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No one in Clutch believed that Baroness Celine de Gauge would survive her confinement, least of all her husband Alexander.
Celine was a petite woman, so short that the Baron often lost her among the lamp-posts and wardrobes that cluttered Cygnet Hall, and so unhealthily pale, that it was hard to tell where the woman began and her snow-white gowns ended. In childhood, Celine had been dogged by a cadre of fearsome conditions. The specter of illness still haunted her in the form of blue veins and sleepless nights. It began to haunt Baron Alexander, too, from the very day he and his wife announced their expectation of a child.
You must understand, Reader, that the Baron was a good husband, if a bit theatrical in his leanings. After all, one cannot be too careful when one’s future depends on the predilections of an infant. Accordingly, the Baron engaged the finest physician in Clutch to analyze and interpret his wife’s every movement—from the first flutter of her eyes in the morning to the final foot-rub by her faithful childhood nurse, Cutter.
It soon became apparent, however, that the Baron’s fears were entirely misplaced. The rounder her stomach grew, the more rosy Celine became, while the Baron himself was forced into bed rest with increasing fits of nerves. One may speculate, Dear Reader, that the physician himself was not entirely surprised by his change of patient. He placed the Baron under 24-hour supervision beneath a wall of charts and graphs and strange machines that faithfully tabulated his level of anxiety within one one-hundredth of a percentage point.
For her part, Celine took to daily rambles around Cygnet Hall, stopping to feed the gawky cygnets that paddled after their elegant swan parents on its mirror-smooth lake. Confinement, it seemed, was hardly confinement at all for the Baroness. Celine also found time to cultivate an entirely new variety of rose in the conservatory and arrange the first bouquet with her characteristic good taste. So good, in fact, that she took the blue ribbon—in absentee, of course, on account of her condition—at the Annual Clutchian Botanic Exhibition.
The announcement of Celine’s pregnancy had come on the day of the very last snow. For the next few months, speculations sprouted like window-box blossoms all around Clutch. Would the Gauge child be a boy or a girl? Would he sleep on silk or satin? Would she play toys of gold or silver? What name would the famous parents select? And of course, the most important of all: would Baby Gauge be the fourth generation to join the League of Marvelosities, or the first to lose the empire the other three had built? Should the child (happily) prove unworthy of her inheritance, dibs were taken on the Gauge foundry, the Gauge hat factory, and the coal gas refinery lately acquired, not to mention the three-storey family estate with its winged wrought-iron gates. But though the rumor mill ground merrily all through the spring, it produced hardly a kernel of truth.
“But though the rumor mill ground merrily all through the spring, it produced hardly a kernel of truth.”
Spring fast ripened into summer. If Celine felt the weight of duty—not to mention extra poundage—she never showed it. Her outdoor rambles continued, albeit at a slower pace. The Cygnet Hall gardens burst into full bloom; the cygnets developed plumage so spotless, it rivaled Celine’s own white gowns. Meanwhile, Baron Alexander’s anxiety numbers steadily increased, forcing his foremen to assume management of all the family businesses. Celine did her best to conceal this transition. This meant outwitting the plucky scribes from the Clutchian Herald who always managed to sneak in for an “exclusive interview” during her afternoon tea. On the subject of her own condition, she dodged their questions with deft wit. On the subject of her husband? Well, most starving columnists can be silenced easily enough when there is rum spice cake on the tray.
But summer does not last forever. A starving columnist is bound to get hungry again, and a physician with one patient will eventually acquire two. By the first cold snap Celine found herself shut up in her snow-white boudoir, with a pain greater than that of any illness she had ever known before. With the first of the season’s apple crop stuffed in her mouth, she pushed and pushed from midnight until noon. Unfortunately, her screams sent her husband into a dead faint, whereupon, her apple was promptly replaced with a dose of chloroform.
Celine knew nothing more until the much-anticipated and much gossiped-about infant had finally made her debut.
In the aftermath, Celine awoke in what once had been her boudoir but now resembled a surgical ward at the edge of a battle. A cadre of servants fluttered about under the barking commands of the physician, who was—true to his appointment—poking and prodding Celine, and scribbling numbers furiously on a chart.
Mustering what little strength she had left, Celine pushed herself onto one elbow. “My baby,” she whispered. “Cutter, where’s my baby? I want to see my baby right now!”
“Right here, Mum!” called the chubby old nurse, who was sloshing in a nearby wash basin with her sleeves rolled to her elbows. “Fret yer pretty head not, Mum. We’re baptizin’ ‘er right proper. She’ll be clean as a whistle ‘n in your arms faster’n you can say Marvelosity.”
“S’right, Mum. Got yourself a wee lass here. ‘Pears to me as if she got your eyes, too. ‘N ‘er auntie’s curls . . .”
A piercing wail punctuated Cutter’s assessment.
“Aye, ‘n ‘er papa’s healthy lungs, too.”
Celine sank back into her pillow. She was cautiously thankful, of course. But like any good wife of a Marvelosity, she knew only too well that the color of her child’s eye or the luster of her curls did not really matter, any more than whether or not she had ten whole fingers or toes. A mother might think her child the greatest marvel ever, but if the illustrious League of Marvelosities did not agree, nether heaven nor earth could alter the facts.
“A mother might think her child the greatest marvel ever, but if the illustrious League of Marvelosities did not agree, nether heaven nor earth could alter the facts.”
Celine reached for the cast-off apple and took a nervous bite. It was sour all the way through.
At the washbasin, Cutter continued to sponge the “wee lass” who had also continued to wail. Meanwhile, her companion—a skinny housemaid in an oversized black dress, with a bird’s nest of red hair sticking out under her cap—examined the child curiously. “Welp, she be a right plain little thing, and no mistaking it,” the girl sniffed. “Bit of a traveling, wouldn’t you say, comin’ from such handsome folk?”
“That’s travesty, Zelle,” corrected Cutter. “A bit of a travesty. And no, she ain’t a . . . . er, no it ain’t a travesty at all! Zelle, if you value this job for your ma’s sake, an’ your little brother’s, you’ll stuff your opinions under that cap o’ yours. An’ stick your hair back under it, too.” Cutter thrust a towel in Zelle’s hands, laid the babe on top of it and wound her up tight. Then she turned Zelle’s shoulders toward the bed and gave her a little smack. “Mistress Celine,” she called over Zelle’s shoulder. “If you’ll just open your arms there, and trade Zelle here that apple core for this babe of yours, we’ll all be in right good shape. Yes, we will.”
Celine would have liked nothing better. She set down the apple (which was hardly more of a “core” than it had been before) and stretched out her hands with a smile. But at that very moment, the boudoir door flew open and in rushed Baron Alexander Prentice de Gauge himself. He was round and solid, an estate which had hardly been diminished by his months in bed, and he was nearly bald besides, save for a few strands of hair coiffed painstakingly to imitate a full crown. A monocle glinted above one cheek, along with the gems on his fingers and medals on the lapels of his bright red suit. The shiniest of these was a prominent gold “M:” the coveted symbol of the Marvelosities.
For a man who had so lately been shut of up with nerves, and had scored off the charts for anxiety, he managed a rather marvelous amount of speed. Three steps got him all the way from the door to the rug, which he promptly tripped over and flew the rest of the way, landing on his feet just close enough to pluck his daughter from Zelle’s outstretched arms.
“Baron!” cried the physician with alarm. “Please, sir, take a seat. I am afraid I have not taken your numbers at all today. But if my last tabulation is even close to accurate . . .”
But his words were wasted. The Baron turned his back to the doctor and clutched his daughter close. “Here she is!” he cried, “the future of House de Gauge! Mistress of Cygnet Hall! The salvation of the family empire and fourth esteemed Marvelosity to grace these walls. Hullo, my darling girl, welcome to the family. How about a kiss for your Daddy-O? What do you say, my little Lovey-Duck?”
Celine prayed the child would do as she was bidden.
But as luck would have it, the babe took one look at her father and burst into tears.
The longer the wail lasted, the redder the Baron’s cheeks became, until they fairly matched his suit. “Shush, little one. Shush now,” he cajoled. “There, there Lovey-Duck . . . be a good girl. Daddy-O can’t get a good look at you with face all wrinkled up so.”
But Little Girl Gauge continued to bawl. Beads of sweat formed on the Baron’s forehead. “Prut! Child, am I really so awful? Surely I’m not as terrifying as all that. I promise, I am your Daddy-O: your own sweet, loving Papa!”
The servants could not see it from their vantage point, but Celine saw clearly the gold “M” on the Baron’s chest, heaving up and down right above his heart. “Alexander, Love,” she said softly. “Perhaps our daughter is merely hungry, or has soiled her first nappy. It’s a lot of work for a little girl to enter the world. She must be tired, don’t you think?”
The Baron did not seem to hear her. “Lovey-Duck,” he said to his child, in a voice that was nearly a sob, “I assure you, Daddy-O will take good care of you, and make sure you have the best tutors, and see that you are seated in a place of honor at the very head of the League. Really, you must find it in your heart to love me. You can do that, can’t you Lovey-Duck?”
But the more the Baron begged, the louder his daughter cried. Celine, meanwhile, noted that the gemstones on her husband’s hands had begun to twinkle a rainbow in the late afternoon sun. Reaching up, she slid her own blue-veined fingers beneath his, lifting the child down toward her breast with a strength she hardly knew she had.
The child’s cries ceased instantly.
“I knew it,” the Baron moaned. “I knew this would be just my luck!”
“I wouldn’t put too much stock in it,” Celine replied as she cuddled the bundle close, peeking inside the blanket for the very first time.
The Baron mopped his brow with a corner of the blanket, which happened to be monogrammed with a very large G. “Why, Celine, she’s red as an apple. And did you see that horrid rash? And her disposition? Mayhap she inherited your Cousin Mathilda’s hysteria, or your Uncle Joseph’s temper. Upon my word, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a child frown so much. I swear the Stork will answer for this delivery, if ever I lay hands on him!”
“I swear the Stork will answer for this delivery, if ever I lay hands on him!”
“There’s no such thing as a stork, Dear,” said Celine, for whom the chloroform was now very much wearing off. “Come now. Perhaps we should reserve our judgment of our daughter’s true merits until she’s a few hours old, at least?”
“Judgment?” The Baron began to pace. “Our judgment does not matter. Whatever will be has already become. We have nothing left but to learn our fate!” He wrung his hands. “Will she be fully Marvelous, as her father and his father and his father before him? Or will she be just enough of a Curiosity? Or will she—Heaven forbid it—will she be only . . . well . . . you know, only . . .”
“Ordinary?” Celine finished.
The Baron buried his head in his hands.
“Whether she be Marvelous, or Curious, or Ordinary, we will enjoy her for exactly what she is, and be thankful for every moment we have together.” Celine began to unbutton her nightdress. She hoped the child would at least eat her first meal like a proper little lady, and show her papa what a good girl she could be. Gently, she guided the child’s mouth to taste her first drops of milk. “I do wish your sister could have been here, Alexander. Cutter is right: our little girl does have Alpha’s curls.
The Baron grunted. “Alpha made her own choice. She chose polar bears over us, Celine. Polar bears, of all confounded things!”
Here, the child began to suck contentedly as if she had eaten her supper this way a thousand times before. Her father peered down at her, one eye looming freakishly behind his monocle. “Do you think the rash will go away soon?” he asked. “And how long until she gets more hair? I suppose the strength of her voice is a healthy sign, at least, though heaven only knows which side of the family she got that from.”
Across the room, Zelle’s bird’s nest bobbed in the line of servants. “Aye, Melord. ‘N she’s got lungs, too. Maybe she’ll turn out a singer, or ‘n actress on the stage—them’ always talkin’ loud, you know—or maybe she’ll be some kind of orifice.”
“Orator,” the Baron snapped. “Zelle, have you been reading my books again?”
“Aye, Melord. How else am I supposed to dust ’em?”
At this question, the Baron Alexander P Gauge’s face turned a ghastly shade of red. The physician rushed away, muttering something about an “anxiety meter.” Cutter whispered something in Zelle’s ear that set the bird’s nest fairly quaking, and the two maids hurried out, with their fellow servants close behind them.
The door clicked shut.
When they were alone, Celine turned to her husband. “Alexander, I understand your anxieties. But beauty is not the only sort of Marvelosity our daughter might possess.” She stroke the child’s downy brown hair. “There are a great many other fine qualities a girl may have, and we should be very grateful if she displays even half of them.”
Alexander nodded. “True, My Love. But beauty is a very auspicious quality for a Marvelosity, not to mention one which the League easily recognizes. And speaking of auspicious things, I’ve a mind to take our daughter to the Confraternity in a day or two.” The Baron looked away from his wife. “Just so . . . well . . . so we’re prepared for what might become of her.”
Celine could not argue with the wisdom of this suggestion. Only one group in Clutch could predict a child’s success with the League years in advance. Nearly as old as the League itself, the Confraternity of Things To Be doled out prophecies as accurately as anyone could wish. Some feared their pronouncements, but most Clutchians—being of a more pragmatic turn of mind—would much rather prepare for their fate in advance.
In these matters, Celine knew the Baron was Clutchian to the core. She sighed. “If the Confraternity reveal that our daughter will indeed become a Marvelosity, what then?
“Then we celebrate, and set about the business of molding her talents!”
“And if the reading be not so desirable?”
The Baron mopped his brow. “Then we are doomed. Us, and our daughter, and all our fortune. The ironworks. The hat factory. The coal gas refinery. The house. The gardens. The . . . swan pond! Oh, my darling. My darling!” He fell to his knees at Celine’s side. “In such an unhappy case, we will find ourselves on the street, with naught but the clothes on our backs, while someone else’s child moves into Cygnet Hall.”
Silence fell for a few moments.
At last, Celine spoke in a more cheerful tone. “Come now, Alexander. Put off these sorrowful thoughts of yours! We’ve had a daughter this day: our own irreplaceable child. We will love her come wealth or poverty, honor or shame, whether she be a Marvelosity or not.” She glanced down at the happily-nursing figure in her arms. The child was a pint-sized, wrinkly little thing, for sure. And she had chosen to make her debut with a rather unsightly shade of rash. But as her large brown eyes blinked up at her mother in twilight, her tiny lips stopped sucking just long enough to wiggle upward at each corner.
Had she been a less imaginative woman, Baroness Celine de Gauge might have missed her daughter’s first smile.
Fortunately for the child—and for our story—Celine had imagination enough and to spare. “Welcome, Little Cygnet,” she whispered. “You’ve got a hard road ahead of you, no mistake about it. But you are already the cleverest, most beautiful girl in the world in my eyes. You are my true prize-winning rose. No matter what the Confraternity pronounces, or the League decides, you will always be my Marvelosity.”
“No matter what the Confraternity pronounces, or the League decides, you will always be my Marvelosity.”
The child seemed to understand her mother. At least, she nestled a bit closer and returned to her meal.
If Baron Alexander Prentice de Gauge heard his wife’s remarks, he made no reaction, but remained on his knees at his wife’s side. “She’ll be a Marvelosity,” he whispered, stroking the bright M on his chest. “She must be a Marvelosity, for her own sake. There is no other way.”
A little while later, there was a sharp knock at the door. Hinges creaked, and Cutter’s face appeared in a crack of light. “Mum?” she called.
“Yes?” said Celine.
“Them inky-fingered reporters is here from The Clutchian Herald. Shall I send ’em away with cake?”
Celine kissed her daughter’s cheek and pulled the blanket tighter around her. “Yes, Cutter, send them away with a big piece each of rum spice cake, and a blackberry scone besides.”
“Oh, and Cutter?”
“Tell them her name is Miranda.”
* * *
©2015 by Lisa Walker England – All Rights Reserved
The League of Marvelosities is a serialized steampunk novel
that releases one new chapter every other Wednesday.
Learn more about The League of Marvelosities here.
About the Illustration: Baron and Baroness Gauge and Baby Miranda are made of needle-turned applique finished in blanket stitch. Materials include vintage baby clothes, scraps from my husband’s grandmother’s quilt, thrift-store treasures, and cast-off leather. The background is made of cotton hand-dyed (by me) with Bengala Eco Dye #21.