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:: Vanitas by James S. Dorr
Orbits: Short Stories
Vanitas by James S. Dorr
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When he arrived at the New England town of Vanitas, all that Caleb Rushton wanted was an escape from the life of a seaman. What he found there included murder, a ghost-like apparition, a multi-layered trail of deception, and a need for his carpentry skills to help in the building of a gigantic church organ powered by steam.
A great blend of steampunk and horror from our Orbits sci-fi/fantasy short story line.
Caleb Rushton came from the sea, from a world where sail—and the seamen needed to mount ships’ rigging—was fast giving way to the devils of soot and steam. He traveled west from his home port of Boston through Worcester and Springfield, until he came to the town of Vanitas on the east edge of the Berkshire Mountains. He liked the way the air smelled there, the way the hollyhocks bloomed in the spring, and, though he had long since lost faith in religion, he used his shipborn carpentry skills to gain a position as church sexton.
Then, early that autumn, a traveling circus came into the mountains, north to their valley. It gave one performance, one which he did not see.
The following morning the church choirmaster, Petro Mezzoni, a dark-haired, normally brooding man who Rushton had been told had come to Vanitas from the New Haven Conservatory just two years before, approached him as he began his duties. “Did you watch the circus parade?” Mezzoni asked.
“A little of it,” Rushton replied. “We all watched at least some of the parade as it came through town, though I missed the show afterward.”
“What did you think of the bareback rider? You know the Church Elders did not approve.”
“I caught a glimpse,” Rushton said. “Only that, though. I had to return here—the roof needs rebuilding before the fall rains come.”
The choirmaster nodded slowly. “Did you hear the music?”
“A bit, yes,” Rushton said. “It was loud and full of whistles. Too loud for my taste. That was one reason I went back inside.”
“Ah yes, loud indeed,” the choirmaster said. “Played properly, though, you might like it better.” He gave a knowing smile—Rushton understood the choirmaster had performed as well as taught music in Connecticut and was considered, at least by himself, an expert in the classical era. He did not know, though, why the choirmaster had left his post there.
The choirmaster went on. “There’s been a fire. The tent the circus people were in burned down late last night, while most of us here in town were sleeping. Reverend Hawkings is out there right now, but I’ve already been there so I can tell you you’ll have a full day’s work in the graveyard. What I wished to ask you though is if you know how to repair steam engines.”
Rushton frowned. He had fled here hoping to leave such things behind him, and yet he did know something of steam’s workings. “Small engines, yes,” he finally said. “The donkey engines some of the newest ships use to raise anchor. Larger ones, though….”
The choirmaster cut him off, suddenly kneeling. “God does His will in mysterious ways,” he said in a low voice. Then he looked up again at the sexton.
“The one I have in mind is a small one.”
* * *
“Vanitas,” Rushton had said the first time he met Reverend Hawkings, “seems like a rather strange name for a town.”
“It’s very old,” the minister had replied. “Just as the town is. Just as the church is. But while it may be old-fashioned, it helps us remember. It speaks to our failings.”
Rushton remembered that now as he poked with the choirmaster through the ashes of tents and wagons. The main tent, the cook tent, the sleeping tent, all had burned when the flames spread, easily leaping from one to another while, as Mezzoni said, those within slept. After a long amount of discussion, Reverend Hawkings had gained permission from the Elders to lay them at rest in hallowed ground. At least those bodies that could be found.
But now the choirmaster and Rushton were not searching through the ashes for corpses. Rather, the choirmaster led them to a half-burned wagon, its once bright paint now blackened and blistered. He took his walking stick and prodded what once had been its curtained side, pulling the smoke-stained cloth from its sliders.
“What do you think of this?” he asked finally.
Rushton peered inside the wagon and saw the soot-blackened brass of machinery. “It’s a bit larger than what I’m used to,” he said as he leaned forward to look more closely. “I’d say it’s about a fifteen horsepower. Vertical boiler. I don’t know about these valves and pipes here—I’ll have to figure out what they were used for—but yes, given time, I think I could fix it.”
The choirmaster looked relieved. “What those valves on the top were for was making music—that whistling music you didn’t care for. This is a recent device, you see, but one I’d heard something of back in New Haven. What it is is a kind of instrument called a calliope—sometimes they use them on riverboats too. But what I intend us to do with this one is repair it and mount it in the church tower.”
Rushton looked pensive. He reached his hand into the shadowed interior and worked the valves, his interest beginning to become aroused in spite of himself. He leaned farther in and inspected the solder around the boiler, the spot welds and rivets, then prodded a few of the fittings that seemed loose.
“Yes,” he said, “I think we could do that. We’ll need some help with the heavier work, though.”
“We’ll get what we need,” the choirmaster said. “I’ve already had a talk with the Church Elders. Tell me this, now, though. Do you think you can make it more powerful? Twenty, or even twenty-five horsepower? Possibly thirty?”
“Maybe,” Rushton said. “Too much and the boiler tubes won’t take it, but it’s good work that went into this engine. I think I can do that. But what will it be for?”
The choirmaster smiled. “You know how the church is in ill repair. You’ve been fixing the roof, you’ve told me about that. About the damage the water has done. But my concern has been with the church music. The little spinet I have to play on is not only direly inadequate for its task, but is in poor repair itself. And yet every time I approach the Church Elders, even with Reverend Hawkings on my side, although he’s too spineless to be of much help…well, you know how they are about money. That is, up until now.”
The choirmaster paused, then muttered beneath his breath, “God helps them that help themselves.” Then speaking more loudly, he stared straight in Rushton’s eyes. “Do you know who said that?”
Rushton pulled back, startled. “You know I’m not much on studying the Bible….”
The choirmaster laughed. “It’s not in the Bible. One of our nation’s patriots wrote that, Benjamin Franklin. Not only a patriot, but an inventor. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do, Rushton, be inventors too, with God’s help or not. With this calliope as its center, we’re going to build the church an organ.”
Published by: Untreed Reads
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