A Fiction Friday a day early, Gentle Reader, as tomorrow promises to be All Academic Writing, All the Time. Please enjoy another story in the Becoming Universe, a tale of Cleone Darling more grown up. As always, feedback is requested and greatly appreciated.
***Cleone Darling Covington Meets the Hand of a God at the Roman Baths (1860)***
As a rule, Cleone Darling Covington was an anxious woman, and a distressed one. Her husband, Lord Covington, would tease her about her anxieties, press her to come to bed, come to bed, avoid the mad scribblings in her purple notebook. But she could not stop them, especially now, with the warmth and heartbeat growing in her belly.
It was coming, she knew. The Becoming that was not to be hers.
Restless once more, she left the quiet snoring of her new husband—and in the middle of the day! how the servants will talk of her shamelessness!—and tiptoed to the library. Cleone was quite impressed with what the home had to offer. She saw novels by Miss Austen, by the Brontës three, by Mrs. Gaskell and Mr. Dickens. Volumes of poetry by Keats and Byron, by Shakespeare, by L.E.L. Prose by the dozens, including essays by Mr. Johnson, Mr. Swift, Miss Martineau, and several works by names Cleone was beginning to understand as radicals desirous of the women’s vote. It was here, between a slim volume of Felicia Hemans and a larger volume of Alexander Pope, that Cleone had stashed her a violet stained cover.
She pulled the book out. She felt faint the moment she touched it, but she did not turn away. Some spark of memory surfaced in her mind when she felt the cover. “Emmeline,” she said in a whisper. “Emmeline Darling Covington.” With that name, an association, of violet dress and long white hair.
She traced a finger over the silver words. Cassandra Redux. She turned to a random page in the book and read the phrase, “the Last before the Last.” Her eyes had just begun to trip down the page, when there was a knock on the door.
Cleone’s eyes darted up. Jess, her lady’s maid stood in the doorway, her expression concerned. “M’lady,” she said, bobbing another curtsy. “There is someone here to see you.” She walked forward to hand Cleone a card.
Cleone glanced down at the name. “Argus Mab,” she read aloud. “Whoever could he be?”
“I am an investigator,” a male voice said by the door. “A Mr. Sanders led me to understand you would be here.”
“Oh,” Cleone said. “I see.” She turned to Jess. “Thank you. That will be all.”
“M’lady,” Jess began, but at the shake of Cleone’s head, she curtsied and left.
Cleone turned to face the intruder, and found him peculiar. He was not familiar. Not in the slightest. In fact, Cleone could say with great certainty that she had never seen the gentleman before in her life. However, there was an air about him that felt familiar. Perhaps the glasses settled on the skull, or the additional, smaller lenses attached to the left side of the frames hearkened a memory for Cleone. She clutched the violet volume in her hand and felt the faintness coming on again. She steeled herself against it. “Sir,” she said. “I confess I do not know why you should be looking for me.”
“My employer,” he said. He walked into the room and, with one sweep of his eyes, took everything in: the books, the marble bust on the mantle, Cleone’s disheveled dress, the book in her hand. “Without a name, it was rather difficult, but Mr. Sanders found you, nonetheless.”
Cleone had had, to be quite honest, quite enough of Mr. Sanders and his tattletales. Her husband’s solicitor knew better than to allow random strangers information. She felt something gnaw at her belly and she felt her earlier anxiety rise again. To experience the hunger again, so quickly? It had never happened thus. It was days between the episodes, at the least. Usually, it was weeks, sometimes even entire months. But in less than a day? Never had it happened thus before.
As Argus Mab approached, Cleone backed herself to the windows, and then again around so her back was to the doorway. The gentleman, to be fair, looked puzzled by her movements. “I wish you no harm, m’lady. Merely, I would like to speak with you. I have several questions for you, to see if you are the woman my employer has been looking for.”
“And who is this employer?” Cleone asked.
At this, the gentleman seemed to falter. “That is none of your concern,” he said.
Cleone, however, had noticed his hesitation. “You were employed by post,” she said in a soft voice. “Mr. Sanders your only contact. All communiqués occur via post.”
“Just so, Miss,” the man said. He took a step closer to her and she backed away, through the doorway. He adjusted one of the lenses down to gain a better look at her. “M’lady, why are you running away?”
Cleone did not like those microscopic lenses, and the insect-like wires that held them. “I do not like strangers,” she said. “I do not like strangers touching me.”
The man looked truly taken aback. He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes before placing them back on again. “I’ve not touched you. I have no intention of touching you. M’lady, I don’t know what you think my plans are, but—”
“Stop!” Cleone fell against the doorway, her arms clutched around her stomach. “Stop!”
Argus Mab realized she was not talking to him. He moved closer, but still, did not touch the woman. “Can I help?”
She doubled over. “No,” she said. “No, no, no.” The Episode was coming, and he had not even touched her. How could an Episode come without benefit of touch? Never had it happened thus. Cleone repeated the phrase in her head over and over, like prayer. Never had it happened thus.
She tried to will it away. She fumbled through the hall, the air in the home stifling and oppressive. Everything she touched felt wrong and willed, as if information would soon come pouring out. She cried out as she touched a marbled bust and knew, in an instant, it was thousands of years old. Never had it happened thus, she repeated in her head. Not with objects. Not with things. Never had it happened thus.
Cleone pushed open the front door and tumbled out of the home, running almost to the ha-ha that surrounded the Crescent before she stopped to see two, three, four persons scattered across. “Eyes,” she said, and glanced over her shoulder at Argus, who had followed her outside. “All of them your eyes. A hundred of them.”
“M’lady?” he asked. Then he looked around and saw them. “I employ watchers.” He shook his head and walked closer to Cleone. “It is part of my profession, please.”
And it came. The Episode. Hard and fast and so overwhelming that Cleone fell to the ground. When Argus caught sight of her eyes, he gasped. A thousand dots of light on a black velvet canvas darker than the pits of Tartarus. When those eyes fell on Argus, she began to shake. “Eyes in palms, back of hands. Still, you do not know your employer. Eyes on arms, eyes on chest, and eyes all around the city. A hundred eyes, all bearing down, and still, you do not see what is happening.” She tripped as she tried to stand, but when Argus moved to help her, she hissed him away.
“Do not!” she said, and staggered to her feet. “Do you not understand the danger?”
“No,” he said. His true distress was apparent in his voice, his stance, his pleading eyes. “Please, let me help you. I did not mean to frighten you.”
But she no longer paid any attention to him. She scanned the open lawn, darting her eyes over the grass, the decorative fronts of buildings, the starry sky overhead. “Air will be empty,” she said, her voice wondrous. “The air will be empty.” She opened her arms, palms held outward, and spun three times. “Too much space between the nothing. The chairs will dusty with disuse. Where will they all go?”
“The air is full.” Argus’s voice shook with his fear. “Full of stars.”
Cleone knelt down and placed her hands on the grass before her. She tapped along as if blind, feeling for truth. “The earth, too, will be vacant. The Hearth empty and cold. No fire there, to keep us warm. The Earth is crying out for her Mother. She will be gone. She is…” her voice trailed off. “Water,” she said of a sudden, and began running across the lawn.
“M’lady!” Argus called after her. “M’lady!”
Cleone heeded nothing in her quest. She ran straight to the city center without delay and without stop. She ran straight to the city center with clear purpose and did not stop until she reached the Roman Baths.
How she entered the structure, Argus did not know. He saw no keys, no forced entry, no guard to have let her in. But there, the door stood open, and soon enough, he found himself walking along the Great Bath, the moonlight dancing with the shadows on the water. The smell of metal and mineral lay thick in the air, and despite the cool air, the area nearest the pool was thick with warm and humidity.
Cleone Brooke, however, was nowhere to be seen. “Hello?” he asked. His voice echoed against the stone. “Hello?” he said again. “M’lady?”
“There are dozens of tablets here,” a voice said in the darkness. “Throughout the Baths.”
“Oh?” he asked. “How do you know?”
“When I visited with my husband, we were shown. Do you know what they say?”
“No,” he said. “What do they say?” He circled further into the darkness. And there he saw her.
Cleone stood before a marble statue at least eight feet tall. The head was covered with a helmet, robes draped over the body. In one hand, a sword.
The statue was, in a word, beautiful. Partly terrifying, yes, but that was to be a large component of its beauty. The warlike stature, the roar just behind the lips, the beautiful, benevolent eyes. This was a statue of a wise warrior.
“The tablets are curses, warnings to Roman clothing thieves,” she said in a soft voice. She stared up at the statue in front of her. “Left for the goddess Minerva to read and punish the wicked.”
“There is no God but the one true God,” Argus said.
“For Britain, yes, but for them, there was no God,” Cleone said. “There were many gods. Yet there is no such thing on this earth.”
Argus took a step toward her. “What thing?” he asked.
“I thought it was she,” Cleone said. “For a moment, I saw her. I… I saw her, and thought it was she. But it is merely a statue, and a poor representation at that.” She paused for a moment as she gazed at the statue’s face. “A representation. Is it a mere representation?”
“It is a likeness,” Argus said. “A statue of a god in whom no one believes any longer. A warrior. Ares or Mars or King Arthur.”
Cleone shook her head and smiled. “No,” she said. “It is Minerva. Did you not study your mythology? The Romans called her Minerva, but to the Greeks, she was Pallas Athena.” The smile fell from her face, bit by bit. “The Grey-Eyed One,” she whispered. “Yes, of course. The likeness is there.” She turned to look at Argus. “In the eyes.”
“M’lady,” Argus said. “What is your obsession with eyes?”
“Eyes are to see. Yours see by the hundred. I certainly cannot see, but… but I feel an emptiness. I feel three emptinesses. I feel them here.” And she pressed a hand to her heart. “But I do not know what they mean.” She turned back to the statue. “Pallas Athena would know,” she said. “Her wisdom is boundless.”
Argus, it must be said, was rather disturbed by the odd woman before him. He had been warned that the girl he was looking for was odd. He had not expected this. Whatever he had expected, it was not this. “What will be empty?”
“She will know,” Cleone said. She lifted a hand and touched the statue. Then she shivered, long and full. “She who is called Light and the Bringer of Doom. She will know.”
She turned of a sudden to face him again, and he saw that her eyes had returned to normal. “It has never happened thus,” she said.
“The Episodes. They have never occurred without touch, or dream. Never in waking, and never in solitude. This was something rather new.” She bit her bottom lip to keep it from quivering. “I do not understand. Do you not see how little I understand?”
Argus, despite his better judgment, found himself sympathizing with the young girl before him. She was so young, and so despairing that he walked over to comfort her before he could stop himself.
He did not stop himself. Rather, a peacock, strutting across his path, did.
He and Cleone both stared in awe at the male bird, its tail displayed in all its finery. Argus was amazed at such a thing before him. It was beautiful. It was uncanny. It did not belong here.
Cleone, it would seem, was instead horrified by its appearance. “Its eyes, Mr. Mab. Do you not see? How many eyes it has.”
“It has only two,” he said.
She shook her head and pointed a trembling hand at the tail. “The eyes were taken from the guard and placed on the peacock as an honor. It was an honor.” She paused and turned to Argus. “With all of your eyes, there is not one to see who they are.”
“Who do you mean?” Argus asked.
“The representations,” Cleone said. “Nature.” Here, she gestured to the statue. “Magic.” She gestured at the peacock between them. “Clever.” Her voice was soft. “How very clever. I did not expect this at all.”
“Expect what, M’lady?” Argus snapped to himself and glanced around. He was in the Roman Baths, late at night, with a disturbed young woman and a peacock. Even he could see the dire consequences spreading before him. “I just have a few questions. That is all. And then I will let you go on your way.”
Cleone’s head shot up and she walked to him. She gripped his face between both her hands before he even knew what was happening. “Argus Mab, he of the hundred eyes, why even now is your employer clouded from me?” She leaned forward and rested her forehead against his. He tried to pull away but she held fast. “She will be called the Last,” she said. “There will be a poem entitled ‘The Last before the Last.’ And that poem will be of me.”
“M’lady, I believe you are hysterical.”
Cleone face melted into a sympathetic look. “Yes,” she agreed. “Perhaps I am.” She walked back to the peacock. It ignored her until she reached and plucked a feather from its tail. It squawked and turned to peck her hand. “I deserved that,” she said to the peacock, and bowed. “My apologies, but I do need this. I promise.”
The peacock squawked again and ran off, disappearing into the shadows.
“Come with me,” Argus said. “I can get you help. There is a hospital…” his voice trailed off at the look on her face.
“Tell your employer you found me. Tell your employer that I spoke nonsense, nonsense about clothing thieves and statued representations.” Cleone’s voice rang out against the ancient marble. “Tell your employer that you believe I am mad.”
“Why should I tell my employer this?” he asked.
Cleone smiled. “For two reasons, Argus Mab. The first is because it is the lie. The truth is that I am close, closer than your employer would like, I believe.”
“And the second?” he asked.
With this, she walked over to him. Cleone placed her lips next to his ear and whispered ten words. Argus’s bottom lip trembled and a slow smile spread on his face. “Are you certain?” he asked when she pulled away.
“Nothing is certain,” she said. “It is but one possibility. But if that possibility is tried, then yes, certainty is one viable result.”
“It would mean walking away from everything,” he said. “Not just my employer. My livelihood. Everything I know.”
“For everything you love. Is that not a fair trade-off?”
“But… France?” he asked. “Are you certain?”
She nodded. “Yes. Go to America, Argus, and ask her to go with you.”
“And what of you?” the investigator asked. “What are you to do?”
Cleone stared down at the peacock feather in her hand. “I must warn her,” she said in a quiet voice. “As soon as I find her.”
“Find whom?” Argus asked.
A secret little smile played on Cleone’s face. “The Light. The Harbinger of Doom. If she is even born yet. If she is even born.”
“Warn her about what?” Argus asked.
Cleone glanced up at him with haunted eyes. “War is coming, Sir. Best you away to France before the gods rain war down on London.”
Then she turned on her heel and walked away, leaving Argus Mab open-mouthed, confused, and trespassing on ancient ground.
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