Prudence even found the wherewithal to chuckle. “Your darling husband would be horrified, wouldn’t he, to know how much you’ve told me about what he considers to be such a deep dark secret? Despite what he thinks, everyone knows about the Acolytes of Concupiscence.”

Colette snorted softly in denial. “Not at all. No other young lady of your position would know anything about it. The people you have been associating with have much to answer for.”

A politic way of putting the blame for Prudence’s disgrace where Colette felt it truly lay without actually having to say Richard’s name. Her cousin’s loyalty made tears prickle, and Prudence turned to smile at her in what she hoped was a teasing manner.

“Ah! So only married woman are allowed to know that gentlemen congregate together to discuss carnal matters, frolic with lightskirts and experiment with risqué machines?”

“If most of the men had their way, no respectable woman would hear of it.” Colette shrugged in her characteristic way. “You English are so very prudish.”

“Then how come you to know of it, pray tell?”

Colette’s little trill of laughter held the kind of superior understanding Prudence’s mother had envisioned while keeping her daughter away from her more worldly cousin. “My husband hides nothing from me, chérie. There is no need for him to.”

For some reason the sheer confidence in Colette’s voice made Prudence sad, but she pushed the unworthy emotion away.

“Well, I for one am glad he doesn’t, for it is thanks to his honesty I have this chance.”

She heard Colette inhale, as though to launch into another attempt to change her mind, just as the hansom came to a jerking halt and the driver jumped down.

“’Ere, Miss, yer sure this is the place?” At the doubtful question Prudence lowered the carriage window and leaned out, Colette crowding close to her shoulder so as to also see. “Looks empty to me.”

“Is this 21 Grinley Close?”

“Aye,” the driver looked at the house and then back at Prudence, but made no move to open the door. “But don’t look like nobody’s home.”

Squinting to see through the enveloping fog, Prudence silently had to agree. While the other houses on the tree-lined street looked well tended and prosperous, William Foreman’s looked abandoned. Shadowy stone steps led to the huge, carved front door and darkened windows hinted at evil deeds being perpetrated within. A few stunted shrubs, spectral in the fog, lined the wrought iron railing in front of the three-story high property, which was set slightly back from the road.

Clutching Prudence’s arm, Colette gave a little shriek. “Mon Dieu. ’Tis like something from a Gothic novel. Do not go in there.”

Prudence shook her head, absently patting Colette’s hand. “Shush, darling, ’tis no worse than Hasting’s Halt after Uncle Harry passed on. Apparently creating mechanical oddities and maintaining one’s surroundings are mutually exclusive concepts.”

“At least your uncle’s home looked lived in. This—” she waved a slightly trembling hand to the edifice across the street, “—this looks haunted.”

“Come now, no need to be so dramatic.” She tried to put as much assurance into her voice as possible, denying the shiver of apprehension threatening to overtake her. “Mr. Foreman is well known as a recluse. He has no reason to make his home seem welcoming, for he welcomes no one there.”

Colette’s hand tightened on her arm, voice trembling as she replied, “Let us leave—find another way to contact him.”

The thought of returning home to her cozy aerie at the top of Hastings Halt to sketch or sculpt, plan her next painting or even just curl up before the fire and read was truly tempting. Yet Mr. Foreman was her last—her only—hope.

No matter the outcome, she was going inside.

“Really, darling,” she forced her voice into what she hoped was a convincingly amused tone, “With a reputation mother describes as “soiled as last week’s linen” I have nothing whatsoever to lose, and everything to gain. I cannot let the thought of bearding one old, cranky inventor in his admittedly inhospitable lair stop me.”

“You hate machines and automatons.” There was a note of desperation in Colette’s voice now, and Prudence felt her cousin’s fear permeate the very air of the coach. “How can you now be willing to put yourself at the mercy of whatever it is he is making?”

How can I not, when this may be my only chance?

“I will alight here,” she said firmly, quashing the urge to shout for the driver to take her away, “and call for another carriage when I am ready to leave.” Forcing a smile, she flung it in Colette’s general direction, hoping to allay her cousin’s fear. “Heaven forefend your husband hears from the Watch that you have been found lurking in Clapham.”

The driver opened the door and lowered the steps, and Prudence gathered the end of her skirt to descend to the street. There was no wind, but the fog swirled and frothed around her, dirty yellow in the circle of the gaslight, damp and cloying, carrying the scent of countless chimneys. Pulling her shawl close around her shoulders, she straightened her spine and strode to open the gate without a backward glance.

The iron panel was cold and heavy in her hand, but swung inward without a sound. Even the latching mechanism was silent as it closed behind her. Making her way up the path, she realised the fog had thickened just within the few moments she’d dithered in the hansom. An oppressive brown shroud, it was like a visual representation of the uncertainty cloaking her mind, causing her to freeze with one foot on the first step.

Behind her, the driver brought his mechanical horse to whirring life, and Prudence forced herself to stay where she was, even as every sense screamed for her to run back to the carriage. The clop of hooves and creaking of wood and leather faded into the distance, just like her last chance to change her mind.

Someone nearby slammed a door or window shut, startling her into a gasp. A dog barked, its yip-yip-yip floating, disembodied, in the air.

Surely a howl would be more appropriate, given the circumstances?

With that wry thought, she once more gathered her determination and marched up to the door. There was no knocker, only a large circular button just above head height, under which was a note reading, “PRESS” in bold, rather impatiently scratched letters. Prudence rolled her eyes. If her uncle’s attempt at building a better system for alerting the household to visitors was anything to go by, it would probably be easier and more effective to use her knuckles rather than do as directed. Bloody inventors always made simple things more complicated, even when there was nothing wrong with the tried-and-true.

Still grumbling to herself about technology and its aggravations, she pressed the button anyway and waited a few moments before pressing it again. Just as she was about to use her fist on the door, the button hummed and popped open to reveal a grill-like surface behind it.

“Who is it, and what do you want?”

The low, hollow growl coming from the portal made Prudence instinctively step back and caused the bubble of hysteria she’d been suppressing to expand in her chest. Visions of what might await her inside clogged her throat and weakened her knees. No one knew just how frightening she found most machines. Her life was devoted to art. Nature nourished her soul. The impersonal whir and movement of automatons and mechanical implements seemed a constant reminder of how disconnected life had become, and how impersonal. The thought of being in intimate, sexual, contact with a machine made her want to faint.

“Bloody hell, is there anyone there? Speak up, or get the blazes away from my door.”

The angry voice shocked her back to her senses and Prudence gasped in a quick draught of the damp air. Gripping her shawl tighter she took a deep, steadying breath and quickly, before the man inside lost patience, licked her dry lips and said, “My name is—”

“What? I can’t hear you. Stop mumbling and tell me what it is you want.”

Rude, disgusting…

Prudence felt annoyance rise within and welcomed it as being far more effective than fear. Stepping close to the door, she bellowed into the hole, “I’m here to see Mr. William Foreman.”

“Dammit, no need to deafen me.” There was the sound of shuffling, and a muted, stronger, curse. When he next spoke his tone was even more irritated, bordering on accusatory. “You’re early. An entire day early to be exact. I distinctly told them Thursday, and this is only Wednesday. Why can’t people understand the need for precision? The AS isn’t ready for testing. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

“Mr. Foreman—”

“Oh, for God’s sake, what more is there to say?” At the interruption, Prudence snapped her mouth shut before she said something she shouldn’t and further antagonized the surly brute. “I told Bumblie Thursday.”

There was another scuffing sound, tinny and magnified by the door’s device, and Prudence imagined the old man already turning back to his papers, getting ready to dismiss her from his mind. At least she now knew he was expecting his test subject the following day. She’d return then.

Perhaps.

She was smiling with relief as she said, “I’m sorry for the inconvenience—”

“I could, I suppose, test the GSS tonight and the AS tomorrow.” Prudence gritted her teeth at being once more cut off as she spoke. Insufferable, ill mannered…“As long as you realise you’ll have to come back tomorrow night too you might as well come in. Oliver will show you the way.”

Before she could even formulate a reply, the little aperture slammed shut and the front door swung soundlessly open. Instinctively stepping inside, Prudence found herself in darkness until, with a click and a hiss, a massive chandelier high above her head came on. Blinking against the sudden almost blinding brightness, she looked around and caught her breath.

The entryway of Mr. Foreman’s house was sheer magnificence. Gleaming black-and-white marble tiles, set in a Harlequin pattern, marched across the floor, and a pair of intricate staircases swooped and soared to the floor above. The walls flanking the staircases on either side bore a series of arches, each capped with keystones carved with a variety of exotic animals.

Enchanted by the beauty of her surroundings it took a moment to realise the room was entirely bare, without chairs or benches, pictures or tables to welcome guests or add interest and colour. The only adornments, if one could stretch the meaning of the word to its uttermost limit, were a strange wooden stand on one side and a haphazard pile of envelopes and cards in the corner nearest to the door. Walking a few steps closer to the teetering tower of paper, Prudence recognized her own handwriting amongst the other envelopes and shook her head in annoyance.

No wonder he never replied to my missives. I wonder if he ever reads his mail at all?

A strange whirring and whooshing drew her attention to one of the passages leading farther into the house. Fighting back a scream she spun around in time to see a white-and-gold form come barrelling through the air into the entranceway. It circled the chandelier once then came in for a somewhat ungraceful landing on the wooden stand beside the door. With a rattling of feathers, the large mechanical owl settled itself more firmly, great talons gripping the crossbar, and turned its golden eyes on her.

“How do you do? My name is Oliver, although you may call me Ollie if you like. All lovely ladies are welcome to do so.” It winked and clicked its beak as though laughing. “Just don’t tell the master I said so. Stuffy fellow, he is. Wouldn’t like to hear I’m flirting with the guests.”

Charmed despite her dislike for automatons and mechanical beings, Prudence found herself replying, “You secret is quite safe with me, Ollie. I do so adore a charming rogue.”

Ollie dipped his head, for all the world as though embarrassed, but Prudence saw him looking up at her from beneath feathery brows, still chuckling and clicking. “Too kind, too kind,” he said, “And just the diversion this mouldy pile needs on a foggy night, eh what?”

Before she could reply, a bellow rang through the house.

“Oliver, where the blazes are you? Do you think I have all night to wait while you test your charms on that young woman?”

“Coming Master,” Ollie called back, but Prudence saw the unrepentant look in the golden eyes and couldn’t help chuckling. Something about the owl eased some of the tension coiled in her belly. The bird winked again and said, “Off we go then. Follow me, please.”

Launching itself off the perch and banking into a sharp turn, Ollie led her deeper, and deeper yet into the house, flying ahead and coming back to make sure she was still with him along the way. Fascinated, Prudence noted how the lights ahead came on with Ollie’s passing and went off as she moved farther along whichever corridor they were in. It seemed she walked through miles of passageways, each one as bare as the last save for one door after another. She lost count of the turns and staircases they traversed, but it seemed to her they were constantly, subtly, going down.

Finally Ollie landed on another perch outside an impressive wooden door, thickly banded with steel but possessing no visible handle. Shaking his ruffled feathers, the owl winked at her and clicked his beak, but when he spoke it was with all the solemnity of an undertaker.

“We have arrived, Master.”

He winked again, and Prudence repressed the nervous giggle rising in her throat. If all mechanical beings were as fun as Ollie, perhaps she wouldn’t be so set against them.

The inventor didn’t bother to reply but, with a whisper of sound, the door opened, emitting a widening slice of bright light. Putting aside her mirth at the owl’s antics, Prudence tried to prepare herself for whatever lay ahead. Lifting her chin, she marched into the room, and came to a gaping, incredulous, halt.

Surely he couldn’t be William Foreman?

The figure bent over beside one of the many machines in the laboratory bore no resemblance to the stooped, white-haired old man she’d envisioned. It didn’t even approach her second guess, loosely based on Uncle Harry, of an elderly, bald, slightly rotund and vaguely elf-like figure.

William Foreman, if that truly was him, was neither elderly nor elfin. He was, indeed, indecently gorgeous. Looking at him in three-quarter profile, Prudence immediately thought of her favourite painting of Lord Byron. Mr. Foreman had the same strong jaw, handsome nose and deep set eyes, but where Byron’s lips had a tendency to appear sulky or hint at debauchery, the inventor’s were firm, masculine…

Delicious…

Realising her mouth was agape like an urchin’s in a ballroom, Prudence tried to pull her suddenly scattered, and far from business-like, thoughts together. Thank goodness he’d ignored her entrance, and she had time to compose herself before he looked up from whatever he was tinkering with. It also gave her a few more moments to admire the way the light gleamed on his brown curls and shadowed the strong planes of his face. She would paint him in oils—the bold lines of the subject demanding an equally strong medium—or sculpt him in bronze. It had been forever since she’d had the urge to capture the human form in her art and this sudden, driving need caused excitement to gather and swell inside.

Then William Foreman glanced up with a disinterested flick of his eyes and said, “Well, don’t just stand there. Take off your clothes.”

One Response to “Beyond Prudence by Anya Richards”

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