Here follows the first chapter of Empire of Steam, written as part of the National Novel Writing Month.
This is only the first chapter of the novel. Should I have chance, before the end of the month, I will tidy up this chapter’s rough first draft.
More chapters of Empire of Steam will follow as I complete them, right up until either the novel is completed or I become constrained by writer’s block.
Chapter One: Funeral
The crows looked down from the roof of the church of St Peter. They were perched between the gargoyles and the grotesques. These black-feathered psychopomps gazed down on the funeral below. Their feathers gleamed, as though they had been polished; as though they were oil on water.
Beneath the crows, winding its way through the churchyard from the main gates, was the funeral cortege. It moved like a slow, black snake. It went past old and new gravestones: Requiescat In Pace; Beloved Father; Here Lies John Abbott 1772-1823 Much Missed; and all the rest, the hundreds buried in the graveyard, waiting for a Judgement day that would never come.
The coffin was on the shoulders of four stout men. They walked slowly and solemnly towards the waiting, hungry grave, the funeral cortege trailing behind them. The coffin had a covering of black cloth upon it, attached to it by golden-headed nails. Within the coffin the dead body had been afforded luxuries it could not experience: a soft mattress, a silk-covered pillow and pure white side sheets. All for the unfeeling dead body.
All of the people were clad in black, just like the crows – all bar the priest, who was clad in white and purple robes. These black-dressed mourners had been brought to this churchyard to honour the passing of Eliza Monk, the wife of one of the wealthiest industrialists in the British Empire. It was her soulless body which occupied the polished mahogany coffin, beneath the black cloth.
In front of the pallbearers there were other men, dressed in black, black top hats shadowing their faces. They carried batons in their hands. These men, too, were pallbearers. And there were young boys in black gowns, pages hired for this most solemn event. Over a dozen pallbearers had been hired for this funeral.
Behind the pallbearers were the mourners, slowly marching towards the waiting grave. Leading them was Sir Edward Monk the husband and widower of the deceased. He looked down at his feet as he walked, as though unable to look at the coffin carrying the dead body of his wife. Perhaps he no longer wanted to view such a cruel world.
He was dressed as stylishly as anybody there, in a suit of deepest black. It was the first time that he had worn this bespoke suit. It had been bought from Savile Row especially for this sad event. The buttons were silver. The top hat was encased in the finest black silk. The cufflinks on the suit were silver. The suit and the other accompaniments had cost more than some people earned in a year. But he did not care about that.
Next to Sir Edward Monk walked Sir George Walker, the current Minister for War. It was no surprise to see him at this funeral, as he and Monk were good friends. Without the war machines turned out by Monk’s factories the Empire might not have been as great as it was. The government owed a great debt to Sir Edward.
Sir Edward Monk had been rewarded with a knighthood for his services to industry. It was the one time when he had met Queen Victoria. She had been shorter than he had thought that she would be.
The funny thing was he had been told, once, that he would have been made a lord, apart from the fact that he was too wealthy. He had not understood that. But it had been suggested that there were some members of the establishment who were jealous of the great wealth which Monk had earned in his life – and it had all been earned.
He had not inherited anything at all. Monk was entirely a self-made man. He had started out as a manual worker in one of the early factories. But he had saved, and invested his money – and he had invented. Yes, he had a string of patents to his name. They had made him almost as much money as his factories. Sometimes it seemed that those who had inherited their wealth were jealous of Sir Edward. Or perhaps they did not like the fact that he was a commoner.
He did not care that he was not a lord. He had not built up his factories to become some white-haired peer in the House of Lords.
Behind Monk and Walker there were the other mourners: the families of Eliza and Edward (led by their son, George); important industrialists, the rivals of the Monk industrial empire (although none of them were as important as him); and some (but not all) of the managers who actually ran the many factories owned by Monk.
They were all dressed alike, in the uniform, funereal black, the men in suits, and the women in long dresses. Each and every man (apart from the priest) wore a tall top hat, with a black crepe band around the hat. The women had black veils partially obscuring their features. A few of them carried black fans. But the fans were only for show: the day was cold, and nobody would be fanning themselves.
“Caw!” The cries of the crows echoed around the churchyard. It was the loudest sound. One or two of the mourners glanced up at the roof of the ancient church. A few of the people there wished that the birds were dead. But the crows did not care.
Outside of the churchyard stood the hearse, which had borne the coffin to this place. Despite the fact that Sir Edward Monk was a great industrialist, whose factories had transformed the British Empire, the hearse was not steam-powered, but drawn by half a dozen large black horses. The horses had ostrich plumes nodding over their heads. One of the horses evacuated its bowels, creating a steaming pile behind it.
The hearse was a thing of dark beauty. It was black, as all hearses should be. The sides of the hearse were crystal glass; and its many ornaments and fittings were in polished silver. There were black ostrich feathers forming a canopy over it. Anybody looking in through the glass would have been able to see flowers surrounding the area where the coffin had lain. No expense had been spared. It was good enough to carry a queen. As far as Sir Edward was concerned it had carried somebody far more important.
Behind the hearse there were the other coaches which had brought the mourners to this place. Each coach had been drawn by horses, despite the fact that this was the Age of Steam. But there were some things which you did not change.
The blinds in each coach were drawn. The drivers sat on the coaches, waiting for the funeral to come to its inevitable conclusion. They had been too many such burials. One of the drivers glanced at the cortege snaked through the churchyard. Nobody was looking in his direction. He quickly got out a hip flask, and took a quick swig of gin, before hiding the hip flask away. The day was cold, and he thought that the gin would keep him warm.
Another driver got out his pocket watch, and glanced down at the time. He found these funerals boring. But there could be no hurrying them. They all went at the same sedate pace. All he could do was wait.
The cortege reached the site of the open grave. It looked hungry to Edward, as though eager to take the dead body of his wife. He did not like it. But there was little which he liked at the moment.
His wife had wished that the ceremony take place outside, in its entirety, rather than in the chapel of the church. Eliza had always liked the out of doors, before she had become ill. While Edward had beavered away at his drawing board, creating wondrous new inventions, she had liked to catch the steam train down to the Chiltern Hills and walk among them, until she got tired. Or, sometimes, she had gone further afield, down into the West Country, or into Wales, carried by the steam railways which straddled England’s green and pleasant land. Only rarely had Sir Edward had the time to accompany his wife in her walks in the countryside. Now he wished that he had gone on every trip with her.
Those days were gone, of course, never to be restored. But what she had desired was what Edward would do. If she did not want any part of the service in the chapel then straight to the grave they would go. Anything for Eliza.
The coffin was gently lowered down onto the ground next to the grave. The priest, in his white and purple vestments, moved to stand next to the end of the grave. He had a piece of paper in his hands.
The mourners gathered around. Monk moved to stand next to the priest. He no longer wanted to be here. He wanted this to all be over. Right at that very moment in time he wanted his life to be over so he could join his wife.
He could do nothing about that, though. Suicide was a sin. Whatever happened he would never take his own life. He would have to endure.
The priest began talking, but Sir Edward Monk, one of the most powerful men in the British Empire – and, by extension, the world – was not paying attention. He still could not believe that his beloved Eliza was dead. It seemed like a cruel impossibility that he could outlive her.
All of his money had been of no use in trying to save her. She had withered away before his eyes. He had taken her to the best doctors in Harley Street. But they had not been able to save Eliza. They had not even been sure what it was which had been killing her. Different doctors had said different things. One had said that she needed warmth and sunshine. So Edward had taken her to Egypt to convalesce. But, if anything, she had got worse. They had returned to England at once, cutting their stay short.
He had taken Eliza to see a different doctor. He had recommended this amazing new nostrum which Edward had been assured would restore Eliza to health. It hadn’t. It had not done anything at all, as far as he could tell.
He had seen doctor after doctor, specialist after specialist. Money had been no problem. But all his wealth had been of no use in saving his beloved wife. It had done nothing at all.
Some of the doctors had, at least, admitted their failings. They had had the courtesy to say that they had not known what malady it was which had been killing Eliza. One had suggested naming a syndrome after her, in case another such malady was destined to arise, among someone else.
The disease, whatever it had been, had taken over a year to kill her, from that first moment when Edward had realised that something was wrong. She had been in the drawing room, enjoying a cup of Darjeeling tea. She must have fainted. She was found by a servant, that day, one of the many maids who had been employed by the monk household.
Edward had been at one of his factories in London. He had not heard about the fainting fit until he had returned home that evening. He had insisted that a doctor be brought in to see her. But that first supposed physician had not been able to find anything wrong. The fainting was, initially, put down as one of those things. But it had been the start of the illness.
Over the months there had been other times when she had fainted, although they had been only occasional instances. But she had become ill, growing weaker with each passing months. She had slowly lost her appetite. Her hair had begun to fall out, so that she had begun to wear a shawl.
In the last month she had become so weak of her frame that she had been unable to walk unaided. And then she had died.
The priest continued talking, reading off the piece of paper in his hands, describing what a Christian life Eliza Monk had lived: how she had been well-respected; how she had helped charities; how she had done all manner of good deeds. It almost sounded as though he had known Eliza. But it was all illusion: all of the information concerning Eliza had been provided by Sir Edward. Apart from the odd word on a Sunday the vicar had hardly ever spoken to her at all. He had certainly not known her.
The priest carried on and on, eulogising Eliza. Sir Edward wished that he would just stop talking. He wanted this funeral to be over and done with. He felt as though he was caught in a waking nightmare.
What was the point of life, when that life must one day end? If man was to have eternal life why not have it on Earth, rather than in the Kingdom of Heaven? Edward tried to push such sacrilegious thoughts away. But he found that he could not.
He had prayed, time and again, that Eliza would get better, and that he would not be left alone to face the final years of his life. He had probably spent more time in church, during those last few months of her inevitable decline, than in the rest of his life put together. But God had been deaf to his pleas – deaf, or possibly absent.
No priest had been able to help his wife. They had proved to be as useless as the doctors had been. It had done nothing for his temper to have priests tell him to put his faith in God, or that it was all part of His ineffable plan. Was God’s plan indescribable? Or perhaps there was simply no plan at all. Man had been left to his own devices. There was no plan for him; and there was no assistance from on high. There was only life, and its inevitable end.
“The lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters…”
The eulogies describing Eliza were over. Sir Edward Monk had hardly heard them. He knew what had been written, anyway. He had written them.
“Caw, caw.” The crows were still perched on the roof of the church, still making their representation to the gods. The priest ignored their interruption. He did not miss a single word.
“…He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths if righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me: they rod and they staff they comfort me…”
The words washed over Monk. He did not really hear them, although he was aware that somebody was talking.
It was like he was outside the world, looking in, and that what he saw was not real. It was nothing but some strange dream from which he would awaken.
It was just one more prayer, wasn’t it, this psalm? Why should it be any more effective that the ones which had failed?
“…Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Somewhere in the fugue of his misery Sir Edward Monk became aware that the priest had stopped speaking. Psalm 23 had been one of the favourites of Eliza. But Edward found that he no longer cared for it. He would now forever associate it with her death.
He realised that he no longer really cared that much about anything in the Good Book. He cared nothing for religion at all. He was beginning to suspect that they might all be bunkum.
Edward did not hear the ever-present crows as they made their plaintive cacophony, their avian eulogy. He did not see the dark clouds being carried in by the west wind. He did not notice that the sun had gone in, and everything was now in shadow.
Just a grave, like others in the graveyard. That was what Eliza had asked for, before she had passed away. If Sir Edward had had his way he would have built the grandest tomb for her that the world had ever seen. it would have been of the finest black marble, and people from all around would have come to marvel at its beauty. But that had not been what Eliza had wanted. She had told him that she wanted nothing special, just a tombstone like everybody else. So that was what he was providing for her: A beautiful black marble headstone.
He had bought the plot beside her grave. He would be beside his wife in death, whenever that was. There was a part of him which hoped that it would not be too long. But there was nothing wrong with him. He was older, yes, and perhaps not as strong as he had been in the glory days of his youth. But he was still healthier than many men half his age. His great wealth had helped inure him from some of the problems which the penurious poor faced from day to day. He would never want for food. He would never have to bed down in some flea-infested London flophouse. Wealth had brokered him a long and pleasant life.
But Eliza was still dead.
Sir Edward Monk ignored what was going on beside the grave. He stared into the distance, looking over the heads of the other mourners.
The wind blew into his face. It caressed his face, benumbing it. Sir Edward did not object. He wanted to feel numb. He wanted the outside world to no longer impact on him. He wanted all feelings from it to go away.
He could see clouds in the far distance. They were coming this way. He stared at them, as though they held the answer to life and all its myriad problems.
When he had been a child, long before he had begun inventing things, long before he had met Eliza, he had liked to go out of London into the countryside. He had looked up at the sky, and imagined the clouds to be various things; lions and monsters, castles and the hills of fantastical lands. He had wondered whether there could have been heroes who wandered through the cloud lands of the sky, slaying giants and rescuing fair maidens.
But he had grown up. He knew, now, that clouds were nothing more than water vapour.
“…Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear sister here departed…”
The priest had moved on to the burial internment. Monk did not hear a single word.
“…we therefore commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”
One of the crows moved to his side. He flapped his wings, and looked for a moment as though he was about to fly up into the sky. But he remained on the roof of the church. He remained looking down at the funeral below.
Sir Edward Monk looked up. It was Walker, the Minister for War.
“Do you wish to be left in silence?” Walker asked. He looked concerned. Monk did not know why. There was nothing wrong with his health. It was Eliza who was dead.
Monk noticed that the other mourners had moved away, while he had been lost in thought. There was only him and Walker beside the grave. The coffin had been lowered by velvet ropes into the ground. Clods of earth had been cast down by hand onto the top of the coffin. Monk looked down to see that he held such a clod of earth in his hands. He did not even recall bending down to pick it up.
He threw the piece of dirt into the open grave. It fell onto the top of the coffin. Dust to dust…had the priest intoned those words? Sir Edward did not know. But in the end that was all that we were: nothing but dust and bones.
“Do you wish to be left alone?” Walker asked. Monk realised that some sort of a response was required.
“No.” he said. “I cannot stay here forever, can I? The grave needs to be filled in. Filled in…”
Sir Edward Monk staggered away from the grave of his wife. Walker helped his friend move away, half supporting his old friend.
The crows were still on the roof of the church of St Peter, even though the funeral was over and done. They were charnel birds, after all, even if this was no battlefield, and there were no sweetmeats to steal.
Now that the mourners had moved away from the hole in the ground the gravedigger wandered over, a spade slung over his shoulder. He whistled tunelessly a music hall ditty, as he began to shovel the dirt down into the grave.
It was now really dark in the graveyard, with the grey clouds louring over the stone tombstones. The gravedigger worked as fast as he could. He knew what was coming, and he wanted to get out of there, and into somewhere which had a roof.
It began to rain. The crows flew away.