MISS BASHLINGBURG'S ATTEMPTS
“There is only one way to attach a gentleman’s interest,” Lady Dentrix intoned. “A gel must make the best use of her fan.”
“Her fan,” Miss Pesperon Bashlingburg repeated flatly. “To tap him on the shoulder, deliver a clout to his ear or to flush a spoon full of soup back into his face?”
“No wonder your dear mother despairs of you, Miss Bashlingburg. Frivolity does not have a place in the pursuit of a settled and comfortable future,” Lady Dentrix declared, scowling from the depths of the comfortable chair tucked up near the meager warmth of the glowing coals in the grate. Fortunately, over half the length of the parlour separated Pesperon from her hostess, so the chill of her ladyship’s glare was somewhat tempered.
It struck Miss Bashlingburg’s petite companion with far more force, for Hestia Vanderlink shivered.
“I am chastised then,” Pesperon said, sounding anything but that.
“I believe Lady Dentrix is referring to the message a lady can send a gentleman via her fan,” Hestia murmured.
“To illustrate that she is a worthy companion.”
Miss Bashlingburg frowned. “Yes, I heard of that but felt it was complete folderol considering that fans were created to cool oneself. However, I attempted to attach a gentleman’s interest via a fan two months ago if you will recall. My target—”
Miss Vanderlink quivered at the designation.
“Well, they are targets,” Pesperon insisted, “whether you call them matrimonial prospects or something else. And the gentleman I’d set my sights on at the time should have been quite impressed with my use of a fan. I had researched his interests exhaustively.”
“You asked your cousin Percy his opinion over dinner one night and he gave a reply that could scarcely be called a sentence,” her friend insisted.
“Yes, well, where Percy is concerned, merely being in the same room with him is exhausting with a hearty dash of trying,” Miss Bashlingburg said. “What few words he descends from the clouds to utter are most telling though.”
On the auspicious occasion in question, Percy had said, “Fitz-Potts? Balmy for gadgets.”
As it so happened that Pesperon had been similarly described, she headed immediately for her workshop to draw up a schematic of a device guaranteed to snare the gentleman’s full attention.
It had been a most inspired machine, she felt. The heat in the ballroom had been strongly on her mind, for after all the efforts of her maid with the hot tongs the heat usually wilted her crimped locks before the orchestra took its first break. Had no one ever realized that windows were meant to be opened? That the idea of evil vapors lying in wait was ridiculous? Or was when the fog was absent. It had been on numerous occasions, yet the ballrooms appeared to be hermetically sealed to keep the heat in. Now she had a device in mind that would cool the brow and attract Mr. Fitz-Potts’ eye in the same instant – the creation a quite cunning fan, or so Pesperon judged it.
Cleverly worked into a headdress of ostrich feathers, silk flowers and ribbons the fan’s blades turned courtesy of a simple clock mechanism. It could be wound before being set in place upon her carefully arranged locks and set in motion by a gentle touch on a miniscule lever when the heat in a room was first noticed. By careful arrangement of the gears, the fan turned at a demure pace, just enough to stir the air and cool her brow and breathe a gentle sigh against a dancing partner’s cheek.
“I am still convinced that it would have worked if Mr. Fitz-Potts hadn’t been at the punch bowl quite so often and thus stumbled over his own feet upon approaching me. It is hardly my fault that his ridiculous mustaches became entwined in the mechanism.” She had heard that his friends resorted to rendering him clean-shaven to rid him of face hair that featured dangling gears. “The yank at my hair as he stumbled back and pulled my headdress free was quite ungentlemanly, I felt,” Pesperon added, indignant over the memory alone.
Mr. Fitz-Potts comments had been quite unwarranted as well, forcing Miss Bashlingburg to run a broad line through his name on her list of candidates.
“Fortunately, I moved on from that disaster.”
A less kind friend would have mistaken the expression on dear Hestia’s countenance for a grimace, but Miss Bashlingburg was more charitable.
“You are referring to the events at the Latimer home?” Miss Vanderlink essayed.
“Indeed, I do. A simple evening of cards and dancing they had promised though Mother forbad me to sit down at one of the tables for a rubber or two of whist. Dancing and conversation with more matrimonial prospects were to be my only agenda.”
With such restraints placed on her freedom, Miss Bashlingburg had retreated to her workshop once more determined to construct a new accessory guaranteed to intrigue a partner, bring a modicum of relief from the silted air, and enhance her appearance. Two hours before departure for the Latimer home she had completed the piece.
It was diabolically clever she felt. The miniature mechanism fit in the tiny compartment of a ring carefully crafted to fit on the hand she rested on her dance partner’s broad shoulder. When not in use, it was cleverly hidden beneath a cameo she had pried from a brooch, but when needed, the hinged lid would spring open, the tiny fan unfolding, stretching to stand but an inch and a half tall. She had worked in what she deemed an automatic feature so that once in the upright position the blades unfolded for a larger surface then began to spin. The fan even rotated from side to side so that both she and the gentleman would benefit from the mechanically created breeze.
The mechanism worked exactly as planned, though it had startled Captain Gompers at first. No doubt he had heard of Mr. Fitz-Potts’ accident. Within a few bars of the waltz tune, he had smiled at her. Complimented her.
“Fascinating little toy, Miss Bashlingburg,” the good captain had murmured. “Dashed clever, really.”
Unfortunately, his uniform was festooned with multiple golden cords draped from shoulder to shoulder. They showed off the breadth of his chest well but had a tendency to shift in their placement when the music called for a more athletic comportment. They never should have attempted the polka.
During a particularly invigorating gallop across the floor one of the military cords had caught in the whirling blades of Pesperon’s clever ring. By the time she had managed to untangle it and remove the ring, Captain Gompers’s complexion was a bit blue from his having been nearly strangled by the gold braid. It hadn’t done her hand or arm much good to be jerked in such a violent fashion either.
“Obviously, I should reconsider the advisability of any military men as husbands in the future after that fiasco,” Miss Bashlingburg confided to Miss Vanderlink. “There are such a lot of them though, it would be a shame to discount all because of one. However, I have given up dancing the polka in the future,” she added.
“I think that’s quite wise of you,” Miss Vanderlink agreed. “But I fear you still do not comprehend the language of the fan, dear Pesperon.” She then astonished and irked dear Pesperon by signaling for Lady Dentrix’s attention to explain the problem.
“Dear me!” their hostess exclaimed. “Whatever was your mother thinking of to bring you out without fully explaining the ways of proper society?”
Pesperon knew exactly where her mother’s mind had been. She’d been buried in her own workshop attempting to build a better mousetrap. The fact that she had in the past built such an efficient one that nary a mouse could be found within three city blocks in any direction, did not deter Mrs. Bashlingburg from her goal.
Lady Dentrix gestured for one of the insipid girls pouring over a French fashion magazine to leave off giggling and get to her feet. “Now pay attention, Miss Bashlingburg. This is for your benefit.”
Pesperon doubted it. She only hoped there would not be a quiz afterward.
Their hostess fished in her reticule, unearthing a fan painted with the image of obviously cooing love birds amid a background of dainty blue and pink flowers, and handed it to her assistant.
“Now pretend that Miss Vanderlink is a gentleman and signal that you wish to be acquainted with him,” she ordered.
The girl assumed a simpering expression that quite sickened Miss Bashlingburg and held the fan in her left hand, and open before her face so that she peered over it.
“Now say that you would be pleased if he would follow you,” Lady Dentrix said.
Her assistant kept her face mostly hidden behind the fan but switched so that she held it in her right hand.
“And if he is not interested, how does he signal her considering that gentlemen do not carry fans?” Pesperon asked.
“Oh, they don’t signal at all,” Hestia said. “They simply cross the room to accept your invitation or pretend not to have noticed you.”
“Bores,” Miss Bashlingburg muttered.
“Oh, yes, quite frequently,” Miss Vanderlink agreed.
Ignoring their whispered confidences, Lady Dentrix put her pet monkey – er, volunteer – through the rest of the hoops. Pesperon was treated to a coquettish fan dance that told the prospective gentleman that her heart belonged to another (twirling the fan in her right hand) to telling him he was utterly distasteful (drawing the closed fan across her hand) to asking if he had feelings for her (presenting a shut fan). The simpering idiot followed with one last signal when Lady Dentrix looked away, placing the handle of the fan to her lips.
“What a forward creature!” Miss Vanderlink muttered vehemently.
“What did she say?” Miss Bashlingburg asked.
“She requested a kiss!”
“Hussy,” Pesperon murmured.
“Quite!” Hestia agreed and glanced at the pendant watch pinned to her gown. “Ah, Lady Dentrix’s required thirty minutes has passed. We can move on to our next visitation.”
“Give me strength,” Miss Bashlingburg breathed, knowing that the next matron on the list would also take it upon herself to cure the lapses in her education, the goal being to help Mrs. Bashlingburg foist her daughter off on the first halfway acceptable man courageous enough to brave a future with Pesperon as his wife.
~ ~ ~
The next morning Mrs. Bashlingburg didn’t bother to glance up as she perused the card in her hand. “We’ve been invited to the ball to launch Rear Admiral ffell-Offterboord’s daughter,” she announced. “There should be an entire flock of naval men in attendance.”
Pesperon understood the unstated information in her mother’s careful wording. Men who had been at sea were not as likely to have heard of her previous ballroom disasters.
“Why not,” she said. “Between Hestia and Lady Dentrix and one of the brain-dead chits in attendance yesterday, I have now been instructed in yet another mystery of the social set.”
“Good,” Mrs. Bashlingburg declared. “I’ll warn the ffell-Offterboords that we’ll be in attendance.”
“Decent of you, Fluffy,” Mr. Bashlingburg said from behind his copy of the Times.
Knowing she no longer need linger at the table, Miss Bashlingburg pushed her chair back. “I’ll be in my workshop if anyone needs me,” she said.
“As will I,” her mother announced.
Mr. Bashlingburg folded the Times. “Lab for me,” he said.
Pesperon barely noticed. Her mind was already whirling with ideas.
~ ~ ~
“Semaphore, how clever of you, darling,” Mrs. Bashlingburg purred as she circled Pesperon prior to their departure. “And how appropriate.”
“Yes, I realized where I had erred before in thinking only of fans as cooling devices,” Miss Bashlingburg confessed. “They are signaling devices though quite limited in the messages that can be sent. By tapping the keys I’ve affixed inside Father’s cigarette case, I can choose the arrangement of flags to display.”
Mrs. Bashlingburg peered with professional interest at the wires that ran from the lower edge of the etched silver case through the palm of her daughter’s glove and up through the glove’s elbow length sleeve to then burrow into the flamboyant spray of netting and silk flowers affixed at her shoulder. The netting continued around Pesperon’s nape and rejoined the gown to form a stand-up collar. The wiring disappeared within the gown to emerge at the colorfully draped bustle in back.
“The only drawback is that the messages will need to be short,” Miss Bashlingburg said, “so I worked out a few in advance. Should I spot a stalwart officer on the opposite side of the room, I press these buttons.”
As she did so, there was a slight hum of machinery awakening then an array of flags sprouted from the bustle in a manner reminiscent of a peacock’s tail display.
Mrs. Bashlingburg applauded. “What did you say?”
“Hello, sailor,” Pesperon said.
“Delightful,” her mother announced. “Direct and to the point while being very specific. It is very clear that you inherited both your father’s methodical methods and my way with machines. I’m so proud of you, Pespy.”
Miss Bashlingburg pushed the reset button, sending her semaphore flag collection back into place on her bustle. “Let’s hope the gentlemen in attendance are as alert to the benefits that come with my hand,” she said.
“Patience, my dear,” Mrs. Bashlingburg counseled. “I too went through a series of disastrous near liaisons before stumbling upon your father.”
~ ~ ~
Lieutenant Eaglehardt was a fine figure of a fellow. But it was Miss Bashlingburg’s father who pointed out the gentleman’s finer points to her.
“That one’s not a bad find, Pespy. Strong jaw, bit of a stiff carriage but a good breaking in of the springs will no doubt cure that. Genetically your offspring would be taller than the average sprite and no doubt sprouting unruly coxcombs at the crown. Yon anchor uses a bit too much pomade for that wheat crop to be ruly on its own.”
“Seems to have large hands and feet,” Miss Bashlingburg commented. “I like his long fingers though. Either he has a knack when it comes to playing the pianoforte or possibly a light touch with a blow torch when gears are involved.”
“Hmm, you might be right. Definitely a stiff upper lip. Now if he’d only smile and show us some teeth we’d be able to hobble together a better preliminary finding on the lad.”
At that moment, one of Lady Dentrix’s flock of twit heads fluttered by and gave the lieutenant a heated look over the open fronds of her fan. Pesperon couldn’t recall what the signal had been but as Eaglehardt flashed a full contingent of bright teeth and turned his head to watch as the flirt’s skirts swayed by, Miss Bashlingburg was given a chance to observe his profile.
“Not sure I like the configuration of his ears,” she told her father, “but I suppose it is near impossible to find a subject who has all the points noted on the laundry list.”
“Quite so, my dear. I’ll leave you to reel this fish in on your own.”
Miss Bashlingburg considered her plan of attack. As Eaglehardt hadn’t taken his eyes off the twitching bustle of Miss Lackabrain, she was no longer in a location that would scuttle the floozy’s designs on the lieutenant and yet net his attention. Short of shoving the girl forcefully behind one of the potted ferns clustered for the convenience of tete-a-tetes, Pesperon felt her hands were tied.
Until her cousin Percy strolled up. “What ho, Pesp,” he greeted. “Fancy a spin about the room?”
“No,” Miss Bashlingburg answered, tapping the converted cigarette case against the palm of her hand. “I want you to dash up to Miss Whatshername, the tramp frocked in pink cotton candy over there, and announce that her mother wants her urgently.”
“The crumpet in pink? Not doable, old thing. Her mother snuffed it two years back.”
“Even better,” Pesperon said. “Tell her there is a séance in progress in one of the parlours above stairs and that her mother has manifested and is insistent upon speaking to her.”
Percy saluted and ambled off. Obviously, his idea of a dash and hers differed. They might have to work on that.
Miss Pink Fluff’s cheeks paled slightly at the news relayed, and nearly tripped on her skirts in her rush to leave the room. Now that, Pesperon decided, was a quite decent dash.
With the object of his lascivious attentions removed, Lieutenant Eaglehardt’s teeth were withdrawn from sight. His eyes surveyed the room at large with the same attention she suspected he gave a look around through his telescope while at sea. She tilted her head as his gaze fell on her, passed on, then returned.
Miss Bashlingburg opened the cigarette case and tapped instructions onto her control panel. In short order a colorful array of signal flags sprang into place….
…just as a servant followed the hostess’s instructions and opened a window behind Pesperon.
The candles on the table flickered, some extinguishing with a silent, but nonetheless heart felt sigh. Others, however, quivered in the candlesticks and toppled over.
Right onto Miss Bashlingburg’s exotically displayed message.
Whether Lieutenant Eaglehardt read it, she never learned, for she was forcefully tossed to the floor and rolled on the parquet until the flames were extinguished on her bustle. When helped upright, the strong jawed over-brilliantined officer was no longer in sight.
“Oh, bother,” Miss Bashlingburg muttered under her breath.
“Are you all right, miss?” a comfortably mussed gentleman at her side inquired.
“Of course, she’s not, Somerville! The gel has just been aflame!” Lady Dentrix exclaimed. “Someone get the chit’s mother.”
CHIT! Pesperon’s blood chilled at the designation.
“Actually, I thought you were brilliant,” Mr. Somerville said. “The semaphore system – I’ve not words to explain my admiration for it. Who built it, might I ask?
“I did, of course,” Miss Bashlingburg declared, astounded. “It is so difficult to find craftsmen who take instruction well, no matter how detailed the schematic.”
“A schematic, too! My dear young lady, I am quite enchanted. We must find someone to introduce us. You are quite recovered from the excitement though?”
“Of being on fire?” Pesperon shrugged the danger off. “Of course, but then I always wear fire resistant unmentionables.”
Lady Dentrix’s eyes rolled up in her head at the admission and she collapsed back against the gathered gawkers.
Miss Bashlingburg took Mr. Somerville’s proffered arm. “You’re interested in mechanical creations then?”
“Live and breathe them,” he said. “I came hoping to make the acquaintance of Mrs. Bashlingburg. I would like to manufacture her mousetrap, you see.”
“Mother will be thrilled to meet you,” Pesperon said.
Mr. Somerville’s expression brightened even more. “You wouldn’t be engaged to marry any of the blighters in this room, would you, Miss Bashlingburg? If so, I shall challenge them to a duel for your hand.”
“No need to put yourself to the trouble, sir. I happen to have a contraption that will do it for you.”
When he so far forgot himself and where they were and took her in his arms, Miss Bashlingburg mentally set in motion the mechanism that would burn her tally of matrimonial prospects to a cinder.
But what she said was, “What do you think of replacing the semaphore flags with a telegraphic system that uses Morse code?”
“I think,” he said, releasing her briefly, “that I’ll never be far enough away from your side for you to be forced to use it.”
Miss Bashlingburg’s Attempts © 2013 Beth Daniels / Nied Darnell
Cover design by Beth Daniels, Graphic from Dreamstime.com
This story previously appeared in Cogwheels: Ten Tales of Steampunk (Ten Tales Fantasy and Horror Stories Book 10), edited by Rayne Hall, in 2014
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