THE ASTOUNDING BIRTH, IMPRESSIVE CAREER, SHOCKING DEATH, AND AMAZING TURNING-OUT-TO-HAVE-BEEN-ALIVE-THE-WHOLE-TIMEFULNESS of the LEGENDARY ADVENTURER known only as THE BLACK MOSQUITO, who is both THE GREATEST THIEF OF ALL TIME and also a STAGGERINGLY BEAUTIFUL LADY and is also ME: A True Story.
By Lorelei E. D. Underforth, with oversight by M_____
CHAPTER THE FIRST : THE BEGINNING
In which I am born and employ myself for several years in the position of a small child
The history of the Underforth family being an especially illustrious and richly detailed one, my father thought it prudent to begin my education in the cradle. If I started learning of my heritage when I was small, he reasoned, I would just about have time to learn everything important by adulthood, and would be suitably immunized against various falsehoods spread by jealous and bitter people whose own incompetence has let to their limbs being eaten up by machinery.
As one might expect of a man so intelligent that he owned over thirty factories, Father took no chances with my education. He himself took the time out of his frightfully busy schedule to select the vice president whose clerk would hire the servant who would teach me what it meant to be an Underforth.
That servant’s name was Mrs. Trowel, and she was, in a way, a sort of factory herself. She didn’t make gears or springs or cogs or ratchets or anything else of a useful nature, but she did make a large array of children, of which my friend Mary was the eldest. She did this all on her own, and entirely inside of herself, an affectation I am told is common among the servant classes. Mrs. Trowel only ended up making one of Mary, but one was enough, especially when one considers what a lot of brains that one would have, and the subsequent expense in books and paper. The rest of her productions, all boys, are quite as boring as lima beans and, with the flick of a pen, I shall banish them from this narrative.
And now, let us draw up the curtain on a fine day in Spring! The setting is the Underforth family’s fourth best garden; and as the stagehands are our imaginations, we see the full beauty of this splendid bucolic spread unhampered by the endemic indolence of the stagedressing classes. Great floral explosions like multicolored fireworks tower above the meticulously trimmed hedges, the birds have been lacquered to the trees in just the perfect arrangement… and a young girl and her governess stroll alone the marble path.
“Can’t we go any faster? You’re poking along like The Sleepy Turtle”, I asked, having just that morning read a delightful illustrated novella of that title. The Sleepy Turtle had been quite slow indeed, and the terrible troubles it caused were scarcely to be believed, but alas! That is another story, and one I do hope you will look for in your family’s library when you have quite finished with this one.
Mrs. Trowel was leaning on an apple tree, huffing and puffing. I was a spirited child who set a strenuous pace, always running after hares and chipmunks, and it was hard for most adults to keep up with me, even those who were not filled to the gills with babies. “I’ll be along as quickly as I can, young mistress Lorelei, if you’ll just give me a moment to catch my breath,” Mrs. Trowel gasped. She looked quite done in, and her snow-white frock was beginning to be afflicted by a certain malady which originates, I am told, from the unspeakable areas beneath the upper limbs. “Can’t you go even a bit faster?” I whined in the then-fashionable whining style.
“I can go back to the house with you under my arm if you don’t learn to act like a little lady instead of a wild jungle ape!”, she snapped. She plopped herself down on a large, gnarled, bench-shaped root, and gave every indication of intending to plant herself there indefinitely and emit perspiration.
Equally annoyed by this unfair comparison, I let loose the branch I’d been swinging from and dropped into the most ladylike curtsy I was able to manage at age six. “I’m very sorry for rushing you, Missus Trool, it’s just that I’m ever so excited.” I turned the full force of my curtsy on the ill-tempered servant. It was scarcely a fair battle of charm. Mrs. Trowel was bedraggled, and her blond hair, which normally forms itself into big bouncy golden coils, like Mary’s, was slicked down with sweat. Although the extremely generous salary my father paid her had been sufficient for her to rent a lovely second frock to accommodate her various unladylike bulges and engorgements, the beautiful garment was draped over her artlessly, as one might cast a concealing throw rug over an unsightly dozing vagrant. Whereas I was–
Oh, but forgive me, my dear readers, for my pen recoils as I attempt to write the words! My natural modesty reaches out like an icy, skeletal hand and seizes my wrist, threatening to snap my wicked fingers one by one if they continue! I must, however, grit my teeth and push myself to write. I have sworn an oath, dear ones, that I will tell no lie in these memoirs, nor omit any relevant details. It is, therefore, with some embarrassment that I am forced to tell you that I was the most beautiful girl who ever lived, or ever will.
My hair has been described, by a certain poet of my personal acquaintance, as shimmering wreaths of raven fire, my skin as fair as porcelain clouds of ivory. My eyes are like a pair of sparkling amethysts polished to perfection in a crystal-clear stream. My figure, at the time of which I write, was quite slim, if a bit lacking in the what it it is proper to call the ‘marriageable dimensions’. I hope the reader will forgive this sole deficiency, as I was only six at the time, and I assure you, this has since been rectified in spades. Perhaps most becoming, even in the tender budding of youth I was clearly showing signs of the magnificent Underforth nose, a certain unmistakable prominence with which members of our family are blessed. You shall learn more of this famous structure shortly. In short, I was a charming little package. Wrapped as I was in the very best lacy frocks (if they were a bit torn around the edges due to my natural exuberance) and shod in the latest Italian chinchilla-leather boots, I was dazzling. Mrs. Trowel scarcely had a chance. She heaved herself back onto her quite-ordinarily-booted feet and we continued our stroll.
It was a very serious hike from Underforth Manor to the main road, at least in those days, before so much of the property was sold off to support my cousin Nevilla’s unhealthy habits. It took us, or should I say Mrs. Trowel, most of the morning, though I am sure that I personally covered ten times the distance. Every time a speckled hare popped its head out of a flowerbed or a chirruping swallow broke out of its epoxy shell to sing a merry tune, I was off and running, scooping up a handful of throwing rocks with the confidence of youth.
The sun was almost at its zenith by the time we reached the great outer wall.
“My goodness!” I said, in awe of the imposing structure. It was at least twenty feet tall, and even taller if you took the heights of the guards and light ballistae into account, and broken only by an immense set of enormous ironwood gates reinforced with several tons of solid brass banding.
“This would be the end of the Underforth property, then,” Mrs. Trowel panted, catching up to me. “At least of your in-town residential holdings, young mistress.”
“Then what’s on the other side?” I asked, picturing a boiling sea filled with dragons.
“Why, the rest of the town, of course. Other houses and whatnot.”
“Can I see it?”
“Certainly not! It’s crawling with thugs and pirates. A refined young lady like you would be torn into bloody shreds in a matter of seconds.”
“Goodness!” I said again, delighted. I had no desire to be torn to pieces myself, but I thought that next time Nevilla visited, I could put her up over the wall first and see if it would really happen. “Can’t I just peek out without actually going out?”
“And have one of the child-baggers shoot you with a blowgun, I suppose, and wouldn’t that be something for me to explain to your parents?” she snapped. “You’re lucky enough to be allowed out this far at your tender age. You can leave the estate after you’re married, if you still have the desire. I’ve brought you here for another reason.”
She took my hand firmly and began pulling me along. At first I was squirmy, but I soon realized we were heading towards the massive gates after all. My heart leapt. Perhaps she had suddenly gone mad! It was not unheard of in servants, and it could scarcely have come at a more opportune time. Tragically, it was not to be. Our route took us not to the gates, but to what stood in front of them.
It was a statue, quite large, though dwarfed by the wall itself. There, depicted in finest marble, was a great plutocrat and inventor. He sat grinning astride a powerful locomotive engine, one hand on the winding key as if he was spurring it on to greater and greater speeds. INDUSTRY, read the inscription on the side of the engine, and it seemed to be chugging away just fine despite the massive barrel-chested girth of its passenger. The sculptor had been talented, and one could almost see the stone buttons of the waistcoat struggle to contain the walrus-like enormitude of the living dynamo as he posed for immortality. A crowd of auto-men was gathered around the tracks of the engine, cheering happily for the rider in a way no real auto-man can cheer. I recognized him at once.
“Oh, it’s only a statue of Father,” I said gloomily.
“That’s quite correct, Mistress Lorelei, and how did you recognize him?”
“Well, of course I know what Father looks like,” I scoffed. “His portraits are everywhere.” I liked Father well enough, but he was all over the house in the form of paintings, busts, and topiaries, and I had no need to see any more of him.
“Because of this!” Mrs. Trowel continued, ignoring me. She jabbed one dishwater-scoured finger at the statue’s face. “Throughout history there have been great families, who have done great things, and have been molded by the hands of the Lord, chiseled into shape, just like this statue, so that everyone would know their bloodline. In time, their names because synonymous with their marks of distinction. There were the Habsburgs, once, and then there were the Hunchenbakk, and now there are also the Underforths, each of whom carry the Underforth nose.”
How should I describe the Underforth nose, then? Volumes have been written about its distinctive beauty, its regally cylindrical shape. It was not a girthy nose, not like the bulging potato-snouts one sees on the kitchen staff, but it was remarkably long. About four inches, and proudly pointed, it lofted from Father’s stone visage like a spear. It was, if anything, a bit shorter than his real nose. Perhaps the carver had been worried about it breaking off if it was made to be too long. Mrs. Trowel ran her index finger up and down the length for emphasis. I touched my own nose, which was so far only about an inch longer than those of other girls my age.
“I didn’t realize it was so special,” I said in awe. “I just supposed it meant I had to be careful about bumping into things.”
“That as well,” Mrs. Trowel nodded. “It’s your gift, and you must be a careful steward, unless you want to end up with it all crumpled and broken like your Uncle Arlen.”
As nice as it was to hear about how I had been marked by the heavens for a special destiny, all-in-all the morning had been a bit of a letdown. Father was a decent enough fellow, but when I had heard I would be seeing a statue of the greatest hero in all of history, I had envisioned a different individual.
He was a whisper, a shadow, a thief in the night. It was said that his clothes were made of dusk, his shoes of the wind, and that when he had completed each stealthy crime he took his stolen goods down to Hell to fence them to the Devil himself. I had learned what little I could of him, patching together myth and legend, furious editorial and slightly fictionalized comic-paper account, until I had what I thought was a fairly accurate image in my head.
His name, said to be written in blood on the dark side of the moon and burbled by wicked jellyfish in the deepest trenches of the sea, was this and this only: the Black Mosquito!
He stole only from the rich, striking a blow for their poor downtrodden victims. It was for this reason that I thought Father might have erected a statue to him, for the industrious Underforths had taken their share of wounds at the red, rapacious claws of the wealthy. When the Iberian war caused the greatest servant shortage in fifty years, those idle rich who were able to pay inflated salaries snapped up nearly all the able-bodied young cowards and left the scraps to us. For two terrifying years, my family was menaced by a gruesome parade of flat feet and gimpy ears–truly, if any family ever had cause to hate the grasping greed of the pampered upper classes, it was us!
The Black Mosquito had failed to come to our aid in that time of need, but I could blame him not. He was at that time looting the castles of the Iberian nobles, smuggling the wealth back home to be cunningly laundered through the brewing and affection industries. If rumor could be trusted, many were the tyrannical landholders who had woke up to find their palaces sacked, their safes cracked, and their daughters kissed into a permanent swoon.
I had in time come rather to idolize the shadowy man of which I had heard so much, and had been looking forward to seeing his statue. My disappointment was palpable, and Mrs. Trowel palped it at once.
“What’s wrong, then?” she asked. “The statue’s not big enough for you, I suppose?”
“No, it’s quite impressive,” I said politely, though in all honesty it really could have been bigger. The laziness of the sculpting classes is a sad reality. “I just thought that perhaps it would be of a hero whose feats, being grounded in the realm of the physical rather than the monetary, would lend themselves more to such representation. The…. Silver Shark, perhaps, or the Verdant Serpent, or the Black–“
“The Silver Shark was shot full of cannonballs off the coast of Maine last month,” Mrs. Trowel reminded me heartlessly. “The Verdant Serpent has been unmasked and put into an Asylum for the Bi-Polaric, and as for the other, well…I never will understand why you idolize these murderous fiends, young mistress Lorelei!”
This was a base lie of course, for they were scarcely fiends. Would a fiend give money to the poor? Would a fiend be handsome? Murderous angels would have been more accurate! But backtalk was risky. I could find myself parked in my room with only a book of morally instructive poetry, to “learn to correct myself”. One more afternoon with the Five Good Little Girls And The One Bad One Who Died of Collapse of the Tongue, and I’d be ready to scream.
I nodded quietly to Mrs. Trowel, accepting my rebuke. I had not seen the Black Mosquito that day after all. It would be long indeed before my next chance came.