“The work of today is the history of tomorrow, and we are its makers.”
— Juliette Gordon Low
September 13th, 1911 – 11:50 a.m.
Visiting the Huxley workshop never failed to put a spring in Dorian’s step and a whistle between his lips. The thick aroma of coffee and grease greeted him as he stepped off the busy sidewalk, and a string of bells hanging from the door announced his arrival.
The vestibule was empty, save for a desk pushed up against the far wall where a stack of mail and a basket of sweating milk bottles waited to be noticed. Much like Dorian waited now, craning his neck to steal a glance through the wide entrance that led to the tinkering floor.
Open books and brass, mechanical creations decorated every tabletop, and while they were generally enough to spark Dorian’s delight, something new snagged his notice today. A metal hoop encrusted with purple crystals had been erected in the center of the room, balanced atop a series of wire-wrapped poles. The strange contraption was at least a dozen feet wide, and every so often, a crackle of blue electricity flickered across the void, like a soap bubble attempting to take form, before arcing up toward the atrium’s glass ceiling.
“Ah, young Mr. Verne!” Ezra Huxley appeared at the top of a rickety staircase that led to a lofted living space behind the workshop. A sudden burst of electricity lit his eyes and reflected off the goggles nestled in his hair. For a moment, Dorian saw the mad scientist his pa’s customers carried on about in gossipy whispers—though the tattered waistcoat was admittedly less formidable than a white lab jacket.
Mr. Huxley descended the stairs, working a rag over his oil-stained hands. His face stretched with a brilliant smile, a herald of the customary joke that opened their every conversation.
“What time does a duck wake up?”
“I’ve no idea,” Dorian said, yielding without a guess.
“At the quack of dawn.” Mr. Huxley guffawed at his cleverness and then asked, “What have ya got for me today, my good sir?”
“Just some old junk my pa said was taking up too much space.” Dorian’s face flushed as he handed over the crate of busted gears and clock parts. “He said to ask for two dollars but that I could go as low as one.”
Mr. Huxley chuckled. “Not much for haggling, are ya?” When Dorian looked down at his feet, the man gave his shoulder a playful slap. “Me either, kid. I like a straight shooter.” He took a quick poke through the rubbish and clicked his tongue. “I tell ya what… Why don’t we split the difference?”
“Really?” Dorian’s cheeks felt hot again. “But it’s just a bunch of garbage. I don’t want to take advantage—”
“Nonsense!” Mr. Huxley held up a bent pendulum from a grandfather clock that hadn’t survived being dropped off a delivery ship at the wharves. “I can think of at least three uses for this piece alone.”
“You’re lying,” Dorian insisted, though a grin had crept over his face.
The bells on the door jingled again, and Isla Huxley’s musical laughter sent a thrill through Dorian that he nearly blamed on the new invention. He shot the device a cautious glare, but his interest soon shifted to the redheaded girl.
Freckles dotted her nose and cheeks, tinged pink despite the wide-brimmed hat she wore. The adornment sat slanted on her head, feathers and silk flowers piled at the crown like a bow atop a gift. Her frilly, cream-colored dress reminded Dorian of the cakes his ma used to make every year for his birthday.
Mrs. Huxley wore a similar hat and dress, though in a dusty violet color that complemented the purple pendant hanging from a cord around her neck. Dorian wondered if it had been cut from a crystal like those wired together over the tinkering floor. It was lovely, and it reminded him that Isla would turn fifteen next month. He’d have to find a suitable gift. Hopefully, something that could express his evolving affection better than the words he so often garbled in her presence.
Dorian had always found Isla to be the most interesting creation in the Huxley workshop, but he couldn’t remember ever having such a hard time hiding it. Thankfully, she didn’t seem to notice. Or she didn’t care. He wasn’t sure which, and he was too afraid to ask.
“Captain Gear Heart!” The paper grocery sack in Isla’s arms crinkled as she squeezed it tighter. “Do you come bearing treasure?”
Dorian’s ears burned at the nickname she’d given him when they were children, playing pirates and sea monsters in the workshop. Back when his only responsibilities had been winding the street clocks and delivering spare parts to Mr. Huxley. Before his ma had succumbed to tuberculosis and his pa had needed more help in the store.
“It’s just some old junk,” Dorian confessed again, stuffing his hands into his trouser pockets. He didn’t know what else to do with them now that he wasn’t holding the crate, and his palms had begun to sweat.
“We’ll give it a nice new home,” Isla said as if he’d brought them a kitten instead. “Oh! You should stay for lunch. Do you like blushing bunny with tomato soup?” She took a step closer and lowered her voice before adding, “We made chocolate brownies this morning to celebrate Father’s new machine. Have you seen it? Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Isla, give the boy a chance to answer one question before you go asking him ten more.” Mrs. Huxley offered Dorian an apologetic smile as she nudged her daughter aside. She waited for Mr. Huxley to set the crate of parts on the desk and then handed off a second paper sack of groceries to him before turning to close the shop door, muffling the car horns and clopping hooves on the street outside.
“Well?” Isla asked expectantly. “Will you stay?”
“I… I don’t…” Dorian looked to Mr. Huxley for help, suddenly unable to make words.
“I’ll tell your pa you drove a tough bargain next time I see him. Surely he understands a good deal takes time and care,” he said with a wink.
“Right.” Dorian nodded. “Besides, he’s got Pearl there to help if it gets busy.”
“She’s such a sweet girl.” Mrs. Huxley sighed and pinched the fingertips of her crocheted gloves, delicately removing them. “And so smart. I can’t believe how quickly she picked up the trade.”
“Has she started talking yet?” Isla asked.
“No.” Dorian pressed his lips together and tried to smile. It was hard when thinking about Pearl. He hadn’t agreed with his pa’s decision to adopt her, but that wasn’t Pearl’s fault. And for what it was worth, she had lightened his workload. “Dr. Doyle says she might never speak,” he added. “But he’s teaching her how to talk with her hands—not that it’ll be much use with customers.”
Isla’s nose crinkled. “They didn’t teach her how to do that at the asylum before she came to live with you and Mr. Verne?”
“No, but she did learn to read and write, and they let her keep a slate for asking and answering questions,” Dorian said. “Pa hated it. The noise gave him headaches. He threw it out and got her a journal and penny pencil to use instead.”
“The poor dear.” Mrs. Huxley stroked the pendant hanging from her neck. “I wish there was more we could—”
The bells on the door rang out, cutting her off as a bearded man in a black suit and Homburg hat entered the workshop. Gold glinted from the stickpin in his ascot, the eagle head of his cane, and the chain dangling from his pocket, where Dorian suspected he carried a watch much finer than any on display at his pa’s store.
“Orwell,” Mr. Huxley said by way of greeting, his jaw flexing stiffly. “What a pleasant surprise.”
“Good Lord.” The man’s eyes narrowed on the ring of crystal above the tinkering floor. “I didn’t want to believe it—the things they’re saying on the street—but there’s no denying it now, Ezra. You’ve gone completely mad!”
“Mind your manners, Abraham.” Mrs. Huxley gripped Isla’s shoulder and dragged her back a step, moving to put herself between her daughter and the newcomer. “That’s no way to speak to family.”
“Family?” He snorted. “You stopped being family the day you traded your good name for this crackpot’s.”
Mr. Huxley turned on his heel and headed toward the stairs at the back of the shop, a grocery sack still nestled in his arms. “The science is sound,” he called over his shoulder. “I suppose you’ll want to have a look before deciding how much to invest.”
“Invest?” Orwell scoffed. “What on earth makes you think I’d ever consider—”
“Why else would you be here?” Mr. Huxley paused at the base of the steps, but he didn’t look back. “If this isn’t a social call, that leaves only one explanation. Or two, I suppose, if you’ve gone mad.”
Orwell made a noise in the back of his throat that suggested he had considered the possibility himself. He passed his cane from hand to hand and eyed the door. When he spotted Isla, his gaze softened, though only briefly. A deep crease cut across his brow as his attention migrated to Dorian. “There is some other business we might discuss while I’m here.”
Mr. Huxley was already out of earshot and halfway up the stairs, but Mrs. Huxley picked up where he’d left off.
“The drawings are all laid out on the dining table. Why don’t you come up and have a look while I prepare luncheon?” She aimed a gentle smile at Dorian before stashing her gloves in her pockets and taking the second bag of groceries from Isla. “I’ll call you two up when it’s ready.”
Dorian nodded, unable to find his voice under the scrutiny of the great Abraham Orwell. He’d never seen the man in person, but everyone knew the name of the domineering tycoon who had taken Boston’s Best by storm.
“I really haven’t the time for nonsense,” Orwell grumbled. “I’d much rather hear your plans for Isla’s future schooling.”
“Her weekly lessons with Winifred are far superior to anything she might learn at the schoolhouse,” Mrs. Huxley countered.
“No, no.” Orwell waved his cane dismissively. “I don’t mean public school. Good heavens.”
“Oh. I see. Well…” She readjusted the bag of groceries on her hip and gathered up the milk bottles before heading for the stairs. “We’ll have to discuss it in the loft. This meal isn’t going to cook itself. And since you’re here,” she added, her voice perking, “you might as well have a look at the designs for the new machine.”
“I’m not agreeing to anything,” Orwell insisted. “Even if such a device were to work—which I very much doubt—there are a great many other factors to consider.”
“Take your time,” Mrs. Huxley shouted back. “But you should know, one of Edison’s men was sniffing around early this morning. And Ezra has patron appointments scheduled all next week. This may be your only chance to have a proper look before it’s old news.”
“Very well.” Orwell huffed and stalked after Mrs. Huxley, taking his time on the rickety stairs and muttering under his breath the whole way. Dorian waited for them to disappear through the arched loft entrance before closing his gaping mouth and turning back to Isla.
“You’re related to Abraham Orwell?” he rasped under his breath.
Isla nodded grimly. “My uncle. Though we hardly ever see him.” She removed the pins from her hat and slipped it off, knocking a curl loose from the nest of hair she’d been wearing up more lately than down. Dorian’s gaze fell to her neck, tracing a line from her ear lobe to the hollow at the base of her throat.
“What is it?” Isla fingered the lace on her collar. “Did I spill coffee on my frock?”
“No… I mean… I don’t think so.” His ears felt as if they were being seared to his head, and each breath took more effort to draw than the last.
Isla glanced up slowly, her honey-colored eyes peeking through dark lashes. “Are you well, Dorian? You seem out of sorts.”
He opened his mouth to answer, but a ruckus from the loft snapped his focus away.
“She belongs at a finishing school,” Orwell bellowed. “How do you expect her to find a proper husband after the way you’ve brought her up here—just shy of a feral cat.”
“A finishing school?” Dorian echoed. His head swam at the idea. “Like the ones for court ladies over in Europe?”
Isla laughed. “Don’t worry. They’ve had this argument before. Mother and Father are entirely opposed. I’m not going anywhere. Besides, Winnie’s lessons are far more useful than any of the silly things they teach at those charm schools.”
The shouting picked up again in the loft, but the subject had changed to the new invention. Namely, how ridiculous it was. How it couldn’t possibly work, and no one would fund it.
Dorian’s gaze narrowed on the strange device as another swell of electricity crawled toward the glass ceiling. “It sure is…unusual. Do you know what it does?”
“I do.” The corners of Isla’s eyes crinkled. She sucked in her bottom lip and clutched her hat over her chest. “It’s a time machine,” she whispered.
Dorian rolled his eyes. “We’re a little old for make-believe.”
“I’m serious,” she squealed, though a giggle bubbled through her words. “Look there.” She pointed at the ring of crystals. “Do you know what those are?”
“Amethysts?” he guessed. His pa stocked the display case with more ornate timepieces around the holidays, pretty locket watches adorned with gemstone beads he’d had to learn the names of in case a customer asked.
“Everyone else thought so too, at first,” Isla said. “The subway diggers found a cavern full of them when they were excavating for Atlantic Station and the eastern tunnel—the section where it goes under the harbor.” She tossed her hat onto a nearby table and rummaged through a pile of tools and wires, coming away with a stray bit of purple crystal. “One of the local jewelers bought a heap of it from the city before realizing their mistake. It’s apparently difficult to work with, full of impurities and whatnot. Father purchased it for a fraction of the original price.”
“If not amethyst, what is it?” Dorian asked.
Isla shrugged. “I suppose it doesn’t have a name yet. But it vibrates at a different frequency than amethyst, and has elastic pluck—no, that’s not right. An elastic…pleochroism, I think is what Father called it.”
“Right, of course.” Dorian dipped his chin in an agreeable nod, deciding to hold out a bit longer rather than confess that he had no inkling what she was carrying on about. Isla’s sly grin suggested that she already knew.
“Look closely,” she said, holding the chunk of crystal up to catch the sunlight streaming through the atrium glass. “What do you see?”
Dorian snorted, sensing another tribute to their colorful childhood. But then something flickered across a smooth span of the gemstone’s surface—a fragment of a face. A wide eye and a mouth forming a startled o.
“Something that’s happened already?” Isla pressed. “Or something that’s yet to transpire?”
Dorian reached for the crystal, but she pulled away. He caught her wrist instead and tugged it toward his face, searching the odd rock for another peek at whatever it had almost shown him. Isla’s breath tickled his neck as her body folded behind his. She rested her cheek against his shoulder, her bright eyes probing the purple quartz for answers, too.
“Father’s been obsessed with the Curie brothers’ research on crystallography and piezoelectricity,” she said, her voice dropping as the shouting upstairs continued. “And some German physicist’s writings on spacetime and electrodynamics. He thinks he can manipulate the crystals so that they not only show distant fragments of time, but transport one to those times. Wouldn’t that be something?”
Dorian watched her from the corner of one eye. He admired the way she blossomed like a flower anytime she spoke about her father and his work. He wondered if he’d ever do anything so spectacular that she’d swell with such awe when speaking about him.
A crash sounded from upstairs, likely a chair being overturned, and then Mrs. Huxley appeared on the landing. She blew a loose curl away from her face and grasped her hips with both hands.
“I’m telling you, it’s possible,” she said. “We can prove it.”
“I didn’t come here for a performance,” Orwell snapped as he stopped in the mouth of the loft entrance. He sliced his cane through the air, pointing the end down at the tinkering floor. “You can save the theatrics for the crystal-ball-gazing carnival-goers. That’s the only paying audience you’ll find in this city.”
“It’s nearly ready for a test run,” Mr. Huxley said, trying and failing to slip past Orwell. “We’ll need a volunteer subject, naturally. I’m sure I’ll be able to round up a reliable chap within a day or two.”
“We don’t need a volunteer for this demonstration.” Mrs. Huxley made for the stairs, but Orwell snatched her by the sleeve.
“For once, I agree with your husband. Don’t be a fool, Elizabeth!”
“You already think me one, so what does it matter?” She bared her teeth at him and wrenched her arm free. The landing trembled at the motion, the metal creaking and groaning as if it were a fourth party in the debate—and prepared to have the last word.
Mrs. Huxley stumbled back a step. The railing connected with her waist, and then she was airborne. Dress flapping about her heels. Eyes wide and mouth forming a startled o.
Just the way Dorian remembered.
But the murky slice of quartz hadn’t revealed what came next.
An arc of blue electricity crackled between the crystals. It danced across the void, funneling upward into a precarious cyclone. Then, just as Mrs. Huxley reached the metal ring, she vanished.
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