Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[fiction] "Of Stone Castles and Vainglorious Time"

I'm continuing to post reprints of my fiction here on this blog. I'm considering making this a normal biweekly feature, between podcasting weeks. In any event, watch for the tag "fiction," as in http://jaylake.livejournal.com/tag/fiction. The current installment in this series is a short story entitled "Of Stone Castles and Vainglorious Time."

At 2,300 words of length, this was originally sold to a 'zine which went under without publishing it. Due to the vagaries in my record keeping, it got stuck in the "sold" column for years, and so I failed to remarket it along the way. So I suppose this is not a reprint, but an original appearance, technically eligible for award nominations, Year's Best reprints and whatnot. It was finally printed in my 2007 collection from Wheatland Press, The River Knows Its Own Tangent Online Review | Wheatland Press ]. If you like this story, please consider supporting Wheatland Press with a purchase. In any case, enjoy.

Of Stone Castles and Vainglorious Time

by Jay Lake

In the vainglory of her youth, she'd asked him for a castle as the price of her hand. Flush on railroad money and other more obscure profits from Reconstruction, Colonel Striker set men to work. Eloise Hammond took the rising towers as surety and they wed on Midsummer's Day, 1884 on a mountainside just outside Powder Springs, West Virginia, amid the wooden derricks and ramshackle scaffolds of her growing fancy.

"Missus Striker?"

Eloise turned from examining her hat in the mirror. The hat had come from Paris by way of Boston, and would set any woman in the state to envy. It was fashionably tiny, covered in black lace and pansies of velvet beaded with jet. She was quite proud of it. "Yes?"

The young man looked to be one of the workmen, perhaps from the crew in the North Gallery. His ragged homespun shirt and rough leather shoes were so clean they shone. He obviously hadn't been outside with the stonemasons.

He smiled, displaying teeth like mother-of-pearl chips while his violet eyes -- the same rare color as her own -- flashed below neatly trimmed pale bangs. Eloise felt her bosom heave, and the familiar, loosening warmth in her female parts. She tried to count the days until the Colonel came home from his trip to Baltimore.

"Begging your pardon, ma'am, but this is for the memory of times past." He took her right hand in his, turned it over to slip her a tiny box. His hands were uncommonly smooth, as soft as Eloise's own. A sharp spark of sexual excitement caught in her throat.

To hide her confusion at his presumption and the rising blush warming her cheeks, Eloise looked down at the box. It was covered in a gold-threaded red silk. She shifted her hips a bit -- both easing and feeding the itch in her loins -- and opened the gift.

Inside was a silver locket engraved with her initials, "EHS." She pulled the locket out by its chain and looked up at the workman, her smile dawning with the charm she knew no man could resist.

He was gone, as suddenly as he had appeared, leaving not even an echo of his steps on the parquet floor.

Declining the indignity of pursuit, Eloise opened the locket. There was a picture of a young girl inside, crisp as a daguerreotype but painted in the colors of life. Pale-haired and pale-eyed, the child looked familiar, but Eloise could not place her.

The happy couple soon had a son, Ephraim Hammond Striker. As strong as Eloise was, it was still a hard confinement and a harder birth. The Pittsburgh doctors said she would have no more children, but Colonel Striker proudly stated that Ephraim was more than sufficient to his ambitions. Mother and child joined the Colonel on some of his trips, and when they could not accompany him, he raced home at first opportunity. The couple's open displays of loving affection and their mismatched years would have made them the scandal of the town, save for the Colonel's money.

Two years later the Colonel was shot and killed by persons unknown while out riding on the mountainside. His head was blown off, and his wallet and his cavalry pistol taken. Eloise could identify her beloved only by his clothing. She was left with his child, his fortune and her appetites, which like the summer sun would seem to never cool. Her grief and his money finished the castle, which she named Striker Manor.

As he grew, Ephraim reminded Eloise so much of her lost Colonel that she came to dread the very sight of their son. She bribed the stationmaster in Powder Springs to put Ephraim on a Children's Aid Society orphan train to Kansas, in order to lose him so completely she could not call him back in a moment of weakness. In a final spasm of maternal regret, she gave the boy the stranger's locket by which to remember her.

Eloise vowed never to marry again. In consolation for her lost love, she set herself to a life of pleasurable idylls. More than three decades of Pullman cars brought her young men from Columbus and Pittsburgh, sometimes New York or Boston, and once even a dapper and acrobatic gentleman from faraway Italy.

In the fall of her forty-second year Eloise was forced to dismiss yet another young woman, returned to Powder Springs for lax morals.

"I cannot abide a maid who interferes with my male companions," she wrote in a letter to her local attorney. "Because of her I have had to send Jack F. back to Cincinnati as well. This much vexes me as I have no young men waiting in the wings, as it were. Please hire me a replacement for Cora Jane, preferably a young woman who can keep her legs crossed. The usual terms will apply."

She signed with her typical flourish, then folded the note into an envelope which she sealed and blotted. Eloise laid it atop a Jules Verne novel and pressed the service button to ring her driver, Patrick.

A young man with striking violet eyes and pale hair stepped into her study instead. He wore black evening dress, just like Patrick and her other male staff, but Eloise did not recognize him. She slipped her hands into the pockets of her quilted silk dressing gown and smiled at him. The derringer fit perfectly into the palm of her right hand.

"Hello," Eloise said in her best come-to-mother voice. "You're not one of my regulars."

"Madame Striker," he said. The voice was familiar, an echo of something long forgotten. "My apologies for disturbing you."

"Yes?" His voice, his eyes, this young man stirred her loins, better than many of her new boys had in the last few years. Wishing she had sent for him, Eloise wondered where he had come from, how he had gotten this far into Striker Manor. She silently cocked the derringer.

"This is for who you are today," he said, setting a silk box on her writing desk.

It was covered with a familiar gold-threaded red. Eloise ignored it. "Did I meet you...no, it would have been your father, here, perhaps twenty years ago? Who are you?"

"Not my father." The young man smiled his perfect mother-of-pearl smile. "But someone very close to me."

"And you are?"

At that moment, Patrick stepped into the doorway, his movement catching her eye. "Madame rang?"

"Enough," she said. Men had sought her money, in many ways. Eloise waved her free hand. "Patrick, please remove this gentleman."

Patrick glanced around the room, an uneasy expression flickering across his face. "Whom does Madame wish me to remove?"

The young man with the violet eyes was gone like mountain snow on a spring morning. Eloise found that she was unsurprised. Ignoring Patrick, Eloise uncocked the derringer, then opened the silk box.

Inside, in a silver frame, was a portrait, perhaps five inches tall. It was Eloise as she looked that very day, right down to the green ribbon in her hair. Like her long-gone locket, the painting was beautifully rendered, brushstrokes so fine she could not see them, again as if it were a color daguerreotype.

How had the young man done it, she wondered? He had arrived, made the picture in a moment, and gone again like so much dust. She stared into the distant places of her memory, wondering if the answer lay with the lost locket.

"Is Madame well?" Patrick finally asked.

After October of 1929, the trains no longer brought young men for Eloise, and the servants had to be dismissed. Harder, older men from around the county made the climb up the mountain to Striker Manor. Some brought wagons or trucks loaded with salt and flour, firewood and wine, returning loaded with Dutch paintings, German furniture, British chinaware and Persian carpets. Others brought only cash, to buy a few hours of her time. Eloise past sixty looked half her age, and was more woman than any of them had ever had the fortune to encounter.

Eventually, as times grew leaner and she grew older, even these gentleman callers trailed off to nothing more than the occasional grocery delivery, C.O.D. Only her books she kept -- Rimbaud and Lovecraft, Darwin and Wells; patient, quiet lovers for her twilight years.

Eloise sat among her books in what had been the servant's kitchen and rubbed horse liniment into her knees and ankles. Tearing the wainscoting out of the Gun Room had given her a new round of aches, but she had no other firewood on hand. For want of funds, the oil furnaces had been shut down for years, as had the electric lights.

She still wore her quilted silk dressing gown, patched as it was with calico and gingham scrap. The derringer never left her pocket, although she only used it to scare off the youths who clambered in the shattered library windows to whoop through the halls of a moonlit night. She wished she'd learned to shoot a rifle. Then at least she could have rabbit stew from time to time.

"Eloise," he whispered from the doorway of the lower stairs, a voice so familiar that for one heart-stopping moment, she thought it was the Colonel speaking.

Then Eloise came to her senses and cocked the derringer. "I always knew you'd be back. Bad things happen in threes."

"So do the good." Pale hair, violet eyes, gleaming teeth, he walked slowly toward her, young as ever, a mockery of her hard-lived years. He wore dark wool slacks and a finely woven shirt of a cut she'd never seen, pale as a spider web to match his hair. He carried an enormous red silk box, the size of a card table. "I have something for you, an image of times to come."

"I've lost my youth, my beauty, and my money," she said with a short laugh. Even now he could make her feel that old twitch in her loins. "What is left to come for me?"

He laid the box down on the ground in front of her. "That would be up to you. I bring choices, bargains for you. Your medical heritage is invaluable. The patterns of your body can help us live a very long time, perhaps forever."

"So here you are, to buy my body like a thousand others?" Eloise tugged at her robe. "Surely these breasts are too withered for a young man like yourself."

"That's not how you are wanted. Tests, rather, and the pursuit of medical science."

"Why now?" she asked, tears standing in her eyes. "Why not in the bloom of my youth, or the vigor of my middle age?"

He smiled, sad and beautiful. "I had to wait until your circumstances were sufficiently reduced to ready you for my appeal." He extended his hands, a child reaching for a mother's embrace. "Step into the future with me. An endlessly glorious life awaits you as mother of a mighty race of men."

Eloise did not answer. She knew without looking what was in the box. The young man was a pendulum weight on the chain of her life, swinging from extremes of youth to extremes of age. When she was a young woman, he had brought a picture of her girlhood. In middle age, he had brought a picture of her that very day. Now there was another of those color portraits in the large box, of her in her coffin perhaps.

Like Mr. Wells' Time Traveler among the Eloi, the young man had come from outside the world, somewhere else in time or space, to offer this unholy bargain, with her portraits laid in evidence of his power.

"If you can go forward, I can go back," Eloise said, thinking of her lost Colonel. "But no one lives forever, young man." She shot him in the chest. He buckled, falling backward into a sitting position against a pile of encyclopedias with an astonished expression. "No one should even try." The second barrel of the derringer fired, catching him in the face.

"You weren't supposed to..." he whispered through bubbling blood, then sighed himself to a surprised death.

Eloise put the latest silk box unopened into the fireplace with the shattered wainscoting. Then she searched the young man with a practiced efficiency that came from undressing generations of young men.

Eloise found her locket, the one he had given her fifty years earlier, on a chain around the young man's neck. In his pants pocket she found a little brushed silver box with numbered Bakelite buttons and radium dials. It had a knob which when turned showed the passing of years. "So you are of science, and not the devil," Eloise whispered to him.

In death, the young man who might once have been her son looked very much as her Colonel had that terrible day, save for the clothes and a lack of large caliber shot through the head from a cavalry pistol. Those two wants could be remedied, she thought, with the aid of his time machine. Eloise kissed the young man's bloody, cooling lips, then cast the locket into the fire where the boxed portrait was burning merrily. She took his silver box and tried her hand at puzzling out the precise function of the buttons.

After a while, Eloise hefted the corpse into her wheelbarrow and left the dark, chilly halls of her castle for the old riding trails on the mountainside, in search of her vainglorious youth and her beloved Colonel.

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© 2002, 2007, Joseph E. Lake Jr.

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Tags: fiction, stories

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