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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Steampunk · #2029321
The Major's Emporium of Experience surprises Charlemaud, just as she expected.
When a handsome, young, airship officer asked her to go riding, it was hardly proper for Charlemaud Elizabeth Locke to accept his invitation. A lady alone with a man might raise eyebrows and set tongues to wagging. This young man had created the amazing entertainment at the Earl of Dunbar's most recent ball, a startlingly realistic representation of the Crimean battle where, it was whispered, the major had been wounded.

Never one for convention, Charlemaud accepted. Now, riding her coach through London's entertainment district as the gas light signs replaced the sun, she wasn't quite as confident. Gaudy signs trumpeted freaks and oddities. One could only imagine the debaucheries commited down the alleys unlit by the garish lights. Charlemaud tapped her riding crop against the window frame pensively.

And yet Major MacWoad had been very dashing in his white dress service coat and highly polished boots. She had appreciated his discretion, waiting her approach to thank him for his spectacle. She had learned, through her own channels, that far from an empty suit, Major Jonathan James MacWoad was a military phenom, a highly decorated hero, and certified genius. Interesting, and a ride seems just the thing to raise my spirits.

Miss Locke was the toast of London society. Imagine if they knew the contempt I hold them in,She thought. Charlemaud was nobly born, had spent her childhood imagining great things, discoveries, inventions, accomplishments, and her father had indulged her. She was his special treasure, so it had been an unpleasant shock when her brother married unwisely for love and the perfect license of her youth had abruptly been ended by duty.

House Locke had fallen on hard times and so Charlemaud must marry advantageously, her family desperately needed it. Charlemaud was in London to shop the goods, as it were. And I do my duty. She attended endless balls and galas, and her social calendar brimmed with empty social engagement, after dreary introduction, after mindless society function. It is all so soul crushingly bleak, she thought.

But when the dashing young officer with piercing blue eyes, a copper mustache and hair asked me riding, well, am I not allowed this small indulgence? Be careful, she thought to herself, this is the sort of man on whom a duty bound girl might hurt herself.

The steam-carriage huffed and chugged as it turned into Picadilly Square. Just as Charlemaud began to wonder where in the district one might board horses, with a woosh and a screech, the carriage stopped. All around were gas-light signs for dancing girls, and gambling dens. How very odd. Is this it? Liz was startled when the door opened.

"Miss Locke?" said a shadowy figure in a cavalry field uniform, "So good of you to come. Are you prepared for a ride like you've never before had?" The insignia of rank rated him a major and Charlemaud realized that this was MacWoad. Is there a cavalry arm in the Imperial Air Service?

"I beg your pardon," She teased, had he meant the double entendre? His blush, fairly glowing in the evening shadow, assured her that he hadn't. It was a little disappointing, but he made up for it with stuttered and profuse apologies. She put him at ease with a dazzling smile as she took his hand to debark the carriage. Charlemaud wore a split riding skirt of russet wool, a ruffled silk blouse of cream silk and a swede riding jacket that gathered at the small of her back for a bit of a bustle that didn't inhibit her when riding.

"Where have you hidden the horses captain?" She queried, Will he take offense at being under-ranked., "You've not lured me here on false pretenses I trust?"

"No mmm, my lady," he ventured, checking his presumption in her eyes when he should have called her ma'am.

Why mister MacWoad, she thought, you are a fast mover. This was courtship. He would be at his most charming. She felt a bit guilty, leading him on. He seemed a boy at the carriage. Don't forget his experience, and his mind. Never forget that.

She had expected an air service uniform, but this one was equally striking. His red jacket was studded with brass buttons and the jacket and his trim blue pants were well covered in gold braid. In black shined riding boots, he was a head taller than Charlemaud.

She took his offered arm and he motioned theatrically toward a theater entrance, "We've thrown this together to make some extra money. It's been fairly successful, but I think it suffers some from underexposure."

"Major MacWoad," chided Charlemaud playfully, "Have you been giving pony rides with her majesty's cavalry horses?"

"Oh no, not that." He laughed, Charlemaud liked the lilt of the north in his voice, "This is our Emporium of Experience. You can see the world from 15 Picadilly Square."

"Very nice," Charlemaud said, strolling arm in arm with the young officer. It's odd, he seems contradiction incarnate. He exudes boyish exuberance that might diminish him, but walking close, feeling him, seeing his face, what she'd judged boyish from the carriage was completely different on careful inspection. "Major, who is 'we,' and who is your publicist? 'See the world from 15 Picadilly Square' is a fine boast." MacWoad's smile was a delight.

"Oh aye, some lads from the old regiment are here on training detail. I figured I'd put them to work and save myself posting their bail and pulling them out of brawls. It's worked mostly, but I fear the money has been a bit corrosive to discipline." He patted her hand, ",but they're good lads."

He turned to face her and gathered both her hands in his. It was so inappropriately intimate that Charlemaud found herself hoping it was no accident and he was every bit the rogue he seemed. Will he kiss me here, right here, on the street? "Major. . ."

"Call me Jon, please." His smile turned impish and she wasn't sure what that might mean, "It is no boast. The Emporium can take you where you've never been."

"I hope wherever, I won't go unaccompanied," she pleaded, playing the helpless belle.

He caught on immediately, "Never fear. I shall squire you through wonders unimaginable."

"There's your publicist again. I'd guess you've imagined most of it."

"I wouldn't have dared." He said with such ardor that her breath caught to hear it, "I've never seen them with you."

It was Charlemaud's turn to blush, "Major. . ."

"Please. I'd like you to call me Jon."

"Jon, I look forward to it. And thank you. You must call me Beth."

"But, I thought Liz. . ."

"Socially, but friends call me Beth."

"Beth then," Major MacWoad said, smiling, "Let's have our ride then, shall we? Beth."

He offered his arm again and she took it. They strolled into the theater hung with posters of the many attractions offered at the Emporium of Experience.

"Even'n Sir," said a bespectacled man with wildly extravagant side whiskers, "Your ladyship." He nodded politely.

"Good Evening Wellson," said the Major.

"We've got it all set in experitorium three for you."

"Experitorium?" asked MacWoad.

"Aye sir, just made that one up. I thought it might do for the better class of custom." he slid a somewhat large ornate key under the window to Jon.

"Thank you Wellson." Turning to Charlemaud he added, "Shall we?"

"Indeed, our experitorium awaits."

"I like the sound of it," he said over his shoulder to Wellson in the ticket booth, "let's go with that,"

They passed through gilded, glass-paned doors and into a hallway that added ornate doorways to the attraction posters along the walls. At doorway Three Jon placed his key in the lock and turned until a click initiated a chorus of whirring, ticking and all manner of mechanical sounds. Suddenly the door sank back into the wall. Jon again offered his arm and they walked into a hallway the very size of the retreating door. The door lifted up and away and the pair walked out into a wooded meadow. In the middle of the green stood two horses in dappled sunlight. Underlying all, like the whirring of crickets, was the low mechanical sounds of the experitorium.

"Word! Jon, it's beautiful," she said breathlessly.

"The stallion is mine," Jon pointed at a shiny black horse, "And the mare is yours."

". . .A side saddle?" She said, disappointed.

"I thought, with a dress. . ."

"It only looks a skirt Major."

"Please call me Jon, m'lady."

She laughed lightly, "please call me Beth. We seem to be repeating ourselves, Jon. Have you ever ridden side-saddle?"

"No mmm, no Beth, I have not."

"I can see how a placid mare might fit for a side-saddle, but I think riding a horse side-saddle is un-natural. I would rather ride the black."

Jon beamed. "Then you shall. One of the advantages of the Experitorium is its easy adjustability. Observe."

To her great surprise the Major walked to the white and tugged up on its saddle blanket. He reached under and actually in to the horse. After a moment he withdrew his hand and stepped back from the horse. As Charlemaud watched, fascinated, the side saddle fell back over the far side and an English saddle took its place. The horse seemed to shift uneasily, and with a start, Miss Locke watched the horse grow taller and shed the rounded look of a mare in favor of the conformation of the black. "They are mechanical," She gasped, "I honestly didn't. . ."

"With the light they are very realistic, but you are correct. We can experience the feeling of jumping a horse though it truly never leaves the ground." Jon smiled proudly and said, "I thought you might want the black. It should be set for you. Shall we?" Jon asked, motioning for her to mount the black stallion.

Come to it, she thought, I might have trouble gaining the horse's back with my dignity intact. But the floor seemed to rise under her as she approached and the stirrup was more reachable than she would have thought.

Now that she was closer, what had looked to be musculature was really overlapping metal scale. It did seem to be partly a trick of the light. She brushed the hard metal and saw a dappling on her riding glove.

"Can you manage it?" asked Jon.

Behind her and too close for comfort, she thought, but not quite near enough for pleasure.

She glanced back. "Just admiring the workmanship." She quickly set her foot to the stirrup and, with a jump, was aboard. Her split skirt managed the horse well enough and her other boot found the opposite stirrup without difficulty. The seat was solid, but, even knowing it was really a mechanical contrivance, it felt lovely. "It feels so real." Charlemaud reached down and patted the neck. The stallion tossed its head and whinnied, for all the world like a spirited beast impatient for a run. "Well. Hurry up. My black feels ready to run."

With a lovely boyish grin, Jon MacWoad fairly leapt into the saddle of his white charger.

Charlemaud watched, enraptured, as the horse sidled a little, fighting the bit, and then was off in a shot. He baited me to claim the black. Was it just so I would see him on that white charger? I wonder. Not to be outdistanced her black fairly erupted and they were off at a gallop before she quite knew it. She could not help laughing. The wind tore at her raven hair as they thundered across the grassy sward toward a great wood.

The meadow disappeared and the forest closed around them. Old oaks with dangling moss crowded closer and closer. Their mad race slowed to a gentle walk as the horses blew and snorted after their exertion. Of course that's all rot, its all done with mechanics, but it feels so very real.

"How was that?" called Jon from his White who danced and pranced in the dappled light of forest edge.

"Exhilarating!" she said. And then more seriously, "Surely that's not it."

"No no. I promised you a ride, but let's talk a little," he said, she caught his eye. "a slower plod might be more conducive to conversation."

His eyes were cool blue in the ruddy high color on his cheeks. He looks very dashing, she thought. His roguish smile promises more. With a start, Charlemaud realized that she hadn't had this much fun in ages. "Lead on then, of what shall we speak?"

The horses walked into the darkening wood. "Oh I don't know, perhaps about you."

"Not that dull stuff," she teased. "There is nothing to tell. Major. Jon," She corrected, "I'm afraid my life is a dreadful bore."

"Please, parties every night. Endless courtiers. I'm sure you have no end of. . ." Jon grew suddenly pensive, "It would seem, no end of fascinating company."

"Well, you've not been to the stuffy parties I attend. It is my duty though," she added bitterly.

"Duty?"

Charlemaud frowned. "You laugh, but they are tiresome. Full of the same people. The reason for it all is to have me well wed."

Jon seemed to ponder these revelations as they let their mechanical horses walk them deeper into the wood.

What could he say? It would be a shame if her dark mood spoiled this. The silence grew unbearable, and she cringed to hear herself continue. "I had dreams of making my mark, something real, like this."

"Like the experitoria?" he looked puzzled. "It is only the penultimate, mechanically-executed, smoke and mirrors trick."

Charlemaud chuckled, relieved, she seized on the new subject. "However did you conceive of it? It is literally spectacular." They seemed to ride into a little cut where a torrent of water rushed. The waterfall plunged eighty feet, and she could feel its cooling spray and hear the roar.

"Believe it or not, it grew out of an idea for a gun-sight." Jon nearly shouted over the roar of the waters. "We successfully deployed it in airship service. It does require some familiarity for gunners to fully realize its potential, so we developed some training apparatus using the same principles. It occurred to me that the training method might have wider application, and the cavalry was the first to see the benefit."

". . . and here we are," said Charlemaud. The horses walked out onto a high bluff. "The sun was setting in a glory of pink and gold that took her breath away. "Oh Jon, it is beautiful." They watched the bright sun-lit skies deepen to rich burgundy and deepest indigo.

"I want to show you something." He turned his horse and she guided her mount after him. "I said you could see the world and you can." The moon already hung, bright and full, peeking out between deep, dark, broken, cloudiness. They rode down a soft dune, the hiss of sand whispering in the darkness, beneath the stars.

They were very high up on the edge of a massive river valley. The clouds parted, lighting the valley. Below them, a dark, wide, river gleamed. A cool breeze rising from the river swept away the clouds. Where in the world might this be? Below them were peaks, un-naturally sharply defined. They fairly glittered white in the light of the moon. "The pyramids. This is Egypt.

Then, magically, a light split the far horizon. "Sunrise! But that's impos. . ." Of course it isn't, we see whatever the master wants, sunset in an oak wood, sunrise over the pyramids. She watched the light play across the valley, bathing the pyramids in pink light. Lovely, but a bit false. A feeling, undefinable, made her look away from the vision. Why is he watching me? "You are missing the show Major."

"No," was all he said. With a snap of his reins and a touch of the spur he led them on. The great sand dune soon blocked the view of the Nile. Morning sun brightened the day, but they were cool under the great palms growing in the oasis they traversed. Undergrowth thickened and the shadows grew cooler. They rounded a bend and were near the foot of yet another pyramid, this one stepped in the Meso-American style.

"South America? How marvelous."

"The Yucatan actually. At least for the moment," The young major was proud of his show.

The horses picked up speed, cantered down a lane that resolved into the ordered lines of trees common to a rubber plantation. "I see, now the sub-continent. This is. . ." She should have been more impressed perhaps. It is beautiful, but a bit pretentiously so. As she expected, through the trees, she caught site of the Taj Mahal, perfectly outlined in a perfect afternoon. "Jon." They trotted by a beautiful pond full of lotus flowers among the great green lily-pads. "Why were you looking at me?"

He drew up. "I wanted to see it please you." He smiled boyishly, "Perhaps too much. . ."

She eyed him. I'm sure his smile has served him before instead for candor. What was he about?, "No. It was delightful. Really. But why were you looking at me?" She saw his color rising.

"I'm sorry mmm. . .," She saw defiance suffuse his face as he refused to allow himself to fall back to convention from hard-won intimacy, ". . .Beth. I've seen all this before. . ." His blue eyes found hers with difficulty. ". . .and you are very beautiful," He dared.

"It was a wonderful ride Major," She said cooly. He was far too brave and far to young, she thought. And far and away too good for me. "Rest assured, my society friends will hear of your Emporium of Experience. I shall certainly recommend it."

"Ummm, good, well, fine. I'd thought we could. . ." He swung down off his horse and it froze, becoming no more than a simulacrum of horse flesh devoid of the earlier faux life. The magic of the room dissolved into the glass and mechanism of the imagitorium.

It was a beautiful fantasy, Charlemaud thought, enticing and just what I most want, but can never have. She swung her leg over the back of the horse and reached down with it for the ground.

And then he was there to help her down, holding her, warm and close, catching her at her most helpless. He turned her in his arms so that they stood in an embrace. "I was looking at you because I was thinking how very much I wanted to kiss you, Beth." He confessed and then, unbidden, he did.

He was such a clever man, she thought, a hero, a warrior, of course he would employ the surprise attack. What could she do but surrender?



Words: 3121
© Copyright 2015 L. Stephen O'Neill (sonofniall at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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