Short Story – “Ariel Duel”

Ladies and Gentlemen, we present you a Sunday Steampunk Short Story. If you wish to submit your own prose for the reading pleasure of The Pandora Society please following the instructions at the end of this tale . . . 

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“Ariel Duel”

by Larry Lefkowitz

 

The airship tethered to the tower alongside the Globe Theatre seemed to strain against the pull of its airbags. On this day, Will, as William Shakespeare was known – affectionately by his admirers and sarcastically by his distracters in the party of the Earl of Sandwich, the latter claiming and proclaiming himself the “one and true author” of the folios and of the sonnets – kept an eye peeled to the sky. Yes, the same William Shakespeare, verily the author of the folios and the sonnets that were the talk of London, the plays especially popular among the illiterate rabble that largely comprised the “groundlings” at Shakespeare’s performances. He himself was given to saying, “But for the great unwashed woe is me.” He wisely catered to them in his plays; or at least left a place for their guffaws and laughter – often in the wrong places – in comedy and tragedy alike. A comedy of errors played out by the standees nudging their compatriots in the ribs – and not quietly – when they indulged in such activity. The living models for Falstaff and other protagonists in the Bard’s repertoire.

Why was Shakespeare so intent on studying the skies on this otherwise un-unprepossessing day in May? Because the Earl, as he was known for short and as he will be called here for short and for convenience (as will Will for the same reason), possessed his own airship, and Will worried lest his own ship be caught on the ground; a sitting duck for the Earl’s cannon, which could make a sandwich – a mincemeat sandwich — of his ship, the “Sovereign Lady,” so called in homage to Queen Elizabeth. The Earl’s ship, named the “Golden Quill” caused will to retch every time he thought of it.

Will had to tread, not to speak of fly, carefully, for the Earl had powerful friends at court, in particular Burghley, the queen’s Secretary of State, rumored to be a croquet playing crony of the fop.

The queen had suggested a parliamentary board of inquiry to determine the true authorship of the plays and sonnets, offering to have Walsingham, her intelligence chief, who had been so successful in discovering plots against the throne at home and abroad, take charge of the case. But both Will and the Earl intelligently declined, wary of him. A sojourn in the Tower of London appealed to neither man –or worse: a removed head did not spur artistic creativity, let alone artistic “copying” or “borrowing,” as plagiarism was euphemistically called.

Their rejection of the parliamentary board caused the queen to damn both of them, in the rough tongue she was given to when angry, but she at least kept the royal airship fleet out of the contest. Their cannon, which lined both sides of the great airships, would have made short work of both men’s airships.

Here is the salient place in our chronicle to provide some historical information concerning the development of the airship or “air vessel” as it was first known. The concept was born during the reign of the queen’s father, Henry VIII. The idea came to Henry after the ship Mary Rose turned over and sank shortly after its launching with a loss of 500 men and a lesser quantity of longbows. Being present, Henry threw down his hat and stomped on it; he swore that if he couldn’t depend on the sea, he’d try the skies. He gave his engineers six months to come up with a design for an air vessel or their heads would crown the spikes of London Bridge.

Under such encouragement, they came up not only with plans, but a model of the vessel. Henry was pleased and gave orders to have it built. But a plan and model were one thing – a working air vessel another. The lift principle was well and good, cleverly employing a “lifting gas” in the ship’s twin bladders (which arrangement Will’s ship and that of the Earl were also dependent upon for lifting). The odoriferous nature of the gas (caused by the unavoidable mixing of noxious impurities with the gas), akin to that of rotten eggs (a perfume incidentally, Will was well acquainted with from his acting days when from time to time he was the target of them) earned it, in the court coinage of the period, “Henry’s flatulence,” and a ruder version among the rabble. It is said that rather than being insulted, Henry put his hands on his hips and emitted his robust laugh, which ensured an anxiety-free morning at court. The painter Holbein, who was present at the moment, captured Henry’s hands-on-hips pose for posterity. Unfortunately for all concerned (except Henry, of course), the vessel crashed on its first test, and the heads . . . well, why go into that.

A second group of engineers succeeded after they cannily brought private commercial interests into the project. Yet the air vessel was more a sop to the king’s prestige, used principally to impress visiting sovereigns, it being too weak to carry cannon. Since the military advantage was lacking, he lost interest in it. Made of wood, it was destroyed in a fire which Henry took advantage of to rid himself of enemies, real or imagined, for which he was waiting for a pretext to carry out.

Everyone promptly forgot about “Cromwell’s folly,” so called since he was responsible for certain elements of the project. Cromwell’s hand in it would have cost him dearly but for “Henry’s folly” – of which more anon. Everyone forgot about air vessels except for the young princess Elizabeth, far older and wiser than her age, who later resuscitated the project, with superior men and materials at her disposal. Her mother, Anne Boleyn brought all her heft as queen to help bring it to fruition. Queen Anne had survived the charge of adultery brought against her by Henry – the “Henry’s folly” referred to previously – when she succeeded in staging a place coup, abetted by Thomas Cromwell, who suspected the king’s confidence in him had waned, and the Queen’s verse teacher! (The latter fact Will overly trotted out whenever anyone expressed doubt at the power of poesy, never failing to add, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” at his time not yet a hackneyed expression, though he was doing his best to make it one.) Will claimed to be the inventor of the formulation, though he probably “borrowed” it from Sir Philip Sidney, who in turn had probably “borrowed” it from antiquity. Henry, as per contemporary practice regarding losers, forfeited the crown along with his head. His reputed last words: “Done in by the fairest hand I ever touched.”

Yes, best to have his ship in the air, mused Will (whom, you will recall, we left scanning the skies, in fear of a possible attack by the Earl’s airship). His spies, particularly Christopher Marlowe, had informed him that such an attack could be expected at any moment. The same faithful Marlowe had provided the information that the inside of the Earl’s ship was heavily gilded, filigree interlaced with “bad taste and regretful ostentation” in his friend’s words. Will thought that the gilded barge of the Doge of Venice may have been the model for the Ear’s interior décor; his own preferred the sturdy oak wood of Albion.

Thrusting two fingers between his lips, Will whistled. His horse, Bucephalus, tried to answer his summons, but failed to do so because of the ropes which held him fast. In any event, the whistle wasn’t for him, but for Will’s ship’s navigator, Pound, who lumbered toward him with his heavy gait. Will pointed to the airship and made a hand raising motion. “Aye, aye, Master will, we’ll launch her,” Pound saluted. The pulleys and inflation equipment and other mechanical equipment were soon proceeding apace, filling the gas bladders and causing the airship to strain at its retainers.

“You will join us, Master Shakespeare?” Pound inquired, not a little worried at the risk for him.

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, Pound – make that ‘for the Globe,’ since the future of our little stage rises or falls with us.”

Used to his master’s facile tongue, and having picked up something of it due to proximity, Pound rejoined, “I hope the Earl will miss it — our ship.” The latter a reference to the Earl’s cannon.

Will clapped him on the shoulder. Pound tried to make an exaggerated bow like one of the courtiers in his master’s plays, almost falling off his feet from the unaccustomed effort and, regaining his balance, waving Will to the stairs leading to the door of the craft. Will and Pound entered the ship, Pound as operator of the ship’s single cannon, in addition to his duties as navigator, together with a pilot and a secretary, for Will liked to dictate ideas, or beginnings or emendations to his plays, if the going was peaceful. Today, something told him it wouldn’t be peaceful. He felt like Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt.

As the ship lifted slowly, Will’s spirits rose with it – although the phrase “hoisted by his own petard” came too readily to mind. Will’s thought turned to the Earl and his ridiculous invention of a piece of meat between two slices of bread instead of a true Englishman’s shank of beef eaten with the hands, a culinary innovation that riled the Bard almost as much as the Earl’s theft of his artistic property. Pound had commented, “Maybe the Earl will give you credit for the sandwich as fair exchange for the taking credit for the plays and sonnets.” Will had deigned not to laugh at the witticism, but then he was not given to enjoying the wit of others.

As they awaited the arrival of the Earl’s ship, Shakespeare looked down upon London below and mused aloud (even his muses were theatrical): “A petty contretemps, beneath the dignity of one such as myself, if not the ‘sandwich eater,’ but, nay, my writings will transcend the pettiness of time and place to become part of the eternal things that speak to all men at all times. Long after, I might add, the so–called ‘sandwich’ has been doomed to the gastronomic sins level of Dante’s Hades.”

“Along with its inventor this very day,” replied Pound.

Will tried to buck up their spirits, especially his own, his cleverness, as always, the tonic. “Our dispute is not Much Ado About Nothing, we will give Measure for Measure, and we can but hope that All’s Well that Ends Well” He feared his attempt at lightness sounded forced, but Pound nodded appreciatively. The secretary raised his quill in inquiry as to whether Will wanted him to write down what Will had said. Will dismissed him with a wave of the hand, and with it the idea of dictating his Last Will and Testament.

Soon Pound’s sharp eyes, honed as a quondam seaman in the Queen’s Navy, discerned the Earl’s ship when it was but a speck in the sky. “Dead ahead of our bow – a bit on the starboard side,” he directed the gaze of his master. The latter acknowledged the information with a nod.

The Earl’s craft materialized rapidly and when it deemed itself within firing range, fired, the cannonball flying past on the starboard side.

“Quick upward,” Pound ordered the pilot. The craft bounced up suddenly, as ballast was thrown over the side by the secretary upon whom the duty of Master of the Ballast devolved in addition to his scribal one. This maneuver caused a second cannon ball to pass the space the ship had just vacated.

“One shot left,” announced Pound, raising a finger.

The airships of the size of both craft couldn’t carry more than three cannonballs because of their weight, and even these were smaller than on the queen’s warships guarding England in the air and on the sea.

“Let’s fire one of ours – to keep the Earl honest,” said Pound.

Will felt that Pound was stealing the stage with his verbal sallies, but he had little choice; he needed the navigator-cannoneer’s cannon sallies.

The shot rang out, causing the ship to recoil slightly, and a black ball arched toward the Earl’s ship which, too, maneuvered out of the way in time, earning from Pound a “Not bad. Still Drake can’t be commanding the ship, as he has gone on to the shipyard on high.”

Will sprinted up onto the deck level and spotted the Earl, who stood likewise on the deck of his ship, over bedecked in the latest fashion which only confirmed what a bumpkin he was. Leaning over the balustrade, Will shouted to the plagiarist through his voice amplifier, “Sandwich, admit my authorship of the folios, not to mention the sonnets, and bring an end to this dispute. I’m willing to grant you the authorship of King John,” a play he, Shakespeare, never cared for. “And Sonnet CXVII,” also a disposable item, however much any poetic gesture to the poetaster grated on Will’s artistic conscience. Still, if the Earl’s ship won the aerial battle, the Earl would claim all the plays and sonnets, and with the Bard of Avon (Will liked to refer to himself thus) dead, there would be no one to dispute him.

The reply to this generous offer came in the form of a third cannonball which would have taken off Will’s head had he not ducked. Fortunately in his days as an actor, he had learned to dodge vegetables thrown at him because of the defects in the plays of lesser playwrights.

He could make out the Earl cowering behind a column on the deck of his ship, expectant of a possible return shot, which indeed was forthcoming when Will raised his handkerchief, though Pound needed no signal, and almost simultaneously his second cannonball struck a direct hit on the Earl’s ship; it immediately erupted into flame due to the gas in the left bladder, which had taken the ball.

“As You Like It,” Pound bid the Earl farewell. Will groaned inwardly; Pound’s proclivity for invoking his master’s play titles got on his master’s nerves, yet the former’s indispensability, as just proved, avoided any censure.

“That saves us our third cannonball,” Pound folded his arms in satisfaction. “I wasn’t a cannoneer in the Navy for naught.”

Yet, seeing the burning ship, Will felt no triumph, but a sickening of the stomach which, however, provided him with a description of mariners in a storm for a drama he had begun working on – provisional title, “The Tempest.” He couldn’t take his eyes off the Earl’s ship as it plummeted like a downed hawk and crashed into the Thames, narrowly missing the queen’s barge carrying her to some ceremonial. He chastised himself for contemplating at such a moment if there wasn’t a better simile than the downed hawk one.

“A near miss that,” observed Pound dryly. “Otherwise, we . . . ” he drew his finger across his neck.

Will, the master of words, could but shake his head in silent agreement. “All’s Well that Ends Well” bounced on the tip of his tongue, but this was no time for gloating – rather for epitaphs. He would have to pen something suitable in order to mollify the queen, who took a dim view of their dispute and whose resolution she deemed imperative, because, Will suspected, she herself penned verse and plagiarism constituted a heinous act in her eyes; also, so it was rumored, she couldn’t stomach – literally — the sandwich. (This was hardly surprising from one who had proclaimed, “I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England;” no king was known to have ever eaten a sandwich.) These royal proclivities should have given him the edge in the dispute, save that Will, on first being presented to her, had tripped over his ceremonial rapier upon kneeing before her, almost rendering him a capon; a violation of court etiquette in the eyes of one who doted on the ceremonial, and only his fawning apologies and promise to dedicate to her a sonnet reclaimed a certain favor. The queen was a stickler for epitaphs which, it was said, she sometimes penned herself, wags adding the canard that “she orders heads off so she can write an epitaph.” Strong stuff, but, remember, we are in the Elizabethan age, to use the eponymous sobriquet that surely will ever be used to describe this feistiest of periods in English history. After all, it produced our Will – William Shakespeare — who will be remembered no less than his Sovereign Lady.

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