THE EVENING TEA SOCIETY
“A Caucus of Martyrs”
by H.H. NEVILLE
The Year 19xx,
Heavy clouds stagnated like swamp water across the sky; a scummy grey skin settling over the surface. The traveler had watched the skies curiously since he exited the steam engine. Secretly he plotted for rain. Were he much for the folly of his religious youth, he might pray to god. Instead, he left it the hands of science – meteorology to be precise – and diagnosed the symptoms; surely it would rain. When he was proven correct and gaps were punctured through the thin jelly overcast, spilling a gentle tide of dihydrogen monoxide, he craned his neck upward; his lips splitting, satisfied.
The air in his lab was always a suffocating blanket of thick, stifling steam and swarthy, metallic blow off from the messy graveyard of machinery he was known to birth and then frankenstein later; left operating in some crippled existence. It stunk of fried metal and boiled electrical components, no doubt cooked too long.
The world after a virginal rain was a most sweet perfume, something he cherished more than the fragrance of any flower. To say rain had a unique smell all it’s own wouldn’t be true. Instead, it smelled as if all everything had been soaked in a soapy bath with a concentrated extract of Mother Nature; everything fresh, more pure.
He had never been this far north nor this far west, but it reminded him of his compound in Colorado. How he wished to lament his grandiose notions, his damnable tower, which invariably forced him to scuttle the compound and sent him back to New York, for good. Nevertheless, the city and society, sadly, had its conveniences for a man like him. Irregardless, he was determined to enjoy his sojourn completely and spare any moment he might to just take a deep breath.
So far, it had been nearly idyllic. The train ride was enjoyable, even if a bit slow compared to the means of traversal he was accustomed. The lunch, consisting of a rye reuben and a mackerel salad particularly stood out, as did the company of a jovial middle-aged Kraut, Barney Mustock, a former numbers man in search of gold. When they arrived at the station, both men tipped their caps, smiled widely and wished each other luck; grabbing their luggage and heading in opposite directions. Barney to some small creek in the middle of nowhere, no doubt, and himself toward the center of town, an automobile waiting for him.
Henry Ford’s Model-T, the “first” automobile and a “revolution” reserved – at this point in its infancy – for the absurdly privileged. It was also a technological abortion. Not surprising from a colleague of Edison.
As the shoddily construct of steel and rubber skipped haggardly over the hilly cobbled lanes, it coughed up thick black fumes, bleeding oil. Twice the machine shambled. First the engine refused to turn over. As its construction was just this side of arcane happenstance, it was a small wonder that the traveler was able to get the combustion engine to fire again (as the driver hadn’t any idea on how to fix it, no surprise). Then the rear right wheel snapped free of its wooden axle at which point he gave up and hiked the last two blocks of the five block drive, driver (and now, sherpa) in-tow with his luggage and supplies.
The two men packed it across a narrow grass median. The driver found it impossible to keep himself dry, struggling with a thin umbrella in his left hand, a cart yoke in his right, hefting several suitcases and travel bags of garments as well has dull steel capsules of scientific sundries. His flat leather soles slipped across the dewy lawn as if it had been soaped. He tumbled like a turtle on his back, seizing from side to side, rolling a heavy coat of rain into his wool car coat.
In stark contrast, the rain seemed to pardon the hatrack thin traveler. Hung lazily atop his crown, a brown bowler was the same dry tone as his wrinkled sport jacket and barely pressed pants. Despite the absence of an umbrella, having traveled from the station under a birthing storm and stopping to fix the auto once not a drop had found him. The traveler skipped the median and dodged two passing autos as they rocked slowly down the lane. He came to the curb, still smiling.
The next block over was home to only one sole building. The traveler’s destination. A narrow tusked steeple of ivory granite that plunged through the low hanging cloud cover. The giant tower, pristinely white contrasted the drab and muddled weather around it. The rain damp black windows sparkled like opal-laid necklaces worn across its perfect skin. A beautiful mistress to firearm magnate Lyman Cornelius Smith and his son, Burns Lyman. The Smith Tower was the largest construct west of the Mississippi divide and equaling its grand stature, was its neoclassic beauty, nearly baptismal in purity. Even to a man like the traveler, who had crafted his own zenith, it was inspiring.
The traveler forded another brambly road — a rough mash of busted up mortar, and jagged little crags pasted heavily with wet sand — reaching the ambit of Smith Tower’s courtyard. To his amusement, several umbrella-toting porters in penguin attire were scrambling anxiously to the aide of guest, warbling like loons as they slipped and slid packing luggage from an auto to the steps of the building.
Their guest himself was soon swept up by the two-tone worker bees. Even though he towered over the mean of them, and looked as if he could military press one with each arm, he was quickly swept up and ushered quite forcefully out of the inclimate weather. He looked somehow familiar, not someone the traveler knew well, mind, as a man of such great stature would be hard to forget. More someone he ought to know.
He swept a stray curl from his forehead into his slicked raven mane. He was a man who didn’t like loose ends. Satisfied, he dug into his crisply pleated wren trousers for a cigar and matchbook. Beneath his loose summer button-down top and thin red suspenders, solid mounds of muscle traced his movement. He had the build of an olympic athlete. The traveler surmised he stood easily 183cm and weighed close to 102kg. He watched the brawny gent tear into his cigar end with his teeth, then spit it carelessly to the courtyard track before sparking it in his gritted smile.
It was a restrained cocksure grin that pulled the strapping sir’s face from the catalogue. Just as quick, the traveler realised his purpose. It did not please him.
With equal timing, a sole porter bobbed his head from the madness quick enough to spot the traveler whom too was recognised. The porter dashed across the gap.
“Afternoon, sir.” The porter pulled a collapsable wood handled umbrella from his body length frock. “A respite from the weather, perchance?”
“No, no, thank you, I’m fine.”
The porter stared down the traveler from head to toe quizzically. With the exception of his scuffed leather shoes which had collected a fair smattering of mud, the traveler was entirely dry.
“However, if you don’t mind, my driver could use some assistance with my things.” The traveler poked a thumb over his shoulder, directed behind him.
The porter leaned sideways, sneaking a glance behind the traveler. The scene was something for vaudeville. Pitching side to side on his belly through the now muddy median like fussed up swine was the traveler’s driver. He would take two steps, crash to his backside, the cart would chase after, toppling to its side; the contents crashing atop the lawn and driver equally. The driver would uneasily right himself, comb muck from his chest with his palms and go about collecting the loosed items. Only to repeat the whole process again.
“Oh dear, sir, you items!” The porter’s wide hairy fingers drug across his cheeks, genuinely worried.
“The state of my things are fine, I assure — impact-deadening cases — my driver’s bones on the other hand.”
The porter begun to shoot the traveler a worried glance. He seemed to imply that his cases were impervious to impact, which should have been nonsense. However, given who the traveler was, it was all too possible. “Right, sir.”
The porter wobbled behind to fetch the driver while the traveler strode across the parking track toward the entrance to Smith Tower.
The towering man was still on the stoop, puffing lightly away his cigar. He saw the traveler coming and gave him a gentle wink before taking another blow on the cigar before giving delay; the burning cherry slowly fading in hazy smoke between two of his fingers.
“Lovely weather we got, huh?” He rolled his neck between twin hulking deltoids, craning eyes up toward the sky. The rain had calmed, only a thin drip and a grey sun was waking behind a still heavy quilt of clouds. “I swear, I left Burbank and it was a beautiful seventy and warm, gentle breeze. Soon as I crossed the Oregon line it went to hell.”
The traveler paid idle chatter little effort, turning outward toward the city. He watched a team porters swoop up his things and his driver, ambling the bulk of both toward the tower. The traveler’s possessions would be fine; only the driver’s pride and garments a little worse for wear.
“Rain doesn’t seem to bug you much, though,” the larger of the pair trudged on. “I watched you, come all the way from Pioneer Square by foot, no umbrella.”
Again he was ignored by the traveler. He began to feel slighted.
“Of course, you wouldn’t be bugged none,” he stopped to take a drag of the cigar. It flared a rosy pink and then cooled again. “You ain’t got a drop on you somehow. Completely 100% dry. Now how’s that possible?”
The traveller sucked in a heavy breath of the chilly, pristine air. “Two alkane hydrocarbons brought to melting point can be fused together and combined into a water repellent solvent then chilled and reconstituted as a wax, which I’ve applied heavily to my entire wardrobe.”
“Nice parlour trick you got there.”
“I would suggest you reserve that designation for our later guest.”
“Yeah, well, you’re the only one here with me ain’t you?” Jeffries jabbed a stout right paw toward the traveler’s midsection. “Name’s James J. Jeffries; gals in and out the ring call me ‘Boilermaker.’”
Uninterested, the traveler doffed his bowler and dotted his moist face with a dry pocket square. “I know who you are, sir.”
“Ah, a fan, eh?”
“Anything but, I’m afraid.”
“Hey did you catch the time I broke ol’ Corbett’s ribs? Man, what a–” Jeffries recoiled, having taken one straight to his pride. “Who the hell are you, thinkin’ you’re too good for me, or something?” A fast counter punch.
The traveler replaced his cap. With little concern for appearance folded his square back into his pocket.