sweet_gardenia (sweet_gardenia) wrote in naked_alchemist,

Chapter 1: Veritas

True, without falsehood, certain, most certain

Clouds gathered at the horizon, sullen and blue and the evening promised to be rainy. The prospect of rain hardly discouraged the group of travelers walking down the oak-heavy path towards the grand manor that sat in miles and miles of rolling golden hills. Some walked in silence, others chattered or laughed in a high-pitched sort of hysteria.

All of them were curious.

The carriages had dropped them off at the crossroads some miles back and legs already ached. Their destination lay in a vast, lonely countryside, a good day's walk from the nearest civilization. Their destination was a mystery though the name was familiar enough to most present: the Musaeum Hermeticum. Twenty-three years ago to this day, in 1885 it had closed without warning, a marvelous cabinent of curiosities in its time, now mostly a hazy memory. Elias Rook had not emerged from it in years, a recluse if indeed he was still alive.

Tucked away in a pocket, a purse or held in a pair of hands to be mused over while walking was a letter addressed to each person in this group. Ten letters in total. Each with specific instructions for the evening, each with a mysterious symbol and each signed " Elias Rook, Esq. "

About the time they passed under the great main gate: a ironwork entanglement with the words SOLVE ET COAGULA across the top, rain had already begun falling in uncertain drops. The gate swung silently closed behind them, which gave some of them a bit of nervous shock but not to those who knew something of the history of the place and guessed (correctly) that the gates were automated. The vast grey Musaeum Hermeticum loomed overhead as they walked up the front steps.

The entrance was the first wonder. A pair of Oriental-style dragons of tarnished silver and enameled in black and white writhed sinuously across the weathered oaken doors in a complicated ouroboros pattern. Their red eyes, alive more than enameled eyes should be, suddenly opened and with a hiss of escaping steam and grinding gears, they langorously untangled themselves to allow the great doors to swing open. The visitors proceeded into the main vestibule and the oaken doors swung shut behind them.

The halls of the vestibule were lined with Greco-style columns of caryatids and telamons All had their hands extended and a small sign by the door informed the visitors that they could hang hats, cloaks and sundry on the hands of the statues. Here was the second wonder. The statues' hands closed obligingly upon all that was offered to them, filling the chamber with small gasps and more nervous laughter and murmurs.

As the visitors proceeded down the vestibule per the instructions of each of their letters, each statues' head turned silently to watch them go. Being studied by so many sightless eyes proved more than a bit unsettling for the visitors.

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A young girl, of perhaps 18 years of age, was certainly among those unsettled by the surroundings. She gripped her letter firmly, as if it could provide a link with reality, and chatted nonstop with another in the group, a young man of about 25 years of age. He listened politely, nodding only occasionally.

“And Missus Miller wasn’t at all pleased by my getting the letter. I have been a good employee since I started there 6 years ago and I’ve never given her any troubles. But the letter gave clear instructions to come here and the warnings of dire consequences if I didn’t show up. Plus with the mysterious wealth it hinted at, I had to come. I doubt Missus Miller will want me back, and it was good money I was making there. Since Pa’s got hurt at the factory, I’ve been sending all my money to them, not saving any of it for anything. I’m afraid that my socks are more patches than socks, but I have to take care of Mum and Pa.” She suddenly looked down and blushed.

“Please forgive my chattering. You must think me to be a half-wit, prattling away like this. My name is Ruby Hunter,” she laughed at the young mans slightly amused expression. “Yes, I know. It sounds like I would be someone out looking for rubies with a name like that. It’s sort of a family joke. I have two sisters, Pearl and Emerald, although we call her Emmy. Mum and Pa thought they were fine names, and I like it well enough. Mum and Pa, they didn’t have no sons, just us three girls. We have respectable jobs, working as maids in fine households. Or at least I had a job before I got this letter. I might not after this is worked out. But I won’t think none about it.” She twisted the letter in her hands. “I will admit, sir, that I am quite frightened by all this. There is sure to be some sort of sorcery at work here. The gates and the snakes at the door, and all those statues, watching me…”

At this the young man finally spoke. “Miss Hunter, it is not magic, merely gears, steam, and artistry. But the effect is a bit unnerving.”

“Steam and gears? How mysterious,” she murmured, looking around uneasily as they proceeded to the Grand Dining Hall. As the group entered, electric lights all along the walls began to glow, illuminating the room. Miss Hunter gasped in surprise. “How magnificent…” she whispered.

The room was round, with hallways going off in several directions from archways surrounding the room. Between the archways were alcoves, each containing various artifacts and items of interest. The ceiling was two stories high, and from the center hung a brilliant chandelier. Only the center was lit when they walked in, but slowly, the other points on the chandelier lit up, spiraling out from the center.

Below, the dining table itself was round, an unusual shape for so formal a setting. Around the table were 11 chairs, and 10 place cards. Sitting in a chair directly opposite the entryway, was another statue. Miss Hunter laughed nervously, but gave a small yelp when the statue stood up, bowed, and gestured to the chairs, then sat back down. When not all of the guests reacted immediately, the statue repeated the gestures. Miss Hunter moved forward slowly, and found names written on all the place cards. To her dismay, her name appeared on the place card on the left hand side of the statue. She only sat down when she realized that the young man with whom she was talking would be seated on the other side of her chair. She murmured a quiet thank you when the young man held her chair out for her. There were echoed scraping noises as all the guests sat down and scooted their chairs closer to the table. And then there was silence.


April 18 2008, 01:17:52 UTC 13 years ago Edited:  April 18 2008, 01:19:14 UTC

Doctor Iosif Spektor was not a man who was easily impressed. He'd been to China, to India, to Budapest, seen the fakirs and the charlatans and the magicians—nothing he'd seen before compared to this house of marvels. He'd often heard the name of Elias Rook in his travels, but never had the pleasure of meeting the man himself. Hardly a surprise, given the man's reputation for elusiveness.

The surprise was that the man apparently knew him. Iosif put a hand on the letter tucked in his pocket. It had arrived at his practice, bearing Elias's signature, and the curious addition of the symbol of Mercury. Quite a strange little touch that. He assumed his instructions were the same as all the others gathered here; what an odd group they made. He wondered their purpose in being gathered here, but idle speculation would certainly get him nowhere.

Leaning heavily on his ivory-handled cane, somewhat winded by the long walk to the house, Iosif followed the other guests into the dining room, half-listening to the conversations going on around him.

His eyes took in the curious occurrence of the statue silently, taking his seat just to the side of the young man who'd been chattering so earnestly with the young girl. There was no need to speak just yet—no need to draw undue attention to himself. But he couldn't resist a question.

"Tell me... does anyone here actually know our host?"
"Know Elias Rook? Surely you jest. One might as well ask if someone in the room had the acquaintance of Solomon, or had entertained Herakles at tea yesterday afternoon." There was a pause as the stranger took a seat. "That is to say, the man is a recluse."

Iosif turned to regard the young man sitting next to him. His new neighbor was shabbily dressed, his mouse-brown clothes hanging awkwardly off of an unhealthily spare frame. The stranger's unattractively gaunt face wore a distant expression. "I wrote to Rook, once, in a time of desperation. I had assumed that the letter had been lost, or, more likely, disregarded." The man put a hand to his breast pocket and glanced up at Iosof, then away again. "That is to say, I never received a reply."

Iosif waited, but the stranger did not offer his name, or any further explanation of his cryptic words. Instead, he took a slip of paper from his pocket and began to unfold it, his thin fingers making the operation appear immensely delicate. His skin, Iosif noticed, was paler than the parchment.

The letter the young man had unfolded was identical to the one in Iosif's own pocket in all respects save two. The symbol was that of copper - of Venus. And the name at the top, inscribed in careful, deliberate strokes, was Eliphas Eldred.
With a creak and whirr of gears a host of servant automatons emerged from a red door off to the side of the dining area, bringing the entree's. Following a track set in the floor each automaton waited patiently on each guest with all the efficency (and perhaps more) of a human servant. All that was human about them was their faces, a demure and genderless white mask that smiled ever so slightly. The rest was a marvel of gears and several daintily-gloved arms that saw to all the guest's needs. After serving the automatons stepped back and waited by the table with heads lowered.

A thin curl of smoke drifted lazily in the doctor's face. On the opposite side of where he sat, a 40-something woman who dressed in genteel grey but who was not particularly acting the part of a schoolmarmish sort flicked the ashes of her quellazaire into what looked like a serving of exceptional lobster bisque and pushed her bowl aside. One of the automaton immediately took it up and vanished.

" Besides which, my good sirs, " she said addressing the doctor and Eliphas with a brittle smile. " Amongst fellow strangers who would openly admit to it, if they did? " Her dark eyes, piercing in a face that was also fashionably pale and ringed with colorless curls, roamed the dinner table and their surroundings with feigned disinterest.
Eliphas, it seemed, was not a man versed in the social graces. He appeared not to have heard the woman's words. He gazed at the mechanically precise movements of the automata with an expression of childlike wonder that ill-suited his gaunt face. Every time one of the machines neared him he moved as if to touch it but, perhaps fearing he would break what he so admired, he held back, contenting himself with sight alone. He did not seem at all interested in the food they brought, delicious as it might appear to the other guests.

The doctor heard a muttered phrase. It could have been "A body of brass. To possess such a thing . . ." But the words were soft, and the whirring of the automata made the accurate perception of small sounds a doubtful operation.
The older woman gave the distracted Eliphas a look somewhere between boredom and bemusement and turned her sharp dark eyes next upon the doctor, hoping perhaps to find a guest more inclined to polite conversation. She had been through more than her share of dull dinners in her lifetime, with prestigious members of genteel society and though this one looked as though it was going in the same dismal direction, nevertheless she thought she'd try to at least salvage what was left of it before dessert. She delicately picked up her wine glass and snapped her fingers quickly at one of the automatons for a refill which the machine obliged. The woman's lips curled faintly when the automaton's small cunningly crafted hand accidentally brushed her own fingers. She took back her glass quickly and studied it for a moment. It was a clear liquer in which floated small shining flakes of gold.

" Danzinger Goldwasser, how exquisite. You know, the last time I had this was backstage at the Adelphi ever so many years ago. That imp J.L. Toole smuggled it in, " said the woman, smiling at Iosif. " You know I heard the most delightful rumor that the flakes actually make small cuts when swallowed to allow the liquer to be absorbed quicker. I personally think it no more than an idle rumor. " She sipped the Goldwasser delicately and touched her gloved hand to her throat.

" Eleanora Swann, by-the-by, " she said sweetly to Iosif. " And you are...?"
Iosif saw no reason to keep his real identity hidden, and readily extended his hand to the woman. "Iosif Spektor," he said, with a genteel tilt of the head. There was only the faintest trace of an accent in his tone. "Doctor Iosif Spektor. A pleasure, Ms. Swann. And I am sorry to say that the rumor is untrue. Medically, at least." He gave her a pleasant smile.

"Still, it is no reason not to savor it. A little mystery does sweeten the taste... Of course, in a place like this"--he gave a small wave to the surroundings--"we hardly have need of more mystery." His voice had raised slightly, clearly addressing the other guests as well.
So far through this entire trip there had been silence from the next figure who now sat in her chair at the large circular table. The look in her eyes and on her face spoke almost of a slight nervousness as to what the purpose of being in such a place was. Beneath such an exterior, however, sat a calculating eye which, while also puzzled, was on its guard. Her name had never been important. In her line of work she created and abandoned names and persona so quickly it was hard to place a finger on who she was. Last week, before a successful withdrawal from the house of a wealthy gentleman in Kent, she had been known as Lenore Baynes, a well to do widow from Wales. The month before she had been Fifi LeBoufe, a former dancer from Paris meeting with a man who believed that he was taking advantage of her. Such an idea had gained laughter in private quarters.

She was a thief, a sneak, a bandit. However the name which seemed to fit her best in this line of work was a 'confidence man' or in her case 'confidence woman'.

Though she was still young in her trade her skills with makeup, words and certain types of drugs were well known amongst the small number of people who knew of her exploits from a friendly point of view. London knew her as Faye Hawkins, a woman who lived above a small tavern on the outskirts of London and supposedly worked for her place to stay. So it had come as a shock when a letter was received at her place of residence addressed to a Miss. Verona Davies. The shock? Verona Davies was her birth name, a name that she had abandoned at the age of 15 when excommunicated from her family. A name which, now that she was here, she would have to utilize. Much to her regret.

"I suppose thats as open an invitation as any." she finally said in response to the dear doctor's remark as she placed her fork down to address such a tone. "My name is Verona Davies." Her tone held a confidence in it of someone who had dealt with pressure before and yet it was overly friendly and slightly polite. It could be assumed in this case that it was due to her supposed profession. "I tend drinks for the Four Horseshoes in London." Had she been given a choice as to what she had addressed herself as or where she may give as her place of work she would have chosen something different than that. Afterall she was amongst some of the well-to-do, a type that she prayed upon in her line of work. As she looked around the room, keeping her eyes relaxed and casual, her glance spied at least one person who may have reason to recognize her.


May 4 2008, 04:18:13 UTC 13 years ago Edited:  May 4 2008, 04:21:06 UTC

On the other side of Dr. Spektor sat another gaunt young man, though this one of a vastly different sort. His hands fluttered--they never stopped fluttering--and his face fluttered, too, mouthing easy smooth words that rolled back and forth in your brain and filled you with pleasure until you thought back over it and realized they were nonsense. He'd been talking since the arrival, but it was a background sound that captivated one or two listeners and merely lulled the others.

Now, he made dancingly engaging talk to anyone at the table inclined to listen. If his laugh had a slight edge of hysteria, who noticed? And if they noticed, who could blame him? He was painfully young underneath the mixture of cheap cologne and gin and the flashy threadbares, the outrageous touch of what might be kohl about the eyes hiding inexpertly the way his face had not yet grown into itself. He said vapid, pretty things about the automata, about the house, about Rook, whom he assured one lady he had not known particularly, but his family... trailing off delicately and timing his stage smile just right.

Why why why why why went the wheels in his head, as they had done since the letter arrived in his landlady's stained hand with the alchemical symbol he barely recalled--antimony, maybe? Why why why performance why why why Mary's bedroom why why why settling the evening in drink why why why through the morning's hangover why why why finally in the Musaeum's entry why why why.

The question annoyed him, all the more because he could only assume the connection did lay with his family, and family connections were always unwelcome and faintly uneasy-making. He could not stop worrying at the question and its implications even as he answered a question from one of the ladies.

"Blood, ma'am, Edward Blood."
Cavilton Kerrishaw traced the elegant lettering on his place card with a single finger. He was rather flattered to be included in this mysterious experience and rejoiced in the prospect that all of the ladies present were very easy on the eyes. The gentlemen, for the most part, seemed amicable enough but several of them struck him as deceivers. However, he was not the sort of person that would call them out on such suspicions, unless of course they slipped up and called attention to themselves.
The room felt rather warm and cheerful, the spectacular automatons entering and exiting with very little sound. One would expect them to be loud and oafish, a perception formed by the amount of gears and puffs of steam coming from a few of their number, but in truth they made no more sound than a human servant in their place would carrying about the same tasks.
Looking to his left he flashed a dazzling smile. "Ms. Swann, I must admit it has been far too long since you have graced my presence." He held out is hand and when she placed her gloved one inside it, he brought her hand to his lips and gave it a gentle and sincere kiss.
Then her turned that same casual, relaxed smile upon the rest of the room. "My dear gentlemen and women, I have only had the pleasure of previous aquaintence with one of your number." He exchanged a look with Eleanora that spoke of a rather intimate sort of past as the lady almost appeared to blush, while the twinkle in his eyes grew brighter for just the fraction of a second. "To the rest of you I offer this short introduction. My name is Cavilton, Cavilton Kerrishaw. Like yourselves, I am not exactly certain why I am here but I do trust that-in time-all things of import will be revealed to us." He took another sip of his wine. "Might I suggest that we make ourselves known to one another as our host has yet to make his appearance?"
Robert Fullerton watched the interactions of his fellows as the young lady chattered amiably to his right. Ruby-yes, that was her name! He was trying his best to pay attention but found himself increasingly distracted by the wonders that were the automated machines.
He had so many questions. How did they move so smoothly? Who crafted the calibrations that made them seem so alive? Who repaired them when they broke down? Was there a caretaker or did they repair one another? Or was there a specific machine crafted to make the repairs that were needed? And how did they cook such exquisite meals if they had no sensors to taste what they were preparing? Or did they?
"I'm sorry. What did you say?" He cast a sheepish grin at his female table mate. "I get a bit lost sometimes, you see. In my thoughts. Oh, dear, I've not shown you very good manners, at all, have I Miss Hunter? I beg your pardon for not properly introducing myself beforehand. I am Robert Fullerton. You may have seen me previously. I don't know what your religious association is, Miss, but I've given several sermons at Foothills Parish."
As the guests introduced themselves, Cavilton felt an odd twinge of unease when his eyes fell upon Verona Davies. She sat four places to his left and though he dug deeply through his memories he couldn't place the name or her face to any he dredged up. Still, something in her seemed uncomfortable when the two of them locked eyes. It was most likely a trick of the light, or perhaps a bit too much wine that caused this perception, but he could have sworn he saw her flinch when he spoke his name.
Odd though it may seem, he dismissed it from his mind almost immediately. Afterall, there were more entertaining curiosities in this place, and if fate offered him the choice, he would get to know her later on, as their time here progressed.
Unlike the majority of the other guests, who had no interest in the food being passed by the automatons, James Harrison Newell found himself stuffing his face with every dish that he laid eyes on. Currently, he was devouring his way through half a roast duck breast stuffed with oysters and rampion. Remnants of stewed parsnips, ham glazed in orange sauce, and dandelion greens already littered his plate. James--or Jimmy to his friends, when he bothered to consider anyone a friend--wore a three-piece suit of obvious high class and well-tailored fabric, if only worn and a decade out of fashion. His thickly curled dark hair looked as if it had only been brushed briefly and carelessly before leaving the carriage. He wore an ascot of somber brown and green, outset by the upturned collar of his suit jacket.
Vaguely listening to the conversation turn to introductions, James broke his eating and declared in an awkward, loud voice, "Corvus frugilegus. Named by Sir Carolus Linnaeus in 1758 Anno Domini. Translated from Latin, means "food-gathering crow". Average-sized member of the raven family. Native to Great Britain and to much of northern and central Europe, it lives in colonies called a rookery or a parliament. Makes splendid aerial displays during the autumnal gale winds. Said to be able to forecast weather and to sense the approach of death. If a rookery is abandoned, it is said to bring bad fortune for the family that owns the land. Also the name of a confidence trick and the piece in chess worth more than the queen and most powerful in the game's end. In other words, these embody our mysterious Mr. Rook."
This speech given by the thirty-something Mr. Newell seemed rehearsed for many times before the meeting, as if these reflections could not dare be supressed. After speaking, James realized that everyone was staring at him and blushed profusely. Then the young man stared down at his plate and continued to shovel duck and oyster into his mouth. He burped noisely when filling his gut with too much at once. James reached for a sip of his water glass and patted his mouth with the linen napkin.
"You'll have to excuse me. It's not often that I ever eat in company. Usually I eat alone in my room. I'm afraid I've never managed to learn the right etiquette at these sort of functions."
Ruby cleared her throat nervously and spoke to the embarrassed man. "I don't think that you are the only one here who is unaccustomed to a setting like this. I for one also am quite unsure of how to act." She reached for her glass of water with shaky hands and ended up tipping the glass over. "Oh dear!" she gasped as the water spilled onto Robert Fullerton's lap. She started to stand up, but quickly sat back down when one of the automatons moved forward and presented Robert Fullerton with a small towel. Another up-righted and refilled her water glass.

She had only been partially following the conversations around the table, but since most of the attention was on her, she said quickly, "My name is Ruby Hunter. I work as a maid for a family in London. And I have never met Mr. Rook. I didn't even know who he was until I got this letter..." She let her voice trail off, since there was nothing else of importance she could think to say. For some reason she didn't feel like telling the others that, after browsing through several books that belonged to the family she worked for, she had identified the symbol on her letter as salt.

She looked nervously around, and said quietly to Robert Fullerton "I'm so sorry I tipped over my water on you, sir. I can be quite clumsy when I'm nervous."
Robert sopped up his trousers with the proffered cloth and muttered a "No harm done," quietly to his table mate as he furiously hoped that no actual harm had come to the items that lay in that vicinity. Pulling out his own letter, he unfolded it to discover the ink was smeared in places and altogether blurred in others. He frowned a moment before folding the paper back up and tucking it in a vest pocket, lest further damage come to it, or prying eyes look at it too closely.
Looking up at the group with a flush of embarassment, he took a hasty sip of his wine before addressing them.
"My name is Reverend Robert Fullerton. I go by David among my friends. Feel free to address me as either of these, as I do hope to make decent acqaintainces among you during our stay."
He fidgeted a moment with his fork before continuing. "As for a knowledge of Mr. Rook, I cannot claim him as a friend, though I've the sneaking suspicion I may have encountered him in disguise. There's quite a bit of talk-gossip mostly-among the Parish women, and a few of the gents-regarding Rook and his more-ah-eccentric habits. Some of which include the rumors that he wanders the streets incognito. I don't put too much stock in it, mind. Only that if our Lord walked among us in times of old and we knew him not, that it's quite plausable Elias Rook, with his many mechinations and wonderous purported imagination could do the same. And us be none the wise for it."
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  • The Crucible

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