Amelia arrived at Colonel Pell’s country home still baffled as to how she would write about the event. She preferred this confusion to the anxiety of remembering her conversation with Alexander. The gala would offer any number of newsworthy tidbits. Nothing on earth would help her answer her friend’s request.
Mr. McGoffery had generously paid for rental of a quality steamcar for her to drive to and from the ball, but she had no spare money to pay for valet parking. She parked the car a good distance from the growing line of valet parked automobiles and walked the rest of the way. Acutely aware of the baffled and critical expressions of those who watched her emerge from the shadows into the blazing electric and torch light surrounding the mansion, she hesitated, readjusted the awkward and rather unsightly leather reporter’s cuff on her forearm, then arranged her face and body to suggest nonchalance and headed toward the grand stairs and wide-open front doors of the mansion.
A two-seat Ticker clockwork car zoomed around the circle to the front steps, a red silk scarf billowing from the driver’s neck. Amelia wasn’t surprised to find Gavin Graves behind the goggles and inwardly panicked, wondering how she could prevent him from taking the liberty of submitting his own account of the event to McGoffery. It wouldn’t surprise her if her editor had decided to make a competition of it.
Gavin slid out of the Ticker and let the waiting valet man whizz away to park. He gazed at the mansion with open admiration before trotting up with stairs two at a time.
Deciding that waiting for Gavin to discover her on scene for himself might only cause more trouble, Amelia moved to intercept him on the steps. He appeared to have assembled attire that she could only describe as Junkman Formal. His pristine black brocade waistcoat hung with a plethora of oddly battered gadgets. He adjusted his customary goggles on his forehead with his customary swagger as Amelia approached.
“Ah, Miss Stodge! Delighted that you could make it!” Gavin said, offering a neat bow and his arm.
“Making a donation on behalf of the newspaper?” Amelia asked, slipping her hand over his elbow with casual insouciance. Lights glinted off the reporter cuff’s miniature typewriter keys.
“My father’s factory, actually,” he replied, glancing at the cuff for a moment. “Don’t worry, I won’t steal your event. Not a spot of ink on my person, and I don’t intend to require much memory tonight. I see McGoffery gave you the clunker model. The new ones are more streamlined and the roll of paper adjusts automatically. My father’s considering apportioning some of the newspaper’s budget to purchase a few of them.”
Amelia admitted that the cuff was, indeed, clunky. But if she hadn’t worn it she would have felt, if not underdressed, then certainly underaccessorized. Almost everyone she saw, women as well as men, sported some kind of gadget. As she and Gavin joined the crowd in the expansive foyer, Amelia noticed that the gentleman in front of them appeared to have encased his entire right shoulder, upper arm, and elbow with a gleaming brass and leather contraption. Bands surrounded his forearm and wrist, each of his fingers attached by metal arms to a series of tiny pumps on the back of his hand and side of his wrist. Every time he moved the arm, various pressure releases hissed and tiny pistons clicked.
“General Beauregard Pillington,” Gavin whispered to Amelia, leaning close so he wouldn’t be overheard. “His arm was paralyzed by a bullet in the civil war. Leading from the front, right? The Regent wanted to award him a medal, but he refused. ‘What good is a medal if I can’t shake a man’s hand?’ Colonel Pell arranged to have one of the Argonaut sponsor companies design and fabricate this apparatus for him. He has been a solid contributor to the Argonauts ever since.”
Not wanting to admit her ignorance – she had no idea who the Argonauts were – Amelia appeared duly impressed. General Pillington reached out to shake a man’s hand and the apparatus clicked and hissed.
“Of course, he can’t wear it all the time,” Gavin continued sotto voce. “It’s blasted heavy.”
I can sympathize, Amelia thought, her shoulder already beginning to ache from the weight of the cuff on her arm.
Colonel Pell, his stunning wife, and Mister Merriday greeted Gavin and Amelia as they approached.
“Gavin!” Colonel Pell said, “How good of you to join us. Will you be writing the article? I couldn’t imagine a better man to do so.”
If I were, I couldn’t enjoy a portion of this evening’s festivities,” Gavin answered. “The editor has chosen to bestow that honor on the lovely Miss Stodge. You might have read some of her articles in the social activities page.”
The Colonel turned his glittering smile to Amelia and took her offered hand with a warm welcome.
Mrs. Pell looked over Amelia’s shoulder with a vague nod, then leaning toward Merriday suggested that Gavin could be persuaded should the article fail to meet their standards.
Amelia held her tongue and turned her smile to Mister Merriday, the beneficiary of the evening’s festivities. He was older than she expected, with shots of grey in dark hair and lines about his hazel eyes in a tanned and rugged face. Precisely, she thought, the type of countenance one expected in an adventurer. He shot an expression of weary contempt at Mrs. Pell before welcoming Amelia apologetically. A loud pop and cheer arose behind him, and he turned, revealing the crimson satin lining of his knee-length coat. He turned back to her with an amused shake of his head before turning to the next person in line.
“Remember McGoffery’s rule,” Gavin said as they entered the ballroom, “as long as you wear the cuff, behave as one representing the Metropol. No wine and dancing for you tonight, I’m afraid.” He chuckled.
Sighing, Amelia looked about. Musicians playing waltzes already inspired couples to swing and swirl about the floor. She noticed, however, that the attendees dressed more like Gavin than herself. Glinting brass and leather goggles adorned hat, forehead, coiffure, and neck. Men in general were in shirtsleeves and waistcoats, trousers and boots, clothing more attuned to the deck of a dirigible than a ballroom. Some women, too, decided to forego traditional attire to dress as their male counterparts – even to the point of wearing jauntily offset beaver hats elaborately adorned with goggles and feathers. And while the waist-cinching decorative overcorset, worn over a chemise or even a man’s shirt, had become much more widely fashionable, the corsets worn by the women in attendance were made mostly of leather, with an assortment of buckles and dangling attachments like glittering filigree binoculars or petite brass and leather spyglasses and an odd assortment of watches.
Before this evening, Amelia’s interaction with the self-named Adventuring class - aside from Gavin Graves - had been limited to the occasional moment or two in a Kettery elevator. These were the people whose fortunes either sprang from or directly fueled the scientific and cultural advancement of the territory. They were factory owners, tradesmen, inventors, the kinds of people that Amelia’s parents had snidely referred to as Nouveaux, always with a subtle expression of distaste.
Amelia felt supremely out of place.
“You’re in my world now, Miss Stodge,” Gavin murmured to her, gesturing with a glass of wine.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these fine people resented you as much as your people resent them.”
“I’m not here as a representative of my people, as you call them,” Amelia said, angry because he was probably right. Though by no means aristocracy, her family orbited the higher circles of society. She had heard many comments and criticisms of the Adventurer class, especially since so many of the younger generation increasingly associated with it. Amelia’s father blamed the University and its liberal perspectives toward labor.
Mrs. Brinkley, Alexander’s mother and a socialite herself, criticized the lack of refinement and restraint shown by those of the Adventurer class regarding the use of wealth. She considered the rather flamboyant lack of concern for proper social structure intolerable. “They are merely showing off,” she said one evening during a dinner. “I met a man just the other day who was raised here, but who returned from a travel sabbatical to the East incredibly brown and wearing a turban! I didn’t recognize him, of course, at first. I thought he was a servant brought back from parts unknown, and I told him to fetch his mistress. It wasn’t until I noticed that he had light eyes that it occurred to me that he was, in fact, Mister Louis Grant! He played his part well, however, and made a pretty obeisance before going to find his mother. ‘And kindly remove the wrappings, my dear,’ I called after him, ‘you look like a coolie.’”
Amelia had had to inquire discreetly later as to the exact nature of a coolie. After learning, she had spent a few fitful months avoiding the sun at all costs to prevent getting tanned.
The worst insult she had ever heard involved being foreign.
A few men tonight wore turbans, Amelia noticed. “Do you see Mr. Louis Grant?” she asked Mr. Graves.
He smiled, somewhat mischievously. “I expect he will be in the green room already, if he is here.”
“Ah,” she replied.
Mr. Graves chuckled softly. “You should just admit that you’re confused, Miss Stodge. It would save us both a great deal of time.”
“I don’t see how your time is affected in any way, Mr. Graves,” she shot back. “I assure you I don’t require your assistance.”
“Of course not,” he said with a smile, bowing somewhat flamboyantly before merging into the crowd.
Right, she thought to herself. I’ve been to many a ball in my lifetime. How difficult can this be, really? She had mastered the requirements of polite and civilized society as well as refined deportment well before her debut. Surely the Adventurers couldn’t be so far removed as to disregard even these necessities.
Glancing around, she spotted an arrangement of dance cards on a nearby table. She picked one up to give her hands something to do instead of worrying at the folds of her skirt, a nervous habit her mother had scolded her for since childhood. She wandered the perimeter of the hall for two dances, unnerved by her unfamiliar surroundings, anxious and slightly offended that she hadn’t been approached for a dance. She began wishing she had in fact attended with Mr. Graves, if only to dispel the appearance of loneliness. Looking around, however, Amelia couldn’t find her only acquaintance.
More disturbing than her partnerless status, however, Amelia found that the general conversation tended to surround topics of which she was completely ignorant. Though educated by a governess who had held secretly liberal views about the education of women – Miss Cole preferred history to needlework – Amelia couldn’t follow these current conversations, let alone contribute to them like many other female guests did.
She had consigned herself to another solitary turn about the room when a young woman bumped into her, causing her to lurch sideways against a man who glared at her through his telescoping monocle.
“Oh! I’m so, so sorry!” the young woman said, eyes wide. She couldn’t have been older than fifteen. “Bit preoccupied I’m afraid.”
“Nothing damaged,” Amelia said, fluttering her hands around her coiffure in case it had fallen askew. She righted the ungainly cuff, which had shifted with the movement, then tightened the buckles to hold it in place.
“You’re the newspaper reporter?” the young woman asked with evident disbelief and disappointment. “You don’t look the part, except the cuff, but everyone has a gadget. I thought I saw Gavin – Mr. Graves. I was certain he would be writing it up.”
“I believe Mr. Graves is here on behalf of his father’s factory,” Amelia supplied, glancing around. “But I haven’t seen him in some time.”
The woman shrugged. Then, as a hesitant afterthought, she offered a gloveless hand in greeting. “Casity Darrowell.”
Startled, Amelia looked at Miss Darrowell’s hand for a moment before recollecting herself and returning the greeting in what she hoped was a civil manner. If this had happened in more familiar circumstances, Amelia mused, she would have been right to ignore the introduction and refuse the acquaintance. But she represented the newspaper, and couldn’t afford to offend anyone. And, as her mother had remarked once, established rules didn’t apply to the Nouveaux.
If Amelia’s manner seemed colder, Miss Darrowell didn’t appear to recognize it. “Ah!” she said, then swept a glass of champagne off a passing tray, draining half of it in a matter of moments. The girl’s hands were slightly grimy as well. Amelia caught herself staring and looked away, but not before her new acquaintance saw her disbelief and blushed, either from the drink or from shame. Perhaps both.
“I hate these things, parties” Miss Darrowell said, fiddling with her glass. “Too many people. Strangers, most of them. And I never feel like I’m doing the right thing.”
“It’s a wonder you attend, then,” Amelia replied absently as she searched for a polite escape. In her ambulations she had seen a crowd gathered around a display of what seemed to be artifacts, presumably from Mr. Merriday’s journeys. The crowd now appeared to have dispersed, and Amelia decided it was an opportune escape.
She began to excuse herself, but Miss Darrowell must have seen the display as well and encouraged her to see it up close. “I’ve already seen them all dozens of times,” she said. “But it would be good in the article, right?” Flashing an impish grin, Miss Darrowell took Amelia’s hand and guided her toward the display, her brown curly braid swinging.
Amelia found her unfamiliarity with Merriday’s history more than troublesome, and his display of artifacts provided little help. A collection of masks, pottery, scrolls, and items Amelia couldn’t readily identify covered shelves and several tables. A large map of the world centered the exhibit, with large pins topped by red flags.
“The pins show where he’s been,” Miss Darrowell explained. “And each of his expeditions are coded by color. Most of them started at the Argonaut Society’s headquarters.” She pointed at a particularly large pin a few territories east. Strings of different colors sprouted from the pin in all directions. Many strings of the same color connected pins across the world, even one to the Northern Pole. There were easily three dozen pins along six colors of string.
“He was personally involved in all of these excursions?” Amelia asked, incredulous.
Miss Darrowell nodded. “He’s always looking for a new adventure. He thought of the Amazon trip while he was looking for passage to Constantinople.” She tapped her forehead. “Always thinking ahead.”
“What does he do?” Amelia asked.
“Oh, LOADS,” Miss Darrowell said. “What hasn’t he done? He climbed a mountain in the Himalayas, though not the biggest mountain. He’s been on two African safaris. Was nearly trampled to death by a hippopotamus on the first one so he had to go back. Accompanied an archeologist in Egypt and helped discover a tomb. Did you know the Egyptians didn’t think the brain served a purpose, so they didn’t preserve it?”
“I did not,” Amelia said. A few of the guests around the display cast amused glances at Miss Darrowell, who appeared utterly oblivious to the attention.
“Let’s see,” she mused, glancing at the map for inspiration. “Oh, of course, he has been to the East Indies and visited the temples there, but that didn’t get much attention. He traveled with a tribe of Bedouins for a year. And then for a while he fought in the war, but he doesn’t talk about that, and he refuses to include anything from that time in the exhibit, even though those stories were the most popular series of his career so far.”
“So he’s a journalist as well?”
“Oh no, he doesn’t write his own stories. He has a historiographer. Well, had a historiographer. Sir Bradford died a few months ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” Amelia said, and was surprised to find that she meant it. Clearly a great admirer of Mister Merriday, Miss Darrowell appeared to feel deeply for the welfare of all involved with him and his exploits. She wondered what the man must be like to garner that kind of affection from a stranger.
“The Society should need a replacement for Sir Erasimus Bradford,” a familiar voice slurred from behind, “and I believe I know who they should choose.”
“Gavin!” Miss Darrowell cried. Then, recollecting herself, “I mean, Mister Graves.” She attempted a rather awkward, deliberate curtsey and beamed at him.
“Well done, Miss Darrowell,” Gavin said, hiding a grin behind a look of appraisal. “But might I suggest a graceful nod rather than a curtsey when wearing trousers?”
She blushed – quite prettily Amelia noticed with a sting – and at a loss for what to do with her hands, thrust them in her pockets. “Are you going to be the new historiographer, then?”
Gavin stepped closer. “I hadn’t given it much thought before this moment, but perhaps. If the Metropol can spare me.” He looked meaningfully at Amelia with glazed eyes. He reeked of licorice.
Amelia flared. “We should be quite able to function in your absence, I assure you.”
“I believe you capable of anything, Miss Stodge.”
She glared through a polite smile. “Mister Graves is all encouragement.”
“Might I encourage you, then, to join me in a dance?” He offered his hand with a slight bow.
Amelia indicated the writer’s cuff. “I’m afraid I must decline, as you so graciously reminded me earlier. Perhaps Miss Darrowell would join you?”
Gavin’s squirm in the face of Miss Darrowell’s elation was enough, though short-lived, compensation. His attention quickly shifted to an older gentleman who seemed to have materialized beside Miss Darrowell, and his face hardened into a mask of what Amelia could describe only as pure disdain. She wondered what kind of person would inspire such an instant hatred.
“Mordrake,” Gavin said.
He was a small man, short of stature, small of frame, leaning heavily on a carved ivory cane. He looked at Gavin over half-moon reading glasses. His attire was uninteresting, devoid of any of the gadgetry and paraphernalia so popular with the other guests. The only thing that stood out was a gold pin on the lapel, what looked like a ram’s head. His expression shared nothing but placid curiosity.
“I was concerned to hear about the unfortunate explosion in your father’s factory,” Modrake said with a tone of regret.
Gavin’s chest heaved and he struggled to hold his countenance as those nearby glanced at him as they spoke in close whispers. “I assure you, Mister Mordrake, the explosion of which you speak is not as destructive as you would desire.”
“Desire, Mister Graves? I wouldn’t desire anything of the sort. My business quite relies upon the success of your father’s factory.”
Gavin’s jaw and hands clenched. “Thank you for your concern, sir, but we are fine.”
“Please tell you father that I am available should he require any assistance.”
Gavin exploded, landing a punch to Mordrake’s jaw before anyone could stop him. Mordrake fell backward, dropping his cane and grasping at whatever he could to arrest his fall, which happened to be Amelia’s arm. Already unsteady on her destabilizing heels, Amelia fell to the floor. The mechanism of the cuff struck the wood and shattered in dozens of pieces that skittered across the floor.
Gavin stood over Mordrake and gripped his lapel, his other fist prepared for a second assault, face purple in rage, eyes wild. “We need none of your assistance.”
In a moment, Merriday grasped Gavin’s arm. Unprepared and wild with fury, Gavin rounded blindly, hitting Merriday across the jaw, sending him reeling away. Realizing what he had done, Gavin blanched, eyes wide. A few of the nearby gentlemen grabbed him while he was still and he didn’t attempt to struggle. Others assisted Merriday, Mordrake, and herself to their feet.
Mouth set in a grim line and rubbing his jaw, Merriday glared at Gavin. “Bring him with me.” Gavin’s captors launched him forward behind Merriday.
Amelia picked up Mordrake’s cane, which had rolled next to her and handed it to the diminutive gentleman, who was wiping blood from his mouth. She noticed that the head of the cane was made of a large ball of glittering lapis. A few bystanders had gathered and returned the pieces of the quill cuff. Amelia put the smaller pieces in her bag and held the larger mechanism in her hand.
“I apologize for getting you involved, my dear,” Mordrake said. “I will, of course, see to replacing your cuff.”
“No, I assure you. Mister Graves will pay for it. You did nothing to incite his anger, so you shouldn’t feel obliged to make amends for his acts.”
“His pride may be his undoing,” Mordrake said with a worried shake of the head. “And the destruction of everything his father has worked so hard to build.”
“Why did he attack you?” Amelia asked.
Mordrake leaned on his cane and sighed. “That Graves pride, I’m afraid. Neither of them wants to accept assistance, nor admit that they might require it. I’m sure you’ve witnessed what I speak of.”
Amelia resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Indeed, I have.”
“And he becomes more intractable when inebriated, I’m afraid. He seems to have been visiting the Green Room.” He glanced toward the nearby door, which had been opening and closing with some regularity. Billows of smoke and laughter emanated from the room. Mordrake must have seen Amelia’s expression of confusion, though she tried to hide it. “The room designated for the consumption of absinthe,” he explained. “A repulsive concoction that robs the mind of sense. But it seems to be a favorite of the younger set, and Pell likes to cater to all of his guests when possible. Even if it isn’t necessarily advisable.” He bowed slightly and offered his white gloved hand. “As our mutual acquaintance seems to be unable at the moment, I will do away with convention. Bertram Mordrake, at your service, Miss.”
Amelia rested her hand gently on his and bowed, something usually reserved for gentlemen of consequence and prestige. “Amelia Stodge, of Electo Park.”
Mordrake smiled knowingly. “I thought I recognized a refinement of quality. Many here do not share our common understanding. I was raised very near Electo Park, in Augustus Street.”
“Were you?” Amelia asked, somewhat relieved.
“Indeed.” He indicated a set of chairs away from the dance floor, which had whirled back to life. “Alas, when I purchased my first business venture, I was forced to remove to the trade district. I find I greatly prefer the simplicity. Not as much social manipulation. I’m sure you understand.”
“I’m afraid I do,” Amelia replied.
“Mister Gavin Graves aspires to our level of consequence, but I’m afraid he is made of inferior material. He behaves with the mannerisms of a gentleman of quality when in society. His father’s influence can hardly require less. But you and I understand that the confines of society have their benefits. We understand the necessity of decorum, of a sterling reputation, that the society of quality instills. Not all of the tradesmen understand this necessity, and their reputations suffer for it.”
“Surely Mister Graves wouldn’t engage in anything unseemly. He has such influence!”
“Influence, as many of us know, my dear, does not require virtue. Indeed, those lacking virtue may require more influence in order to survive.”
“Nonsense.” Amelia pretended to dismiss the accusation with a wave and a smile. She could believe Gavin Graves guilty of rampant arrogance and a temper when drunk, but certainly he understood the limits of propriety. He couldn’t involve himself in anything sordid. Still, a man willing to publicly assault one so obviously his physical inferior for so slight a provocation might be capable of many things.
They sat in silence for a while, observing the swirl of dancers. When she looked down at the cuff's mechanism in her hand, she found her gloves smeared with ink and grease. Anger
soon claimed her better nature and she excused herself to search for Gavin. Though she doubted his capacity for the reprehensible, she believed him capable of manipulating the opportunity of a moment to secure an interview with the famed explorer worthy of yet another front page. As she neared the hallway where Merriday had disappeared with Gavin, she heard men's laughter behind a closed door and lost no time imagining her coworker gathering material for his unsolicited article. She rapped quickly on the door and didn’t wait for word to enter.
“You have destroyed my cuff, Mister Graves, and I insist that you arrange for its repair.”
Gavin Graves lay unconscious on a divan, a tumbler of some golden substance on the floor beside him. The men who had escorted him out of the ballroom sat with Merriday, who was in the process of mimicking some rather large and intimidating creature.
Merriday dropped his arms and chuckled. “He should be coherent in about an hour. You can make your case then.”
“Indeed,” she muttered, unable to mask her embarrassment. “I apologize. I will leave you to your…charades.” Flustered and no doubt flushing unprettily – wouldn’t her mother be proud – she turned to leave.
“Miss Stodge? The reporter from the Metropol, correct?” Merriday asked.
Amelia nodded, recollecting herself. “I’m afraid my recording device has been damaged beyond immediate repair, however.”
“That is unfortunate,” he said. “I am relying on the success of your article, Miss Stodge, for the continuation of my exploits. Would you be available for an interview? After hours holding the receiving line, I’m in no hurry to return to the party. Barton will procure some paper and a pen for you.”
Muscular under his well-tailored suit, Barton hardly looked the part of a serving man, but he nodded and quietly departed on Merriday’s errand.
“Thank you,” Amelia said. A muffled groan came from the divan, where Gavin still slept. “What happened to him?”
“A sobriety tonic. He’ll sleep for about an hour, and when he wakes, he should be clear-headed. I can do nothing for the head ache he will suffer, but he should be more tractable.”
“If one could ever describe him as ‘tractable,’” Amelia said, placing the cuff's mechanism on a table and cringing inwardly at her ruined gloves. “Mister Mordrake seems to be uninjured, however. I assume you would prefer this incident not appear in my article? Though it would coordinate well with your general reputation, from what I hear.”
Merriday chuckled again, a warm sound Amelia found enjoyable. He spread his hand in front of him like a banner. “True to Form, Franklin Thomas Merriday Disperses Brawl at Gala In His Honor. One can imagine. The spectators should provide a great source of knowledge, regardless.”
Barton returned with paper, pen, and ink well. Amelia settled herself at the writing desk, searching her mind for appropriate questions. She again cursed her lack of preparation and saw to little details like placement of ink well and tidiness of paper to buy time. But when all was arranged, she still had no idea what she should ask.
“Well, then,” she said, surveying her surroundings. “Where shall we begin?”
“Would you like a full life history, or a survey of my expeditions?” he asked. “I will admit my childhood is rather dull, so perhaps let’s skip to the exciting bits.”
“Exciting bits,” Amelia said as she wrote the words.
What followed, Amelia acertained, was a nearly verbatim recitation of his interview script. An unremarkable childhood in a northern territory, discovery by the Argonaut Society by sheer coincidence when he helped prevent the armed robbery of a carriage on which an Argonaut traveled. Various wild and glorious adventures in all parts of the globe. Celebrations of his escapades. A brief, rather spare mention of his participation in the Great Civil War. Meeting celebrated individuals in every country, territory, and city. And a few moments imploring the general public to contribute to the continuation of his exploration by purchasing his books or donating to the Argonaut Society Exploration Fund, which ensures that individuals even in the furthest territories receive information about the great and glorious world they live in.
“Do you have any other questions?” he asked at the end.
Amelia’s hand had gone past cramping, and her handwriting devolved into illegible scratches and fragmented phrases as she tried to keep up. But she did have one question.
“Are there any expeditions you would like to return to, or any locations you would like to visit that you might not have had a chance for?”
He thought for a moment, and Amelia welcomed the opportunity to massage her aching fingers.
“There are a few new adventures I should like to undertake, that are on the docket, so to speak. This expedition to the southern continent to explore the jungles and the temples has been a dream for many years. I should also like to spend some time with the migratory tribes of our northern territories. And perhaps some time in a less physically demanding environment. All of my adventures have required a great deal of physical endurance and skill. They have challenged my stamina as well as my wits. Those stories inspire the imagination, encourage people to support the cause so they can live through me. But as I’ve grown older, I find I appreciate the intellectual endeavors more. Perhaps that is because I am less physically resilient. Adventures take their toll on the body. I should like to join a meditative community, maybe in Tibet. When I climbed the Himalayas, I was fascinated by the Tibetan culture and the isolated mountain monasteries. I wanted to return just for a while, as a sidenote, to join the monastery as a guest for a while and learn how to meditate, to quiet the restless mind for a while. My mind is restless, you see Miss Stodge. I’m sure Miss Darrowell mentioned that. It never sleeps. And more often of late, I can’t sleep, either. Endless nights with a restless mind filled with memories like mine…they prey on the spirit, and the only way to quiet them is to keep moving. Keep busy. Make plans, find new adventures, keep the heart pumping so it remembers not to fail. Maybe in those mountains I can find a way to quiet the thoughts.”
Amelia had stopped writing. Merriday stared at the ceiling and appeared for the first time old and fragile. His voice had lost the warmth, had taken on a hollow, husk-like quality, as though he had fed on these hopes for too long and with little return.
“Why can you not return if you want it so?”
Even his chuckle sounded dead. “Meditation and self-discovery sell rather poorly.”
“Then the Argonauts are only interested in money?” Somehow, this discovery failed to surprise her.
“Exploring the world requires funding, my dear,” he replied. “Don’t let’s be naïve.”
He looked at his interviewer directly for the first time since the interview began. “Off the record?”
Amelia nodded and set the pen aside.
“The Argonaut Society has done considerable good. Technology invented by Argonauts and produced by Argonaut sponsors helped win the war. An Argonaut, Kettery, designed and funded the sky trolley system here. We have brought medicine to regions ravaged by disease, mediated international conflicts, even killed for a common good. None of this could be organized without considerable financial support. Our industrial investors require various modes of compensation. Publicity, for instance. None of them are what one might call philanthropists. So, if the Argonauts want to continue their good work, they must look to the less magnanimous details of funding. A monastery in Tibet provides little monetary incentive, and the public in general cares little for introspective pursuits.” He shrugged. “QED, they send us where the money is.”
“Fund raising galas, for instance?” Amelia asked, though another question nagged just under the surface. She couldn’t fix words to it, couldn’t even determine its source, so she set it aside.
“And a glorious gala it is,” Gavin muttered from the divan.
“Indeed,” sighed Merriday, composing his face once more for the public.
In a gulp, Gavin finished his tonic.
“Are you certain you’re ready to be seen again?” Amelia asked.
After pinching his forehead between his fingers and shutting his eyes tight for a moment, Gavin nodded. “The Argo departs at first light, and I intend to be here to watch it.”
“Perhaps you should have considered that end before you began drinking.”
“I hardly need advice from you, Miss Stodge,” he grumbled. Still uneasy on his feet, he leaned toward Amelia rather more than propriety allowed, causing both to lose balance for a moment.
“I thought his tonic was supposed to remove the effects of the alcohol,” she said, surreptitiously pushing him back on his feet before anyone formed an unfavorable impression. She realized, however, that she needn’t have worried. Several of the guests in their vicinity were similarly incapacitated.
“The alcohol, yes,” Gavin said, “however, the contents of this evening’s refreshments are not restricted to alcohol alone.”
Amelia considered the clouds of smoke and vapor billowing from what Miss Darrowell had called the Green Room. “What else, then?”
“That, my dear, is anyone’s guess.” His reserve evaporated into giggles.
The sun’s first sliver of light rose from the horizon behind the crimson balloon of the Argo.
True to his word, Gavin had stayed to see the departure. Whatever he had ingested had finally worn off, but Amelia had made a point to keep an eye on him. Word of Gavin’s assault on Mister Mordrake had spread, as had the rumor of the Graves’ manufactory explosion. Amelia noticed Gavin engaged in any number of somber discussions in an attempt, she assumed, to control the damage of the untimely announcement. Mordrake had disappeared not long after the altercation, a fact Gavin had found preeminently convenient. The gentleman’s departure, however, had followed a rather sizable donation to the Argonaut Society and a number of pointed comments about certain individuals indulging a bit too much at the hosts’ expense, “perhaps,” Mordrake had suggested, “to dull the sting of misfortune.”
At an announcement, the guests convened in front of the enormous staging area behind the manor where the Argo stood ready to depart. Every inch of the gleaming wood and brass hull had been polished to reflect the flickering gas lights and glaring spotlights surrounding it. Trays bearing glasses of champagne circulated the crowd while Colonel Pell gave a short address about the glories of exploration. Merriday himself, arrayed in his trademark faux-naval uniform, thanked the guests and sponsors for their generous donations, praised them for believing so fervently in the future of science, exploration, and a more just world. A toast, a cheer, then, amidst riot of fanfare and applause, Merriday stood in the open cabin doorway waving as the Argo lifted into the pearl grey sky.
Gavin and Amelia stayed to watch until the dirigible’s crimson balloon disappeared over the sea. They sat on the steps leading to the lawn, a nearly empty bottle of champagne between them. Over the course of the evening, they had spent, in total, three hours in each other's presence actively conversing - a miracle Amelia credited to the effects of fatigue and wine.
Amelia’s curiosity finally got the better of her. “How did you get involved in all of this?” She gestured with her champagne glass at the general pageantry and splendor.
“A business transaction,” he replied with a chuckle. “My father needed someone to build a mechanism for the factory. His inquiries led him to the Colonel, who, after recommending a firm to fulfill my father’s mechanical needs, convinced him to attend that year’s fundraiser. Naturally, he brought me along. I had read of Merriday’s exploits for years as a boy, you see, and rather idolized him.
“We had attempted to find a foothold in Society – your Society – and received blatant refusals. Our family is in trade, no matter how successful that trade might be, and therefore unacceptable to your refined drawing room sensibilities. Those involved in the Argonauts have no such scruples, and welcomed us.”
Amelia remembered quite clearly the disdain with which her parents and their associates discussed the invasion of tradesmen into gentle Society. Rough, uncultured, the Nouveaux purportedly flaunted their wealth through grotesque displays and openly supported programs designed to ruin the lives of established Society families. They purchased land abutting country estates, filling the peaceful countryside with racket and filth. Granted, according to her university housemates, the manufactories provide employment, but with deplorable wages and unforgiving if not deadly working conditions. How could anyone with conscience look favorably on the men and women whose luxury depended on such cruelty?
“Tradesmen are not entirely the worthy and morally upright martyrs you claim they are. For all of Society’s many faults, at least we do not condone murder.”
Gavin’s face hardened. “The Society darling spouts university drivel! Do your parents know you’re a revolutionary? Do you spend your evenings at the foot of some professor or another? Do you convince your friends that they taste blood in their sugar?”
“Did people die in yesterday’s explosion?” she spat.
He glared, then sighed. “Yes.”
“And will your father endure any punishment for his part in their deaths?” She acknowledged that she was only repeating the sentiments Kurt and his associates expressed, but it felt good to pin Gavin Graves to the wall, so to speak, even for a moment.
“Not personally, no. But neither would your father should one of your staff die by accident. I would suspect not even if intentionally. Am I right?”
Amelia stared at her champagne glass and felt her self-righteousness crumble. “You are.”
“Then you have no moral high ground from which to despise me.”
“Neither, then, do you. Perhaps in the future, we should restrict our discussions to topics of mutual import.”
His crack of sardonic laughter stung. “Indeed! And since we have nothing in common aside from our shared occupation, we will have little, if anything, to discuss.” He raised his glass in a mock toast, then took his leave.
The crowd had nearly disappeared through the mansion to their waiting carriages and steamcars and Colonel Pell’s staff had already begun clearing away the debris. Miss Darrowell assisted in dismantling the artifact display. Without the throng of guests, the ballroom felt cavernous, a sensation only amplified in Amelia's by the hollow echo of her footsteps.
It appeared she and Gavin were the last guests to leave, and so could hardly pretend not to see each other as they made their goodbyes to the Colonel.
“I trust you have enough material for your article, Miss Stodge?” inquired the Colonel. “I will forward the official photograph of the lift-off to the newspaper office. And I understand that your writer’s cuff was damaged during the course of the evening? I shall see to that as well, per Merriday’s instruction.” He guided Amelia and Gavin toward the door with an arm and a well-suppressed yawn.
Years of attending Season activities that lasted well past dawn had prepared Amelia for the task of maintaining poise and grace despite a rather blurry conscious. She hardly expected Gavin to fare worse considering his reputation, but her co-worker appeared positively done in, despite his mid-soiree nap. She wondered if he could be trusted behind the wheel in such a state and once they both had said their made their leave of their host, she offered to give him a ride home, which he patently refused.
“I require no assistance, Miss Stodge. I am capable of making my own way home. See to your article. I’m sure McGoffery wants it for this evening’s run.” He stormed off.
Rather than returning to the boarding house, Amelia drove to the Metropol office. The relative quiet of the house in the early morning would only lull her to sleep, unlike the constant rush and ruckus of the newspaper office. She also wanted to explain how the cuff was destroyed before Colonel Pell arranged to pay for it.
McGoffery’s office was dark.
Amelia found her usual machine and clacked out what appropriate memories she had before they faded. Without her writer’s cuff, she didn’t have details about dress and attendance that her usual audience craved. The only information she remembered distinctly was from her impromptu interview with Merriday himself, and, of course, Gavin’s tuffle with Mister Mordrake. She could hardly write about The Metropol’s ingénue punching an elderly man, even if word of the event would spread quickly anyway through the dozens of eye witnesses.
Notes finished, she replaced her page and stared at the blank space. Even with the event behind her, she still felt consummately unequal to reporting on it. She knew none of the accepted terminology, none of the illustrious names.
A shouted greeting snagged her attention, and she turned to find McGoffery carrying with a bundle. She winced, hoping it wasn’t the writer’s cuff. Still, best to address the issue immediately rather than wait for him to approach her. Leaving her notes and the mocking blank page, she squared her mind and knocked on her editor’s office doorjamb.
McGoffery’s many-armed lens apparatus was pushed up on his forehead, and he glared at Amelia with two normal-sized eyes that still managed to wring her gut.
“Good morning, sir,” Amelia said in her most awake and energetic voice. McGoffery put his bundle on the desk with a clunk and a clatter that made her wince again with recognition.
“Thought you would be home sleeping off your evening,” he said.
“Not until the job is done,” she replied a bit too brightly. “I’m afraid we had a little mishap with the cuff last night.”
“That what this is?” he jutted his chin at the bundle.
“One of the guests was in a state and knocked me down. I had hoped to speak with you about it before the carcass arrived, but it appears I was too early. The Colonel said he would see about replacing it. A stroke of luck, though; I was able to interview Merriday. Shall I write that up as well?”
He glanced up at her from his desktop of papers. For a moment, he looked impressed. “Was this interview before or after you destroyed the cuff?” he grumbled.
Amelia flared. “Ask Mister Graves about the cuff if you must. But it was because of the cuff that I secured the interview.”
After a moment of consideration, he waved her remark away and pulled his lens apparatus over his eyes. “Article first.”
The page in her machine had been empty, she was certain, when she left to speak to McGoffery, but someone had typed a single sentence in her brief absence.
Write about it as a novice because you are one. G
She ripped the page from the machine and crumpled it in her fists.