When they found it, none of the quint knew for what purpose Carnifex had constructed the apparatus, except that it that seemed certainly intended to house a sysdaimon. Jon was excused this ignorance, as were George and Who-else: they hadn’t lived in Number Eighteen during the heady days of Carnifex’s enrollment at Harbridge University. Drumstick and Benny—Benny particularly, being a student of engineering—should have known but did not. Equally, nobody knew why Carnifex had not taken the apparatus with him when he had vacated Number Eighteen at the end of his final term, more than two years before.
“Mostlike, he just forgot it,” said Drumstick. He might even have been right, as George, while searching for something to use as a dust-bin, had turned it up in the eaves where Carnifex customarily stored his “extramural projects.”
Jon Fox said, “Mind the fact that we don’t know that it really did belong to Mister Carnifex.” Jon was eldest of the quint by more than half a decade, a sort of post-graduate missionary of knowledge camped illicitly among these four unenlightened under-graduates. He found their company preferable to the tenement slums of the Harbridge Slough, which were otherwise all he could afford.
“Oh, we do know, Foxy, we do,” said Benny, the legal senior of the quint, “sure as if it was engraved.” Which the apparatus was not. Benny had pained to check. “It’s got his stamp all over it. He liked his brass zinced. ‘Makes it look modern,’ he’d say.”
George agreed that this was indeed to Carnifex’s taste, according to everything that he had ever heard about Number Eighteen’s third-most-famous occupant. (The first-two-most-famous were, at the time, the pair of Theoretical Theurgy students who, back in the forties, had blown out the lower floors, formerly Numbers Sixteen and Seventeen, leaving only the attic quarters to stand on the foundation.) “Or has that zincing got a practical sort of cause too, Benny?”
“It has—classic theurgistic engineering principle,” Benny said. “There’s a mine in the New World that’s been yielding first-rate zinc since the volcano next door got active back in seventy-two. And of course, the war our troops’re fighting against the Yóllohtecs thereabouts only helps. Sysdaimons are known to favor the hard-to-come-by, in the apparati as gives rise to ‘em.”
“Or into which God bestows them,” said Drumstick, whose department was Divinity.
“Let’s not argue theodynamic theory, now, Drumstick the Divine, as it makes no difference to us engineers.”
The rosewood base plate of Carnifex’s apparatus was about the size of a sole of a man’s shoe, inlaid with other materials on its edges—minerals and metals that Benny cataloged aloud—and atop it were, firstly, a small telegraph key of curious proportions, its knob blushed with a golden hue because most of the zinc plating had rubbed off; secondly, an armature and electro-magnet of a sounder, its clacking parts similarly worn; and, thirdly, an ivory switch marked with on-and-off sigils.
Each coil of wire—some as thin as spider silk—was done in great intricacy, and there seemed to be far too many of them for any ordinary purpose. Some were let down through the rosewood to form a fearfully baroque pattern on the bottom, which was hollowed out and fitted with glass (scratched now) to protect the wires from wear. Thence, through tiny holes whose drilling must have been daunting work with jeweler’s tools, the wires fed out one end of the plate to two even more curious straps of some rubberized stuff neither Benny nor George could identify. These were studded on their upper surfaces with metal denticles, stout but sharp, each of which matched to a wire. Aloft of all this was an assembly of rollers and a spool-holder.
The apparatus appeared altogether the very sort of thing apt to spawn, or to attract, a sysdaimon—at least, when properly made to practical purpose, and Carnifex never did otherwise.
“It has no jack or anything, for all that it looks working,” Drumstick said. “But that was just like Carnifex.”
There was, anyway, in their living quarters no sort of wire for a jack. Like most of the dormitions on the grounds of Harbridge University, Number Eighteen was gas-lit, with a cast-iron coal stove for heat. But electric and telegraph wires ran close outside. The boys always felt quite near to the whole world, on account of the net of wires hanging just outside the window.
Benny said, “Don’t need a jack, not with those nice little teeth,” and threw open the sash.
Jon, who followed Benny’s train of thought and did not care for its next station, came after him. “I would advise that you don’t—”
“Carnifex must’ve done it lots of times.” Benny looked admiringly up at the wires. “Can’t be too dangerous.”
“Unless,” said Who-else, “Carnifex left it behind ’cause it don’t work.”
Benny and Drumstick and also George (who had heard much more about Carnifex than had either Who-else or Jon) rounded on Who-else as if he had uttered a gross blasphemy against God Himself. Before it could come to blows, Who-else, youngest of the quint, took his lesson and vowed to never so sin again.
The elder under-graduates fell into conference about the telegraph wires. This resulted in an argument that they could not resolve.
Benny sucked in his breath and held it. On his out-breath he cried, “Expedition, men!” and headed out the door to conclude their argument through the scientific process.
The five went past the porter’s lodge and onto the streets of Harbridge town, following one wire as if it were some rara avis, noting where it branched off into offices here and offices there and, rarely, into a private residence. Harbridge was well reticulated, and in certain parts the wires ran so thick that noon seemed a shady twilight. But it was a broad, open street where the boys walked.
“Sa-ay!” Drumstick had stopped at a gateway in a brick wall. Here stood a pair of stone guardant lions, very primitive but of a certain aesthetic power, once joined but now split and separated by a fancy gate of wrought iron. On this gate any bystander could discern ancient symbols from the Antique Lands—onchs, scarabs, four-winged djinees, sphynges of several varieties, and such—and superimposed upon them, the initials “R. C.”
“For the love of—!” Jon all but swooned at the inevitable prospect. “That’s the Research Club! You can’t—I’ll have none of—you mustn’t—”
The wall being low, there was no keeping the barbarians out. In its ten yards to the building (once a private home of no great pretension), the telegraph wire passed through the branches of a large pear tree, heavy in fruit.
In a flash Benny and Drumstick were up the tree and perched. The wire almost touched their knees, it ran so close.
“Benny Harris, you cannot,” Jon Fox protested from the ground. His potential complaints were many: they were apt to be hurt by a fall or shock; they, unlike Jon, were trespassing, not being members of the Club, which was devoted to antiquarian and archaeological studies; if any members of the Club should catch them, Jon’s membership would be endangered. None of these theories would deter them, so Jon fired the practical facts: “There’s nobody in today; it’s Sunday. Whom do you expect to be using the line you’re about to tap?“
Benny said, “Why, you, Foxy. Or rather, Who-else, seeing as he’s the fastest teaser” (telegraph-coder) “among us, ain’t he? Once we’ve determined that Carnifex’s sysdaimon here receives—it’s a line-tapper, methinks, so points to you, Foxy!—then we shall try to make it send.”
Jon pointed at the door. “Who is going to pay the fee to send a message from the Club’s telegraph?”
That was a muddle, but from their pockets the boys excavated enough for seven ordinary words, transmitted within the natural borders of Emerland.
“You’ve got your door key with you,” Drumstick said down to Jon.
“I don’t carry it always.” Jon sounded relieved of a burden.
Benny said, “Well, fetch it, and Who-else go with you, so it don’t seem odd that you’re heading back into Number Eighteen while the rest of us is out. And Who-else, make sure he brings the key straight back. No stopping at the Sphynx Institute nor any other book-research nonsense. We’re at practicums today!”
“Practica,” Jon said. He considered not going. He truly did. But going seemed, in the end, the wisest option: after all, if they did not get into the Research Club, they would break into some other place, he was almost sure of it. One of the four alone would never think of such a thing and try to pull it off, but together, as an empurposed mob, these under-graduates were dangerous creatures.
Meanwhile, Benny unpacked the sysdaimon’s apparatus. “See these ganglia here?” He displayed the bottom of the wooden base plate and its baroque wiring to Drumstick beside him. “They’re meant for cypher-work. Of some sort. Or maybe another sort.... All the wire-work is like this, even the attachments to the electro-magnets and all the rest, done up in the adeptest knots and braids and patterns as this engineer has ever seen. An’ these, I do discern,” he said of the two rubber straps and their studs, “are meant to fit round a telegraph wire.”
One could not doubt Carnifex. One followed his technological lead and prayed to keep up. So Benny held tight to the rosewood plate and, with his eyes screwed shut, flipped the straps up with a sharp snap. The straps whipped around the wire, braided of their own accord. Released, the apparatus hung there in air, lightly swinging.
“Simple enough, eh, Drumstick?”
“Those teeth’ll bite tight into the iron when I give a tug—hey, class’s in; you listenin’, George? A little engineering wouldn’t hurt your floral studies.”
“Have we got telegraph paper?”
“God’s bod! Well, Foxy can nip some from the R. C., once he’s in.”
Convincing Jon to do that, after Who-else had returned him with the key, was little difficult, as Jon had already resigned to his own complicity in the greater crime. He provided them with a yard of narrow paper ribbon wound onto an old spool. The other boys protested his thrift until Benny said, “It’s all right, men. This is a test, this is only a test. Harbridge men don’t pillage before establishing due cause. It’s unscientific, and unbecomin’ the Empire.”
The question still remained of the message and its recipient.
Jon let Who-else, but none else, into the Research Club to finish with the deed. Shown to the little room where the telegraph was kept—also locked, but Jon had that door key too—Who-else took his seat.
“All right,” said Jon, “we must make it official Club member business. There is a book you will inquire of at the National Library in Ilyonton.”
Who-else flexed his fingers. “Best tell Benny to make the machine ready to catch it. I’m fast.”
Jon stepped out and gave fair warning. Benny tightened the straps by tugging on the base plate. Then he pressed the ivory switch to “ON.” Fixed tighter in place, its teeth biting into the wire, and given its mechanical command, Carnifex’s apparatus began to hum. This welled up as a most peculiar tone, as if all the wires on the street, if not in all of Harbridge, had been pulled taut and now were vibrating in sympathy.
The swelling sound passed in a moment, so fast that none of the boys was entirely sure that he had heard it, but each knew, with scientific certainty, that Carnifex had succeeded and Benny was right: there was a sysdaimon within the apparatus. And now it was giving them a new and more urgent noise: clicks and clacks from the sounder. The rollers of the apparatus began to feed the paper.
Jon fled back to the telegraph. “Who-else! What are you sending? I haven’t give you the title—”
Who-else held his hands aloft.
Drumstick barged into the Club, brandishing the yard of ribbon, now textured with dots and dashes its entire length. “Hey, Fox, what’s this? ‘EACH NIGHT YOU ARE STILL IN MY DREAM’? One of your ancient Ópetian texts? Thinking type, you be, but not the dreaming. Anyway, Fox, you best have dropped enough in for your extra verbiage, or else your Club might rusticate you.”
Who-else said, “Ain’t us, Drumstick!”
Jon herded them both out to see what was happening—and locked the Club door behind him.
The apparatus was still clicking away. “God’s bod, Jonny, get more paper,” Benny called from the pear tree. “The sysdaimon has run up-line, methinks, to find something more interesting than you. (Can’t say as I blame it!) We’re missing whatever it’s catchin’. Who-else, get up here.”
“I don’t like heights, Benny,” Who-else said plaintively.
“That’s too-dam’ bad. I’m senior-most and you’re junior-most. Up!”
“Don’t like pears, neither,” Who-else said, but he obeyed. Soon settled near Carnifex’s clicking apparatus, he cocked his head and shut his eyes. “He says, I DO NOT DESERVE YOU. An’ she says—”
“Hold on, now!” said Drumstick from down below. “How do you know that’s a she on the line?”
“Oh, you can hear it,” Who-else replied. “Not often mistaking a feminine hand.”
“I’ll bet you never got teased by a girl in all your born—”
Benny said, “Drumstick, shut up: you are interrupting the proceedings. Go on, Who-else.”
“I think he says it’s his heart that’s the problem, or blood, or pain, or somethin’, hard to hear it right; she—the teaserette—”
Drumstick said, “Who-else wouldn’t recognize a girl even if she shocked him with her wet cell.”
“Benny!” Who-else cried. “I’m missing much on account of the drumming.”
Benny said, “Drumstick, shut up!”
Jon surrendered up an entire new spool of paper ribbon. Benny made use of a branch to hold it and threaded the loose end through Carnifex’s apparatus. It picked up the paper and began to tattoo again.
Benny read it first, then the boys on the ground as the white ribbon, textured with dots and dashes, snaked its way down: Drumstick, then Jon, and then George, who wound it around the old spool. Benny directed Who-else to read aloud, for benefit of those who could not decipher raw telegraphic code so well or fast. (Benny showed Jon some respect by not singling him out by name.)
“Aye-aye, sir, Benny,” said Who-else, pleased enough with his necessity to no longer mind perching in the dreaded pear tree. “The girl just said DUSNT MATR—about his heart and all, I guess—BCOS U DSIRE ME and he replies FATHER AND MOTHER SAY IT IS NOT TRUE DESIRE. THEY SAY I AM NINETEEN AND TOO YOUNG FOR YOU.”
Benny said, “Love is bold stuff for bald wires!”
“Gossip,” Drumstick muttered, but he was little better and listened.
“DSIRE IS ENUF FOR ANYONE.”
Drumstick said, “My philosophy dons’d take her down six ways come Sunday.”
“NOT ENOUGH FOR ME NOW, SINCE.”
“‘Since’ when?” Jon said in a museful tone.
Benny wagged his finger, but his gaze remained ribbon-bound. “There’s our resident antiquarian, always after dates. Here, Foxy—have a pear instead.”
“U DSIRED ME AND NO OTHR BEFOR.”
“FATHER AND MOTHER BELIEVED SERVICE WOULD CHANGE THAT.”
“U HAVNT CHANGD. U DSIRE ME NOW.”
“THINGS ARE DIFFERENT NOW THAT I LEFT FORT NEELY.”
At this George whistled. “That’s a bad place,” he said, “twenty miles from Yóllohtlan.” He knew this from his botanical geography studies.
Now the rest of the quint whistled, too. They remembered it from the Times-Graphic and the Saint Alban’s Gazette, last spring. The government had wished to minimize the accounts, but the New World wars were front-page news in Emerland.
“COM HOME TO ME.”
“THE DOCTOR WILL NOT LET ME GO. IT IS NOT A PROPER PLACE FOR ME SINCE FORT NEELY.”
“THERS ALWAYS A PLACE FOR U. HOME IS A HOUS W MNY ROOMS.”
“Oh-ho,” Benny said, “that’s deep.” Jon nodded in unconscious agreement as he bit into the pear.
The clicking of the receiver now came fast and stopless. “I DESERVE BETTER THAN SUCH A HOME AS YOURS MOTHER AND FATHER SAY BUT I JUST SAY MAYBE I DO NOT DESERVE YOU AT ALL. AFTER ALL COLOR SERGEANT SAID DO AS WE WERE TOLD WE WOULD BE ALL RIGHT. WE FIRED WHEN ORDERED BUT NOBODY WAS ALL RIGHT POOR COLOR SERGEANT HIM BEING WRONG BUT HE WAS DEAD AND I WAS NOT. THEY DID NOT KNOW AND LEFT ME BEHIND. COLOR SERGEANT GUARDED ME BUT THE REST OF THE REGIMENT GOT MARCHED TO YOLLOHTLAN TWENTY TWO AND ONE HALF MILES OF SCREAMS I HEARD EACH MAN HOURS AND HOURS THEN THEY SAW THEIR HEARTS I HEAR THEM I FEAR I DO NOT DESERVE SUCH A HOME AS YOURS”
The boys ached for a pause in the apparatus’s clacking, in Who-else’s desperate recitation, but he was allowed no silence: “BUT U DSIRE ME. ISNT THAT ENUF? Y DO U DOUT?”
“I LIVED A LIFETIME LIKE A HUNDRED THAT ONE DAY. MOTHER AND FATHER SAY I AM STILL TOO YOUNG FOR SUCH DESIRE AS I ONCE HAD. I DO NOT DESERVE YOU.”
“DSIRE ME NOW AS U DSIRED ME BFOR. I ASK NO MOR OF U. I WIL MAKE U HAPPY AND TAKE AWAY ALL SADNSS. WAT MOR MATRS? COM TO ME.”
“I BELIEVE YOU ARE RIGHT BUT MOTHER AND FATHER SAY THERE IS MORE IN LIFE THAN HAPPINESS OF THE SORT YOU OFFER.”
“U KNO I AM RITE. THAT IS Y U NEED ME. COM TO ME.”
“THE DOCTOR WILL NOT ALLOW ME TO COME TO YOU. HE KEEPS CLOSE WATCH BECAUSE HE SAYS I AM SO ILL.”
A long silence, next, at last, but for the clickless hum of Carnifex’s apparatus and the clop of a horse on the street.
“Oh, that’s right sad,” said George, when he could bear the silence no more.
Jon said, “Where do you suppose each is?”
“Doesn’t matter really, does it?” Drumstick said.
“Context is extremely important.”
“Well, then, Don Jon,” said Benny, peering through the branches of the tree and toward the street, breathing deep the fruit-scented air and glad they were not red apples hanging round him, “context depends on how far Carnifex’s sysdaimon went.”
“I hope it comes back.” Who-else was hoarse but desperate to speak his own mind. “Otherwise, that’s a pickle, right, Benny? A sysdaimon loose in the wires!”
Benny ticked his tongue. “The on-an’-off switch’ll call it back—so long as its goetic patent holds, anyways. I wonder how far down the line it did go.” He stood on the branch of the pear tree, then ventured onto another to scout the wire. He did not care to think that the sysdaimon might not come back. Loose sysdaimons made mischief with other sysdaimons and other apparati. Such action was a sure violation of any goetic patent—if Carnifex had even bothered with the legal formalities. And the Patent Office (Goetic Section) was not known to be tolerant. But there were solutions to these issues. Benny had passed the preliminary Extirpation Examination last term. Yes, Benny much preferred this sort of worry. It was engineering. He was familiar.
After this lengthy pause, in which the boys wondered, perhaps even hoped, if the correspondents had given up, the apparatus clicked and clacked. “U CANT B TOO ILL FOR ME.”
“I AM ONLY NINETEEN. TOO YOUNG MOTHER AND FATHER SAY.”
“WANT U ONLY FOR THMSLVS. DONT CARE ABT UR PAIN.”
“THEY DO NOT WANT ME IN YOUR HOUSE. THEY SAY I WILL FIND A PROPER GIRL LATER AND BE HAPPY THAT WAY.”
“WATE LONG ENUF AND I WIL FIND U ANYWAY AND B RITE FOR U LATER LIKE I AM RITE 4 U NOW.”
“I KNOW BUT I DO NOT DESERVE YOU NOW. THE DOCTOR IS COMING. HE NEVER BRINGS RELIEF AS YOU WOULD. GOODBYE”
The following silence was greatly prolonged. Into it Benny said, “Well, if that is not the injustest tale of love I ever have heard. Doesn’t a lad of ours, old enough to go off to war in the name of King and Congress, deserve to know the happiness of girl-kind? Says he’s got no deserve, but he deserves a harem, don’t he, for all that he’s been through? And here he is denying the very girl who loves him, his achin’ heart’s desire. Isn’t it his deserve, to know her love?”
General agreement followed.
“So, what’ll we do, Benny?” said Who-else.
“Well,” Benny said, wisely, “I think we ought to engineer a circumstance.”
“Play God!” George said with enthusiasm.
“That is blasphemy.” Drumstick addressed his remark not to George but to Benny, who mattered.
Benny passed an instant in silence. “In duly studied deference to the expert among us, we’ll demote ourselves to gods—that’s the lower case, you hear that, Drumstick o’ the Divinity Department? Yes, gods of love! Our Harbridge University bein’ the wise institution that it is (having, as proof, enrolled the five of us), we shall follow it for our degrees. Ewen Nowe, otherwise and better known as Who-else, you, being frosh, are god of love, first degree; George Mewett, the wise fool, are second degree. Eldrick Drumm, you are third and don’t deserve it. Benny Harris appoints myself fourth.”
“And what about Jon Fox?” said George.
“Jon’s love itself,” Drumstick said, at which everyone laughed but Jon, because Jon’s love seemed reserved for books and the dustiest antiquities and he seldom argued otherwise.
“Ready at the key, Who-else the first?” inquired Benny the fourth.
“Aye-aye.” Who-else saluted sharply. He set Carnifex’s apparatus to rest horizontally on one knee, to make the tapping easier.
“This is just an experiment, now,” said Benny. “The girl might still be at her own key, but she might not, so we can’t tip our hand too far. Thoughts, men?”
“‘Despair not,'” said George, straightaway.
“Oh, that’s good! Scriptural, nearly. Good, George the second. We ought to promote you, at specific expense of Drumstick, to god of the third degree. Who-else, send George’s scripture. Spell it proper, too. She’s got to know her betters, or else she’ll take no advice.”
Which Who-else did, and they waited for a little while.
“She’s gone,” Drumstick pronounced with satisfaction.
Jon said, “Or else Mister Carnifex’s apparatus does not function” (Jon stared the riled under-graduates down) “as Benny has interpreted.”
“Carnifex can’t be wrong,” Drumstick said, “but Benny can.”
Who-else said, “Why not,” and the older under-grads rounded on him, fisted, but he was pointing to the ribbon feeding again through the apparatus. “No, it’s the girl, back on the line. She’s saying ‘Y NOT’?
“Answer her, answer her.” Benny gestured his urgency to George. “Why not despair? I’ll think o’ something practicable, but meanwhile answer poeticably. Foxy, you could be of considerable more use around here, y’know.”
George cleared his throat. “We are those who would soothe the unbearable pain of your separation, who do not believe in the injustice done to your lover, who has faithfully served King, Congress, and Country.'”
Who-else sent this.
Jon’s subsequent “What are you going to do?” sounded more warning than query.
Benny shook his head. “Don’t know. Does our teaserette know where her lover is? Who-else, inquire.”
Who-else received an address in Harbridge, which Jon recognized because there was a bookseller on that street. “And a small sanatorium, too. ‘Offering Convalescence for Wounded Soldiers,’ I recall the sign saying, but I can’t recall the number.”
“Go on then, Jon. Ascertain that’s our place.”
Jon paused for a moment. There was little more mischief that the boys could get themselves into, he believed, so long as he kept the key to the Research Club. Even so, he departed at an unscholarly jog.
“Who-else, what’s she saying in those clicks and clacks I’m hearing?”
“HIS DSIRE ISNT ENUF BCOS HE DOUTS HIS DSERV.”
“Tell her,” Benny said, “that he and she ain’t alone in the world, or some poetic variation thereof. George, that’s your department—and nota Benny, you are wasted in Botany. Meanwhile, the rest of us shall plot.”
George cleared his throat and invoked the voice he used when acting in a play with his sisters: “‘There is no doubt among us: his desire is our desire, and we are the gods of the wire.”
Before Drumstick could object to the phrasing, Benny said, “Drumstick, how much have you got stashed into your mattress? I know Who-else’s account, and George’s.”
“Hey!” said Who-else and George at once.
“Ask her where she is, Who-else.”
“She’s—she’s HOME, she says. I—I’ll get it out of her, Benny! Don’t you worry.”
Benny said to the others, “A basic field problem, solved: if you cannot move Object A to Object B, and proximity is the foremost goal, then move Object B to Object A.”
George said, “It’d be terrible if she were in Ilyonton or Scowsby, the far ends of the rail lines. We haven’t such fare between us, even third-class, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Who-else said, “She’ll only say HOME, Benny.”
“Advise her that she needs to come to Seven station, which services Harbridge town. Tell her that if she can get a fare at a cost of—” (he added up their funds) “—then she is free to come. We shall wire that sum to her telegraph address. George, word it up official-like.”
When George and Who-else had done their parts, Who-else said, “She’s saying HIS DSIRE ISNT ENUF BCOS HE DOUTS BUT BCOS U HAV NO DOUT UR DSIRE MITE B ENUF INSTED. BLEEV BLEEV BLEEV—an’—an’—an’—an’ that’s all. She’s off the line, I think, Benny.”
“Good work, men! Aside, now, Who-else.” Benny assumed Who-else’s place at the apparatus, which the first-year gratefully surrendered. Benny pressed his upper teeth into his lower lip and pressed the ivory on-and-off switch. Though he did not betray his fears, all four present of the quint held their breaths. Then the apparatus ended its quiet hum entirely without the alarming tonal symphony of its start.
Satisfied that all was as it ought to be, Benny flipped its straps free from the wire. “Off to pillage our beds. O, the sacrifices us gods do make....”
Having raided their mattress-stashes, the under-graduates went out again, this time to a proper telegraph office. They went some distance beyond their way, looking for one automatonically clerked. They had no desire to stir the curiosity of human staff, not boys sending money to a nameless girl at an unfamiliar telegraphic address (although Drumstick had been convinced to stand in as her brother). The address the girl had given was queer, too. “Could be a tinker telegraph,” Benny said. Some of these itinerant stations were legal, marginally. After some repetition, the automaton accepted the address, their own false name (“Theo Love”), and their coins.
“Ah, gods’ will be done!” Benny declared. “We done earned our rest now—and it’s still Sunday, fancy that!”
At nine o’clock in Number Eighteen, the sysdaimon of the dormition gas system dimmed the lights on the quint of the quad. By this time Jon had caught up with them, finally. He was very annoyed that they had not bothered to tell him where they were going, which had caused him to spend the afternoon and evening trying to track them down. An entire day of study gone to waste in the streets!
Benny punished Jon for his lecture by not allowing any of the boys to tell anything of their afternoon.
When the lights went off, Jon bedded down in the parlor while the boys occupied proper bunks in the bedroom. The junior three tucked down under their wools, but Benny locked his hands behind his head in place of a pillow and stared thoughtfully into the dark for what seemed long hours.
“I wonder if we could make a regular charity of it.”
George stirred. “We haven’t the allowance to spare so much. Train tickets ain’t cheap.”
“Well, no, but advice, I mean. Carnifex’s sysdaimon seeks out the neediest on the line. Or so I deduced from our practicum of this afternoon. The sysdaimon finds the troubled. We telegraph the advice. We’re very advice-able, I think. This was an easy one to solve. It just takes engineering. Practical thinking. Harbridge-type thought. Ain’t we four bein’ trained to solve the problems of an Empire?”
“What’s Foxy bein’ trained for?” Who-else asked, muffled by his blanket.
“Jon’s type is the—”
As if conjured, Jon appeared in the doorway, holding an ancient bronze lamp with a glowing wick that danced light and shadow across his scowl as if the flame had its own temper. “You scoundrels. Is that what you did the minute I was away? Bought her a train ticket! And what about the six miles between Seven station and Harbridge?”
As a result of a sysdaimon feud in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, no train whose engine was sysdaimon-inhabited would run any nearer to Harbridge. The boys made no reply, ashamed to admit this obvious logistical oversight.
Free to go on in their silence, Jon said, “As you are the ones who lured her from the safety of her home, it is your moral duty to safeguard her. If she hasn’t just run off with your money! It would serve you right if she did just that.”
“Ah...” said Drumstick, heralding uncommon agreement among the quint.
“But we don’t know what line she’s coming on,” said George. “Nor the time.”
“Who knows the schedules?” said Benny.
Jon—who went lecturing beyond Harbridge when he could find interested paying parties—did. “There is one late-night train that makes all the stops between Ilyonton and Seven. She could arrive tonight.”
That launched a scramble. The boys dressed warm in their darkest trousers and jackets, and one by one they slipped past the porter, hiding by shadows; Jon, however, a post-graduate whom everyone knew was not living among the under-graduates, could pass with merely a verbal cloak of reasonable excuse. Soon all five were together on the road to Seven. Jon paid a van-driver who cut the walk from six miles to four. Even so, the whistle of a train departing Seven station beat them.
George said, “How will we know what she looks like, Benny? And won’t a mob like us spook her?”
“We’ll shadow her. No more’n that. Look for a hopeful lover. A pretty girl, I’d think—but even plain, her heart is that of a true beauty. And keep an eye on the carriages, in case she had a few pence of her own to ride, or she takes some other charity.”
“Benny? What if—”
“What if what, Who-else?”
“His folks sayin’ he’s too young for her. He’s nineteen—like me, plus a year! What if she’s—she’s—”
“Drumstick, you must explain to me what is wrong with these lads o’ mine. Foxy brands her a swindler, and Who-else marks her an old maid. I do wonder what’s become of the chivalrous men of Number Eighteen. Tell them next Sunday in all detail, and I shall listen to the beratement, thus to learn while napping where I’ve gone wrong as senior. She must be here. She said the sum was ‘enough’—”
“‘Might,'” amended Who-else in a timorous whisper. “Benny, she said ‘might be enough.'”
“And when a girl such as she mights, she don’t fail. Yes, that’s what she were saying: ‘Might be enough’—might is enough! It must be. She must be here.”
“She might, yet, Benny,” said Drumstick.
“She must. She begged us to believe ‘er. Begged us—’believe’! Believe in her, my men! We must—it’s our divine duty as gods!”
George grabbed at Benny’s arm. “There. D’you see?”
“No.” Benny peered at the small crowd of passengers and the greater crowd of porters, tending to the night mail and other dark-hour deliveries deposited on the platform.
“In the shadow of—”
Who-else pointed among a dispersing gather of porters and drew close to Drumstick. “George’s pegged her. There. Yes, Benny’s right that she must be here, ’cause there she is. See, Drumstick?”
In a minute, Drumstick did too, and Jon. Nothing more than cast shadows of passersby, at first, but when the last man had gone, a girl was there at the edges of gas-lamp lights, emerged from some deeper darkness where she had been hiding, keeping yet among shadows, perhaps shy of the night and of strangers or ashamed of the colorless dress worn to tatters that clothed her body, draped by a gossamer black shawl.
“Ye of little faith,” Benny whispered. “Such honesty and youth will cure our lad of all his ails.” With which the others agreed.
She stood for a few hesitant moments, as if taking stock of this unfamiliar place. She did not pull her pale arms in tight to gather her shawl about her. She did not shift from foot to foot, though she was unshod. The autumnal cool did not touch her.
“The fire of true love will do that to a body,” said Benny, as if he knew.
“Yes,” said Jon, who perhaps did.
George said, “Ain’t it a good thing we’re here, else she’d be all alone in the world. That station officer there offers no guidance, and none of them coachmen are callin’ her for a fare.”
“Too poor a thing,” said Who-else.
“One must wonder how big that house of hers really is,” Drumstick observed. “She looks like she crawled from a hovel in the ground, scarcely ever touched by the sun. Tinker address, indeed! They are wise who leave her.”
Jon balled his fingers into fists, ready to demand to know where the Divine’s charity was (Jon was sensitive as to poverty and perhaps a little as to tinkers), and George said, “The boy said his parents didn’t like her house. Her family wouldn’t be the first whose mansion collapses atop their heads while they themselves starve inside.”
Benny hushed him. “She should be specially eager for her lover’s arms, then. Why don’t she go? Go on, girl o’ us gods, go on,” he cooed.
And she walked the road to Harbridge town.
“Well,” Benny said, as they followed after with as much discretion as five young men can muster, “it’s our night-job now, gods together, one that we assumed in the broad sunlight of yesterday. ‘Tis our joint and only purpose to see that she comes to no harm—that the only thing she does come to is the arms of her achin’ lover, that she can cure him of all his ails. Maybe that doctor will take pity and provide her a pair of shoes! Us gods’ will be done!”
They followed her the six miles from Seven. Her barefoot gait never broke on the tar-grouted road.
“In town she’ll need direction,” said Drumstick. “To find the address.”
“We’ll provide, if need be,” said Benny. “Our soldier boy deserves no less a favor for his service to the Empire.”
As road turned to street, her course never wavered. She made turns and cuts as if she had been born in Harbridge town and knew its landmarks without any need to look left or right, nor to seek church spire or university tower or any other sight at all but what stood straight before her.
Said Who-else, “Ah, she must have teased him after we got off the line, gotten directions, don’t you think, Benny?”
Jon pointed across the street. “We’re here.”
It was a house of a row, a tall brick place, narrow, with an alley to one side, several of its windows dull a-glow. The girl stood before the place, gazing up at one dark window.
Benny pronounced, “We gods done good, shepherding our girl safe. Now, though, the next miracle’s up to herself: how she will run the gantlet of his doctor and the staff.”
George said, “Ah, go, girl, go! He’s waiting, that brave soldier....”
“She oughtn’t stand there like she might change her mind after all this,” Drumstick murmured.
“Maybe,” Who-else said, “he can see her from his window. Wonder if he thinks he deserves her now, eh, Benny?”
“Oh, he deserves her,” Benny said. And he risked a louder call, but still barely more than a whisper: “If he says his desire ain’t enough, and that his parents don’t approve, there’s those of us yet who say otherwise. He deserves you. A thousand times, he deserves you, so say we gods o’ love. Isn’t that enough?”
“You’re inspirational yourself, Benny,” said George, as the girl ran up to the front door.
They were too distant to hear if she rang the bell. Nor could they see how far the door was opened. It could have been no more than a sliver, because no light spilled from within, but in she slipped, as if swallowed, shadow-like.
Who-else said, “Looks as our boy’s got an ally inside as well as us out, Benny, don’t it?”
“It is to our benefit, and the boy’s,” murmured Drumstick, “that the doctor needs more trustworthy staff.”
Before Benny could reply, Jon laid a hand upon his nape and turned him around. “Enough for one night; back home with you four.”
“Ain’t you comin’, Foxy?” asked Benny, when Jon released his neck with a little shove.
“What if she gets turned out, as the doctor is apt to do?” Jon said.
“Chivalrous,” said George, approvingly.
“Now,” Jon said, “get back to Number Eighteen before you’re missed, you gods. That girl won’t last past breakfast, so I’ll see you again at noon.”
But they did not see Jon Fox at noon. It was three o’clock when they went looking for him with some bread and cheese.
They found him on the street where they had left him, sheltered in the doorway of a planked-up shop. Jon ate and was grateful but scarcely took his gaze from the sanatorium door across the way.
“She’s not left,” he said through yawn and cheese.
“No?” said Drumstick, flatly surprised.
“Must be a back door,” said Benny.
“There is, and no way out from it but by the alleyway, which is blind. Staff comes and goes, but none who could be our girl.”
“Then she slipped out the front—”
“I know how to surveille, Mister Harris, and have slept not a wink.” Jon’s next yawn turned into: “O-ohh, what’s this?”
A carriage had stopped. Out came a man and a woman, met at the sanatorium door by another man, a doctor, whom they passed by coldly and without taking his proffered hand.
Who-else said, “Whose family d’you suppose that was, now?”
Drumstick said, “Hers, I’d imagine. Going in to fetch her home.”
“No, they’re his,” said George. “They’re too well-fed and dressed for her folk.”
“Ah—” Benny said, “Jon’s asleep to not have caught that first! George is right, but no matter, the end’s the same. So close were we to success, men! A generation cut off before the nuptials.”
“Oh, but, Benny,” said Who-else. “Ain’t that a minister headin’ up the steps?”
Drumstick stared and grunted approval of the minister’s evident denomination.
Benny clapped his hands together. “A simple ceremony is all youth needs for their holy matrimony, right? ‘Too young’ indeed! Her determination and his desire bring their just reward.”
Who-else said, “Benny, d’you think there’ll be cake?”
“Even if, we’d have none. A job well done’s our reward. But we do deserve the icing!”
Although each had truly emptied his mattress-stash, there were other places with other money that Benny had spared. So the boys put coins together again and sent Who-else running to a bakery. He came back with sweet rolls, and they sat in the doorway of the boarded-up shop on a fine autumn day in Harbridge town, speculating on those future loves that they would save through their new telegraphic charity—and how though True Love was the finest thing known for others, there’d be none of that for themselves, for these gods were men of adventure, men of learning (Jon nearly choked), men of Empire.
The world had fallen in to themselves again. The girl and the boy were like a story in the newspaper now, something to fold up and exchange for a new one. The four youths of the quint vowed discretion for their telegraphic advice: these were not the sorts of endeavors with which to regale other boys in university. “Not having such sensible hearts, they would not appreciate.”
It was growing dark and supper-time in hall when the boys roused themselves from their urban picnic. “Look, Benny,” said Who-else, “Mother and Father’s comin’ out.”
The doctor stood aside of the sanatorium door. The boy’s father and mother shook hands with the minister before descending toward their carriage.
Said Benny: “It’ll be our bride and groom next, leavin’ for a honeymoon. A cheery sight for the ailing occupant of that ambulance-wagon there waiting now, I’d think! Oh—here they are—”
The box that followed them down the steps was plain and pine, wrapped in regimental colors, and looked too small for a soldier but the right size for a boy.
Benny tried to speak—one “Too late!” or single “Alas!”—but his larynx aborted words and birthed instead a sound very near to a sob.
“At least” (Who-else wrung his cap) “his last minutes was happy ones, with his girl.”
Said Drumstick, “We did see to that, God have mercy upon that poor soldier’s soul at his Judgment.” And he could not look at Benny nor anyone at all but the minister, while Jon had eyes only for the box and its hearse.
George shook his head. “Our poor girl... so soon a widow.”
But of her there was no trace. They waited for hours, until it was unreasonably dark and they had missed dinner in hall, for which there would be trouble, and they waited even later than that. And the girl did not come out.
“Was she with him in the box?” said George as the quint headed home to Number Eighteen, shivering, not entirely from the cold.
“That would be right poetic,” Benny said, having found his voice, “but I’m an engineer, and could see there’d be no way for both to fit.”
Jon hunted the obituaries of five newspapers for some trace of the boy or the girl. He found the boy’s death notice in the Saint Alban’s Gazette, and learned his name, and his rank (lance corporal), and his age (nineteen years), and that he was “cut away from life and loving family by wounds received on campaign, to sleep eternally in the bosom of His Lord, but much too young.” The boys mourned over it and even got a little drunk in the late lance corporal’s name.
Being an antiquarian with powers of keen observation and textual analysis, Jon joined this notice, some weeks later, with another article in another newspaper, the Times-Graphic. An unnamed soldier in a local sanatorium had been suspected by his own family of suicide, for he had long been of that inclination. They had sought relief for him in Army discipline, which by all reports had instilled in him the good spirits that family life had lacked. He had returned from campaign in the New World with only minor wounds of the physical sort but nevertheless in a certain abnormal mental condition, caused by “having witnessed certain battlefield atrocities.” The family accused the sanatorium of neglect. A police investigation failed to yield any cause of death for which the sanatorium might be reasonably held liable.
According to the Times-Graphic: “The medical examiner said, ‘The enlisted man’s heart gave out against every indication of physical soundness and despite every proper ministration. The family demands further answer, but none can be supplied. Under such circumstances, who is the medical profession to say if God or the Devil visited death upon this soldier?’ No charges have been or will be pressed.”
Jon did not show this last to the boys of Number Eighteen. He put the newspaper into the coal stove to burn. Very late one moonless night he buried Carnifex’s apparatus in many pieces, in places where neither the boys nor anyone else would ever be apt to find them.
Thus Jon Fox ended their service of telegraphic advice.
When they complained to him about the ruination of their intended good works, dam’ing some university snitch or an agent of the Patent Office (Goetic Section) for their loss, he consoled them. “You have,” he assured them, “as gods or otherwise, futures far too bright to squander on such charity as that.”