Life Among the Savages, Part 22.
[NOTE: If you want to start from the beginning, here's Part 1 or, if you reject linear storytelling, here's a link to all the parts so you can choose for yourself.]
I awakened some hours later, in the darkness of the bedroom I shared with my brother, jarred from the pleasantness of recuperative sleep by the urgent prodding of my twin. When I opened my eyes, I witnessed him sat on the edge of my bed, about to administer another needlessly violent poke with an up-raiséd finger, so I boxed his ear before he could finish the attempt. We exchanged whispered epithets and were set to brawl once more when we heard footsteps in the hallway. My brother quickly adjourned to his own bed so we could each pursue our own feints of sound slumber. The door creaked as it was opened but a fraction, and faint candlelight seeped in through the aperture betwixt door and jamb. A moment passed in this state, and then I heard the door once more creak and then latch. I opened my eyes as my brother leapt onto my bed. We agreed to a truce, and I propped myself up upon my elbows.
“We should go spy on Father and Dr. Hood,” my brother said.
“Father will be cross if he discovers us,” I said.
“Father is always cross,” said my brother, and I conceded that irascibility was our father’s typical disposition.
“So we will have to be careful, like spies,” said my brother. I nodded vigorously – for what young boy does not entertain dreams of being a skilled intelligencer, pursuing secretive duties for crown and country, reliant on wits and nerve alone while plunged deep within enemy terrain? For all my brother’s youthful faults, he did from time to time redeem himself with adventuresome ideas such as this. Our curiosity regarding Dr. Hood’s talks with our father was nigh-irresistible; from time to time in the past we had been able to eavesdrop on their late-night discourse, sometimes skillfully, at other times with severe repercussions for our posteriors or leisure privileges. This night would be merely the latest episode in a long series of escapades into the adult world well past our allotted bed-times.
We had been changed into our nightshirts, most likely by Harriet, our family’s long-suffering maid and governess, for which I was most grateful. (I was, as a child, quite leery of uncleanliness, and disposing of such things as my soiled trousers would have put me into a state of intense perturbation. I did not know if my brother had suffered the same embarrassment, and knew he would not answer truthfully if I had asked, so I just assumed the irresolution of his bladder had been equivalent to my own.) Our sleeping attire we found most appropriate, thinking that if our nocturnal espionage was uncovered, we could adopt the manner of somnambulists and possibly allay the rage of our ever-volatile father. However, we did put on stockings, so as to muffle the tread of our feet as we snuck from our bedroom, down the stairs and to the doubled doors of the parlor, where Father and Dr. Hood were engaged in animated discussion as they continued to partake of our father’s brandy, and had – most helpfully for us – left the parlor doors open slightly, which facilitated our surveillance of their conversation. We crouched by that door, encloaked in the darkness of the hallway, and listened with great intent, sometimes espying one or the other of the men as they crossed the room to the sideboard.
We could only speculate regarding the origins of their intercourse, and the precession of ideas that our father and Dr. Hood had entertained thusfar, but it was clear after only a brief interval of listening that the topic of the moment was Hood’s electrical engine, the very same machine that had rendered my brother and I insensate. As, by this point in the evening, both Father and the visiting scientist had imbibed a fair share of intoxicating drink (as was typical for Hood’s visitations), and expected no audience of delicate womanly or childish ears for their words, their verbiage indulged in ample profanities, which in recounting I will deign to censure as I can without losing the gist of the dialogue.
We heard the clinking of a decanter knocking against the edge of a snifter, and saw Dr. Hood’s back as he stood faced away from us by the sideboard, refilling his brandy with an unsteady hand.
“What will you do with the damnable thing, Lannister?” our father bellowed. “The market for electrifying young boys is, shall we say, a niche, at best.”
“The possibilities are endless, my good man. It could replace gas lighting – power any number of machines – there may even be medical applications. The motile power of all organic life is, at heart, electricity,” Hood replied.
“By Christ, you’re not thinking of trying to resurrect the dead, like that Swiss bugger, are you?”
Hood made an broad, slightly wobbly dismissive gesture, and then moved out of easy view. My brother and I struggled to find a better line of sight without making too much noise. “It crossed my mind, but in the final reckoning, it seemed more burdensome than anything else. He wasn’t just bringing things back to life, he was constructing new creatures out of mismatched parts. Prohibitively intensive labor-wise. Besides, I heard the good doctor had some trouble with one of his… collages – complaints from the neighbors, civil entanglements. I don’t need that,” Hood said.
“Naturally. No one of sound mind would engage in such foolishness. There are too many persons living as it is; why return the expired to the animate side of the celestial ledger?”
“The electricists seem to think it’s a worthwhile pursuit,” Dr. Hood said.
I did not understand the term “electricists” at the time, being a child largely unacquainted with the world (despite my natural curiosity) but our father’s recognition was undeniable. He unfurled a string of curses that made my ears burn at the hearing of them. At the end, Hood murmured a curse of his own and swirled his brandy in its snifter.
“Please, Alexander, share your unvarnished opinion with me,” Dr. Hood murmured, his words dripping with sarcastic intonation.
“They seek to infiltrate every tier, every cranny of our society. They’re worse than the g-dd-mned Freemasons.”
“You’re just cross because the Freemasons wouldn’t let you in.”
“I MET AND EXCEEDED THE REQUIREMENTS FOR MEMBERSHIP, HOOD,” our father bellowed, his vocal assertion rattling a decanter on the sideboard. He lowered his tone quite considerably when he continued. “It was clear to me that my admission was blocked by a rival or rival who shall remain nameless for now. Further, I saw no merit in prancing about blindfolded in a subterranean crypt, pretending to ritually disembowel someone. Melodramatic balderdash.”
“You’d rather jump straight to the real thing, aye?” said Hood, as he pantomimed inserting a dagger into the abdomen of some imaginary personage.
“I’d RATHER capitalize in an immediate and profitable way from my new allegiances. What is the point of joining a secret society if not an elevation in status and influence? I do not require the veneer of lurid make-believe. Electricists, however, those spark-obsessed madmen– they are a true menace. They’ll let anyone join. No respect for class or station.”
“They’re harmless. I encountered a clutch of them in Baden-Baden, fully engaged in their dramatic masquerade: stomping about after dark on misty evenings, peculiar metal braces on their limbs, wildly impractical goggles. I scared them off with parlour tricks, very disappointing.”
“We must lower our voices. Their agents can be anywhere.”
“Do not worry about the electricists, my friend. They put on airs of evil, but they’re fussy tinkerers. They’d rather obsess over their gadgets than conquer. If it’s a truly malevolent shadow organization you desire, you need to look to those obsessed with the dark arts. The faction to truly be wary of is the –”
Here, I was shaken from my remembrances, as a subtle shift in the eldritch airs around me keened my awareness to the present day. The blackness of the surrounding expanse remained absolute, but I felt once more the slightest decrease in my velocity. My falling, it appeared, had again decelerated; the wind which had battered my face for an indeterminate amount of time as I recalled Dr. Hood’s visit was lessening in its intensity. Soon I was not only falling in a perceptibly slower fashion, but in an unnaturally slower fashion, as though the air was not air at all but some kind of liquid which was rapidly gaining viscosity. My breathing was unlabored, but the sense that the medium through which I fell was no longer air (or whatever took the place of air within the confines of this uncanny void), but oil or thick syrup, intensified and continued to intensify, until I was moving so slowly that I barely felt any motion at all.
Finally, all sense of motion ceased, and I was left in a spread-eagled posture, holding my lanthorn, affixed in the blackness with no indication of anything in any direction. The stillness and silence unsettled me, and were I not so accustomed to daring exploits and peculiar scenarios I might have panicked, but my steely adventurer’s instincts expressed themselves before I could scream overmuch. A few moments in this profound stillness and then new changes asserted themselves. The darkness was rapidly displaced by indistinct light, coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once. Simultaneously, I felt a heat growing around me, and the sound as of a great suction echoing at an escalating volume, both just as sourceless as the light. All three intensified– light, heat, and noise– until I shielded my eyes from the glare and tried to protect my ears as well, but lacking sufficient hands, I fumbled to cover what I could.
Still the light and the heat and the noise grew until I feared for my sanity, for my very life, as my very physical limitations were tested. The inescapable violence to my senses threatened to overwhelm me, escalating until I felt that all three aspects of this antithesis of the void had consumed me, and I felt what I can only describe as a breaching of some unimaginable wall or plane, and the sound culminated with a massive and echoing concussion, and then the great noise abated, and I was plunged into darkness again, but a finite darkness, and falling again, but the familiar sort of falling one experiences in everyday life (as though from a tree or ladder), and the fall was quite brief, and I landed in a hammock, on top of a person.