To 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…]