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Poem: "The Curious Incident at the Guildhall Library" - The Wordsmith's Forge — LiveJournal
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
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ysabetwordsmith
Poem: "The Curious Incident at the Guildhall Library"

This poem came out of the November 2011 Crowdfunding Creative Jam.  It was inspired by a prompt from Dreamwidth user jjhunter.  It was sponsored by janetmiles.  This poem belongs to the Steamsmith series; you can read more about that on the Serial Poetry page.

The Guildhall Library is a real place in London. I found it while researching old libraries. This illustration dates from 1805, a little earlier than Maryam's time. The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers is also real, although their interests in nether-England go somewhat deeper into matters mystical.

I used a British English spellchecker for this poem. Special thanks to moonwolf1988 for britpicking.

 

The Curious Incident at the Guildhall Library


When the summons came from the Guildhall Library,
Maryam abandoned her current experiment
and summarily dumped the remains down the drain.
Founded in the 1420s, that library held the greatest collection
of London culture and history in the entire Empire,
and Maryam was not about to risk it.

According to the summons, library patrons
had complained of smelling brimstone,
so the staff requested a steamsmith
to examine the alchemical furnace
for possible leakage.

Maryam dressed in a respectable suit,
pulled white gloves over her dark fingers,
and tucked her overalls into her toolbox
to be carried by the polished brass tommy
whirring along quietly behind her.

The Guildhall stood tall and proud,
its slim towers topped by rippling Union flags,
its narrow Gothic windows gleaming in the sun.
Gilding glistened against the pale background
and outlined the carven flourishes around the entrance.
More buildings flanked the Guildhall, equally elegant:
on the left, stone ones with Greek columns
and on the right, brick with squared windows
and stained glass over an arching door.

Maryam walked between the two giants,
Gog and Magog, sentinels carved from wood
in 1708 by Captain Richard Saunders.
Their heads nearly brushed the huge chandeliers
hanging from the high vaulted ceiling.
They remained on duty as examples
of an earlier generation of automatons, though
more modern tommies stood guard elsewhere.
Maryam gave Gog and Magog
a respectful tip of her hat as she passed.

Down she climbed, one hand tracing the stones,
feeling the ancient alchemical protections
threaded throughout the entire building.
These walls held the great stoneworks that,
alone of all London's secular buildings,
withstood the Great Fire of 1666.
The Year of the Beast, people had called it then,
and it lived up to its name only too well.

Maryam reached the steamroom, set her tommy to work,
and exchanged her fine suit for overalls with
the steamsmith emblem embroidered in plain thread..
Meticulously she checked the furnace and its fittings,
fuel and pipelines and ventilation system, gauges
with their fluttering needles still squarely in the green.
Nothing seemed the least bit out of order,
and the steamsmith puzzled over it for long minutes.

The faint hint of brimstone teased at her nose
as she worked, coming and going, never steady.
She followed the pipelines up and down,
around and around, where they carried
things in and out of the furnace.  This was
an old model, not as clean as the newer ones.
Still the steamsmith found no leaks.

Well, if it was not a leak in the furnace system,
something  somewhere smelt of brimstone,
and Maryam determined to track it down.
At last she found a grate in the floor
through which wisps of vapour rose slowly.
Below lay the crypt, ancient legacy of
Saxons and Romans upon which
the modern Guildhall had been built.

Then she heard a soft jongle of Chinese.
That was a bit alarming.  Opium dealers
liked to operate in such hidden places.
Maryam sniffed, but found no trace of opium
in the brimstone-scented smoke.
Of course, there were peculiar things
one could do with opium if it were cooked just so.
She would have liked to call the constables,
but if someone had gotten into the alchemical works,
the police would just call for a steamsmith to sort it out.

Maryam's tommy applied a crowbar to the grate,
lifted it out of the way, and stepped aside.
The steamsmith knelt and peered into the crypt.
Coil after coil of serpentine body filled the space,
scaled in vivid emerald green, all topped
by a line of scarlet mane.  Under the bearded chin,
a pearl burned with the opalescent lustre of moonlight.
Mobile ears flicked as the dragon lifted its head from its book,
removed the smouldering pipe from its mouth,
and said quite clearly, "Good afternoon, Steamsmith."

"Good afternoon, Dragon," Maryam replied.
She had seen pictures of Chinese dragons
and heard rumours of their intelligence,
but she never expected to meet one blithely
reading a book and smoking a pipe under the Guildhall.
Dragon and pipe smelt strongly of brimstone,
more faintly of incense, and fortunately not at all of opium.
"Perhaps you could assist me," Maryam continued,
"for the library patrons are complaining of brimstone.
Might it be possible for you to do your reading elsewhere?"

The dragon looked down its broad nose at her.
"Do you think your countrymen will so easily allow me
the use of more conventional lending privileges?"
the dragon inquired, indicating the book.

"Likely not," Maryam said with a sigh.
She glanced at the cover, which bore the emblem
of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers
and the name of Master Benjamin Lewis Vulliamy.
It would hardly be politic to turn out a fellow student of alchemy,
even if he was reduced to reading about clockworks
in a crypt below the steamroom of a library.
"We will just have to solve this some other way,"
Maryam declared with a firm nod.

With that, she returned to her toolbox for testing equipment. 
Her slim ebony hands made quick work of collecting samples.
A few careful experiments proved a lack
of any harmful interactions between the various vapours.
So Maryam set about connecting the dragon's reading room
to the ventilation system which serviced the furnace.
Soon the air flowed clear and clean, efficient technology
sweeping away the tell-tale traces of the dragon's presence.

"Thank you, Steamsmith," the dragon said gravely.
"You are most welcome, Dragon," Maryam said.
Then she packed up her tools, tidied herself,
and changed back into her suit.  Tommy in tow,
she headed upstairs to declare the problem solved
and collect her fee from the financial office.

On the way home from the Guildhall Library,
Maryam stopped in a bookshop.  That glimpse 
of the Vulliamy book had been simply riveting.

*   *   *

Vocabulary

brimstone -- sulphur; two atoms of pyra  (Fire), one atom of aer  (Air), and one atom of ge  (Earth)

clockwork(s) -- a type of alchemical science and technology which features timekeeping devices and other mechanisms for taking measurements

steamsmith -- an expert in alchemical science and technology

steamroom -- an area dedicated to alchemical technology, such as a furnace

stonework(s) -- a type of alchemical science and technology based on ge  (Earth), involving the manipulation of rocks, often for durability or safety

tommies -- automatons, robots, androids; fairly sophisticated models that resemble people



* * *

Note: The original title of this poem was taken directly from the prompt, "The Curious Incident of the Dragon in the Library." I decided that it gave away too much right at the beginning, so I switched to something that would leave the mystery intact. But I thought folks would enjoy knowing where this all started.

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Current Mood: busy busy

11 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
(Deleted comment)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: December 28th, 2011 10:36 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yay!

>> I do love Maryam Smith! <<

That makes me happy.

>>And the Dragon was wonderful too. Erudite dragons are a favorite trope of mine.<<

I also like erudite dragons. In this case, I'm particularly playing up the fact that Eastern dragons are genteel and sophisticated, not ravening beasts.

>>But best of all was that what she took away from the whole thing was wanting to read the book he had!<<

*grin* She is a bookworm, all right. It's also an early hint that Maryam is interested in alchemy as a broad field, and will poke her nose into just about any part of it, even outside of her personal specialties. She's also good at combining different branches.
marina_bonomi From: marina_bonomi Date: December 24th, 2011 09:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
Glad to see it published!
I love it, hope the Dragon will stay around too.
Yes to the previous comment, how like Maryam to stop to buy that book on her way home. :)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: December 29th, 2011 01:00 am (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

>> Glad to see it published!<<

Me too. It's a good addition to the series.

>> I love it, hope the Dragon will stay around too.<<

You folks can ask for more of whatever you enjoy.

>> Yes to the previous comment, how like Maryam to stop to buy that book on her way home. <<

It will be interesting to see what branches of alchemy show up in the series as it progresses. I have some stuff jotted down in the notes.
rix_scaedu From: rix_scaedu Date: December 24th, 2011 09:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
A profitable day all round - getting paid and a book recommendation.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: December 28th, 2011 09:54 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

It's fun when business and pleasure mix so gracefully.
kyleri From: kyleri Date: December 25th, 2011 02:02 am (UTC) (Link)
LOVE LOVE LOVE. ALSO LOVE.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: December 28th, 2011 11:30 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

That makes me smile.
kelkyag From: kelkyag Date: December 27th, 2011 06:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
<grin>

If Maryam is so calm about meeting a dragon, why is she so confident that her fellows at the Guildhall will not be? And how did the dragon get a book from the library unnoticed to begin with?
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: December 28th, 2011 11:38 pm (UTC) (Link)

Well...

>>If Maryam is so calm about meeting a dragon, why is she so confident that her fellows at the Guildhall will not be?<<

Because Maryam is not an average British citizen. Her personal heritage conveys advantages and disadvantages; one of the advantages is a pretty high level of resilience. Also, she's a steamsmith; that profession selects for equanimity.

Nether-England is somewhat more cosmopolitan than our historic version was, but still tends to think of itself as the center of the world (which is about 50% correct) with an unfortunate habit of snubbing foreigners. Let alone people who aren't hominids. Let's say there are some clue-by-fours waiting in dark alleys for the unsuspecting prejudices that are still trotting around London.

Won't this be fun?

>> And how did the dragon get a book from the library unnoticed to begin with?<<

Good question. I have some ideas as to how that might have come about. If other folks are interested, it may come up in later writings.
kelkyag From: kelkyag Date: December 30th, 2011 03:52 am (UTC) (Link)
Maryam has a broader background than most, but her fellows at the Guildhall at least have the "steamsmith" advantage -- they're in a science/engineering field where exploring new ideas and how things work is encouraged. And the "English gentleman" tropes she, and likely most of them, grew up with also encourages facing the unexpected with a certain amount of poise, especially if the unexpected is being polite. I'm not sure they'd give the dragon borrowing privileges, but there might at least be conversation rather than combat?
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: December 31st, 2011 07:23 am (UTC) (Link)

Thoughts

>>her fellows at the Guildhall at least have the "steamsmith" advantage<<

That's true for the other steamsmiths, and they do frequent that library, but it's not exclusive to them. It's actually a library that specializes in the history of London, and also hosts a bunch of other unique collections. That's what I found when I went digging for very old London libraries. I figured that in nether-London it would have some collections on various branches of alchemy too.

>> they're in a science/engineering field where exploring new ideas and how things work is encouraged. <<

Ideally, yes, and in that nether-England is more devout about science than our version was. In practice, it depends on the individual. Some characters will be very logical and forward-thinking. Others will be stuffy old bats, or even stuffy young bats.

>> And the "English gentleman" tropes she, and likely most of them, grew up with also encourages facing the unexpected with a certain amount of poise, especially if the unexpected is being polite. <<

I've been exploring which "English gentleman" tropes are popular, present, or unpopular and who has which ones. Maryam got a set from her father that is very close to my idea of what a gentleman should be, and which deviates somewhat from the current fashion in nether-England. Not freaking out is widely respected; people's level of poise varies. Maryam's is at the high end. Being polite is also very widespread. But then there's that pernicious tendency to think that foreigners are somehow 'lesser' beings, including the human ones.

The dragon presents a tangle of conflicting features: male, powerful, educated, polite, upper-class, and an alchemist; but not human and not British. Maryam is less conflicted because she has a broader-than-usual idea of what makes a person. It's possible that someone else has had a similarly genteel response. But some other people are likely to see a big creature with sharp teeth and assume "monster" without noticing the evidence to the contrary.

>> I'm not sure they'd give the dragon borrowing privileges, but there might at least be conversation rather than combat? <<

Depending on the person, it's possible. He may have other friends or allies.

During the Victorian period, though, people had some odd fussy ideas about who belonged where and could do what. There were places that only men went, or only women went; places that foreigners weren't allowed and places that gentlemen wouldn't go. It made for some peculiar arrangements of society kind of like a set of partially overlapping spheres. So different characters will have experience with different places, and varying levels of willingness to venture outside their own 'proper' territory. The dragon is one of the more flexible individuals, as is Maryam -- but an underlying reason for their civility with each other is that they've both had experience with other people judging them based on appearance rather than performance.
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