from The Sugar Numbers
by Judson Hamilton
I. master and servant
"I am ripe pleased—so pleased that I support the buzz made by Madame Danglars, that has arisen, as she stood before the prism" admired the Speed-hearing Judge.
“Your excellency has not stated the sugar number as of yet.”
"What?” Speed-hearing Judge “Are you sure?"
"Yes quite sure your excellency and with its lack how shall we…how shall we place our bets at the Ballooning match?"
“Who?” his great ivory ear horn deep in the canal “Oh but how I would like to expand and quit my boy, help me to fly, help me with that, and I shall give you your sugar number. (said the Speed-hearing Judge, sighing like a whistle)
The servant thought to himself, I dare not assert it, but he is as likely to fly as to stitch his own trousers, still, the sugar number, and being a servant he settled for servility.
"Yes, you are right; I am a helpless cause and a poor friend to you. I shall contact the airship crew today and ready everything for the morn. Accompanied with some casks of porter of course."
“What, how many crowns?”
"A hundred crowns, your excellency”
His vast back to the servant, he lay his ivory ear horn on the marble end table and moved his hulking figure to the fireplace where he stoked it like a lover.
“Very well on the morn I shall fly and in the meanwhile you shall have your fun and your number”
“Thank you your excellency. I am most grateful”
He left his mistress to smolder for a moment, crossed the afghan rug to the dresser where he keep the money in an old jewelry box and drew a locket from beneath his shirt from within which he produced a miniature key. He paused to gaze at the portrait of Madame Danglars within.
“The doe shouldn’t fold before the foal.”
II. sugar numbers, ballooning and a spate of luck
"Your rail name is criminally popular, Morel and harbor sown, let me go instead.”
“My dear friend, does honor not process itself? Does the sun not pin itself to those who stand forth beneath its rays? No, I will go alone, as is our custom.”
And with that Morel approached the betting counter and slid an elongated piece of copper on whose underside the sugar number was engraved.
“Boxed exacta; 1 & 4”
The glistening bald head of a man well known to Morel assented with a crisp curt nod.
The transaction done, Morel and Valentine, two servants of gentlemen (the prior to the aforementioned Speed-hearing Judge and the latter to his brother, the duke of Marmalade) made their way between the wide, stained, oak bleachers to the racing track below.
“He talks more and more of your master. It is worrisome.”
“Well, what harm does noise signify? And please don’t call him my “master” Valentine. I swear sometimes you can be insufferably old-fashioned, I much prefer “employer”.
“‘Employer’, ‘master’, what difference does it make - when he calls for his slippers you’ll be asking if he means the yellow or blue ones.”
"Those are kind and cheering words. You must set them down in verse—Look there.”
They looked down at the outdoor ballooning track, it was oval in shape with chalked lanes and enclosed by a metal cage which was charged with electricity. The object was, like all races to be first, to go far but not rise too high or else risk death. Angioplasty dwarves in motley jockey outfits and short-billed caps, are tethered to balloons, which are themselves held in place until the start gun is sounded. Then they run as best they can until the helium takes them towards their death. If they approach the cage to quickly they can always burst it with a pin, thereby forfeiting the race, but saving their lives.
"Poor humanity! Look there’s our boy now, he must weigh one o’ five not a bit more.” Morel said having spotted a particularly diminutive jockey. “My money’s on him!”
“Hear the gold sing," commented Valentine and they toasted to this sentiment, dark ale sloshing about on the parquet.
The dwarves lined up just behind the starting gate, each struggling to stifle the lofty ambitions of their balloons. The starting bell was heard, and the gates swung wide; the balloons, free from their vertical encasements, began to rise of their own accord. Here each dwarf employed a different method to ensure his timely finish. The most tried and true method being to wrap the leather tether around the leg thereby allowing one to run on the track (which admittedly for someone of such short stature is not the fastest means of travel) and simultaneously control the balloon’s ascent. Another popular, and more recent method employed at the tracks, was to jump and let the balloon carry you aloft before forcefully shifting your weight downward. The inherent flaw in this is that if you didn’t manage to counteract the heavenward-pull you’d end up electrocuted along the interior of the cage top.
The crowd of off-duty servants and industrial workers in their top hats and caps, long tweed coats and waist-cut wool turned in unison, the excitement building as the dwarfs made their way around the first bend; one of their number sending off sparks as he touched the top of the metal cage and inadvertently displacing two others into the sides of the charged metal. Several threw down their tickets in disgust while others whooped and hollered at the pyrotechnical death spectacle. The final stretch found four jockeys bouncing and vying for position. Morel and Valentine’s were amongst the final four and their jockey, after a rather cold-blooded elbow to his nearest competitor crossed the finish line triumphant.
"Dreaming God, avenging God!" shouted Valentine, kissing his winning tickets and searching the sky.
"You are lucky; I wish I could shed a river of tears for that little man. But I’ve not much cheer left today. Come let’s cash our tickets”, said Morrell moving towards the cash boxes.
Valentine gave only a slope answer as he successfully stifled a cheat, & unsuccessfully stifled a groan when he saw the length of the victor’s line.
"Still, I advise that we should not think dull of our “employers” nor fail to pay due attention to their well-trodden tricks, lest our lassitude yield ill-fortune for us.”
“How do you mean?” responded Morrel.
“‘The hilly trove of failure is often combed by fools’” quoted Valentine.
Turning towards him, “That’s good; is it yours?”
“And pray tell—what the hell does it mean?”
“It means sugar numbers or no, we’d better play for bigger stakes or we are likely to be fetching slippers for the rest of our lives.”
Morel turned coyly, slowly around “Why Valentine…what ever did you have in mind?”
III. a day as wide as the sky, or the aerialist
"But why search me, must we leave the brush square so soon?"
“ ‘Fraid so your Honor if we’re to catch the Ether while she’s feeling feisty” then suddenly realizing his place, “but course you know that as well as I, your Honor.”
"I haven’t even learned the shakiest of particulars. Imagine I can only tell you that this air-balloon is strung with leather and the engine, well, as I was saying it is very interesting."
Cheerful Billy Collins "Were the weight distribution to be uneven, why the entire Ether would be upset, and we’d never get off the ground, you see your Honor?”
“But is leaving behind travel articles so necessary?"
They both glanced in the direction of his sedan chair, travel chest, gilded decanters and the two exhausted servants of Morrel and Valentine beside this mound of personal effects.
“Yes I am afraid it is your Honor.”
"Oh, dammit, very well then” and with a grandiose wave of the hand, “I shall love you all though, what sea could spilt I from you?”
"Come, now your Honor. It’s time we were going.”
The venerable judge hoisted one leg up on the lip of the balloon basket and muscled his way over it; falling in a tumble to its center and causing the entire airborne structure to wobble a bit as it ascended into the mid-morning Ether.
“Well how do you like that? A pig with wings. " said Morel, with a rewarding modern face.
“Bury power!” Valentine cried in solidarity and the two men watched Morel’s master soar off into the ether; thereby giving them both a brief respite from servitude.
IV. betrayal in its finer form, or, the usurpation of a class, or, upward mobility (encapsulated)
Back in Judge’s chambers Morel bent over the jewelry box which contained the sugar numbers; a metal pick in his hand which was very pale, like knit wood.
“What size did you ask for?”
“3 and a half”
"This Marcus…is he in the service? What house is he with?”
“Shhh! You’re unnerving me.”
A muffled metal clasp clicked. Entry; half-suffocated.
“There. Your shilling was well spent I’d say—having bought you a fortune. Perhaps now you’ll be induced to alter your opinion.”
The box lay open the copper tiles of sugar numbers, etched in a sort of Braille, threatening to spill over.
“And they mean—”
"They mean freedom my dear Valentine from our indentured servitude. Does that annoy you?"
"Let us imagine such months," mused Valentine twisting away from the glare of his prize and towards the smoldering log upon the hearth.
"Let us not; on the contrary, we’ll have plenty of time to think about it once the deed is done, said Morel hurriedly lifting the tiles from Madame Danglar’s former jewelry-turned-strong box, half-turning to observe Valentine’s posture “What is this shrunk blood of yours—think of it; your own property."
But Valentine was busy watching the rubbery snow fall outside on the lawn
"You think, then, that I may rely on this…Marcus, to the extent of earning me a count's property?”
"Count, Duke, you may have it all and metal new,” half-rhymed Morel over his shoulder as he placed the counterfeit tiles from his burlap sack in the jewelry box "Certainly I do. Now away,” he said closing the box and relocking it. “Let us go and I shall introduce you to the fabled Marcus.”
And the two made off like Marxist bandits in the night.
V. A day’s repose.
The rotund Speed-hearing Judge was just finishing up his soup, his gold-platted spoon knocking against the bottom of the bowl when he was given to hear—
"Sir, my right-hand is clean cut with assuring your comfort in flight. Might we descend now? Our correspondent is signaling; it’ll be dusk soon."
"What is the measure of this?! What a badly lit cloud calculator you are!" exclaimed the Judge. “Do you mean to tell me that’s all for today?” Grasping at his ivory hearing horn which was slung round his sizable neck so as to be sure as not to misinterpret the signaling.
Collins was careful to rearrange his words now, “I’m ‘fraid so your honor. I’ve injured myself as I’ve said and it’s nearly dark.”
“Dark?!” replied the Honorable Judge Danglar, bumbling with the pocket watch chained to one of his many vest pockets, “Why it’s just past three in the p.m.”
Billy, grappling with the airship ropes as with his patience shouted over the northerly winds, “Aye that is true your Honor but we’ve encountered a storm not more than an hour away and it’s time we landed. It would be unwise to go on.”
Now the rotund Judge rose with speed, knocking the airship about with his sudden redistribution of its weight, “I’ll not be cheated out of an afternoon’s ballooning by your incompetence Collins!” and with that, the speed-hearing Judge Danglars, displaying a heretofore unspoken knowledge of an airship’s flight dynamics, grasped the main ropes with one meaty paw and gassed it with the other, sending the ship and it’s unwilling cargo upwards, towards the black thunderhead on the horizon.
“But sir—I really must—”
“Not another word from you Collins or I will throw you over with the china!”
Collins glanced over the lip of the ship’s carriage and saw the countryside in neatly divided parcels rapidly fading away.
“Now be a decent first mate and fix us a cuppa” growled the Judge, focusing evermore pointedly on the horizon.