The Message in the Steam
Wednesday, June 18, 1876 New York City
Emily Edwards sat in her future mother-in-law’s front parlor, sweating in a stiff dress of lilac-colored taffeta and contemplating death.
Could one die from boredom, she wondered? From complete, oppressive, crushing, unmitigated boredom, the likes of which made all other boredom seem like ecstasy’s sweet thrilling embrace? And in such a case, if one happened to have a life insurance policy, would it pay?
The room was stifling. None of the windows were open, even though it was eighty degrees out and muggy as the inside of a dead badger. The room’s carved mahogany paneling sweated the sharp pungent smell of old lacquer. The wallpaper above it—a profusion of gilded leaves and obsessively wrought peonies in shades of plum and peach—seemed to glisten humidly. A pair of cherubs, frolicking blissfully naked atop a gilt mantel clock, were almost certainly laughing at her.
There were six women in the room, waiting for tea that would be served piping hot. It was herself, Mrs. Stanton, Mrs. Stanton’s three daughters (Euphemia, Ophidia, and Hortense), and Miss Jesczenka. They had decided it would be pleasant to read a selection from Wordsworth. Or rather, Mrs. Stanton had decided that it would be pleasant, and as seemed to be the case in all things pertaining to the precise ordering of Mrs. Stanton’s world, no one had dared contradict her.
This, apparently, was how people amused themselves in New York.
Or, Emily reflected, perhaps the Wordsworth was just a gloss, and all the women were really having fun placing secret mental wagers on who was going to faint first. Indeed, that dubious mental exercise—and her idle musings about life insurance—were the only things keeping Emily upright.
That, and indignation. What kind of freakish constitution did these New York women have, anyway? Mrs. Stanton looked as if mechanically chilled ice water were being piped into her through a special arrangement of plumbing in her red-velvet chair—and the perfect rigidity of her carriage gave Emily a pleasantly unpleasant idea as to how the pip- ing was plumbed. The elegant Miss Jesczenka—Emily’s Institute-assigned chaperone—sat placidly, hands folded in her crisp lap, not a hair out of place, not a trickle of sweat upon her smooth brow.
Ophidia and Euphemia were even worse. Ophidia, staring out from under heavy-lidded eyes, had a fat orange cat spilling over her lap like an ill-tempered carriage blanket, and Euphemia—good Lord!—clutched a woolen shawl around her shoulders.
Only red-faced Hortense posed Emily any kind of challenge in the arena of heat prostration, and that was because she was going through such extravagant oratorical convulsions over Wordsworth:
Pilgrim of the sky!
Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?”
Hortense’s voice trembled with emotion. Emily could not recall ever having seen a skylark, but she assumed it must be a jewel-encrusted wonder-bird from the praise being heaped upon its fool head, earth-despising or otherwise.
Mrs. Stanton, however, was listening closely, making small nods at places where she seemed to especially approve of Mr. Wordsworth’s take on skylarks. And since Mrs. Stanton was the mother of Dreadnought Stanton, the man Emily was engaged to marry, Emily could hardly follow her natural inclination, which was to snatch the book from Hortense’s hands and hit her bucktoothed future sister-in-law over the head with it.
Emily licked her lips and let her eyes wander over the mahogany paneling, wallpaper, and the goddamn naked cherubs for the hundredth time. The clock read 2:30. Miss Jesczenka had drummed it into her that the proper length of this type of call was precisely one hour—no more, no less. That meant a full half hour more of skylarks, airlessness, and piercing looks from Mrs. Stanton to slog through. Emily sighed silently.
With an impulse of bold rebellion, she let her eyes tiptoe over the carved mahogany side table, on which lay a folded copy of The New York Times.
“Unprecedented Earthquakes Along the Pacific Coast. Hundreds Killed from Mexico City to San Francisco. Aberrancies Running Rampant.”
Emily’s brow wrinkled. She squinted harder, trying to make out the type beneath the headline without turning her head. She’d been so busy since she’d come to New York, she hadn’t had a moment to wonder what was going on at home in California. She craned her neck a little further, and was rewarded with the subhead:
“Warlock Experts Attribute Disastrous Happenings to Mysterious Expulsions of Black Exunge. Citizens Are Strongly Advised to Avoid Toxic Earth Substance at All Costs.”
Emily hardly noticed when Hortense paused after a final thrilling stanza. Miss Jesczenka drew an appreciative breath.
“Such genius!” she said, as simultaneously, with one slender hand, she pushed the newspaper out of the range of Emily’s searching gaze. When Emily’s eyes came up, Miss Jesczenka gave her a frosty look of rebuke. “Don’t you agree, Miss Edwards?”
Emily returned Miss Jesczenka’s look with a scalding glare of her own. For the umpteenth time, Emily found herself missing Penelope Pendennis. Emily felt certain that the big opinionated woman could have offered many clever and useful tricks for getting out of Wordsworth readings. But Miss Pendennis was off on a worldwide lecture tour, and the Institute had provided Miss Jesczenka as Emily’s social duenna. And whatever the Institute wanted, it got.
“Oh sure,” Emily said finally. “Genius.”
Mrs. Stanton was not so caught up in skylarks that she did not notice the subtle misbehavior. She frowned, and Emily quickly adopted her most angelic look (which, she reflected, was much akin to the look she put on when it profited her to look incredibly stupid) and cast her eyes to the ground in a fashion that she assumed was maidenly.
“You must be worried about things at home.” Mrs. Stanton spoke the last word with the kind of delicate revulsion she might have used with any other four-letter word. “Such terrible reports one reads.”
“I hadn’t heard,” Emily said.
Mrs. Stanton raised an inquiring eyebrow. “You can read, can’t you?”
That Emily Edwards was from California was considered extremely unfortunate by Mrs. Stanton. In Mrs. Stanton’s rigidly ordered mind, the larger concept “California” contained only three subclassifications: gold, cattle, and whores. Emily was pretty sure which of the three subclassifications Mrs. Stanton put her into. And it wasn’t gold.
The Stantons, on the other hand, were pure gold—twenty-four-karat gold with gold handles and some gold leaf smacked on top. Mrs. Stanton came from a very old family, and her husband was the senior Senator from the State of New York. Such people did not have daughters-in-law from California. Oranges for their breakfast table, maybe. But not daughters-in-law.
“Of course I can read,” Emily muttered, before adding democratically: “Not as nicely as Hortense, though.” She was determined not to spoil the progress—small as it was—that she’d made with her future mother-in-law. Over the past few weeks, Mrs. Stanton’s physical revulsion had tempered into smoldering distaste. Despite occasional barbed sallies on the topics of California, Emily’s table manners, and her tendency to scrunch her nose unattractively, the old woman had apparently come to accept that her ungrateful son was going to marry Emily despite his mother’s noble exertions to the contrary. The battle-ax had even offered to host a lunch in Emily’s honor, scheduled two days hence, to which many prominent city women had been invited. It was a start, and Emily was determined to make the most of it.
Her determination was so great, as a matter of fact, that despite her inclination to bite her tongue off rather than say it, she meekly suggested: “Perhaps we could have another poem?”
Mrs. Stanton did not smile, but neither did she frown. Another small victory.
“Certainly,” Mrs. Stanton said, glancing at Hortense. “Let’s have a nice long one.”
Miss Jesczenka, who was always pleased when Emily did something socially acceptable, rewarded her with a smile. It did not make Emily feel any better.
“‘To the Cuckoo’!” Hortense announced the poem, then cleared her throat.
“O blithe newcomer!
I have heard, I hear thee and rejoice:
O Cuckoo! shall I call thee bird,
Or but a wandering Voice?”
Emily closed her eyes to keep from rolling them. The things she put up with for Dreadnought Stanton were appalling.
Thinking of her fiancé made Emily scrunch her nose in the unattractive way Mrs. Stanton so frequently commented upon. But the nose scrunching—which, Mrs. Stanton said, made her look as though she were climbing over a trench of raw sewage—was not an expression of distaste. Rather, it was a physical representation of her evergreen astonishment that someone like her would have ended up falling in love with someone like him. The New York Warlock was extraordinarily provoking. Annoying, even. And Emily was often surprised that falling in love with him had done nothing to mitigate that opinion. It was as if annoyance had moved aside to allow a larger emotion to sit beside it, like a fat woman in stays squeezing in next to a wiry sister.
The adventures that had thrown them together—adventures in which magical pieces of glowing rock, blood sorcery, and the ancient consciousness that dwelled far beneath the earth’s surface featured prominently—had been written up in pulp novels and dispatched into the hot greedy hands of every man, woman, and child who could read at a third-grade level and had a dime to spare.
Emily let the fingers of her living hand trail over the smooth ivory of her prosthetic hand—the hand that replaced the one cut off by a U.S. Army blood sorcerer named Caul.
For his part in the adventures, Stanton had been offered the directorship of the Institute—the most prestigious seat of credomantic education in the country, if not the entire world—and the great and powerful title of Sophos to go with it. For her part, she had ended up with one less hand, in a hot parlor, subjected to more Wordsworth than anyone should be required to endure, and envying the gilt cherubs their nakedness. Somehow, it didn’t seem quite fair.
Her thoughts were disturbed by a soft knock on the door. The butler, a tall and distinguished-looking man with graying temples, entered silently, carrying a large silver tray with tea and refreshments. His name, Emily recalled, was Broward. On her first visit to the Stanton house, Emily had assumed he was one of Stanton’s relatives. She’d been quickly and curtly disabused of that notion.
His arrival filled Emily with relief. At least the tea would provide some distraction. But as she watched him move quietly across the carpeted floor, a strange feeling came over her—slight nausea mingled with anticipation and dread. Everything took on a peculiar clarity. Broward was sud- denly moving very slowly, and Hortense’s voice, describing the “thrice-welcome darling of the spring” had become a molasses-thick garble.
Oh no, Emily thought. Not now. She leaned forward slightly, pressing her hand against her corseted stomach. This was no time for a Cassandra.
She could not take her eyes off the silver tray in Broward’s hands. It gleamed, smooth and polished. Steam curled up from the spout of the bone china teapot, and as Broward’s small movements made the vapor swirl, it formed two small words.
Emily shuddered, a cat-walking-on-her-grave chill tickling her back. The steam twisted like a living thing, sinuous and sinister.
Go home . . .
And then the vision took her, knife pains in her belly and the bitter taste of gall in her mouth. She felt the ground shaking beneath her, rumbling her from side to side. There was the sound of far-off screaming and something thundering and slavering. Then a terrible chomping noise. And there was a horrible smell. Fresh blood, and hair smoke, and some- thing else—something rotten and black, greasy and sticky. It was the unmistakable smell of earth’s toxic poison, Black Exunge—the foul sorcerous waste that destroyed and disfigured any living thing it touched. She knew that smell.
The steam curled around Broward’s hands as he bent, excruciatingly slowly, to place the tea tray on the table before Mrs. Stanton. Emily squeezed her eyes shut, but she could not block the images flashing behind her eyes, brilliant and sharp. Fire. Black crushing maws. Earth cracked and sundered.
She had to get home to Lost Pine. The certainty of it surged through her like something remembered. Something terrible had happened, or would happen. She thought about her adoptive father, blind and aged, a rampaging monstrosity tearing him apart . . .
“Miss Edwards?” The words made Emily jump. Her knee hit the tea table, setting the china and silver rattling loudly. Mrs. Stanton was peering closely at her.
“Miss Edwards? Are you all right?”
Emily clapped her hand over her mouth, certain that she was going to vomit. She stood, hoping that the movement would settle the queasy shuddering that was rising beneath her breastbone. It did not. She put out a hand to steady herself, and her hand fell on the newspaper on the side table. She looked down at her hand, at the newspaper, at the terrible headlines.
“No,” Emily answered, as she snatched The New York Times from the table and crumpled it against her chest. “I’m sorry. Not at all.”
And she ran from the room.
“That was a creative way to get out of Wordsworth.”
Miss Jesczenka’s voice came from behind her as Emily stood on the sidewalk, absorbing the information in the newspaper. Her eyes sped over the same words over and over again. Destruction. Chaos. Terror. Death.
San Francisco in a state of panic.
According to the reports, San Francisco had been suffering from earthquakes of varying sizes almost every day for the past fortnight. The earthquakes were opening deep cracks in the earth, belching Black Exunge that turned anything it touched into an Aberrancy. It was the Aberrancies that were the true source of panic in the city. Horse-size rats and other vermin terrorized the gaslit streets, brutally mauling unwary passersby. Worse, since Exunge was extremely flammable, if one of the transmogrified creatures encountered an open flame—a streetlamp or lantern, for instance—the otherworldly conflagration could set a whole block alight. The city had turned off the gas wherever possible, but there simply weren’t enough engines to deal with all the fires. With so much horror to be reported on in San Francisco, it was not surprising that there was no news of Lost Pine, the tiny settlement high in the Sierra Nevadas where Emily had grown up.
“You’re not really ill, are you?” Miss Jesczenka raised a cool hand to Emily’s forehead. Emily pulled away from her touch, repressing an urge to snarl.
“Nobody told me about this!” Emily snapped the paper in her face. Her blood turned to ice at the thought of her adoptive father, blind and aged, spinning ineffectual spells against monstrosities he could not see. “What about Pap? What if he can’t protect himself?”
“Lost Pine is almost two hundred miles from San Francisco,” Miss Jesczenka said. “There’s no reason to think it’s in any danger. And even if it were, the Army’s Warlocks would address the problem, just as they are doing in San Francisco.” She tilted her head at a birdlike angle. “What good would it have done you to know?”
It was a cold question, but a fair one. Emily had fought Aberrancies before, and the experience had left her with no particular confidence in her ability to fight them again. But the Cassandra had told her that she had to go home, and Cassandras like that didn’t just pop up, making one nauseated and socially inept for no reason whatsoever. There had to be something important behind the message. She might not know as much about magic as these fancy New York Witches and Warlocks, but she knew that one ignored a Cassandra at one’s peril.
Their carriage, lacquered in shiny black with the Institute’s golden seal on the door, pulled up at the curb. They climbed in, and Emily settled herself into the deep red velvet upholstery.
“I need to go to California,” she blurted as soon as the door was closed behind them.
Miss Jesczenka stared at her before answering.
“But Miss Edwards,” she said finally, “Midsummer’s Eve is only three days away.”
As if Emily could forget. Stanton’s formal Investment ceremony as Sophos of the Institute was to be held on Midsummer’s Eve. It would be (if the number of florists, caterers, and photographers running around the Institute were any indication) an extravagantly grand affair, temporally surrounded by many smaller gatherings, fetes, and soirees—of which Mrs. Stanton’s forthcoming lunch was one.
“And Mrs. Stanton’s lunch is on Friday.” Miss Jesczenka intuited the drift of Emily’s thoughts precisely. “Can you imagine what would happen if you were to miss it?”
Emily said nothing. Some things were better left unimagined.
“Besides which, you still have a number of dress fittings and—”
“Yes, I know.” Emily pressed her lips together, staring out the window of the carriage as they traveled along Thirty-fourth Street. The remembered smell of blood and Exunge was still in her nose, and again she thought of Pap, the gentle old man who’d raised her from orphaned girlhood.
“Miss Edwards,” Miss Jesczenka prompted softly. “Please, you must tell me what’s troubling you.”
Emily said nothing. She stared past Miss Jesczenka, chewing her lip. She had long since decided to tell no one at the Institute about her Cassandras. Ever since she’d made a direct magical connection to Ososolyeh—the entity the Indians revered as the great consciousness of the earth—the visions came to her at odd times: strange omens appearing in the movement of grasses, in the swirling of dust in a sunbeam, in the movements of ants.
But if the Institute knew about the Cassandras, they would never cease to annoy her about them. The connection Emily had with Ososolyeh was unprecedented and powerful, and the Institute had a habit of wanting to accrue unprecedented and powerful things unto itself. This she knew from ex- perience. So she’d kept the whole matter quiet—even from Stanton.
If only she could speak to him! He’d be sure to have distinct opinions, the majority of which she’d probably disagree with. But she hadn’t even seen him in a week. He was in some kind of ritual seclusion before his Investment, probably learning secret handshakes and drinking beverages out of skulls.
She shook her head to clear the troublesome thoughts. Skulls and secret handshakes were of no use to her at the moment, and even Stanton might not be able to help her with the conundrum she faced. She couldn’t go home, but she had to. She stared out the window of the carriage resolutely, as if the answer might be found there.
While the answer was not to be found along Thirty-fourth Street, or even any of the avenues going uptown, Emily knew what she had to do by the time they arrived back at the Institute. She followed Miss Jesczenka placidly as they climbed to the suite of rooms Emily had been given on the fourth floor, on the corner overlooking the back gardens and the ornate crystal-paned conservatory. The rooms had deep bay windows and paneling of polished black walnut. Rich Anhalt carpets and gilt mirrors and Chinese enameled pots with palms in them gleamed luxuriously. Miss Jesczenka threw open the windows in the hopes of catching a breeze.
“How hot it is this afternoon,” Miss Jesczenka frowned, when no breeze presented itself for capture. “You seem quite tired, Miss Edwards. I’m sure you’ll feel better after some rest.” She paused. “Everything will be fine. You really mustn’t worry.”
Emily nodded, and after Miss Jesczenka left, she did lie down.
She lay on top of the silken covers, fully clothed, staring at the ceiling for a full five minutes, thoughtfully stroking the ivory of her prosthetic hand, feeling the cool smoothness of the carved fingers. She lay that way until she heard Miss Jesczenka’s feet move silently away from her door.
Then she jumped up, threw on boots and a bowler hat, and left for California.
Excerpted from The Hidden Goddess by M.K. Hobson. Copyright © 2011 by M. K. Hobson. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.