A heart of gold: if only it were strong enough.
with Neve Talbot, author of “West End”
Today, I am walking with a close friend. I only met her a few weeks ago, but when I did, I loved her instantly. She is one of those people that “fits” wherever she goes. I do not mean she is a social butterfly; she is really very quiet. What I mean is that walking next to her is like walking next to a cool ocean breeze. See, Beth has the gift of healing. She volunteers in a hospital in Jamaica, sitting with people in their rooms and attending to their needs while they are there. I have seen her in action, and seen the radiant smiles of the patients she attends in the hospital. I would venture so far as to say that Beth has saved some lives, lifting broken spirits from the depths of despair.
She is also a resident patient, and I wish her prognosis was a happy one.
I am a doctor today. Since we are in a Steampunked alternate reality, this can happen: I can be doctor somewhere in the turn of the 20th century, surrounded by women who are also engineers, pilots, and inventors, right? So, we will go with it. Besides, I would be anyone in order to meet Beth March, so waving my magic (steam-powered) wand, I appear as a resident in the West End hospital. I am studying under one Dr. Laurence, who is supervised by another Dr. Rochester.
I had no idea what kind of drama surrounded this hospital, and the people inside it, until I talked to Beth. While we talked, I uncovered a tangled web of intrigue and danger threatening to explode on this island. Beth’s family is caught up in a situation that could bring devastation to them. Her doctor is the fulcrum of the it all, and she is helpless to do anything except watch it unfold.
It was her idea to come here. Beth brought me to the lighthouse, where the smell of the ocean has just dropped my blood pressure by about ten points. Perhaps the fresh air is enough to rejuvenate her heart. I do hope so.
Come and walk with us by the ocean, and eavesdrop on the murder that is yet to unfold.
It was Beth’s idea to walk next to the lighthouse
Question: What a lovely place, Beth. I have never walked here before. Do you come here often?
Beth: Not so much as I would like. There was a time when I could walk along the cliffs until Jo sent someone to find me. But, I’m afraid I’m not quite up to that any longer. But, I can still get here, and the sunset never fails me. I have so much to be grateful for.
Question: I have known you for a few weeks now, since I began my residency in West End. Tell me, what brought you here?
Beth: That’s a long story, but I volunteered for some research. I was very near death when Mr. Rochester offered me the opportunity, and since my life hasn’t been good for much else, I thought perhaps I could make my death mean something—be of use to people. A valve in my heart had been damaged due to scarlet fever, so they gave me a new one. . . . well, that is to say a fresh, healthy one. It came from the heart of a pig. Do you know, porcine and human anatomies are very similar. <giggles quietly> But of course you do. You’re a doctor, after all.
They’re learning many, many things about how the human body works, and how different it is from a pig, thanks to the research—why I came, and why I live at the cabana at the institute. It seems that my body isn’t convinced that the valve is mine, and keeps trying to get rid of it. The doctors do things to trick it, but that hurts the valve. <shrugs her shoulders> So . . . <blinks and looks away, then visibly pushes forward a bright countenance>
Question: Your surgery sounds like it was remarkable! Your body must be strong to have accepted the transplant. I’m sad to know that it is giving you trouble now. How do you find the energy to volunteer at the hospital?
Beth: Oh, I don’t do that much, really. It’s a choice. I can sit in my room and be morose, or sit in the dayroom and be of use. I read to the patients. I help them write letters. I play the piano. Mostly, I just listen. They are so far from home, and no one there cares that they’re gone. Nearly all our patients here are veterans from the wars of the Empire, or from the Great War in America. All of them have lost limbs. So, until they get used to their new clockwork parts that Dr. Laurence gives them, I do what I can. It doesn’t take all that much energy. And, I always feel better at the end of the day when I’ve spent it on the ward.
Question: I have only just met Dr. Laurence, but it sounds like you have known him for years. He seems to adore you. Where did you meet?
She calls him “Teddy.” To her, Dr. Laurence is “the boy next door.”
Beth: Oh, Teddy—that is, Dr. Laurence. He’s the boy next door, don’t you know. He’s been my big brother since before he started university. Jo—Josephine March, my sister, brought him home one day, shortly after he came from Switzerland. She has always had a penchant for strays. He moved into our hearts and never left. He will always be family, no matter what Jo chooses, but Jo . . . well, she has always wanted adventure, and one could say she certainly has found it here on Jamaica. She keeps everyone on their toes.
Question: Oh, I see now, that feisty young lady is related to you! I like her, she is a fireball. What is it like to be her younger sister?
Beth: Oh, my. That is a question. Well, it’s the best thing ever. Jo and have always been especially close, and she always puts my needs before her own, which is why she came to Jamaica in the first place. She would never just send me. But, she gets me into trouble enough. It didn’t used to be that way, but after my surgery, as soon as the doctors allowed me off campus, she took me for a ride on her velocipede. We wanted to get all the way to Kingston (I’ve never actually been there), but I tired too quickly. It was quite the adventure, though. She’s always cooking up one thing or another. Life is never boring around Jo.
“Life is never boring around Jo.”
Question: Do you have any other brothers or sisters?
Beth: No brothers, but I have two other sisters: Meg Brooks, who lives with her husband in Concord, Massachussets. They have twins, and just added a third child. That’s where my mother is just now. She went home to see to Meg and the babies. Then, there’s Amy, my younger sister. She went to Europe about the time I came down to Jamaica. I understand she’s making quite the splash in London society. Amy is so beautiful and refined, she’s going to be somebody some day. She always said she would. I just hope . . . well, I shouldn’t fret. My grand-aunt March would never allow her to marry anyone vicious.
Question: Oh, I think I know of your baby sister, Amy. I saw her in London, while I was touring the medical facilities there. She was on the arm of one Freddy Vaughn, and he introduced her as his intended. I have to confess, Beth, that man does not impress me at all. He loves himself too much, and it shows. And this is also curious: I was sure I saw him in London, prowling the facility at night. He definitely did not want to be seen, and it gave me the chills. Do you think Amy is safe with him?
Beth: Oh, me. . . <long silence as Beth mulls over the information> . . . Amy hasn’t mentioned any such arrangement to us in her letters. Are you certain it was Mr. Vaughn? Surely you are mistaken. I’ve never formally met him, but he went to MIT with Teddy—Dr. Laurence—but we call him Teddy, for Theodore. He and Mr. Vaughn traveled to England together, to study at Mr. Rochester’s facilities. Teddy would never associate with dishonorable men, and he would never allow Amy to come to harm. Besides which, my Aunt March is there. She can be quite formidable.
Question: I wish I could do more to help your family. I am only a student of medical engineering, but I can see how much you love them. I wonder, have you gotten to know Mr. Rochester? I admire his work, especially with his friend Julian. But again, that Freddie Vaughn character makes me very nervous. He is always looking over someone’s shoulder, and then trying to hide it. Do you think the doctor worries about him at all?
Beth: Ah, Mr. Rochester. . . People say Mr. Rochester is very difficult to know, but
“People say Mr. Rochester is difficult to know”
one need only sit quietly and watch and listen to know him. He’s rather like a wild animal that way. He’s a chameleon. But, underneath the prickly or suave exterior, he truly is a good, caring gentleman. There is no “big house” here; no mansion for the master. West End actually used to be a grand estate—the finest on the island—but he turned it into the institute. He doesn’t like people to know of his philanthropy, though. If they mention it, he pretends he doesn’t hear.
As for Mr. Vaughn, the more I think on it, the more I am certain you are mistaken. Sometimes it’s easy to misinterpret people’s actions, don’t you think? I believe people are inherently good, and Mr. Vaughn is wealthy in his own right. Why would he be less than honorable? Surely, his metallurgic studies with Professor Rottsteiger can account for his . . . heightened interest. I am certain Teddy can be a right regular scalawag when he’s focused on solving a problem. There is no speaking to him, he’s such a bear.
And, Mr. Rochester is a cagey piece of work. People have tried to get the better of him before, but he always manages to slip through their grasp. I doubt he gives Freddie Vaughn any thought from one day to the next.
<once again slips into circumspection, speaking primarily to herself> . . . I don’t know what I would do if anything happened to Amy. I must speak to Teddy about it.
Question: You have spoken of Dr. Laurence, and I think I mistakenly called him “family.” I just realized that it was because of how you talked about him. You think of Dr. Laurence that way, don’t you? Why?
Read more about Beth, Jo, and Laurie in Mechanized Masterpieces II
Beth: Indeed I do. Teddy needed a family when he moved in next door, and we needed a brother. Father had gone off to be a chaplain in the Great War, you see. We were very lonely without him. And, we needed Teddy for our play-acting. Teddy has always looked out for us. He will always be family, no matter what my sister—no matter what paths we all choose in life. <grows quiet and reflective for a moment> I just wish . . . I know he went into medicine partly for me—to try and help my silly old heart. But, I’m afraid . . . I hope it holds out long enough for him find a way to fix it permanently. I know he will blame himself if it doesn’t.
Question: Your heart is a lovely one, Beth, and I do not mean the one that is beginning to fail you. If you could have a wish granted while you were still on this earth, what would it be?
Beth: Oh, my. Only one wish? That’s so difficult, as there’s Amy and Jo and Teddy and Mr. Rochester all to think of, and I owe them all so much . . . I suppose . . . I suppose that if I had only one wish to share between them, it would be that all those I love have the courage to find their joy. That can be very frightening, you know—creating joy. True joy requires trust and selfless love and faith and hope. It requires effort and sacrifice. Those can be frightening endeavors indeed. But, I know Jo, and I know Teddy and Mr. Rochester. They may need a bit of a nudge now and then, but they’ll make it happen. Just you wait and see.
Neve Talbot began early dreaming up continuations of her favorite books too soon ended, and eventually gained confidence in worlds of her own creation. She has spent the past decade penning one million words of bad writing before getting to the good stuff. Author, editor, story coach, and journalist, Neve currently lives with her husband under the pseudonym of Penny Freeman, in a quasi-reality suspended between the piney woods and sprawling metropolis of southeast Texas.
“West End” is Neve’s third outing with The X, the others being “Crossroads” in Shades and Shadows, and “Tropic of Cancer” in Mechanized Masterpieces, of which “West End” is a sequel.
Mechanized Masterpieces II is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble