Author's Note: I wrote this story for Camp NaNoWriMo April. It was a pretty bad failure; I only finished five chapters. I plan to finish it eventually, but in the meantime I'm posting it here just in case someone would be interested in reading it.
Like Death and the Emperor, I'll post a chapter every Monday and Thursday.
This story was an attempt at a drama/mystery set in a steampunk alternate history, but the plot went off in unexpected directions when I wrote it. If anyone bothers to read it, it'd be great if you could review and tell me what you think! :)
All the characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is completely coincidental. Any resemblance to historical accuracy is also completely coincidental.
Age So Crammed With Madness
Chapter I: The Librarian
When was age so cramm'd with menace? madness? written, spoken lies?
– Alfred Lord Tennyson, Locksley Hall: Sixty Years After
Everyone knows what love is. This is the story of what it isn't.
Everyone has heard some version of the melodrama paraded through the newspapers ten years ago, and ever since the journalists first realised something interesting was happening in County Antrim I have been hounded by busybodies in search of a good story. I decided long ago I would keep the facts of the story to myself until my dying day. Alas, I find myself in financial difficulties, and have after much consideration agreed to write a book detailing the whole facts of the case.
I have compiled this account from my journal entries, my own memories, and second-hand accounts I have heard from others who know something of this matter. I dare say I have forgotten or left something out, but I did my best to be as accurate as possible.
Portrush, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, 19–
A breeze rustles the leaves of the oak tree growing in the garden of 27 Eagle's Walk, bringing with it the smell of salt water from the sea, diesel from the cars roaring along the streets, and smoke from the trains that roar through and the airships that glide overhead. The breeze pulls a handful of petals from the purple and light pink roses and tosses them around. Some flutter through the open window and land on the old desk. The man hard at work at the typewriter takes no notice of them.
He is in his late thirties or early forties, with brown eyes, ash-brown hair, and lightly tanned skin. His clothes – a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, grey waistcoat, and grey trousers – are clean and pressed, but too well-worn to be new.
He pauses in his work as the shadow of an airship passes overhead, casting a shadow over his desk. He watches it drift onward until it reaches the mooring station and halts. Its passengers, happy holiday-makers from all corners of the globe, disembark with their luggage in hand, and the man watches from his desk with an inscrutable look on his face.
There are many people in Portrush with stories to tell. We could go to the young woman operating the merry-go-round at the amusement park, or the man and woman sunbathing on the beach, or the taxi driver stopping to let a lady cross the road, or the people who annoy the neighbours by playing loud music at all hours of the night, and hear their stories. We could even go to the buildings, old and new, and see if they would tell us of the events they had witnessed.
But instead we will hear the story this man has to tell. And, as he returns to his typewriter, he himself will tell it.
I believe it is customary for the narrator of a story to introduce himself. My name is Clarence Linnane. I was born in Trillick, County Tyrone, and grew up in New Milton, Hampshire. I returned to Northern Ireland after my parents' deaths, and took a job as a librarian in Ballymena.
I have sometimes wondered since what would have happened if I became, say, a postman or a church organist. In either case I would probably never have been drawn into this story. But I didn't, and I was, and that is how I find myself recounting the disreputable history of Susan McQuillan.
All stories must start somewhere, but I find myself unsure of where to start this one. I could start it at a train station in Omagh, or a hospital in Londonderry, or the office of an airship company. Instead, I will start it when I first came into the story.
If you were in Ballymena Library on April 18th, 19–, you would have seen a stack of books on legs slowly wending their way around the bookshelves and getting odd looks from everyone they passed. That was me, buried beneath a mountain of books on gravity, the universe, and the nature of time. Some inconsiderate Einstein had dug them out of various far-flung corners of the library, then left them on a table and made themselves scarce. The poor table had been about to collapse under the weight of the books when I came to its assistance, and now I was wishing I'd thought to take the books one at a time. It might have taken me until closing time, but at least I wouldn't be in imminent danger of dislocating my shoulders.
I staggered over to the closest desk, set the pile down, and wiped my brow. Carting heavy books about may be an Olympic athlete's idea of a good time, but it certainly isn't mine. I started sorting the books into smaller piles, as I should have done to begin with. All the books on gravity went into one pile, the books on the universe went into another, the books on time into another, and all the other ones – which, oddly enough, dealt with topics as varied as psychology and Slavic folklore – into yet another. Then I picked up the books on gravity and went in search of the shelf they came from.
After replacing them, I was half-way back to the desk when I was accosted by a girl. It was just as well I wasn't holding any books at the time, or I would have dropped them in astonishment at her appearance. She wore enough make-up to plaster a wall, rendering it impossible to tell what age she was. Her brown hair was twisted into what I later learned was the latest style, and even I could see her pale pink dress and shoes were ridiculously expensive. But despite the finery she wore, there was an air of arrogance and unpleasantness about her.
"Do you have any books by Margery Hyde Threlfall?" she asked in the sort of tone one used when speaking to someone much younger or less intelligent than oneself.
I had never heard of Margery Hyde Threlfall and was unsure if we had any of her books or not (I learned later she wrote the sort of sappy romance novels that made any sensible person's teeth rot), so I told this apparition to look under "H" or "T".
She looked highly offended – at least, I think she did; it was hard to tell beneath the garish paint she'd covered her face with. Why women wear make-up is something I will never know. In my opinion it does not make them look beautiful; it makes them look like dolls. But then, what do I know of what other men find attractive? I have never been attracted to anyone, no matter their gender, and I daresay I never will. The one time I– But more about that later. I digress.
"But you're a librarian, aren't you? So it's your job to get me whatever book I want!"
I gaped. My job description included helping people check books out and replacing books people left lying around the place, but I was fairly sure it did not include fetching books for people too lazy to find them on their own.
I opened my mouth to make a few extremely cutting remarks. It was just as well I never got the chance to say them, since I would probably have lost my job for them.
"They're over here, Marjolaine," a woman called.
Marjolaine left with a contemptuous sniff. She was hardly out of sight before I forgot about her. I certainly never thought I would see her again.
It was almost closing time. There were still a few visitors lurking in various corners of the library, but my co-workers took advantage of the relative quiet to chat and spread gossip. The main topics were: who's getting married, divorced, or having a baby? What's the latest scandal? Which actor or actress is the most fashionable? From the amount of time my co-workers devoted to these topics, you would have thought the fate of the world depended on them deciding whether or not a certain mauve dress clashed with a certain celebrity's complexion.
They had moved onto the subject of an embarrassing incident in a church on Sunday (apparently, the Free Presbyterian minister's wife had caught her dress on the edge of the pulpit and torn it badly – dress, not pulpit) when the library door opened and Blanche Fulton floated in. She brought a very strong smell of perfume with her.
Mrs. Fulton was a short, stout, extremely overdressed lady in her late sixties who always wore the latest fashion, regardless of whether it suited her or not. She was the widow of a very rich man who owned a hotel in Ballymena. On his death he left her his house, but his fortune was given to their children. Their children loved (or feared) their mother so much that they took it upon themselves to give her a more-than-generous share of their money before fleeing to England.
She was an author, and so frequently blessed us librarians with her presence. She was also the sort of person who made it their business to know everything about everybody then proclaim her discoveries to anyone who'd listen. It was never safe for anyone to keep a secret while in the same city as Blanche Fulton, née Scanlon.
"Well, you young hoodlums," she roared at us (her late husband had been deaf, and she could never be made to understand that most of the people she spoke to were not), "have you heard the latest?"
Humanity is a species of incurable gossips. Say the words "have you heard the latest?" in a busy shop and every shopper will abandon their purchases in hopes of hearing something interesting. Even I felt some slight curiosity to know what "the latest" might be.
"About Roger Wolstenholme Jr.'s daughter eloping with the butler? We know all about it," said Minnie Goldcrest, one of the main librarians.
Mrs. Fulton waved her hand dismissively. "Oh, that; that's old news now. I mean about the McIlwees."
There was a bemused silence.
"Who are the McIlwees?" someone asked, saying what everyone was thinking.
Mrs. Fulton beamed. There was nothing she liked better than to know something no one else did.
"The McIlwees," she began in the tone of a politician starting a speech, "have just returned from Scotland. They're distant relatives of Leslie McIlwee, the famous director. He's getting on in years, as you know, and they're trying to get in his good books so he'll put them in his will. They've got their work cut out for them, from what I hear. If their neighbours are to be believed, Mr. McIlwee is a spineless jellyfish of a man who lets his wife and children walk all over him, Mrs. McIlwee is a spendthrift hedonist with pretensions to high society, and their children are the worst hellions you'll meet outside a juvenile delinquent centre."
I tuned out the rest of the conversation, and reflected that if the McIlwees could hear what was said about them, they would probably see a solicitor about a libel case.
The man pauses at the typewriter. He opens one of the desk's drawers and takes out a piece of paper – an old newspaper article. Its print is faded, its paper yellowed. The black-and-white photograph beneath the title is grainy. Yet with a little study, it resolves itself into the picture of a young woman standing on the deck of a boat.
After staring at the picture for a long moment, the man turns back to his typewriter.
For perhaps a day afterward, the McIlwees were the talk of the town. In that short time certain people discovered enough scandal in their history to fill a dozen tabloids. A fraction of it might even have been true.
According to one group of gossips, Mr. McIlwee had started as a lawyer. He hadn't made money quickly enough for his wife's taste, so Mrs. McIlwee had come up with a get-rich-quick scheme: accuse anyone she disliked of harassing her, haul them through the courts (prosecuted by her husband, of course), and walk away with almost all their money. As I listened to Minnie recounting this saga during our lunch break, I wondered if the gossips ever stopped to think about the rumours they spread. If this were true, the McIlwees would have been caught sooner or later, and they would be the ones before the court – or in jail.
Two days later, some politician was caught in a scandal, and the McIlwees were forgotten. I forgot about them, too, caught up in the life of a librarian and author trying to force his way through a book that refused to be written.
Then something happened that put my life on a collision course with the McIlwees'. It began, as many things did, with Susan McQuillan.