Babbage in winter had gone from a crisp white wonderland, to a sooty gray slosh with unnavigable canals, faces hidden behind scarves darting quickly from one place to another. The pretty sails and airship fins of frolickers in the Vernian was almost a thing of deep memory.
Somewhere along the line, Spires had even stopped womanizing. Not so much a lack of opportunity, as a lack of any real interest in much of anything. But he had a hobby at least.
In the mornings he walk to the edge of Battersea where the the sea lapped at the loading docks for the coaling barges that came by regularly, next to the canal gates. The coal barge, a big two masted sprit-sail thing called the “Bea Goode” held out against the steamboats as she was free and clear. Coal didn’t need to arrive quickly, just in quantity, so her three man crew, an old man named Felix, and his two sons, kept the battered crimson sails alovt, fluttering in ill set luff, making their way to their customers.
Battersea’s bursar signed the invoice. Felix didn’t like being paid monthly, preferring cash up front, but he possessed a bad memory, and more than once claimed he hadn’t been paid under the old arrangement. His sons had stood by with their hands scratching lousy heads.
The bargeman took his copy of the invoice and returned to the Bea. “Wasn’t the same once. By god we didn’t have all these moreaus. Half a whole builderdamned city has paws now. Mark my words, no good will come of it. A robin won’t nest with a crane will it? All right lads, loosen that snotter, get that halyard up and get the spring lines loose, first. You know the drill! I want you on the leeward, Jimmy..”
The bea departed like a dark, creaking, opinionated ghost. Felix could be heard long after the rest was lost in the fog.
Flotsam. He didn’t design, anymore. He rarely sought out social calls. Something inside him was dead as the iced-over canal. Flotsam. He was reduced to beachcombing. Somehow it kept an internal pilot light going. The currents brought interesting things in, on occasion. Japanese glass fishing net floats, wooden hair combs. Often nothing but bits of oyster shell. He’d tried his hand at making a kind of concrete out of the shells called tabby, once, but it had no other interest for him.
What would spring from the oceans today?
Searching with his walking stick past the slimy seaweed and driftwood, he found a bottle. Not a whisky bottle or container of small beer, but a find intricately gilded thing of green and red glass.
He picked it up and brushed seafloor mud away.. It was quite intact. Not even a scratch, which was peculiar enough. Writing was etched into the bottle but he couldn’t read it.
“Put it away. Put it back,” came a voice from the sea.
Spires looked out. The sun was coming over the east, in the morning, and with the glare it was hard to see anything. But there was a hint of a silhouette, an almost-shape. Head and shoulders? Or maybe just some waterfowl sitting on a buoy.
“Put what you hold back where you stole it.” the voice said insistently, this time.
Spires cast his eyes again over the see. “Stole it, I most certainly did not. I found it and if it is yours, I shall give it back to you.” There WERE folk in the sea of course, and making them angry served no one good purpose. “Just come to me so I can hand it to you.”
The bottle itself seemed to be making sounds, just then. Spires put it up to his ear, “Interesting phenomena.” Perhaps it was a music box.
“Put it back.” the voice said, this time not as loudly, its voice competing with waves and something from the bottle.
Pressing his right ear up against the bottle, Spires heard music. Such music. Instruments he’d never heard took him somewhere. Somewhere altogether warmer, sunnier, happier, better.
He’d forgotten everything. Holding the bottle up, he walked away.
“You must put it back,” he thought he heard whispered from the sea, but his back was turned when the shape he’d thought he’d seen, slowly descended into the waves.