As You Were, Aggie
(Or: A Fortunate Time for Reflection)
Now, I know it’s out of style to have a gentleman’s personal gentleman lately, what with the rationing inside the Beacon Wall and the outside lands ravaged by grotty beasts and all, but as soon as Keets came around I knew I’d stumbled upon a true jewel of a person, the sort of level-headed managerial creature that comes about only with the millennial aligning of the stars or whatever celestial event it is poets discuss these days.
The day we met I’d spent the morning face-down on my bedspread, attempting to muster the will to arise. My cogitation was interrupted by a shrill ringing which I eventually recognized as the doorbell. I called for my man to answer it, and when the buzzing continued, recalled he was gone without leave. There was nothing for it; I’d have to get up.
I struggled across the flat, catching my foot on the beastly gilded mirror left in the middle of the hall from the events of the night before, and cracked open the door only to be met by a darkish figure that shimmered a bit at the edges.
“Algernon Willems?” the spectre inquired, in an equally dark tone.
“Er, yes? Oh! Are you the new man?”
“After a fashion, sir.”
I blinked a few times, which did nothing to clear my vision, so I stepped aside instead. “Well, good. I’ve got a great big mirror which needs to be hung. Er, what’s your name?”
The mirror in question was an ornate gold leviathan with speckled glass that I’d won in a close game of shuffleboard the previous night, though I’d gotten the odd feeling that the former owner had thrown the match. It had porcelain bits painted ‘round the sides with cherubic faces and winding vines, that sort of old-fashioned knobbly decor, and I couldn’t make up my mind as to whether I fancied it or not; on the one hand, every once in a while there was an off-putting tenebrousness that settled about the reflection inside, but on the other it appeared to be a genuine Rococo. Either way, not an hour after I’d come into possession of the thing my old valet had up and vanished, and no one had seen hide nor hair of him since, which left my place in a bit of a spot, if you follow me. I certainly couldn’t move the giant antique myself; my friends and I had attempted to roll it toward the intended room but had abandoned the effort halfway, so there it sat.
With that transaction concluded I staggered back to bed. The man glided after me, and no sooner had I collapsed onto the sheets than he had thrown open the window curtains in order to let the cruel sun blaze in. I threw my arm over my face and did my determined best to blot the whole mess out.
“It seems to me you could use some protein, sir,” the fellow said, and slid out the room again so quietly that I was half-convinced he’d floated.
I wasn’t sure how long he’d been gone, but apparently it was long enough to take the measure of the entire kitchen, because he reappeared with a glass that he placed, gently, under my nose. It stank, and it contained a sebaceous liquid the color of raw chicken left on the counter a few too many days.
I immediately sat up in alarm. Despite my initial attempt to shield myself from the morning, the heat of the sun did seem to be doing me some good. I almost felt energized, lukewarm blood stirring within me and supporting my upright position for the first time that day, although my head throbbed hideously when I moved. “You don’t expect me to drink that, surely?”
“I do, sir.”
“Well, I won’t.”
“It will cure your current sorry condition, sir.”
Thus assured, I downed the mixture with a minimum of gagging. It tasted faintly of egg and charnel. I swallowed the last drop; the angels chorused—metaphorically speaking—the fog lifted and in its absence descended the revelation that this Keets fellow was in fact a woman, even in the suit and all that. I practically jumped, and then once my jangling nerves had quieted I fixed Keets with an unceasing gaze. She pulled the kerchief from her pocket and silently wiped my eyes. Even that didn’t help, though it did clear some of the night-time sludge. That made it clearer; she was, without a doubt, female.
“Has there been a mix-up?” My voice came out an unintended squawk, my inquiry perhaps a bit more forward than it ought to have been, but even miracles take a moment or two to clear the old noggin. And honestly, here stood a valette in a tailored suit! All the rage somewhere, I’m sure; the bourgeois music-halls off the Hill maybe, but certainly not what I’d expect in my flat.
“Unlikely, sir,” said she, replacing the kerchief as she spoke, and, well, I’m as modern as the next man over so I resolved to make nothing more of it unless something had to be made of it, if you catch my meaning. In any case a person who had the inimitable grasp of such a concoction was all right in my esteem whether they were a bloke, a bird, a dog, or the assorted whatnots outside the Beacon Wall, so long as they didn’t filch my silks.
“Well, you’re engaged, then! The first point of order will be to hang that mirror.” I gestured to it. She fixed the mirror with a look that baffled me for a few moments, until I realized it was naked disdain. Disdain! The mirror deserved better than that; I was certain it was genuine Rococo. I opened my mouth to protest, but she withdrew a folded vellum from her sleeve and handed it to me.
“I happened to intercept this on my way here, sir.”
A mere glance at the words contained chilled me down to my very bones and drove the will to execute the hanging of my new possession directly out of me. It was a telegram addressed from my Aunt Lu; that’s what I call her, anyway, though her full name is Lucasta Millicent Mehetabel, which is bound to trip you up when you’re not careful. If you don’t know her, you ought to count yourself among the lucky few.
The missive read:
Your presence is required at the house. Urgently.
And that was all. But with my Aunt, the fewer the words, the worse the situation. Nothing like a grim, undodgeable directive to extinguish a fellow’s mood, whatever it might be; and not even a question of which house to set out for, no. It had to be her very own stygian abode. I could feel my headache coming on again tenfold.
“There’s nothing for it,” I said, gloom draping over my shoulders like a bitter cloak, and let the telegram flutter solemnly to the floor. “We’re required at Aunt Lu’s immediately. Have you met her?”
“I have, sir.”
“Well, I’m sorry for you then, but at least you know what to expect, I suppose.”
I polished my scutes, slicked my quills, and chose what I fancied to be a rather nice ensemble, a two-piece pastel blue windowpane with a yellow linen shirt and gold scarf, but Keets took one look at the scarf and rejected it. I looked to her scarf choice, then my own.
“And what’s wrong with gold?”
“Nothing in particular, sir.” But there was a quality to her voice—not disapproval, exactly, but not the sort of upbeat agreement I expected.
“Well, I’m wearing it,” I said.
“Very good, sir.”
The assertion wasn’t as victorious as I had assumed it would be, and I felt a bit like I was fencing with air. I straightened the gold scarf ‘round my gills assiduously.
“Er—very good, sir. I mean, yes. Shall we?”
Aunt Lu’s house was a short enough distance away, and it was pleasant enough outside, that I decided to eschew tradition, buck up and walk the whole way there and maybe work off this odd feeling in the meantime. Unfortunately I’d forgotten the grade of the hill—not kind in the slightest—and my lungs burned with regret when we arrived. Keets seemed to be managing; in fact I thought she looked aggravatingly plussed, as though the air had done her some good.
The front door was yanked open before I had the chance to pull the bell cord.
“Aunt Lu?” I gasped, at the appalled doorman.
I shed my coat and hat onto him and ascended the stairs a stout half-step at a time, only pausing outside the door to correct the placement of the quills displaced in my recent marathon. I ducked into the study and there she sat, or perched, tapping her fingers on a monstrous book bound in pale leather; well, I call it a book, but it was really more of a monument to literary excess. I shuddered to imagine what it might contain. It had an air of ineffable seriousness.
“Good afternoon,” I said, hopefully.
“I sent for you in the morning.”
Aunt Lu was a second-generation descendant of the Outsiders, the eldritch aristocracy, as was obvious by her iridescent, slick skin and her frilled crest, half-obscured by an even higher collar—an outfit only pulled off by the surety with which she wore it—a stark contrast to the more aesthetically restrained features and dress of Keets, for example, or of course myself. Lucasta was really more of a great-aunt to me, and held in nearly as high regard as the departed eldritch by nearly everyone for some mysterious reason. In my opinion, the eldritch had immediately cut out after we’d made the deals with them; or so I’d heard, having never seen one myself, which as far as I was concerned was proof enough that they held up their ends of bargains. Unlike a certain personage in front of me who refused to let her long-suffering great-nephew alone for more than a week or two.
“Ah… Come to think of it, so you did.”
“Don’t look so pathetic. I messaged for you because the Ret. Honorable Edward Saltongill is visiting from the other side of town.” Even sitting, though her head barely poked over the desk, she ruled the room with an absolute authority. Just looking at her I felt as though I were a ten-year-old on the other side of a vicious schoolyard beratement, after which it was impossible to muster any sort of objection. I thought longingly of the other side of the door. I was fairly certain her gaze couldn’t penetrate solid oak, though the more I considered it the more likely it seemed that it in fact could.
“Aggie!” she said, sharply. Her voice obliterated my stray thoughts of escape. “Are you paying attention?”
“Sorry, er… Saltongill?” I said. That name twinged a memory with which I was uncomfortably intimate. “Not…?”
“It ought to be familiar, as the Ret. Honorable Saltongill,” she said, the festering jellitude of her voice bubbling forth with sarcasm, “is your own dear Felicia’s eldest brother.”
You see, this sort of misunderstanding was the reason we didn’t get along. I considered myself an optimist, an overall jolly person, while she was a cynic through and through. With so few words she’d dashed my hopes of a peaceful evening. To clarify, Felicia Saltongill and I had been briefly engaged, but only a few days out from the arrangement she’d tried to get me on some sort of improvement course, a whole series of completely impenetrable texts, and we’d ended with a rather dire falling-out over how much one ought to be expected to read in a day; I thought a paragraph or two at most was reasonable, especially of this dense stuff that takes a bit of chewing-over, and she had disagreed vehemently, being the sort of girl who devoured the ridiculous sum of a hundred or more pages a day. Now I’d have to work on dodging her for the entire visit.
“He’s visiting from across town on business; I won’t bore you with the details, as they will pass through one side of your head and right out the other, but I will emphasize that I expect you to be on your sharpest behavior and nothing like your usual self! You need to befriend the man.”
“I’ll do my best, Aunt Lu,” I said, meekly, whereupon she dismissed me and I escaped into the hall. Relief straightened my back and put a little of the old bounce back into my step. I turned the corner—the further I got from the study the better—and something tugged on my sleeve; I about rocketed out of my skin.
The tugger was Felicia herself, which didn’t help my assessment of the situation in the slightest. She had a incredibly fetching profile and extremely wide-set eyes—the reason we’d been engaged, if I’m honest—despite her very dry skin. At this moment she looked a bit shook up, greenish at the tips of her nose and cheeks; feverish, that’s the word.
“Aggie!” she hissed.
“I was hoping your aunt would call you in, and here you are.”
“Eh?” I said, taken aback by this unusual sentiment.
“My brother happened across a tome—did you see it on her desk?”
I wracked my memory until I remembered that hidebound thing Aunt Lu had been leaning on during the whole ordeal. “Yes, she had her hand on a particularly cyclopean volume I recall her saying she’d penned in her youth. Oculus Occultic or some other such nonsense?”
“Yes, that’s the one. Poor Edward took a peek into it this morning—”
“Yes! And he’s been gibbering in bed ever since.”
“I can’t blame him. It looked absolutely effulgent.”
“The book is evil. I took a look myself and my vision began to swim—it has got to be destroyed before anyone else attempts to read it!”
“That shouldn’t be an issue. I’m surprised he got into it at all, what with it belonging to my aunt.”
“I was listening to her speak to a maidservant earlier, and she’s going to donate the loathsome thing to the library.”
“Well, there you go; the problem’s solved itself. No one goes inside that place to read.”
The lamellae visible just above the neckline of her dress flared in a rather unbecoming manner. I was starting to get the idea that she was a bit unjustly irritable about this whole affair, so I changed the subject to something lighter.
“Er, Edward, do you think he’ll recover?”
“I’ve booked a retreat—I expect it will clear him up in a few weeks. We’ll be departing early this evening. Aggie, you need to procure the book and ensure it may never be read again. Can I entrust you with this task?”
“Absolutely not. It’ll bring the wrath of Aunt Lu square down upon my head.”
“I won’t have it.”
“Listen, Aggie;” and she cleared her throat; “—any means at our disposal should be regarded as a bulwark against the evils and misfortunes that occur in the world!”
She must have been quoting someone, to some effect, but I hadn’t the foggiest idea who, or what she was attempting to communicate; typical Felicia.
“No one is going to think oddly of you skulking about your Aunt’s house, but they will certainly notice me!”
Well, that was difficult to refute. In fact the logic seemed spotless no matter how I turned it in my head. And far be it from a born-and-bred Willems to turn down a distressed girl’s plea.
“Oh, very well,” I said. “I suppose I could give it a go.”
And that was how I found myself loitering outside my aunt’s study furtively, the very place I had resolved never to return to, at least by choice. I tried constructing rounds of whist in my head, but all I could think about was the crime I was about to commit and the dire consequences of being caught—being taken off the pension, for example, or having my carefree bachelor lifestyle destroyed with a political marriage. After what crawled by like hours, my aunt exited, and she gave me a very odd look as she passed.
“Is everything all right, Aunt Lu?” I asked, the very picture of pastoral innocence.
“No—the Saltongills are departing early.”
“How startling, not to say unfortunate,” I said.
“I’d think you were behind it, but Edward took ill before you even arrived, unless you’re now capable of projecting your essence ahead of you.”
“Good heavens, no. That sounds exhausting.”
“That’s what I thought. Go on, see them out.”
“Oh, right now?”
“Surely you heard me the first time.”
“Ah—probably—er—yes, I’ll be right out, I need to—polish.”
I waited for her to jaunt off down the hall—it didn’t take long—glanced up and down the hall to be sure it was clear of staff, and then slipped back into the study. I picked up the book. It slipped free, being both heavier and slicker than I had imagined, and hit the desk with a resounding bang. I cringed, but no alarms were called and no boot-steps beat their way towards me, so I lifted it again, with care. There! I held the ghastly tome in my very own hands. And to think I had doubted my own abilities. Now all I had to do was be rid of it; the simple part, correct?
No. I was wrong. It was unmistakably the book it was, identifiable on sight by anyone who so much as glimpsed it out the corner of their eye. I clutched it to my chest and hurried down to the coat-closet. I took a quick gander out the entrance window. Everyone—servants, Aunt Lu, Felicia, and Edward Saltongill, who I had to admit did look in a bit of a bad way, what with the frothing—was still outside, clustered around a cab.
I carefully wrapped the book in my overcoat, patted the bundle for luck and rushed outside to stand next to my aunt and wave the Saltongills off.
As she boarded the cab, Felicia threw a look back at me. It was gratitude. Mortified, I raised my hand and smiled weakly in her general direction until the cab had rolled out of sight. Soon after, my aunt having retired to her room from the excitement, Keets and I took the quick stride back to my flat; downhill, which was all right, me clutching the accursedly weighty corpus delicti to my chest. I didn’t have long before she checked her study.
As soon as we got inside the flat I dumped the thing on the table. “There!” I cried. “Keets, you need to help me—I have to be rid of it.”
Keets hovered at my elbow. “Your aunt’s book, sir? An unusual reading choice for your disposition.”
“No, I wouldn’t read the thing. Felicia Saltongill asked me to dispose of it before it was donated to the library, and here it is.”
“Any particular reason, sir?”
“I don’t know; supposedly her brother’s episode was brought on by it.”
“I will think on it, sir.”
“Well, let me know.”
I hauled it to the other room and sprawled across my favored armchair with the book. Edward had seemed off, I’ll grant you, but who could say if it stemmed from the book or merely from prolonged exposure to my aunt’s presence? A glimpse couldn’t hurt. I opened the book; yes, there was the title, yes, my esteemed aunt’s name, and so on; I skipped ahead to some section in the middle. Not only was it chocked full to the brim with antiquarian dialect, but the sentences were all jotted in a such a tiny hand you could hardly tell the a’s from the e’s, and never you mind the p’s and q’s. I squinted at it and I swear, without exaggeration, this is what I made out:
The mere colloquial deception of accepted existence obfuscates the verisimilitude of an entirely realized actuality. Once that facade is abolished, one may at last embrace, nay, revel in the absent cerebrations of the immeasurable eternal revealed within.
No wonder she wanted to be rid of the book! If the entire thing resembled that, poor Edward had probably gone mad trying to decipher the section headings alone. Try as I might I couldn’t wrap my head ‘round the least of it. I hoisted the book in my hands—good lords, it had the heft of a toddler. Guilt started to weigh upon me. Suppose my aunt found out—she’d disown me. What to do, burn it? In the middle of summer? The smoke would be suspicious. Eat it? It must have been a thousand pages!
The doorbell rang.
I slammed the book under the table, so distraught that I forgot entirely about Keets and answered the door myself. It opened to empty air. I was about to close it again when there was a violent sound not dissimilar to a coffee grinder from about chest-height. I glanced down. None other than my Aunt Lu’s stalwart figure blocked the doorframe. I just about fainted then and there; I rollicked back on my heels and my vision crowded up with those little black wriggly spots.
“Have you seen my book?” she said, without so much as a glimmer of the traditional greetings one affected when one came visiting.
“Your book?” I repeated, at a loss. It seemed as though she had been so livid that she had perambulated here.
“The one I wrote? On my desk! I was donating it to the library today, or I intended to before the Saltongills departed abruptly, and you were the last one seen in the room with it!”
“Well—whatever would I want a book for?” I said, with a shaky laugh, certain that my knees were about to jellify and send me sprawling across the hardwood floor.
“I was hoping you would tell me.”
“Er… no, I don’t think I’ve seen it at all. Which book was it, again?”
“Algernon Willems, there are many crucial traits of personhood that you lack entirely, and artful lying is chief among them.” She shoved—yes, shoved!—past me and into the sitting-room. I’m afraid I made a bit of a cry and fell upon the door, causing it to slam. Aunt Lu took this as some sort of horrible invitation and began to pull open all of my drawers, two at a time, flinging my possessions about as though they’d been caught in a hurricane.
“Now—Aunt Lu! You can’t just come into my flat and turn everything over! I’ve got it all ordered!”
“And you’re going to do—what? Stop me?” She paused just long enough to pin me with a withering stare that seemed about set to freeze my insides. Trembling, I grasped the arm of the nearest chair and sat down slowly, helpless but to watch her ransack my flat, the one safe and quiet haven in my life. At the sound of ripping, I covered my face and pretended that the knocking of furniture upon floor was instead the clacking of a friendly round of shuffleboard.
There was a moment of silence. I uncovered my eyes to pure chaos; tables had been flipped, feathers hung in the air, even the piano had been wrenched open. Her back was retreating into the next room, the room I’d hid the book in, tossed under the nightstand. Supposing I might as well accept my fate, I wandered in after her, though I couldn’t bear to view the trail of destruction in her wake. The first thing I noticed was that during the row in the other room Keets had finally hung my gilded mirror up on the wall, and it looked splendid there, though it did drain the color out of the rest of the room as though it were an irridescent sponge. The mirror wasn’t a book, so Aunt Lu ignored it entirely. When her onslaught reached the nightstand I slid weakly down the wall, my scales itching so badly with nerves I was sure that I would just slip out the skin entirely, despite having shed recently. The nightstand was flipped upside-down; the drawer removed and shaken; the chair beside it tipped on its side and the pillows tossed every which way; but there was no book.
With no other outlet, the room already demolished, my aunt circled on me. “Where did you put the book, Algernon?”
I cowered. No defense I could muster would suffice. This was it; this was the end.
At that very moment Keets entered the room with her now-comforting customary glissade. She held a tray of tea. “If I may interject, sir.”
Aunt Lu paused; she scowled, but she paused. My doom was stayed. I had never been so glad to see a person.
“Do you have an explanation for this?”
“I believe I do, sir.”
“Let’s hear it, then.”
“Felicia Saltongill, sir. Her brother’s illness was due to the Honorable Saltongill attempting to read the book—” Aunt Lu’s frown deepened, but it was an acceptable deepening. “—left on the desk in your study; is that not the tome of which you speak?”
“I overheard her speaking of him in the hall, sir. Apparently she was concerned that the condition could be catching, and was determined to prevent the book from infesting innocents. As you know, she has a reputation for being both stubborn and a lexivore, an occasionally troublesome combination.”
“I see,” Aunt Lu said. Her back straightened. “She does seem more likely than Aggie to work up the spine to swipe it. I will have words with Miss Saltongill tomorrow.”
And with that Aunt Lu exited the flat, though I could tell the answer wasn’t entirely satisfying from the sour turn of her froggish lips; she also neglected to say farewell to me after thanking Keets. Regardless, I was safe for now. I exhaled, wobbling where I sat, and then lay all the way down until my head rested on the floor.
“Come to think of it,” I said, after the worst of the nausea had passed.
“Where is the book, Keets?”
“In the mirror, sir.”
“In the—” I leaped to my feet and dashed over to certify the veracity of that outlandish statement for myself—
—and there, tucked under the topsy-turvy nightstand as though it had fallen from just where I had put it, poked out the unmistakable pallid corner of the tome itself. I checked the nightstand—nothing. But the mirror—there the corpulent volume sat!
My jaw hung open. I was flabbergasted. “How did you manage that?”
“Besides being repulsive to the eye, the mirror is also somewhat a negative influence, sir. It may occasionally be persuaded to take in objects.”
I squinted, and I thought I saw the vanished valet pass through the background; but it was a quick movement, and I couldn’t be sure. “Why isn’t it sucking me in, then?”
“Too little content of interest, sir.”
“Well! That’s a lucky turn.” And much cheered, I went off to plink a plucky tune at my piano.
The next morning I was having my eggs and toast when a phone call came in, and I was forced to abandon them to answer the contraption. I had no idea who had concocted the device, but I would have liked him to have to field calls at the unfortunately early hour of half-past-eleven and see how he felt about the invention after that. Keets handed me the receiver, and I took it up only to be greeted by an angry shout.
“Is this you, Aggie!”
“I should have known you wouldn’t have the spine to go through with it in the end! Well don’t expect me to give you so much as a hallo next time we pass in the street. I’m utterly through with you and your ignorance and your callous disregard for others!” Before I could respond, there was a hollow click at the other end and I was greeted with the buzzy silence of an empty line.
“I believe that was Felicia,” I said, after a bit of processing.
Keets removed the receiver from my hand and replaced it on the sconce.
“She did identify herself as Miss Saltongill when I answered the phone, sir.”
Puzzled by the exchange, I sat back down at the table, determined to finish the meal despite the fluttering of my stomach, when Keets returned with a vellum from the remaining personage I absolutely did not want to hear from during breakfast. Despite my protest that it ought to at least wait until after the eggs, Keets read the message aloud.
“My dear nephew. So sorry for misjudging you the other night. Was informed by library the book arrived this morning.”
I about choked.
“My dear—” I repeated, unable to believe my ears. “It can’t possibly say that. My dear!”
Keets passed me the vellum, and I confirmed the sight with my own eyes.
“And it’s from Aunt Lu?”
“As it says there, sir.”
“And the library?”
“But how did the book get there?”
“I delivered it to the library personally, sir.”
“But—when! Not while I was sleeping!”
“On what grounds?”
“Well, sir, knowing that Felicia approached you to be rid of the book—”
“How’d you know that!”
“You told me, sir.”
“Oh, I suppose I did.”
“In addition, I had been informed of your previous engagement by your aunt, on account of her planning to re-engage it by having you act the gentleman in front of her brother.”
“Hold on—she was planning to have us re-engaged?”
“As I understood it, sir. I gathered that you valued your current lifestyle, and so coaxed the book back out of the mirror knowing that Felicia, concerned for the well-being of her brother, would be thoroughly irate at its entry into the library system.”
“How’d you do that!”
“It was obvious from her manner, sir.”
“No, no, the other thing—getting the book back out the mirror.”
“Not as well as I would have liked, sir. The volume did not survive intact.”
“So the book in the library—”
“Is empty, sir.”
“Where’d the words go, then?”
“Unfortunately, they remained in the mirror.”
I rushed to the mirror. Scrawled all over the glass, in that tight spidering hand, was the singular body of my aunt’s text. I leaned away; the text remained between myself and my reflection. I peered close, all but pressing my nostrils against the surface; the text remained. My image was reduced to shifting colors between sprawling blots of philosophy.
“It’s become completely useless,” I said, mournfully.
“I’m afraid so, sir.”
“Well, I suppose there’s nothing to be had for it.”
“I suppose I ought to be rid of it. Would you…?”
“It would be my pleasure, sir.”
As I never saw the mirror again, I can only imagine she disposed of it outside the Walls.
Nevertheless, occasionally in the windows of my flat—once in a wineglass—I’ll catch a glimpse of a mysterious phantom which I can only describe as strikingly similar to my old valet; but honestly, Keets is so superior, a once-in-a-lifetime master only chanced upon in a blinding stroke of luck, that I’d be damned if I want that other fellow back.