An old friend turns out to have wild ideas. Second place in The Lodestar Contest, Feb 2023
I had known Farrington Gould since school days, when he was a spindly, rat-faced, little creature with spectacles like goggles and an explosive hairstyle. He was being harassed by three of the worst bullies in the school when I interrupted out of a sense of the unfairness of the contest. His tormentors soon disappeared when they realised they were up against the captain of the rugby team.
From that moment I found that I had earned a constant and slightly irritating companion in the unprepossessing shape of Farrington. He followed me everywhere, always ready to perform the most menial of tasks or supply treats from his apparently limitless allowance. I tolerated him, at first from awareness of the unpleasant fate that awaited him should I cast him free to the vagaries of the school social system, but later from an appreciation of the exceptional mind that dwelt under the covering of his untameable hair.
He was, obviously and undeniably, brilliant. His work in the arts and classics was superb and performed without any apparent difficulty. But it was in the sciences that he really shone. He was playing with trigonometry and calculus while the rest of us still struggled with algebra, and he designed miniature steam engines to power inventions whose purpose we could not even understand, let alone appreciate.
In time, even the bullies came to understand that Farrington was something different, an alien creature that was not worth their time and trouble to dominate, and he would have been left alone even without my protection. Yet it appeared that he gained more from our relationship than security, for he continued to stick with me, and I, equally, never sent him away. It was, I suppose, a friendship born of necessity but ultimately of genuine respect for each other.
Then schooldays were over and we all went our separate ways as each found his calling and struggled toward fame and fortune. For the most part, I lost touch with my old friends but Farrington maintained a form of contact through occasional newsletters, as he called them. These were fairly voluminous accounts of his theories and almost incomprehensible explanations of his latest experiments and inventions. I suffered my way through them and, on occasion, even wrote brief replies dealing with my travels and adventures.
I did not see him for many years, however.
It was after a particularly long interval between newsletters that I met Farrington again. One of the familiar envelopes with the Gould crest stamped on the reverse arrived through the letter box of my Middleham apartment. Inside was a brief note from Farrington, requesting that I come at once to his inherited Gould mansion in Braminghamshire. The complete absence of the usual turgid descriptions of his experiments and theories was enough to persuade me of the urgency of the matter, even had he not enclosed a first class ticket for the train journey to his nearest station.
That was how I found myself on the train heading for the green fields and forests of the south west and my first meeting with Farrington in many a long year. At the station I found Farrington’s man waiting and ready to take me by cabriolet to the Gould family seat. There seemed something familiar about him, but it was only as we came in sight of the imposing stone face of the manor that I remembered the fellow.
I said nothing but made a mental note to ask Farrington about it when the opportunity arose.
My old friend was much changed in his appearance when I first beheld him on arrival. His glasses were as heavy and his hairstyle even more unruly than I remembered, but the hair had gone a shocking white and his face was deeply lined with care and concentration. I had no doubt that the years had performed as equally a distressing action upon my own features too, so that our initial greeting was more awkward than we might have expected.
As his man attended to the stabling of the horse, Farrington dragged me by the arm inside and into a room that appeared to be his study. We relaxed into deep armchairs and the butler, another face that seemed vaguely familiar, was sent to prepare drinks for us. I decided it was time to clear up this little mystery.
“You know, Farrington old boy, I’d swear I recognised the man you sent to pick me up at the station. His name wouldn’t be Wormsley, would it?”
Farrington gave a short laugh. “I should have known that you’d see through his rather different role these days, Edward. Yes, he’s Wormsley, the worst bully in the school and the terror of my younger years. He turned up on my doorstep a few years ago, down on his luck and begging for a job. I thought it would be amusing to have him around for me to order about. A slight revenge but an enduring one, I think you’ll agree.”
I frowned. “Well, I would have thought it a bit of a risk, myself. I mean, d’you think he can be trusted? Especially as the butler seems to be one of his cronies.”
”Oh yes, old Vernon was one of that crew, wasn’t he? But I’ve had him around even longer and he has been as loyal as I could have hoped. Both of them have certain qualities that are useful to me and they seem to understand that they have value in my household. There’s never been a sign of them reverting to their old habits, at least.”
“I just hope that you’re right in this, Farrington. But if you’re happy, then I suppose it’s quite safe.” It was time to move on to other matters and I decided to broach the matter immediately. “So what did you want to see me about? I have the impression it was all rather urgent and important.”
The butler returned at that moment and the next few minutes were spent in light conversation as we sipped at the admittedly fine liquor provided. But I was impatient to move on the matter I’d broached. I stopped participating in the chatter and Farrington took the hint.
“Right, time to get to business. Rather than try to explain in comfort here, I think it would be best if I show you around the place and, at the same time, give you a rundown of how we can unite our disparate interests.”
He took me down several long passageways and through a courtyard open to the sky until we arrived at an unimpressive door at the back of the house. This appeared to be the source of the rumbling noise that had been increasing in volume throughout our tour. Farrington threw open the door, entered, and then flung his arms wide as he presented the view that met my eyes.
“My workshop!” he cried.
We were standing inside an enormous room, vast enough to contain several of the airships that were so popular in those days. Indeed, there seemed to be one resting on the ground at the far end of the room. It was hard to be certain because the rest of the room was filled with machines of all sorts, with foundries and furnaces, steam engines and contraptions running off the power they provided, long benches and cradles with other machines in various stages of construction, all apparently working as fast as they could go, puffing out steam and fumes, and creating a cacophony of sound that was almost deafening. Through all this maze of complex machinery, an army of workers was labouring, attending to control panels of multiple dials and levers, hammering away at strange metallic shapes, scooping coal into furnaces and huddled with colleagues over some interesting facet of a particular machine.
This chaos of noise, action and complication was compounded by the heat that struck us in our faces as we watched. It was a scene, if not from hell, then somewhere very like it. But it clearly excited Farrington beyond belief, for he sprang forward and began to lead me through the maze of activity, talking all the while.
Of course, I couldn’t hear a word above the great roar of so many machines working at once, but I followed him and began to discern that there was order beneath all the tumult. There began to grow in my mind a sense that this effort and energy was directed, not in the apparent variety of directions immediately observed, but with one singular purpose as its goal. The reality was that all this frantic activity was designed and conducted by one brilliant and masterful mind to an all-encompassing intent.
Farrington seemed to have reached the most important point of his exposition, for he stopped before a large bowl of a machine that several workers were attending with gauges and measurement devices. He turned and began to speak, only to realise that I could not hear a word of it.
With a shrug, he grabbed my arm and led me back through the tangle of machinery, back to the exit from the workshop and through the rambling house, until we occupied our chairs in the study again.
“Well, now you have seen it,” he said. “Now you know the size and magnitude of this grand endeavour on which I have embarked. I am sorry that I forgot how the noise of such creation tends to drown out speech for anyone new to the scene. Those who have become used to it can converse in normal tones without difficulty. But it was not necessary for you to understand at that point anyway. All that was needed was for you to see what a massive project is under way here. The really important matter is the machine at which our tour ended. That I will have to explain to you before I can expect your answer to the proposal I am about to make to you.”
He paused and I said nothing, being used to his dramatisation of his favourite theories. It was theatrical and irking to the impatient, but who could begrudge him a little showmanship when the excellence of his mind was so evident?
“It all started with an article in the newspaper,” he began. “There had been a huge explosion deep in a Varengian coalmine, apparently. You may recall the event. Several miners had been killed and strenuous efforts were being made to save the few survivors trapped by cave-ins caused by the blast. After these details of the accident were given, a brief explanation of the explosive nature of firedamp gases mixed with coal dust followed.
“It was not the terrible accident that held my attention, however. No, it was the mention of firedamp and coal being the cause. I knew, of course, that firedamp was the miners’ word for methane and was well aware of its fiercely explosive qualities. It was the addition of coal dust that opened a way in my thoughts, that brought light flooding upon the problem that I had been battling with for years.
“The combination of methane and coal dust was what brought the mine down in ruins. Separate, the two were destructive enough, but together they released a force that just might be the source of power that I had been seeking for so long. I cursed the shortsightedness that had kept me in expectation of a single fuel doing the job. Now of course, I could think of plenty of instances where two things combined led to things greater than their constituents alone.
“For months I searched for the best combination of the two materials to provide the most powerful explosion. Even when I’d found it, there remained the task of selecting the right materials for a chamber capable of containing such an explosion and thus providing the possibility of directing it. Once that had been done, anything was possible, an engine to provide power to move airships, to push a ship to the moon even, a cannon capable of sending shells twice as large as those now in use ten times the distance, a means of providing power to run or ruin a city, anything.”
He looked at me with a strange light in his eyes. “And I have done it, Edward, I have done it. I have the correct formula for the fuel and the right combination of metals to curb the explosion and direct it exactly where I want it. All I need now is someone to train my people to drive and fly and aim my machines. Someone who can already fly an airship and fire a gun, someone with the courage and daring to embark on a great adventure.”
He paused and looked at me again, sweat breaking out on his brow, his face flushed with excitement. “Someone like you, Edward.”
It was clear to me that Farrington had slipped the bonds of sanity and was embarking now upon some mad notion of world domination. It was the employment of the bullies from his school days that gave the clue to the origin of his decay into madness. What he saw as the oppression of his childhood produced the desire for revenge upon a world that had treated him so badly. And the irony of using some of the agents of his suffering against society would not have been lost on him. Such sadistic and heartless bullies would make the ideal foot soldiers in his war against the world.
My problem now was what to do about the situation. To decline his proposal openly would be to invite imprisonment within the mansion or worse. Farrington could not risk me leaving and advising the world of its peril. I would have to devise a plan and let him think that I approved of his scheme, then strike when the opportunity presented itself.
Strike in what way? I asked myself the question, knowing that the answer was not going to be easy. Farrington was a friend, after all, whether his genius had flipped over into insanity or not, and I was not going to feel right about being the cause of the ruin of his plans. And the extent of the dream became more and more apparent as he rambled on about the replacement of the old world with his new version, with him directing everything from the position of ultimate power attained by his technological revolution.
I don’t think he had an inkling of how crazy it sounded. There was no hint of moral flinching when he touched upon the use of force that would inevitably be required. He grinned eagerly at the prospect of releasing his bully boys on any opposition, confident in the knowledge that they’d be armed with weapons beyond the imagination of the unsuspecting world.
He must be stopped, that was clear.
When he ran out of steam, when the excited flow of words slowed and stopped, I indicated to him that I needed time to think about his proposal that I join his endeavour. It was a big undertaking, after all, and not a decision to be made in haste. He was expansive in his acceptance of this, summoning Vernon to order preparation of a bedroom for me. The fact that I was prepared to consider the thing seemed to make him certain that I would accept and I allowed this impression to continue.
Late that night we separated, the butler showing me to my room and the household settling down to rest from their labours. I waited in the dark as the sounds of activity died away into silence.
I waited a couple of hours before venturing out into the silent and darkened corridors. Finding my way through the house to the workshop door was no problem; two decades in jungles, the savanna and tundra, had taught me to take note of my surroundings when exploring. Once at the door, I stood a few moments and listened carefully.
All was quiet inside. It seemed that work was shut down at night, no shift system being in operation. I ventured to turn the handle soundlessly and opened just a crack. The faintest of light emanated from inside,
In one movement, I stepped through the doorway and stood with my back to the wall, allowing my eyes to become accustomed to the gloom.
The workshop had appeared to be empty of activity at first but, as I watched, I discerned movement among the silent machines. There were dark shapes moving around from one machine to the next, halting briefly at each, then moving on. It seemed I was not the only one bent upon mischief in the workshop that night.
Curious to see what they were doing, I left the wall and slipped into the maze of machinery. A shadow ahead of me left the machine it had been attending to and crept on to another. I followed.
There was a brief flash of light as the man switched on a torch, just sufficient for me to see that he was making an adjustment to a setting on the control panel. At the same time, I heard a sound behind me and then was struck down by a fearsome blow to the back of my neck. I had an impression of someone standing over me, then was swept into unconsciousness and terrible dreams.
When I awoke, it was still dark and the world took a while to coalesce into meaning. My head throbbed and I could not move my arms. Several attempts to free my arms from whatever held them so immobile made me realise that they were bound behind my back. Memory came flooding back and I surmised that I was being held prisoner somewhere.
The ground underneath me was hard and, by its feel was composed of hard packed earth. What little light there was came from above, where patches of lighter sky showed through irregular gaps like foliage. I was outside, presumably dumped and left for attention later.
If there was a moment to escape, it must be now, before my captors returned. I wriggled in an attempt to rise from my prone position and found that my legs, too, were tied. At the same time, a light went on and shone in my face. A voice spoke from the darkness.
“Ah, the hero is awake at last.”
I recognised the voice as Wormsley’s. He must have been one of those dark shapes I’d seen in the workshop. I decided that bluster might be my best approach.
“What the hell’s going on, Wormsley? Why am I trussed up like this and what were you doing in that workshop?”
I could imagine the sneer on his face as he replied. “Oh no, Mr famous adventurer Edward Morgan, you don’t get to ask the questions now. I’m in charge here and I’d like to know why you were sneaking about in old Gould’s workshop, spying on us like that. You doing his dirty work or some rotten plan of your own, huh?”
That reference to dirty work struck me immediately as strange. It did not sound like the view of a man devoted to the service of his master. Was he afraid that Farrington might find out what he had been up to in the workshop that night? That would explain why he felt it necessary to keep me tied up in this fashion. For all he knew, I was happy to go along with Farrington’s mad scheme and he could not allow me to warn him of the underhand business Wormsley was involved in.
“Well, I’m certainly not working for that madman,” I said. “I was trying to find a way to thwart his plans when I came across you and your friends fooling about in the shop. What are you up to, Wormsley?”
There was silence for a while before he answered. “Don’t believe you. He’s your friend, of course you’d take his side on things. Always did in the past.”
“That was before I found out about this insane idea of his to take over the world. Good Lord, man, you don’t think I’d agree to be a part of that nonsense, do you?”
Wormsley lowered the beam of the torch from my eyes and placed it on the ground, where its illumination was limited. I could see now that he was considering what I’d said, for he was scratching his chin in thought. He glanced into the dark behind him and then made his decision.
“Alright, I’m going to believe you. But one wrong move and we’ll have to tie you up again. There’s something about to happen and I want to watch it, so you’ll have to come with me.”
With that he moved forward and began to untie me. Then he helped me to rise and led the way to the edge of copse in which I’d been held. Three of Wormsley’s men were hiding there in the bushes and we joined them, making sure that we were well concealed. Wormsley kept a hand on my shoulder to ensure that I didn’t slip away.
I could see now that we were looking out on the extensive lawn before the Gould mansion. The house itself was in darkness but all eyes were focused on it.
“What are we waiting for?” I asked Wormsley.
“I’ve set a bomb to blow up that infernal machine of his,” he replied. “It should go off at any moment now and we want to see that it works as expected. And we’ve set the release valves on the steam engines so that, if they survive the explosion and he tries to get them going again, the boilers will blow.”
It was a more destructive idea than I could have imagined, especially without the explosives that Wormsley had access to. But it would get the job done, I reasoned. If it worked as expected, of course. I turned my attention back to the house.
Then the noise of a huge explosion shattered the night. A great flash of light burst from the rear of the mansion and a growing glow lit up the billowing cloud of smoke that ascended into the sky. Dark shapes and objects began raining down around us and we ducked down to avoid being hit. Some of the objects were on fire and many landed on the roof of the house.
It became obvious that the building was catching fire very quickly, smoke pouring from shattered windows and the glow steadily increasing from the direction of the workshop. I stood up and Wormsley rose with me.
“Quick, there are people in there,” I yelled. “Help me get them out.”
He held me back, refusing to release his grip. “It’s too late. That explosion was much bigger than I’d planned. It must have set off his damned special fuel as well. The fire’s already through to the front of the house and there’s no way we could get inside.”
It was clear that he was right. Flames were belching from the windows in great sheets and it was impossible that anyone remained alive inside.
I stood helplessly and watched the end of Farrington’s dreams of greatness and, perhaps, of the man himself. Although the newspapers reported several bodies being found in the blackened and smoking ruins of the place in the days that followed, they were all unrecognisable. So it was entirely possible that some had escaped the inferno, and that Farrington had been one of them.
If so, he was never heard from again but rumours persist that he is still alive and working away on some new venture to create something powerful enough to subjugate the world. And I, in my guilt at not having been able to save him, dare not hope that the rumours are true.
Word count: 3,982
For The Lodestar Contest, February 2023
Prompt: Fantasy - A new invention.