The zombie lurched out of the yellow fog and reached for the door on Alice’s hansom cab. Alice Michaels shied away.
Driver!” she shouted.
I see it, miss.” The driver leaned down from his seat above and behind Alice and cracked the zombie smartly across the forearms with his carriage whip. The zombie groaned. Its face was a mass of open sores, and its skin had worn through in places, exposing red muscle beneath. Old rags barely covered its body. Fear and adrenaline thrilled through Alice’s veins as the zombie’s festering arm reached through the open sides of the cab. She pushed herself away from it, but there wasn’t much room in the little two-wheeled cab, and The Dress hindered her movements. The driver lashed down with the whip again. The zombie abruptly let the cab go, and the driver smacked the reins across the horse’s rump. Alice clutched a handle inside the cab as it bounced across the cobblestones, the wheels pounding as hard as her heart. Despite herself, she turned on the leather-covered seat and looked out the rear window. The zombie was already fading into the night and mist.
A particularly rough bounce jolted Alice to her teeth. You can slow down now,” she called. It’s gone.”
The driver obeyed, and Alice resettled The Dress about her. The Dress was a deep violet affair with multiple flounces, fashionably puffed sleeves, and a short matching shawl to ward off the damp spring chill. The layers formed a heavy shell around her, concealing her pounding heart and shaking knees beneath a veneer of smooth satin. It had cost Father an enormous sum, and Alice realized she had been more afraid of the zombie’s tearing The Dress than of the creature’s touching and infecting her.
You all right, miss?” the driver called down from his seat.
I’m fine. Thank you for fending it off.”
The driver touched the brim of his high hat, and Alice realized she was required to tip him extra. She made a mental inventory of the coins in her purse and decided she could do it, but only if the driver on the return trip would be willing to wait while she ran into the house for tuppence. It would make her look foolish, but there was nothing for it.
Yellow gaslights lit the London evening as the horse clopped through winding streets, the driver keeping carefully to the better-traveled avenues. Other carriages and cabs pulled by horses both living and mechanical joined them. Overhead, Alice heard the faint whup-whup-whup noise of a dirigible’s propellers, and its massive, blunt shape made a black spot among the misty stars. Restaurants and pubs kept their doors open and their windows litlights kept the zombies at bay. Smells of coal smoke, manure, and wet wool permeated the air. People strolled in couples or groups on the sidewalks, heading to or from concerts, plays, parties, celebrations, and other social events. It was a Saturday evening in May, and the London spring season was in full swing. Alice watched the men in their dark trousers and coats, and the women in their skirts that belled and swayed with every step, and she wondered what flaws each one was hiding beneath sartorial perfection.
Mere clothing wouldn’t hide Alice’s shortcomings. A new dress couldn’t smooth over the fact that she was still unmarried at the age of twenty-two, or that twelve years ago, her mother and brother had died in the same outbreak of clockwork plague that had left her father a cripple, or that three years ago, Alice had become engaged to Frederick, heir to the Earl of Trent, only to watch the clockwork plague kill him as well. After that, no one wanted anything much to do with the Michaels family. Their fortunes, both monetary and social, had declined sharply. Alice would gladly have found some kind of useful work, but traditional society had long ago decreed that the daughter of a baron was expected to be a lady of leisure, no matter how badly her family might need money, and her family’s history with the clockwork plague precluded her from trying to find a position as a lady-in-waiting. This dance was her last chance to redeem the Michaelses’ social graces.
The cab drew up to a large three-story town house with a cobblestoned courtyard and fountain out front. Electric lights, the new fashion, blazed in all the windows, and a short line of cabs and carriages snaked around the courtyard. Alice checked the pocket watch inside her purse. Nine fifteen. She had arrived late, but not fashionably lateall part of her strategy. The majority of the guests would arrive after ten, and Alice hoped her arrival to a nearly empty ballroom would allow her lack of an escort to go unnoticed, or at least unremarked. Alice’s mother would have been her first choice as escort, of course, and her brother second, but neither of them was available.
While they were waiting in line, Alice paidand generously tippedthe driver so she wouldn’t have to do so in front of her hosts. The daughter of a traditional baron didn’t handle financial transactions, but Alice didn’t have much choice, sitting in the shabby cab she had hired herself. She couldn’t help but notice that many of the other conveyances were richly appointed, private carriages or, at a minimum, hired cabs of a better class than hers. A few were pulled by steam-snorting mechanical horses. The couple directly behind Alice arrived in a rickshaw pulled by a brass automaton shaped roughly like a man. Alice stared thoughtfully at it, trying to trace how the gears underneath its smooth metal skin would be put together, where the pistons would be placed, how the boiler would deliver proper power. It would be so much more interesting to spend the evening pulling the automaton apart and putting it back together than
The woman in the rickshaw glanced at Alice’s little hired hansom, cracked open her fan, and whispered something behind it to her male companion. They both laughed. Alice’s cheeks burned, and she sat rigidly upright in her seat, determined to brazen this out. Father had used up his final favors among certain business contacts to get Alice this invitation, and she wasn’t going to fail him.
At last, Alice’s cab came to the front door. A footman in gold livery helped her down, but she had to walk through the double doors into the house by herself. Light musicall sweet strings in a major keydrifted from the house’s interior. Inside was a large, marble-floored foyer, where a starched servant girl took Alice’s shawl and pointed her toward the main ballroom. Alice, back straight, pleasant smile on her lips, swayed toward the door, where Lady Greenfellow, the hostess, had stationed herself to greet her guests. She was a heavyset woman whose wrinkled face belied her jet-black hair, and her dark green dress wrapped her high and low. Alice extended a gloved hand.
Thank you so much for inviting me, Lady Greenfellow,” she said earnestly.
Of course,” Lady Greenfellow replied. My husband was quite insistent that you should come, on account of your father. And how is dear Arthur these days?”
He’s well,” Alice said.
Wonderful to hear.” The warmth in Lady Greenfellow’s tone was as false as her hair color. How time flies. I still remember that day I found you on the street with those adorable urchins. How long ago was that?”
For a terrible moment, Alice’s hand moved to slap Lady Greenfellow’s wrinkly cheek. Instead, she opened her fan and waved it idly. My impetuous days are long behind me.”
Of course. And you do look lovely tonight.”
Alice hoped that was true. Her honey brown hair was pinned up in the latest style, leaving a single stream of curls trailing down the left side of her face, and her cosmetics were artful enough that no one could tell she was wearing any at all. She had a triangular chin and pert nose, and The Dress hid the fact that her legs and body had grown rather thin in recent months. Her shoes had no heel to conceal her height. Thank you,” she said.
But, my dear”Lady Greenfellow peered over Alice’s shoulder at the foyer behind heryou didn’t even bring a maid! You’re not here on your own, are you? I didn’t think Arthur would allow his daughter to become one of those new Ad Hoc women.”
Not at all. Bridget tripped and sprained her ankle just as we were leaving,” Alice said, giving her prepared lie. A trickle of sweat ran down her back. It was too late to engage another maid, so here I am.”
Lady Greenfellow clicked her tongue. Misfortune does follow you. Well, the ballroom is through there, and sitting rooms are that way. Our supper buffet begins at one.”
Approved and dismissed, Alice nodded with relief and stepped into the main ballroom. The main hurdle was over.
The ballroom was a two-storied affair, with a balcony that ran around the upper half. Lush arrangements of fresh red and white roses covered the balcony rail and hung nearly to the floor below, filling the air with the sweet smells of nectar. The string players were stationed upstairs, their rubber-tipped fingers weaving a soft, melodic tapestry at odds with their hard metal faces. High windows looked out on the city, and an enormous electric chandelierthe showpiece of the houseprovided bright light. Refreshment tables and sitting areas ringed the polished oak dance floor. Barely twenty people wandered among them, every one much older than Alice, who at twenty-two,was fast becoming an old maid. She handed one of her name cards to the...