Great Iron Dragon vs. Silk Butterfly Race
Early Conn-Mann Chronicle
Rie Sheridan Rose
“I tell you, it’s no contest. Of course the
steam engine would win!”
“And I say you are wrong! The airship — by
its very nature — is going to be the faster conveyance.
None of that extraneous mass to drag along.”
Alistair Conn threw up his hands and turned to me.
“What do you think, Jo?”
Why on earth he was asking me, I had no idea. I
wasn’t one of his scientific colleagues, merely his lab
assistant. Still, I was flattered that he had
asked. It was a sign he was beginning to value my input.
His cousin and partner, Herbert Lattimer pleaded
his own case.
“Yes, Josephine — you’ve ridden in both types of
transport. Which do you think would win?”
I rolled my eyes. Men and their toys. They would
argue about this point forever — to the exclusion of all
other topics — if someone didn’t take charge.
“Alistair, I know you are quite proud of the
Wyvern.” This was the name I had given to his
locomotive — which he had spent an enormous sum to
purchase. The family pockets must be much deeper than I
had thought. I knew it couldn’t all have come from his
professor’s salary. “And you are justifiably proud of
the airship, Herbert.” He had rebuilt his precious craft
practically from scratch after a villainous rival shot
it out of the sky, and it was even grander than before.
“I see only one way to settle the question. Why don’t
you have a race?”
With their mouths hanging open in astonishment, the
family resemblance was quite apparent.
“A race?” Alistair squeaked.
“Why, yes. It is what you call ‘scientific
method,’ is it not?” I couldn’t see why he was so
surprised. “The only way to fairly judge the matter is
to put the two to an actual test.”
Herbert sank back into the chair he had darted up
from when Alistair first impugned his beloved Pearl.
“It’s an interesting notion, Alistair. I’ve been wanting
to give the new Pearl a shakedown voyage, and you
have some time free between class sessions.”
Alistair pursed his lips in thought.
might prove an interesting experiment at that. I’ve been
making some modifications to the Wyvern to help
it burn fuel more efficiently…”
“And Fred has been working with you to do the same
for the Pearl, hasn’t she, Herbert?” That worthy
nodded. “So you would both benefit from the enterprise.
Now, let’s go in to dinner.” Before either man could
argue, I sailed past them with a swish of skirts,
knowing both were too polite to let a lady go to dinner
Dinner at Ma Stark’s boarding house was always a
lively affair. Besides the aforementioned gentlemen and
myself, my best friend Winifred Bond lived in the
establishment. There were other boarders, but they
seldom got a word in edgewise, although I tried my best
to include them on most occasions.
Tonight, I didn’t even try. Once Fred — as she
preferred to be called — was apprised of the proposal,
the three technosists (a name I had coined for them)
chattered away at top speed about steam ratios and
argued about where to conduct this great experiment. I
let their words wash over me, content to observe my
I had signed on as Alistair Conn’s assistant
several weeks before. The moment I laid eyes on the
tall, lanky professor, I knew we had been destined to
meet. It took very little persuasion to convince him to
hire me, so I like to flatter myself that he sensed the
connection as well.
Herbert Lattimer’s first airship had later proved
vital when we suddenly discovered ourselves in need of
transport out west. When the original Pearl was
destroyed in the middle of Ohio, Fred helped us out of
our predicament. Curious about the big city, she soon
followed after the rest of us returned home to New York.
Now we had our own little enclave of experiments
and exasperation. It was more fun than I had expected
lab work and filing to be.
“Now, Alistair, to make it a fair contest, you will
need a long, straight stretch of track, will you not?” I
broke in, curious to hear his answer — and tired of
being ignored. “Where will you attempt this enterprise?”
“Best t’avoid any main line,” Ma Stark commented,
spooning a large helping of mashed potatoes onto my
plate — she feels I’m in need of fattening up. “’Twould
be a shame t’disrupt tha service o’good, hardworking
folk simply fer a game.”
“Valid point, Ma,” conceded Alistair. “And since
you only just suggested the contest less than an hour
ago, Josephine, I haven’t given that aspect of it much
thought. I will investigate the matter tomorrow.” From
the enthusiastic manner with which he attacked his
dinner, I knew the discussion was closed, and turned the
conversation to other matters.
The next morning, Alistair was off before the sun
rose. I don’t know what he hoped to accomplish — no one
of any decency would receive him at that hour — but I
didn’t mind because it would make my own investigations
simpler if he wasn’t hanging about getting in the way.
My first stop was a visit to Aunt Emily across the
street. She was actually Alistair’s aunt, not mine, but
our common fondness had led to her request I address her
so. The refined widow of a respected businessman, I
rationalized she might know who to approach with my
questions about the railroad.
“Jo, my dear!” she exclaimed as I was announced,
coming forward to take my hands. “I was much in need of
distraction this morning. What brings you to visit me
“Do you know anyone at the railroad?”
I explained our latest enterprise.
“As if purchasing his own train wasn’t foolish
enough,” she tsked, shaking her head. “His mother will
have something to say about that when she
returns, mark my words.”
“It was actually quite a reasonable purchase, Aunt
Emily. Now we can travel about the country as necessary
without worry. I far prefer it to the Pearl.”
“I do tend to agree, my dear. Though I foresee air
travel is the wave of the future. It’s the next big
I shrugged. “I’ll keep my feet firmly on the
ground, if it’s all the same to you.”
“I suppose falling from the sky will sour your
outlook on the matter. Well, I do know one gentleman who
might have the information you seek. Let me write you an
I stepped out of the carriage in front of a modest
brownstone at the edge of the financial district half an
hour later. Nervous, I lifted the brass knocker and
rapped on the door. It was opened by a tall, spinsterish
woman in a neat uniform who looked down her sharp nose
“Yes? May I help you?” Her tone was so icy I was
surprised the words didn’t form icicles on her lips.
“I would like to see Mr. Philpott,” I replied,
straightening to my full height and fingering the note
Aunt Emily had given me. I had every right to speak to
the man. I couldn’t look down my nose at her, but
I tried to match her tone.
“Mr. Philpott is not receiving.” She moved as if to
shut the door, and I thrust my boot into the crack. She
looked down at my foot in surprise. A frown creased her
face, and I could see the debate in her head — should
she acquiesce or risk causing injury by slamming it
Before she could decide one way or the other, I
held out my letter of introduction.
“Could you at least deliver this note and tell him I’m
waiting?” I gave her my most winning smile.
I might still have come away with a broken toe, at
the least, had not a white-haired gentleman come down
the stairs behind her at that precise moment.
“What on earth is going on, Miss Rogers?”
She turned to him with a stiff curtsy.
“This person has come to see you, Mr. Philpott, but she
has no appointment or card….”
“I’ll handle it, Miss Rogers. Won’t you come
“Mann. Josephine Mann,” I replied, placing my
letter into his outstretched hand. “This is a letter of
introduction from Mrs. Emily Estes.”
His face lit up.
“Any friend of Emily’s is welcome here. Why don’t you
fetch a pot of tea, Miss Rogers?”
He led me across to a fine, masculine sitting room;
there were no touches of femininity in the décor.
Perhaps he was lonely, and longing for a bit of romance
in his life. Was that the source of his interest upon
hearing Aunt Emily’s name? Intriguing thought, but not
important at the moment.
“Mr. Philpott, I need your help,” I began. “The
gist of it is in the letter.” I gestured to the paper in
He glanced over it swiftly.
see. She does outline the problem here. I believe I can
help you. There’s a stretch of track outside Bedford
that’s currently off the schedule because of work being
done to extend it at the far end. You could access the
near end and have a fairly straight course for almost
ten miles. Would that suit your needs?”
“We would be able to get the Wyvern onto
“Wyvern — it is the name of Professor Conn’s
“I see…. Most assuredly. It’s the other end that’s
currently disconnected. You must be sure to have a good
brakeman, of course, because the bridge is out for
repairs at the far end.”
I thought about that for a moment. Alistair
would have a good brakeman, of course — I was almost
certain that his automaton Phaeton would be handling
those duties, and he would perform them with the
perfection he brought to any other task once instructed
“That shouldn’t be a difficulty,” I promised. “As
long as we have a clear track, we should be fine.”
Miss Rogers appeared bearing tea and disapproval. I
smiled sweetly at her and batted my lashes. She slammed
the tray down as hard as she dared and stalked from the
Mr. Philpott and I had a pleasant chat over tea. I
learned many fascinating facts about the railroad that
are neither here nor there for the purpose of this
narrative. Since it had occurred to me that Mr. Philpott
was a very lonely man, I protracted the visit as long as
I deemed appropriate. Perhaps I would speak to Ma or
Aunt Emily and see if I could arrange a small dinner
But not today. I had a written authorization from
Mr. Philpott to the stationmaster at the decommissioned
length of track giving permission for the race. I needed
to get it to Alistair as soon as possible, before he
came up with some less savory alternative.
The next two weeks were a bustle of activity.
Alistair spent all his free time at the roundhouse with
Phaeton, tinkering with his steam engine. He built a
custom coal car on the back of a flat car cutting much
of the weight. They intended to race with only the two
Meanwhile, in Herbert’s warehouse workshop, he and
Fred worked to optimize the Pearl. I was slightly
envious of her endeavors — not because of her companion,
but because she had something to do. Alistair was
worried I would be hurt if I helped at the roundhouse,
so I was relegated to puttering about the laboratory and
bothering Ma in her kitchen until she tossed me out as
When I went to Aunt Emily for consolation, she
offered me an outlet for my boredom.
“Have you considered publicizing this event,
“What do you mean?”
“It seems a fascinating competition, dear. Perhaps
other people would be interested in seeing the race. You
could put an advertisement in the newspaper and charge
My mind whirled through the possibilities.
“That’s a capital idea, Aunt Emily! We could make a day
of it. Serve lemonade and sandwiches…oh, this could be
We discussed logistics until teatime and had a most
pleasant afternoon. When I returned home, I went
immediately to my room and composed an advertisement to
deliver to the newspaper the next morning. Only then did
I realize I had no idea when the race might take
I asked Alistair that very question over dinner.
After all, the track wouldn’t be available forever.
“I suppose it could be any time now. The Wyvern
is finished. Herbert?” He turned to his cousin.
“The Pearl is ready. Just name the date.”
“Today is Monday. Why don’t we settle the matter on
“Excellent! I’ll put in the advertisement
tomorrow.” Now that was settled, I fell to my dinner
“Advertisement?” Alistair’s voice had that chill of
disapproval I found particularly irritating…when
directed at me.
“Yes, Alistair.” I sighed, laying aside my fork.
“It was Aunt Emily’s idea. This is an opportunity to
show off your inventions — Phaeton, the steam engine,
Herbert’s Pearl. Inviting the public to the race
will prevent any bother like we had this spring. No one
can claim your inventions if the public knows all about
The logic of the argument was inescapable. Even
Alistair had to admit that.
“Fine! If you feel you must. Give Mr. Greenstreet
I didn’t relish speaking to the odious little
newspaper man again, but I supposed there was no choice.
I had been keen on the plan before Alistair reminded me
I would have to deal with the toad. But there was no way
around it if I wanted to place the advertisement.
The next morning, I dressed in my most sensible,
business-like attire and headed down to the newspaper
office with my advertisement in hand. Taking a deep
breath and raising my chin high, I opened the door to
Mr. Greenstreet’s office and swept in.
He glanced up from the papers he was perusing, and
— I swear — his face blanched white.
“What are you doing here?” he blurted.
The reaction was not unexpected. Our first
encounter had not been auspicious. But I set my
shoulders and pressed on. What he felt about me didn’t
matter. He’d take my money quick enough, no doubt.
“I am here to place an advertisement,” I said,
making my voice as meek as possible in a bid for
“What sort of advertisement?” His eyes brightened
at the thought of revenue.
“A full page, if you please.” I showed him my
carefully prepared layout.
“A race, is it? Fascinating. But you’re
undercharging. You should ask a dime for admission and
charge twenty-five cents for a sandwich and lemonade.”
“You don’t think that would be greedy?”
“I’m sure there’ll be expenses involved beyond this
advertisement. Have you engaged a food vendor, for
I hadn’t considered that, as a matter of fact.
“I could suggest someone if you like. I know a
young woman named Patricia Merriweather who would be
perfect for your needs.”
“That would be lovely.” I meant that with all my
heart. I had no idea where to start — unless I asked Ma
to cater, and it would be unfair to ruin her holiday.
By the time I left the newspaper office, I had a
full page advertisement scheduled, the address of the
caterer, and a new appreciation of Mr. Greenstreet. I
doubted we would ever be bosom friends, but at least I
no longer despised him for ruining my life. Besides, if
he had given me the job I’d applied for, I wouldn’t have
become Alistair’s assistant.
My next stop was to visit the woman he had
recommended. Patricia and I took to each other
instantly, and worked out a deal to our mutual
The day of the race the air seemed charged with
electricity. It was a beautiful summer day, not a cloud
in the sky. A light breeze whipped pennants decorating
the course. The Pearl hovered, bobbing on her
tethers. The Wyvern gleamed on the rails.
Dressed in my best summer seersucker, I wove
through the crowds, greeting friends and strangers
alike; I felt it my duty to play hostess. It was my
idea, after all. Ma and Aunt Emily sat behind a table
shaded by a large umbrella taking admission money. They
were having a grand time.
Someone had hired a band — I’m not sure who because
I hadn’t even thought of it, but it added a festive note
to the occasion. Polkas and marches filled the air with
bright, ringing brass and shrills of flute and piccolo.
Drums beat tattoos in counterpoint to the laughter of
Aunt Emily’s maid, Vanessa, was helping Patricia
with the sandwiches and lemonade and flirting with the
customers. The caterer had recruited some friends to
help with the food, and the aromas of hot dogs and
popcorn perfumed the July air. They were doing
crackerjack business, and we would receive half the
profits. It would be a very lucrative day.
I saw Mr. Greenstreet chatting with Alistair and
Herbert and waved. The gentlemen waved back. I had never
seen Mr. Greenstreet smile before. He had quite a nice
Alistair checked his pocket watch, and said
something to Herbert. My heart began to pound. It must
I hurried to join them.
“Are you about to begin?” I asked Alistair.
“It is the scheduled time.” He glanced around the
makeshift fairgrounds. “I wonder where Phaeton can be?”
“How could you lose a nine-foot tall automaton?” I
rolled my eyes. Honestly, the man was hopeless.
“Just…find him, will you?”
Herbert rubbed his hands together.
we’re getting ready to start, I should be getting aboard
the Pearl. Has anyone seen Fred?”
“I believe I saw her over by the bandstand,” I told
him, pointing in that general direction.
“Thanks.” He hurried off in search of his co-pilot.
Well, that was one thing sorted. Now, where could
the marvelous mechanical man be? I craned my neck,
searching for a hint of brass. It shouldn’t be hard to
see him despite the crowds. It wasn’t like Phaeton to go
off and get himself lost. I hoped no one had decided to
kidnap him again.
I finally spotted him helping Vanessa and Patricia
make sandwiches. It was a most incongruous sight.
I hurried across the grass.
“Phaeton! The race is about to begin. You need to get to
the train at once.”
He cocked his head at me.
am needed here.”
“But….” I was at a loss for words. I’d never seen
Phaeton disobey a direct order before.
“It would be unfair for me to assist Master
Alistair anyway, Miss Jo. My weight added to the weight
of the locomotive will cause it to far exceed that of
the Pearl. You should be the brakeman.”
I started to protest, then changed my mind. It
would be exciting to be part of the race. Alistair
hadn’t wanted me to help because Phaeton was a better
match for Fred in terms of experience and aptitude. But
the automaton was correct. His weight would definitely
put Alistair at a disadvantage.
I ran back to the train, climbing aboard the
Alistair glanced at me from the controls.
“What are you doing here?”
“Phaeton is busy,” I answered, picking up the coal
shovel. “I’ll be your brakeman.”
He sighed. “If it isn’t one thing it’s another.
Very well. Build up the pressure. It’s just like stoking
I regretted my pale green seersucker now, as the
coal dust billowed about me, but it couldn’t be helped.
I shoveled with a will, and the pressure began to build
in the boiler. Alistair pulled the handle of the whistle
twice — the signal to Herbert the race was about to
begin. I saw Fred wave out of the newly installed
porthole on the side of the airship’s gondola, and we
The train accelerated slowly, but quickly built to
breathtaking speed, the wheels clacking in thunderous
cadence. I glanced out the window. The wind caught my
hair, blowing it in my eyes, but I could see the
Pearl sailing above us. It was running slightly
“We need more speed, Alistair! They’re winning.”
“Add more coal,” he ordered, adjusting the
I hurried to comply. It was so exciting. Almost
like flying…but I much preferred it to being in the
Suddenly, my mind flashed back to something that
Mr. Philpott had said. You must be sure to have a
good brakeman, of course, because the bridge is out for
repairs at the far end.
“How far have we come, Alistair?” I gasped.
“About three miles, why?”
I staggered to the brake, fighting to keep my feet
beneath me. I suppose most railroad workers stayed in
one place when their trains were in motion. And they
didn’t push the engines to the limit, either.
I could see the trestle of the missing bridge in
the distance — the not-nearly-far-enough-away distance.
I tugged on the brake with all my strength. The lever
barely moved. I must see about strengthening my muscles.
“Alistair! Help me! The bridge is out.”
His face paled, and then he was at my side,
straining against the lever with me. Imperceptibly, it
began to give. The Wyvern was still hurtling down
He glared at me.
am doing my best!”
Grunting, he forced the lever downwards. The train
began to slow…but not fast enough.
I swung on the lever with all my weight. Suddenly,
it gave, and the engine screeched to a halt. I landed
hard on the floor, bruising an unmentionable part of my
anatomy. I dared not stand for fear I would faint.
When I finally had my breath under control, I
climbed to my feet and stepped to the window. The
cowcatcher on the front of the locomotive was touching
the barrier warning of the missing bridge. The Pearl
was across the ravine and turning back our way.
“That was exciting,” I murmured, giving my
companion a wan smile.
“But who won?” he asked.
A one-track mind on that one.
“I’d say we did. At least we didn’t go over the
edge.” I clambered down to solid ground on shaky limbs.
Herbert landed the airship in the meadow beside the
track. Fred was off the Pearl almost before it
“Are you alright, Jo?” she shouted as she ran
Herbert exited the ship more slowly.
“Alistair, is the Wyvern alright?”
Such is the difference between men and women.
The four of us climbed aboard the Pearl. I
could stand a short jaunt, and it would be much more
difficult to back the train up the track.
“I suppose you won,” Alistair sighed to Herbert, as
Fred and I made ourselves comfortable on the settee.
“I don’t know if I would say that, old man. We were
running dead even before you started to slow down. I
don’t think we can really count the results of this
endeavor. We’ll just have to try again.”
“Next time, let’s make sure the track doesn’t end
in a fall into a ravine, shall we?” Alistair drawled.
“I told you it was only ten miles, and the bridge
was out, Alistair,” I reminded him. At least, I think
I told him….
Things were back to normal. Iron dragon, silk
butterfly — both had their advantages, but I would be
happy to walk for my everyday transportation. At least
for the moment.