Chapter 2......... George's Party
The cab wound its way through the city. They drove though well-lit streets where lampposts lined the home-filled avenues like sentinels and past factory buildings whose windows would continue to beam out rays of industrious light until daybreak. But the further they drove, the less light there was. After a while, there were only the amber clouds and a few lonely lampposts to light the way. Faye pulled her shawl around herself and leaned into Silas, who had unwrapped the package and was studying the contents under the light of a match.
“The Dascyleum Text,” he mumbled, mostly to himself. “That’s an odd name.”
“What is it about?” Faye asked, not expecting an answer.
Silas turned to the first chapter and started reading, rubbing his lower lip in thought and going silent. The cab passed an old tenement building whose roof had collapsed. Signs of builders making repairs were cluttered over the street. Faye had grown up in a building like that – one every bit as rickety and poorly built. It was a miracle half of the tenements in Boston didn’t collapse in the summer breeze.
The cab stopped in front of an abandoned four-story factory, where Skander (whose real name, which he was never called by, was Qasim Iskander) lived in a room on the top floor. The building was poorly designed and improperly built, which may have explained why it hadn’t been bought by any other businessman or company since the factory went bankrupt twenty years ago. Skander’s room itself was the only place that wasn’t in a state of complete disintegration. It was a large, empty space, with no plumbing, no furniture besides a bed, no kitchen besides a fireplace vented out a window, and no floor in the south-west corner. It wasn’t much, but he only wanted a room large enough for his experiments and a space unwelcoming enough to keep distractions and visitors away. Unfortunately, George didn’t mind the location and was happy enough with any place large enough to hold a party.
“Silas,” Faye nudged him as another match went out.
He blinked and looked out at the brick building with its wide-staired entry. “Hm,” he frowned.
“We don’t have to stay long.”
He looked back down at the book.
“You can read it inside,” Faye laughed, taking his hand and pulling him out of the cab with her.
They walked up the stairs, footprints on the snow-covered stone showing that there were quite a number of people there already, and pushed open the old wooden doors. The smell of old grease, rusting metal, and dust filled the air, and the sound of a piano hammering a dance thundered down the stairwell. George had bought it one day and moved it in while Skander was out of town, and Skander didn't have the money or time to get rid of it.
They were winded by the time they climbed the three flights. Skander’s room was down a short hallway and when they opened the door, a cacophony of music, noise, laughter, and warm candlelight hit them, along with the smell of something baking and a boiling pot of spiced wine. Faye grinned and slipped out of her coat, handing it to Silas, who went to hang it on the wall. She stood a moment, looking at the party. There must have been twenty people there, from all walks of life. There were thick, brawny men with scruffy beards and blackened hands, and there were elegant women in chiffon with their trim and tailored escorts, no doubt enjoying the adventure of seeing how the peasants lived. Faye snorted to herself. How George had managed to gather such a motley and late-night party in barely an hour was one of life’s great mysteries.
George’s loud baritone echoed off the bare walls singing The Torpedo and the Whale while Ira leaned against the piano watching his fingers and singing along in her low, somewhat scruffy voice. Faye wandered around the dance floor and took a place next to Ira, watching George’s fingers dance across the keys.
“Then he lash’d out with his tail, oh!” he sang. “The fish being loaded / Then and there exploded / And oh! and oh! / That whale was seen no mo’!”
Half the party stopped what they were doing and turned to finish the last line. “The fish being loaded / Then and there exploded / And oh! and oh! / That whale was seen no mo’!”
The room burst into laughter as the piano plinked up to the top notes, dancing around before crashing down to the bottom with a bang. With only the briefest of pauses, George started up again, this time slow and high, thoughtfully, seriously, romantically.
“I'm a wild and laughing girl,” he sang, in a high-pitched and cracking voice.
The next few lines were drowned out by the laughter. He winked briefly at Faye before turning to give his audience a dramatic glare, singing even louder and with a terrible screech.
“And when I am a woman grown, no city beau for me. If I ever marry in this life, a farmer’s wife I’ll be!”
Silas hung Faye’s coat on the hook on the wall and rubbed his forehead. He scanned the room for Skander and saw him hiding in the corner. He skirted along the walls and stepped across the bare floor joists, making his way over to him. Skander was sitting on a stool, shirt sleeves rolled up, the worn, yellowed fabric contrasting against his dark skin. He bent over the table, one hand combing absent-mindedly through his long, curly black hair, the other hand jotting quickly on a sheet of paper while his lips moved silently. Skander was in his mid-twenties but looked younger apart from the bags under his eyes. He had the build to be rather muscular if he ever did enough manual labor to gain any muscle. As it was, he was short and pleasantly soft-looking, with a straight mustache traditional with Turks, and a shadow of facial hair that hadn’t been shaved in several days.
Silas sat down without saying anything.
Skander set his pen down and pushed the paper back, looking out toward the gathering of people in his house. “This has to stop, Silas,” he said with resignation.
“Mm,” Silas replied. They both knew the battle had been lost a long time ago.
“How is the research going?” he changed the subject.
“Slowly.” Skander glanced at a row of shelves containing bottles and vials of powders and liquids, all with scrawled labels and notes. “I know I’ve told you, but the problem is finding the right elements to–”
“Let those who like it best,” George bellowed. “Enjoy the smoky town. Midst dusty walls and dusty walks to ramble up and down. But sunny fields and shady groves have charms enough for me. So if I ever marry in the life, a faaaaaarmer’s wife I'll beeeeeeeee.”
Skander leaned against the table and sighed. “You're lucky your boarding house is so small, Silas.”
Silas smiled. “There’s a bright side to everything.”
“Whoooo-eee!” George got up from the piano and pretended to wipe sweat from his brow. “Take it away, Alan. I'm bushed.”
“Yes, Alan,” one of the men begged. “Take it away from him and play something sensible.”
A brawny man swung his legs over the stool and jumped into a quiet, ambling dance that eased into the background. Some gentleman asked Ira to dance and they joined another couple in the middle of the room while George collapsed onto the windowsill seat with a huff.
“What’s that you’ve got there?” Skander gestured to the book in Silas’ hands.
Silas looked at it and frowned. “I don’t know. Someone gave it to me at the symphony tonight.”
“Is it old?”
“That’s a good question,” he said, putting his glasses on and studying the cover. “It’s called ‘The Dascyleum Text’, though I can’t say I know what that means…” he flipped the cover open to the title page, scanning it with a look of disappointment. “It was published in 1876.That’s not old at all.”
“Who gave it to you?”
“The guest violinist at the symphony,” Silas set the book down on the table. “I’d never met him. I can't imagine how he heard I deal in antiques, but in any case, this is certainly nowhere close to an antique.”
“I hope you didn't pay much for it.”
“I offered him ten dollars and he wouldn’t take it.”
“Some people these days are odd in the head.” Skander looked pointedly at George, who was sticking his thumb through a buttonhole in his jacket and tapping his leg up and down as he and Faye sat by the window.
“So,” George said. “You said something about old Mr. Pumphrey?”
“Yes, I have the next four installments ready,” Faye said, leaning against the wall and drawing a swirl onto the fogged-up window.
“Hold on a second, Faye, cookies are burning.” He got up and rushed to the stove against the wall, snatching the pan of cookies off and flipping them out onto a towel on the table which had been cleared of experiment supplies and commandeered for baked goods instead. “Cookies! Hot now! Don’t be shy!”
He walked back to the stove and poured himself a cup of mulled wine, pouring an extra one for Faye and bringing it back to her. She took it and set it aside.
“Did you read the last installment?” she asked.
“Course. I always read your stuff.”
“It’s getting stale,” she mumbled into the floor. “I can’t describe to you how much I detest Peter Willoughby.”
“You’re the only one in Boston who does.”
Faye frowned. “I’ve thought about writing something else. Something with heart to it. Adventure and blood make money, though. It’s rather depressing, isn’t it?”
George shrugged as a tall man in a tan suite walked up to them and gave a short bow.
“Finley,” George said. “I don’t suppose you’ve met Faye, yet? Finley Douglas worked at the bank my folks used to own. Ran into him at the symphony tonight.”
Finely Douglas’ face was stiff with ill-ease at the motley and rather low-class company and seemed relieved to find in Faye a seeming ally from his own world. “A pleasure to meet you… em… Faye.”
“I’m terribly sorry. It’s Lawrence. George here is on a first name basis with everyone, no matter if he’s only just met them.”
“Yes,” he chuckled and rubbed his palms against his coat. “Believe me, I have noticed.”
“It’s the way of the future,” George said. “Last names are too long. What’s a little friendliness among friends? That’s what I always say.”
“Have you lived in Boston long, Miss Lawrence?”
Faye was about to mention it was Mrs. Lawrence, but George interrupted.
“Ha!” he said. “You don't know it, but you're talking to one of Boston’s greatest celebrities.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“George, would you stop being ridiculous?” Faye muttered.
“Ever read the Peter Willoughby’s?”
“Well, yes, I find them vastly entertaining.”
“Faye wrote them.”
“Really?” Finley blinked.
“Yes, but I prefer anonymity.” Faye made a face at George. She turned to Finley and said in a low voice, “It’s hard as a woman to be in the publishing industry and from the very start I’ve had George publish for me.”
“Forgive me, but I would have never realized that a woman wrote them. They’re so…”
“Adventurous?” George suggested.
Faye smiled and raised her hands. “That’s what sells.”
“And believe me,” George laughed. “They do sell. She makes more than I do.”
Faye rolled her eyes.
“Forgive me if this is a forward question, but are you two… engaged?” Finley asked.
George’s eyes opened wide and he doubled over laughing, a hand on Faye’s shoulder. He managed to pant out, “certainly not.”
“Childhood friends, that’s all,” said Faye. “Actually, my hu–”
“I lived with her family after my folks died,” George went on, still laughing, “and we've been close as siblings since.”
The music in the air changed to a lively waltz and George stood.
“Ah. That’s our song. Excuse me, I must have a dance with my lady.”
He handed Faye his cup and strode onto the dance floor, tapping in to steal Ira away. She smiled as George wrapped an arm around her waist and swooped her around the room with a grace that made it seem as if they had been dancing together their entire lives. Ira herself was the paradigm of elegance and sophistication and the two would have seemed tailored for each other. Except that Ira was interested in someone else and George was interested in… well it tended to vary, and quite frequently. It didn’t seem to stop them from flirting, though. It was a sort of innocent game they played to the endless confusion of people around them.
Finley sat awkwardly on the sill next to Faye and scooted an inch closer. She set George’s mug in between them, inwardly cursed George, and took a few gulps from her own.
“Tell me more about what led you to writing,” Finley said. “Was it necessity?”
“Oh, no,” said Faye, thinking quickly for a way to divert the subject. “I quite like it. But tell me about what you do for work.”
Finley seemed to relax and launched into the subject. “I sell life insurance.”
“My uncle owns a firm, and I am to inherit it eventually. It was started in 1822 and was one of the only companies which managed to make it through the depression. You've heard of the depression? It means the economy collapsed for a period of time.”
Faye nodded with a tightlipped smile and searched the room for Silas, and her mind for an excuse to leave. Ah, there he was, sitting in the far corner with Skander, hiding from the crowd as usual. She tried to catch his eyes but was interrupted by Finely.
“You of course know the principles of insurance?”
Back in the corner, Skander was telling Silas the problems he was having with his experiments and Silas was doing his best to understand. He felt someone’s eyes on him and glanced up to see a banker-fellow leaning in close to Faye and talking with animation. Faye was desperately pretending interest. Silas gave a sideways smile and stood.
“Excuse me, Skander. I believe my services are needed.”
Silas made his way across the room, staying to the fringes, and finally made it to the sill where Faye and the gentleman were sitting. He held out his hand to her.
“Mrs. Lawrence,” he said with a crooked smile.
“Mr. Lawrence,” she said, relief a little too obvious, taking his hand and standing. “Oh, this is Mr. Douglas. He sells life insurance. Isn’t that interesting?”
“A pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“Ah… em… pleasure to meet you as well, Mr. Lawrence.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse us.”
“Thank you,” Faye whispered as they moved into the center of the room and started into the waltz.
“I think I may have just broken the poor man’s heart.”
“George introduced me as Faye, and I believe he may have taken it the wrong way.”
“I would say that is a distinct possibility,” Silas glanced over her shoulder at the man, still slumped on the windowsill.
“I tried to tell him, but I couldn’t get a word in otherwise. He really seems to love life insurance. Can you please remind me to murder George later on?”
Silas smiled and pulled her closer.
The evening wore on and the guests left one by one. A couple of them were friends and regular attenders of George’s get-togethers, but the others she had never met before. Chances were, George had just met them as well. It wasn’t long before everyone had gone but them, George, Ira, and, of course, Skander, who was still sitting at the far table with his papers and vials.
George sat down at the piano and started playing slow parlor music while they stood nearby. Skander joined them and poured a mug of mulled wine.
“Thank you for inviting a crowd, George, as always,” he said.
“I do it for you, darling,” he said, looking over his shoulder. “Too much work will kill you far too fast, and I still need to find a wife for you.”
“I don’t know what I did to deserve such devoted attention.”
“You just had the fortune of being in the right place at the right time. If we hadn’t gone to college together, just think – we’d’a never met. And where would you be without me?”
Skander gave an obliging smile.
“And look at us now! Back together,” George beamed. “The glorious League of Scholars.”
“I told you to stop calling us that,” Skander said. “It’s ridiculous. And even more ridiculous that you were the one to name it.”
“We’re all scholars in our own way. Silas is a language scholar, you’re an inventor scholar, Faye is a word scholar, and Ira and I are scholars of humanity. Scholars, all. What glory, what prestigiousness!”
“That’s not a word!”
“Who’s the native English speaker here, eh?”
“I am a native English speaker,” Skander retorted.
“No. You speak… Turkey whatchamacall–”
“I have been speaking English longer than –”
“Tell me how you all have been,” Ira interrupted, leaning against the piano and draping her hand onto the keys to finish an arpeggio for George. “It’s been so long.”
“Skander’s been hard at work, as usual,” said George. “And I’ve been –”
“Hard at leisure,” Faye finished, “as usual.”
“I was going to say I took a new job.” He finished the piece, turning to lean on one knee. “Factory reader, evening shift. It’s been fun. Right now, I’m reading Stevenson. Then when it gets to morning I go round and knock-up a few blocks. It’s not bad.”
“And how is father?” Ira asked Silas.
Silas shrugged. “The same. You haven’t talked to him recently?”
“You know he won’t answer my letters.”
“Do you have a place to stay?” Faye asked.
“Oh, yes. I’m in a boarding house in East Cambridge.”
“How long will you be in Boston?” Silas asked.
“It…” she paused. “It could be a while. A few months, or a year.”
“Is that so?”
“Perhaps we could speak of it another time.”
“You know what that means?” George asked. “I won’t have to scrounge for a date to the symphony for a while.”
“I wouldn’t be too confident,” Faye said. “You may have competition.”
“Competition?” George snorted, getting up to refill his mug. Ira flushed and an uncomfortable look passed briefly over her face. George set his mug on the table and picked up Silas’s book, flipping the cover open and perusing the contents. “The Dascyleum Text,” he read out loud. “What’s this?”
“A book someone gave me at the symphony,” Silas said.
“Is it, now?” George frowned. “It’s got to be some sort of joke.”
“Why is that?”
“It says here the publishing company is called Phantom Publishing, here in Boston. It was published just a few years ago and I know for a fact there’s never been any such publishing house here. Hey, maybe it was published by a troupe of ghosts. How much did the fella cheat you out of?”
“Nothing,” Silas shook his head. “He wouldn’t take anything for it.”
“Odd.” He flipped the page. “Property of the Boston Fellowship Library, Gore Hall Under… Gore Hall Under? What the devil is that supposed to mean?”
“Under Gore Hall?” Skander suggested.
“Where they keep the newspaper clippings and students go to…” George looked up. “Hey, I think I’ve got it. It’s probably the Gore Hall of the underworld. Like a college for ghosts and ghouls.” He flipped to the center. “So what do ghouls like to read about?”
Silas rubbed his forehead.
“Poetry, looks like. Actually, maybe proverbs. A friend’s company is as a spring rain. A friend’s over-welcome is as a… spring… flood…” He trailed off and Skander snorted. “I think the book is angry with me,” he frowned, bemused, and closed it.
Silas took it from him and tucked it under his arm. “Well, the book has spoken. We had best be off, now. Thank you, again, Skander, for unwillingly lending your room.”
George got up and clapped his hands against his pant legs. “Oh, but the night’s still young. What do you say to a late-night ride?”
“The night is not young at all,” Skander complained. “It’s two a.m.!”
“Oh, blast,” Faye groaned. “We have dinner with Mr. Lawrence at midday.”
“All the more reason to have fun while you can.”
“I think I should go, too,” Ira said, leaning on George’s arm. “I have things I must attend to tomorrow morning.”
George sighed. “Well, leastways we can have a ride taking you all home. Come on, Skander, we’ll have to take your automobile because every one of us has lost our transportation.”
Skander got up with a sigh.
“Oh, don’t pretend you don't love any excuse to take the old horse out,” George rolled his eyes.
“Come along, then,” was all Skander said.
Silas picked up Faye’s coat and helped her into it, shrugging on his own. Skander put out the lights and they all stumbled their way down the stairs until they reached the ground level. Silas shivered and put his arm around Faye as they walked to the back of the abandoned factory. In front of a large door in the wall was what looked like a large pile of spare parts.
“It’s a monstrosity of science,” said George, arm over Ira. “Frankenstein’s monster in metal.”
“I’m sorry it doesn’t meet your aesthetic expectations,” Skander grumbled.
“You could at least paint it.”
“I told you, it was only an experiment. You can paint it if you want.”
He cranked the shaft in front and after a couple minutes, a hacking roar filled the room. It sounded like something rather large was dying a very gruesome death. Skander grinned and pounded the machine twice.
“There she is!” he shouted over the noise.
“A goddess among machines!” George shouted back and turned to roll his eyes at Faye.
“Well, climb in!”
They clambered into the cab and Skander scrunched himself in front of them. He unhooked the brake cable and the machine sputtered and jolted out into the street.
“I’ve never ridden in a horseless cab before!” Ira shouted to Skander. “This is a good invention. You should see about producing it. I could ask a friend of mine about it, if you like.”
Skander glanced at her with a frown. “It’s… nice of you to offer, Miss Lawrence, but –”
“Skander, lamppost!” Faye shrieked.
The metal monstrosity swerved, almost tipping over, to avoid the row of lampposts they almost demolished.
Skander chuckled and thumped the cab twice. “These are the things of the future. I think not so long, and this is all you’ll see on the streets.”
“Oh, lord, I hope not,” Faye said. “Not if everyone drives like you.”
“You should see me drive the thing!” George said.
Silas rubbed his ear and leaned in close to Faye. “Do you think we'd survive it?”
“It would be a miracle,” she muttered back.
The cab swerved again and jolted around a corner, almost running into the side of a building.
“It would probably be better than Skander, though,” Silas coughed. “Skander!” he called. “Perhaps we had better walk.”
“Nonsense,” Skander said, thumping the cab twice with his hand. “She’s sturdy as an oak stump. We’ll be fine.”
“It’s not… ah…”
“It’s four-horse power and it's got 30 batteries inside. It could pull 8,000 pounds if you needed it to. It's very sturdy, trust me.” He nodded to himself. “Running like this, it can go four hours before the batteries need replaced. You know she can get up to 23 miles per hour? Do you want to see?”
“No!” Faye shouted.
But the cab sped up anyway, jolting and popping along with a hacking roar. The buildings blew past and the wind chilled them to the bone. Then the engine sputtered and rolled to a stop. Skander coughed and rubbed the back of his head. He hopped out and cranked it again.
“Sometimes it does that,” he explained as it sputtered. “I think I’ve got a connection wrong somewhere.”
“Could be, old chap,” George said.
The machine sputtered back to life and Skander hopped back in, driving at a reasonable pace this time. Before long they were in front of the boarding house and saying goodnight.
The car roared off as Silas cracked open the front door and they tiptoed in.
“Let’s never let Skander drive that thing again,” Silas whispered.
“Silas!” Faye whispered, grabbing him by the shoulder just before he knocked down the hat stand.
He froze and blinked.
“If we wake Mrs. Finch…”
“Quite right,” Silas muttered.
They crept through the parlor and up the stairs, skirting the edges to avoid the creaks. At the top, Faye let out a breath.
“I feel like a burglar,” Faye whispered as they turned down the hallway toward their rooms. “I wish Mrs. Finch wasn’t such a –”
They both let out a scream as they almost collided with Mrs. Finch, who was standing in the hall in her nightgown, glowering and holding a lamp above her head like a grave-keeper.
“Mrs. Finch, good heavens,” Silas gasped in a breath and held a hand to his heart. “Isn’t it quite late for you to be up?”
“What have I told you about this… this… late night…” she wheezed in a breath. “Frolicking.”
Silas blinked. “It was… it… that, em…” he cocked his head. “That is to say… we were at the symphony, and–”
“And we went to see a friend after and were having such good conversation we didn’t realize the time,” Faye finished. “We would never, ever dream of… frolicking.”
“Certainly not,” Silas shook his head.
“Mmmm,” Mrs. Finch glowered. “Well, I see you’re not… drunk. But your friend with the…” she wheezed in a breath, “machine… it should be scrapped.” She bit off the last word like tearing a page from a book.
“Oh, well… I couldn’t agree more,” said Silas. “And… thank you for staying up for us and, em, we’ll bid you goodnight.”
“A word for the… wise,” Mrs. Finch leaned in close in a sharp whisper. “I wouldn’t be… out and about in the wee hours. Not with… the odd things been happening.”
“Odd things?” Faye asked.
“What odd things?” Silas asked.
Mrs. Finch’s eyes slanted, an eyebrow lifting. “I’m not at liberty to say… Silas Lawrence.”
With one last cock of her eyebrow, she retreated to the shadows, taking the light with her. Silas and Faye stared after her.
“What was that all about?” Silas muttered.
“I’m too tired to think about it,” Faye groaned, pushing open the door.
Later, after changing into a nightgown, she came into the bedroom to find Silas sitting in the armchair by the fire, a book on his lap and a peculiar expression on his face.
“Faye, dear,” he said without looking up. “I don’t recall having had anything to drink tonight.”
“Well,” she thought, “you didn’t start speaking Latin, so I can’t imagine you had more than one glass.”
Silas flipped the book closed and took his glasses off, rubbing his nose. “This book is being… shifty.”
“You know you read things backwards when you get tired.”
“I suppose,” he frowned and tossed a log into the fire, unbuttoning his shirt. Faye collapsed into bed and buried her head in the pillow.
Silas brought the book to bed and slid under the covers while putting his glasses back on, a deep frown forming on his face.
“Silas, isn’t it a little late…” Faye started.
“What does Dascyleum mean, do you suppose?” Silas mumbled.
Faye shook her head.
“Gore Hall Under,” Silas added. “It doesn’t make sense.” He flipped the pages and blinked, a confused expression washing over his face. “And you’re sure I didn’t have anything to drink?”
“Is this something you can solve tonight?”
“Mmm,” Silas frowned. He looked over at Faye distantly for a moment, then sighed and flipped the cover closed. “I’ll go to Gore Hall on Monday.” He set the book down and blew out the candle on his side. “Gore Hall Under,” he mumbled, shaking his head and sinking into the pillows.
Faye watched him, eyes blinking heavily.
“Why do we let George do this to us?” she asked with a yawn.
“Well… to be fair…” Silas yawned, “I think…”
He trailed off and it took Faye a minute to realize he’d fallen asleep. She smiled and brushed a curl of hair out of his eyes before blowing out the light.