Esther Abercrombie and the Legend of Loch Ness
A steampunk fantasy excerpt
Glasgow's Central Station was busy. Humans and creatures hurried from train to platform to exit in a constant flow of bodies. The place was awash with the hissing and chugging of the green liveried steam engines as they entered and departed Glasgow’s finest departure point. There was a heavy stench of burning coal mixed with the sweet scent of water vapour and the air was alive with the sounds of city life: footsteps too numerous to count, whistles being blown, guards shouting, people chatting and the colourful stall holders yelling their wares. As a country girl, I revelled in this new found excitement and couldn’t help but stare at the office girls as they walked by in their pretty patterned dresses and beautifully decorated straw hats.
I was to meet him under the big clock in the centre of the station at noon. I was to wait there to be given further instructions. My stomach churned at the thought of what lay ahead. Here was me, Ester Abercrombie, recent graduate of the Ellen Campbell Secretarial School, waiting to start my new life with a man who was world famous. Dr Thadeus Dwell was a celebrated cryptozoologist, explorer and inventor who had chosen me from an unknown number of applicants to be his secretary. I hadn’t yet met him, my interview had taken place over a series of letters, and I was excited and trepidatious about meeting him. All I knew was that he was coming from London to the north to start a new study and I was to join him.
So there I was, standing there alone, waiting for a stranger to take me on a big adventure. Some he-elves in multi-coloured suits walked by, one tipped his bowler hat at me and I blushed. I was not used to getting any attention, my mother forbade it. ‘Esther,’ she would say, ‘that’s the devil’s work and, anyway, you’re far to plain to attract any man.’ A human man bustled past me, catching my skirts and the carpet bag at my feet with his black umbrella. He apologised, tipped his hat and rushed over towards the ticket collector. A flower seller, a fairy in purple skirt and starched blouse, offered me a bunch of bright blue delphiniums, but I shook my head. Her smile faded immediately and she turned away, wings drooping in disappointment.
I looked around me once more, fearing Dr Dwell was not coming after all and he had asked me to stand there as some sort of cruel joke. A tug on the back of my skirts was the first I became aware someone was trying to get my attention. I immediately turned around and then looked down. Standing before me was a gorgeously attired dwarf who introduced himself as Cassius Ironblood of the Underlands. He was dressed in a brilliant red velvet jacket, colourful silk waistcoat and black trousers. His long silver hair was tied back in a ribbon and his beard had been fashioned into a neat plait.
“Miss Abercrombie I presume?” the dwarf said. He gave me a small bow. “Cassius Ironblood.”
“I am.” I curtsied. “Pleased to meet you Mr Ironblood.”
“I am Dr Dwell’s valet and righthand man,” he continued. “He asks that you accompany me to the carriage outside where he awaits you.”
I was somewhat taken aback by this introduction. Surely Dr Dwell had said in his letter he would meet me himself? It was what I expected, but I said nothing. Dr Dwell was a great man and, of course, he would send a servant to meet me. What was I thinking? Cassius turned about and walked towards the exit and the taxi rank outside. Without hesitation, I picked up my carpet bag, adjusted my shawl and followed.
A gorgeous cavalcade of five shiny black steam carriages was waiting for me when I exited the sandstone palace that was the station. Driven by metal man-shaped automatons in tall black hats, the carriages were decorated with scrolls and swirls of gold, and the golden livery mark of TD. The door of the first carriage opened and a tall, older man wearing a travelling cloak and carrying a silver topped cane climbed down. He smiled when he saw me displaying an array of perfectly white teeth and walked towards me with his gloved hand outstretched.
“Miss Abercrombie, so glad to make your acquaintance,” he said. His eyes were shining with enthusiasm. “My name is Thadeus Dwell and I am delighted that you decided to join us.”
“Very pleased to meet you Dr Dwell,” I said shyly shaking his hand. Like the dwarf, Dr Dwell was expensively and beautifully dressed. He wore a grey morning suit, red silk waistcoat, matching cravat and a shiny black top hat which he doffed politely. He replaced the hat then offered me his arm.
“May I escort you into the carriage?” he said. “Then you can tell me all about yourself.” As I took his arm, Dwell nodded to Cassius who took my bag from me and stowed it in one of the other carriages. Then I found myself guided towards the front car where Dwell stopped to help me inside.
I had never ridden in a steam carriage before and was almost disappointed to discover that, apart from the small steam engine and the automaton at the front of it, there was little difference to a horse drawn one. The carriage itself was comfortable with its horse-hair stuffed velvet benches and Dr Dwell made sure I was settled before taking the seat opposite. He smiled before tapping on the top of the carriage with his cane. There came a short bell ring in reply and then the carriage hissed and steamed. There was a creaking and a groaning before a violent judder that made me nearly fall out of my seat.
“Oops,” Dwell said apologetically, “I need to work on that!”
Then with a groan the carriage moved forward and left the rank. I looked out of the curtained window as Central Station moved out of view.
“I’m very pleased you decided to join me on this expedition Miss Abercrombie,” Dwell said. “Have I said that already? I think I might have.” He was a handsome man of his middle years with greying hair and dark mutton chops. His blue eyes twinkled and I was immediately put at ease.
“I’m delighted to be here, Dr Dwell,” I replied. “It’s the first time I’ve been so far away from home.”
“Well, I can tell you we are going to have such an adventure!” he replied clapping his hands.
“Where exactly are we going, Dr Dwell? You didn’t say in your last letter.” I was somewhat nervous about going anywhere with a man I did not know and my mother was horrified at the impropriety of it. It took a letter from Dwell reassuring her his intentions towards me were pure plus a sweetener of two pounds to finally put her mind at rest.
“We’re going on a hunt for an elusive creature,” he said, eyes brilliant, “and you, my dear, will bear witness to my study of it. I want you to take notes during the day and act as a typist for me when I come to write about this expedition.”
“What creature?” I asked thinking of all the creatures that already inhabited our world. Apart from the Fae, there were dwarves, satyrs, centaurs and fauns. Others existed, but were secretive and hard to find. Knowing what little I knew of humanity at the time, I couldn’t blame them. I had witnessed children being used to clean chimneys and horses worked to death. It was no wonder they hid.
He tapped his nose. “All in good time,” he said with a smile.
Proclaimed the new thing in travel, the steam carriages were certainly faster than horses, but it still took us six full hours to reach our destination. They had been invented by a man in Manchester who was so horrified by the amount of manure produced by the city’s horses, he came up with his own solution. They were expensive and rare, and it was exciting to be riding in one.
The journey wasn’t terrible, but it was such a long time to be stuck inside with a stranger. I spent a good bit of it looking out of the window watching as we left the black, soot covered streets of the elegantly built Glasgow and travelled west out into the countryside. The roads were poorer there and caused the carriage to lurch and roll, but modern technology is a wonder and we did not get stuck in the numerous potholes along the way. We turned north at Dumbarton, then headed along the twisting narrow Loch Lomond road that served as the only entranceway to the Highlands.
“Where are we heading to, Dr Dwell?” I asked staring out at the calm stretch of deep blue water framed either side by the reaching purple mountains and green hills of the lower Highlands.
“Alright, I’ll tell you,” he replied, “ but you must keep it a secret until we arrive. Do you promise?”
“Drumnadrochit,” he said and gave me such a look of triumph that I felt stupid for not knowing why we would go there. I must have given him a quizzical look for he laughed. “Don’t worry my dear, we have a good reason and I’ll tell you over dinner tonight at the inn.”
I did venture to ask why we had not taken the railway to Inverness and then by carriage to the village. The new stretch of the line between Aviemore and Inverness had opened the previous year making the town far more accessible, more quickly. Dwell just gave me a withering look and refused to answer, so I went back to my window watching and day dreaming.
It was dark and raining when we arrived at Drumnadrochit. Not the kind of rain to soak through a woollen cloak, but a light smirr. I had been sleeping the latter part of the journey and the light spray on my face, as I got down from the carriage, was enough to wake me to full alertness. I looked around me. We had stopped outside a large whitewashed house with a painted wooden sign declaring it to be the Drumnadrochit Inn. Lanterns lit up the downstairs windows giving it a cosy air and there were sounds of men talking from the bar inside. Dwell, who had been directing the unpacking of the carriages by the automatons turned to Cassius.
“Take Miss Abercrombie inside and see she is settled,” he said. Cassius bowed and accompanied me inside.
The inn was basic, but clean. We were met at the door by our smiling hostess who introduced herself as Mrs Mackintosh. She was a small woman of about 60 years with white hair that had been scraped back into a tight bun. Her face was youthful and she had the light step of a woman half her age. She beckoned us in and had her son, Adam, a sullen lad of around 15, show us up to our rooms. The stairwell was dark and creaking, Adam’s candle throwing up ghoulish shadows on the walls, but having grown up in a small farmhouse in the country, the dark did not scare me. I followed him to the first floor where he took me along to the end of the corridor.
My room was at the front of the inn and had a view of the famous Loch Ness, or so the morose youth reluctantly told me. He parroted a whole diatribe of facts and information about the surrounding area, words that I was sure his mother had forced him to repeat for every visitor. Adam lit the oil lamp sitting on the tall boy and moved to the door.
“Is that all you need, missus?” he asked. I nodded. “Then mum said you’ve to come down to the inn to get yer tea.”
As the youth left, I removed my shawl and placed my small handbag on the bed. The room was sparsely furnished, but was comfortable enough. There was a large bed against one wall next to a small fireplace that was unlit. A tall boy stood opposite and the pristine white-washed walls were decorated with framed dried flowers. A fraying rug covered the floor, deadening the sounds of my footsteps on the wooden floor as I explored the room. I turned back the bed and was delighted to find the bedding freshly washed. I smiled. This will do well, I thought. It was a far cry from the bedroom I shared with my three sisters. I couldn’t believe it: I was getting to sleep in my own room in my own bed. What luck! There was a knock at the door.
Dr Dwell stuck his head in.
“I heard Mrs Mackintosh has laid on some supper for us,” he said eyes sparkling in the dull lamp light. “Shall we go down together?”
I grabbed my bag and joined him in the corridor, carefully closing my bedroom door behind me. He offered me his arm and together, we went down to dine.
The public bar was lively. A large room with a sooty fireplace at one end, it was packed with chattering local men enjoying an evening pint. We could hear their chatter and laughter as we approached the entrance. As we walked into the room, the babble suddenly stopped and all eyes were on us. Dwell paused. His eyes darted around taking in the various dress of the Highlanders. They were outfitted in similar suits of Tweed in muted brown tones and all to a man donned a flat cap and a curious gaze.
“Good evening gentlemen,” Dwell said as he ushered me forward. He led me to the bar where Mrs Mackintosh was holding court. She poured bottled beer into a pewter mug and gave it to a customer who was standing nearby.
“Dr Dwell, Miss Abercrombie,” she said beaming. “I’ve put you in the snug over there,” she added with a nod in the direction of the fire. “Adam will be out shortly with your supper.”
“Thank you Mrs Mackintosh,” Dwell replied. “Now, before I accompany my charming companion to dinner, could I order some wine for us? The best you have.”
“Of course,” she said eyes bright in lantern light. “You get yourselves settled and I’ll bring it over.”
Supper was a plate of fresh grilled mackerel with buttered bread, carrots and potatoes. Although simple, it was welcome fare and I tucked in greedily. I washed the whole lot down with a glass of red wine brought to us by our lady inn owner. Unused to alcohol, the wine went straight to my head and, in the warmth of the inn, by the flickering light of the log fire, I began to relax.
“What a marvellous start to our adventure,” Dwell said wiping his mouth with a silk handkerchief produced from his own pocket. “There’s nothing quite so tasty as fresh mackerel in Highland inn.”
“It was delicious,” I replied. I paused to stare into the flames of the fire. They danced merrily, sometimes hissing as rain water slid down the chimney to meet its fiery death. “What are we doing here?” I said at last. “You haven’t yet told me.”
“Well,” he began. Then he looked around him and pulled his chair closer to the bench on which I sat. He leaned in and said in a low voice: “I was going to wait until tomorrow to tell you, but there’s no reason why I should tell you know. We’re here to study the monster.”
“Monster? The Loch Ness monster?” I said aloud. He gave me a look and put his finger to his lips. Then he poured me another glass of wine from the bottle left by our hostess. I took a sip.
“The very same,” he said in hushed tones.
“But it’s just a myth,” I replied, “a folk tale.”
“Is it?” He looked at me like I was the mad one then leaned back and smiled. “Miss Abercrombie your face is a picture.”
“So we’re not here for the monster?” My head was befuddled with wine and I couldn’t make out whether he was joking or not.
“Oh, no, we are,” he said. “I’m here to study it and you are here to help me.”
His intention, he then told me, was to do a detailed study of the creature in its habitat and then publish a memoir about his adventures. My role was to take notes. There would also be a speaking tour.
“Of course, the newspapers are going to love this!” he added looking particularly pleased with himself. “This latest discovery will put me on the map as the greatest cryptozoologist in all of the British Empire…no, the world.” He fanned his hands in a semi-circle as he said this and looked off to the distance. I don’t know what he expected from me, but after a few moments he put his hands down and frowned. “You don’t seem excited,” he said.
“I am very excited,” I told him, although this was not true. I knew Dr Dwell was a well-known cryptozoologist. Indeed, he had made many important discoveries of magical creatures over the past few years. However, I was not sure that this was a quest he would be successful in. “I’m just a little tired after the long journey. I think I will retire now and I promise you I will be more lively tomorrow.”
“Such a good idea, my dear,” he replied. “Of course, you are exhausted.”
He stood as I did and waited until I was free of the table.
“Goodnight Dr Dwell,” I said.
“Goodnight, Miss Abercrombie. I shall see you down here by eight o’clock sharp for breakfast,” he said.
I nodded and took my leave, pausing momentarily at the door to look back. Dwell had sat down again and was supping on his wine. He did not see me looking. As I turned I nearly tripped over Cassius who had scuttled into the bar sopping wet.
“Oh, sir,” I said. “You must dry yourself at the fire before you catch your death of cold.”
The dwarf looked up at me with sad eyes and nodded. Saying nothing, he walked past me and made his way to his master. I turned and walked out.
In the hallway, I paused again. My head was addled, I could not think straight and cursed myself for consuming two glasses of wine. The door was only just there so I opened it and walked out to get some fresh air for a moment. Sheltered from the rain in the doorway I closed my eyes and took in a deep breath. The air was clean and sweet, so unlike the smog-ridden atmosphere of Glasgow earlier that day. As I opened them I became aware I was not alone. Twenty yards away, silhouetted against the soft light of a window stood the most magnificent black horse I had ever seen. It was around 18 hands high, about the height of a Clydesdale, and had a shiny jet coat. The horse did not have a saddle but sported a silver bridle that jingled gently as it moved. We stood staring at each other for a few moments before the horse moved off, its huge feet barely making a sound on the dirt road. I blinked and shook my head.
The next morning, I was woken by a loud thumping on my bedroom door. I got out of bed and gingerly put my warm feet on the freezing floorboards. The fire had not yet been lit and even though it was summer, the Scottish weather was cold. Wrapping a shawl around myself, I staggered to the door and opened it a crack. I looked out, but there was no-one there. I heard a gentle cough, I looked down and into the large brown eyes of Cassius Ironblood.
“The master asks if you would join him for breakfast,” he said, face flushed. Was he embarrassed at waking me?
“Tell Dr Dwell, I will join him in around half an hour,” I said as politely as I could. “Thank you Cassius.”
I shut the door and got to work on my toilette. It wouldn’t do to be late on my first day. As I rushed around, it suddenly dawned on me that the room was not as bright as it should be on a summer’s morning. I opened the curtains and looked out. My room had a view of the loch and it was breathtaking this morning. The sun was just rising over the mountains highlighting the soft mist that hung like a roll of fleece halfway down. Somewhere an eagle cried. I knew it was one. I had learned their distinctive call from birth. Our village was surrounded by them. I looked, but could not see it at first, then it was there, silhouetted in the sun, gliding low across the water. I followed its flight and watched it head north. It was a magnificent sight.
Smiling to myself I was about to remove myself from the window when something caught my eye. In front of the inn stood a dark-haired man in a stylish black suit. Hatless, his hair had not been tamed into submission, but was wild and unruly. He saw me watching and gave me an elegantly orchestrated bow. As he slowly rose, he grinned and winked. His cheek made me gasp and pull back, ashamed I had been snooping on him. Hiding now behind the curtain, I watched as he walked away laughing.
Thadeus Dwell was sitting at last night’s table eating a hearty breakfast of black pudding, bacon and eggs. A large teapot sat in front of him along with a jug of milk and a plate of toast dripping in fresh butter. He rose as I approached and ushered me into a chair beside him.
“Good morning, good morning,” he said jovially as he sat down again. “Now what can I get you for breakfast, Miss Abercrombie?”
“A cup of tea will suffice,” I said. I felt shy even though I had now known the eminent doctor for 24 hours give or take. I still couldn’t believe my luck. Here was I sitting next to such a famous man and he had hired me to help him on his latest quest.
“Miss Abercrombie, can I advise you to eat something this morning,” he said. “It’s an early start and we’re going to be out all day. Mrs Mackintosh has prepared us a picnic lunch, but we’ll not be having that until much later. Why don’t you ask her to prepare you a fried breakfast? It’s very good.”
To emphasise his point, he forked a piece of perfectly browned bacon and popped it into his mouth. He smiled as he chewed, his eyes sparkling in delight at such delicious fare.
“No thank you,” I replied. “I’ll just have some tea. I don’t usually eat this early.”
As I poured myself some tea, Dwell went through our agenda for the day. We were to meet a man by the name of Buckie down at the dock and he would take us out into the loch in his small boat. Cassius was to remain on land to unpack the equipment boxes.
“Mrs Mackintosh has very kindly given me permission to set up a tent on some land she owns down by the water. There we will set up our laboratory and administration area,” he finished. He wiped his mouth with a cotton napkin and scooped up his teacup. “This is so thrilling. I’ve never been on a hunt for such an elusive creature before. This will be the find of the century.”
“It certainly will, Dr Dwell,” I replied trying to match his enthusiasm. I still wasn’t convinced the monster was real.
He held his cup up as if raising a toast. I raised mine too.
“To us, Miss Abercrombie,” he said, “and may we be successful in our ventures.”
He took a sip of his tea and I did too.
“Now,” he said getting serious again, “can I ask: did you pack a good sturdy pair of Wellington boots, and your Tweeds? Mrs Mackintosh reckons it’ll rain this afternoon and I’d hate for you to get wet and cold.”
I did not possess the boots and I told him so, but I did have long Tweed cloak that had served me well these past four winters.
“I’ll get Cassius to find you a pair of boots,” he replied. He looked at me. “Have you finished your tea? No? Well get a move on girl, we have work to do.”
My mother would have been aghast at how quickly I threw back the last remnants of my tea. I placed the cup down and hurried after Dwell who was already striding towards the door.
“Meet me outside in ten minutes,” he said, “and don’t be late.”
I hurried upstairs, grabbed my things from my room and was back down at the front door before the allotted time had passed. Panting a little, I fixed my bonnet to my head, threw the cloak over my shoulders and checked myself in the hall mirror. My face was a little flushed, unladylike in my mother’s eyes, but other than that I looked presentable.
“Right, I’d best be off,” I said to myself as I went to the front door. Then I paused. In the corner nearest the entrance was an elephant foot stuffed with umbrellas. Mrs Mackintosh wouldn’t mind me borrowing one of them, would she? I didn’t think so. I picked up a large black umbrella, opened the door and went out to start my new job.
Dwell was waiting for me at the small wooden dock about a hundred yards from the inn’s front door. He was standing directing a harassed looking Cassius who was busy loading equipment on to a puffer boat, The Salty Barnacle. It was a stumpy little steamboat with a single mast and crewed by a weather battered captain and three crew. They had been busy getting the little boat ready to depart, but as one stopped what they were doing to stand and stare at me. I approached nervously.
“Miss Abercrombie,” Dwell said offering me his arm, “may I help you on board?”
As I carefully walked up a small gangplank, the captain, who had been standing next to the entrance of the crew’s quarters rushed forward. He was a small man with a greying beard, a ruddy complexion and dark piercing eyes.
“Jist a minute, Mr Dwell,” he said, hand outstretched. “You said nothing about bringing a lassie on board.”
“And you said nothing about not bringing a lassie on board, Captain Harley,” said Dwell helping me over the boat’s side.
“I can’t be having a lassie on board,” the captain replied. He frowned. “It’s no right. It’s bad luck.”
“Nonsense, Captain Harley, utter nonsense,” Dwell replied. His voice was calm, but there was anger in his eyes.
“No, I must insist,” the other man said. He was now standing beside us and he drew himself up to his full height and crossed his arms. Although human, he looked to me like an overgrown dwarf and I had to stifle a chuckle.
“I need Miss Abercrombie on board. She is my assistant,” Dwell said through gritted teeth.
“And I’m telling you it’s bad luck!” retorted the captain.
Dwell breathed in deeply and changed tack.
“What would it take for you to allow Miss Abercrombie on board?” he said looking at me. I shifted awkwardly on my feet. I did not like being the centre of an argument. The captain’s eyes narrowed.
“What do you mean?”
“Would an extra three pounds help my cause?”
“Make it five and you have a deal.” Harley stuck out his hand. Dwell looked at it, thought for a moment and then shook it. The captain gave him a smile and stood back to allow me access to the rest of the boat. The rest of the crew went back to work in silence.
It took them a further ten minutes to load all of Dwell’s equipment, which consisted of several wooden boxes containing electrical equipment of the explorer’s own invention and a large camera. Then at last, the captain instructed the engineer to start the engine and The Salty Barnacle burst into life, puffed, shuddered and died.
“Angus, whit’s going on?” Harley shouted from the wheelhouse. There was no reply from down below, but then the engine started again and this time the little boat began to puff some more. It reversed away from the dock and took a slow turn to begin it’s journey along the loch. Puff, puff, puff it went as it gently made its way out of the little natural harbour at Drumnadrochit heading south-east.
I positioned myself along with Dwell forward so that