Please enjoy this excerpt from All Men of Genius by Lev Rosen, out September 27 from Tor Books.
At this point in the novel, seventeen-year-old Violet, a brilliant inventor living in late Victorian England, has almost successfully enacted her plan to enter Illyria College. Illyria is the most renowned scientific college in the world, and also the most exclusive—accepting only five students a year, all of them male. With her father going to America for a year, Violet and her twin brother Ashton have convinced him that they will be spending the year in London, in preparation for Violet’s finally coming out. Violet will in actuality be enrolled in Illyria, in disguise as Ashton, while Ashton gallivants around town, enjoying himself, and perhaps the coachman as well. Her childhood friend Jack is also in on the plan, and also applying to Illyria. But first, Violet has to get into Illyria. She has hand-delivered her application, but she still has to be interviewed. And before that, she has to learn to successfully impersonate a man.
Violet had a suit, and it fit her quite well, but she still couldn’t speak like a man. This was a problem, since she interviewing at Illyria tomorrow. She was so excited to finally enter those golden halls that she could barely focus on her brother’s talk of pitch and timbre. She wondered how they would look: Would they be hung with portraits of famous inventors? Would there be a test of the chamberher mechanical mettle right there in which she was to be interviewedfront of all the professors?
“Your o’s must be heavier,” Ashton said. “They are a bag with stones in them.”
“Stones in them,” Violet repeated, slowly and deeply.
“Not bad,” Jack said. They were sitting at Mother’s bench, with books in hand to make Mrs. Wilks think they were performing parts of a play for themselves.
“It is bad,” Ashton said. “It is terrible. You have already met the duke. You must prevent him from recognizing you. And while I admit that with the suit we have for you, and the false sideburns, you look like a boy slowly breaking into the halls of manhood, and you do rather have the walk down—”
“I just think of slow-moving gears,” Violet said. Jack smirked.
“—your voice is still quite feminine,” Ashton finished.
“So maybe it hasn’t changed yet,” Violet said, her hands on her hips.
“At seventeen?” Ashton asked. “That would be a scientific discovery in itself. Now, come on, try it again.”
“Stones in me’ pockets, stones that weigh me down,” Violet said.
“Better,” Ashton said, “but there’s no need to adopt a lower-class accent.”
“I wonder what the inside of the building will look like,” Violet said, still in her masculine voice.
“A man opened the door when I turned in my application,” Jack said. “I didn’t see much behind him, but it looked like high, vaulted ceilings in gold and bronze, and I could hear this clicking noise.”
“The entire school is powered by the waterwheel, with gears to repeat its effort,” Violet said, “or so the duke told me.”
“Slower, speak slower,” Ashton said. “You sound too mincing.”
“You don’t speak slowly,” Violet said.
“I am a man. I don’t need to pretend to be one.”
“Maybe I’m your sort of man, then,” Violet said. “It would make sense—we’re twins. Were I a man, I would be quite like you, I think.”
“No, you must be a boring man,” Ashton said. “Average, plain, so that no one will think you are a woman.“
“Won’t being dull just draw more attention to my feminine eccentricities?” Violet asked. “Shouldn’t I hide everything in plain sight? Be a feminine dandy? Then they would just think I was a man who acted like a woman.”
“No,” Ashton said. “Scientists are rarely dandies, and not very good dandies when they are.”
“I beg your pardon,” Jack said. “I could be a bit of a dandy.”
“You are a jokester, a jester, a comedian,” Ashton said, “which are all very much like a dandy, but not actually a dandy.”
“I think I’m a bit more than all that,” Jack said sulkily.
“Of course you are. We all are more than what society calls us, but if society is to call us something—and it will—we may as well choose what. And you, dear brother Violet, must be the sort of man society calls plain. Brilliant, to be sure, but average in all other respects. The sort who will marry and have children named Mary and John—”
“I beg your pardon,” said Jack again.
“—and while he may be noted as a brilliant mind, will never be seated next to the host at dinner parties, because his conversation is always quite predictable.”
“I don’t think I want to be that sort of man,” Violet said. “I think I much prefer being a woman to that, Illyria or no.”
“Well, then, at least speak like a plain man. Then you may act however you wish.”
“All right,” Violet said, again in her manly voice. “I am Ashton Adams, and I speak as though I am the most boring man on the globe. Which I’m sure you find very comforting, as those who speak as though they are boring are inevitably the ones trying to cover up some scandal, and those who speak as though their life is naught but excitement usually are quite dull, and know it.”
“Quite good,” Ashton said. “Good enough for the interview, I think. It will be hard to maintain it for a whole year, but it’s really just the first few weeks that matter. After that, no one will suspect anything, because to do so will mean they were tricked in the beginning.”
“What invention did you submit for the interview?” Jack asked.
“My perambulator,” Violet said. Jack had seen her begin building it last summer.
“Ah, quite good. Though perhaps a bit practical for some of the professors.”
“I know. Which is why I have also devised a row of clockwork ducks that follow each other without strings.”
“Did you? Can I see them?”
“Of course. They’re in the laboratory. I used real feathers.”
“Shall we all take a trip to my laboratory right now?”
“Let’s,” Ashton said, and headed back toward the house. “Mrs. Wilks can’t stare at us from a window down there.” Ashton smiled and waved once at Mrs. Wilks, who had taken to watching them from the windows even more frequently than usual.
Violet was excited and happy as she walked back toward the manor. Her suit was more comfortable than she had expected. Her perambulator was in perfect condition, and the magnetic ducklings were finished and worked beautifully. And she felt quite sure that tomorrow, at her interview, she would gain entry to Illyria.
Ashton, meanwhile, was looking forward to a season in London as a bachelor. There were shows he wanted to see, and pubs in the bad parts of town he wanted to try. And of course, dinner parties and affairs and small scandals that, if he could not take part, at least he could watch from afar. Ashton, like any dandy worth the title, enjoyed a good scandal, if only because he enjoyed watching his elders run around with shocked expressions. He was still at the age where shocked expressions meant that he had somehow made a difference in someone’s life, not yet realizing that a tiny smile can signal a much more significant impact.
They went to the laboratory and played with Violet’s mechanical ducks, and soon thereafter ate and went to bed. But Violet found it nearly impossible to sleep. Instead she turned about in her bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking of what little she had seen of Illyria. When she fell asleep, she dreamed that the duke was giving her a tour of the college proper, and not just the gardens.
In the carriage the next day, Violet clung to her handbag and practiced for her interview.
“The mechanics of space travel,” she recited in a low and husky voice, “are within our reach, though they would require significant funding, and much experimentation. But the principles are all well established.”
“Good,” Ashton said, “you sound quite right. Now, try not to move your mouth so prettily, or pout. Keep your lips thin and your jaw stern.”
Violet raised her eyebrows, for she had never thought of her mouth as having pretty movements before. Much to her own surprise, she had awoken nervous about the interview. Her confidence, so often overwhelming to those around her, had wavered and deflated at the time she needed it most. What if this disguise was ridiculous and she ended up looking like a clown in front of the most brilliant minds in the world? Or, worse, what if they did believe she was a man, but simply not good enough for Illyria? That would be the crushing blow. If that happened, she secretly vowed, she would give up inventing altogether, start dressing like the pretty mindless thing Mrs. Wilks wanted her to be, and marry some dull, respectable member of Parliment within the year. If she didn’t die of grief first.
“Try it again,” Ashton said. Violet looked up from her worries and tried to put on a brave face. But Ashton could see through such faces. “You’re worried, aren’t you?” Violet nodded. “Well, I don’t know why you should be. I’m sure my opinion counts for very little in terms of science, but Jack is quite brilliant and says the flame of his genius is but a candle next to your bonfire.”
Violet smiled. “Jack is modest,” she said. “He is much cleverer than I. I could never make a flying ferret.”
“And he could never make a handbag as useful as the one you’re now holding. You each have your own strengths. And you’re quite passable as a man, if I do say so myself. An odd sort of man, but in an endearing way. You’ll do fine, and I’m sure you’ll be walking through those halls come October.”
“Thank you,” Violet said, and laid her hand on his. They rode like that until Antony stopped in front of their town house and opened the door for them. They stepped out into the cooling early autumn air, tinged with the smell of smoke and dying leaves.
“Now, Antony,” Ashton said, “we’re about to do something quite shocking. It is vital you tell no one about it, especially not Mrs. Wilks. You will do that for me, won’t you?” Ashton laid his hand on Antony’s shoulder. He had often suspected that the young carriage driver had a particular affection for him. He had even wanted to indulge it on occasion, but was unsure if that would be improper. To make love to someone else’s help seemed perfectly acceptable, but to make love to your own help seemed a mite graceless, as though you couldn’t find lovers outside your immediate household. But his smile had the desired effect on Antony, who nodded, wide eyed and faithful, as Ashton and Violet went inside to transform Violet into her twin brother.
Violet had mastered the art of dressing herself by now, binding and stuffing as she would have to do as a student. Her hair she tied back and tucked into her shirt collar so it appeared much shorter, and her sideburns she applied carefully. She looked at herself in the mirror again and found the image quite striking, if only because she saw a man holding a handbag, which seemed rather odd. There was no helping it now, though. She opened the door to her closet for Ashton to come in and look her over.
“You look quite the gentleman,” he said. “Let’s put you in the carriage before I lose my nerve.”
Antony had always thought himself a regular fellow. True, he had begun to have an unexpected curiosity in regards to young Mr. Adams lately, but he knew that at heart he was a common coachman. One day, he would settle down and have children. One day he would look back on his days as a coachman for an eccentric family of scientists as an adventure. His life would not be a grand one, but it would be a pleasant one, without surprises. So when he saw Violet emerge from the townhouse, looking for all the world like a small, genteel man, he did not at first recognize her. When he did, though, his shock was evident. His mouth dropped open, and his eyes bulged.
“Don’t look so surprised, Antony,” Violet said as she got into the carriage. “I plan to be a student at Illyria, and I deserve that, don’t I? Then this is the only way.” Ashton winked at Antony, who quickly closed his mouth and looked downward, not just because of the wink, but also because of the incredible plot to which he was now a party.
“Take him to Illyria,” Ashton said. “Call him by my name. I promise your discretion will be appreciated.”
With a deep breath, Antony took his seat on the carriage again. As he drove toward Illyria, he did his best to keep his eyes forward and his mind on the work, but he could not help but consider this scheme over and over. Certainly, he knew of Violet’s scientific proclivities, and certainly he wished her the best, but this sort of behavior was surely inappropriate for a young lady. And if she were unmasked, and he were revealed to have known . . . No, Ashton and Violet would never implicate him, and he could always feign ignorance. He was in no danger. And who was he, a common coachman, to question the games of the aristocracy? The extra pocket money they’d give him would surely be nice to have. And of course, there was always Ashton’s gratitude to consider. . . . Antony shook his head again and concentrated on the pull of the horses and the cobblestones. Best not to think at all while working. Best to work and then go home later and enjoy a good brew with some of the lads.
The coach pulled to a stop in front of Illyria. Violet hopped out and nodded at Antony, who bowed slightly. The gates were open already, as various young men had been coming and going all week to interview for the five coveted spots in the incoming class. Violet bravely steadied her shoulders, thrust them back, and walked forward with a slow and masculine gait. She took no notice of the gardens as she walked through them, sensing that lingering over the dahlias might bring about some feminine feeling, which she would just have to repress. She focused instead on the door ahead, and the servant who stood outside, wearing a top hat and coat and holding a piece of parchment.
As Violet approached, the servant looked her over. She tensed, but his expression revealed nothing but boredom. “Your name?” he asked.
“Ashton Adams,” Violet said.
The man looked over the list, nodded, and pulled open the great door for her. “Wait until your name is called,” he said.
The room immediately inside was small, but with a high, vaulted ceiling in the Gothic revival style, done in dark brass and gold, so that upon her stepping inside, Violet’s fair skin instantly took on a golden luster as it reflected the yellowed light from the room. The ceilings were ornately carved with what looked like scales and springs, and with images of gears and beakers and stars and elephants and all sorts of scientific symbols along the bottom, where it met the paneled dark wood and golden papered walls. The effect would have been gaudy if it weren’t so dark, but a little light crept in through the high windows, which made the place seem cathedrallike and eerie, as if everything should be whispered.
“Ashton!” Violet heard Jack call. She was confused for a moment—was Ashton there?—then remembered that he was talking to her. She looked across the room. There, sitting among a few other prospective students on low, dark wooden benches was Jack, grinning from ear to ear at the ruse.
“I thought you weren’t interviewing until next week,” Violet said, walking toward Jack. The other students were clearly thrown off by their friendship, and eyed the pair warily.
“I lied,” Jack confessed, shaking Violet’s hand before anyone could tell she held it out palm down, like a woman. “I wanted to surprise you, thought it might ease your nervousness a bit. And the look on your face has certainly taken away a bit of mine.”
Violet smirked. “Well, thank you,” she said, sitting down next to him. At his feet lay a small covered cage. “Did you find your ferret?” she asked, gesturing toward the box.
“Alas, no,” he said. “Bill is still roaming the countryside, a freeflying ferret.” One of the nearby applicants stared at Jack, his eyes wide. “Yes,” Jack said to the young man, “I made a ferret who could fly. What did you do?”
“I bred a purple frog,” the man said nervously.
“May I see it?” Jack asked excitedly.
“It died,” the student confessed, “but I have testimonials of those who saw it.”
“Well, I’m sure that will be splendid, then,” Jack said, and turned back to Violet. “No,” he continued, “Bill is still missing, so I made another. This one is female. I named her Sheila. She’s sleeping now, though, and doesn’t seem quite comfortable with her wings yet. I hope she still impresses the panel.”
Violet nodded. The panel would consist of all five professors and the duke himself. She swallowed, her mouth dry. Would the duke recognize her? If he did, would he expose her? What sort of an impression had she made on him? Would he remember her favorably?
“Relax,” Jack said, “you’re shivering like a woman.”
Violet narrowed her eyes at him, and he grinned widely. “How did you know I would be nervous, anyway?” Violet asked.
“You’re a confident . . . fellow,” Jack said, catching himself before he said girl, “but I knew you as a child. All those moments before you tested an invention for the first time, you would bite your nails and twitch and fret as much as Mrs. Wilks. I assumed today would be similar.”
“Well,” Violet said affectionately, “thank you for knowing me so well.”
Violet and Jack waited impatiently as the sands of time seemed to become muddy, moving both too slowly and too quickly. Other potential students marched into the room beyond two large doors as their names were called out by a footman, then tramped out again a few minutes later, some happy, some with their heads hanging low, and a few actually sniffling. They make small talk, Jack amusing himself by trying to throw Violet off her guard and trick her into some sort of innocent mistake. Violet enjoyed the challenge, but their hearts were not really in it. Rather, their hearts were beating in time to the large clock that hung on the wall, with its visible twirling gears, and the heaving mechanical sound that echoed through the building.
“John Feste Jr.” the footman called suddenly. Jack’s eyes widened slightly. Violet wanted to squeeze his hand to reassure him, but knew that this was a feminine inclination, so she patted him heartily on the back instead.
“Good luck,” she said in a heavy voice.
“Thanks,” Jack squeaked, for he was now overcome with nervousness. He almost forgot his second flying ferret and had to come back for it after taking a few steps. The door slammed behind him, and Violet stared after, offering a silent prayer for his success.
But a minute later it seemed that he didn’t need it, for much shrieking laughter and clapping came from within. Relieved, Violet focused her attention on the sounds of the building. She could hear the large echo of the waterwheel and a thousand clicks and grinds of gears elsewhere in the building, though what they were operating, Violet couldn’t tell. The sounds composed a sort of music for Violet as they moved in time, grinding along, with the occasional twang of springs like a violin floating over it all. Were these the gears that powered the entire college? Violet bit her lower lip, trying to imagine all the machines the college must have: Babbage’s analytical engines, of course—several of them, she imagined—a lift, a forge, and loads more.
Violet realized that biting her lower lip was probably a rather feminine gesture, so she released it, just as Jack emerged from the hall. He looked a bit flustered but quite cheerful, his face red but smiling, his hair tousled and stuck to his forehead with sweat. His green eyes twinkled with repressed laughter. The cage in his hand shook, and small squeaking noises escaped from it.
“I let Sheila out, to prove she could fly,” he explained. “She could, but catching her was a bit of an adventure.”
Before Violet could inquire as to how Jack retrieved the ferret, the footman said, “Prospective students who have already interviewed must leave the premises,” and gave them a pointed look. Jack shrugged, then made a face at the footman when he turned away.
“Good luck, mate,” Jack said, slapping Violet on the back. “I’ll see you tonight.” Violet nodded and continued waiting. A few more young scientists were called into the room and came back out again, all of them looking exhausted afterwards.
“Ashton Adams,” the footman intoned. Violet swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. Then she steeled herself, picked up her handbag, and went through the doors.
The hall Violet entered was over two stories high, again with tall vaulted ceilings of bronze and gold, and gold and paneled wood walls. There were windows, plenty of them, and though some light did make it to the floor in small patches, much of it was eaten or tinged with bronze. In the center of the hall was a platform holding six large chairs, a man in each of them. Violet recognized the duke immediately, and the others vaguely, since they were all famous in their fields and she had seen their portraits before. But she was so distracted by the wall behind them that she paid little attention to them at first.
This wall was obviously the wall withback side of the waterwheel that faced the river, and at last she understood how it powered the school. In the center of the wall was one giant gear, rotating in time with the waterwheel. This gear was beautiful: gilded, with gemstones set into it, and the school’s motto—ARS GLORIA HOMINI EST, “Invention Is the Greatness of Man”—engraved on it in large, beautiful letters. This gear alone was a work of art worthy of admiration, but what truly earned the sigh of joy that escaped Violet’s lips was what it was attached to: hundreds of thousands of other gears, all connected, all of which would turn for as long as the Thames kept flowing. They coated the wall, breaking only for windows, and rose high into the ceiling. Violet reasoned that they must keep going beyond it, to the other floors, and other parts of the college, a wall of constantly turning gears, energy perpetually on tap for any inventor anxious to use it. On either side of the great gear were smaller gears with large gaps that showed two large stained glass windows, depicting John Snow and Charles Babbage. They projected a dim, warm light onto the floor.
“It’s a clever idea, isn’t it?” the duke said. “It was my father’s, of course. It extends to the top of the building floor, and down into the basements, too. It powers our analytical engines, some of the machines in the kitchen, mechanical room, and student lounge. The gears are all fitted so that you can attach extensions to them to power any invention of your own. For testing, really. A machine that has to be fit into the school for a power supply isn’t all that impressive.”
Violet marveled at the wall, lost in the complex pattern of gears reaching forever higher and out of sight.
“You’re Ashton Adams,” the duke said.
Violet nodded, and tried to focus on the duke and his companions.
”Please, have a seat.” The duke indicated a small chair that stood in front of the platform, so that the panel of judges could gaze down upon the applicant.
Violet sat, and discovered it to be most unnerving to be watched thus.
“I met your sister,” the duke said.
Violet inclined her head. “She mentioned that she had the honor of meeting Your Grace,” she said, “and that you showed her the gardens. That was most generous. She was touched.”
“Was she?” the duke asked. “She left in such a hurry.”
“Yes! She wished to apologize for that,” Violet said, thinking quickly as she could. “She suddenly remembered a promise to Mrs. Wilks—that’s our housemaid—that she would be home for a dress fitting by five.”
A man at the end of the platform laughed in what Violet thought was a most undignified manner. He was heavy, and his black curls were receding in a rather frantic way. His skin was puffy and had the blotchy appearance of illness, and his eyes seemed to be bulging from his skull. “Women and their dresses,” he said. “She was rude to a duke because of a dress!” Here he laughed again, a horrid barking sound. Violet tried not to stare.
“This is Professor Bracknell,” the duke said, “he is our Astronomy professor. Professor Cardew, our usual Astronomy professor, has left for America, to help decide how to standardize global time,” the duke said. “Professor Bracknell is his substitute. Are you familiar with Dr. Cardew?”
“Yes. My father is J. C. Adams. He’s at the same conference.”
“’E used to be the head astronomer at Cambridge, right?” Bracknell said, his eyes narrowing. “I hear ’e’s a bit of a loony. Wants to start time in London?”
Violet bit her tongue to keep from defending her father, but luckily the duke stepped in. “Now, now, Professor Bracknell. I’ve read Dr. Adams’s work. He is a brilliant man with reasons for his decisions. And we certainly shan’t refer to him as a loony again, particularly in front of his son.” The duke looked over at Bracknell as he said this, and Bracknell mumbled some meek agreement. “Let me introduce the rest of the faculty,” the duke said to Violet. “Next to Professor Bracknell is Professor Curio, who teaches the chemical arts.” The man sitting next to Bracknell was tall and lean, with a prominent chin and eyes that seemed to be of two different colors. He nodded at Violet, and then nodded again—or perhaps he twitched; Violet couldn’t be sure. “And next to him is Professor Prism, who teaches reckoning.” Professor Prism, Violet thought, seemed like the sort of man who could be someone’s grandfather—he had a white beard and mustache and a puff of misty white hair on his head. He also wore a pair of glasses with several lenses attached to them on hinges, so that they could be flipped in front of his eyes as necessary. He currently he had two lenses—one clear and one red—in front of his left eye, and four lenses—two clear, one green, and one blue—in front of his right eye, and there were many more of them flipped up, like little antennae. The effect was quite strange. Professor Prism smiled broadly and cocked his head at Violet, making him seem like a large, hungry bug, and Violet nodded back, trying not to look terrified. “To my right is Professor Valentine.” Violet had seen many portraits and photographs of Valentine, who seemed to love having his image captured. He had chin-length blond curls, a rather pointed nose, and was constantly pinching his face as though he had smelled too much ether. In person, Violet thought, he looked as though he wore rouge—and even if that were not odd enough, he wore it more heavily than any woman—and while the other professors all wore plain suits, Valentine wore what looked like a blue smoking jacket. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and waved it happily at Violet, grinning. Violet nodded. “Valentine teaches biological science, as I think you know. And to his right is Professor Bunburry, who teaches mechanical science.” Violet had read about Professor Bunburry, and his numerous unfortunate accidents with his machines. He was a tall, broad man, with very little hair and an extremely erect posture, probably owing to the giant metal brace around his neck, which stretched from just under his chin to over his shoulders, like a funnel. One of his hands had been replaced with a clockwork appendage that he had designed himself, and he walked with a limp from the weight of his metal foot. He wore a pair of tiny spectacles, which looked quite fragile balanced on his nose. He looked at Violet but made no motion, so Violet simply bowed her head low. The man was a mechanical genius, to be sure, but it was hard to tell where he ended and the mechanical began.
“Now that you have been introduced, let’s go over your application. I’m the only one who has read it, so I will tell all of you that young Ashton here wrote a quite brilliant essay on the possibilities of space travel”—Bracknell snorted, but all the other professors ignored him, and Violet thought it best to follow their example— “and the plans for a rather clever handbag which he made.”
“A handbag?” Professor Bracknell sneered.
“Is that it?” the duke asked, nodding to the handbag that Violet was still clutching with nervous palms.
“Yes,” Violet said.
“Why don’t you show my colleagues what it does?”
Violet took a deep breath and stood, taking the toy ducks out of the handbag and placing them on the floor before demonstrating. The handbag was simple enough, not very stylish, but not ugly. Plain and simple. Violet held it up for the professors to see, then opened it. On the handle of the bag was a switch, which she flipped. The bag trembled slightly in her grasp as the gears inside it set to work. Quickly, but with a clean motion, the handbag unfurled itself, cloth stretching out where it had been tucked, bars unfolding, wheels emerging, all from their little hiding holes within the handbag. Within a moment, Violet’s hand lay on the handle of a full-sized perambulator, its wheels resting on the ground. For show, Violet gave the perambulator a push, and it rolled forward a few feet.
“Extraordinary,” the duke said.
“Very smooth,” Professor Bunburry said, his voice harsh and croaking.
“It’s a purse that turns into a baby carriage?” Bracknell asked. Violet nodded.
“It’s quite clever,” Professor Prism said, “and it was a pleasure to watch unfold. Where did you come by the idea?”
“Our housemaid, Mrs. Wilks, whom I mentioned. Her sister, who was a nursemaid in the city, often complained of how difficult it was to manuver the perambulator about. So I created one for her that could easily be stowed. This is actually the second I’ve made. The handbag is functional, too. Anything inside it during transformation ends up in this side pocket, here.” Violet pointed. “And it changes back just as easily.” Violet flicked the switch back on her handle, and the perambulator curled itself inward, stowing its bars and wheels until Violet was left holding the handle of the handbag again.
“What prevents the perambulator from folding up while there’s still a baby in it?” Bracknell asked. “What if the lady accidentally flips the switch?”
“There is a safety mechanism in place: if anything weighing more than a pound and a half—about the weight of a three-volume novel—is in the carriage of the perambulator, it will not transform.”
“And what if the lady is using it as a purse in a crowded place and accidentally flips the switch to make it unfold?” Bracknell prodded.
“There is a lock to prevent that,” Violet said.
“You think that’ll stop some dumb woman?” Bracknell asked, and began his irritating laugh again, clapping Curio on the back fiercely. Curio’s eye twitched, but he didn’t seem to react otherwise. Violet bit her tounge holding back a retort.
“It’s quite ingenious,” the duke said.
“It’s a cleverly built, useful invention,” Bunburry croaked out. “Very impressive, Mr. Adams.” He then descended into a fit of coughing.
“Thank you, sir,” Violet said.
“Yes,” Valentine said with a wave of his lace-covered hand, “it’s very practical. And for what it does, it does it beautifully. But do you have anything more . . . artistic?”
“I think that’s quite a piece of artistry,” Bunburry said to Valentine. “Just because it’s not a ferret with wings—”
“Of course,” Valentine said, “what I meant was, something more frivolous. Something that perhaps has less function and more beauty?”
“I brought these, sir,” Violet said, turning around and retrieving her ducks. “They’re just a child’s toy, but they might be what you’re looking for.”
“Well, show us, then,” Valentine said. Violet set the ducks down in a row, passing her hand between each of the ducks to demonstrate that there were no wires. Then she wound up the mother duck and let it go. The ducklings all followed, feathers bobbing merrily in a row.
Valentine clapped his hands excitedly. “No wires!” he exclaimed. “However did you do it?”
“Magnets, sir,” Violet said.
“Very clever,” Valentine said. “Fetch them. I want to see them up close.” Violet ran to where the ducks were still rolling and stopped them.
“A nice trick,” Bunburry coughed, “but not as clever as your handbag.”
Violet nodded at this, then delivered the ducks into Valentine’s outstretched hands.
He looked the ducks over with a series of hmmms and ah-has and the occasional oh my before giving them back. “You have a good eye, young man,” Valentine said. “I’m glad that you have not weighed your intelligence down with practicality.”
At this, Bunburry glared at Valentine, who didn’t seem to notice. Violet, unsure whether or not it was a compliment, simply bowed her head.
“Do you have anything else you want to say?” the duke asked her.
“Only that I have always dreamed of going to Illyria, and will work harder than any other student.”
The duke smiled, and a few of the other professors smirked. “Then thank you for your time,” the duke said. “We’ll let you know if you’ve been accepted as soon as we have met with all the applicants.”
“Thank you, sirs,” Violet said, bowing, then collected her ducks and handbag and left. Outside, she took a deep breath and looked once more at the golden interior of the college, fearing that it might be the last chance she had to take it in. She let her hand glide along the walls as she walked out, and stared at the ornate carvings, and listened to the gears turning throughout the building. She didn’t want to leave, but the footman was staring at her, and she knew she was overstaying her welcome. With a resigned sigh, she left, reassuring herself that she would be back in October.
A letter can sometimes take many days to reach its destination. First it must be written, of course, then signed and sealed, and then given to a page to take to the post office. From there, it must be sorted handed off to an officer of the post, who will deliver it the next time he is on the correct route. And if the letter one is waiting for is instead delivered to one’s twin, who decides to hold onto it for as long as possible for his own amusement, then it may take even longer.
Every day, starting just five days after her interview, Violet would go to Ashton’s bedroom before breakfast and knock gently on the door. Then, if he didn’t respond, she would knock louder, and if there was still no response, she would burst in in a flurry of white cotton and auburn hair. Then, shyly, with poorly suppressed anxiety, she would ask if he had perhaps received a letter from Illyria? The ninth night after the interview, he began locking his door. After the fifteenth, Violet had devised a machine to open it without the key. And on the eitheenth day, when he received her acceptance, steamed it open, read it, and resealed it, he decided that as revenge, he would keep it to himself for a while. Ashton was not cruel. Only after he confirmed that his sister had been accepted did he decide to hold on to the letter in secret. To keep failure from her would be meanspirited, he reasoned, and would take the fun out of the prank, but to delay her success was a good joke.
Jack received his acceptance on the nineteenth day after their interviews, and came by the house to tell the Adamses and have a celebratory drink with them. This is when Violet first became suspicious. Ashton could see her suspicions right away, of course. The way she narrowed her eyes at him when Jack showed them the letter from Illyria; the way her sweetness toward him became saccharine and insincere, instead of pleading.
“How funny it is,” Violet said to Jack, looking at Ashton as she did so, “that your letter has already arrived. I supposed that since my letter is late in coming, I must not have been accepted.”
“I doubt that,” Jack said, drinking thirstily. “If I got in, you can get in. You impressed that Bunburry fellow, an’ if his eyes hadn’t been open, and he hadn’t coughed a few times, I would have thought he was asleep all through my interview.”
Ashton had heard all about both their interviews. Violet’s seemed promising, especially given the duke’s compliments, and Jack’s had been exciting, if nothing else. His new winged ferret had yawned when the cage was opened, and stretched before poking her head out the door. Soon after that she had bounded out, curiously sniffing the floor. Valentine said it was quite adorable but wondered if it really could fly, so Jack gave the professor a bit of bacon to hold out to the ferret. The ferret, smelling it, leapt into the air and flew straight at the bacon, snatching it from Valentine’s hands and retiring to the ceiling to eat. This is what had caused the outburst of laughter and clapping from both Valentine and the duke. Then they summoned a footman, who, with the aid of a butterfly net—Valentine had one in his office, as he often, if unsuccessfully, hunted butterflies in an attempt to grow their wings and attach them to canaries—on a very long stick, managed to catch the ferret and bring it back down to earth.
When they picnicked on the twenty-first day, Violet spent most of the day sighing and bemoaning her fate; without Illyria’s acceptance, she must, after all, marry and give up her life of invention. Jack was taken in by this and argued that her mind should not go to waste, but Ashton recognized her ruse and agreed that she should marry. “I think,” he said, grinning, “you ought to marry Jack here. Then at least you can keep on inventing. I’m sure all your genius will be attributed to him, what with you being a woman and all, but at least you’ll still be able to work.” Jack burst out laughing at this, and then blushed.
Violet crossed her arms. “I know you have the letter,” she said finally.
Ashton poured himself a glass of wine from the basket and bit into a cucumber sandwich. “What letter?”
“The letter! The letter from Illyria. You’ve got it, and you won’t give it to me. And that is a very cruel thing, brother.”
“Of course,” Jack said, nodding, “the letter would be sent to you, Ashton. You probably do have it. You’re a dog, Ashton. What a prank. What if she isn’t accepted at all? Then you’ll feel horrid.”
“You think there’s a chance I won’t be accepted?” Violet asked, jumping up from the picnic blanket.
“No, no,” Jack said, his hands held defensively in front of him, “I only meant that I agree with you. Ashton must have the letter. And it’s really a very cruel prank.”
Violet crossed her arms and walked away from the pair of them, annoyed.
“You have it, then?” Jack asked. Ashton nodded and sipped his wine. “Have you opened it?” Ashton nodded again. “Did she get in?”
“Of course she did. I wouldn’t be having so much fun if she didn’t,” Ashton said, and the two of them began laughing, causing Violet to glare at them from over her shoulder.
“You must let her have it, though,” Jack said, “or else she will kill you in your sleep.”
“I’ll give it to her before it goes that far,” Ashton said, “but she woke me early every day for a week. This is my revenge.”
On the morning of the twenty-third day, Violet strode into Ashton’s bedroom without even a knock, which gave Antony precious little time to gather the sheets around his naked body or hide in the closet. Violet stood over the pair of them, apparently only a little surprised to find her brother naked in bed with the coachman, even though Ashton had worked so hard to be discreet for the past week. Violet raised an eyebrow, appraising them. Antony cowered.
“Oh, all right,” Ashton said, and reached under his pillow and pulled out the letter from Illyria. “Congratulations. Now, leave my bedroom and keep your mouth shut.” Violet grinned, kissed her brother on the cheek, and left, opening the letter and reading as she walked. Ashton sighed and leaned back in his bed.
“What was that all about?” Antony asked. What he really meant was Will she tell anyone what she saw?
“Nothing of import, my dear boy,” Ashton said. “There’s nothing to worry that beautiful head about.” Ashton leaned over Antony and smiled reassuringly. Antony, reassured, smiled back.
The duke was not reassured as he took the lift down to Illyria’s basement to hunt for monsters. This was one yearly tradition that he dreaded. It began the year after his father’s death, his first year running the college, when he had been roused from bed one night by a frantic knocking on his door.
The servant there, a young maid, was pale and shaking. “There’s a monster, sir, in the cellar.”
After dressing and going down to the cellar to straighten things out, he couldn’t disagree with the maid. The thing that had crawled up through the corridors of the basement could be described in no other way than “monster.” The maid had found it while retrieving flour from one of the storerooms. She had opened the door, and there it was, anxiously licking up a spilled bag of sugar. If it resembled anything, the duke thought, it was a squid—dark and dragging a score of tentacles behind it—but with two disturbingly human arms reaching out of its loglike torso. Huge inhuman eyes stared out from above the tentacles, and a large toothed mouth crowned its head. It lay on the floor, about as long as the duke was tall, and moved by pulling itself forward on its human arms, crawling like a man dying of thirst. It was covered in water and mold and dirt, as though it had come through long tunnels to get there. It had finished the bag of sugar, and was gorging itself instead on the flour the maid had been sent for. Upon sensing the duke’s entry, the thing turned at him and opened its mouth wide, showing a circle of sharp fangs and emitting a loud hiss. The duke took a good long look at it; then, with one motion, unholstered his pistol and shot the thing three times in its head. It slumped down dead into the bag of sugar, and then rolled over the floor a few times, landing by the duke’s boots. The duke had swallowed, managed not to vomit, and then, with the help of some of the male servants, he had wrapped the creature up and burned it in the garden. He then locked up that storeroom and forbade anyone to use it again. He sent some additional servants to search the rest of the cellar. They found nothing else, though the duke suspected they hadn’t looked very thoroughly. It was a huge basement—so huge, the duke had no idea of its scope or where the creature could have come from within it, so when nothing else followed the creature up in the next few days, he felt it had probably come alone.
The duke’s father had had many secrets, the duke knew. And this creature could have been one of them. It could also have just been a castoff from former experiments by the students or professors, a random mutation from chemicals consumed by an animal thought dead. But to the duke, it was more a physical representation of his father’s secrets, rising up through the cellar to try to take back Illyria. And the duke knew his father had had more than just the one secret. So from then on, in case others welled up, every year before classes began, he had taken a trip to the basement to make a personal tour, lantern in one hand, pistol in the other.
The lift shook as it hit the basement floor, and the duke stepped out. He stood at the entrance of a series of dimly lit halls, like a maze, all grime-covered stone and gas lamps that had gone out years before. In the time since that first encounter, the duke found nothing else to warrant the use of his pistol, and he had begun to feel as though he probably never would—that when he shot the grasping creature, he had killed the last of his father’s secrets. But several years back, the students began using the basement as a place to initiate the first-year students, and so the duke wanted to be sure it was as safe as he could make it.
He generally explored only the area around the lift—that was where the storage rooms were, and where the students went for initiation. Beyond that, to the areas where the walls curved and twisted in unpredictable ways, where the air seemed damper and faint mechanical screeches crept around corners, he did not go.
Tonight’s explorations were the same as in every year previous. The basement was dark and smelled of rust. Things that he could not see brushed up against him, and he had to clench his jaw at times and reassure himself that it was only a basement, and that he was the Duke of Illyria. There was nothing to fear down here, he told himself.
Not one part of him believed it.
No one knew the reason behind his annual forays. If asked, he said he was taking inventory. Once, he told a serving girl he had been close with about his real reason for coming down here. She called the trip “monster hunting” and insisted on coming down with him once. They found nothing, but he had made love to her pressed against the dirty walls, her red hair a candle flame in the dark. He smiled as he stalked the halls, remembering that night. He wondered if there were other women who would go monster hunting with him. Women with fierce gray eyes like those of Miss Adams.
He was nearly done exploring. So far, he had found nothing, to his relief, when he heard footsteps behind him, and turned with lantern and pistol both outstretched.
“S-s-sir!” said a frightened-looking Professor Curio.
“Curio,” the duke said, relaxing the arm that held the pistol, “you startled me.”
“S-s-sorry, s-sir. Are y-you d-d-doing your annual t-tour of in-ininventory?”
“Yes. And I’ve found nothing.”
“What are you doing down here?” the duke asked, tilting his head slightly.
“J-just pre-preparing for the y-y-year,” Curio said, not meeting the duke’s gaze. The duke paused, but didn’t press further.
“Good, then,” the duke said. “I suppose I’d best get to bed. Let me know if you find any monsters down here.”
“A-any o-o-other monsters,” Curio said, nodding.
“Good night, Curio,” the duke said, and walked off toward the lift. He was anxious to shower off the grime of the basement and go to sleep.
“G-g-good night s-sir,” Curio said, standing alone in the darkness as the duke’s swinging lantern bobbed out of sight. In the shadows, the sound of footsteps echoed through the basement. Then those faded, too, and there was only the sound of the winding gears.
All Men of Genius © Lev AC Rosen 2011