This is Victoriana, high tea, and justice for all! (Steampunk and slash too, if you squint.)

Enjoy the ride.

An Absinthe Affair


I.

Nicholas Aubert never knew the bedlam he always left behind.

With his suave manners and dapper looks, all topped by a carelessly smoothed coiffure of gleaming black, he would sweep the ladies off their feet, and leave them supine and mooning in his wake. And as each of them dreamed of the moment when he would turn back to take her hand in his at last, he would already be charming the sweet young thing next down the street.

The very first one to be taken with him — though then it was less intentional than otherwise — was one Matilda Lovelace, whom he lived right next to when he was but a mere five years of age. She was sitting under the front portico of her house on an ordinary summer's day, her favourite almond toffy in hand, when along came little Nicholas who asked her for a piece. And so enchanted she was by his sweet, clear voice that she dashed back into the kitchen and out again, thrusting an entire jar of the treats into his arms and kissing him on his bewildered face.

Another early incident involved Constance Nittinger, a cousin of Nicholas's closest childhood friend Isaac Meredith, and a year younger than them both. A dear, reticent girl of nine, Constance loved to spend her time knitting under the large pavilion in her aunt's house whenever Mrs Nittinger brought her along for a visit, and the two boys — for Nicholas often went over too to play — would tease her to no end. And the poor girl, not having met many boys her age, took Nicholas's teasing to be genuine affection for herself. Upon gathering from Isaac at last Nicholas Aubert's true impression of her (the exact wording of which was nothing a mere girl could bear to hear), she promptly drove her knitting needles into the beloved family cat. She was last heard to be in a prestigious fencing school in France, and fast becoming the best student in all its history.

Perhaps the most dreadful episode of all was the one that happened when Nicholas and Isaac were thirteen. Percival Darlington was a fellow pupil in their preparatory school; clever and articulate, he had a head of shocking red hair and the brightest green eyes, which went down quite well with the old school dames indeed. Yet for all his brilliance, it was only around Nicholas Aubert that he turned exceptionally shy and soft-spoken.

And Nicholas Aubert, the one and only, bestowed upon this admirer a memory he would never forget — he pulled down little Percy's short trousers and underpants right in the middle of the crowded quadrangle, much to the horror of the teachers. Nicholas was duly disciplined, as might be expected, yet none of the punishments meted out to him was even half as shameful as having one's buttocks flashed in public. And to Percival himself, neither of those even mattered — in light of the way Nicholas had howled with laughter full into his face, as he stood ashamed and pantless before him.

So it was said that the Darlingtons withdrew their boy from school in the wake of this incident, and he was never heard of again. But of course, Nicholas Aubert never knew that, too.

– – –

II.

By now a fine young man of seventeen, Nicholas Aubert had amassed some three dozen of such cases, most of which he would have remained unaware of were it not for the acute observations of his confidant Isaac Meredith. Following public school, the two of them matriculated at the same University College, and therefore still saw each other quite regularly. For some reason, however, Isaac seemed less keen in the mathematical implements of his study than Nicholas's colourful history of conquests. This perhaps was owing to the fact that his own experience was scant, or that he wished to glean some tips from his friend; in any case, Isaac never did admit anything about it, until now.

"They are quite a mystery, aren't they?" mused Isaac. "Though I must say — and I can never fathom why — you have always managed to captivate them, however unconsciously so . . ."

On this day the two of them were ensconced in a favourite coffeehouse a little way from the University, simply passing the weekend afternoon over a cup of black coffee. The table before Isaac was strewn with papers and writing instruments — articles which all suggested a theory paper he was working on, and there to impress any of the learned gentlemen in the shop who might be looking. Nicholas, on the other hand, was looking past all of them and glimpsing the people out ambling in the street instead, hands steepled content in his lap.

He stole a glance at his friend: at the moment Isaac was perusing a diagrammatic sketch, grey eyes unblinking; his sand-coloured hair was lurid, almost ghastly, in the steamy gaslight of the interior. A vast difference to the enigmatic jet-black of his own, he noted.

"Not unconsciously, Ike, not anymore. In fact —" He paused, smiling blithely — "I have come to understand that . . . curious behaviour they all seem to adopt in my presence, ever since Louise Caster."

Isaac looked up from his calculations. "Caster? I don't suppose you mean that girl from St Venetia's?" he asked.

Nicholas nodded, leaning forward for his cup. "She is a rather pleasant girl. Fair, yes, but altogether ordinary." He frowned as he took a sip of coffee. "I don't remember what of her I noticed at first, but after some time I tired of her utterly blatant calls of attention."

"Namely?"

" . . . Twirling her lace parasol by the University gates."

They shook their heads in unison.

"Your modesty never fails to astonish me, Nick," Isaac said, having caught what his friend was implying, whether intentionally or not. "It almost defies the law of universal gravitation."

Those last two words he drew out harshly from between his teeth: an attempt to trump his annoyance towards Nicholas with sheer jargon. But thereafter he only gathered his scattered papers, as though giving up on trying to concentrate in a bustling place such as this, and leaned back into his velvet-covered chair with a sigh.

"Although," he continued, "to extrapolate from this, there must be someone who can stand up to those heartless — and now indubitably deliberate — tactics of yours."

Nicholas chuckled. Here he was convinced that Isaac was, plainly, envious of him, and it flattered him so. "You speak in circles, Ike," he replied, running a careful fingertip along the side of his hair: the heat and vapour in the room were rendering it quite limp.

Isaac slotted the papers into his satchel, but not without a begrudging sniff: "Arianne Gladpacton, a recent affiliate of the New Athenaeum Club. The fellow scholars and I were surprised to have someone from a girl's college so passionate over our scientific debates, and I daresay she has some remarkable opinions. In fact she specifically asked to meet you, Nick, yet I find it is a trifle odd for her to request so at my mere mention of your name in passing . . ."

And Nicholas laughed, for all of a sudden Isaac Meredith's every single word threatened to send him doubled over in mirth.

"I would have you know that Louise Caster has been sending tear-stained letters to my house every day ever since I refused her, Ike. Perhaps you might want to reconsider your suggestion."

Isaac cast him a withering look. "It seems that I have once again proven my point," he told him. He set his own cup onto his saucer after one last mouthful of coffee, and stood up from his chair quite indignantly.

"Good day, Nicholas." He made a show of tugging at his cravat and nodded at his friend. "I shall be off for a formal discussion with a fellow scholar now."

"Not Miss Gladpacton, I presume?" quipped Nicholas, smirking.

There was a sudden stiffness to Isaac's gait as he strode off, but after one last exasperated glare thrown towards Nicholas, he was out of the door and back to his usual, assured self — back too, as it appeared, to the side of a comely young lady in a bustled dress of deep green, who had just arrived outside the coffeehouse. Her hair, Nicholas realised, was as gleaming dark as his own.

And it was then that Nicholas Aubert fell in love.

– – –

III.

Nicholas Aubert thought her very lovely indeed, for he had never quite been fascinated as such by anyone, much less a girl he might have tossed carelessly aside up till a few months past. He heard from Isaac the way she seemed to be steering the recent Athenaeum Club sessions — she had no qualms about engaging in passionate discourses with the mechanics and physics scholars present; so forthright and astute she was that more often than otherwise they would fall back into their seats, in proud silence but also grudging respect. He heard of the way she always addressed the other young men — her voice, clear and strong, and remarkably so, speaking of such things as energy transfer and electromagnetic rotation (the meanings of which Isaac not once cared to explain). And even though Nicholas took all this in quite airily — for all the while he was merely fancying the way she might address him, if they ever met — Isaac, it appeared, was none too enthusiastic about it.

"The very first girl I could converse with all day of analytical engines, and you have to be keen about her as well," he muttered once, when he and Nicholas were walking under the cloisters of the University College in between their lectures.

That very remark proved to be the impetus for Nicholas's newfound audacity — for mere days later he found himself on a lane off Millesbury Avenue, mere furlongs away from the University, while keeping his head low under an inconspicuous trilby. One of the houses there, Isaac had eventually told him, was where the young woman resided in, for any Club correspondence to her was sent to that particular address. And it was the same boldness that made him stride up to the front door, in as urbane a manner as he could manage, and seek her presence.

"Arianne Gladpacton?" The matronly lady who answered the door looked him askance then, and pulled the door inches closer towards its catch when his eyes briefly darted past her into the hallway. "I'm afraid there is no one of that name in this house," she stated brusquely.

As Nicholas trudged down the lane, baffled and wondering if his friend had simply (and intentionally) given him the wrong address, there came the answer in the form of the young woman in question walking towards him, with a leather-bound book in hand and a surprised smile on her face. Thereafter she did speak to him in a more demure manner than Isaac first described — though her nods of assent when he asked to make her acquaintance had been rather abrupt — and it only prompted him to believe that he did hold an exalted place in her eyes after all.

And those eyes! Such an intriguing shade of hazel they were: blue at the rims, awash with gold, and seemingly shifting in the light with her every sentiment. They spoke of things that her lips did not — and how little she revealed about herself with her own voice, even until now, months since the first time Nicholas saw her.

"At the moment I'm staying at my Aunt Henrietta's," said Arianne Gladpacton, when Nicholas enquired about it. "She is a little prudish at times — in her eyes a lady such as I should never be seen alone with another gentleman — but seeing as her place is much closer to St Venetia's than my parents' house is . . ."

Now the two of them were inside Miss Midden's Tearoom in Eastenford Street — which, coincidentally, was the same street Nicholas himself lived — with the smallest linen-draped table and a china tea set between them. The other patrons around them were all in a titter, for Nicholas was the very first male customer willing to even step into this delicately embellished shop and its rosy hues. Yet Nicholas did not mind this unneeded attention, however damaging it might be to his name — not if it gave him a reason to watch at length the girl sitting before him.

Arianne Gladpacton was perhaps the most fetching lady that Nicholas had ever met. She was no ravishing beauty, but there was a certain sharpness to her pale features that was almost familiarly masculine, thereby complementing her unusual intellect. And even more distinctive about her was her hair — perfectly twisted into a chignon and coiling down the sides, dark and glimmering as his own, and not unlike the ether of a midsummer's night. How rare it was for him to discover such a lady among the myriad permutations of common brown- and gold-haired folks, a young lady as amiable and charismatic as she.

Forget the embarrassment of having to bear with the cloyingly sweet scents of tea and berries in a room full of lace, Nicholas decided, with a resolute tug at his collar. This was someone he ought to draw close to his side — and, for once, eventually kept under both his wing and his name.

"And closer to the university College as well, wouldn't you say?" he asked her at last, an arch smile playing across his face. He ran a hand through his hair for the umpteenth time that day, though now more out of ostentation than anything else.

She stopped stirring her tea with a silver spoon, and her glance fair set his heart aflutter. "You tease me, Nicholas Aubert," she said easily, placing the spoon back onto its saucer with a soft chuckle.

Nicholas leaned back into his seat, his smile seemingly milder as he angled his head slightly downward. "Do forgive me, Miss Arianne. I was quite . . . beside myself. Perhaps it is the tea."

"Oh, but I do think its scent is lovely." She turned her attention to the elaborate hangings of flowers and tulle all about the shop. "It would be splendid if I can have such a place of my own, selling nothing but the best tea in all of London . . ."

Nicholas laughed. "You tease me, Miss Arianne. A brilliant mind such as yours would truly be wasted if that were to be your eventual calling."

To which Arianne Gladpacton hid her own smile behind a curled hand, and gazed into his eyes: ". . . But suppose I could persuade you otherwise?"

– – –

IV.

And so Nicholas Aubert found himself on Blackmore Street at the very fringes of the district, on a hazy evening several ones after their tête-à-tête. Standing beside him was Arianne Gladpacton, now in a grey shirtdress, short black gloves, and a hat brimming with black roses and sashes, and gazing intently at the sight before them, right at the end of the dimly lit street. The house there was quite gone — all that remained were fragments of walls and frames; mortar and crumbled brick lay scattered across the wooden panels of what used to be a floor. Yet the strangest thing of all was what resembled a dirty tin flue, rising some three metres from the tiles at the very back through a gaping hole in the crumbling roof, and belching out steam and smoke that evanesced into the stillness of the night. Number thirty-seven, the house adjacent to it, and the others along the same street, though intact, seemed even more devoid of life, and only a spluttering gas lantern across the road might indicate to anyone else the uncanny activity of this particular chimney.

"My great-uncle used to live here," Arianne said to him. "He had a penchant for building machines out of the bits and pieces he could find in the scrapyards — useful little things like kerchief sorters and self-revolving glass mobiles to lull the bawling babies at home to sleep. But the constabularies thought he was devising some nefarious automata to send to the Queen, and he had to flee when they came to knock down his house."

"They never did find the proof to that accusation, did they?" Nicholas asked, gesturing to the flue with his trilby in hand. "Those machines seem to have gone on quite well without him."

He could not help but feel smug the moment Arianne gave him a pleased smile, as though she had been waiting for such a subtle display of intelligence from him. Yet before he could make any more deductions, she had already walked through the frame of the door still standing, gathering her skirts as she crossed the threshold. "There is a tunnel that leads from the basement of my aunt's house to the cellar here," he heard her reply. "Apparently they missed all of it."

Now Nicholas Aubert watched, marvelling, as the girl bent down upon reaching the back corner of the interior, and swept her hand over the dust accumulated there. In the faint glow of light he saw indentations in the floor, and with a few deft depressions of the wooden tiles beside them they gave way with a sigh, and swung down into the depths on one hinged side, revealing a small flight of stairs beneath. Together they made their way down, the rickety steps creaking with their combined weight, and paused before a brass-reinforced wooden door, which muffled a great humming and clattering coming from behind it. Arianne retrieved a golden key from the depths of her dress, and said to him in the softest whisper he had ever heard from her:

"I trust, Nicholas Aubert, that you will keep everything I'm revealing to you now in the utmost confidence."

And Nicholas smiled to himself in the near darkness, thrilled by both this secret of hers soon to be uncovered, and the way her breaths seemed to ghost past his collar and onto his neck. Such a fine, modern lady this was. "Rest assured I shall not divulge anything of this night, Miss Arianne," he answered.

So there came the sweet sound of a key turning in its lock, and the door swung open to reveal a vast chamber. It was thirty feet square at least, with brick-lined walls and a glowing paraffin lamp hanging against the face of each; in the wall opposite was another similar door, albeit that was firmly latched. Yet the room itself paled in the presence of the thing that sat in the middle of it — a gigantic machine of metal and wood and glass, whirring and puffing all it could in a great cloud of steam that drifted towards the ceiling and the waiting mouth of the long tin flue.

The contraption appeared haphazardly put together — there were barrels and cylinders of all sizes and kinds; cogs and gears, sprocket wheels and flywheels; networks of brass pipes, attached with taps and stopcocks; pistons and dials sticking out of every surface possible, coughing out steam and quivering with life; a small, leather-wrapped pad tucked in between two black wheels, one very large and one very small, and scattered with rivets, oilskin and other tools and materials at their base. At the top of it all, very nearly obscured by the vapour, was a wondrous lattice of glass phials and flasks — filled with what seemed like small, dried leaves — suspended over a glass-lidded reservoir of liquid in a large basin, which in turn was heated over the largest iron stove Nicholas had ever seen. Each flask tipped its contents into the basin in accordance with a frazzled-looking clock attached to the anterior of the frame; a brace of strange wooden wheels, fitted with long brass dippers like the buckets of a waterwheel, rotated inside the basin on two sides. They stirred the contents of the reservoir, which dissipated in a familiar aroma that Nicholas eventually recognised.

"Tea," he breathed.

"Yes, Nicholas Aubert . . . A tea-making miracle of a machine." Arianne Gladpacton walked across the hard dirt floor until she reached the machine, and stroked it tenderly on one of the hemispherical nodes that bordered the top and bottom of an upright metal drum. "My great-uncle originally intended it to be the first casserole machine in all of Europe, but it was only half built when he disappeared . . . I'm hesitant, however, to conclude whether this was unfortunate or otherwise."

"And is this the reason you chose to study mechanics? In St Venetia's?"

She turned to face him, gently undoing the ribbon of her hat under her chin, and taking a step towards him as she next spoke: "I found the plans for this machine by its foot; it took me many months to understand them, and even more to attempt to alter the very structure of the machine. Indeed, it was fortunate that no-one lived close to this place — I could build and operate the mechanisms at night without fretting about how the steam and noise might attract unwarranted attention.

"And all through those few years I only wished, dearly, to fulfil my great-uncle's noble dream, Mister Aubert, more so when I realised I could not, in view of the world, fulfil my own — of brewing tea like in a teashop kitchen, manufacturing it like in a factory . . . And one day everyone, everyone, from the children in the streets to the patricians, can savour it without care of what it might cost them." As she talked she took another step, then yet another, and by the time the last word left her lips she was standing right next to Nicholas. She removed her hat, shaking free the brilliant black curls of hair trailing down from the elaborate knot at the back of her head, and gazed up at him with her long-lashed hazel eyes, till Nicholas felt his face grow warm.

". . . All I can do now is keep this machine underground," she continued quietly, "and have it make fragrant teas instead of questionable stew." She lifted a deliberating hand towards his waistcoat, though never quite touching it. "That is not too unreasonable a request for such a girl as me, is it?"

And Nicholas Aubert, lost as he was in those eyes of hers — and the sudden hint of damask rose that was ambrosia amidst the splutters of steam and gas all around them — was now quite convinced that he had not assimilated half of what she had said thus far.

"In — Indeed it is," he found himself saying, in a voice only slightly weaker than he thought.

Arianne dropped her hand back onto her side then, as though Nicholas's answer had truly been unsatisfactory. She turned away from him, holding her hat behind her back the way a constable might to his helmet. "It is not perfect, though," she said, and Nicholas had no inkling as to what she meant.

"How . . . how so?" he asked vaguely.

"The tea that the machine brews has always been disappointingly insipid. Perhaps it is because I can never quite bring the water in the reservoir to boil . . ." Now Arianne was searching through the drawers of a lacquered cherrywood chest, which stood in a corner against the walls. "I rather hoped you might know what to make of it, in any case," she added.

"Dear me, Miss Arianne!" Nicholas managed a careless laugh, and promptly strode over to her side. "Surely the other clever, young gentlemen of the New Athenaeum Club would have been better judged for a problem of this nature?"

"Yet I am fairly sure that none of them would have willingly stepped into a tearoom with me the way you did, Mister Aubert!" She whirled around to look at him once more, a silver-trimmed china teacup and saucer in her hands; there seemed to be a sudden gleam to her eyes that had not been there before. "Were I to even utter one word about this they would have ridiculed me, the way you did not — the way I trust you never would."

And in the wake of those words Nicholas Aubert lapsed into a moony stupor that was well on a par with those of the other miscellaneous ladies he had charmed throughout his youth. Such fierce honesty in that passionate outburst, he marvelled, and such sweet implications they held! He was quite close to clasping her hands in his — and awaiting her tearful eyes as he vowed to become the one and only gentleman for her — when she swept away from him quite abruptly, folding her sleeves to the elbows as she made for the machine instead. With the cup held out before her she twisted one of the numerous taps on the machine; an amber-coloured liquid streamed out, and sent miniature curls of steam fading into the air.

To Nicholas it looked a decent cup of tea, yet moments later it proved to be anything but, and he had to pretend to clear his throat to disguise his coughing. "It is a little . . . lacklustre, yes," he admitted, setting the teacup back onto the saucer, then quickly added: "But it simply needs a little refining." He marched up to the great rattling machine, furiously sipping the tepid tea while he looked it up and down, and trying to suggest something which might both solve Arianne's troubles and impress her. He reached the leather pad at the very left of the machine, just beside the great cast-iron stove and its burning coals, and before a blackened patch of wall where a row of bellows, tongs and pokers was hung; and quite conveniently an idea came to him.

"A penny-farthing,' he exclaimed triumphantly, though more to himself than otherwise. "Why, if this were to be a seat, and there were to be a set of pedals here . . ." He pointed at two footrest-like iron rods sticking out some two feet from below the pad. "Not ones that go around, but rather up and down — that might be akin to having a pair of automated bellows. The air pumped into them, then, might just fan the flames high enough to heat even a large body of water such as —"

And suddenly a pair of black-gloved hands was upon his cheeks; Arianne Gladpacton was now standing before him, and all he could see were her glimmering coils of hair and her ecstatic smile and her shining, shining eyes. "You are brilliant, Mister Aubert," she whispered, her words almost brushing soft over his lips. He half-imagined her to lean her face closer to his own — and himself, enveloped in her warm, lovely bubble of damask and silken skirts — but she only drew away from him, and gave him a sweet, smooth smile that he forgot he himself had last used on Louise Caster, so many months ago.

– – –

V.

All throughout the summer months Nicholas Aubert kept correspondence with Arianne Gladpacton, though nothing they exchanged in writing was ever as clandestine as that evening spent in the underground chamber in Blackmore Street. All her letters were written in a strange, emerald ink on pale perfumed paper, and Nicholas soon found himself tossing out the stacks of envelopes addressed to him from a lovelorn Louise Caster (who had, to his utmost relief, ceased sending them since the end of spring), and relish the way Arianne's letters fitted — and smelled — inside the caddy hidden in the deep undersides of his desk, unknown to anyone but himself.

In his very first letter he asked to inspect the tea-making machine a second time, but as she mentioned nothing of it in her reply he decided not to inquire again. The next few weeks he spent trying to write in an unassumingly prudent, yet charming manner — though at times he could not help but attempt to pen poetry, whose many metaphors and implied meanings he hoped she might gather. But subsequently she seemed to have decided that his interest in their shared secret was more bearable than his prosaic expressions: she was happy to describe at length the performance of her tea machine after she implemented his ingenious suggestion. And whenever she sought his opinion of a possible energy source to power the bellows, or how a partial vacuum between the storage drums and the surrounding air might aid in the thermal insulation of both the water and tea, Nicholas had to coax some probable solutions out of his friend Isaac Meredith over too many cups of coffee, until Isaac had to ask him if he wished to join the New Athenaeum Club as well.

"No, Ike," he had lied, sighing quite convincingly. "I am simply lamenting over my previous lack of interest in such sciences, when it is obvious they are fast becoming the greatest force driving our society today."

The smirk that Isaac had tossed him after that proved not in the least insulting — Nicholas learnt soon after that a second girl had joined the Club and, though Isaac thought her less striking as Arianne Gladpacton was, he appeared rather flattered when he bashfully revealed to Nicholas that he had been as taken with her as she him. (When Isaac demanded to know what gave him away, Nicholas simply pointed to the spare cravats peeking out from inside his brand new leather satchel.) This news also cheered Nicholas up considerably, for it meant he did not have to share anything about Arianne to Isaac, and that he could continue to correspond with Arianne in relative privacy.

Yet one long week passed without a single letter from Arianne, then another. Anxious, Nicholas spent many an afternoon hovering behind the trees lining Millesbury Avenue, but caught not a glimpse of her anywhere near her aunt's house; the dilapidated house at the end of Blackmore Street still hummed and threw out steam shortly after every twilight, but try as he might he could never locate the trapdoor and the chamber concealed under it, the way Arianne did so effortlessly before. On the first morning of the third week, however, he finally found an envelope addressed to him, oddly free of any postmark or stamp, and he hastened to his study to open it:

There is one last thing I need, Nick.

All but yours,
A.

And Nicholas Aubert promptly grabbed his coat and sprinted the long way to Blackmore Street — for that first line, that single line in its familiar green ink, called to him for the very first time in a manner so affectionate he never dared to imagine. "All but yours . . . all but yours," he whispered, a manic smile high upon his face as he ran. "Arianne, my beloved, you shall be mine in no time." As expected the entrance to the underground chamber was lost to him when he arrived, but that was hardly enough deterrence: a mere half-circuit of the district led him straight to Millesbury Avenue, where he spied a broad-shouldered figure nestled in the first-floor room he knew was the library, and all he could do then was wait.

It was not until the sun started to slant its way in between the surrounding chestnuts and oaks did he discern the most pleasing sound and sight in the world — that of the creaking front door, and of Aunt Henrietta sauntering down the path in her evening best, the bright red pillbox hat atop her head bobbing off into the distance like a beacon, and at last safely winking out of sight. Then, ditching the need of skulking altogether, Nicholas swung himself over the palisades, made for the portico and tried, vainly, to chance upon a lock undone. As he worked his way around the side, trying to summon that fickle bout of intelligence he had first displayed inside the cellar that evening, he found himself staring at a back door that was very clearly unbolted, and mocking him with the chink of shadow between itself and the wall. Strings of muttered oaths and painful groans later he at last reached the basement, where a gas lantern hung from a hook by the door; it gave enough light for him to discover, only barely, the outline of another entrance carved into the damp wooden wall panels, just behind a stack of old cedar chests. The hidden door sighed as it was pushed open, and Nicholas Aubert, with lamp in one hand and precious letter in the other, cautiously ventured into the dank darkness of the tunnel beyond it.

The tunnel was low, and very much uneven; too soon he had to stoop slightly just to continue treading, and at several points he stumbled, almost putting out his light, for the earth was so loose it seemed only freshly turned. He went on his way, the paler rocks in the soil gleaming into view as he approached, and in the stale, thin air he imagined them to be a starlit sky, and started murmuring foolishly to himself:

"Arianne, I am well aware of how much . . . how much you need me by your side . . . Have no fear, we will be together soon . . ."

And in such a manner Nicholas went, for a mile or so (for that was the approximate distance between Millesbury Avenue and Blackmore Street), until he completely lost any sense of time and perhaps even half his sanity. But a sudden stream of marginally fresher air passed him just then, and it well snapped him awake — enough, it seemed, to alert him of the curiousness that was the space now around him.

He was at a fork in the tunnel.

The rest of the tunnel that led on to what he was certain was the underground chamber was wider and firmer, much like the passage that stretched from the point of intersection all the way to another unknown end. And even uncannier was the fact that those two segments joined to form a relatively straight line: the route he had just taken, Nicholas realised, was only a newly added tributary.

Suddenly light-headed from this irrational deduction, he ran the rest of the length of the tunnel, the lantern swinging and rattling hard in his hand, and his face and shirt growing damp with sweat. Finally he reached the arched door to the chamber: there was a great deal of steam issuing from the fissures around it, and marking its silhouette quite clearly. He stuffed the letter into his pocket, and laid a hand upon the brass knocker in the centre of the door; it swung open on surprisingly well-oiled hinges. "Arianne," he called, suddenly adrenalised. "It is me."

Arianne Gladpacton was standing before the great, steaming machine, gazing at it with her head held high. Her hair was askew without the black sinamay hat that now sat upturned and forgotten on the ground behind her; her dress, delicately bustled and pleated and flounced, was now rumpled under smears of machine oil and coal dust streaks. Yet the smile that graced her face, though flickering in the gaslight, was jubilant as she turned to look at him. "At last," she whispered, and the brace and hammer she held tight in each of her leather-gloved hands fell with a great clatter onto the floor as she spread her arms towards Nicholas Aubert.

– – –

VI.

To Nicholas Aubert the next few seconds were perhaps the most perfect moments of his life. That young lady, that charming, clever young lady who had occupied so many of his recent dreams, had now fulfilled her own at long last — she could now make the best tea in all of London with the most fantastic machine ever built, and have him by her side for the rest of their long, blissful lives. His fingers uncurled to accept her embrace, and the gas lantern landed onto the dirt floor with a dull and forlorn clunk.

The two of them met at last, and Nicholas's heart soared into paradise.

When the golden voices and aureoles of cherubs faded away behind his eyes, he found himself not quite basking with his lady in that passionate undying love he so hoped for — Arianne Gladpacton merely had both her hands grasping his wrist, the slick leather of the gloves against his skin as though a strangest facsimile of her own, and her eyes were shut as she pressed her forehead gently against his fingers. "You complete me, Nicholas Aubert," she whispered, and he tipped his head down to touch his quivering lips to her hair. Yet before he could do so she leaned back as nimbly as ever, her eyes never once meeting his, and guided him straight to the centre of the chamber.

The tea-making machine was now clearly complete: its metallic surfaces were all polished to the highest shine and its very presence many times more animate than before — down to the persistent thrumming of every vessel and pipe, and the frenzied spinning of every wheel and coil. The penny-farthing structure to the left of the machine, to Nicholas's astonishment, had been thoroughly ameliorated — a cast-iron trellis now enclosed the seat and its convoluted system of pedals like an ovate birdcage; strips of leather wound around silver pulleys snaked out from the pedals, through the gaps in the enclosure, and into an assemblage of cogwheels that powered an immense cylindrical bellows fashioned from ribbed diaphragm, wood and brass rivets. All it lacked, it seemed, was something that would actually activate the entire mechanism.

"My dear Arianne," Nicholas whispered, a queasiness blossoming from inside his stomach quite suddenly as he turned to the inventor of the iron beast before him. "Surely you do not think —"

And Nicholas Aubert was unceremoniously hoisted up by the collar and shoved through the open door of the cage.

At once, belts of leather shot out from the base of the enclosure like the tentacles of a contracting sea jelly, and wound themselves around him in a flurry of snapping buckles that came from nowhere. He yelped — in equal parts pain and panic — as they anchored him to the tiny leather seat at the waist, arms and neck; two of the widest, toughest straps wound around his ankles, and trapped them against the square frames of iron by the bottom that were the pedals themselves.

"What — what is the meaning of this, Miss Arianne?" shouted Nicholas, struggling and tugging against the banks of leather with the might of the suave gentleman that he always saw himself as, though they held fast and true. "You must release me this once!" But when he turned desperately to his only means of escape that was the door he knew that it was impossible — for all he saw was the silhouette of Arianne Gladpacton very nearly shrouded in the billows of thick white steam emanating from the machine, as she leaned in with her hands held to the sides of the doorway in a claw-like grip. A vivid green, much more brilliant than that of her dress, flared amidst the hazel in her eyes, and Nicholas at last realised why her features had always been so vaguely familiar to him all this while.

"You —" he gasped out hoarsely — "You're that Darlington boy."

The silhouette only smiled, pleasantly, in reply; in a fit of apparently suspended disbelief Nicholas yanked himself off the seat as much as he could, and the straps over his right arm unexpectedly gave way to the strain with a series of cracks. He shot out his hand to grab his assailant by the head and, with a cry of rage, tried to swing it against the bars, but it simply slipped out of his hand and dropped onto the floor in a small pile of glimmering darkness — and it was nothing but a well-worn black-haired wig, mocking him for his belated discovery of its true identity.

And now he saw that the person looming over him at the doorway — Arianne Gladpacton, the girl of his dreams who never once existed — was not quite what he thought either, for those were auburn curls tumbling down the shoulders, broken free of the pins that had held them down under the wig before, and those slender fingers that now slid onto his cheek and jerked his face upwards were indeed befitting of a true lady, albeit a terribly fearsome one.

"Panacea Darlington," she revealed at last, her eyes still shining green as she smiled down sweet into his perspiring face. "Your intelligence is admirable, Nicholas Aubert, but it is regrettably lacking against that of your confidant Mister Meredith, let alone my own . . ."

Nicholas's eyes widened in utter surprise. "An— another Darlington!" he stammered. "Then — then Percival is —"

"My brother, yes." Here she caught Nicholas's free hand and tucked it through a tight space between the back of the seat and one of the many straps still holding; he seemed too stupefied by her words to resist in any way. "My dearest, dearest twin brother whose heart and mind you utterly devastated on a lark four years ago — and still you have the nerve to remember his name." She drew sharply away from him, almost in disgust, and turned to stand erect with her back facing him; the bustle of her dress smacked square into his face, and left him hacking in a cloud of coal dust.

"And do you know, Nicholas Aubert, that my beloved Percy has never been quite his old self again ever since you did that to him . . . Always shut himself inside his bedchamber, tucked deep under his bedclothes . . ." She shuddered once, then whirled around to glare at her victim, who was now paralysed by her words, his eyes darting furiously as though with thoughts of escape, yet never once daring to leave her own. "He talks to himself, Mister Aubert. Whispers of how you humiliated him, and weeps at how you laughed at him. And every day he puts on four long trousers at once, and screams every time our nurse tries to take them off so that he might get washed. No tutor wants to teach him, and no public school wants him as one of its students, for they all think him paranoid . . . deranged. And they had us put him into St Pantaleon's, hoping the doctors there would cure him; but you must know, dear Mister Aubert, that he is there even till this very day . . ."

"How was I to know that you had a brother?" Nicholas cried, rather belatedly.

Panacea Darlington gave a short, high laugh, one that was not the least reminiscent of her alter ego. "Of course you did not, you vain, half-witted bourgeois!" she spat at him. "You never knew anything! You never knew of how you disgraced my brother, or of how you drove my wonderful home apart — or of how you endlessly made worry my mother and father that I might one day go the way of poor Percy, all because of a boy like you who would break my heart!

"And when I found out that it was you, I did all I could to learn more about you, and lure you through the same torment that my brother did . . . You, Nicholas Aubert, who are so in love with yourself and that luxurious mop of cephalopodic ink atop your pate, have an absurd, irrational fetish for girls with such distinctive shades of hair as your own — born, I expect, of your narcissistic desire to distinguish yourself from everyone else!" With her thumb and finger she raised a lock of her own hair, dancing red-brown and gold in the hissing gaslight, and flicked it away dismissively. "No, nothing mediocre for the great Nicholas Aubert . . . Only the purest jet, the richest red, and the palest gold like that of a most wonderful girl I befriended in St Venetia's —"

"No, not Louise Caster —"

"I did not spend years concocting this plan that would see you here in my mercy just to hear your whining interjections, Nicholas Aubert!" Panacea snapped, and grabbed a handful of his hair; he felt a great many strands of them breaking free of their roots, and choked back a pained cry. "I saw how wretched she became, the way Percival did, and swore to make you answer for your wretched deeds . . . Putting on that wig, moving into my governess's place, enrolling into St Venetia's under a false name — all those were only my attempts to get closer to your person, and you fell for my tactics in such a neat, predictable fashion, all because of the colour of my hair . . .

"And those many months of studying gave to me the time to refine this plan, and the knowledge that would lead me to crafting this beauty of a machine, built upon the ingenuity left behind by my grandfather." She frowned at the sight of Nicholas gaping at her and stuttering incoherently. "Yes, Mister Aubert — the other, original route of the tunnel leads to the basement of my house; the one from Millesbury Avenue I had to tunnel by my own just so I can keep working on the machine here without anyone else setting eyes on it . . ."

"B-But you led me here!" Nicholas shot back desperately, as she made to exit the iron cage. "And it was I who suggested turning this into a bellows for the stove! You would never have completed it without my aid —"

"And did you not propose that because you saw an ordinary bellows hanging right there and the materials lying around — the materials I deliberately left lying around so that even a dimwit such as you would be able to draw the connection?"

She swept back to Nicholas's side, the fire in her eyes now fading back to a calm hazel once more as she pressed a finger hard against his forehead. "You gravely overestimated your abilities, Nicholas Aubert. Only a supercilious fool like you would notice the deepest black of someone's hair, and miss the true colours of her very eyes and mind."

"You have no right to keep me here, Panacea Darlington," he whispered, his voice and body now trembling hard as the coward that he was at last surfaced; unfortunate was the fact that he could not turn away because of the finger, and Panacea seemed to be relishing every single word he sprouted in his state of delirium. "I shall . . . I shall tell the constabularies about how . . . how you lured me over . . ."

"Oh, tell them all you like, Nicholas Aubert," she cheerfully replied, lifting her finger from his clammy skin. "They will never hear you. And besides —" She bent down to retrieve a small, forgotten sheet of letter paper from the floor under the seat, and casually tossed it into the waiting tongues of the stove fire just beyond the cage — "who else would ever know that you ever came here at all?"

Nicholas moaned under his breath; he tried his best to shut out both the smooth, teasing voice of the young lady and the loud, satisfied purring of her tea-making machine, and seconds later he could — for there was now a searing pain that pulled at his scalp once more, and it jolted just about everything else out of him.

Panacea Darlington leaned towards his face, the sweetest smile on her lips as she uncurled her tightly fisted hand, and a bale of sleek, black and freshly uprooted hair floated down towards the floor. "Now pedal away, Nicholas Aubert," she cooed to him. "Pedal with all your might, and witness for yourself the flawless workings of this glorious machine of the Darlingtons, now that you will forever be a part of it. Make me the finest cup of tea I have ever tasted, or I shall never set you at liberty."

The sweltering heat of the machine suddenly swelled twofold, and Nicholas's cry of agony was lost in the triumphant laughter that resonated all around — even as its owner bolted both the penny-farthing prison and the doors to the chamber, and left the young man quite alone to atone for his wicked crimes to the heart.

– – –

VII.

Nobody knew where Nicholas Aubert ever went. The last that anyone ever saw of him was during an afternoon in late August, when an old custodian of the University College claimed that the young man had dashed out of his house at Eastenford Street, clutching what seemed to be a letter written on pink paper. The Aubert family, upon discovering a sheath of other similar letters in a paper bin in his study, was convinced that he had eloped with one Louise Caster, who herself had departed for Edinburgh in midsummer even though her parents were both living in London.

Arianne Gladpacton, the first young lady ever in history to become part of the New Athenaeum Club, stopped attending Club sessions at around that period of time as well. It was rumoured among some of the more sympathetic members that she had withdrawn from St Venetia's, and left the city in tears — perhaps due to the fact that Nicholas had abandoned her in favour of another girl. (Isaac Meredith, the newly elected President of the Club, sceptical as he was of the Louise Caster theory, had to accept that Arianne Gladpacton was indeed gone — in which case it still left him quite distraught.)

In early autumn that same year, Miss Panacea's Teashop opened at thirty-eight Blackmore Street, at the other end of the district. The crumbling house that had once stood there was now a beautiful two-storey tearoom, painted in white and green and filled with both sweet-smelling teas and warm, happy children — for the proprietress welcomed customers of all ages and classes, even the gentlemen, and all children were given their tea free-of-charge. The teas, though very much modestly priced for everyone else, were of such excellent quality and aroma that many would patronise again and again, and the shop was oft-crowded. It brought liveliness to the otherwise quiet border of the district: the other empty houses around the tearoom were soon bought by others and converted into shops as well, such that Blackmore Street became a popular market street especially favoured by travellers and visitors from the next county.

The little children were not the only ones to benefit from the kindness of the young proprietress — once every week, the Teashop sent many of its freshly baked scones to the patients at St Pantaleon's Hospital, and they were very well received indeed. One of the patients — Percival Darlington, a neurotic young man of seventeen — was said to smile every time he tasted such a scone, and murmur to his nurse of how it reminded him of home; by the year after he was successfully persuaded to wear just three long trousers each time instead of four, and though his condition was none the better otherwise, the doctors and nurses were still heartened by this apparent change.

As for the wonderful tea the Teashop made, no one really knew how it could be brewed. It was always delivered to the shop every moment of the day, ready and steaming in silver-trimmed cups that sat in brass brackets along a vertical conveyance belt of leather at the back corner of the shop, not unlike an open dumb-waiter. Some people noticed how the belt curiously disappeared though a hatch in the floor, and so they imagined it went down to an underground kitchen, whose stovepipes and flues were so long they ran all the way up the rooftop chimney. And indeed, to the sharp-eared customers sitting near the rear of the shop, there were sounds from under the floor of tinkling china and glass, and of great rattling kettles and silverware. They were all quite agreeable to the possibility that the sounds were made by the proprietress's servants from home, who had been taught the family's secret recipe to a special ingredient added to the tea, and it was only natural that the family be assured that the recipe remained only among themselves.

Yet there was another rumour as well — and this was spread only among the local ragamuffins, who would often line up for multiple helpings of sweet creamed tea in the day, and linger to find out all about the mysterious kitchen by night. And the bravest of those, while safely nestled in the cocoon of candlelight under the bridge arches, would whisper of how they could sometimes hear wails of agony in that perpetually misty alley behind the Teashop, particularly in the darkest hours of the night. The most popular explanation of all was that they were from the ghost of a man who had been buried alive when the Teashop was being built, and that the weight of the bricks upon his body terrified him so. Of course, this was only a story to frighten the younger ones among them to tears so they would do their leaders' bidding; but exactly how much truth there was in it, it seemed that nobody would ever know — not least Miss Panacea herself.

-fin-


Note: The name 'Arianne Gladpacton' is an anagram. It is probably the most decent, pronounceable name that I could think of, even though 'Gladpacton' itself is a nonsense word through and through.

I tried my best, but if there is anything in the story that still sounded too modern (or deliberate), please tell me.