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Infernal Machines

Hastings, Sussex, early September 1848

“Stay still.”

“For how long?”

“Don’t talk,” Kate insisted, steadying the device on her knee. “It causes a blur. All right… one, two, three, four… there. You may move now.”

“My word.” Phoebe looked up from her needlepoint. “You managed to do this with the children?”

“I did.” Kate smiled at her sister-in-law. “Little Jack was very good. I captured Connie whilst she slept.”

“She’s my sweet angel,” Phoebe sighed. “Are you still going to the workshop this morning?”

“Yes.” Kate glanced at the mantle clock. “Now.” She eased the plate from the device and slipped it into a special envelope. “Maybe we could talk about Hugh Grosvenor later?”

“Of course. I’m sorry we haven’t had time yet. You can tell me more about his engagement offer. Your letters have me wondering about how you truly feel.”

“Hmm… we’ll have to find somewhere with privacy.”

“We will. The kitchen garden.”

“Good! I’ll see you at luncheon.” Kate strode from the parlour to the front hall where her maid waited. “All set, Isabel?”

“Yes, my lady. I have your hat and gloves.”

Kate and Isabel marched briskly down to the waterfront, finding the seaside busy with people, and soon arrived at Jack’s workshop; one of a long stretch of brick warehouses and fish markets. Kate opened the workshop office door and peeked inside. Her brother stood fixated over a drawing on his drafting table. For a moment she considered trying to capture his image, but then judged the contrasting light too strong.

“Come in, Kat.” Jack stepped from his desk with a frown.

“I’ve asked you not to use my old nickname, many times.” Kate entered the office, followed by Isabel.

“You’re tardy.”

“Mere minutes.” Why is he so sulky? “I’m trying to figure out the best process for using your picture maker.”

“They’re inverto camera obscuras. You missed Father. He just left.”

“Oh? Was Mother with him? Where did he go?”

“I expect back to the hotel. No, Jane wasn’t with him. She doesn’t like me, or my work.”

“That’s not so,” Kate half-heartedly protested, aware her parents had taken rooms in a hotel because Jack’s house lacked the necessary guest accommodation, but also because of some tension between him and their step-mother. “If you took the time to explain your inventions, I’m certain she would be very impressed.”

“Father wasn’t.”

“He wasn’t?! But he thinks your weapons are brilliant. He told me so!”

“Only the pistols. Everything else is a waste of time and money.”

“Ah…” Did Father say that? “Well…” I cannot imagine him being so blunt. “You have to prove him wrong.” Is money a concern? “And you will. That’s what today is about!”

“Quite. You’re ready?”

“Ready, aye ready!” Kate replied enthusiastically, trying to dispel her brother’s gloom. “You will one day be a famous locomotionalist!”

Jack led the way into the workshop. Kate felt rather hurt by his lack of response, and worried her youthful ebullience annoyed her brother.

“Be careful of your dress, my lady,” Isabel whispered, stopping at the threshold.

“You have an overcoat for me?” Kate called.

“There.” Jack pointed to a coat rack beside a tool covered workbench without looking back.

Sunlight lanced in the south-facing windows of the cavernous space, revealing clouds of swirling dust motes, and an immense, terrific, and somewhat dismaying jumble of mechanical creations and parts; a forge, a kiln, benches, rows or shelves, carriages, odd wheels, harnesses, barrows, pulleys, tables, crates, ropes, boilers, tarpaulins, cannon, and stacks of leather, wood, and various metal stock.

Kate smiled at the mess, happy to be involved, but tread carefully, fearful of snags and grease that would ruin her outfit. I need a special costume for occasions when I help Jack with his inventions. Something like his clothes. Dark brown wool, or leather. This is no place for silk. She reached the rack and slipped on the cloth overcoat. Kate stood almost as tall as Jack, and found the fit adequate, folding up the cuffs once, but noted the spread of her skirt wasn’t completely covered. She then moved with more confidence through the workshop, finding Jack at the far end filling a toolbox, amidst a dozen transport conveyances in various stages of assembly or repair.

Goldworthy Gurney’s steam carriage, circa 1828, making the London to Bath run.

“What have you done to Mr. Gurney’s locomotive coach?” Kate asked upon seeing the machine in pieces. It was the first steam-powered vehicle she had ever driven, Jack having acquired it from Sir Charles Dance when Kate was five years of age.

“I’m finished learning from it. I’ve pulled it down for parts. Some are on the carriage you’ll pilot today.”

“Which is it?”

“The one at those doors.” He pointed.

Kate strolled along the line of vehicles to a pair of large barn doors. There were two pairs of doors at this corner of the shop, a set opening to the beach, the other set opening to a broad alley and the neighbouring warehouse. The vehicle looked raw and incomplete. It was small, constructed of bare rough-cut lumber, wrought iron, and rust-spotted steel. Hmmpf! Not very presentable. Kate looked back at the beautifully crafted parts of the Goldsworthy Gurney Steam-Carriage discarded by her brother in unloved piles. I hope Jack will be putting some finish onto the woodwork at least. Heigho! What’s all this? Her attention was drawn to several other collections of machinery, which included wing-like structures. “Jack?” Kate called. “Are you experimenting with flyology again? This looks like something Lady Lovelace drew up.”

“No, no…” Jack approached, loaded with tools and notebooks, spectacles riding on his forehead. “I bought all that from a couple of engineers in Chard, last month. One of them is going to America, so they were selling off much of their equipment.”

“You were in Chard?” That’s only about five leagues south of Taunton. “And you didn’t visit us? Why not?”

“There wasn’t time. I was busy with the engineers, and some experiments. They’ve crafted some excellent engines – very light in weight. Their design isn’t anything like Lady Lovelace imagined, except a portion of the wing structure.”


Jack handed Kate a couple notebooks and loaded his tools into the back of the carriage. Kate drifted to the front, where Isabel now stood waiting. A knock sounded at a door.

“Open those please,” Jack called.

Isabel quickly unlatched the doors and rolled one back. A sturdy man appeared in the sunshine, attired in rough clothing, and rolled the other door open. He removed his cap.

“Ma’am. Ma’am.” He bobbed his head, not making eye contact.

“Kate, do you remember Mr. Lane?” Jack asked from the shadows.

“Of course.” Kate smiled at the teamster. “Good morning, Mr. Lane. This is my maid, Isabel.”

“Ma’am. Ma’am.” He repeated, his head bobbing, shuffling towards Jack. “Can we shift it, Sir?”

Jack nodded in reply. Mr. Lane stepped lively outside, returned with a teen who was a youthful double of the teamster, and they pushed the carriage while Jack steered. A few high metallic squeals wailed from the contraption as it started to roll. Kate and Isabel stood aside, then followed into the alley. They watched Mr. Lane and his son attach ropes from the carriage to their wagon, to which a team of docile draught horses waited patiently. Soon ready, Isabel climbed onto the back of the wagon, Kate took the driver’s position of the steam-carriage, and Jack moved to the rear and continued his tinkering. Mr. Lane walked the horses out of Hastings, away from the sea. Curious townspeople stopped in their daily chores to watch them pass by, and wonder at the conversation between the Beaufort siblings.

“This tiller seems quite stiff,” Kate said, steering jerkily behind the wagon.

“I’ve attached it to the front axle with a fork of my own design,” Jack replied. “Not too ponderous?”

“A bit.” That’s a polite understatement. “What is this wheel?”


“This brass one by my right knee.”

“That’s the throttle. You turn it clockwise to increase speed, anti-clockwise to slow.”

“Aha, you feel the pilot should control the speed?” You finally agree with me?

“The engineer still has a master valve,” Jack replied firmly. “I have overall control.”

“Why haven’t you painted the body?”

“Paint?! Paint can wait. I have much greater concerns. This is a test chassis.”

At least the foot and dashboard could be red, or green. I would paint it. Kate punched the bench upholstery and noticed the quality leather and soft padding. “The seat is fine. What is this lever for?”

“Which lever?”

“This one.” Kate pointed.

“I call that a skid brake.”

“What does it do?”

Thus the exchange continued as they meandered into the green hills and valleys north of town, Jack fiddling about with his engine, Kate studying the drawings in his notebooks while remaining alert to steer around bends in the lane.

“I’m coming out next spring,” Kate said, starting a new thread of conversation.

“Phoebe told me,” Jack mumbled while staring at a dial.

“So you can take me on the grand tour we’ve always talked about! I thought we could travel south through France and Spain, then onto Italy, then perhaps Malta? Greece, then Egypt? Grandfather would meet us?”

“Have you written to Grandfather?”

“I have – over a month ago. I addressed it to the Government House post in Bombay.”

“I’ve… heard from him.”

“You have?”

“Yes. Through… from a mutual acquaintance in London. He’s been out to China again, currently in Burma.”

“I wonder if someone will forward my letter?”

“They’ll probably hold it for him. I believe he is expected back in Bombay by November.”

“That’s good. It would be nice to meet him in Egypt. I cannot wait to see… why are we stopping?”

“This is our proving ground!” Jack announced. “Now I’ll light the boiler.”

Kate climbed down from the seat and was joined by Isabel beside the narrow roadway. They looked left and right along mossy stone walls and ancient trees, no farms or cottages in sight. While the teamsters freed the steam-carriage and Jack lit the kindling, the ladies found a broad opening through a wall and wandered in a small wood, finding a private thicket to relieve themselves, then returned to the lane. Black smoke roiled out the chimney while small white puffs shot from a side valve on the boiler.

Basic cinder glasses, circa 1850.

“How long?” Kate called over the growl and hiss of the fire and steam, looking up at her brother, who now wore cinder goggles and some smears of soot on his face.

Jack squinted at a gauge, banged on the water reservoir, spun the flywheel, peered inside the firebox, scooped in some coal, then turned to his sister. “Ten minutes,” he said, lifting the goggles from his eyes.

“Do you have spectacles for me?” Kate asked.

Jack popped open a small chest, pulled out several pairs of gauntlets, and a pair of dusty plain goggles with an elastic strap. Isabel wiped them off, then Kate tested the fit. The steel mesh at the side of the lenses seemed bent out of shape; Kate fiddled with them. Why are these so neglected? The lenses are cloudy with grime. She could see Jack’s goggles were excellent, of leather and polished brass construction, with grey tinted lenses. Next time I’ll insist on new spectacles! I suppose I might not need them… Jack is certainly in greater danger – working with the boiler. But engineers, firemen, even passengers on locomotives wear spectacles. Maybe no sparks–

“Get to your position!” Jack ordered, ripping Kate from her speculations.

“What should I do?” Kate asked, scrambling to her seat, acrid smoke invading her nose, as the engine made some pinging noises.

“We’ll go to a crossroads not too far off, turn around, then come back here – if everything works properly.”

Jack’s last comment unsettled Kate a bit. Or… walk back? Or… explode? Or… crash? This is exciting! She donned her goggles and grinned at Isabel.

“Be careful, my lady,” Isabel called, her brow furrowed.

“Not to worry,” Kate replied breezily, displaying as much confidence as she could, her insides tightening, but then sat bolt upright and grabbed the tiller when the carriage rolled a fraction.

“I’ve engaged the drive wheel and released the main brake,” Jack said. “The steam is up, and I’ve opened the master valve. You may take control, Kate!”

Kate carefully placed her hand on the throttle wheel and tried to turn. It wouldn’t budge. She grasped the wheel and made it turn, stiff at first, then smoother, completing one full rotation. With a puff and hiss the carriage began to crawl forward.

“Excellent!” Jack yelled.

Kate peeked over her shoulder to see what her brother was doing, and saw him scribbling in a notebook, framed by a swirl of black smoke, punctuated by glowing orange cinders. She concentrated on the way ahead, taking the tiller with both hands, steering left and right into ruts.

A simple single-piston steam engine.

“This is excellent!” Jack yelled again. “My engine is working perfectly!”

“We aren’t going very quickly,” Kate observed, glancing sideways at Isabel who kept even with the carriage by walking along the side of the lane.

“Open up the throttle,” Jack ordered.

Kate turned the wheel a full rotation and hunkered over the tiller, expecting a dramatic increase is speed, but the carriage only rolled a little faster.

“Now close the throttle,” Jack said.

Kate did as instructed. The carriage slowed, shuddered, stopped. Excess steam hissed loudly from the relief valve, causing Isabel to jump and run away. The engine started pinging again. The firebox roared as Jack added more coal.

“I’m releasing the main brake again,” he yelled above the noise. “Let’s go!”

Kate opened the throttle two full rotations. The carriage rolled, aided by a small downwards slope, gaining speed, but then slowed as it entered a mud puddle.

“More throttle!” Jack ordered. “More!”

Kate grabbed the wheel and rapidly rotated it three times. The engine pinged, the carriage shuddered, the drive wheel squealed, and the speed increased. They cleared the mud and shot smoothly along the lane. Kate glanced at the passing trees and thought they might be reaching a low canter. This is going well! She steered into what appeared to be the best ruts and spotted another puddle in their path. It’s to the side. I can go around that one. Kate pushed the tiller and felt it fight back. A little shift made a greater change in direction, but every bump seemed to change the entire attitude of the carriage, and the tiller jumped in Kate’s hands like a violently thrashing fish. This cannot be right! Kate turned the throttle wheel closed three turns, aimed the carriage past the puddle and, as the speed declined, attempted more accurate steering.

“What’s wrong?” Jack asked. “Why are we slowing?”

“Just give me a moment,” Kate replied. Feeling pressured and hot, she opened the throttle one rotation and grasped the tiller, her palms sweaty within her gloves. The roadway widened, emboldening Kate, so she increased speed, not fighting the tiller but letting the wheels follow the ruts. She saw the crossroads ahead and without waiting for instructions closed the throttle. Steam whistled from the relief valve. Kate heard a groaning sound and the carriage shuddered.

“Ah!” Jack exclaimed. “Apply the skid brake!” He reached over the seat to pull back on the lever beside Kate.

They came to a stop in the middle of the intersection. Kate pulled her goggles down around her neck and stood, surveying the lanes, stonewalls, and mud puddles.

“We’ll turn around here,” Jack said.

“Hmm…” Kate perceived a slight incline in the lane to her right. “Release the brake,” she told Jack while resuming her seat. She opened the throttle, put the tiller hard over to the left, and they turned and crawled up the incline. By closing the throttle the carriage then rolled backwards into the crossroads again, the drive wheel rattling, steam hissing.

“Can you navigate this turn?” Jack asked dubiously, a large puddle in the way.

“No.” Kate climbed down from her seat. “Help me!”

Jack joined Kate at the front of the carriage and they pushed it farther back through the intersection.

“Don’t roll as easily on dirt,” Jack muttered.

“No,” Kate gasped, straining with every muscle. “I think something about the size of a horse would be better. For pushing, steering, stopping…”

“Let’s open up the throttle fully on the way back,” Jack said, already resuming his position beside the engine, checking the water level. “Once we get through that puddle and up the slope, close the throttle and apply the skid brake.”

“All right. But if the steering is wild I’ll slow down.”

“The steering is wild?”

“Yes. As we increase speed.” Kate took her seat. “I’ll tell you more about it later. I have some other suggestions for you.”

The return drive started as planned, and Kate felt more confident. With the throttle full open, they reached a high canter speed.

“Imagine something that would go a gallop!” Kate called over her shoulder. “And could keep going much longer than a horse! Maybe a narrow machine, for better navigation?”

“I’ll consider it,” Jack yelled back.

Kate focused ahead, through her grimy lenses, and suddenly discerned a flock of sheep filling the lane, Isabel wildly waving her arms, an elderly shepherd with his mouth hanging open. Eek! Kate imagined a blood-curdling scene of singular woolly carnage. We must stop! She instinctively pulled back on the tiller, like she would with reins.

“Arrgh!” Kate grabbed the throttle wheel and started closing it, but the tiller jerked in her hand and she had to hold on tight. “Jack!” she yelled, panicked, and reached for the (too far away) skid brake lever. “Jack! Disengage the drive wheel! Stop us!”

Kate returned to closing the throttle and at the same time spotted the broad opening in the wall she and Isabel had gone through earlier. She used her entire body to push the tiller hard over. The carriage jumped as the front wheels bucked out of the ruts. Kate managed to reach the throttle again and turned it frantically. Jack loomed over her to pull back the lever of the skid brake. They slid and tipped sideways, careened off something, bounced into a tree, then hopped to a stop, black smoke billowing all around, the engine pinging, steam whistling.

Kate, having found herself airborne a few times but always landing in the seat, jumped down and ran around the carriage to check on her brother. She found only a mass of spilt papers and coal.

“Kate! Kate!” Isabel sprinted to her wild-eyed. “My lady! Are you hurt?”

“I think I’m fine,” Kate replied, all a tingle, her muscles taut. “But I’ve lost Jack!”

“Lost him?! How could you lose him?”

“I don’t know!”

Both ladies spun around in circles, looking up in the trees through the smoke.

“Well… ow…” Jack said, crawling from some brush, his cinder goggles askew, “that was… most enlightening.”