Balloon Science – Part Two

balloonscienceTo be fair, it was one of those blue-sky days where the Moon was visible as a pale blot. Like a pearly wine-stain on a patch of azure canvas right above Quatrechamps Manor. So, Lady Professor Quatrechamps was at least not pointing at a broad expanse of nothing. And furthermore if the Moon chose to hang about over her roof, even in broad daylight, well, it was probably small wonder she’d developed some sort of irrational obsession.

Fishwives and mystics often attributed strange powers to the Moon. She – and they often referred to the Moon as a female – and if the Moon could be a woman, well, Ben told himself he really shouldn’t have been all that surprised to learn that a woman could be a professor – anyway, she, the Moon, was allegedly the mistress of werewolves and lunatics. Ben often – probably at least once a night on average – noticed the Moon, but tended not to ponder on it too deeply, it being unlikely to crop up as a destination on his delivery rounds. He had to assume that Mrs or Miss Lady Professor Quatrechamps had thought on it rather too much. Intelligent folks were prone to those kinds of brain fevers, pouring a great deal of mental energy into subjects that required very little thought whatsoever.

“The Moon! The Moon!” the Professor sang again, as though reprising a chorus of a favourite shanty. Not coincidentally confirming the root cause of her madness. “Imagine, Master Simple. Imagine, I presented them each with an offer they couldn’t refuse. And they each refused. Turned me down. Every last one of them resigned. Can you credit it?” She gesticulated, apparently feeling the general emptiness of her estate needed further indication. “All of them. Handed in their notice and left for less-green pastures.”

The grass here looked a bit parched, as though not watered – or mown for that matter – on a sufficiently regular basis, but retained a healthy enough colour all the same. The grounds might’ve been a bit much to manage for a half-dozen gardeners, but didn’t strike Ben as a strong reason for the entire staff to up sticks. If presented with an invitation to the Moon, a polite no thankyou should have sufficed and it struck Ben as a little harsh for loyal retainers to abandon their employer like that. To lose her marbles at such a relatively young age was a tragedy and while having extra people around was no substitute for marbles they could be a great comfort and support.

“No sense of adventure, that’s their problem.” Professor Quatrechamps sighed once more and Ben felt sorry for her. She clapped her gloved hands and knitted her fingers together. Then slowly uncurled one digit to aim it at Ben. Slivers of sunlight in her spectacles lent the illusion of a crafty glint in her eye. “Now you, Ben – can I call you Ben? Excellent. You strike me as a strong, fearless sort of chap who enjoys travel.”

Ben shrugged. He hadn’t thought of himself in those terms, but Mr Mulbarrow of Mulbarrow Goods & Freight had him covering everywhere within a thirty-mile radius of Tortenschloss and he guessed that added up to a lot of travel. And even though the staff here had taken care of all the offloading he was confident he possessed the muscle and stamina to handle it himself, although it would have taken him a day for each wagonful.

“Come with me,” said the Professor.

“Pardon, ma’am?” Ben quit wringing his cap and just gave it a quick and merciful throttling.

“Oh, don’t worry. Just to the storehouse for right now. I want to show you something. You can call me Chloette, by the way. Chloette Quatrechamps.” She sashayed up to him and extended one hand. Ben’s palms were sweating but he supposed she wouldn’t detect that through the velvet of her glove. He accepted the shake and returned a firmer one, keen not to show any obvious discomfort in her company. She slipped her glove from his grasp and sauntered away, her bustle lending her the appearance of a broad-beamed barque sailing for the warehouse, hold laden with exotic cargo. Or possibly Ben’s imagination had drifted somewhat. Shaking off the impression the way a dog shakes off a refreshing swim, he started after her. “Oh, and bring those zithers, you may as well. No sense wasting a trip.”

Ben glanced back at the wagon, then at the Professor’s receding bustle. With a shrug of the eyes as much as his shoulders, he dashed to the wagon and fetched the pair of zithers. He wondered if she specifically wanted the instruments for what she intended to show him or if it was simply because they happened to be atop the pile. There were violins, violas, windwoods, xylophones and yodelmachers included in this delivery, but the goods were by no means limited to musical instruments. This final delivery included all manner of items beginning with v, w, x, y and z that would struggle to produce a note no matter how they were misused. All the same, as he chased the Professor across the lawn, zither in each hand, Ben could be certain she was orchestrating something.

Professor Quatrechamps fished a key from some hidden pocket in the folds of her skirt and slotted it into a waiting keyhole set in a copper plaque on the warehouse wall. A single delicate twist triggered the most indelicate sounds from within – grinds and groans like scrapmetal bows scraping across leaden cellos. Doors parted with all the mechanical grace of boulders rolling aside.

Shedding a spreading fan of daylight on the slumbering monster within.

Empty vessels, it was said, made the most noise. True to the principle, the vessel occupying the warehouse rested on huge wooden blocks in weighty silence. It was enormous and full.

Its upper deck was filled to the gunwales and above with stuff. None of it directly visible as it was cloaked with a tarpaulin of considerable acreage and silken texture, but if Ben had to guess he would venture it was all the stuff Ben had carted here by all those wagonloads. Further to its own mute presence, it managed to shut Ben up.

The gent in him wanted to let her down gently, but he hadn’t the callousness to shatter a lady’s delusions.

His expression must have been as readily translatable as if he’d spoken aloud. Professor Chloette Quatrechamps plucked his thoughts from the air and tossed them back at him: “You doubt the ability of my craft to convey us to the Moon?”

He doubted the ability of her craft to get off the ground. “Ma’am – Professor – Chloette – it’s not for me to – ”

“It’s simplicity itself!” she declared. “It’s balloon science!”

Balloon science? Ben had never heard of such a thing.

It was a matter he could puzzle over when he had freed up some mental capacity.

For the moment, he was more concerned with the realisation that she’d said ‘us’.

[To Be Continued…]

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Balloon Science – Part One

balloonscience

“Delivery for Professor Quatrechamps!”

Ben Simple knocked on the doorjamb and peered into the empty hallway. The dust blew freely in from the road, but blowed if he was going to stroll in without an invite from the owner. Even if they were careless enough to leave their front door open. Not to mention off. Where the fine piece of panelled timber with its brass knocker had been relocated, Ben could not guess, but it was not propped up in the hall for that was devoid of coats, boots, hatstands, umbrella-stands, wall-hooks, bureau, pictures and every other detail he’d noticed on prior visits when the staff had been gracious enough to invite him in for a cup of tea.

Reckless in the extreme, he reckoned, to go unhinging your front door altogether.

Not that there was any danger of opportunist burglars straying by this remote clifftop manor. But as removed as this stately residence was from civilisation it had exhibited more signs of life on previous calls and the door had been in place and closed. It reminded him how his dad used to caution him against keeping too open a mind, in case everything fell out.

He knocked again. Louder, at the risk of some bruising to his knuckles.

“Delivery!”

His voice barged rudely inside and up the stairwell, but returned to him with only the echo of a shrug.

Nobody home?

He cupped a hand to his mouth. “Hello?” he hollered.

Only the mat answered. BIEN VENUE, it said. But the place looked as though even the ghosts had cleared out.

Not that Quatrechamps Manor had been graced with enough time to become haunted. Ben had been driving out to this wild and solitary abode every day for weeks now, conveying deliveries by the wagonload. Today’s was supposed to fulfil the last of the items on the customer’s order and yesterday’s, being the penultimate, had been met with servants and labourers queuing up to carry stock from wagon to the cathedral-sized warehouse built on to the leeward side of the house. Positively overflowing with eager busybodies, the place had been, all of them like industrious drones filing back and forth, reporting back to the wagon for more loads and all Ben had to do was stand by and chip in with occasional recommendations as to what item to take down next so as not to cause unnecessary cascades of items and, heavens forbid, breakages. It was a long drive out here from Tortenschloss and returns and replacements were a right headache.

In between supervising offloading, he’d been grateful for the hospitality extended by the staff, but soon as he had his teacup in hand he’d withdrawn here to the porch to sip and slurp al fresco ahead of the journey home. The manor’s insides were not the sort to sully with his dirty tradesman’s boots. Even the specks of ordinary household dust had an air of refinement to them that inclined him to feel he didn’t belong in their particulate company.

And yet, this bright and breezy afternoon, the common grit and sand from the road was rushing in to mingle freely. As for noise, there was only the swash of the ocean against the rocks and cove below and the rickety-clack of the odd shuttered window left unlatched, percussion instruments for the sea winds.

Ben took a step or six back from the porch and scanned the facade. Watched a couple of those shutters flutter like wooden lids over dim and vacant eyes.

Behind him Equinox and George snorted and snuffled and competed to see who could swat the most flies with their tails. A particularly playful gust strummed the strings of the brace of zithers that topped the stacked goods on the cargo bed. Ben glanced back to see the horses’ ears prick backwards, surprised by the musical flourish.

A woman appeared from around the wagon and settled the horses with a pet of each muzzle and an offering of sugar cubes. She had rampant wind-combed curls, dark and glossy like the plumage of an oil-slicked bird, and equally rampant curves, exaggerated by the frills of her blouse down her front and her skirt’s caboose-proportioned bustle at the back. She had a walnut complexion and sly hazelnut eyes, rendered rather owlish by round spectacles.

She sported a criss-crossed pair of belts with holstered flintlock pistols and Ben was uncertain as to whether she was some variety of highwaywoman or perhaps a piratess, washed ashore by some rogue wave. Or one of those opportunist burglars of whom there was no danger of encountering out on this figurative sore thumb of land.

Whatever her chosen profession, she was oblivious of Ben. She paraded along the flank of the wagon and applauded its heaped goods. Possibly admiring the rather rudimentary talents of the wind on the two zithers.

“Yes, yes. Excellent. That really is a lovely collection of clutter. Top-drawer.”

To the best of Ben’s knowledge, there were no drawers of any description included in this delivery, whether top, bottom or the lacey under-variety for the clothing of bottoms.

Ben doffed his cap. “Ma’am, this is a delivery for Professor Quatrechamps.”

“Oh? Really?” She sighed like a breeze, her intended course barred by a draught excluder. She raised both hands as though to show they were clean – although they were hidden in tan velvet gloves. “Don’t fret, I won’t touch any of it. Which leaves you to carry it all inside.”

Ben wrung his cap like an old dishcloth. It wasn’t damp in the least, but he could imagine it being a tad heavy with perspiration after shifting that lot from wagon to storehouse on his ownsome. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, but if it’s all the same to you I’d rather wait for the staff to lend assistance.”

“Oh, you’re welcome to wait. Long as you like. But they won’t be back.”

“You wouldn’t happen to know where they might’ve all gone?”

The lady didn’t look like a local. Other than members of the household, this headland wasn’t the sort of place to have locals. But she did seem to have some knowledge of the subject and it couldn’t do any harm to ask.

“Gone? Nowhere, that’s where they’ve gone. Nowhere interesting, anyway.” She shook her mane and stamped a foot, not too unlike an agitated horse. “And to think. They could have come with me.”

“Come with you, ma’am?” Ben shuffled on the spot. He was beginning to fear this lady was some deranged highwaywoman or bandit and maybe she’d threatened to abduct the residents of Quatrechamps Manor. Which only begged the question, what had she done with them that refused to go with her. He eyed the pistols at her sides and imagined many a grave round the back of the house.

“To the Moon, Master Simple. The Moon!”

The lady pointed to the sky beyond the manor roof and Ben understood two things: she was Professor Quatrechamps and deranged was a moderate assessment at best.

[To Be Continued…]