“That’s me.” The man had the narrow smile of a nervous weasel and a thin moustache that had never been in style. “Thomas Nathaniel Watkins, Speedy London Carriages, at your service.”
He extended a bony hand, which Isabelle reluctantly shook. Just because she was angry was no reason to abandon good manners.
“I wish to complain.” She stared Watkins in the eye. “Yesterday I hired one of your carriages for an important meeting. The horse died on route, and had clearly been in terrible condition before that. It delayed my journey and meant I missed my appointment with the Crown Prince of Blutagest.”
“Sorry about that, miss.” Watkins chewed on the corner of his lip. “What do you want from me?”
“It’s Mrs, not Miss,” Isabelle said. “Mrs McNair. What I want is an apology and some compensation.”
“Did the driver charge you?”
“He paid me back twice over, but that is hardly commensurate with-”
“Then you’ve been compensated.” Watkins bobbed his head and turned away. “Excuse me, I’ve work to do.”
He walked into the stables and Isabelle stomped after him. How dare this wretched man ignore her concerns?
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the gloom inside, and so to make sense of what she saw. Horses were lined up in thin spaces separated by metal bars. Pipes descended from the ceiling into each of their mouths, and some sort of grey slop was being pumped from a machine by the wall. There were blisters on their lips where the pipes entered. When one of the horses tried to step back, a lever swung down from the ceiling and lashed it across the rear. Several of the horses had red welts on their flanks.
“What is this?” She choked on the words, her own concerns all but forgotten at the appalling sight.
“This is how we get the speedy in Speedy London Carriages.” Watkins stroked one of the pipes. “Special diet and mechanical conditioning.” He frowned at her. “Why are you still here?”
Isabelle took a deep breath, not the most pleasant experience in a cramped room full of frightened horses, and turned her glare back on the man.
“I want…” The thought slipped from her mind as the lash descended across another of the horses. “That is I demand…”
It was no good. She couldn’t even string her thoughts together in here. Perhaps that was Watkins’ intent, the odious little man. She had to take this outside.
No. The thought stopped her as she turned toward the door. If the problem was this place, then the solution was not to run from it. Not with so much suffering on display.
“I want you stop this barbarity at once.” She pointed to the horses.
Watkins’ laughter sounded almost as unpleasant as the horses’ pain.
“I own these nags,” he said. “You can’t tell me what to do. In fact…” He grabbed her arm and started dragging her out into the yard. “You can’t be here. This is private property.”
The pain of his fingers digging into Isabelle’s arm was nothing next to the distress she felt at leaving the horses to suffer, or her indignation at being treated this way. But now her passions didn’t block her thoughts, they fuelled them.
“It is private property, isn’t it?” She dug her heels in, no easy feat on manure-smeared cobbles, bringing them both to a halt. “And this whole area is owned by the Duke of Kent, so you must lease from him. I wonder what he would say about letting you continue, if I told him about today.”
Watkins chewed at his lip again, eyes narrowing as he stared at her.
“You don’t know the Duke of Kent,” he muttered.
“Short man, balding a little, dab hand at cribbage.” Isabelle raised her eyebrow. “And he loves horses.”
Watkins looked from her to the stables and then back again.
“Fine.” His shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry you were delayed. Let me get my bookkeeper and we’ll talk compensation.”
“And no more machines for the horses,” Isabelle said.
“You’ll ruin me, woman!”
“Not as much as losing your lease will.”
“Fine.” Now it was Watkins’ turn to look indignant. “Not that it’s your business, but no more machines for the horses. Now will you just go away and leave me in peace?”
“Of course. I’ll come back tomorrow for my compensation.” Isabelle smiled and turned to walk away, then looked back one last time toward the odious Watkins. “And to see how much better you’re caring for your horses.”
* * *
Isabelle McNair is one of the stars of my steampunk adventure Guns and Guano, available as an ebook on most platforms, including Amazon. It’s free most places, and the sequel Suits and Sewers will be out very soon.
This particular story was inspired by reading a post on hollyiblogs, which cited an estimate that 3,000 horses a week died in London in the 1880s. It made me wonder about the lives and deaths of those horses, many of them worked to death as beasts of burden in an increasingly crowded and alienating urban environment. We often talk about the human cost of progress, but there are other sad costs too.
And if you thought this was worth reading, there’s more where it came from – my steampunk anthology Riding the Mainspring is free to anyone signing up to my mailing list. Why not enjoy some more tales of strange gadgets and Victorian life, all for a couple of clicks of the mouse.